The noise had drawn Mr. McGinn; a clattering coming from the sacristy. No one was supposed to be in here right now; all the children had class. Had an animal gotten in somehow? Once, they'd had a squirrel get inside and wreak havok. The poor little animal had gotten itself highly drunk; it hadn't been much effort to pick it up and put it back outside.
He opened the door to the closet, and inhaled sharply in shock. Although the inside of the sacristy was dark, he saw a boy inside, desperately trying to mop up spilled communion wine with a handkerchief.
"Donald?" He knew who it was, of course; the color of his skin, dark as chocolate, had given the twelve-year-old away, but he still felt compelled to confirm it.
The boy looked at him. There was panic on his face. "Mr. McGinn! I...it's...Sir, I..." He couldn't seem to finish a sentence.
"Come out into the light," Mr. McGinn commanded, and the boy stepped out, leaving the mess of wine and glass on the floor. "What were you doing in there?"
"Sir, I...I was just tryin' to clean up. It spilled. I...uh, I knocked it over..." Donald wouldn't look at him. "I'm sorry sir, I didn't..."
"What were you doing in there?" he asked again. In the light, he could see that Donald's face had turned an ashy gray. "You shouldn't be in there, you know that."
"Yes sir." Donald was staring at his hands now. McGinn reached out a hand for the boy's shoulder, and was surprised at the violent flinch that Donald gave.
"Come here," he said, not unkindly. Donald stepped closer, nervously wetting his lips with his tongue. "Were you drinking the wine?"
Under his hand, he felt Donald's shoulders tense. He didn't speak.
"Answer me, Donald," he said. He wasn't often forced into a disciplinarian role with the schoolchildren, but then again, he could remember only two or three times during his career here that he'd caught a boy drinking altar wine.
"I'm sorry, sir," Donald whispered.
The boy was shorter than he was by a little less than a foot. "Turn your head up," McGinn said. "Breathe out."
Donald's eyes were shut as he did as he was told. McGinn could smell the wine on his breath.
"Oh, dear," he mumbled. He thought for a moment about what he was supposed to do. He knew that as principal, Sister Aloysius should be informed, but she could be very cold, and surely the child wouldn't be drinking communion wine for the taste. "Donald, come with me," he said.
Father Flynn was sympathetic to the boy; they seemed to get along well. It would, he reasoned, be much better to leave him in the hands of someone who cared about him than sending him off to Sister Aloysius, who likely as not would have him kicked out of the school. He wasn't a bad boy, after all, McGinn reasoned as he let the child by the shoulder towards the rectory. He was, however, at a severe disadvantage, being the only Negro at the school. There was no reason to make this harder on him than was necessary.
Father Flynn would know what to do.
Father Brendan Flynn shut the door after Mr. McGinn and then turned with a sigh to look at Donald.
"Why would you do such a thing, Donald?" he asked the youngster standing in front of his desk. He could only see his back; he'd bowed his head low. "You were so excited to be an altar boy. You must have known that if you were caught, you wouldn't be allowed to be an altar boy anymore."
He saw those thin shoulders begin to tremble. His heart wrenched; the poor child was miserable. He made his way around to the other side of the desk so he could see Donald's face. Tears were streaming silently down his dark cheeks.
"Father, please," Donald's voice was soft, trembling and repentant. "I'm sorry. Please don't take bein' an altar boy away from me."
Flynn sat. "Donald, tell me why you were drinking the wine in the first place?"
The boy began to shake harder, and the tears flowed faster. "I...I..."
His heart ached for the boy; he saw so much of himself as a child in this one. Un-liked by other children, fatherless in every way that mattered, and different in a way that would never change. He had been that way in the public school as well, Flynn knew. It wasn't a matter of skin color for this child. He was one of those boys...just as Brendan Flynn himself had been. The other boys called him a sissy, called him girly. His nature was just that way.
"Donald," he coaxed gently. "Tell me."
Donald took a deep breath. "I...the other boys...they were saying stuff, Father. 'Bout me looking like a girl in the robe, and...other stuff. Again. And...and then a couple of them started to beat on me, an' I just..."
"Who?" Flynn asked. Donald shook his head.
"Don't matter," he mumbled. "They ain't gonna stop it. They hate me. I just..." The tears began to flow faster again. "Father, please don't take me off the altar boys. If my daddy finds out about this, he's gonna kill me, and that ain't a lie." He finally met Flynn's eyes, and the depth of despair in those dark brown eyes made Flynn feel sick.
"Donald, drinking wine won't make any of that stop," he said. The tears kept flowing down the boy's face.
"No sir, Father, it won't, but...I just wanted it to stop, for a little bit. I wasn't plannin' on drinking that wine. I was jus' hiding in there, 'cause I knew none of the other boys would look for me there. But then...it was just there, Father, and I'm sorry that I even touched it!" The last bit came out in almost a wail.
Father Flynn stood up. Donald's teary eyes were fixed warily on him, and it hurt to see him look so frightened of him. He held out his hands to show that he meant no harm. Carefully, he put his hand on Donald's shoulder and rubbed it, trying to soothe. He felt the boy's muscles relax under his hand.
"Well, I'm glad that you realize it was a bad idea, Donald," he said softly. "But being an altar boy, you cannot drink the communion wine, and you know that. That has to be punished." He wished he didn't have to ban the child from being an altar boy, but what alternative did he have? "I'm sorry, but you can't be an altar boy. Not any longer."
"Father, please!" Donald folded over, dropping down to his knees like he was praying. "Father, don't do this. I'm beggin' you. I'm so sorry. Don't do this. My daddy's gonna kill me, and Momma's not gonna understand..." He kept talking, but he was so choked by tears that Father Flynn couldn't make sense of the words.
"Donald. Donald, breathe. You're going to choke," Flynn said. He watched helplessly as the boy clutched his arms around himself, trying to get his reactions under control.
"Father, I k-know you gotta punish me, but please, don't...not that. Don't take bein' an altar boy away from me!" His voice was still a bit garbled. "Please, Father..."
Flynn really didn't want to kick him out of the altar boys. He knew that Donald had been so pleased to be an altar boy in the first place. He was also well aware that it would be noticed if their first and only colored altar boy was removed, and people would gossip. And that would open up a can of worms he just wasn't wanting to deal with.
"So what should I do, then, Donald?" he asked. He felt a bit out of his element here. He'd never, ever had to deal with a situation like this, and for the life of him, he couldn't think of anything. "As you pointed out, I can't just let this go."
Donald looked up at him, and the discomfort of having a child kneeling on the floor, staring at him like he was God deciding his eternal fate, was too much for him to bear. He put out his hand. "Come on, get up," he said. Cautiously, Donald put his smaller hand into Flynn's bigger one and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Flynn pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the boy, who mopped up his face and blew his nose, trying very hard to compose himself.
Flynn had gone to Catholic schools his entire school career. He'd been an altar boy, although never had it occurred to him to drink communion wine at a time other than communion. How would they have dealt with that at his school? Immediately, the image of Father Flanagan, wielding his formidable oak paddle, flashed in his head. He'd only been paddled a handful times in his school career, and it had been unforgettable. But Flynn himself had never been in the position where he was in charge of student discipline; here, that would fall to Sister Aloysius, the principal. And he fervently did not want her involved in this. She'd have Donald out of the altar boys so fast his head would spin, and would likely paddle him to boot!
Father Flynn shut his eyes for a moment and let a sigh escape his nose. Words could not adequately explain how much he didn't want to do this. And yet, no other ideas were forthcoming.
It only took him a second to decide that it would be inappropriate to spank him with his bare hand. He didn't have a paddle, of course. Sister Aloysius had one, but he wasn't about to go ask her to borrow it! He walked around to the other side of his desk and opened a drawer, looking for some kind of implement he could use to spank Donald.
Donald was watching him now, his eyes still shiny. He had managed, however, to stop crying, and stood very straight in front of his desk, hands at his sides like a boy soldier. Flynn looked away.
He did have a ruler, a thick, wooden one. He'd been whacked on the palms with a ruler as a kid; the Sisters seemed to have a fondness for that. It had certainly stung. He picked it up and shut the desk drawer, then placed the ruler on the desk.
Donald's eyes were riveted on the ruler. His lips were pressed together in a tight, dark line.
"Donald?" Flynn questioned. The boy looked up at him. He could see that his brown eyes were anxious, but no more than he would have expected them to be in this situation. The boy could probably tell that Flynn was a bit anxious himself.
"You're going to whup me, Father?" Donald's voice trembled just a little bit. Flynn forced himself not to wince at the boy's wording. Was that tremor in his voice left over from his previous crying jag or from anxiety about the coming spanking?
"I think that a spanking," Flynn emphasized slightly, wanting Donald to know he wasn't going to "whup" him, "would be punishment suitable for this act," Flynn tried not to allow his own anxiety to color his tone. "Do you feel differently?"
"No sir, Father," Donald said, dropping his head. He heard the boy swallow. "And I'll be allowed to stay on as a altar boy?" There was guarded hope in the young voice.
"Yes," Flynn said. "I wouldn't punish you twice for this."
Donald looked up through thick black lashes. "Are you gonna tell my Momma about this, Father?"
Flynn thought for a moment. Finally, he shook his head. "It will stay between you and me," he replied. "You have my word."
Donald nodded. There was a long silence as Flynn tried to figure out what to do.
Donald wasn't a big boy; he was a small, skinny thing for twelve, maybe 5', well under 100 pounds. It might be unconventional, Flynn thought, but perhaps taking the boy across his knee would be better than making him bend over and grab his ankles as Flynn had done when he was a boy. The child hardly seemed to have the body mass to keep himself from falling headlong to the floor. Plus, it might seem less like he was being "whupped" which Flynn was certain this boy's father did to him on a regular basis. He'd seen bruises, even on the dark skin, when the boy was in his gym uniform.
Finally, he pushed his chair back from his desk a little, picked up the ruler from where he had left it, and sat. "Come here, Donald," he said. Donald hesitantly stepped forward until he was within arms'-length of Flynn. Very carefully, Flynn took Donald's arm in his hand. The boy's muscles were taut. "Bend over my knees," he directed, and he guided the boy across his lap. He felt Donald take a shuddering breath as he placed one hand against the middle of the boy's back to hold him still. Under his hand, he felt minute tremors.
He raised the ruler and brought it down on Donald's upturned bottom with a sharp smack. He felt Donald flinch, and he gritted his teeth. The boy had been drinking communion wine, he reminded himself. He truly did deserve to be punished for it. He brought the ruler down again. A sharp intake of breath was the only response.
Was he supposed to make Donald cry? He'd cried enough earlier that Flynn was half-certain he was out of tears. He tried to remember being on the other side of the ruler as he brought it down again.
As a young boy, he'd been unable to keep from crying when he'd gotten paddled. By the time of his last paddling at sixteen for an ill-advised attempt at taking a puff from a cigarette in the bathroom, he'd forced himself not to issue a peep.
Two more heavy swats with the ruler made his ruminating about tears unimportant, as Donald's back began to shake, and Flynn knew the boy was crying again. He paused for a moment, his hand still tight against the boy's back. Twelve, he decided. The boy was twelve; twelve swats would be sufficient.
The next swat made Donald's feet kick up, almost involuntarily, and the crying became audible. He laid down another, and another. Donald flung back his hand, trying to protect his behind.
"Move your hand," Flynn said. "I don't want to hit it." He tried to keep the emotion out of his voice; the words sounded cold to his ears. He tried to soften it a bit. "No need to have a sore backside and a sore hand."
Donald moved his hand out of the way and clutched at his pant leg, still crying shakily. Four more. Time to get this over with.
SMACK! Donald's breathing hitched. SMACK! The boy made a mewling noise, like a cat being tortured. SMACK! He was sobbing, and Flynn really wasn't sure who truly felt worse about this, he or Donald. The boy might have a flaming backside, but Flynn felt guilty about inflicting pain on this child, even for a reason that no one would find questionable. He laid down the final, loud SMACK and dropped the ruler on the top of his desk. He gave Donald's back a few awkward, soft pats as the boy tried very hard to stop crying.
"Come on, Donald, up you go," he said, aiding the boy to his feet. Donald took the handkerchief Flynn had handed him earlier from his pocket and mopped up more tears and wiped his nose. He did not look at Flynn.
"Are you alright?" Flynn asked, aware as he spoke that the question was not an intelligent one. But Donald nodded his head.
"Y-yes, F-father," the boy stuttered, and Flynn had to school his face so that his regret did not show plain on his features.
"There's a bathroom over there," Flynn said, pointing in the general direction of it. "Go wash your face and take a minute to find your composure. You can leave the handkerchief in the dirty linen bin." With a nod, the boy fled to it.
Flynn sighed, momentarily dropping his head to the desk. He knew that Donald had to be punished for drinking the wine, and he realized that to the boy, this was not so severe a punishment as being removed from the position of altar boy, but that was a difficult thing for him to convince his heart.
He sat up as Donald emerged from the bathroom. His eyes were a little red, but otherwise, it was not apparent he'd been crying. "What class do you have right now?" Flynn asked, to break what may have become an awkward silence.
"Sister James' class, history," Donald said. He didn't stutter; Flynn was glad.
"You won't touch that communion wine again outside of your duties as altar boy, you understand?"
Donald nodded. "I promise, sir, Father. Not once." He looked more than a little contrite. "I'm sorry, Father."
"Good boy. Now go on to class; I will see you this afternoon in the gymnasium."
"Yes sir. Good day, Father."
Flynn smiled. Apparently, he'd done exactly the right thing. "Good day, Donald."