I am not sure why Sister Justus paired me with Joe Thompson my first week of serving Mass. The idea was to pair a new server like me with an experienced server–with a server who knew what he was doing, but joe would never be an experienced server. Every time he served was like the first time for him. The entire process seemed to so unnerve him that he never remembered or learned. From the pews, the year before, I had watched him serve, and he looked lost, adrift, like an actor who finds himself on stage of the wrong play and, to add to his confusion, the play is in Latin.
He didn’t really speak. Like half the kids in my school, Joe had grown up on a farm which meant he pried himself out from beneath the covers of his bed at five in the morning to spend the next two hours with a pitchfork in his hands, cleaning soiled straw from beneath the cows that his dad was milking while his mother and sisters made bread in the kitchen for the breakfast they would fry once they had come down to the barn to help carry the milk pails into the milk house. When Joe returned from school, if he were like all the other farm boys I knew, he would change and do two hours of field work before again milking the cows. Some of my friends who lived on a farm made those hours pass more quickly by talking with their parents, their siblings, and the livestock, but I don’t think Joe was one of those. I think Joe belonged to the monastic order of farmers, and I doubt he ever added his own voice to the electric hum of the milking machine, the clatter of the hooves of cattle scraping across the barn’s concrete floor, or the bellowing back and forth between calves and their mothers when weaning has begun and they are separated.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the Joe I knew as the quietest boy in the class ahead of me at school was not the same person when he was home, but I doubted it. During our week of serving together, Joe never initiated a conversation; and when I spoke to him, he acted surprised, as if I were one of his family’s Holsteins that had suddenly raised its head and asked, “Has Father Doyle arrived yet?” or, “Should we both light the candles today?” Usually, Joe shrugged at my questions, as if they were too puzzling; and if he did answer, it was in a low register that the Holsteins on his farm might have understood, but that was unintelligible to me; and if I asked Joe to repeat what he’d said, he appeared alarmed, like something was horribly amiss. So most often I kept silent, sometimes wishing to shout at him to answer me so I could hear, but most I told myself that ours was going to be a partnership on the altar that was so finely tuned that verbal communication was not going to be necessary. That, unfortunately, did not prove to be the case.