A Night in the Box
The confessional. The dark side of the human soul. I hear it all. Things done in desperation, good Catholics laid low by what seem on the surface to be simple venial sins. My name is Rick Sterling. What few friends I have call me “Father.” I’m nobody’s pal. I’m a priest.
It was a sweltering August night. The type of humid night that makes a rosary slip from a man’s sweat-slicked fingers and fall to the tiled floor below. The kind of festering night that causes even the most devout of ministers to falter in his vows, to condense the Stations of the Cross down to six. The kind of night, the kind of hot, airless night that forces a Jesuit to man the confessional booth nude. My kind of night.
Nothing much was happening. Oh, the occasional timid, whining voice; a few interestingly unique mortal sins; nothing a handful of Hail Mary’s couldn’t cover. Still, the night had been quiet . . . perhaps too quiet. My intuition was shrilling like a dime store alarm clock. I was just getting ready to call it a night when the broad walked in. I could hear the confessional door open and heard a whisper of silk as she situated herself on the kneeler. I grunted a bit, just for her to know someone was there, and she spoke at the screen.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been six months since my last confession.”
Yeah. Six months. This dame had some sins to confess, or I’m a Rabbi with a propeller yarmulke. I could tell by the sound of her voice that I was in for administering the kind of absolution usually not reserved for little old ladies with silver hair and baby blue handbags.
I leaned into the screen and took a good long look. She had legs to make St. Andrew think twice about the strength of his faith. All the way up to her face, she was the kind of dame made a man admire God’s craftsmanship. When she turned to me, her face was angled slim and graceful, like the soft lines of a bunny’s cheek. Her lips were filled with dew. Her grey eyes were mostly lost in shadow. I felt the regret for my vow of celibacy like a bracer of the worst whiskey to come out of a Kansas City distillery.
“I’m here to confess my sins.”
“Relax, doll. I’ve got nothing but time on my hands. Just take it easy. Light up, if you want.” I slid her a cigarette through the screen.
“So. You were saying.”
“It’s been six months since my last confession.”
I lit a cigarette of my own. “We been through that.”
“Do you mind if we slide past the lesser sins? I’m kind of on a schedule here.”
I took a savage puff. “Fifty Hail Mary’s.”
“Fifty? Isn’t that a bit much?” I could see her eyes widening through the screen. Both boxes were swimming with smoke now.
“Believe me,” I said, “in this business, it’s best to keep your backside covered.”
She made a note on a little pad. “Do I have to do them all today?”
I shook my head. “Take the weekend.” No use beating on the kid.
Lock yourself in an oversized grapefruit crate six days a week with fallen human beings and your perspective changes on a few things. You no longer pretend to be concerned when they no longer pretend to feel guilt for their thousands of mindless peccadilloes. You listen in to a steady stream of monotone syllables, bereft of passion, delivered in a cathartic act of ritual self-abuse. A purging. This was spiritual sludge, and I was here to collect it. Everything performed with a wink and a nod, both sides playing expected parts. One lady, she comes in for confession every Wednesday night eight, has since before I arrived, lists the same arcane list of sins and receives the same penance every time. One visiting Spanish Jesuit took the box and gave her a light penance; I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t her usual list of prayers and she burst into tears and was hysterical. Ever since, everybody gives her the same prayers. It makes things a lot easier.
So I generally don’t expect much. But this dame was different. There was something in her manner — the way she kept fidgeting, casting frightened, sidelong glances at me. The lady had some story to tell.
“Talk to me.”
“You see . . . after my sister died. . . .”
“Your sister? Not a nun?”
“My real sister.”
“. . . I needed comfort. Guidance. In my grief, I turned to Sister — ”
“Your sister? I thought she was dead.”
“No, no . . . my parish nun.”
“She referred me to Bishop Amish. Said he was certified.”
“He’s certified, all right.”
“As I was saying . . . I turned to Bishop Amish to help assuage my grief¾”
“Bishop Amish? Of this parish? St. Anthony’s? The new district bishop?”
“That’s the one.”
“That’s the Amish you mean.”
I felt my gut drop. It was a recent promotion within the church. District Bishop. A new bedroom, my own telephone. Maybe priority use of the rectory van. As it was, me and Amish were the only two being considered for the position. Let’s just say that I didn’t get it. I turned back to the dame. “Go on.”
“And he… comforted me. In more ways than one.”
“Who comforted you?”
“I don’t like the sound of this. I don’t want to hear anymore. Go on.”
“It’d probably be easier if you didn’t keep interrupting me.”
I bit against the filter. “Sorry, sweetheart. Go on.”
“First he was granting me absolution. Then . . . it was the Latin chants. Non nobis domine. I started going to mass on all the feast days. Then all the famine days. And then on all the days in-between.”
“I get the picture. You became real devout.” I got the picture, all right. And it wasn’t the kind of picture you’d find hanging on the Vatican wall, except maybe in the Song of Solomon Library. It was an old story, maybe the oldest. Comforting priest laid low by the sins of the flesh. It still made me sick to my stomach. Not the sins of the flesh — the story; it was so old. “So you compromised the vows of a revered Jesuit, is the crux . . . that’s quite the sin . . . for him. Honey, you stay in this business of souls long enough and you start getting the feeling you’ve heard it all. You get smug. And in this game smugness can quickly buy you a .45 slug in the head.”
“. . . A .45 slug?”
“A spiritual .45 slug. Believe me, I’d take the real thing any day of the week.”
“Is there . . . no hope for me then?”
“For you? No sweat.” I crushed the smoke with the edge of my cobbled heel. “Twenty more Hail Mary’s and a couple of Novenas will pretty much take care of it. A seven to ten year hitch in Purgatory, tops. If that. Less if you’re willing to shell out a few bucks for indulgences. No, my primary concern is for Bishop Amish. This could ruin him. He’d have to be replaced.”
“I’d probably be the guy with his own telephone, maybe full use of the toaster.”
“Yes,” she said with obvious delight.
“Maybe. If your story checks out, that is.”
“You . . . you doubt me?” I could feel her draw near, suddenly, and the left side of her head was squished against the silver mesh.
I fired up another cigarette. “I’ve got my hunches. I didn’t graduate from the seminary yesterday. Your story sounds pat¾maybe just a shade too pat. If you know what I mean, sweetheart.”
“Father Sterling, I assure you — ”
“Save it for Nancy Drew, babe.” I didn’t mean to cut her off so savagely, but what the hell. Mama always warned me about dreamy dames with problems. She also warned me about radio waves. Shredded wheat. And soap. Mama had problems of her own. I continued with the dame. “Proximate priest falls for grieving gal. Happens all the time in the books. Harlequin did a series on the subject.”
I had the set. I haven’t purchased every Harlequin offering, but I have most of them. Sometimes after scrubbing the rectory floor a palooka like me can only find peace within the racy heart of a flowering young girl. I turned my attention back to the dame, suddenly all business. “You say Father Amish seduced you. Mind telling me how?”
The lady paused, suddenly uncertain. “I don’t think I’d feel comfortable explaining how, but I do have a book at home with simple line drawings¾”
“Nice try. For the record, miss, Bishop Amish’s sexual potency was lost during a freak industrial accident in the war. I won’t go into details, but you should at least know that a die-stamping machine was involved. Too involved.”
“. . . I . . . oh . . .” She seemed to come up short. “Are you sure?”
“Who sent you?”
She flushed. “Nobody, I swear!” She started gathering herself to leave the booth.
“You say nobody sent you. A gorgeous dame like you, what have you got against Bishop Amish? It don’t add up. No, it’s the scandal. The scandal would be enough. You don’t have to prove it, do you? Just accuse.” I crushed my cigarette on the pine floor. “So why get me involved? Why use me to get to him?”
“I didn’t want to use you,” she said. “I just wanted you to know.
“To know that it was me striking out for you, me protecting you.”
It made no sense. There was something way in the back of my mind that was screaming for me to grant her some standard absolution and get the hell out of there, and fast. “Why would you protect me?” I asked. “I don’t know you from Eve.”
The dame offered me a smoke from her leather purse. She poked it through the mesh when I nodded. “Do you like stories, Father Sterling?”
“I like stories. I like stories with bunnies, like any Joe does.”
“Let me tell you the story of a young bunny, living with other bunnies on a tenement hill on the west side. All the bunnies feel important except for this one bunny. She’s laughed at by the other bunnies. Maybe spit on. Because she . . . she has no father. Do you know the story?”
“I know the story,” I said. “I also know the story about the three bunnies that went to the carnival. The tall bunny wins some shiny foil toy. It’s one of my favorites. But I have a feeling that your bunny story is not a carnival bunny story.”
“No. It’s not. This little bunny, misunderstood, ignored, stabbed, perhaps — ”
“And there’s no shiny foil toy at the end of your story. I’m just guessing.”
“ — who — who — who finds herself on the brink of despair, bled out — ”
“I had a shiny foil toy once.”
“ — who, who suddenly finds someone, the person she’s been yearning for; is validated by someone — ”
“Would you like a pop tart?”
Suddenly she was poking the tips of her fingers through the mesh. It looked strange. I wondered if she was going to try to rip the mesh from place, and stick her arm through the little open square. Waving it around, she could do me some damage, if I didn’t duck down. “Father Sterling,” she said, even as I began to cower in the lower corner of the box, “I am yours. All yours.”
Here I was. Locked in seventeen cubic feet of plywood that stunk of votive wax and hypocrisy. A beautiful blond trying to overcome the aluminum mesh and to push me past myself and beyond the greased lines mooring me to my faith. My vows. Those cursed words I muttered in a somnambulistic stupor years before. What could I tell her?
Back in the rectory I had a close pal who swam in a bottle and who’d put a solid end to this savage night. Each night I made my own confession against the setting sun filtered through the smoke of barrelhead whiskey. My ritual was less for absolution than for anesthesia, much like the bony thud the heel of a nickel-plated pistol makes when slammed against the back of the neck. And then the darkness.
But here was this dame, complicating matters. I began to regret the pop tart offer. “Look, lady,” I told her, “You’re a swell looking dame and I bet you got lots of guys hot for you. But this collar and this box is punishment for a vow that I intend to keep. Maybe it ain’t much of a life and maybe I do have to share my bathroom, but I figure the Chief upstairs knows what he’s doing.”
“Father Sterling — “
“So it’s no dice, toots. Nice try. Don’t worry, you’ll get over me.”
“I didn’t — “
“Someday, of course. The ol’ Sterling charm is hard to forget.”
“I have another bunny story.”
“Let me tell you a bunny story of my own, lady. There was a tall-eared, fluffy-tailed bunny who used to collect payments from the local establishments for his father, and for his mob bosses. One day the father comes hopping down the hill and he waits for the tall-eared bunny, who doesn’t show. His father’s curious. He begins looking into each bunny hole until he finds the tall-eared, fluffy-tailed bunny lying drunk among a pile of young does, all the protection money he collected gone. Of course, the father savagely punishes the young, drunk bunny and he never speaks to him again. He sells his hole and uses the money to pay off his bosses.”
“Do you know who that young bunny was?”
“Yes,” the dame gushed.
“The tall-eared, fluffy-tailed bunny spent the rest of his life making up for that single night of weakness. Enrolled in a seminary. Took the vows. Locked up his libido in a SureWay safe. But for all that, there’s a great part of this bunny that yearns for the gleam of asphalt under streetlights deep into the night; the part that says he should maybe be out protecting people, instead of forgiving them.”
“Father Sterling, I — “
“I’ve got my own life to grind out, toots, and so do you. Each to our own pockets of agony. I say we say adios. Nice meeting you. Recite your Hail Mary’s. Keep out of trouble. Listen to your father.”
“Wait,” she cried.
“De absolva,” I said with a sweep of my arm.
“Wait,” she cried, pushing her lips against the mesh as I began closing the screen. “Let me tell you that last bunny story.”
I wanted to get out of there fast. This dame was trouble and I knew it. My heart was beating like a piston. But I’m a sucker for bunny stories. I can’t resist them.
“Do you remember that lost, frightened bunny who was attacked because she didn’t have a father? Once a year she and her mother hopped to church to join all of the other Catholic bunnies. There was a certain priest who used to give the second Good Friday service. We went to every one. Each year, as he gave his little bunny benediction, my mother would curse him, her tail twitching with agitation, saying the same words each time.
“One day, the little bunny dosed her mother’s clover tea with a thimble of brandy from the kitchen. Mother confided that my litter was the result of her coupling with a young, flamboyant long-eared bunny bagman who stumbled drunkenly into her bunny hole one day.”
“I don’t get it.”
“That bunny was you, Rick Sterling.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are my father.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I am your Father.”
“No. You are not my priest. You are my father.”
“I am your Father.”
“I am not your Father?”
“Yes, you are my father.”
“I am your Father.”
Silence fell. Outside, rain splashed down from moiling skies. I heard the huddled whispers of parishioners from the east side of the church, where the statuary stood. Bunny stories, they get a lot of credibility from me. Really, you can’t make a bunny tell a lie. It’s against his nature.
“So,” I said. I stood and let myself out the back door. She took my arm and inclined her head.
As we walked, I said, “I’ll file charges against Bishop` Amish tomorrow.” I opened the rectory door.
“Do you think it will stick?”
“Won’t matter,” I said, grabbing my coat. “The scandal should be enough.”
“Let’s grab a highball,” she said, and I followed her into the inky shadows.