Bless me, Father, for I have sinned
“Do you think I should wear a bathing suit in the shower?”
Father Lucien Paine Elliott grinned behind the lattice of his confessional in Wilton, Connecticut. The confessions of the Catholic schoolgirls were always interesting to hear.
“Kathy… Do you really think you’re turning God on?”
There was a long pause. “All I know is, when I’m in there, I feel like He’s staring down at me. It’s kinda weird. I thought if I wore a bathing suit…”
Father Elliott’s eyes slowly blinked behind a pair of gold-rimmed bifocals. “My dear, assuming that God did take the trouble to gaze down through your roof, your ceiling, and your shower curtain, don’t you think that if He wanted to, He could go the extra distance and see through your bathing suit as well?”
Kathy’s gum snapped on the other side of the wooden screen. “Oh, brother, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Father Elliott suppressed a chuckle. “I think the thing to remember here is that God created Adam and Eve…and you. And we’re all beautiful in His eyes. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, and I’m pretty sure His schedule is such that He’s not peering through walls at you.”
“Thanks, Father. You don’t think He’ll be insulted if I still wear the suit?”
“I don’t think so.”
Lately Father Elliott’s life had been a nonstop blur, though he still lived in the same small two-story white clapboard where he’d lived for thirty years, and still delivered sermons and absolutions every Sunday. The recent notoriety of his books, the weekly talk show on National Public Radio, and most recently, his interviews with Katie Couric had made him something of a celebrity. People felt like they knew him now, and in a world of swirling illogic, he was a voice of old-fashioned common sense…everyone’s grandpa, only in a black frock. They cornered him at the deli section in Shop Rite. They stopped him in the post office, wanting advice on everything. It was all happening too fast and he felt a trifle guilty at the pleasure it was bringing.
All afternoon it had been the usual garden-variety confessions with swearing and using the Lord’s name in vain at the top of the list. Then Mrs. McDermott arrived, admitting that she’d gotten the wrong change at the Shop Rite and didn’t return the extra five dollars. She was agitated about the prospect of going to Hell for her sin and Father Elliott wasn’t about to let her off the hook without a small object lesson.
“I’m just a little curious,” Father Elliott said in his ever-gracious manner. “What exactly were you thinking when you put the five in your purse?” He gazed at the fragments of her face through the wooden lattice, her hands folded primly in her lap clutching a wadded-up tissue, her nose red and bulbous, partly from crying and partly from too much imbibing.
“Uhmm…” Mrs. McDermott dabbed at her nose and looked at the tissue. “Actually, I was thinking that with the five dollars, I’d be able to buy another quart of milk, and a box of those cookies. You know the ones with the liquidy chocolate in the center? They’re really good, and at the time, I thought it was a godsend.”
“Godsend,” Father Elliott repeated. “Interesting choice of words.”
“Yes. But then, I guess God wouldn’t want to be an accomplice to petty theft.”
“Probably not,” Father Elliott agreed. Things were more complicated lately. People were simply running out of money. Medicare, prescription drugs, food, heating oil. They were real problems and the solutions weren’t always that simple. “Louise, I bet it’s been a while. When you go home, I’d like you to recite each of the Ten Commandments to yourself in the mirror. And then think about it.”
“What about the money?”
Father Elliott drew in a slow deep breath and then exhaled loud enough that Louise McDermott could hear. “Do you still have the five?”
“Uhmm, no. I spent it on milk…and those cookies.”
Father Elliott tried to find a more comfortable position on the hard oak bench. He had known Louise McDermott since he was a skinny teenager. At one point, he had mowed her lawn every Saturday for a dollar. Things had changed in forty years. He was no longer young or skinny. “Well, you can’t very well give back what you don’t have now, can you?”
Mrs. McDermott folded the tissue over and examined it. “No, I suppose not.”
“Have a tranquil day, Mrs. McDermott. And remember, cookies or no cookies, fiver or no fiver, God really does love you.”
She rose to leave, and then hesitated. “Oh, by the way…”
“I saw you on the Today Show yesterday.”
Father Elliott grinned behind the lattice work. Another critique was forthcoming. “What did you think?”
“I think next time you should ask for more of that pancake makeup. Next to Katie Couric you looked a little pale.”
“Good point. I’ll see what I can do. Don’t forget the commandments.” Father Elliott watched as Mrs. McDermott waddled away. She drifted in one direction, then another like an old groundhog feeding in a meadow.
Barely a minute after she left, the sky opened up and the rain began falling in cold depressing sheets. It drummed on the two hundred-year-old slate roof and gurgled in the green copper gutters. He gazed out the front window. The sky was a charcoal sketch with a hundred shades of grey. That’s gonna do it for the confessions today. Thank you God.
He removed the aspirin bottle from his attaché and popped two tablets. This time of the year, the arthritis flared up, in his knees, in his elbows, every year another set of joints. He bent down slowly and felt around for the loafers he’d slipped off an hour ago. They had traveled beneath the wooden bench and he had to reach around to find them.
At that moment, the outside door opened, and the rain was suddenly louder. A wet cloud billowed in carrying with it the smells of thawing dirt and damp wood. When the door closed, it was quieter. He saw the uniform from afar; it was still another Catholic schoolgirl, hopefully the last of the day. She wiped her feet on the mat as she closed her dripping umbrella.
“If you could just leave your umbrella outside,” Father Elliott called through the wood-and-cloth latticework. “The parquet gets water spots.” The girl didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she stopped to check her makeup in a compact mirror. She carefully blotted her top lip over the bottom to even out the lipstick, and then she walked to the screen and kneeled. Her footsteps sounded wrong somehow. They were sharper, as if she were wearing high heels instead of the regulation shoes required by the nuns.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she said in a single breath. “It’s been…” The girl hesitated oddly as if she were counting. “It’s been eighty-seven days since my last confession.”
Through the screen, he detected a waft of perfume. The lipstick, the perfume, it seemed inappropriate. Are they allowed to wear lipstick now? He couldn’t remember. Things were changing so rapidly, he couldn’t keep track. …Eighty-seven days?
“And what have you to confess?” he asked in his well-honed grandfatherly voice.
There was a pause. The girl shuffled from one knee to the other. She cleared her throat. “Before we do this, Father, I have a question.”
“Do you believe in evil? Evil incarnate?”
“That’s an interesting question, for a young girl. Do you understand what incarnate means?”
“Yes, Father. Evil that has come to life. A person.”
“Are you speaking of Satan?
“No. I’m speaking of…myself. I am evil incarnate.”
Father Elliott felt around in his breast pocket to see if he had a pencil. For months, he had been toying with the idea of publishing a book of strange and humorous confessions. This one sounded like it had possibilities.
His voice adopted a pedantic tone. “And what makes you think you are evil incarnate? Is it possible that you’re being just a little harsh on yourself?”
The girl snickered oddly. Despite himself, he felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. What a strange reaction. On the ceiling directly above his head, the rain was beginning to leak through the roof. For five years, he hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. A droplet fell on his face, then another. He glanced up and wiped away the moisture.
The girl cleared her throat again, nervously it seemed. “I apologize, Father,” she said, not sounding like a little girl anymore, but more like a woman. “But this isn’t going to be a regular confession.”
Father Elliott noticed that she had moved. Her face was now pressed close to the screen and she was staring at him. She sat very close, intrusively so, and her eyes glittered coldly as if he were being watched by something reptilian.
“Father Elliott, I have executed fourteen so far. Five of them were assassinations. The others were…” She took a moment to choose the correct word. “They were practice.”
The words drifted and turned in his mind. It was as if she were speaking another language. They were difficult to decipher. Executed… Assassinated… PRACTICE?
“Executed? What have you killed, young lady? Some ants? A field mouse? Did you destroy your Barbie Dolls?”
“I apologize. I was not specific. I have executed fourteen people.”
The vein in his temple began throbbing. He reached around in his pocket for a third aspirin. “So…what you’re telling me is that you intend to kill more?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I think you’re beginning to understand. I have only one task today. You will be number fifteen. It will be an execution, not truly an assassination. I hope you don’t find that insulting.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
The young woman continued to stare at him. “But that’s not what concerns me. What concerns me, Father, is I seem to enjoy it.” She hesitated, searching for the right word. “Is it wrong to enjoy killing people?”
“Young lady, if this is an attempt at some kind of sick humor, it’s not the least bit amusing. I’ll have no more of it. Do you understand?” He stared at her silhouette through the curtain. A portion of her mouth was visible where the pattern in the fabric was thin. She was smiling. Her lips were thin, but beautifully formed and they curled provocatively at the corners of her mouth. There was so much beauty there, classic beauty. It was a shame that her mind didn’t match her face. “And wipe that smile off your face. This is a house of God.”
The smile wilted slowly from the girl’s face. “I’m sorry. I apologize.”
“Apology accepted. You know, I really don’t know what your generation is reading or watching these days, but your sense of what’s funny and what’s humorous is getting way out of hand.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and patted his brow.
“Oh, but this isn’t a joke. I assure you.” Their eyes connected and it was frightening. It was impossible to look away from her eyes. “It has been mostly men so far. They’re more…entertaining. What I enjoy most of all is watching the eyes, watching the exact moment as the life fades…” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “But there were two women that I took and that was rewarding as well, though in a different way.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying that you’re a prostitute? When you say you’re executing, do you mean you’re making… Are you talking about sex?”
“No. I’m talking about death, very specific kinds of death. And there’s a certain purity to it, that goes back to the animal kingdom…to God’s kingdom. Everything that I have learned, I’ve learned from God’s creatures.”
“This is blasphemy.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right. But there’s another question you really should be asking right now.” Her eyes riveted to his through the curtain, shining as if by their own light.
“You’re actually serious about all this nonsense.”
“Unfortunately for you, it is not nonsense.”
Father Elliott’s head began to swim. Unfortunately…What question? What was she? “Oh—” He sat back on his bench as if he’d been punched in the stomach. “Are you saying? Are you trying to tell me?”
“It’s nothing personal. If it were personal, it’d be different. There would be a lot more pain. By the way, I’m extremely good at pain. But if you’ll cooperate, there will be no pain. Well almost none.”
“This is absurd. What’s to keep me from just walking…” but before he finished his sentence, he reached to the latch on the inside of the confessional. The latch turned easily, but something was blocking the door. His blood pressure began to rise. He could feel the blood coursing up inside his head. “Did you lock me in?”
“It was necessary.”
“But… Why? Why me? I don’t even know you!”
“I’m afraid our time, actually your time is just about up.” She was silent for a moment and then a smile appeared on her lips. “Do you have any…final prayer you wish to make?”
“For the love of God…”
“It’s very simple. All I want you to do is look at me. That’s all.”
Her face was right up against the other side of the lattice screen, her eyes staring intently at his. It was impossible to look away. “Just…look at me,” she whispered. She pursed her lips, as if she were going to say something else, but in the next second, she spat…through the lattice. The saliva hit his face, twenty, maybe thirty tiny droplets, hitting his nose, his lips, his eyes, his cheeks. And then she spat again, just to make sure. “There now,” she whispered softly. “That wasn’t so bad.”
For a second, he felt a flush of relief. It had all been a very sick joke. But then the droplet that had hit the corner of his eye began to sting as if it were on fire. He licked his lip and the tiny droplet of spittle that had been on his lip smeared into his own saliva. It felt like acid. A moment later, his eyes went to blur. “Oh, my god… Please stop. Please stop right now. Whatever you did… Please call the ambulance. Please…”
She was outside the screen, doing something with her umbrella. It looked like she was doing something with the tip and then she was poking it through the cut-out in the lattice.
“Please. There’s still time,” he squawked as she jabbed the umbrella through the hole. He saw the motion and jerked away. “You don’t have to do this.”
“You don’t understand. This is the fun part. The more you dodge, the more fun this is. There’s no escape. The moment you turn…I’ve got you.”
He could only see shadows now. Her face was just patches of light behind the lattice.
“Please… I know there is good inside you. I know it. Please show mercy. In the name of God…”
He felt the umbrella point, a hot needle in his groin. He felt the poison, moving slowly, then racing, burning everything it touched, mixing with his blood. He felt it racing toward his chest, toward his heart, up his neck and finally to his brain.
She watched Father Elliott’s eyes, watched them go from fury to terror. A second later, they began to unfocus. His eyes relaxed, softened, and then went blank, like the eyes of a plastic doll. He was her fifteenth. She quivered in ecstasy for a second and tried to memorize the feeling and the look in his eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.