WHEN THE STRANGER STEPPED INTO THE CONFESSIONAL to narrate his crimes, which my vow had forbidden me from disclosing, I was meditating on space-time to recuperate from the ten-hour drive to Gilead, Tennessee.
Dark night the boundary between reality and dream somewhere at a memory’s frontier fading near a singularity’s ledge surfing upon a probability wave across the space-time fabric through a neutrino sea skirting the edges of black holes searching for dark matter searching for the Higgs Boson. Photon gluon graviton clusters crisscrossing tangling and weaving a unified fabric symmetric space-time hydrogen atoms merging and emerging a helium atom along with neutrinos and photons annihilation and creation interaction and transformation the brightest night the loudest silence the fullest void the darkest knowledge…
“Father, I sinned.”
The confessor’s rasp stirred me from my meditation, my dream, and I yawned and inhaled the stale air in the confessional. A strip of light slid through the door crack and cut across my left hand as I turned my head and my hair dusted the screen separating me from the stranger. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and shifted to a more comfortable position on the hardwood seat. I stretched my left leg and kicked the confessional’s wall. The newspaper flew from my knee and rattled toward the floor as the article about genocide in Rwanda flickered between light and shade.
“Father, I sinned.”
The sound of sandpaper against steel sounded again beyond the screen. I twisted my body and my elbow knocked against the wall. I squinted but only saw a shadow distorted under the slanting light beyond the partition. Probably an insomniac who couldn’t afford to go to the bar.
Two days ago, I was chopping wood in the forest beside the monastery, and had looked forward to enjoying The Four Seasons in Boston’s Symphony Hall with my friends Camellia and Ichiro. I didn’t plan on visiting St. Barnabas Church in Gilead but this stranger, from some hallucination, had foreseen my arrival and booked me for therapy.
The penitent knocked twice on the other side of the partition. “Hey, dude, wake up from your wet dream, you’re supposed to say ‘when was your last confession’ or some crap like that. You hear me?” His breath was contaminating the air.
Perhaps I should grunt a mantra. But I was only a monk contemplating the meaning of death, the mystery of alternative universes and other such nonsense. What could I know about confessions? When a man in a Mission Hill soup kitchen confessed to using heroin and stealing his mother’s funeral dollars to keep the habit, I listened like a Buddha, not because my wisdom had transcended words and even sounds but because all replies, no matter how concise, how insightful, how articulate, appeared as frivolous as a gilded coffin. In the end, my friend Ichiro bailed me out by impersonating a priest.
Now, this insomniac beyond the partition, from some itch or pang, insisted on harassing a confession-phobic monk, who had evaded the parish, a.k.a. purgatory, by pretending to suffer from attention-deficit disorder. Had I wanted to hear about adultery, thievery, murder, or insider trading, I would’ve become a bartender or, unable to concoct spirituous potions, a pseudo-Freudian psychotherapist. Even now, twenty-three years later, after having one too many drinks, I would still dream of my former high school classmate Daphne, as she sobbed out her pain in a March evening. Her blue eyes, her blond hair, her smiles fleeing into the mist. In those dreams, unlike this reality, I actually pulled her out of the abyss.
“You should talk to Father Jones.” I offered my wisdom to the penitent. “He’d be glad to hear your confession. Why don’t I ask him to come over? I’m sure he’s not yet asleep. And even if he is, he’d delay his dreams and hear your confession in his pajamas.” Father Jones, the tongue-flapping priest who had begun substituting for this church’s parish priest five days ago, would savor this soul’s secrets as a thief would Queen Victoria’s crown. After delivering this stranger’s message but before allowing me to read it, the priest had already complained about not having heard any confessions in a week. He probably envied me for hearing one the first night here. Amid babbles about apple pie recipes, all-meat diets, school shootings and movie-star divorces, his eyes betrayed the lust for confessions—pyramid schemes, clandestine liaisons, corporate double-dealings or plain old government conspiracies. I wouldn’t be surprised if at this moment his ear was kissing the other side of confessional’s door and itching for some tale, some yarn, some anecdote of unadulterated sin. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a reformed con man who had sold aphrodisiacs or perpetual motion machines. Or a repentant banker who had bundled junk bonds, sub-prime mortgages and high-risk insurance policies into kosher derivatives. But he better not be taping with a recorder.
“You know, buddy, never confessed before so you can imagine I got lots to say, but of course ain’t got much time. So here we go if you don’t mind. Well, of course, even if you do, what can you do about it? To start with something simple, I’ve embezzled money. Oh, not from a bank or a high-tech company, no sir. That’d be dull and cliched as heck, not worth your time. Nope, I stole from a church and a nice one at that too. Well, ain’t nothing new, but the amount is something, you know?”
“You should return the money.”
“Hey, what’s this bullshit? You’re supposed to say ‘I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ or some crap like that. If I wanted to return the money, what the hell am I doing here confessing? Right? What kind of a priest are you anyway? Don’t you know your only job’s to listen and to absolve sins? What else are you good for? Anyway, why’d I return the money? Ha, ha, we’re not talking about chicken feed, if you know what I mean. You have any stinking idea how much I took? Take a stupid guess. Oh forget it, with your petty allowances, you’d never seen that much money in your life. What’d priests know about money anyway? Hell, man, I bought a mansion with a marble hall, a wine cellar, an outdoor pool and complete automation, you know, with the latest hi-tech gizmos. I also bought a Lamborghini Gallardo even though I ain’t into racing. But hey, makes me look macho. Well, you know, helps to pick up chicks, I mean nice ones. Hell, I enjoyed every penny of it, as I’m sure you’d if you got the money. Not that you’ll ever see so much money, you poor pitiful man. But you probably understand indulgence, right?”
“If you’re trying to make me jealous, you’ve failed. Come, face me and we’ll talk, man to man. I want to know why you chose me for your hide-and-seek.” I peeked through the screen but the shadow doubled over with laughter and began choking before calming down.
“Father, I sinned. I got two mistresses and enjoy every minute with them. I made love to a minor—”
I opened the confessional’s half-hinged door and slipped out of the seat. I stepped on an insect and tiptoed into the hallway, where the statuettes of Peter, Paul and John guarded the Creation fresco in which a chip on the wall removed the serpent’s head. I wanted to open the confessional’s other door, mark out the fangs and two-prong tongue and squeeze the serpent-neck.
A door slammed, then footsteps echoed throughout the sanctuary. I scared away a rat and dashed down the hallway, past frescos of the Passover, the Passion, the Resurrection, and the Pentecost. I stepped into the sanctuary, where on the left wall a crucified-Jesus statuette stared down at the altar. I bypassed the altar and skipped down the marble steps. I sprinted down the aisle between cherry-wooded pews, while beyond the benches, under candlelight, the mosaic windows flaunted Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension scenes. Claw-like shadows darkened the multicolored windowpanes to overlay a second scene and cast phantoms onto the aisle and pews.
A draft wafted through the aisle. A screech, a thump and several clangs echoed through the sanctuary.
“Damn it,” Father Jones said. “Someone poked your eyes out, you clumsy fool? Get a new pair of eyes, man. Don’t you know it’s against the law to walk without eyes? Ouch, oh my poor and innocent back.”
When I reached the entrance, Father Jones was moaning on the floor beside a golden chalice while, near the door, holy water dripped from the baptized donation box. The priest rubbed his back and took out a flask of whiskey. He gulped down a mouthful and winked as if a mosquito had stung his eyelid. “Didn’t like your advice, did he? Well, don’t worry, the important thing is you heard his story. Oh, by the way, just between you and me, one priest to another, was it interesting? Visiting a prostitute? Cheating the IRS? Stealing intellectual property? Oh, come on, you can tell me.”
I helped Father Jones get up and sidestepped his whiskey breath. I ran through the candlelit foyer past the Madonna’s icons and exited the main entrance. The humid night air slammed into my face while a fly landed on the back of my hand. I flung it away, stepped out of the archway, and skipped down the steps into the graveyard. No footsteps, no shadows, only a raven cawing on a headstone.
I took out the flashlight and highlighted several headstones. The raven shrieked and flew into the fog. I stepped onto the earth searching for life among the dead, but only found the stench of rotten eggs mingling with the epitaphs.
The most generous person… Worked the hardest in the office… An inspiration for others… A pious man… Beloved son… Born April 1, 1979… September 2, 2007…
I felt I had awakened into the wrong city, the wrong year, the wrong dream. If I hadn’t heard the confession, I would’ve been more peaceful, ignorant of theft, fraud and statutory rape. Blessed be the ignorant.
Past the headstones, a fence stood at the ledge. Beyond the fence, below the hill, Gilead’s houses slumbered in the evening, while the town hall’s Tower of Babel pierced heavenward through the fog.
I came to Gilead only wishing to find Camellia, to know that she was safe, that she was well. I wanted her to break free from her nameless lover’s pull but preferred that she orbit around the married man than enter the black hole of her father Donald Larsen, that fugitive on the run from one Ponzi scheme to another. Under her father, Camellia had tasted enough pain and shouldn’t have to help him escape to Mexico or some Caribbean island, where on his beachfront mansion’s porch he would enjoy coladas and massages while his victims must dine in soup kitchens.
In the distance, above Memphis, neon lights against the fog hinted at the bankruptcies, the foreclosures, the layoffs, and the Pyramid schemes powering the land. But in front of me, a piece of paper taped to a cracked headstone was fluttering in the wind as if thumbing its nose at the heavenly shimmer. I stepped over a decomposing squirrel and scattered the flies. I grabbed the piece of paper, on which a smiley face was drawn above Camellia’s name.
While I glanced beyond the graveyard and pondered on the connection between the penitent and Camilla, Father Jones called from the entrance, “Don’t forget about this memory thingy. Seems like it might reveal something about Pastor Whitfield’s disappearance.”
Buy Meditation on Space-Time at Amazon