by David Rambeau
It wasnít intended to be more than a short-term hustle, a means of getting over till my next legitimate writing opportunity came through, but it had grown into more income than I would ever have imagined. And as I got more proficient, got the schedules and timing synchronized, I became bolder; deciding that perhaps I would just continue till the process had run its course and then, after an incident of pretended embarrassment and faked apologies, would disappear. But it never goes like you think it will or should, and it didnít in this case either.
It was just an any sort of late afternoon, no bright sun, no sculptured clouds, no sharply dressed passersby going home from work, nor any lingering downtown to sit at the end of the bar and watch tv while smoking and wandering into the future, meandering into the past, or participating in heated conversations about the latest sports highlight of seminal consequence. I was tired after a long day of work-related research and was standing disconsolately on the corner a few doors from the church, and thought Iíd step in to rest for a moment, regain some energy and stop by the university library before going home.
The calm of the sanctuary must have overwhelmed me because I drifted helplessly into what I believed was a short nap before awakening self-consciously slumped over, head leaning to the side, tongue thick and mouth dry, my eyes out of sync with the present. I glanced around at the empty pews without moving, like a criminal staking out a burglary. Then, when I was sure that no one had taken any notice or offense at my impropriety, I methodically straightened up till I was properly erect and breathing deeply.
The stain-glass windows in the cavernous church were now completely dark, so that the votive candles near the altar and in the aisles where medieval era saints were hung produced the same feeling as when one sees Christmas lights on street decorations during the holiday season. I smiled, remembering long-forgotton childhood joy_ of youth without responsibility, of playground basketball, of birthday parties.
I stared on end at them, row after row of tiny, flickering flames giving tribute to a crucified white Jesus, historic testimony to cultural and racial hypocrisy. But if being the great white savior could keep the church doors open and the heat and electricity on, I didnít mind, or at least wouldnít, this evening when trash was spinning through the street like tumble-weeds on a prairie.
The money scheme was a simple ploy, a shakedown really, that the helpless marks could hardly defend themselves against. At times I had to control myself to keep from laughing at them while I imposed my sentence. But they got as much from it as I did, probably more, so I didnít feel any remorse. When I absolved their sins I required as their penance to say so many prayers and to light a candle at a site to honor a saint. I, of course, had fixed the drop slots so I could recover their donations.
I came to rely on my sinners to finance my Saturday night action, and as my confessees grew, to take care of all my needs. Something about me must have satisfied them because my clientele grew week by week till I soon had a queue waiting for me when I arrived. I think that disturbed me, because I hadnít thought about being a success, nor developing a following. I had a decidedly more modest agenda, just a few dollars to tide me over and then adieu. But now I had a lucrative practice that was growing in number and wealth. And, like a junkie, I couldnít quit.
I had to maintain my situation with the clerics at the church so I went to visit the priest, the pastor, whom I replaced on Saturday evenings. I found out about him when I looked into the history of the parish on the Internet and in the library file of the local daily papers, because the diocese had been non-committal about him. He had been incarcerated at the county jail for a child abuse offense, waiting to go trial, had been released on bail and was quartered in a religious sanctuary w/ other clerical misfits; alcoholics, drug addicts and abusers of parish youth. He thought I was a journalist searching for a story, his story, and indeed I was, but the rest of my adventure into parish affairs I didnít mention. With a letter from him to his young assistant who was now in charge authorizing my presence at the church, I was allowed access to the entire campus. I told the young priest that I would come and talk to parishioners on Saturday evenings in the church. That was my cover and he in his innocence never suspected for a moment that I would be hearing confessions and pilfering from the candle collection boxes.
Yes, boxes. I started with only one box, but noticed while hearing confessions that one of my clients had lit a candle where I hadnít put a cover, so after that I fixed every box while I was on duty. That increased my take considerably. He never suspected a thing; he even gave me a key to lock up. I demurred at first but he insisted, citing the lack of funds for a weekend maintenance person to do the task and that he was really obligated to me for being so gracious. I came to agree. I had relieved him of the task of hearing confessions on Saturday and freed him to go visit the pastor. I wondered whether there was something more to his visits to his colleague, but that was not my concern. It was completely beneficial to me so I hardly cared. He was a fresh young Irish fellow from the old country, scarcely someone for an urban metropolis. Maybe he was a member of the IRA sent to the States to relay monies to finance ďthe Troubles.Ē Who knows what roles we play and where? But were any of those assigned to other parishes any better? He had not been at the parish long so that folk thought nothing of there being two newcomers during their time of anguish over the moral turpitude of their religious leader. For me it was complete luck, though profiting from the misery of others was not my intent. It was merely convenient and I was in no position to disclaim the opportunity.
I had reached a point where I was providing counseling on a weekly basis to the same people and had come to recognize them and their faults. If only they could have known of mine. It had become a routine; relaxing, private when one evening someone entered the confessional abruptly, cutting off an elderly woman who was too slow to claim her place in line. She pouted physically then returned to the pew where she had been praying.
The stranger slumped to his knees, breathing heavily, his face pressed against the wood lattice. For a moment I thought he would crash through into my stall, but he recoiled an inch or so and peered in my direction, trying, I imagined, to make eye contact. Thankfully he couldnít. My chamber was completely black though Iím certain my presence could be felt as much as his. I usually welcomed my clients but not this time. I waited in silence for him to speak, or to realize that he was in the wrong place, and leave. But he did neither. Nor did I. I despised him already, before he had uttered a single word. Only the divider between us muted my feeling, otherwise he would have added me to what I was sure was a list of enemies. When he could no longer contain himself he belched out the conflict which had driven him here.
He was a hit-man and tonight he had a job to do; he had someone to kill. My heart tightened; I felt trapped. Damn, I thought, but he replied as if he had heard me speak. Did I feel so threatened that my word had escaped my mind? I leaned over to get a closer look at him, then instantly turned away fearing that he would be able to see my face. I put my fingers to my forehead and my chin, shielding my profile from view even though my cubicle was pitch black. What to say, what to say? I who had become in these few weeks so glib was now straining to say the right thing, to say anything that could intervene in the process yet not betray my charade, nor interrupt his.
Must you do this?
Itís my job; Iíve been paid.
I didnít reply. We both breathed silently. Finally he spoke.
If I donít theyíll kill me.
Then why did you come?
I canít help you unless you give up this, this assignment.
WellÖdelay it, put it off.
I canít. Iíve got to do it tonight.
I canít; theyíll hunt me down.
Let him kill you.
As soon as I said it I realized how ridiculous it sounded, even to me. But this time he didnít give an instant reply. Again the confessional was as silent as it had been when he first entered. Then he rose and left abruptly. I sat there listening to time, alone now in the limited space with my tension, my fear, with a ringing in my ears while my consciousness floated aimlessly in the dark.
The others who had been waiting for his departure came and went, all complaining of the rude, desperate stranger who interrupted our evening together. After they had all gone, I couldnít remember what any of them had said. I waited a while before coming out, afraid he would be still be there waiting for me, but he wasnít. Once I saw that he had gone, I knew that he would be. All my insight was coming as late as hindsight. Useless, pathetic.
The huge empty church seemed filled with mocking shadows that spied on and ridiculed me from behind the statues in the gigantic tomb. As soon as I reached the vestibule I realized I hadnít collected my donations. I returned to the church and made my rounds, snatching at each container in my haste, dropping coins that I left for the sweeper. There was more cash than ever, as if everyone knew something inordinately evil had to compensated for. When I reached the last container I fished out the proceeds and uncovered a thousand dollar bill. He must have put it there. Had I been that much help to him? He hadnít even waited for my absolution, fake as it was.
I dropped the key in the rectory mailbox with a brief note thanking the assistant priest for all his patience and telling him I had completed my interviews and would not be returning.
A brief article in the morning paper detailed a shoot-out the previous night in which a lone gunman had been killed in suspicious circumstances. The police had no clues but were investigating the incident.
The pastor had his case settled out of court and was assigned to another parish to begin again. Soon after I went east to pursue my writing career. Sometimes when royalties are slow I think about my escapade, but have declined taking up the cloth again. Nor have I been inside a church. I probably never will.