The 40 Year Penance

With my brother KJ at football practice, Dad visiting job sites in the city and the girls at a sleepover somewhere in the neighborhood Mom and I are alone in the house on a Saturday morning. Softly stepping into my room she nudges me awake.

“Hey, Beasley. Wake up, honey.”

Rolling over, I hide my head under the covers. In response she gently tugs the blanket from my face. I look to the clock. “Mom, it’s like nine o’clock. There’s no practice today.” I grumble, “Let me sleep.” Turning away I tuck the edge of the sheets under my chin. The white cloth is cool against my neck. Mom takes a moment to watch me in my bed before shaking my shoulder.

“Honey, I know what time it is. Get up OK? It’s breakfast time.”

I try to wriggle away but she grabs my arm and rolls me over onto my back. Reflexively I cover my eyes with the back of my hand. I smell Ivory Soap as she leans over and kisses my forehead. “Come on, get up.” Exiting my room, she flicks the overhead lights on and off. As a parting gift she leaves the lights on.

Alone in my room I curl up and hide my face from the brightness. Warm in my bed, I quickly slip to slumber. Shortly thereafter mom returns and again pulls away my coverings. She shakes my shoulder; a bit harder this time.

“Let’s go. Time to wake up.” She pauses. “Now Beasley.”

Changing tactics she steps to the light switch and starts flicking the lights on and off. She does so until I capitulate.

“All right, I’m up, Mom. I’m up!”

“Come downstairs. Breakfast is ready.”

As I look for my terrycloth bathrobe from Sears she patters down the stairs. Before I can complete my search the sound of her footsteps fades away.

Floorboards creak as I leave my second floor bedroom behind. From the kitchen I hear water running. The house is filled with the smell of burnt toast.

In the kitchen The Sounds of Silence waft from a white Emerson radio huddled next to the toaster. Mom stands at the sink washing an apple.

Still facing the sink she twists to address me. Over a shoulder her profile speaks. “Sit, Beasley. I put some OJ out for you. Drink up while I make more toast. Rye bread?”

I nod as she continues, “Grab some cereal, OK?” She juts her chin, “The milk and your favorite Flyers bowl is on the table. And say your prayers before you eat.”

I nod and sit. Crossing myself I whip through the routine. “BlessusohLord forthesethygiftsforwhichIamabouttoreceivefromthybountythroughChristourLord. Amen.” Dramatically, I conclude the effort with a flourish and cross myself.

Looking up I see she’s watching me.

She frowns before returning her attention to the sink.

Selecting the box of Frosted Flakes I fill the Flyer’s cereal bowl. With Mom’s back to me I pour tablespoon after tablespoon of sugar onto my already frosted flakes. And hearing the clinking of the spoon against the sugar bowl she turns. Her eyes narrow.

“That’s enough sugar, Beasley. You’ll get worms.”

I shiver at the thought of worms gorging on sugar inside my stomach. With two hands, I pour the milk. Sugar melts away, discoloring the bright white liquid. Leaning over the bowl I start shoveling sugar coated Frosted Flakes into my mouth.

The toaster chimes, prompting Mom to retrieve two pieces of rye toast. As she looks away I stealthily slide my wet spoon into the sugar bowl and withdraw a heaping spoonful of sugar. Silently I shove the white mound into my mouth. Mom butters the toast and places a plate in front of me. Eying me she returns the lid of the sugar bowl to its proper place. Reaching out she attempts to stroke the side of my head and thinking she’s going to discover my mouthful of sugar I recoil. She hesitates, her hand lingering just over my shoulder, before withdrawing. Wringing her hands she sighs and fakes a smile. “Eat your toast. What about some fruit?” She smirks. “Do you want any fruit to go with your sugar? An apple maybe?”

I shake my head in the negative as the spoonful of sugar dissolves in my mouth. I cannot help but smile as lingering granules crunch between my teeth. And as I break into grin milk leaks from the side of my mouth.

“Beasley, keep your mouth closed when you eat, all right? You look like a drooling animal.” I stop smiling and wipe my mouth with the back of my left hand.

“Finish up, Beasley. I want you dressed in 10 minutes. We’re going to confession.”

What?” Milk and sugar pour from my mouth as I protest. “I don’t need to. I mean I went last month, Mom! So, like, I don’t need to go again!” Dramatically I drop my spoon into the cereal bowl and push my chair away from the table. “Come on!”

She’s resolute. She wipes hands clean on a dish towel and shakes her head, “Beasley. More than anyone else in this family, you need to confess.”

Staring me down she steps closer. “Every week for the last month I’ve received some sort of phone call about you and your behavior. And I’ve had it; just had it. You need to confess.” By the time she finishes she’s looming over me.

I try to protest but she slams the table with an open hand, jangling the lid of the sugar bowl. “Every week, Beasley. From school. From CCD. From Billy’s mom. From your soccer coach. And this week, from the police; they think you broke the window in the Coin Shop uptown.”

“Mom, no…”

“Stop! Don’t even say it.” She looks up toward the ceiling before continuing. “Tell me, young man; is it that you just don’t have any sins to confess? Or is it that you – Beasley Kinkade – are so special you don’t have to participate in the holy sacrament of confession?”

I don’t respond.

“So tell me. Which is it?”

My shoulders droop. I pick a sad face and decide not to argue.

“Finish your toast and go get dressed. And brush all that sugar out of your teeth.”

Moodily I remove myself from the kitchen, head upstairs and get dressed. I brush my teeth, comb my hair and rub some Clearasil on the pimples camping across my forehead. I return to the kitchen, resolved not to speak with Mom.

“Come on, get your coat. I want you confessed before your father gets home.”

As we drive to the church in silence I stare out the passenger side window. I press my face against the glass, the smooth coolness my solitary companion.

The church parking lot is nearly empty. We park by the front entrance. I slink from the car, dragging the toes of my sneakers over the rough parking lot pavement in an effort to annoy Mom. Steeled for a conversation with God Mom ignores me.

Entering the church though thick wooden doors we dip our hands in holy water and make the sign of the cross. With a collection of only the most devout scattered here and there nearly every pew is empty. Selecting a pew across the aisle from the confessional booth first mom then I slide across the smooth wooden bench. We kneel. Mom bows her head and prays. So do I. And while I suspect she is praying on behalf of her eldest son her eldest son prays he gets through this unscathed.

‘Please let me make it through this confession and please don’t let me get in any more trouble.’ From behind the curtain across the aisle I hear the shimmers of whispered confession.

Heads bowed, Mom and I wait in silence. I breathe in a chest full of that uniquely church smell; incense, flowers, guilt.

Leaning over, I whisper to Mom, “Can you go first? I mean, I havta think about what I’m gonna say, ya know?”

Staring me down she sniffs, “Fine. I’ll go first but believe you me young man; there’s plenty for you to say. Plenty.”

She looks away and, closing her eyes, prays for my redemption.

Rich velvety curtains part as an elderly man exits the confessional. Our eyes meet and I raise my eyebrows as if to ask ‘how bad was it?’ He frowns in my direction before walking toward the rear of the church. Twisting around, my eyes follow him to a pew. He kneels, crosses himself and begins to pray.

I shudder.

Mom looks up over the confessional. There, a little light shines red. A moment later it shuts off and its neighboring little light shines green. Crossing herself Mom rises and leaves me to stew in the memory of my sins. She vanishes behind the curtain. Looking around, I confirm I am next in line.

After five minutes or so Mom returns to the pew, kneels and quickly crosses herself. Eyes slip closed and lips purse as she prays in earnest. Next to her I stare, wondering what she told the priest. Opening one eye she monitors me. Looking up she spies a green light and bumps me with her shoulder, “Get going; it’s your turn. You remember what to do, right?”

I nod in the affirmative and step away from the pew.

Pulling back the curtain I slip into darkness and assume a kneeling position on a cushion as soft as a log. The little room is about the size of a phone booth and I am uncomfortable, cramped. My eyes adjust to groping darkness. Reaching up I trace my fingers over a latticework of woven wood situated in the center of the wall before me. The latticework is a bit bigger than the size of an album cover. Leaning forward I try to peek past the strips of interwoven wood but a sheet of red plastic resting behind the latticework blocks my view. Nervously I turn and double check the curtain, tugging the edges to ensure it’s all the way shut. I don’t want Mom hearing any of this. Curtain closed, I twist around to inspect the confessional booth. Other than a prayer hymnal and the hardened cushion the booth is empty. My nose crinkles at the lingering smell of old person.

In darkness I wait. A well-worn one inch shelf juts out from below the latticework. I continue to wait and soon find myself using my thumbnail to scratch initials into the soft wooden shelf. Stopping, I think twice about it. Licking my hand I work diligently to rub away evidence of my most recent transgression.

Finished with my effort I wipe my palm against my shirt. I press my ear against the latticework, listening for a sign. From behind the sheet of plastic I hear a gentle murmur.

I rap the little shelf softly with my knuckle. “Hey, Father, should I start?”

Suddenly the plastic slides away, startling me. The scraping noise fills the confessional.

I jump back. “Whoa. Um, I wasn’t expecting that. Should I start, you know, to say the ‘Bless me Father…’ part now?”

Through the latticework I hear the priest’s labored breathing. Like a gentle tide his wheezing breaths slip in and out of his nose. It’s Father O’Reilly. I can tell.

I keep my face away from the latticework hoping to avoid Father’s discovery of my identity. His voice is just above a whisper. “Please, my child. Allow me to start with a prayer.” He speaks quickly. I have no idea what he’s saying. He finishes with an ‘amen’ and I follow suit.

“Amen.”

He coughs before prompting me forward. His voice is husky; that of a smoker. Through the latticework I smell his Old Spice aftershave. “You may begin my son.”

Drawing a deep breath, I make the sign of the cross.

Here goes.

“OK. Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been a month since my last confession. And, well, these are my sins.”

My heart pounds as I stumble forward. I feel sick. Hesitating I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Looking down I see a scattering of sugar granules clinging to my skin. I lick them away before rubbing my hand against a pant leg.

“Go on, my son. It’ OK. Tell God your sins.”

“Well, I guess to start, I disobey my parents, you know, and I lie to them. Like this morning mom told me ‘no more sugar’ and as soon as she turned away I ate a whole tablespoon of the stuff; while she wasn’t looking.”

He chuckles, “My, my, a whole tablespoon. That’s a lot of sugar!”

“Yeah, I know. Should I keep going?”

“Do you have more sins?”

I nod but he does not see me.

“Go on. Confess.”

I think about it. Again, Father prompts me. “Go on.”

“I guess the worse thing is I make my mom cry. I mean, I don’t try to but I do. And I hate it when she cries. Like, I hear her in her room or in the kitchen; after I get in trouble and I’m punished. She covers her face to hide but I can tell; she’s crying.”

“First, let’s not ‘hate’ anything. And besides, perhaps she cries for other reasons.”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s ‘cause of me. I know it.”

“How do you know, my son?”

“She cries after I get in trouble or when she finds out what I did, you know, the bad stuff.”

“You mean like eating sugar?”

“No; worse stuff than that. And, I ah, I make my father mad too. Real mad.”

“I see… and that’s because of ‘the bad stuff’ you do?”

“Yes.”

“Well, the Commandments state we must honor our mother and father. And making them cry or making them mad is no way to honor your parents, is it son?”

“No, Father. I guess not.”

I remain silent hoping to wrap it up here and now.

“Son, are you still with me?”

“Um, yes.”

“Well, go on. Tell me; tell me the ‘bad stuff’ you do. Confess your sins to our Lord and Savior.”

“Um, I don’t really have a list so should I just start with what I can remember?”

“That will be fine.”

“Well, I guess to start, I copied some of my homework at school; mostly spelling words. They’re hard for me. So, I guess I lied to my teachers. Or is that cheating?”

“I think you know the answer, son.”

I don’t respond.

“It’s both, son. It’s both.”

“Right, both. Sorry about that. And, well, I lied to my CCD teacher here at Saint Catherine’s. And to my soccer coach; I lied to him too.”

“Hmmm… I see. Go on.”

“And I took the Lord’s name in vain; by swearing. I mean, I know I’m not swearing now but I swear a lot.”

“And where did you learn to swear?”

I think about it. “All around I guess. Mostly at school. People swear a lot there.”

“I see. Is that it? Are those all your sins?”

I consider stopping there. But so far I’m in the clear. I might as well see if I can get penance and wipe the entire slate clean. I draw in a long exaggerated breath.

“No. I just thought of another sin. At school, I tore out all the pictures of goalies from the sports encyclopedias in the library. They’re in my room now. And I stole a hockey book from the library; one about the Flyers. I love the Flyers.”

“Um, I don’t think that’s the point, my boy. You cannot do such things. Think of the boys and girls coming after you; they will not be able to enjoy the richness of those books now, will they?”

I shake my head in the negative.

“Do you understand?”

“Uh, yes. I understand.”

“Good. And will you return the stolen book and the pictures you removed from the encyclopedias to the library for me, son?”

No way. “I, ah, guess so. I mean, if I can find the book, I’ll return it for sure.”

“Please, do that. Do that for me.”

Nodding, I continue, “And I’ve been in some fights too.”

“Some fights? How many?”

“Well, I fight a lot. I fight all the time with my brother and sisters and I got beat up a few times but mostly I beat people up, like in my family and my neighborhood and at school and when we play street hockey. And I beat some kid up at soccer. I knocked him down and stepped on him.”

“My word! How often do you fight?”

“I dunno. Every day I guess.”

Every day?

I shrug but be doesn’t see me.

“And when was your last fight?”

“Um, yesterday.”

“What happened?”

“I was at the playground, you know the one by the pool, and an older kid knocked me off my bike and punched me. I tried to fight back but couldn’t. He punched me in the stomach until I couldn’t breathe. And so I fell over. And I lost.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“Pretty bad. I mean, I couldn’t breathe. And I got mad after I got away from him. I mean, I got really mad.”

“No one likes to get punched, son. And was that the end of it? Of the fight I mean.”

“Well, no… not really.”

“Did you tell your parents about the boy who beat you up?”

“Well Billy – he’s the kid that beat me up; his name’s Billy – has a little brother. So, I rode my bike to his house and waited until his little brother came outside and then I followed him – I don’t remember his name – and I beat him up.”

Through the latticework Father tut-tuts and for some reason that annoys me. So I finish the story. “And after I beat him up I took his little brother’s sneaker and threw it in the brook.”

“My Lord! Why would you do such a thing?”

“I dunno. I mean I got beat up and I was, you know, crying and, I mean really mad.” Caught up in the memory of my recent beating I stammer. “I’m sorry, Father. I know I shouldn’t of done that. ‘Cause, now I’m just gonna get beat up again.”

“Son, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Involuntarily I touch my eye. I don’t understand what he’s talking about so I continue, “And well, I should also tell you, the reason Billy beat me up is I broke some windows at his house. I mean, I’m pretty certain that’s why he punched me in the first place.”

“You what?”

“I threw rocks at his house; and broke some windows on their porch and in their kitchen. And I’m pretty certain his mom knew it was me. She called my mom and told her so. I got a whooping for that one.”

“My goodness! That’s, that’s… inexcusable! Why would you do such a thing?”

“Do I have to tell you?”

“You have to tell our Lord. This is a confession, my son.”

“Well I guess when you think about it me and – I better not say his name – my friend tried to steal money from Billy’s mom. ‘My friend’ has a paper route and sometimes we tell people on the route they owe us more than they really do. And Billy’s mom caught us and we got in big trouble. I mean really big trouble. She called my mom! And so, a little later we broke her windows.”

I hear Father gasp.

“And is this the only time you’ve done something like this?”

“I don’t think I should say, Father. If I say it I’ll just end up going, you know (I whisper), to hell.”

“Son, that is for the Lord to decide. Please go on. Confess all your sins to me.”

I see his silhouette lean into the latticework. I push myself toward a corner of the ever shrinking booth.

“And, well, I broke windows at school too. And up town. At the Coin Shop. But only after the owner pulled my collar and threw me against a wall when I reached over his counter; you know the glass one with all the coins in it. I just wanted to see an Indian Head but I think he thought I was gonna steal something. So he grabbed me. And banged my head right against the wall!”

I stop there. Father prompts me. His voice grows icy. “Is that it?”

“And, um, sorry, Father, but I broke a window here at Saint Catherine’s. I broke one of the school windows when I was kicked outa CCD class. For reading Mad Magazine at CCD. So, I ah, went outside and broke my teacher’s window with a rock; just a little one though.”

I hear him exhale. The sound is long and deliberate.

He says nothing. His silence, however, wills me on.

“And I stole stuff. You know cigarettes, comic books. And lots of $100,000 Bars.”

I look away from the latticework. “They’re the best. I mean, I love those things. And, oh yeah, we stole a tent from Sears. And a canoe.”

“A what?

“Yeah, I’m really sorry about that one.”

“You stole a what?”

“A canoe. We just walked right out with it. Like we bought it.”

“We?”

“Me and my friends.”

“And where is this canoe now?”

“It’s busted.”

“And how, pray tell, did it break?”

“We dropped if off a bridge into the road. And, it ah,… it got hit by a bus.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what possessed you to do something like that?”

“It was too big; you know to carry all the way home. And we got scared of walking around with a big canoe over our heads. I mean it was so big we had to carry it on our heads!”

His tongue sharpens. “How old are you, son?”

“Um, 12.”

12!

I hear him whisper a quick prayer as his shadow crosses itself.

“Is that it? Are those all your sins?”

“Um, I guess so.”

He grows agitated. “You guess so? What else? Tell me! Tell God!”

I swallow hard and lower my voice, again, afraid of my mother’s nearby ear. “And, well, I started some fires too.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“For most of them, no.”

“Most of them?”

“Well, we made those – what do you call them – those things that have gas in bottles and you throw them …”

“Molotov cocktails?”

“Yeah, we made those with – you know gas and egg whites – and we mostly threw them at the freight trains – the long ones – when they passed through the woods.”

He whispers another prayer before responding. “Good God, where did you learn to do that?”

“My friend Gre… – well, never mind his name – his older brother told us how. And he showed us how to put in the eggs – just the white part – so it sticks to the trains. It really works, ya know. And, well, I made them in the backyard.”

“In the backyard? Of your home?”

“Yeah. And, I already got punished once when one of ‘em broke on my dad’s wood pile behind the garage. I threw it, you know, to test it and, well, it started the pile on fire. And he found out.”

“But, wait, you said earlier you think you hurt someone with these… these bombs?”

“Huh? Oh, no Father. We’re always careful with those things, except for the wood pile, I mean. I, uh, hurt someone when I made a girl in our neighborhood cry.”

“What happened?”

“I, uh, took her Barbie Camper – you know one of those big ones like a GI Joe truck – and I tied it to my bike. Oh, I almost forgot I stole a bike from the pool bike rack from someone I hate; he left it unlocked.”

“Please…” He tries to interject but I lurch forward.

“And anyway, I filled her Barbie Camper with lighter fluid, you know, the stuff for our remote control cars, and I lit the Camper on fire. And when it was burning I rode around with it, you know, pulling it from the back of my bike. And I guess she saw it and really, really cried. I mean a lot. Man I got in big trouble for that one.”

“I, I, I don’t know what to say… you…”

“Sorry, Father.”

“What else?”

“Did I say I swear a lot?”

He sighs, “Yes.”

“And I looked at Playboys and stuff like that.”

“And did you feel ashamed after you looked at those magazines?”

I’m confused. I lower my voice as low as it will go so there’s no way Mom can hear. “You mean of my boner?”

“NO! I mean, Lord above, we do not say that word in church! Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry Father. I didn’t know. So, yeah, I mean, I guess I felt bad. I dunno.”

“What else?”

“And I kissed a girl in the woods. By the school and then by the pool. Is that a sin?”

“Kissing is not a sin, but, how old did you say you were?”

“12”

“No more kissing, understood?”

I cross my fingers. “OK.”

We both remain silent.

Finally he presses his head against the latticework as if to spy me. I pull back as far as I can into the shadows as he asks me to continue. “And what was the worst thing you did? Have you confessed all your sins?”

I don’t want to tell him.

He hears my thoughts. “Tell me. You’ve been very brave with your confession. So, please share your sins no matter how heinous.”

I don’t know what heinous means; bad I guess. “Do you remember, Father, when I said we overcharged on our paper route?”

A slow breath whistles through his nose. “Yes.”

“Well, one of the ladies – I better not say who – slapped me and my friend when she found out how much she overpaid. She pretty much just hit my shoulder, you know, ‘cause I ducked but she caught Ton… I mean ‘my friend’ good; right in the face. She hit him right in the eye! So a few nights later I snuck out and went to their house late at night– they live on a big hill by Lincoln Ave. – and well she always parks her car in the street in front of the house at the top of the hill so I snuck in their car and released the brake.”

“Wait, what?”

I rush through my final sentence, “You know, the emergency brake. And the car rolled down the hill and smashed through some bushes and hit a tree. So I guess that’s the worst thing; I smashed up a car.”

His shadow draws two hands up to his face. I watch as his shadow rubs its face. He’s silent for a long time and I wonder if I should leave.

He breaks the silence. “I think, young man, you and I should speak outside of the confessional. For your sake. And for the sake of your soul.”

I grow nervous. Father O’Reilly could probably guess it’s me on this side of the latticework by now but there’s no way am I gonna admit any of this to his face.

“What do you think, my son?

I consider my options. I’ve already got a pile of sins to my name. Adding one more lie to Father O’Reilly isn’t gonna break the bank.

“I don’t think that’d be a good idea, Father. You see, I think if we meet my mom and dad will know I did some really bad things. They don’t know all this stuff. And I, I don’t want them to know.”

“Son, this is about a discussion between you and God. Not between you and your parents. Though perhaps we can think about including your parents in our conversation.”

I yelp, “No!” My mouth corkscrews. Then, I whisper, afraid of mom’s ears on the other side of the curtain. “My parents don’t know I did all this stuff; you know the stuff that I didn’t get caught for, I mean. And, uh, if I act any worse I’m pretty certain they’re gonna send me to (I stage a whisper) an orphanage.”

He pushes his face against the latticework. “Did you say orphanage?”

He withdraws his face and his shadow shakes its head. His voice drifts. “And to think I’d thought I’d heard it all.”

I continue. “So that’s why I really shouldn’t meet with you, Father.”

“An orphanage? You’re telling me your parents will ship you off to an orphanage? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes. Like on the Little Rascals – the TV show I mean – when they’re only allowed to eat mush.”

He does not respond so I cover myself. “And Father?”

“Yes?”

“Did I say I lie? ‘Cause I’m a liar too.”

He exhales as I watch his silhouette look to the ceiling. Covering my face I move my ear toward the woven wood and listen as he whispers a silent prayer.

Then another.

And another.

“My son, you have sinned. And now you must begin your penance.”

My chest heaves as I wait for the verdict.

“You must first love your mother and father, understood?”

OK, good. I can do that. “Yes, Father.”

“You must tell them you love them. Am I clear?”

“Yes.”

“And you must love your brother and sisters too.”

“OK.”

“And no more fighting. Or stealing. Or vandalizing. And no more arson. Am I clear on the vandalizing and arson part?”

I assume a voice of forgiveness. “Yes sir.”

For the next 10 minutes Father O’Reilly instructs me on how I should avoid trouble, stay clear of fights, and ask adults to help solve my problems.

Biblical verse rains down upon me.

“And you have to apologize to everyone you hurt.” (I can get around that for apologizing for different things. Like I’ll have to apologize to Billy’ mom for breaking her windows and beating up her kid, so I’ll just bump into her on purpose at a Scout meeting and say, ‘Sorry’ which really will be me apologizing to her.)

“And five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers. At some point every day I want you to take the time, reflect and pray for strength. And I want you to come to see me in my office, OK? You don’t have to say who you are – though perhaps I can guess that – but we’ll just talk. And I’ll help you stay clear of trouble. And maybe keep you out of that ‘orphanage’ of yours. Deal?”

Figuring a lie now will automatically be covered by this confession I tell him what he wants to hear. “OK Father, deal. I’ll come and see you.”

“And one more thing. You have to admit your sins to those you love. I don’t care when or how but you have to explain how you sinned in a public setting. Like during a conversation with your parents; at dinner, maybe. Or you can write it down – you know in a letter perhaps – and deliver the list of your sins to someone who cares about you; if not your mother of father then, perhaps, an adult such as a grandparent or a trusted aunt or uncle. You must do this so the people who love you will know the extent of your troubles; so they’ll know of your current sinful path. And so they’ll know how to help you escape from the grip of sin.”

“But Father, I can’t…”

He flashes anger. “Silence! You’ve sinned. Regrettably you’ve sinned like few your age have sinned. So you will do as I say. Is that understood?”

I frump against the wall of the confessional. “Understood.”

“Now I will pray for you. I will pray to the Lord our Savior to give you the strength you’ll need to complete your penance. I imagine it will take some time.”

Through the latticework drifts the sound of a gentle murmur. “Amen” he whispers.

I sit dumbstruck, considering all the stuff he wants me to do. Who knows how long this is gonna take.

Father O’Reilly prompts me, “Now you say… for His mercy endures…”

“Oh, right… for His mercy endures forever.”

Through the screen I see Father shake his head, as if in resignation. He sighs. “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.”

“Thanks be to God.”

“Thanks be to God,” I repeat.

Now, my exit. I don’t want Father O’Reilly to see me with Mom. That would be big trouble. Nervously, Father waits for me to leave the booth. “You may go now, son.”

Yanking back the curtain I exit the confessional and rush past Mom as she kneels in her pew. “Mom, I love you (check one item off the list!). I gotta pee bad Mom! Be right back.”

She hisses over the few remaining parishioners in the church as I scurry in the direction of a bathroom by the front of the church. “You have to kneel! And pray for forgiveness!”

I’m not stopping. “I will!” I stage a whisper, “Just let me pee first!”

Mom twists her neck to follow me as I run toward the front of the Church. She loses sight of me as I dart through wooden doors.

As I run out of the church Father O’Reilly exits the confessional. With arms crossed he stands outside his sacramental office. The scattered individuals kneeling or sitting outside his confessional look up. Most smile. Father O’Reilly, though, does not return their smiles. Gravely, he scans the pews for a 12 year old boy. He watches as my mother crosses herself and leaves her pew in search of her wayward son.

He watches Mrs. Kinkade – a devout parishioner – dip delicate fingertips into holy water. He nods. ‘The Kinkade boy?’ Pursing his lips he considers the dimness of the boy’s future.

Slowly he shakes his head back and forth.

He crosses himself.

Exhaling, Father returns to the confessional and waits a moment before turning on a green light.

He closes his eyes and prays.

Day in and day out he prays for those in need of redemption.

And for the next 40 years his prayers drift through time with the sound of a gentle murmur. Like dreams they float and fade; a handful float behind the echo of a childhood confession.

And 40 years later I complete my penance.

A drifting prayer is answered.

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