THURSDAY: The Men in the Booth

BY PHIL COHEN

Copyright is held by the author.

TWO HAGGARD-LOOKING men faced each other through the latticework.

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. It’s been three days since my last confession.”

“You’re coming frequently, I see.”

“I sin a great deal.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” said the priest, breathing slowly in anticipation of the onslaught he knew well. “But I’ll forgive your sins, whatever they may be.”

“I know. I always believe and accept your forgiveness, though I have no idea how you do it.”

How do I do it? he thought. It’s my job.

“What’s it this time?”

“I used God’s name in vain again.”

“We shouldn’t be taking the Lord’s name in vain. But it happens so often these days, along with those many other expressions the Lord rarely appreciates, in particular that one having to do with fornication.”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Bad speech can’t be what brought you this evening.”

“I’m just getting started,” said the man on the other side, shuffling a bit as if preparing himself for the unloading about to commence.

“Let’s begin my man.”

“Not ‘my son’?”

“You’re older than me. A lot. I can never call you ‘son.’ You don’t really want me to call you ‘son,’ anyway.”

“I can call you Father, right?

The priest sighed so loudly his breath blew out of the confessional, echoed into the sanctuary and bounced off the walls like a banshee unleashed. “You could have these sessions with Father Thomas. He’d call you ‘son’ til hell freezes over.”

“Got to be you, Steven.”

“Then it’s got to be ‘my man.’”

The air rested between them. Outside, cars went about taking their drivers home for supper.

“Shall we get on with it then? You never know when someone’s waiting to enter the confessional.”

“You have long lines here at St. Francis of the Jersey Turnpike?”

“You’re my first today.”

“Let’s not be vain, then, Father Steven. Isn’t that one of the cardinal ones?”

The good Father nodded slowly.

“You could sit here past The Tonight Show and I’d have been your only customer today.”

“Business lately’s not so good,” Father Steven said, but without sadness. He’d long grown accustomed to the lack of clientele for his service.

“Many Catholics live out this way?”

“Confession’s been out of fashion for a long time. Sometimes they come in when something terribly weighty’s bearing down on them, and they’ll admit it’s been years. I’m amazed they cop to the time lapse. All they’d have to say is, ‘It’s been six months since my last confession,’ and I’d believe them. Why not? Instead they say, ‘It’s been 17 years . . .’ I guess when they decide to come in it’s the Full Monty or nothing. On the whole, however, confessing sin’s a diminishing preoccupation among the flock.”

“No one takes sin seriously anymore, not just the Catholics,” said the voice on the other side. “Our misbehaviour has causes outside of us. Or it’s not misbehaviour any more. ‘My something or other made me do it. It’s not me, it’s this or that doing it.’” He rubbed his eyes as if he were tired of it all. “We’ve got a moral freefall out there.”

“But that’s not you,” said the priest. “Sin hangs above you like a moth-eaten blanket. To which I say, Thank God. Shall we get on with things? The dinner bell’s going to ring and it’s roast beef tonight. Eating cold beef is a sin I’d like to avoid. What’s really on your mind?”

Again nothing for a few moments, breathing the only activity in the confessional, and silence filling the sanctuary beyond it.

“Father,” the man said. “I’m angry all the time.”

“Angry? Anger? That’s the sin? You’ve come all this way to confess anger?”

“I mean pissed off, furious, livid, irate. All the time. It pours out of me like water from a very large vessel, and it blocks my vision. I’m blinded by rage.”

“And the source of your anger?”

“A government that doesn’t give a shit about the poor. The last genocide and the one coming up. Those morons who don’t think we fucked up the climate.” He stopped and put a hand to his mouth. “Sorry about the fornication word.”

“Forgiven. Sometimes there’s no other word will do. Anyway, we don’t censor here.”

“But it’s not the macro that’s got me worked up, though there’s more than enough macro to fill a large stadium — two stadiums. And the music’s lousy. Christ, I wish it was 1970 again. I mean aside from Vietnam, another fuckup of the first order.”

“Now our language is getting a little rancid, my man.”

“Father, you know how it is. Every day there’s another hundred people living on the streets.”

“I know. Our soup kitchen turns people away. We add more tables, prepare more food, gather more volunteers. Still, in a month, we can’t accommodate everyone.” The priest tried peering through the screen separating him from his confessee for a clearer image. “You were getting on to the micro.”

“Well, yes. It’s always the micro. Everything’s local. There are a couple of things.”

“Only a couple?”

“That’s plenty.”

“I suppose.” Lighting a Marlboro and sipping some water, he said, “The first?”

“Life’s dealt me a lousy hand, Father. I jump from job to job, my kids don’t talk to me, I live in a hovel. My wife’s dead now two years and it was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“I didn’t do enough to help.”

“You did everything imaginable. Your grief’s talking. Let’s speak of grief another time. For now, focus on what really brought you over the bridge from Philly.”

“Let me ask you a question, Father.”

“Go ahead,” answered the priest.

“What do you think of people?”

The priest looked at the floor of the booth as he squashed the cigarette butt, even though he knew it would raise the ire of Mrs. McGinty. “People can be real shitheads.”

“Language, Father, language.”

“You’re right. I get carried away, especially when I’m listening to your whiny ass.”

“I suppose you skipped the counselling class at the seminary. So did I. But I’m feeling fragile today. Don’t be too hard on me, please.”

“You and the rest of God’s creation. It’s a fragility fest out there. ‘Don’t be too hard on me Father, I’ve had a bad day, a bad week, a bad 21st century.’” The priest caught his breath, lit another Marlboro, puffed on it, and blew smoke in the direction of his confessee. “Continue, my man. But don’t expect you’re going to be telling me anything new under the sun.”

“Okay. Here it is. It’s people. They piss me off. The endless lines of entitled, ignorant, annoying judgmental lot of them. There’s a couple of folks who manage not to crawl under my skin. All right, more than a few. There are some I really like. But it doesn’t matter, because in the aggregate flood of humanity, and especially the subset of the world that crosses my path daily, just piss me off. All of them. I want to yell and scream and knock heads together. But all I can do is smile, serve, and thank them. And forgive them.”

“You don’t sound very forgiving.”

“That’s why I come here. So I can be forgiven and so I can pass your forgiveness on to them.”

“Does it work?”

“I keep coming back, don’t I?”

“That you do, and more and more frequently. But that doesn’t mean your scheme works.”

“Works well enough. After a visit here, I can go out and do it again. Then I get overcooked. That’s when I mosey back over here.”

“To lay your waste on me.”

“Yep. Plus, it’s free. Just gas and tolls to Jersey. Then I get to go eat steak at The Innis.”

Father Steven smiled. The Innis was a local treasure. “Best steaks in the Philly area.”

“Yeah, and the sales tax is lower.”

“And no one’s around to pass judgment on the absence of kashrut.”

“Yep. My relationship to the dietary laws is complex. I do love their bacon-wrapped frankfurters.” The man in the confessional unlocked his eyes from the priest and looked away. “You won’t be passing this on to anyone?”

“The seal of the confessional and all that. Besides, what care I about your predilection for pork? I eat it all the time.”

“Not even close to my greatest peccadillo.”

“So, what do you want from me, then?”

“Advice. Not too much, enough to fluff me up, but not to overdo me. Some penance while you’re at it.”

As he always did at this point in the confession, Father Steven folded his arms and looked straight at the man on the other side. “As for advice, here it is. Don’t be so goddamn hard on yourself. Find a way to live with the world as it is. Change a bit of it as you can, but let go of the rest of it, or you’ll get hurt — badly. You may already be beyond the pale. Planet Earth’s been a mess for a long fucking time. It’s going to continue on this messy trajectory until the messiah arrives, for the first or the second time, depending.”

“Well said, if a bit antique. I always like the folded arms part. You do solemn very well.”

He let his arms fall to his side. “Let go.”

“If only some mechanism could shove my anxiety into a battery, it could light up a small city.”

“As for the micro, there’s nothing I can do for you. You’re a congenitally miserable cuss. Nothing short of a major course of drugs and electroshock therapy, perhaps a frontal lobotomy, could alter your state of mind. But that’s not happening, is it? Nor should it. You’re going to have to endure.

“Endure. That’s the best you can do?”

“What more is there? We’re all of us stuck floating on this same tattered scow. Most of us feel the waves pounding against its sides, some more than others. For you the waves hurt badly. We know that.”

“You’ve got no incantation, no Gregorian chant to remove the pain in my gut? Nothing to meditate on?”

“Incantations and meditations are overrated for getting rid of angst-ridden anxiety. One thing you can do my man . . .”

“Yes Father?”

“You can drag your craggy ass my way whenever you feel the need and unload on your aging Father Steven, made, ever more aged by your miserable tales of woe, I hasten to add. But the Lord put me here to be the punching bag for the likes of you. It’s what I do.”

“And my penance?”

“Hail Marys are out of the question.”

“I suppose. Though the older I get, the more I find the Virgin Mother compelling, virgin birth notwithstanding. But you’re right. No Hail Marys for me. Any other suggestions?”

“You know how you love the pie at The Innis?”

Contemplating dessert at the Innis, the man on the other side actually licked his lips. It had been that kind of a week. “Love their pie. Especially the apple.”

“Skip the pie, my man.”

“Do I have to?”

Father Steven raised his voice ever so slightly. “You don’t have to do a damned thing I say, but you ask for penance and this is what I’ve got. For you, skipping the apple pie at The Innis is worth a thousand Hail Marys. Five thousand. Eat one of those bacon frankfurter things if you have to and dig into a steak. But skip dessert.”

“I’ll consider it.” Some breathing, a discernible easing of tension. “Okay, then, I guess we’re done. I’m on my way to The Innis, with or without pie. I’ll send you an email and let you know which.”

“Do that. No one emails me these days.”

“Thanks, Father. Feeling a little better.”

“Glad I could help. Shalom, Rabbi.”

“Shalom, Father.”

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