The other day wasn’t a total failure. I learned some things. As the rest of the congregation pretended they weren’t eyeing me, I talked to Father Joseph. Every second, I thought of how he must smell it on my breath, the withered sting of alcohol. I could see it, his round and oily noise twitching. By the time I arrived at the gathering, I was, you could say, drunk. But not as much as I could have been. I was able to walk and talk, although barely, and even recall, through a sepia tinge, most of what had happened.
Father Joseph was no doubt pleased to see me, if not surprised, but also worried, probably due to the smell of my words, if not my ambling posture. I greeted him like an old friend, pretending I hadn’t been a recluse for the past few months, as though the black beneath my eyes didn’t betray a loss, an unnamable doubt. Or was it ambiguous hatred? The difference between the two seems negligible. We distinguish doubt and hatred for convenience, as a matter of speech.
“I knew you’d come. We’ve got quite a gathering today. And, my, look at all the little ones—.” Father’s voice was choked by his own gelatinous throat. He burrowed a finger in his collar, sliding it back and forth. Every now and then, the light would catch his circular spectacles and turn them into shining discs, his eyes totally obscured. “I…,” he said, clearing the tunnel. Beyond Father Joseph’s lint-speckled shoulder, and over the altar, hung the nearly life-size crucifix, with Jesus’ arms wide open, his face without emotion, other than a relaxed welcoming, but I kept thinking, as I felt the delicate spray of Father’s speech, if Jesus is welcoming me, or anyone, then why must his palms be nailed in forced invitation? For a moment, I thought Father Joseph could hear or read my thoughts, what with the way his eyes bulged during the moments I could see them, but I knew it was ridiculous. Only God knew. I had to stifle an urge, then, to throw myself at the feet of Father Joseph and confess everything, and then crawl to the altar and relinquish myself to His power. They’d all probably shrug it away as the spirits speaking, the bitter ones that had taken hold of my faculties.
“Saint Peter,” he said as a coda to whatever speech came before. He was looking at the bright mosaic of the Saint crucified upside-down, stuck in a perpetual fall, a halo around his head. “Your namesake, is it not? Wonderful. Just wonderful.”
I had come for his help, as I had done in the very beginning. But something wasn’t right. What I didn’t expect was the way I felt about the rest of the congregation. They held their children closely as they passed me, pretending to examine the multitude of Easter lilies that adorned every crevice and step and shelf. I saw Robert, with that slick parting in his already thinning hair, sitting with his squirming four-year-old boy. He turned, perhaps to look for his dominating wife. He made contact with my fogged eyes, for the briefest second, and he gave me an awkward blink. The right lid closed just a little faster than the left, demonstrating the unevenness of his whole life. Warning me, too, that family life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. But what he really feared, I know, was me taking his place, or him taking mine. Better Peter than me, I’m sure he was thinking to himself. He returned to his forward-facing position as if nothing ever happened, as if I existed not fully, but half at best. I knew his type, ever since I shook his flaccid hand. He did what he was told. The garbage was always outside on Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m., not a minute early or late. Likewise with his job at the Dollar General, where he smiled at anyone or anything, except me in that moment. We all knew his wife was with someone else, fucking the brains out of some lucky neighbor. I don’t recall seeing her that day, either. Only more evidence of the unevenness of his blinking life.
I saw, too, Mr. and Mrs. Benedict dressed for the occasion in pastel colors. Those colors…the Benedicts had been at the shower, and they had brought brightly colored outfits for every day of the week as gifts: orange, yellow, lime, pink, sky blue, purple, and white. Those colors belong to the air now. When I nodded at the Benedicts, they each straightened their outfits. It seemed their clothing had suddenly become disheveled and required taming then and there, and on they had walked. If anything, I had thought the congregation would treat me like a long lost family member, if not a pitiable orphan. That word alone holds so much heaviness in the two syllables that it caused me to drop my pen…. But, no, they treated me like a changeling. A thing not wanted. And they were right. I was changed.
As I had meant to tell, I felt about this flock as a wolf would. Not a particularly menacing or hostile wolf, but a fangless, injured lone wolf. Wanting no part in anything but his own suffering. Cast out. They no doubt sensed this, saw me for what I was, not that I tried to hide it: wrinkled shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow, beltless slacks, scuffed and worn dress shoes. Well, I could have arrived in nothing but my underwear, so I spared them and myself that much indecency.
“Peter,” said Father Joseph. He pronounced my name as if I was the martyred Saint himself, and he reached for my hand, but before he could touch me I withdrew it. I immediately regretted that.
In a lower voice he said again, “Peter.”
I told him that I needed to speak with him, that I needed to confess.
“Well, of course. Of course,” he said. Sticking now two fingers down his collar. I couldn’t tell if he was sweating or not.
My memory wavers after this, but somehow I made it to the confessional and Father Joseph was on the other side. Although I wasn’t so sure it was him, because his face seemed changed through the screen, like a figment.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned, it’s, it’s been months since my last confession.”
“How long is that, Peter?”
“Months, Father. Four, maybe five.”
I listed my sins, and although I couldn’t see his face clearly, somehow I knew he was unmoved, unsurprised. I examined my conscience, as I had always been instructed to do. I knew the bile had tainted it. Once I was finished, it became very quiet, the flock outside seemed hushed as well. And so I thought that maybe Father Joseph was moved, but in what way I did not know. Silence upon silence. For how long, I couldn’t say. Then, just like that, he told me to say a number of prayers for penance. I uttered my act of contrition: “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things.” It was near the end of that last sentence that I slurred beyond comprehension. It was a lapse that felt to undo everything I had just confessed, but I didn’t realize it then. After catching my spoiled breath, there was more silence, and it was too much for me to bear. I broke it, with a question: “Why, Father?”
I thought I could see his lids close as he looked down at the floor, and then the white lower hemisphere of his eyes as he looked upward to God.
“We’ve spoken about this, child.”
I realize now, but didn’t at the time, that he was calling me child, as he always had done. Regardless, it all comes to the same thing. The child, my child.
“I just don’t understand.”
I was crying, and I felt as if he pitied me as one would pity the guilty.
“There is good hope that, with time, God will show her the way, Peter. Sometimes we can’t claim understanding, we can’t search for it, because His ways are, at times, too mysterious for mere human understanding. And these are the times where your faith must remain resilient. After all, what use is faith if it breaks down in the hardest and darkest of times? I know you are strong, Peter. And your church is here for you whenever you doubt that. I too, have lost loved ones, and miss them dearly. Remember, as I remember, God is here for you, for us. Always.”