by John S
Father Joe has to make a choice, are his vows more important than his family.
|Priest or Brother, Brother or Priest
Father Joe walked up the cracked, well-worn, cement steps to enter St. James Church for what felt like to him the millionth time. It was Saturday afternoon and the priest hated Saturdays. He would sit in the darkness of the confessional and listen to the same parishioners confess the same sins they’d been confessing since Father Joe’s return. None of the voices he heard through the curtain were young ones. The sins they confessed were almost as boring as the people confessing them. St. James was located in a lower middle-class neighborhood in the city. The church and the neighborhood had both seen better days. Lying, swearing, and an occasional impure thought were all there ever was. He tried to sound enthusiastic about their minor offenses, but most of the confessors could tell he was mailing it in.
The ladies club that met in the basement of the church every Thursday evening were calling him Three Hail Mary Joe. The sharp older women of the club found that no matter the number or gravity of your sins confessed to Father Joe the penance meted out was always three Hail Marys with a very rare Our Father. Victoria Bene even made up sins to see if she could get past the Three Hail Mary sentence. She was terribly disappointed when after confessing her most impure lurid thoughts in graphic detail all she got was the mandatory Three Hail Marys.
On this particular Saturday, Father Joe took a peek at the line waiting in front of his confessional booth. There were at least twenty sinners waiting to confess their sins to him. Father Mark’s booth had three. It never occurred to either priest that the length of the line had less to do with their popularity than with the penance each meted out. Father Mark was much tougher, a sinner rarely escaped without spending a good part of their Saturday afternoon in prayer. The consensus among the parishioners was that even with the long line you spent less time in church if you went to Three Hail Mary Joe.
The cough snapped Father Joe out of his daze. He’d been in the confessional for at least an hour and knew he must be nearing the end of the line. The man with the cough waited for it to subside, then said in a raspy voice, “Bless me father for I have sinned…” The confession went on for quite some time. Father Joe didn’t mind, he hadn’t heard some of these sins for years. The man confessing must have lived a very interesting and sinful life. Father Joe asked an occasional question. The confession went on, interrupted only by an occasional coughing fit from the man.
Father Joe observed over the years that there were two kinds of people who entered his confessional. Those who gave the usual, I lied, I stole, I took the Lord’s name in vain. The other type made Father Joe’s life a little more interesting. These people described their sins in detail, as if they were proud of what they had done. Victoria Bene was one of the later, he recognized her voice. He assumed she got a thrill for confessing all the sordid details of her impure thoughts. The man in the box now was going into great detail about his many sins, as if he was telling a story.
“Father there is one more sin I need to confess, I’m afraid, the sin is unforgiveable.”
“If you are truly sorry for this sin it will be forgiven. Please go on.”
The man confessed what he thought was unforgivable. As before, he was confessing in great detail. He finished and a stunned Father Joe couldn’t speak. The silence in the confessional was deafening. The man finally asked, “Father, are you alright.”
In a very unsteady voice the priest answered, “yes, I’m alright.” Followed by more silence.
“Am I forgiven father?”
“Are you truly sorry for your sins?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then you are forgiven.” The penance was the automatic Three Hail Marys. No penance would ever be enough for the sin the man had just confessed. The man left the confessional and Father Joe sat there in stunned silence. Hate filled his heart, he’d done what he was obligated to do, he’d given the man absolution. If he could have reached to the other side of the confessional and grabbed the man by the throat he might have. Father Mark interrupted his thoughts. “Joe we’re all waiting for you at the dinner table. Are you alright? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost?”
“I think I may have… You go and eat Mark, I’m feeling a little tired, I’m going to my room and lay down for a little while.”
Father Joe tossed and turned unable to find any peace in his bed. “Did he know that voice?” he asked himself for the hundredth time. If he did the memory of it wasn’t coming back to him. The man’s cough sounded a lot like many he’d heard at Mercy Hospital. The priest spent many hours at the hospital visiting parishioners and giving The Last Rites to some. Years ago, his own father died with the same kind of deep-down hacking cough. Lung cancer, the doctor told the priest. It was too advanced for anything to be done. Father Joe sat at his father’s bedside in the hospital with his mother waiting for the merciful end to his father’s suffering. It came after Father Joe’s brother Tommy sneaked his father one of his beloved Pall Mall cigarettes.
Father Joe kept lookout at the door as Tommy brought his father into the bathroom to smoke that one last cigarette. His father came out of the bathroom smelling of burnt tobacco and a huge smile on his face. He got back in the bed and after a brutal coughing fit, he died still smiling. He’d refused his son’s offer of Last Rites. “I haven’t believed in God since my mother died. I’m not going to beg now.”
Father Joe’s thoughts switched to his dead brother Tommy. Poor Tommy, he’d been gunned down ten years before in a dive bar on Clancy Street. No-one in the family, especially Father Joe, was surprised that Tommy was murdered. It would be impossible to find two brothers less alike than Joe and Tommy.
Joe was the studious one. He was his mother’s pride and joy. When he was fifteen, he got the calling to serve God and become a priest. His mother was ecstatic that her oldest son was going to serve the Lord. His father was less than thrilled, “Why don’t you get a real job?” was his only comment. Father Joe worked hard and finished college and then went to the seminary. He was ready to take on a world full of sinners after he was ordained. He started in small town parishes across the Midwest. Finally, after years of wandering in the wasteland he was transferred to his home parish, St. James. He flourished there, he loved being a priest again, at least for a few years.
Tommy grew up to be a street guy. He learned to hustle on the street from the time he was twelve. Tommy didn’t get in with a bad crowd, he was the bad crowd. He was deep into drugs, using and selling. He also loved to fight and had a reputation as a tough guy. His mother gave up on him after his third trip to jail.
Father Joe never gave up on his brother. They were different, but they shared a bond that only brothers could know. Joe was four years older than Tommy and if any of the older kids in the neighborhood went after Tommy, they would have to fight Joe too. Once Father Joe was transferred to St. James, he spent a lot of hours trying to rehabilitate his brother. Tommy would yes Joe to death and then do exactly what he wanted to.
The last time the two brothers met face to face, Father Joe saw that years of drugging, fighting, and drinking were catching up to his younger brother. His weight was down, his complexion was sallow, he smelled terrible, his clothes were in tatters, most of his teeth were missing, and his speech was slurred. He told his brother that he was living on the street. Father Joe begged Tommy to let him get him into rehab. If he wouldn’t do rehab Father Joe would find him some place to live, off the street. Tommy begged his brother for some cash. Father Joe refused, knowing the cash would go straight into Tommy’s emaciated arm. Tommy cursed his brother and stormed out.
Tommy wasn’t there when their mother passed away. Father Joe used every contact he had on the streets, but Tommy wouldn’t or couldn’t be found. The funeral went on without him.
The old-fashioned dial phone rarely rang and when it did at two o’clock in the morning the entire rectory was on full alert. Nothing good ever happens after midnight was the old saying, two o’clock in the rectory was ten times worse. The Monsignor picked up the heavy, black receiver, listened for a few seconds and then gave the receiver to Father Joe. He knew it had to be Tommy, everyone else was already dead. The detective on the line was polite and firm. He told Father Joe that his brother was killed in a bar on Clancy Street by persons unknown.
Tommy’s funeral didn’t draw a crowd. Father Joe stood over the open casket looking down at a body that didn’t resemble in any way the Tommy in Father Joe’s memory. Instead, Father Joe saw five-year-old Tommy learning to tie his shoes. He saw the Tommy who couldn’t run without a smile on his face. He loved his brother and believed Tommy loved him too.
The police weren’t breaking down doors to find Tommy’s killer. The detective working the case explained to Father Joe that not a single person in the bar that night heard or saw a thing. Without a witness, there was little chance the police would find the murderer. Father Joe believed the cops were just writing Tommy off as another low-life junkie, ex-con who deserved what he got. That was ten years ago and he still hadn’t heard anything from the police.
A week later Father Joe turned over and looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand, it was a little after 5AM. He spent most the past week not sleeping and thinking about the coughing man. Sleep wouldn’t come so he got up to prepare to serve the 7 o’clock Sunday Mass. His usual Mass was the 7 o’clock, but the Monsignor occasionally changed the lineup to keep everyone on their toes. He checked the bulletin board in the empty kitchen and saw he did have his regular mass. After Mass he sat in the sanctuary daydreaming and later listening to Father Mark serving his mass when he heard it. Maybe he was dreaming or imagining things were his first thoughts, no he heard the cough again. He sat there paralyzed, should he look through the side curtain to see the man? He fought the urge, confessions were supposed to be anonymous, he sat there undecided. The man coughed again, Father Joe couldn’t help himself, he looked. The guy was sitting in one of the back pews. He was by himself, no-one wanted to catch what the man was coughing up. The coughing man looked to be in his sixties, what little hair he had left was white, he was overweight, and looked disheveled. Two things stood out to Father Joe, the coughing man had a bold, gold cardigan wrapped around his ample girth, and a look of misery on his fat face.
Calling the police wasn’t an option. What was said in the confessional was protected. No matter how horrific the crime confessed to a priest during his confession it remained secret. Even if Father Joe went to the police what could he tell them. He didn’t know who the man was, or where he lived. He made a decision, he ran to the rectory and changed into his street clothes.
It wasn’t hard to follow a large man in a gold sweater through the almost deserted Sunday morning streets. Father Joe followed at a safe distance, just like he’d been taught by watching “Criminal Minds.” After four blocks the man turned into one of the old tenement buildings on 10th Street. On the way there the man stopped three times to bend over to cough in agony.
Father Joe was confused, so now he knew where the guy lived, so what, he still didn’t know who he was. He hesitated and then walked through the doorway. The building directory might give him some clue of the man’s identity. The vestibule was dimly lit. He turned to look for the directory. He sensed movement from the other side and felt something, cold and hard against his throat. The voice was raspy, “You move, you die. Why are you following me? You ain’t no cop, I can smell one a mile away. Who the fuck are you?” Father Joe couldn’t answer him, his entire body was clinched in fright, afraid to move a single muscle. The pressure of the knife at his throat tightened. He finally managed to spit out, “I’m Father Joe.”
“So what, I don’t know you. Why are you following me?”
“I need to talk to you, please take the knife away.”
The man bent over and went into a coughing fit. Father Joe felt the knife drop away from his throat. Without thinking he punched the man in the face and managed to take him down to the filthy vestibule floor. The man was still coughing, Father Joe took the knife from his hand and put it to the man’s throat. Every fiber of his being wanted to press down and cut across the man’s throat. As a priest he knew he should take the knife away. As a brother, his deep-seated rage was telling him to kill the son of a bitch. Deeply conflicted, finally good won over evil, in a cold sweat, he took the knife from the man’s neck and rolled off of him.
The two men lay exhausted on the floor. The man finally stopped coughing and almost whispered, “What the fuck is this all about?”
After several seconds Father Joe replied, “I’m the priest who heard your confession last week."
The man sat up, “yea so, if this is about what I told you, I know you can’t tell anyone. I sure as hell ain’t going to confess to anyone else.
So why are you here?”
“We need to talk. The man you confessed to killing was my brother.”
“Holy shit, just my fucking luck, all the holy rollers around here and I have to confess to you.”
“Can we talk in your apartment?”
The coughing started again, between hacks he managed to say “apartment 1C”. Father Joe helped him to his feet and they walked down the hallway to the second apartment on the right.
The apartment was small and tidy. Father Joe looked around and saw almost no personal effects. There was only a picture of a pretty young girl of about ten years old hanging over the well-used couch. The man pointed to Father Joe to sit on the couch while he sat in an easy chair across from him.
“So why are you here father? You looking for some payback for me killing your low-life brother. You had your chance, why didn’t you take it?”
“You know, I’m sorry I don’t know your name?”
The name meant nothing to Father Joe. “I don’t know why I followed you Mr. Maxwell. I just couldn’t let it go. I knew right away in the confessional that you were talking about my brother. I think you should turn yourself in to the police.”
“Not going to happen Father. From what you told me at confession God forgave me, so what do the cops have to do with it?”
“Why did you confess after all these years? Why did you kill Tommy?”
“I’m almost dead Father. You heard the cough. The doctor is giving me three months if I’m lucky. I’ve never been very lucky so it’s probably less. So, I figured why take a chance. I never been much of a believer, but you know what they say “there are no atheists in foxholes” I guess I’m in my own fucking foxhole now. I wanted to cover all my bases.” Maxwell was well out of breath and trying hard to stifle a cough.
“Ok, Mr. Maxwell, I’m not here to question your faith. I want to know why you killed my brother. He might have been some low-life to you, but to me he was a brother. He wasn’t perfect, none of us are, but he didn’t deserve to get murdered and left bleeding on some barroom floor.”
“Take a look at the picture on the wall behind you Father.”
Father Joe turned, he’d seen the picture when he came in, now he gave it a better look. “Pretty girl, is that your daughter?”
“No Father, that’s my granddaughter. My beautiful daughter was raped and beaten to death in some dirty alley by your low-life brother.”
Father Joe sat there stunned, he knew Tommy wasn’t any good, but he knew that Tommy wasn’t capable of doing what Maxwell said he did. “No, no Tommy couldn’t have done those things. I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it Father. My daughter, Debbie, wasn’t perfect, but she didn’t deserve to die like she did. Her face was beaten so badly her own mother could only recognize her by the shredded clothes still on her. I heard from a friend that Tommy was in Bernie’s the following night bragging about what he’d done to some slut who thought she was too good for him. Two of his buddies admitted to me they held Debbie down while Tommy did it. I had to use a little persuasion on those two, I think I forgot to add that to my confession.”
“What about the police? Why didn’t you go to them?”
“Mainly because the cops around here don’t do shit. If the victim is a junkie or some other kind of low-life they fill out a report and forget it. Like I said Debbie wasn’t perfect, far from it, she did her share of drugs and hooking. She would have gone down as just another low-life not worth an investigation.”
“Are you sure it was Tommy?” Father Joe asked grasping at straws.
“I started hanging out at Bernie’s Bar. I’d seen your brother around so I knew what he looked like. He walked in around midnight a few nights later. I wasted no time, I ran up to him and put my gun to his head. I told him I was Debbie’s father. He smiled, told me to go fuck myself, because he enjoyed what he’d done to her and she deserved it. I pulled the trigger.”
“Did the police even question you?” Father Joe asked, Maxwell laughed.
“My wife and I raised Debbie’s daughter the best we could. My wife died last year. Linda, our granddaughter, is away at college. She wants to be a doctor. Maybe she can find a cure for lung cancer, who knows. It’ll be too late for me. Don’t look at me like that, Father, I don’t want your pity. I enjoyed every Marlboro I ever lit up, if this is the price I have to pay, so be it.”
Father Joe left the apartment even more confused than when he arrived. He couldn’t forgive Maxwell for what he’d done, but he could understand it. Two months later he was looking at the latest Monsignor lineup and saw that Father Mark was scheduled to preside over a funeral for a Mr. William Maxwell. The God that Father Joe believed deeply in would have a much better chance of sorting the whole mess out than he ever would.