Maryanne relied on confession. Every Sunday, she entered the booth tight and fast, her shoulders in a permanent shrug. On exit, her legs moved without effort; her feet bounced. She said her Hail Marys and Acts of Contrition. In the summer, the skin on her knees clung momentarily to the leather kneeling pad. They made a slight ‘fffip’ sound as she stood.
In this church, young angels adorn the plaster ceiling. A chip in the paint created a one-eyed angel. Depending on one’s mood, she either focused or winked.
For as long as he could remember, Father Aldon had difficulty with himself. His pale skin, light blue eyes and white hair didn’t fit a man of his age. When he stood, his thin body swayed, his fingers were long and narrow like claws. His appearance garnered harsh reactions from strangers. Acquaintances were scarce. Through the years, he forgave everyone. Eventually, his days began with forgiveness toward everyone around him for things yet to occur.
As the youngest priest in the parish, he heard confession. He enjoyed it. Forgiveness drove him to the priesthood. As he sat in the confessional, he recognized the cadence of Maryanne’s footsteps as she approached.
“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession.”
“What is the nature of your sin?” Father Aldon’s light voice pressed against the holes in the screen and made its way through, faintly but with purpose.
“I’ve been here before.”
Father Aldon recognized her voice and closed his eyes. “Many people come regularly.”
“You know that I’m married, but I see someone.” She said. “Someone else, Brian. I see Brian, but I am married to someone else.” Her pink mouth strained to maintain her whisper.
“This isn’t the first time?” He tried to pose it as a question, but he knew the answer
“With him, no, I only see him, and, I won’t stop.”
He was surprised. In the past, she expressed a desire and a promise to end it.
She cleared her throat and leaned toward the screen. “But, I want to stay married, I just…No, this isn’t the first time.”
“You know God forgives you, but why continue?”
“My husband is a good man, but I only care about God.” She surprised herself when she said it.
Part of a priest’s duties includes marital advice, but not here. “Say your normal prayers for yourself, but I…I think you should talk with your husband.”
“You aren’t married, you don’t know.”
“I’m committed to God,” he said.
She leaned back and stared into the dark air. “You can’t tell anyone.” She smiled faintly as she flattened her shoulders against the booth. She forgot her smile and whispered so harshly that it almost became a shout. “I know you can’t. You can’t right?”
Father Aldon lowered his voice to add effect. “You know your prayers, and you will have God’s forgiveness if you desire it. If you desire it, then you will stop.”
“Thank you, Father,” she said.
The empty chill in the church required Father Aldon to keep a blanket on his lap. As always, he folded and left it. His thin fingers created a perfect crease and he pressed it gently into the seat. The crease remained undisturbed. Once the church was empty, he left the confessional.
The rectory was off limits to parishioners. Sometime ago, the priests began to allow certain volunteers to assist with cleaning, laundry, and meals. All of the volunteers left for the evening and the other priests were on retreat. When Father Aldon was home alone, he read and pondered scripture. He prepared sermons and tea.
The rectory door was large and thick like an amish table top. A heavy tapping came as he sipped. His hand jostled and caused a slight spill. As he approached the door, the tapping grew loud and frantic. He heard his name. The door vibrated, but the hinges held strong. He trembled as he quickened his pace. His knees wobbled. His gentle hand slowly turned the knob.
With the side of his face to the wall, he peered through the door’s opening. Maryanne stood outside. Her coat was too big for her and her breath was visible. His eyes widened. She sobbed and spoke quickly between gasps. “He knows… Jack knows.”
Father Aldon was startled. He mustered composure. “Can I help you with something?”
“He followed me out of the house.” She gasped, and looked over her shoulder. She whispered harshly, “He knows I am here, please.” She shoved her fingertips into the crack. He tried to remove her hand, and watched her body tremble.
“Oh my God.” She looked at the ground.
He looked to console her, but a large figure grew in the distance. Suddenly, he felt the door press against his body. He stumbled back, and held the door to brace himself. Once inside, Maryanne lunged for the door.
Father Aldon held it away and stared at her, his hands and mouth quivered. “You can’t be in here.” Maryanne went to push the door shut. It bounced off of Jack’s thick, leathery hand. He groaned quietly and the door closed.
Inside the rectory, the knob began to rotate, Father Aldon held it. His thin hands trembled, but the knob did not move. Maryanne watched from the floor. She sat with her hands flat; her chin shook.
Jack’s voice came forcefully through tears. “Who is it, Mary? Tell me who it is.” She heard the bubble in his throat and looked to the door with wide eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I told you.” Her eyes fell to Father Aldon, seeking his assistance.
“Why would you come here?” Jack yelled.
“I don’t even know where I was going,” she told both men.
“All I want to know is who it is, Mary. Just tell me who it is,” he demanded. His tone changed with every sentence.
Father Aldon stared at Maryanne, his hand twitched on the knob. His bony knees pressed a thin shoulder against the door. The knob stopped turning. Jack was silent.
The silence broke when Jack screamed and slammed his body into the door. Father Aldon’s body bounced; his pants shook. The door remained shut. Jack unloaded a barrage of words, fists and elbows. Father Aldon’s clothing tickled his shins and arms as they vibrated from the onslaught.
The pounding stopped. Silence passed through the rectory and the priest looked to his chair. The pressure on the door was now steady and driven. Through the door, he felt Jack’s weight.
“I know you confessed it.” Jack’s voice was calm, spoken through hands and tears. Father Aldon’s eyes fixed on Maryanne. She mouthed the words, “You can’t. You know you can’t.”
Jack spoke quickly. “Father, it’s a sin. She committed a sin. I need to know who it is.”
“Go away Jack.” Maryanne spoke from the floor.
“Why would you come here?” Jack asked quietly, almost pondering. “If you already confessed, why would you come here?” His voice backed away, and he paused. “Your fucking fucked up up bringing.” He sniffed and whispered. “You’re fucking a priest. Jesus, Mary.”
Maryanne sat on the floor, said nothing. Father Aldon stared at the door. His mouth twitched and trapped his gentle voice. He couldn’t reveal her confession. Suddenly, Maryanne stood at the wall next to him. Her hand pressed flat and her eyes confident. She stood ready to tell the truth. Father Aldon held his words. He knew it was her time.
Maryanne placed her forehead against the wall, stared at the floor and spoke “Yes Jack, I am sleeping with Father Aldon.”
The priest loosened his grip on the doorknob, and his hand fell to his side. He fixed on Maryanne.
The door pressed into his face, and Jack’s large arm was now inside. His shoulder followed as well as his face, then his torso. The door opened. Father Aldon leaned back; and felt Maryanne behind him. Jack stood in the hallway.
Father Aldon shook his head; and said gently, “No.” Jack examined the room.
“Do you come here? Is this where it happens?” He asked.
“Sometimes.” Maryanne stood beside the priest. Father Aldon pressed his back against the door which now lay shut. Again, his mouth trembled as he whispered, “It’s not true.”
“I know it’s someone. If it’s not you, then tell me who.”
“I see Maryanne at church.” His face shook. “I don’t know her.” Father Aldon stared at the ground like the subject of a painting. “I’m not sleeping with her. I’ve given myself to God.”
Jack turned to Maryanne. “I want it to be over.”
She leaned forward, “It is over. It is.” She nodded. She could see Jack was calm. “It is over, honey.” She continued. “He tricked me. I thought he was someone who would listen. I feel awful.” She reached for his massive shoulder, “stupid and awful.”
Jack’s voice rose. “She came to you for help?” Father Aldon shook his head. His hands quivered. “No,” he continued, “No.” His voice was soft.
Priests don’t know how to look for a punch. His thin hands sprang up, but fell like branches under a stone. Jack didn’t have the time to make a proper fist. His right palm and fingertips hammered the side of Father Aldon’s head. Drawing back for the second blow and without opposition, he clenched a fist. Jack’s face was red and frothing; tears fell.
Maryanne sat in the corner and held her breath. She envisioned her protest. She would tell Jack to stop and hold his arms back. She would tell him the truth, and then vow to end the whole thing. He would ask her why she did this. They would have a conversation about how Jack needed to be better to her, about how they needed to be better to each other. They would grow from this. She thought in silence. Her face contorted like she was crying; no tears came.
Jack looked at Maryanne and stopped. Father Aldon lay on his side, gasping. He mumbled. Blood from his nose seeped into his throat; he gagged. He rolled onto his face, and coughed fluids onto the ground.
Maryanne cried as she and Jack left the rectory with their arms around each other.
Father Aldon propped himself up in the bathroom. Eventually, he found his feet and climbed into the shower. He lay in the tub and the water sprinkled his torso. It was too hot for him but he leaned forward. The water flattened the front of his hair, and his cuts stung. He let the water roll into his mouth and under his chin. The red blood became pink in the tub and drained away.
Once in bed, the pain in his ribs forced him to roll onto his back. Breathing through the pain, he lay flat. His fingertips touched the edges of his bed without reaching. Realizing that he would awaken, he allowed himself to fall asleep.
Mrs. Elmer looked like a teapot and volunteered at the church. She remained ‘after Monsignor Falley had his issues, and,’ she told everybody ‘the last six years or so brought some of the people back.’ Now, more than ever, her parish pleased her. ‘Mass now,’ she would say, ‘it’s all young families.’ She encouraged everyone to get to know Father Aldon. She acknowledged that his appearance was startling. But, ‘he is such a gentleman.’
When she arrived the next morning, Father Aldon was still asleep. This was common. Mrs. Elmer ran past the blood stained floor. “Father Aldon!” she called, sprinting to his room and knocking on his door.
When he answered the door, she stepped back. “Goodness Father, were you attacked?
The sunlight was difficult for him, and this morning was particularly bad. He winced. The sunlight surrounded Mrs. Elmer as she stood in the hall. “It’s nothing,” he said.
“Father, did someone do this?” She was terrified. “Nothing? Oh my, look at your face. Who would… We should call the police. When did this happen?”
“It is nothing.” He knew where the line of answers and questions would lead. It was a path he could not go down. “Can you clean this please?” He pointed to the floor.
“Nothing… Father you… How can you say it’s nothing?”
“Are you here to do the cleaning Mrs. Elmer?” he spoke softly.
“Well, yes, I am, but.”
“Please then. I’m okay.”
She reserved her most firm voice for unruly children and their parents. She used it now. “Father, this is ridiculous. Tell me who did this to you.”
For a brief moment, Father Aldon felt tall on his feet. He stretched and coughed. He stood and spoke as though the pulpit were in front of him. “That’s not possible.”
This was the message he gave to volunteers, fellow clergymen, and anyone who asked. He looked forward to the day when the wounds healed and people stopped asking. But for now, he pressed forward in confidentiality.
The following Sunday, Father Aldon heard confession. His wounds hidden in the booth. After the endless parade of siblings that can’t get along, and children who don’t respect their parents, Father Aldon leaned his white hair against the wooden wall of the confessional. His face was no longer tight from pain. He folded his blanket and placed it on the seat behind him when he heard a familiar sound. The unmistakable cadence of Maryanne’s heals echoed in the church.
She felt the one-eyed angel’s focus; like she looked through a magnifying glass. Father Aldon heard her move from the rear entry of the church toward the confessional.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned,” she said kneeling. “It has been one week since my last confession.”
Father Aldon stared at the wall and prepared to hear her. He pressed his shoulder against the wooden booth and listened.
“I convinced Jack not to file any formal complaint against you. He isn’t going to tell anyone, so you don’t have to worry,” Maryanne said quietly. “I had to save my marriage, you understand that.” She pressed her hand against the wooded window. “Jack was late last night. He worked late and Brian called me. He was thinking of me and he called me. We just talked. I mean we talked and decided to slow things. To, you know, slow things down.”
The angst in her voice was familiar.
“I decided not to tell him about us. I just mentioned that Jack might be suspicious, so maybe we should slow down. Does God forgive people like me? Father? I guess I’m afraid.” She stared at the floor, refused to cry. “I’m afraid of a lot of things I guess. Does God forgive people like me?”
The angel’s good eye fixed on the center of the aisle that led to the front of the church. The dark wood of the confessional matched the benches and the pulpit. The wood cut at straight edges and curved for comfort in proper places. The carpentry was simple and effective. A worn red carpet covered the aisle. From the angel’s point of view, she could see the trend of travel. The choir of candles sang for old souls and new. Some burned their voices, some were unlit and silent. Father Aldon knew for whom the candles burned. They burned for his parishioners, his church and his God. Without hesitation, he answered her question with confidence, “Of course.”