OUTSIDE THE BOX
It was after his second martini that the priest said: Would you like to hear what I heard in confession this afternoon?
Katherine had had one martini, she never allowed herself more than one. One would relax her a little after dinner and dishes, but two was unbecoming and irresponsible in a lady, particularly a priests housekeeper. Katherines mouth fell open like a trap. Father! How can you even think such a thing?
Oh, dont be such an old fuddy duddy, the priest said. As long as it stays in this room.
You should not even joke about it, Katherine said, her low German accent becoming more and more pronounced the more anxious she grew. You took a vow, you know!
I took a lot of vows, the priest said. With a groan, he rose from his recliner. Another martooni?
Heavens no. I shouldnt even have had this one.
Oh, come on, the priest said. Im going to have another. Join me.
Father, she cried, what has gotten into you this evening?
The hard liquor was hidden in the bottom drawer of an antique maple cabinet. The priest loosened his collar and removed the gin and vermouth and mixed a new batch.
I wont drink it, Katherine warned.
Oh, one more, Kate. Then you can run off to bed.
Father, please. Dont call me Kate.
The priest set the drink before her and returned to his recliner.
Why dont we watch the television? Katherine said. We could watch Sunday Night at the Movies. She started to rise.
Sit down, Kate. I dont feel like television tonight. Now do you want to know what I heard in confession today or not?
No! I wont listen to it. Its sinful.
The priest frowned. What an old prude, he thought. Why couldnt he have a housekeeper with a little more life in her? Like Agnes. That Agnes could put away the booze. Only problem with Agnes, God love her, was she loved to talk. He was always having to say, Please, Agnes. Dont talk so much. Katherine wasnt much of a talker; she had that going for her, at least.
Dont worry, Kate, I wont name names, he said, chewing on an impaled olive. Most of the time I cant tell whos doing the talking anyway. Though occasionally they drop little hints. Names and such. I think they want me to know who they are. Especially the old women. Youd be surprised some of the things I hear from the old ladies.
It was a gossips dream come true. But Katherine was no gossip. Perhaps thats why the priest felt comfortable telling her things.
But not things like this. Not a violation of the holy trust. No matter how many martinis you had, it wasnt right.
Father, if you dont stop Im going to my room, Katherine said. And yet it hadnt escaped his notice that shed taken up her drink and had a small sip when she thought he wasnt looking.
The priest was undeterred. For instance, he began, the sheer volume of extra-marital affairs detailed to me on any given Saturday is remarkable. Ill bet I get three or four a week--minimum. Lets say four a week, four times fifty-two is what? Thats over two hundred affairs a year. Out of a parish of fifteen hundred. Dont you find that incredible?
Katherine took another sip of her drink, but this time she held on to it. Her ears burned and she was feeling extremely warm, though the temperature inside was mild. She imagined her face was beet red too. Father, she said weakly, I dont think its appropriate—
Seems to go up every year. When I first began hearing confessions, Ill bet I didnt get more than five or six affairs a year. Thats why the Diocese started these Marriage Encounters back in the seventies. It wasnt because of the divorce rate, it was because of what we were hearing in the box.
Katherine stared into her drink. Do you want my olive? she said.
I heard a murder once.
Katherine gasped. Father—
The police thought it was an accident. They still do, far as I know.
He smiled at Katherine. You see how good I am at keeping secrets? Its just that sometimes you just have to tell someone.
He took a long sip of his drink and went on. Naturally I tried to get her to confess--to the police, that is--but she refused. She said it was only important to confess to God. We had a long discussion about that. Oh, I knew who she was all right. The storyd been in all the papers. Youre thinking you know who it is too. I told her how it wasnt enough just to confess to God. She must confess to the police. She told me that was none of my business. My business was the afterlife. That God would punish her in the afterlife, so why be punished twice for the same offense? Thats double jeopardy, she said. She was a little confused. I asked her why shed done it and she said that was her business too. My business was absolving her. I asked her if she was sorry. She said she wouldnt be there if she wasnt sorry. That was the most difficult confession Ive heard in my entire life. I didnt know if I should absolve her or not. It would be like wiping clean her conscience, like she had gotten away Scott-free. Only what could I do? I mean, she said she was repentant, so I was obliged to forgive her. They dont cover such things in seminary school.
Katherine drained the last of her drink, and nervously set the glass on the coffee table. She hadnt realized shed been staring out the darkened living room window the whole time in a sort of silent protest of these revelations, though she said nothing. Now she nibbled on the olive, feeling very awful and very fine.
The priest sighed. Still I wasnt going to let her get off that easy. The absolution is no good until the penance is completed, you know.
What was the penance? said Katherine, despite herself.
So, now youre interested? the priest said with a laugh.
Katherines hands shot up to her lips. Behind her ruined, dishwasher hands she grinned.
For penance, I told her, “you will give away all your possessions and dedicate your life to helping the poor.” Of course she laughed in my face. I tell you, Kate, I almost reached through that screen and wrung her neck. It was the closet I ever came to killing a parishioner. Then she got up and said she would find another confessor. She would find one who would forgive her if it took forever. That was the last I heard of her.
Katherine stared out the black window. You shouldnt have told, she said. It was wrong.
I have others. Sometimes I can just burst wanting to tell someone, my mother, another priest . . . or you. I know I can trust you, Kate.
The priest stood up, holding onto the back of the recliner for balance. Good night, Kate.
Good night, Father.
She waited till hed gone, then she carried the empty glasses to the kitchen sink. As she washed them, she studied her reflection in the black kitchen window, the negative of a frumpy old maid whom life had passed by. She let the warm water run over her spotted hands and a drunken smile played over her lips. She thought to herself, I havent felt this good in a long, long time. Then she dried her hands on a rag and hurried creakily, unsteadily upstairs to her room at the end of the hall where she turned on the lamp and locked the door, more out of habit than anything else.
She undressed slowly and pulled on the same heavy wool nightgown that shed worn for the past ten years. Then she knelt down beside the bed to pray for forgiveness, for herself and for the priest. Finished, she crossed herself and rose happily from the cold hard boards and slipped between the sheets and it felt so wonderful to curl up with her big soft pillow that for a moment she quite forgot where she was and how it had come to pass.
© 2001 Christopher Orlet
Rumor has it that Christopher Orlet was born in a log cabin in Southern Illinois -- unnecessarily. He also may (or may not) have invented the Internet. His influences include Thoreau, Calvino and Marx (Groucho). His fiction has recently appeared in The Paumanok Review, La Petite Zine, The Wag, SalonDAarte, and Alicubi Journal. Even so, he is still not working on a novel. You can email Chris at [email protected]