It was guilt, more than anything, that finally made Joey go to Confession.
Financially, things were really looking up, Joey had paid the mortgage, the utility companies, and the goddamn blood-sucking lawyers, and for once managed to put a halfway-decent Sunday dinner on his family's table. He'd bought expensive perfume for the wife and lots of toys for his kids. Hell, he'd even put money in the bank. After decades of being a nobody and having nothing -- except a family he couldn't feed -- Joey had finally become a big man around town.
But he'd had to kill someone to do it.
Of course the guy richly deserved it, at least that's what the intermediary had told him. "The guy's a total scumbag," said the swarthy stranger, glancing around. "The world -- and particularly you, my friend -- would be better off without him. Much better off."
So he'd done it.
It wasn't hard, really, in and out fast and not a drop of blood on his shoes. It was the easiest money Joey had ever made -- except now he couldn't sleep. He couldn't smell his food, he couldn't taste his beer, and worst of all, he couldn't get it up for his grateful wife. Or his girlfriends.
It was like he'd killed himself.
So early one Saturday morning, with a tank full of gas and no particular destination in mind, Joey took off to find redemption, or at the very least, a little peace of mind. Just enough to eat, sleep, and screw, though not necessarily in that order.
As he drove, Joey made more than a few U-turns and sudden rights, in case he was being followed, but really, who'd ever suspect a two-bit hustler like him? The guy he'd snuffed was a truly bad apple with a rap sheet as long as his arm. In the papers, the authorities implied he'd gotten exactly what he deserved and they didn't seem too upset about having no leads. No, Joey wasn't much worried about getting caught, the problem was his goddamn annoying conscience.
A simple man, Joey's plan was to drive until he was almost on empty, stop at the nearest Catholic church and go to Confession, then gas up and go home. He badly needed to ease his troubled mind and hoped that unburdening himself to a priest would do the trick, a priest hundreds of miles from Joey's neighborhood -- in case the guy had loose lips.
As the highway flew by, Joey remembered his last Confession, way back in the eighth grade. He'd admitted to cursing, stealing a few pencils, having a whole bunch of impure thoughts, and eating a double bacon-cheeseburger on a Friday. His Penance had been five Our Fathers and ten Hail Mary's, Joey recalled, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Like words could erase anything.
The whole thing had seemed like a joke then, but now, having broken perhaps the most sacred of the Commandments, Confession seemed well worth a try. Plus, unlike psychiatry, it was free.
It was early afternoon by the time the gas light came on, and Joey took the very next exit, for a town named Pottersville. He begrudgingly slowed down to thirty miles per hour as he navigated the main drag of the sleepy backwater town. The last thing he needed was to attract the law.
Joey passed a small supermarket, a post office, the gas station he'd use later on, and a dilapidated feed store for cattle. What a bunch of hicks, he thought. There wasn't a strip club in sight, or even a bowling alley. Joey stared straight ahead as he passed the little cinder-block police station, and continued past several ramshackle houses, a used car lot, and a convenience store, the buildings beginning to thin out and give way to fenced-in pasture land. And there, on the right, just as he was about to leave Pottersville proper, Joey saw an old, steepled building bearing a cross: The Church of St. Paul.
He pulled into the parking lot, which was deserted -- perfect -- and after cutting the engine, took a moment to recall the liturgy of Confession. Joey chuckled as the words and phrases came tumbling back, it was amazing the crap that sticks in your head. He decided against warming up with some of his lesser sins -- although he could have easily worked his way through all ten Commandments -- and figured he would get right to the murder. He didn't have all day, after all, he had a date with Sheila, the cocktail waitress, later that night. Sheila had an incredible set of tits and Joey intended to find out right away whether the Confession had worked.
He got out of his car, stretched, and peered around for potential witnesses. But there were none, unless you counted the cows who were busy swatting flies with their tails and seemed disinterested. As he stepped inside, into a dimly-lit vestibule, Joey was hit with the unmistakable smell of church, an aroma composed of candle wax, wood polish, and lingering farts. He dipped his fingers in the Holy Water and was about to make the Sign of the Cross when he abruptly broke out of his nostalgic trance.
Jesus, he thought, I feel like a kid again. Except this time I've done something a little worse than eating a cheeseburger on a Friday.
There was no sign of a priest anywhere; Joey could have lit up a cigarette or talked on his cell if he wanted to, but the ambiance of the place, with its flickering candles, stained-glass windows, and high-vaulted ceiling, demanded a certain decorum. He found himself walking slowly and quietly down the main aisle, the raised altar and an angry-looking Christ-on-the-Cross straight ahead, the confessional booths to his right. The middle door, the priest's, was flanked by two penitent's doors, their green lights glowing overhead.
"Good," Joey whispered to himself, "the joint is open for business. Now I just gotta find a fuckin' priest."
Joey jumped when a hand touched his shoulder and he whirled around to see a tall, silver-haired priest smiling down at him.
"You must really need God's help, son," said the priest. "You almost had a heart attack there."
"You got that right," said Joey, referring to the heart attack part. Not only was his ticker beating wildly, he was also starting to sweat, thanks to the hot, stale air in the building.
"Well you've come to the right place," said the priest, still smiling benignly. "How may I help you, um . . ."
"Frankie," Joey blurted.
"Y-e-s," said the priest, his gray eyes narrowing. "Frankie."
"Well, I was just passing through, Father," said Joey, nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other, "and I said, what the hell, why don't I stop in and get Confession. You know, so I can receive Holy Communion tomorrow?"
"Yes, I know," said the priest, the smile dying on his face. He turned and pointed to the confessionals. "Let's get right to it then, shall we? Please use the booth on the left, we're having a bit of an electrical problem with the other one."
Joey stared down at his shiny black loafers as the two of them walked to the back of the church and then up the side aisle to the confessionals.
The door to the confessional was surprisingly heavy and swung shut with a loud bang, leaving Joey in total darkness. "Why dontcha break the fuckin' thing?" Joey muttered to himself. It was even hotter inside the cramped booth, and Joey loosened his tie as sweat began to pour down his face. A panel in the wall slid open, revealing an ornate metal grill and a vague silhouette of the priest's head.
"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen," said the priest, Joey seconding the "amen".
"Um . . . bless me, Father," he stammered, "for I have sinned. It has been three, er, maybe four -- five years, tops -- since my last Confession, and, uh . . . these are my sins."
"You're in the Lord's House, Frankie," said the priest. "Try to relax a little. There is no sin too big to forgive, as long as you're truly sorry."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Father!" said Joey, thinking of his dismal performance with the Antonucci twins last Friday. The cross-eyed one, Angela, had told him to get some Viagra, the bitch.
"Go on, Frankie," said the priest kindly. "And just use your own words."
"Well, I done a lot of things, Father, you know, a little of this and a little of that, and, um, I'm really sorry for all of it." Joey took off his jacket, he was sweating so much he'd have to get the damn thing dry-cleaned before he could wear it again.
"But there's, like, one really big thing that's driving me nuts, that I gotta get off my chest." Joey swallowed hard.
"Yes?" the priest prompted.
"Um . . . I, like, killed a guy, Father," said Joey, almost whispering. "It was, uh, self-defense, of course, no charges was brought, but I really feel bad about it."
There was a heavy, lingering silence, a silence so profound Joey wondered if perhaps the priest had fallen asleep.
"Frankie," said the priest evenly. "When you say self-defense, are you telling me you had no choice but to kill this man?"
"Uh . . . no, I can't totally say that," said Joey, starting to deeply regret this whole idea. "I guess I could have . . . run away, yeah, that's what's bothering me, Father, I could've run away. But I didn't and now a guy's dead. I can't eat, I can't sleep, and worst of all, I can't have conjoined, no -- conjured relations with the missus, you know?"
There was an odd sound from the other side of the metal grill, as if the old cleric were choking or stifling a laugh. After a moment, the priest cleared his throat.
"To take a man's life is a most grievous affront to God," he said gravely. "The worst there is."
The priest paused, a pause that to Joey seemed to last forever.
"Yet our divine Father will forgive you, Frankie, if you fulfill two major requirements. The first is that you must be heartily sorry and vow never to do such an awful thing again."
"Believe me, Father, I won't!" Joey said. He honestly never wanted to feel this way again although he had to admit, killing people was extremely lucrative: he'd gotten paid like a star quarterback. Perhaps he could take up something less drastic, like cutting off thumbs. He'd always wanted a house on the Jersey shore.
"The second requirement, Frankie, is that you must perform an appropriate Penance for the terrible pain you've inflicted upon the victim and his family," said the priest. "Do you know the meaning of 'penance'?"
"Sure I do," said Joey, his turn to stifle a laugh. "It means saying prayers, as many as you have to, to erase the sin."
"No!" the priest thundered, his voice reverberating in the small space. "You cannot erase murder with prayer alone. 'Penance' means a penalty, a mortification, an act of self-abasement before God to atone for your heinous act. If you are not willing to suffer for your sins, Frankie, they cannot be forgiven."
Joey'd had just about enough of this charade, the ancient priest was clearly senile and it was hot as hell in the confessional. Still, Joey wanted very much to enjoy a big, juicy steak later, and follow it up with a mouthful or two of Sheila's spectacular knockers. Picturing them, Joey felt a mild stirring down below and grinned.
The unburdening was already starting to bear fruit. All Joey had to do was agree to the crackpot priest's Penance -- what could he possibly come up with, five-hundred sit-ups and no watching baseball for a week? -- and then get the fuck out of this stupid, little cow-town.
"I'm really sorry for what I done, Father," said Joey, trying to sound contrite, "and I'm willing to pay the price. I'll take whatever Penance you give me."
"Are you sure?" said the priest.
Joey's stomach gurgled and he realized he was ravenous, he hadn't eaten all day. Maybe before he left, he'd pick up a hero sandwich and a six-pack at that convenience store. He licked his lips at the thought of an ice-cold brew and said, "Yeah, Father, I'm sure."
"In that case," said the priest, all the emotion gone out of his voice, "I'll say the Prayer of Absolution and then we're done here. Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dismissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam eternam. Amen."
"Amen!" Joey answered, breathing a huge sigh of relief.
The sliding panel suddenly slammed shut, making Joey flinch and leaving the booth in utter blackness.
Joey laughed, long and hard, the first good laugh he'd had since the hit. The crazy old coot had forgotten to tell him his Penance. That's what happens, he thought, when you drink wine at work every morning.
Still smiling, Joey grabbed the doorknob and then yanked his hand away with a strangled yelp followed by profanity. The doorknob was as hot as an engine block after a long summer's drive, and as Joey blew frantically on his fingers, it began to glow. Not only was the doorknob giving off a reddish glow, but now the entire door was also.
The temperature in the booth was rising rapidly, past anything Joey had ever experienced, and he opened his mouth to scream for the priest -- but then everything became clear: the angry Old Testament priest, the heavy confessional door, and the exact nature and form of his Penance. As the stench of singed hair filled the air and his skin began to blister, Joey hoped with all his heart that his sins had been forgiven.
Because he was about to find out for sure.
This story first appeared in Over My Dead Body Magazine.