They found the baby in the alleyway, next to the back door of Charlie’s. Everyone knows that the only time that door’s opened is when there’s a raid, or a fight, or both. So when the nurse – oh God, she had such tired eyes – so when she spoke on the TV, and said that it was just luck that there’d been anyone there, without even knowing about any of the fights, I told Charlie that it was better to think of the whole situation as fate, not luck.
He just turned around, glanced at the dusty TV above the cash register, squinted a little, and told me that he didn’t consider them things, and never did. He said that whether it was fate, or luck, that he’d ended up running this shit-hole of a bar, he didn’t care. He was just there and had to deal with it.
“Well, that’s fate,” I said. “Fate’s when things happen for a reason, despite what you do, despite what choices you make.”
“Trust me, Father” he said. “If I’d made any choices in life, it wouldn’t have been standing here with you on a hot Wednesday afternoon, heaving around jugs of beer and a broom. Instead, I’d be… well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be here.
“And if I was you, I’d be careful who I started talking about fate with. Aren’t you all supposed to put it down to what the big fella wants? Or are you one of those young modern priests who doesn’t actually believe in God?”
He said “modern” as if it was a swearword. I’m sure that if it weren’t his bar he would have spat on the floor as he said it. But instead he looked back from the TV to the bar floor and carried on sweeping.
I suppose it could have been a miracle that the girl had been found. The only reason anyone had been in the alley was because a main had burst, forcing showers of water out onto the street in front of the bar. A crew had gone back behind Charlie’s with a backhoe to dig up the street, and they’d been down there about half-an-hour when a valve went, forcing them to shut the digger off. And that was when the foreman heard the gurglings of the baby.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m certain in my faith. Well. I think I am. But I just can’t believe in a God who would put an innocent thing like that in such danger in the first place, at least for no reason. I’ve got to ask more of my God than that. My God is good.
He’s treated me well. There aren’t many other priests my age with a parish this size. Sure, I have a few problems here and there, but really, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Well, I didn’t until today. And now look at me.
So I sat at the bar and watched the TV flicker from the nurse to the water company foreman, a small dark-skinned man wearing a helmet a couple of sizes too big. They’d filmed him in the alley, and he was pointing from the big trench he’d dug, then over to Charlie’s back door. The camera followed his finger, as if a hole in the ground and a dirty door could explain the absurdity of a six-week old girl being left in an alleyway behind a dive bar.
Then the story was done, and the anchor started talking about something else.
I tilted my glass back, felt the foamy dregs hit the top of my lips, then placed the glass back on the bar, fitting the circle of the glass exactly within the edges of the round paper coaster. I like to do that. It reassures me when everything fits. And it’s important to me that people have their idiosyncrasies; probably why I felt so comfortable with Charlie, even if most the time he’s moaning about the bar. You know, he never says goodbye. Ever. He once told me, on one of the occasions when we managed to have a real conversation, that he hates to think of never seeing people again. He can’t bear that final goodbye, the thought that that moment could be the last time he ever saw someone. If he doesn’t acknowledge their exit, then to him they never really left. Which is a little bit weird, but it makes me like him. I don’t know why.
And as I left, Charlie was rubbing his broom across the dirty floor in the far corner, trying his best to ignore me.
Which doesn’t really go to explain what I’m doing, six hours later, telling you about Sheila. But I have to start somewhere.
After Charlie’s I went about my usual Wednesday, checking on Mrs. Hemingway at the corner, making sure that the dealers lurching around in front of the boarded-up store window weren’t giving her any trouble. They weren’t, for a change, even though a couple glared at me as I walked in. They don’t like me, and I don’t blame them. Not sure I liked them too much either. I certainly don’t now. I don’t think they see me as the priest. I mean, I’m not your typical small town Father am I? I’m not much older than they are. They’re used to a little old man they can pretend to respect. Someone they can say good morning to while they’re selling vials to kids. And that’s what they had until I got here. Well, that’s not me.
When I asked Mrs. Hemingway, she said she was okay like she always did, even though the stress of owning the store could be seen running rivulets of worry across her face, carving deeper lines every time I saw her. She gave me a box of Tic-Tacs, the green ones that I liked to carry in the breast pocket of my coat, and asked God to bless me. Then I ducked out the door and crossed the street to the diner.
At that time of day, hours from lunch but not close enough to dinner, there’s never any problem getting my spot, the booth right in the middle of the restaurant directly overlooking Mrs. Hemingway’s store. As I tidied up my knife and fork, placing them equidistantly on the place mat, parallel to the table edge with my water glass directly above the knife, I looked over at the group across the street. They looked back. We played this game. I’d stare at them, and they’d stare at me. Nothing usually happened. Just games.
Sheila was serving coffee to Riley at the counter. I heard they had a thing once, but now their conversation was strained. She was scared of him. Most people in town are. They say he’s the reason the kids are there outside the store everyday, that they work for him. But it’s only talk, so he still gets away with acting like a normal citizen, still comes in for coffee everyday, usually at the same time as me. We barely say more than a “hey” to each other. He’s a big man, big both ways, with dirty hairy knuckles that swallow his coffee cup, and curly sideburns that never quite become a full beard. I can’t imagine the badness he’d done to Sheila. I think she’d been resigned to it.
She turned to grab the water jug, and walked from behind the counter to my booth. She has a gentle walk, a smooth way of putting one foot in front of the other that leaves her long face traveling along a single line in space. Makes me think of what she could have been if she’d had her chance, if men like Riley hadn’t taken her choices from her.
And that was when the madness really started. With that walk. With me and Sheila. With me not thinking.
She started to pour the water, leaning over my table. “Hear about that baby they found, Father?” she asked, not quite managing a smile. Her eyes looked tired.
“Yes, I did Sheila. Nasty business.” I looked at her face, lingered on her warm brown breasts that nestled in the open neck of her shirt, then down to my glass. I knew she knew I looked. I think she felt sorry for me, couldn’t understand why a good looking man like myself would have ever wanted to choose to renounce sex. So I think she allowed me a quick peek for the same reasons I take disabled kids to theme parks, to give them a snatch of something different, to make them feel as if they were living a normal life. And she’s right, of course.
“And how are you? He’s not bothering you is he?” I nodded upwards at Riley.
“Him? God no.” she glanced back at the counter and lowered her voice. “But there is something I need to talk to you about. I was waiting for you to come in.”
“What is it? Sit down, tell me,” I said, pointing to the space opposite.
“I can’t now. It’s something I can’t tell you here. Give me ten minutes and I’ll meet you at my car out front. It’s the red Camaro,” she said.
Then she walked her walk back to Riley, who was looking agitatedly at his empty cup.
Sheila had often asked me advice before, and I was pleased to give it. Youngish, good-looking women don’t often sit for any length of time with priests, I’m sure you know that, and I was glad of the company. And, I have to admit, I looked forward to spending time with her. Even with her problems, she’s good company. And she’s very easy on the eye. It’s got to the point where I see her just about everyday; usually when I drop into the diner in the afternoon just before her shift ends or we sometimes run into each other at Charlie’s.
We typically talk about some man or another, or her landlord, or an argument with her sister. Sometimes I think she exaggerates her problems just so she can talk to me, because they’re often easily solved. I just sit with her a while, give her options and lead her to pick the right one. Or sometimes we just talk. But this was different. We usually speak in public where anyone can hear us. There isn’t anything odd in a priest giving a parishioner advice, even if I do look at her a little too closely.
I took a sip of ice water, placed the glass square on the coaster and stood up.
“Not eatin’ today Father?” Riley’s snippy voice cut across the diner. He must have known there was something up. I never come in then leave.
“No. No, not. Um, feeling too well.” I was always bad at lying.
“Well you better run off home then, Father.”
“Yes. I think I will.”
“See ya then.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you later.” He was only trying to make it worse for me. I wondered if he was the problem Sheila wanted to talk to me about. I hoped not.
Sheila’s car was parked over to the right of the lot, an old red Camaro, like she said, with dents and rust and dirty smears over its windscreen. The sort of car you’d expect a waitress to drive. I leant on the passenger side door while I waited, eyeing the dealers across the road. They were there again and again, day after day, the same five kids just standing, looking angry, swapping stares with me. They knew we were playing a game as much as I did, but they enjoyed it a lot more. I thought about what was going through their minds, if they ever got bored, if they felt it was worth it, if they were ever scared, like I was.
She came out of the diner almost running, defiling the gracefulness of her walk with an awkward shuffle, and motioned with her head to the car.
“Get in. It’s open.”
I pulled open the door and slid inside.
She drove us out, past the strip mall, past the last gas station for forty miles, out into the plain where the road disappears in the haze, then turned and parked behind a billboard for a new housing development. It was getting hotter, one of those strange days when the heat suddenly kicks up a notch around four, and I could feel moisture begin to drip from my forehead. But I think I would have been sweating anyway.
The silence was wrong. There are usually other people around us when we meet, and to be alone together was disjointed, uncomfortable. I wanted to tell her that she was in a safe place, that I’d protect her whatever her problem, but I couldn’t. I sat there looking out into the open space like a pimply teenager on a date, wringing my fingers. And I could tell that she was struggling as much as I was, because she couldn’t look my way. Just hard silence between us. The seconds ticked away to the sound of popping metal, as some parts of the car cooled while others warmed in the sun.
Eventually she spoke.
“I’m sorry I brought you out here, Father.”
It was a relief to hear her voice.
“That’s OK, Sheila. Tell me what’s on your mind,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t help. Don’t worry. I’ll just take you back to town. Forget about it.” She went to turn the key in the ignition, and I leaned over to hold her hand still, to pull the key back.
Now we were close. “There is obviously something troubling you.” I said, my face no more than six inches away from her nose. My hand remained on hers. “You didn’t bring me all this way for something unimportant. Let me help you. Let me know what’s wrong.”
“I’m sorry.” she said, her green-brown eyes finally pinned on mine. “I was wrong to ask you here. You don’t need to get involved in this. It could be bad for us. I mean, you.”
I removed my hand and sat back in the seat. A breeze gusted through the open window, and it felt good, fresh.
I spoke without looking at her, ‘Sheila, you have to remember that this is what I do. that I’m here to help you. It doesn’t matter how I feel, or what happens to me.”
I didn’t believe what I was saying either.
“So just let me know what you brought me out here for.” It could have been someone else speaking.
“I was pregnant Father.”
“I see,” I said, still not looking back at her. “What happened?”
“I got rid of it.”
“Oh.” A dribble of moisture fell across my forehead, working it’s way down my nose. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. More silence swept through the car, as I put my broken thoughts together. The heat was getting unbearable.
“Are you OK? I mean, that’s what’s important. How are you?” We were looking directly at each other now, across the seat divider, across the gearshift.
A tear formed slowly in the cusp of her eye, a tiny bubble of pain beading against the thick mascara. “I thought I was OK, that I’d manage. Then there was that little girl who was found. It brought it all back. I couldn’t sleep last night, I was laying in bed, sweating, thinking about what I did, about how the girl could have been mine, about how she’d be starting to walk now, how I’d be looking after her, feeding her, buying her clothes, making her pretty.” her voice broke down into a dark cloud of sobs.
I put my arm over her back, brought her close to me. Her soft hair caressed my chin, which I rested on the top of her head. She shook with tears.
“What’s done is done.” I said, staring out into the plain.
I was searching for guidance, for someone or something – the emptiness of the countryside, the far off blank horizon, the baked yellow grass yearning for a breeze – anything that wasn’t in the car to give me permission to fall into her, to drown myself in her warm hair, her slight body, her gentle breaths.
But I was lost. There was the rational part of me, the part that gets me through my life, the un-thinking right and wrong black and white good and bad just do it machine that wanted to be able to give her the same advice I’d give to anyone else, and then leave, let her deal with her own problems. Help with loving detachment. But I was there, holding her in the hot car, feeling the part of me that really makes me who I am, the part that supports my faith and informs my wonder, the parts that supplies my awe – the real God’s honest man – I was feeling that part of me trickling through my thoughts, just like my blood, and I realized how much I cared for her. How much I wanted her not to hurt. How much I really wanted her.
She cried some more, and spoke into my chest.
“I felt so worthless. So pathetic. So evil. I knew what that poor girl was going through when she left the baby there. How frightened she must have been, how terrified I was. How terrified I still am. And I lay there in my shitty little apartment, alone on my big bed as the walls just loomed in on me knowing that it can’t happen again, that I don’t want to be alone. That I need someone, someone good.”
She drew away from me a little, her arms remaining close on mine, her eyes pinning me down in the seat.
“I don’t want to be alone, Father. Ever. I can’t stand another night like that again. I can’t go through my days trying to make the best of it, putting up, making do. Taking shit from assholes like Riley. I need someone. I need you. I’m in love with you, Father.”
Even though I knew what she was going to say, even though I wanted her to say it, the words still hit me hard. But I’m glad she said it first.
“We all need someone to love.” I said. The words came out like a whisper in the dark.
The internal battle still rang through my body. I didn’t know what to say to her. Of course I wanted to tell her my truth, to let her know how much I wanted her, but I had so much to lose.
“You know that the Church is my life,” I told her. “I’ve made a commitment… I’d lose everything I’ve worked for. Everything I believe in. You know I care about you. And if things were different, if I’d made different choices. But…”
She pushed her face into my neck. I could feel the tears cool against my skin, mingling with my sweat. My face remained staring out of the windscreen, as if I was another person.
“Some choices are too important to be thought about” she said.
Minutes stretched by, and I tried not to think, tried to clear my mind. Then I kissed the top of her head, keeping my face in her hair. She pulled away, and looked up, and our lips touched. Slowly.
And slowly we sat there, and sat there, and kissed. And it was good.
She drove us back to town as the sun was falling. The buildings were glowing in golden shadows, darkness chasing light out into the street. We didn’t speak, and she left me in the diner parking lot, where we started. I was alone.
The dealers were in their roost, leaning and spitting and swearing. They saw me, and we stood together and apart, me watching them watching me, as the sun sank lower behind the diner, as I wondered what I was, as I struggled to move, as I struggled to leave.
Watching, thinking, waiting for what would happen next.
Then I stepped off the curb.
The first dealer’s punch hit me on my left temple, and I managed to ride it, but his second one smashed my chin and left me dazed. Then another hit me again and then kicked me, and I went down, and then all five of them were there, kicking and kicking and kicking and laughing and snorting with exertion. Then they left me and it grew dark.
I woke again to the neon lights from Mrs. Hemingway’s store flickering over my blood on the sidewalk. Somehow I managed to stand and limp back to the church.
And that’s when I found you here, Father, and asked you to hear my confession. I am here, and I confess. I have sinned.