Tuesday, 17 May 2011
DIVINE NO MORE by Copper Smith
Divine No More
Forgiveness is a funny thing. Everybody needs it, craves it, can't go on unless the slate is forever wiped clean. Absolution seems to top everybody's wish list. And nobody needs it more than these men around me.
I'm a prison chaplain, a supplier of sorts for men addicted to the drug called forgiveness. They jones for that weekly fix worse than any crackhead or pill popper crawling the streets at two am.
These men have seemingly mistaken my confession booth for a sorcerer's portal, a device that washes their tarnished souls clean, renders them into new men. Men who haven't raped or shot a 7-11 cashier in the neck for twenty-six dollars and a box of Slim Jims.
It's hard to say who gets the blame for this bull market on the F word, but I'd say Alexander Pope is a good place to start – with all that To err is human, to forgive divine crap.
Pope never had to face a biker with a belly-length beard describing what he did to his ten-year-old stepdaughter to give him a two-decade stay in a maximum-security prison.
There's also Kal, who split his girlfriend's face in half with a steak knife.
And Greg the serial rapist. And Tommy who did things he'd rather discus only in the broadest of biblical terms:
"Fornication — yeah, did that. Thievery. Mutilation. Adultery. Um… that false witness thing."
When finished with his laundry list, he springs away, now burdened only with the weight of a dozen punitive Hail Marys he'll likely polish off shortly before diving back into the cesspool.
He strides with renewed vigor, almost lets himself smile once. He's a new man.
The Captain isn't a new man yet, but the ex-navy officer is stalking out a similar path to redemption.
He's normally a stoic man, hiding behind those lifeless eyes. Not just shy, invisible. But tonight the Captain leaps into a gabfest:
"I was on leave in New Jersey, bored, looking for something to get into. It was one of those days, everything was pushing me: Money trouble. Wife was leaving me. Just found out I had the clap. You know how that goes."
I don't but I tell him I do.
"So me and this guy Guardardo – Mexican guy, or maybe Puerto Rican, I don't know – we decide to knock over this gas station. One of those shitty little Arab places out in the sticks. No cameras, no glass, nothing. How fucking hard can this be..?"
He is drifting into the backdrop now, becoming scenery. I am floating away, off to another place…
"… So I pull out my gun and swear to God, you'd think somebody peed in his eyes the way he starts crying."
His tale yanks me into the wrong kind of nostalgia. Takes me someplace I'd rather not be – and swore I'd never return.
It's a drug store on the lower east side. My dad at the register, a second job needed to feed his four pain-in-the-ass kids. Mom's there too – God knows why. And Aunt Marie's chirping on in the background about the loud neighbors and her lousy husband and dreadful job and somebody shuts her up by jutting a gun into dad's face.
There are five of them. Their faces are pockmarked, dented by unhappy lives. Not until they snap into formation like a baseball team is it clear that they are just kids really. Do they even know what they're doing? Screaming at my father, ordering him to his knees, then raising a gun to his head, ignoring those shrieks in the background like they belong there.
One grabs Aunt Marie, drags her into the stock room. She kicks, flops, flips, twists like a walleye fighting a fisherman's tug. But she's no match for this angler, his hands like bricks of flesh over her mouth, her breasts.
Her screams taper off, drop to a defeated whine, then a whisper. She's begging now, please don't do this.
A siren closes in, pushing the room into a panic, a storm of jabs from the heavens that can only end with five gunshots. They find my dad's temple twice, save a bullet for mom's chest and fire a few warning shots to the onrushing cops before scampering into the night.
The police find the place in a shattered silence. Even the echoes are gone now. No motion, no life. Nothing but Aunt Marie struggling to her feet with unsteady legs and aiming her gaze into nowhere.
And me crouched behind the counter, eyes that have never been wider, heart pounding like a bass drum battered by a speed freak. Helpless, heartless, still. The world had exploded into a volcano of chaos and hate and there was nothing I could do. Except forgive them. At least that's what Aunt Marie wanted.
So that's what I did. And that's what I do. I Forgive.
And after forty-seven years I've done enough forgiving.
I swear I'm not going to cry. As I empty my desk and say my goodbyes to the staff, I try not to darken this sweet moment with the image of a grouchy old retiring chaplain bubbling into a schoolgirl's tears. But it's a challenge to hold the waterworks back. They've always been nice to me here. Valerie with those cupcakes on my desk every Monday morning. Shirley always smiling even when sharing the news that some inmate's done something awful again. And Darius, lets me in each morning without a customary pat-down. Because after all, what's a seventy-three-year-old priest going to do with a pistol tucked into his BVDs anyway?
I hobble up the stairs to my booth one final time with Darius, who's very likely on the verge of sharing some uncomfortable information about himself.
"I just want to say, Father Tucci, that since I been here, and been working with you and growing as an individual and trying to find Jesus and make Jesus more of a focal point in my life –"
I wave him away, back downstairs and he obligingly disappears. He understands. I want to be alone.
But I'm not alone. I'm joined by four men who file in slowly, unsure of why they were sent for.
"So this is it, huh Padre? Last day in the booth?" Greg asks.
"Yes, my son. This is it," I answer.
"So… did you dig our little going away present?" The Captain giggles. "She's still around if you want a lap dance before you take off."
I manage a half smile, swiping away at that fog of awkwardness. But it's still too quiet.
"Um… why did you want to see us, Father?" Tommy finally asks.
I suppose I could deliver a speech here, but there's nothing to say. There is no parable for these men to ingest, no wisdom I could impart. Nothing.
They are here because they are, in one sense, stand-ins for the real targets. But they are in their own right, horrible men who've done horrible things to somebody's mothers and sons and best friends and stepsisters. They have not been washed anew with the blood of Jesus. Their slates have not been forever wiped clean.
I dig into my underwear and pull out my gun. No theater here, no flash. Just an elderly man scratching away at a sixty-three-year-old itch.
The Captain gets his first – just above his left eye, freezing his face into something like a nightmare set in granite. My gun's kick snaps his head back and into the wall.
These men scatter like rats, but somehow get nowhere, voices rising into shaky falsettos, hands covering what they can. I'm quick for an old man, too determined to make this happen.
I take out Greg next, before he can dive out the door. I catch the back of his neck and shoulder. He skids into the hallway in a streak of burgundy.
Tommy takes one to the chest before he can grab the gun from my hand. Kal gets his in the neck and floats to the floor with his face baring the stamp of disbelief.
Then there's Trevor. On his knees, crying, not begging because he knows it's too late for that. He can't bring himself to lift his chin from his chest and find my eyes. This is too ugly, happening too quickly. He just trembles like a broken child, hands held up, eyes a flurry of blinks. With a single blast his nightmare will be over.
But the blast never happens. My gun jams, its trigger holding firm against my determined tug.
Trever rises, breath choppy, legs unsteady. He yanks the gun from my grip, sending me headfirst into a pile of empty artifacts in a dusty corner. Everything is too shiny and smells like incense and rust. I turn to watch a grown man grunt back a baby's tears. He towers over me, deciding what to do, how to handle this ripped-open wound I've created.
And here I am, splayed before him, helpless:
Something in my hand is cold, thick. A crucifix.
Praise be to God.
I take a wild swing and bury the heavy relic in his forehead, urging him to he knees in a final groan. He leans into another blow, then another, then he drops, limbs curled the wrong way, eyes still asking why?
In seconds this place will be throbbing with chaos and questions nobody can answer. But I don't move. Why should I?
Nothing to do now but catch my breath and wonder what Aunt Marie would make of this mess on the rectory floor.
Copper Smith is a writer of crime fiction and the shadowy figure behind Uppercut Avenue something the kids apparently call a "web-site." For some reason he lives in Minneapolis.