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It’s Wednesday morning confession when the blonde steps into my box. She’s a halo of highlights and a contralto so low I feel her in my chest. She says it’s her first time.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” She laughs a little and drums her nails against the latticed screen of the confessional. Black, polished squares. “This is my first confession and these are my sins,” she takes a breath. “I’ve wished for the death of my neighbour. I’ve drunk too much. I told my friend she was beautiful but she’s not. And sometimes, I think about killing myself. I think about the ways I could do it.”
“Why do you think about killing yourself?” She doesn’t strike me as the type.
“I don’t feel like I belong in the world. Nothing makes sense.”
I’d like to help her make sense, I think. I tell her not to do anything drastic. She says okay. I absolve her, dole out five Hail Marys and tell her to come back soon. She’s not sorry, that much I know. When she’s walking away, I crack open the door of the box to get a good look as she slips out into the grey day. She’s wearing a black dress that hits her somewhere between thigh and knee. Her skin is tracing-paper white. No coat. She’s wielding a fancy cane and dragging her left foot a little. She didn’t smell like the other women who come to my box, pressed up against the screen, all tuberose and waxy makeup. She smelt like a freshly struck match put out by the rain.
The night is dark. Clouds are spitting rain between the stars. I leave my coat but take the hat hanging on the hook beside the door and dump the box of white communion wafers in my bag. The bike’s wheels skid on the streets as I set out to hear sinners and deliver the body of Christ to those who cannot make it to the church doors.
I swerve to avoid animals skittering across my path. They appear out from under cars and behind walls. The colours of the night are fat and full. The fox’s coat is an auburn that’s too close to orange. A woman’s hand hangs out a window holding a cigarette and the tip burns redder than the chipped polish on her fingernails. I can smell bonfire smoke in the air.
Mrs Zhang’s behind the first door. She’s pushing ninety and can barely breathe but insists on pulling the sofa cushions onto the floor. “I wish they’d put out those fires,” she says, dropping one knee and then another onto the stained cushions. “Stupid boys.” Once she’s down there she confesses to calling her daughter a slut and kicking the dog. I give her two Hail Marys even though I know she wants more.
At the Munro house, I’m up in the old lady’s room sitting by her bed. She tells me she prays her family will move out and leave her alone to die in peace. I don’t blame here, there’s four generations living in five rooms. Outside the bedroom door one of the daughters corners me, “While you’re here, Father, would you mind seeing the rest of us?” I say yes because I’m a soft touch and I like to look at the youngest Munro. She’s sixteen. When she’s on her knees, I focus on the black strap of her bra through the white-white of her school shirt and think about the woman who wants to kill herself. I imagine drawing a blade across a long blue line in the woman’s arm. The Munro girl says she stole biscuits from the tin and blamed her brother. Usually, she tells me about putting her hands on boys and the money she’s stolen for her “running-away fund”. I’m grateful she’s making tonight easy for me. I hand out Hail Marys to everyone and leave.
Next up is old Bill and then I’m done. I knock the door but there’s no answer. No Bill. No one. I give him communion once a week and he likes to tell me how many men he killed in the war. The number changes every time. Forty-one was the highest we ever got to. The curtains are drawn. I tap the window facing onto the street. Nothing. For a second, I hope he’s dead. It would mean one less run on the confession and communion trail. I make a move to leave but then I see some kids standing around a bonfire in the middle of the street. “Hey,” I call. “Have you seen Bill?” They turn around in a pack. Every one of them wearing a mask that looks like a face without features. Blank. Holes where the eyes and mouth should be. I get on the bike and start peddling. They run after me, hurling stones and whatever they find on the ground. “Have you seen Bill?” they shout. “Have you seen Bill?” Freaks.
Before heading home, I stop at the shop that’s far enough away from people who might know me. The old lady who looks after the parochial house has gone somewhere to watch statues cry and I intend to make the most of it. I pick up a loaf and join the back of the queue, keeping an eye on the door. The strip lights turn everything white a zombie-eyed blue. I dump the bread as soon as I get to the counter and pull my collar off. The guy reaches for the whiskey before I have to ask and wraps it in paper.
Outside, I find the blonde from the box stood looking at my bike like she’s never seen one before. She’s still wearing the black dress and holding a string bag crammed full of oranges. She clocks me and tilts her head. “Hello, it’s me. Remember me?” she says. I shove the paper-wrapped bottle into the bag on my bike and drop the collar in too.
“I remember. You running low on vitamin C?”
“Liquid sunshine,” she laughs and that low voice creeps back into my chest. “Are you off on a wild night?”
She must have spied the whole hide-and-seek operation with the whiskey. “Not me. Just finished up the confession and communion rounds and heading home. I’ll let you get back to fighting that scurvy off.”
“I’ve never had communion,” she says, walking towards me, putting her arm on mine. “I’d like to.”
“We serve it up every Sunday in the place where the box is.”
“Can’t I be one of the stops on your rounds?” She looks at the cane and then at me. She smiles and squeezes the arm she’s still holding on to. “You could give it to me now, since you’re here? I’m just across the street.”
I want to get out of the night and into the whiskey. I wonder if this is a trick but then I think about pressing one of those white discs on her fat red tongue and my dick gets hard.
“Lead the way.”
The house is bigger than it needs to be for a person like her. White everything everywhere. Books piled in corners and under windows. Not much else. We’re in the kitchen and she’s peeling oranges, breaking the segments into a metal bowl. “Here,” she dumps a handful of crescent-shaped pieces onto my palm. They taste the way good oranges should. “I’m Marion.”
Of course she is. “I’m Theodore.”
“Father Theodore.” She thinks it’s cute. She says it again so she can feel it roll around her mouth. “Father Theodore.”
“You can skip the Father part, Theo works just fine. What happened to the leg?”
“An accident,” she shrugs. “I wanted to tell you that I didn’t confess all my sins today, Theo. I was afraid to. Do I need to confess everything before you can give me communion?”
“That’s the idea.”
“You’re interesting,” she says, as I follow her into the living room and onto the sofa. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
Somehow she’s got the whiskey out of my bag and is pouring unsteady measures into tall glasses. I don’t think she understands how priests work or she doesn’t care. She sidles up next to me. Too close. She definitely doesn’t care. “You’re interesting too,” I say as she hikes up the dress, crosses her legs and turns to face me. I wait for it to come but it doesn’t take long. She says she burned down a house when she was nine. She stuck a chisel into her cousin’s leg. She pushed a car into the sea. She says everything was “an accident”. She’s lying but I go with it. She’s almost on my lap, telling me she thinks being a priest must be a dangerous job because priests always wind up dead in the movies.
“This isn’t a movie.”
“I know but keepers of secrets are dangerous people to be,” she says, poking me in the chest. “Everyone would be better off if we kept secrets in locked boxes under beds. A box won’t get its eyes pulled out. A box won’t get shot in the back or its throat slit with piano wire. Secrets are for boxes. Secrets should be whispered into trees. Secrets are for the birds.” She reaches for the whiskey and tops up the glasses. “Your turn.”
She looks almost beautiful in the dark room with her see-through skin and a belly full of oranges. Not the kind of beautiful that makes you scratch her name onto your eyeballs so you see her in everything, but she’s definitely something. Something strange. Before I can stop myself I’m telling her things. I tell her stories I hear in the box. I tell her about myself. About the woman I ran away from and the well-made suits I traded in for this costume. I tell her I come from a long line of murderers. My grandfather, my father, me. It’s passed down the line like red hair and bad memories. It’s in the teeth, bedded into the second round that comes after milk. It’s in the bones. In the rising blush that climbs my neck on hot days. I tell her I did it to save someone and she believes me. I don’t tell her everything. She refills the glasses. The whiskey’s almost gone. “To the sinners,” she clinks.
We fool around for a while but the whiskey’s too much for her and she falls asleep. I shake a blanket over her bones and tell myself I’m not a monster. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and give her that white disc of a body she so badly wants. Maybe I’ll build her some shelves. Maybe I’ll try to keep her alive a little while longer. I grab my bag.
The bike’s gone from the railing by the front door. I’d bet money on the Freaks and bolt cutters. I head home counting bonfires burning out on the streets. The stars have slipped from the blue-black and it’s hard not to choke. I jump a locked gate and cut across the park. There’s an old birch in the middle of the green and its silver skin glows in the dark. It’s got twigs but no leaves. A sure sign it’s dead. I keep walking, listening to the murmurs of blackbirds and robins. I reach up and pull their sleepy bodies out of the sky. I hold them to my face, letting their wings beat against my lips. I tell them all my secrets and let their sweet songs scrape against me, pulling me out of the night.