ADVENTURE THE 50TH: THE CRIPPLING CONFESSIONAL
For those unfamiliar with the posting structure of a blog: postings appear in the order they are made by their author, not necessarily in the order that would most benefit an ongoing series such as the one you are about to read. Since the purpose of this blog is to be an ongoing thriller, simply removing the previous chapter to alleviate confusion is not an option – since no one coming to the series after the first chapter had been removed would be able to follow the story line.
Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
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ADVENTURE THE 50TH:
THE CRIPPLING CONFESSIONAL
"The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others."
- Solomon Ibn Gabriol
It’s Sunday morning and I am alone. I don’t much mind, having been probed Monday through Friday like a Thanksgiving turkey with enough surgical instruments and electro-cardiogram tape to warrant my own booth at the next freak show passing through town.
But Sunday’s different. At least, here it is. It’s still a religious experience, steeped in the traditions of an unerring faith that seems to even ease the spank of my own paralysis. Funny, I don’t miss the use of my legs as much as I thought I would. I mean, I haven’t had that moment yet where I begin to uncontrollably blubber for the fact that I can’t tie my own laces or run to the 7-11 for another pack of cigarettes.
Of course, I have a cute Sicilian nurse’s aid to thank for the proper care and maintenance of this retired chasse. Sponge baths may not be a luxury but they can be downright satisfying.
Her name’s Maria. She has the classical appeal of a Boteccelli masterpiece. That she’s engaged to an impossibly handsome young stud whose picture she carries around in her skirt pocket and has readily shown me with all of the restrained excitement of a good Catholic girl brought up on enforced piety and the strap is no surprise. Carlo, her beloved, is one lucky man though he probably doesn’t know it. He’s become too used to examples of physical perfection in his midst.
Last Tuesday, Maria wheeled me into a hospital courtyard overlooking the piazza and I was amazed at how many rarified female beauties were milling about; all properly quaffed and smartly dressed so as never to reveal too much. I could retire here a happy guy, only I’ve little to offer any girl but the promise that she’ll have to prop me up in public and lay me down in private.
It’s funny, because on occasion I feel pain in both limbs, something the good doctors tell me is a figment of my imagination; sympathy from the thwarted impulses sent bouncing back and forth from my brain to my legs that keep getting lost somewhere in the equatorial abyss below my belt buckle.
As I lay awake and emotionless, I can hear the bells of an eighteenth century chapel peel madly, beckoning all who believe to the altars of prayer. Me? I never believed. Oh, I have no doubt that there’s a higher power. I mean, I think it’s terribly gauche of atheists to suggest to the rest of us that some bizarre cosmic accident formulated a single planet in this never-ending ether, simply to sustain our sorry ass lives as we know them.
Then again, they probably think me terribly misguided and the biggest hypocrite around; believing, as I do, in a Holier law than my own, yet constantly breaking every commandment without even the slightest bit of remorse. They probably have something there.
I pass the morning like a mild stool, a little light breakfast brought in by an elderly matron with large polite eyes, soft smile and a ‘Bon appetite’ before she leaves the tray behind; a grapefruit, black coffee, some warm cereal and a glass of orange juice.
Around noon, Dr. Bartelli tells me that he has a surprise. I’m moderately intrigued for a moment, but suddenly find myself stirred to slight aggravation at the sight of a priest entering my room. He has the same kindly appeal as the rest of them, but somehow I’m not particularly interested in what he has to say.
I suspect that my discomfort might have something to do with the fact that I don’t much feel like ‘confessing’ to another man – any man. I never understood the placement of private secrets with another creature of this earth simply because we don’t shop for clothes at the same department store. After all, we both piss from the same apparatus into urinals.
“This is Father Montague” Dr. Bartelli explains, “I thought perhaps he might comfort you today.”
My note of apprehension catches both men off guard. I feel naked, as though my disdain for ‘the man’ and not ‘the cloth’ is screaming quotations by Regan from The Exorcist. Father M gets over his sourness first, leaning in to extend his hand. I shake it, reluctantly, and don’t ask him to sit down.
“May I?” he finally asks.
I nod, my gesture stiff and rigid.
“I’ll return in a little while,” Dr. Bartelli explains.
A few awkward silent moments pass. I turn my head away from Monty to the window sill where a ridiculous dove has been casually pecking into the wooden frame.
“The dove,” Father Montague exclaims quietly, “A symbol of faith.”
I’ve had enough.
“Look,” I say sternly, spinning my head around so fast I almost gives myself whiplash, “I don’t think I want to confess.”
Father Montague shakes his head, raising and waving his aged, crooked index finger quietly in my direction.
“This, I did not come for,” he replies, the creases from his smile creating liquid crevasses across his cheeks and chin.
“Oh,” I pull back.
“Dr. Bartelli is my half brother,” Father Montague explains, “I came to see him and he told me about you.”
“Oh,” I say again, not knowing what else to say.
I feel that an explanation is somehow in order, but don’t quite know where to begin. Monty’s a good mind reader because he avoids all the usual saintly clichés and talks to me on my level.
“Are you comfortable?” he asks.
“In spots,” I admit.
“Can I be of assistance?”
I feel like a heel to ask, but since when has that ever stopped me before.
“Could you maybe fluff my pillows a bit?”
He does, without reservation or even a modest expression of irksomeness that I’m certain he must feel deep down. After all, he’s only a man like me. When he’s finished and I’m propped up to better receive a guest, Monty takes his place on the stool nearest my bed.
“Has your brother told you about my legs?” I ask.
“He said you were in a terrible accident.”
So the priest’s cagey. And clever, I’ll give him that. He says what he wants to and leaves the rest to my baited imagination.
“While, I’m crippled,” I explain, “I’ll never walk again.”
“You must have faith.”
There it is. The cliché of clichés I knew would come. I want to take my pillows and pummel the priest. I think better of my urge and instead decide to play myself as the dejected invalid.
“Could you please, just not…” I say.
“I’m sorry,” Father Montague replies, “I did not mean to upset you.”
He means it too. I can tell.
“You haven’t,” I explain, “It’s me. I…well…I haven’t exactly been what you would call a model citizen.”
“And what is that?” Monty replies.
I detect a very minute hint of sarcasm.
“You know, padre,” I say with a half smile, “I’ve used up all my worry beads and given plenty of angels a damn good reason to weep. All in all, I’m undeserving, I guess is what I’m trying to say. I don’t belong on the top ten list for salvation.”
Father Montague lowers his head. At first I think he’s preparing to pray. Then, I realize he’s trying to conceal a broad smile that’s stretched across his face. He’s laughing at me.
“You think that’s funny?” I ask him.
“Typical,” he replies, “If you have looked into the heart of others and found nothing there to nourish your own, then perhaps you have merely been keeping the wrong company. You see, our own frailty is that we are ever more likely to assume the vices of others, rather than their virtues. Please. If I have offended you, I apologize.”
“Think nothing of it,” I mutter, “I don’t offend easy. Too much scar tissue. Call it my Teflon coated ego. It hasn’t sought too much from life. As a result I haven’t been quite so deluded not to have found anything in it. Guess I’m a lost cause.”
I suddenly feel like one too; stripped to the raw vein and nerve endings that seem to ache everywhere.
“You are only a man and therefore imperfect,” Father Montague explains, “Like me.”
A priest who only considers himself a guy? I’m intrigued. The only kind of ‘men of faith’ I knew back home were a bunch of social hypocrites; Father DeBeque, who diddled a couple generations of choir boys before being relocated to parts unknown; Father Emile, the one who knocked up and had a kid by Sister Agatha; and Father Richelieu – the Jimmy Swaggart of his people, having sinned with practically every married woman and widow in town. But Monty’s not like them. Or is he?
“I was a boy of thirteen in Milan,” Father Montague explains, “Poor, afraid and quite alone. I stole bread to survive. Then, one day a baker grabbed me by my hand and tried to call for the police. I was young. I was afraid. I stabbed him with his own cutting knife. He bled to death on his own kitchen floor and I went to prison. Then a strange thing happened to me. The widow of the baker came to see me in prison. She said she forgave me my sin. She asked the court for clemency. I served my time until I was nineteen and was then given a choice in life; either a work camp or the monastery. I chose God then and it has made all the difference since.”
I’m suddenly quite humbled by the story. But Monty has no idea who he’s talking to. He killed one man. I can’t even remember how many there have been. So, I decide to set this man straight. I tell him about a few of the men I’ve killed and the women I’ve deflowered and the brutes I’ve taken modest pleasure in beating up along the way. I tell him about the secret society and about being trained as an assassin and accepting both as my lot in life without even a modest nod to the fact that neither was good for me.
“We’re talkin’ double and triple digits here,” I suggest to Monty, “Not that it matters how many, I suppose. One sin is just as wrong as twenty – but if I remember well enough from my Sunday school days with Sister Hebert – two shows a definite unwillingness on my part; that I knew the first one in the cue wasn’t going to improve my chances of coolin’ off upstairs instead of dropping to the hot basement for more practice.”
I explain to Monty that he’s sitting across from a pariah, not the Christ child and that I’ve been around so many blocks, doing so many wrong turns, that I don’t think God would have it in his heart to pencil me in for a harp and some wings in that white fluffy hereafter.
Monty listens to everything I have to say with a grave, though not critical, eye. I keep trying to tell him I doubt the existence of my own soul but I see no expression across that aged face that would mirror my disgust.
“All in all,” I conclude, “my reputation’s shot full a’ holes. Nothing left, you see. Nothing to work with.”
But Monty doesn’t agree.
“Reputation is what others think of us,” Monty suggests, “But true character is what God and the angels know of us. You have character, my son, and that is an eternal.”
I don’t detect a hint of sympathy in Father Montague’s tone – which is not what I’m looking for anyway in this ‘show and tell’. I hate people who tell you how bad they feel for you, only deep down we both know they’re breathing a sigh of relief that your life is more rotten than theirs.
“When God set your feet upon the earth,” Monty begins, “…it was with the understanding that you would not be able to stay the course. If you have been tested and chosen your destiny unwisely, you haven’t failed Him, my son. You’ve merely been shown the error of your way.”
He’s good. I’ll give him that. If not lifted, then I suddenly feel as though a few of my burdens have been lessened.
“That’s good and well,” I offer, “But if I continued to fail?”
“Then perhaps you were not ready to accept His love,” Monty suggests, “There is an old proverb for which I cannot take credit – ‘when the pupil is ready, the master will appear’.”
Oh, those old proverbs! They never fail. I can just imagine a bunch of pious old buggers sitting around a campfire with some freshly distilled monastery wine to help ease them into their cleverness.
It’s odd. I don’t find myself feeling disagreeable any more. It’s not mental exhaustion that takes all the sting and venom out of me either. It’s Monty. He’s impossible to dislike. Everything he says has meaning and weight, although done in such a way so that nothing is fraught with meaning or weightiness besides. He doesn’t make me feel small for my indiscretions. In fact, all in all I feel somewhat better about them.
“How is it that you can find so much goodness in me?” I inquire.
“How is it that you can see so little?” Monty replies.
“You’re a difficult man to argue with, Father Montague,” I reason.
“I hope so,” he tells me with an angelic smile.
Eddie Mars will return in his next adventure –
PASSAGE TO MONTENEGRO
on June 15th, 2009.
@Nick Zegarac 2009 (all rights reserved).