Like many citizens of the over-regulated nation that America has become, I didn’t even realize I was a criminal until after I’d read the law. My third grade teacher gave everybody a little pamphlet entitled “An Examination of Conscience,” and it was only after scanning down to the explanatory text following the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” that I understood it encompassed a number of lesser offenses such as thinking impure thoughts.
“But,” I said to Tommy Hogan, “I think impure thoughts all the time.”
“About who?” Tommy was like that; he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the proper use of “who” and “whom.”
“Susan van de Kamp.”
He looked at me with disgust, now that the depths of my depravity had been laid bare before him. “You are sick,” he said, and I could tell that an image had been formed in his mind of the somewhat chubby girl who would wear a Dutch costume–complete with wooden shoes–to Show and Tell whenever it was her turn.
“It’s that song,” I said by way of explanation, if not excuse.
I am a little Dutch girl,
my home is far way,
I fell in love with a hot-cha-cha
way down in U-S-A
“Gross,” Tommy said. “When you were thinking these thoughts did you . . . touch yourself?”
“You mean . . . pocket pool?”
“Sure. What did you expect?”
He shook his head sadly from side to side. “And where were you when you . . . did it?”
I gulped. “In church,” I said. Confession was comforting, in a weird way. I knew that, however long I lived, I’d never be more embarrassed than I was right then.
“Man, are you in trouble,” was all Tommy could say.
“So what are we talkin’ here,” I said in the clipped tones of a character in a George V. Higgins novel.
“You ain’t gettin’ off with no three Hail Mary’s, one Our Father and an Act of Contrition. Minimum? Three to five rosaries,” Tommy said.
“And the max?”
He looked off into the distance, at the playground where the other kids were playing four-square and kickball–happy, laughing, not a care in the world. What did they know about the torment I was going through?
He snorted, as if he could hardly conceive of the punishment that would be meted out to me if I caught the wrong priest in the wrong confessional on a bad day. “Maximum? I’d say something like . . .”
“Nine days of prayer?” I asked, incredulous.
“You got it pal,” he said without an ounce of compassion in his voice. He didn’t care if I burned in purgatory until the end of time. His older brother was a priest; that meant he had a get-into-heaven-free card–no matter what he did with his miserable little life.
“Yer not gettin’ off with no three Hail Mary’s and one Our Father, pal.”
I must have had a stunned look on my face, because I was stunned. Tommy looked at me the way you’d look at the victim of a car accident you passed on the highway–sad, but part of life, and not your concern.
“I can’t do that kind of hard time,” I said. “My mom’s Protestant.”
“So it’s not like your house, where there’s a family Rosary every Sunday night you can count towards your penance.”
“Not much you can do about it,” he said, and I noticed he didn’t give me a pat on the back or nothin’. “Unless you want to talk to Albert.”
“Who’s Albert?” I asked, and maybe I let a semblance of hope seep through my desperation.
“You don’t remember Albert from second grade?” he asked.
“No, I was busy studying for the spelling bee–remember?”
“Oh yeah, you was right up there, weren’t you?”
“Mook–m, o, o, k–mook.”
“Right up there.” That’s what really frosts my ass about elementary school. Here I carry the colors of the Sacred Heart Gremlins to the freaking finals of the Pettis County Spelling Bee–and get a perfect score for the second year in a row–and all’s Tommy remembers is I was ‘right up there.’ Screw him.
“Yeah,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. “I did okay. So anyway, who’s Albert?”
“You wouldn’t remember him. He only lasted about a week. He knocked one of the nun’s habits off and they sent him to the Home for Wayward Boys.”
Jeez–I had no idea there were such hard-core types right in our little classroom of 54 kids. “So what can he do for me?”
“He figures he’s damned to hell anyway you cut it. So he’ll confess to your sins for you.”
“He will?” That would be a load offa my back for sure. Worse than the penance was having to actually say out loud what I’d done to the priest–me, who was a lock to be captain of the sixth grade crossing guards if I kept my nose clean.
“Sure he will–for a price,” Tommy said, and I understood it was gonna be all business.
“Like what?” I asked nervously.
“You gotta work that out with him,” Tommy said. “He likes secret decoder rings. They’re readily marketable so he can sell ‘em if he has to, or hold ‘em if he thinks they’re gonna go up in value.”
I inhaled sharply. I had ten secret decoder rings, an expenditure that my mother had criticized as improvident when I made it, but my research had turned out to be solid; they had outperformed the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ over the twenty-three months I’d owned them, and I expected them to continue to appreciate.
“Baseball cards,” Tommy said, and he said it like we were in the middle of a high-stakes game of Old Maid. Like he coulda been bluffin’, or he just knew my weak spot. I had the best-organized collection of baseball cards in the whole school–two shoe boxes full of ‘em. I had them in order according to the numbers on the back, with “special” cards–team photos, “Southpaw Sluggers,” etc., up front. In the second box I had my doubles–cards that were duplicates of the ones in the first box, ones that were “dispensable”–an ugly term, but true nonetheless.
“What’s he gonna want?” I asked nervously.
“For reasons I don’t understand, he’s into the Milwaukee Braves.”
I felt almost . . . relieved. I hated the Braves and how they always seemed to kill my Cardinals. Eddie Matthews, Lew Burdette. I felt a grudging admiration for Warren Spahn, the homely left-hander who cranked out 20-win seasons like an assembly line, but other than that, I felt nothing for them. Whatever Braves I had in my #1 box, I was willing to give up if it meant I didn’t have to go into the confessional and admit that I had a thing for an overweight, goody-goody Dutch girl, and that I’d defiled the sanctity of the sacristy–or maybe it was the other way around–thinking about her underpants while I touched myself.
“So where’s Albert these days?” I asked hesitantly.
“I can set somethin’ up for you,” Tommy said.
“The alley behind the rectory.”
“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?”
“Albert don’t care about priests,” Tommy said with obvious admiration for a genuine bad-ass whose balls dragged the ground. “He figures he’s damned to hell anyway you look at it, what’s one more mortal sin?”
It was two days later that I was to meet Albert behind the backstop of the playground, in the alley that cut through the block where the rectory and the parish church itself were located. I had a stash of Braves cards in my back pocket, ready to deal. I also had the secret decoder rings and–a little lagniappe–a glow-in-the-dark Chinese back-scratcher from the Will Rogers Turnpike in Oklahoma, which we traveled to each summer to take my sisters to the allergy clinic. If I couldn’t cut a deal with that kind of swag, I might as well take my chances at Saturday confession.
Will Rogers Turnpike: Glow-in-the-dark Chinese back-scratchers still available.
I paced nervously back and forth, hoping neither the pastor of the parish nor his merciless, nefarious henchman Father Kaliff would appear on the side porch to see me.
I looked down the alley and saw a boy with an olive complexion and oily hair approaching.
“You Albert?” I said, trying to sound confident, which I wasn’t.
“Who wants to know?” he asked. Right back at ‘cha.
I told him who I was. “So Tommy sent you, right?”
“That’s right. Whadda ya got?”
I told him what I was facing in the way of charges, venial and mortal sins.
“Jeez,” Albert said as he looked me up and down. “How’d a nice kid like you get involved in something as sordid as that?”
“It doesn’t matter at this point, does it?” I asked, and I hoped that would be the end of it.
“Not really, just curious,” Albert said.
“So . . . will you confess ‘em for me?” I asked nervously.
“Depends,” he replied. “Don’t make no difference to me–I’m going to hell anyway. But I’m a businessman, y’know? I don’t do nothin’ ‘less somebody makes it worth my while.”
I took out two of the secret decoder rings, and he eyed them with guarded appreciation. “Those are nice,” he said. “What else?”
I took out the Chinese back-scratcher–it was a good one, no question, but it was nothing I couldn’t live without.
“You sure it glows in the dark?” he asked skeptically.
“If it doesn’t, I’ll give you a full refund,” I said. Customers appreciate that kind of commitment to quality.
“Okay, so the back-scratcher, two rings–that will do for the thought and the scratching. Now how you gonna cover the fact that you did it in church?”
I hesitated, then tried to bluff him. “I got a Lew Burdette card and an Eddie Matthews All-Star card.”
He took the cards I held out in his hand and examined the corners to make sure they weren’t bent. “Not exactly mint condition,” he said, “but I’d say ‘very fine.’ What else?”
I felt my throat constrict, and my neck turn red. “Isn’t that enough?”
“You did it in church,” he said, his voice as flat and colorless as the blacktop playground.
We stared at each other, boyo-a-boyo, neither backing down–at first.
I pulled the Warren Spahn card out of my shirt pocket–this was before plastic card-holders, so there was a risk that it had been damaged in my twelve-block walk to school.
A smile crept slowly over Albert’s face. “That’s good–that’s real good,” he said. “That’s what I needed to see.”
I handed it over to him slowly, and held it for one last second before letting go. “So–you’re taking the fall for all three offenses?”
“You got it. I take the penance, and if I don’t do it, I burn in purgatory or hell, depending on what the sentencing guidelines are at the time I die.”
I exhaled involuntarily. As much as I hated to give up that card, it seemed a fair price to pay to have somebody else saddled with a week and two days’ worth of prayer and sacrifice, or an eternity in hell if he didn’t follow through.
I released my grip, and Albert put the card in his shirt pocket. “Pleasure doin’ business with you,” he said as he turned to walk off.
“You’ll take care of it right away?” I asked.
“Whadda you care?” he replied.
“If I get run over by a car, or bit by a rabid dog, I don’t want to burn in a lake of fire forever because you didn’t follow through.”
“It’ll be a pleasure,” he said with a malicious smile. “Father Kaliff will cream in his jeans when I confess to this one.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”