The confessional is the perfect refuge from the lights. I wait and listen. How long has it been? A few minutes, an hour? I wish it had a lock. A sanctuary within a sanctuary.
It's comforting to be here without waiting for the priest to begin exhuming my soul, an always anxious stretch that made me feel like I was in a timeless vacuum. I'd often get dizzy and want to make a quick exit, but couldn't move.
There were moments when something seemed to click in this dark box. Nothing near rapture, only a firm sense I'd been recognized as worthy, my designs possibly encrypted by someone who'd taken up my cause. Forgiveness was another matter. It may have been tendered by a well-meaning spirit but it bypassed me since I was usually pretty foggy about what I needed to be forgiven for. I had trouble matching my thoughts, motives and actions with the general list of dos and don'ts I dutifully memorized. The rewards and punishments for things seemed out of whack with the versions of the bible I'd seen.
This is why sometimes I would visit the confessional when it was empty, usually late on a Friday, and imagine a dialogue with a priest who takes the time to give me a clear blessing and help me better understand what sin was really all about. At other times I would enter just to relax, soak up the scene without thinking of any messenger who could dilute the message. My attention would drift up and away to the source, or at least where I pictured he, she or it might hang out.
I think I hear footsteps so reach over and edge the door open, but see only darkness and shadows. I close the door and return to my thoughts...
"My son, my son, are you alright?" someone says, both of his hands gripping my left armpit and apparently in the terminal stage of trying to shake me into consciousness. Light is now streaming into the confessional.
"Who are you?"
"I'm the night watchman," another man answers who's standing just outside the confessional in a halo of light that makes it hard to identify him.
I look at him, and back to the first man.
"What have I done?
"What you doing here?" the watchman asks.
"I...I came to...the front door was open and so I..."
"...the door's always locked over night...we..."
"...no, I'm sure it was open...I was coming down the street and there were lights everywhere, a copter was circling above and I just naturally..."
"...I saw the lights, I'm the pastor here at the church, but the door...didn't you lock it up last evening?" he asks the watchman.
"I'll get the cops and..."
"...not so fast...who would break in to a church for confession when most of the congregation is fast asleep?...we've never offered graveyard shift services!"
He finishes his sentence and turns to the watchman at the same time, who looks sheepish, like when someone's fear of appearing guilty is so strong that it takes over and trumps their honesty.
"But there's no way I would leave the door open Father, I always check and recheck!"
"The Lord works his will in mysterious ways...we all mean well and sometimes..."
"...no Father, I swear I..."
"...the important thing is that everything's okay, and for you my son, you're here, you've come to us for help!"
His alarm at my violation seems to mute and he becomes more relaxed, finding a different tone. He gestures me from the confessional toward a pew.
"Someone was chasing me up on the hill and I had no other...I was going toward the downtown lights and couldn't make it and..."
"...we're all pursued at times when we want to reach out and talk to someone about something that's been on our minds, and it's a sign we need to settle up."
"I need to get some sleep...settle in for a few days and look for someone."
"We're all looking...it's a sign you've come."
The watchman jerks suddenly to his right and backs toward the front of the church slowly, turning the priest's head to meet his glance. I take the opportunity to get farther away from both and move between the pews, while the priest turns abruptly to meet my gaze, bringing the watchman's with him as if by default. I look back and forth between the two sets of eyes in rapid succession like I'm gauging the depths of each other's nerves in readiness for a shootout. These gestures repeat with crosscutting variations for what seems like several minutes, and instead of going for it I move toward the side of the church, dissolving the tension. The priest continues.
"I'm Father Bertrand...you can reach me anytime for confession. If God is on our side we need not look far!"
"I'm not sure yet what the sides are. I've just arrived and am still feeling all that out."
"What is it you want to say?"
"Could god really take my side?" I ask, running a slant pattern to the exit before he can answer, reaching the street in a rush of fresh air. I feel momentarily rejuvenated in splashes of warm, early-morning light. How different the area looks...
I found a motel yesterday up on the main drag, the Epistolay, in walking distance to the Majestic and transportation to the airport. It's strategically located on a bluff facing the harbor and set back from the street flush against the side of the hill. My room is adjacent to the office and the noise and traffic. The windows can be locked. I move the bed to the blind side of the opening door for extra precaution.
The residents don't seem like your usual passing-through-and seeing-the sights types, though I've only chatted with one, a woman a couple doors down. She says she volunteers as a group therapist at a halfway house in town during the day and reads palms periodically for the late shift at a gentlemen's club over in the harbor. She's studying parapsychology online and is very well dressed in a collage of throwback fashions. She has a penetrating look, like she's looking through the back of my mind for someone.
Many residents have belongings overstuffed into their vehicles, like they were hurriedly thrown in at random.
I settle back on the bed and flip through the distractions, find a baseball game and mute it. I try to take stock of the past few days, wondering how everything happened. Was this really my hometown, or some parallel universe? Perhaps if I returned to Pitchfork Prairie it would become just a bad dream.
My concentration flags. I hear noises from another room, a heated discussion, something about a meeting later in the evening. A spike of country music drowns it out. I wait for another message from a fellow traveler. Languishing between these thin walls together perhaps forces our isolated stories to cross paths in formation, separating again when we leave, ready for another fertilization of phantasms. Maybe the traces of bodies and minds and feelings in motion over the years and years rein us into a secret brotherhood as we cross the threshold of the Epistolay. I become mesmerized by the wallpaper and the smell, a lemony ether. I begin to trace figures in it until I doze off.
I waken to a rush of activity, bodies back and forth between cars and rooms. I abruptly pick up the phone, tempted to call Louise, but suspect it can be traced. There's a book on the stand titled Year of the Bible, snippets from the New Testament. The marketing blurb is "5 minutes a day...finished in a year."
I get started and turn to one of St. Peter's letters that's about how the Lord's followers should live their lives: "Do your best to improve your faith. You can do this by adding goodness, understanding, self-control, patience, devotion to God, concern for others, and love."
I continue but doze off again for what seems like only a few minutes, and there's a knock at a door. At first I think it's mine but I peek through the window and see a gaggle of cowgirls filing into the room a few doors down with supplies. I realize it might be a good time to head out for a stroll, and perhaps do some scouting, see a few of the old sights.
What's the best getup to avoid notice? I don't have much with me, but it's getting close to twilight so I decide to slip out. On the way past the office the clerk beckons me inside. He asks if I want a weekly rate.
"No, nice place and all but gotta be flexible, and might be off on the little bird soon."
"Oh, sorry to hear that! Be sure and let me know if ya change yer mind. Might be able to do you a deal."
"What kind a deal we talkin about?"
"Depends on who's doin the dealin and when...mean today's Saturday and all and...well when everything kinda clears out some then we have what ya might call a shift change, if ya know what I mean...some leaves and others pop up and there's always some new spaces on Mondays."
"We'll see what develops later...when you need to know?"
"I'll let ya know...probly late tomorrow..."
Someone braves into the office from the other side who seems to know the clerk and starts to whisper something, signaling the termination of our discussion. I notice his check-in desk. It has hardly anything pertaining to the motel business. A clump of plastic rosaries nests on one corner. On the other are several St. Peter bobble-head dolls that look like they've been through a wringer and used in some voodoo ritual. I try and absorb the significance of this scene, getting lost in the menagerie.
"While yer thinkin it over, my cousin can git ya situated...he's down on O'Farrell near the harbor...can set ya up, git ya some action in..."
"...action is what I need least of right now, wanna...
"...what about a preacher, well...what I mean is he's been studyin a lot and now he heals folks down the street...gets lots of em to come and can turn ya round sure as ya can blink!...place is called 'Jesus is the Reason for the Season.'"
"I'm otta season and probably on my way to hell anyway!"
"We all headed there ventually!!"
"I'll catch you in a while."...(To Be Continued)
John O'Kane's recent books are, Venice, CA: A City State of Mind (2013); and A People's Manifesto (2014).