The old landline in the rectory woke him tonight; it woke him most nights, and he knew it meant one of two things. Someone had died and a family needed comfort and ministry, or someone was near death and requested the last rites. He hated when that phone rang to wake him. It was an old rotary phone, even older than the priest who now answered it. It was not like his cell phone which woke him after the sun rose with gentle sounds of nature and flowing brooks. The phone’s ring was a call to action, and that ring was a noise that could wake up the whole house – and it did, considering he lived alone in the rectory. The phone only rang at night, and tonight the evening Warden was calling him to the state penitentiary.
“Take as much time as you need,” said the guard. “This is by special request and allowance,” the guard added, before he closed and locked the door behind the priest. The door’s lock, usually an unnoticed click, echoed and bounced over every steel chair and table in the room, or at least it felt that way to the priest. The door’s click reminded him of the old stopwatch his dark-tanned swim coach used while back at St. Ignatius Prep.
The priest, standing, looked about the room. His bloodshot eyes rested on dark puffy crescent moons; the bloodshot making his blue eyes look only the brighter. There was baggage. Perhaps more baggage under his eyes than in the satchel he carried at his side. He wore a cassock, wrinkled because he left it in a pile on the floor before getting into bed. The cassock made him look more Matrix than Catholic to those who did not know. He wore a cassock because he was unable to hide his calling. When he was not in a cassock, people assumed he worked at one of the local shops, as he could hide his calling behind the long beard stemming from his gaunt face. However, his calling, he thought, was meant to be a contradiction. So, he wore a cassock. It made for stares and comments, like the time the cashier at the grocery store asked him, “How many little boys have we touched today Father?” His cassock was wrinkled because there was no time to remove the wrinkles from it before leaving for the prison.
He finished taking in the room, which was empty of all people save for one. He looked at a man grizzled and older than himself; he too was gaunt in the face and also had a long beard, except his beard was heavily salted; he was clothed in the standard prisoner’s jumpsuit with restraints, chains on his wrists and ankles. The restraints were also chained to the table. His hair, also heavily salted, needed a cut and comb. The man looked healthy, but small in frame and stature.
The priest took five smooth strides to where the prisoner was sitting and sat down across from him. He would have taken fewer steps had he been taller. The prisoner shifted in his seat when the priest sat, and the clacking of each chain’s link on the steel table flowed thick into the priest’s consciousness.
Each man sat staring at each other, and after prolonged minutes of silence, the priest said, “Why am I here?”
“Do you know who I am?” replied the prisoner.
“I know who you are. It’d take a miracle to find someone who doesn’t know who you are.”
The prisoner locked eyes with the priest for a moment then closed them. He breathed deeply a few times, which reminded the priest of a swimmer on the starting block readying himself. The priest continued staring and waited.
After several breaths, the prisoner opened his eyes and blurted, “I’m sorry.”
“You killed 14 people, and fed them to pigs,” replied the priest.
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for killing, or sorry you got caught?”
“Yes,” said the killer as he nodded his head like a fishing cork. “I am sorry. I have less than 24 hours to live if my appeal is not accepted or the governor doesn’t step in.”
“And?” interjected the priest.
“You asked for a priest. You woke me up in the middle of the night, got me out of bed, had me drive an hour, and here I am. What do you want from me?”
“One of the guards said you’d come if I called. He said you’re the only one who would come at this hour. I mean, I asked him to call you. He said you’d come, and you did.”
There was silence. Each person uncertain as to whose turn it was to speak, each man trying to figure out why they were here at this late hour, and what they needed from the other. They stared at each other as two men in contest.
Finally, the killer broke the silence and spoke, “You know, they used to let me smoke here. But not anymore. What I wouldn’t give for a cig. They give me all the books I can read in solitary, but no smokes. I would kill for one now.”
“Why not” countered the priest. “You killed for less.”
The killer’s mouth on the right side thinned and turned up in a half grin, bobbing his head once more in affirmation.
“You know I’m right,” continued the priest as he looked at the satchel he clutched at his side, opened it, and after a few seconds of digging around produced from it a crumpled half-pack of cigarettes and a lighter. “Here, take one, so you don’t have to kill anyone again.” The priest offered the killer one of the cigarettes, and the killer took his hands from beneath the table and stretched them out together toward the pack of cigarettes. The chains on his restraints made a sharp clack with every link that touched the steel table, it was hammer against nail in the priest’s mind. The killer removed a cigarette from the pack and placed it along with his hands in front of him on the table. The priest also took a cigarette, lit it, and took a long draw from it. The killer watched the smoke from the cigarette rise to the ceiling in s-shaped patterns. The killer was familiar with the shape of smoke from all the tobacco he had smoked over the years, but that is not from where he recognized it now. It was a form he knew from his youth at St. John the Apostle’s Church where he had been an altar boy; it was like the smoke from the censor that rose in a similar fashion creating a cloud that hung above the congregation.
“Those things,” began the killer. “Those cigarettes; those are the killers. How many innocent people did the Marlboro man kill? He’s still emulated and admired as true manhood. I killed 14 criminals, and I’m the bad guy.”
“How does that make you feel?” asked the priest through an exhale of smoke.
“People used to ask me if I enjoyed it.”
“Did I enjoy it?”
“Yes, did you enjoy murdering 14 innocent people and feeding them to pigs?”
“I don’t know anymore,” the killer said.
“Looks to me like you enjoyed it. Otherwise, you would’ve stopped.”
“I do, or did, the very things I did not want to do.” The killer shook his head as if indicating no.
Abrupt silence entered the room. To the priest, the killer’s body now looked heavier than his small frame suggested. The killer slouched in his chair, and he dragged his hand across the tabletop, and the sound from his restraints seemed only deeper now than they did earlier. The killer’s gaze went down along with his head, and he stared at the table now covered with ash from the priest’s cigarettes. The killer, after a minute of looking at the table, looked back up at the priest and stared him straight in the eyes, and when he could no longer hold the stare, he said in a low voice, “Can you forgive me?”
“No, I can’t,” replied the priest, nearly overtaking the killer’s words before he finished them.
“No, I can’t forgive you.”
“You’re a priest. It’s your job to forgive!”
“No. It isn’t.” continued the priest as he paused to light another cigarette. His fourth now. “And, if it were up to me, you’d be sentenced to rot in that jail cell of yours till the end of time. Or, even more fittingly, have done to you what you did to those people.”
“So, you won’t forgive me.” The killer scowled in disbelief.
“It’s not a matter of will or won’t. I can’t. You haven’t offended me.”
“Then why did I….”
The priest seemed to increase in his chair, smoke billowing from his nostrils in a way that made him feel serpentine. In an elevated voice and with matching force he said, “You’re asking the wrong question.”
During the following minutes no one spoke, and the only sound in the room was the priest smoking; lighting, drawing, exhaling. The killer stared through squinted eyes at the priest. The priest could not tell if the killer was angry with him, or if he was trying to work it out; he hoped it was the latter and didn’t care if it was the former. Then, the killer unclenched his jaw and relaxed, and he smiled. His squinted eyes opened, and his pupils constricted. He figured it out, the priest thought. The killer took a deep breath and leaned back for a moment then returned to leaning on the table with a renewed vigour. The restraints crashed and thundered on the table, and with them the killer’s hands, palms flat.
“Can,” the killer began, “God forgive me?”
“Is that what you want?”
The killer sighed as he spoke. “Yes. I’m tired.”
“Forgiveness is dangerous.”
“Yes,” the killer said, his head hung low as he looked at the table. He found it difficult to look at the priest.
“Forgiveness is power. It is freely given, but it will cost something.”
The killer pushed the cigarette the priest had given him across the table toward the priest. The restraints felt deafening sliding across the table. “Anything,” he said.
“Ok,” said the priest. He went back into his satchel and brought from it his purple stole. He placed it over both his shoulders and behind his neck and let the excess material drape in front of him. His body looked weighed down under the stole – it seemed heavy. To the killer, the priest appeared to tower in stature while his gaunt features softened. The sharp edge previously found on his words were gone. A cloud of smoke hung in the room.
“Father,” whispered the killer; it was a word unfamiliar to him since his youth, but as he said it, its familiarity returned – like two old friends reuniting. “Will God forgive me?”
“Forgiveness,” began the priest,“ is the power to give to someone what is beyond justice. When a person deserves death, forgiveness gives life.”
“But will God forgive me?”
“Do you want to be forgiven?
“Have you forgiven yourself?”
“Yes, I think so. I try. I wrote letters to the families. Said I was sorry. Father,” still whispering, the killer added, “It’s been over 30 years.”
“I will walk you through it. Normally I do this behind a screen, but face to face will do,” said the priest. “Let’s begin. In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest said while making the sign of the cross with his right hand over the killer. “Be thorough and complete. Tell me everything you remember from your previous confession. I am,” continued the priest, “I am here, and we have all the time we need.”
The priest and the killer spent time listening, confessing, and making reconciliation. The time ran deep and for them both it could only be measured by the amount of time needed to forgive. During the confession, the killer never once looked at the priest, but stared at the table and the ashes, some piled, some scattered.
Finally, the priest gave the killer his penance and said the words of absolution, and calm descended on the room. Each man started at each other in the face, and for a moment neither recognized the other. The priest noticed a lightness around the killer that was not there before. The killer thought he saw not the priest, but someone else where the priest should be sitting.
“That’s it?” the killer said, breaking the calm.
“That’s it,” replied the priest.
“I thought something was supposed to happen.”
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. Lights. Trumpets.”
“How do you feel now?”
“Honestly,” the killer paused for a moment to think before continuing, “like I could sleep like I’ve never slept before.”
“Then go to sleep with the assurance that you are forgiven.”
“I’m sorry, Father.”
“For getting you out of bed in the middle of the night.”
“I’m sorry, too,” replied the priest.
“That I couldn’t do more.”
On that, the killer called for the guard to take him back to his cell. The guard came in and unlocked the restraints that kept the killer attached to the table. The killer stood and with his guard as escort made for the prisoner’s exit and his cell.
“Wait,” called the priest. The priest stood up, swept all the cigarette ashes into the cupped palm of his left hand, and stepped over to the killer. They now stood face to face. The priest pressed his right thumb into his cupped hand and reached up with his thumb and proceeded to make the sign of the cross on the killer’s forehead and say, “You come into this world as ash and as ash you shall leave it. Remember your death. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
“I know Father. I know, and even royalty passes through the bowels of beggars,” said the killer as he turned and walked out of the room with the guard.
As the killer walked away, quiet returned to the room and the priest could no longer hear the killer’s restraints; neither in the room, nor becoming fainter down the hall. He smiled, but not a happy smile – his lips drew back, and his mouth thinned, and the corners curved neither up nor down.
The priest gathered his belongings and returned home to wait as a sleeping sentinel for the phone to ring.