Chicago, June 6, 1982
“What is my penance, Father?”
For the past five weeks Anne Langdon had come to Wednesday afternoon confession, sometimes waiting for the other penitents to leave before stepping into the box to disclose her petty transgressions: returning a book to the library past its due date, slipping into a movie matinee and then fibbing about it to her husband, pretending not to be home when Mrs. Murphy, that crusty owl of a next door neighbor, rang her door bell to borrow a cup of sugar.
It seemed as though Mrs. Langdon were holding something back. Father Roy felt it the day he bumped into her in the canned food aisle of the supermarket. She had startled when he said hello, dropping the can of green beans whose label she’d been inspecting, and blushed when he’d kneeled to pick it up. And he had felt it during mass when his gaze fell upon her eyes as he delivered his sermons. Sad serious eyes. Beseeching eyes, glazed with a somber emptiness. In her mid-twenties, Mrs. Langdon had the mien that Father Roy had only seen in souls burdened by the yoke of a life-long secret too shameful to reveal.
Now, he spied her through the grid separating the compartments of the confessional. Motes of dust floated in the hazy light which outlined her profile, the effect making her seem even younger – plain yet exuding that curiously poignant allure borne of vulnerability: the naïve appearance of a peasant saint. She smiled as if they were sharing a moment of innocent intimacy.
“What is my penance, Father?” she asked again.
He leaned towards the grid. “Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?”
She took a deep breath and looked down at her hands which lay folded on her lap. “Yesterday, I was looking out my kitchen window at my neighbor’s back yard. She has a row of tulips; yellow, pink and red, all lined up like perfect soldiers. And suddenly – I really don’t know how the thought got in my head – I imagined what it would feel like to step on them; to crush the flowers under my feet. And I felt such a thrill, as if I were really doing it. I just stomped and stomped and stomped, and I could see, in my mind’s eye, how the stems were left all bent, the petals torn, but what’s more… I could feel them under my feet.”
A bang echoed in the church. A worshipper had dropped a kneeler in a nearby pew.
“I could feel it, Father,” she whispered. “It was absolutely delicious.”
“You didn’t trample Mrs. Murphy’s flower bed now, did you?”
“I did in my heart.”
“I don’t think that rises to the level of a transgression.”
“But Father, isn’t it a sin when we think something…when we think of something so much that we start to feel it with every fiber in our body.” She was breathing heavily now. She looked at him through the grid, her eyes watery, her lips slightly parted. “Isn’t that a sin, Father, when you imagine the impossible and live it in your thoughts?”
Father Roy brought his fist up to his mouth, turned his head slightly and coughed. He felt a bead of sweat trickle down his back. Mrs. Langdon’s demeanor, the shape of her mouth, the subtle heaving of her chest thrust forward like an unexpected belch the memory of that summer his family vacationed in Door County before his sophomore year in high school – the last family vacation. He had met a girl – Kathleen was her name – the daughter of a man who sold fresh produce out of an old, converted gas station. Auburn hair, lanky legs bronzed by the sun and lively green eyes that beamed with all the incandescent self-assurance of sixteen-year-old beauties.
Roy’s mother referred to her as “that jaunty lass”.
“Do you intend to whittle away the afternoon with that jaunty lass again, Roy?”
“Her name is Kathleen.”
“The way she looks at you…”
“We’re just friends, mother.”
One afternoon they had gone swimming on a secluded rocky beach; not another soul in sight. When Roy inched his way deeper in the lake, toes curled, arms raised as if he had a gun pointed at him, gasping as the frigid water lapped at his waist, Kathleen chopped the placid surface of the lake with an outstretched palm spraying chilly droplets across his back. Roy arched his spine and jutted out his shoulder blades as if in the throes of a spasm while the jaunty lass snorted and snickered.
“It’s not funny!”
She splashed again and giggled.
“I’m warning you, you little vixen.”
Kathleen’s jaw dropped at this last word but then her eyes lit up and again she started splashing with renewed zeal using both hands.
Roy chased her in the shallow waters plodding clumsily on the smooth pebbles that rolled and shifted under his feet. She attempted a half-hearted escape, trudging backwards, but soon Roy was upon her (she, by now, paralyzed by howls of laughter) and he wrapped his arms around her.
“So you think that’s funny? You think that’s funny? Now I’m gonna dunk you; let’s see how funny that is!” He grinned at her with clenched teeth as he gaped in those bottomless emerald eyes.
She grabbed his shoulders, pressed them, kneading his taut muscles. “As if you can,” she said in a tantalizing voice.
He widened his eyes, then squeezed her more tightly, lifted her off her feet. She palmed the nape of his neck, just pitting his skin with her nails. Roy plopped her back on her feet and they wrestled playfully, reveling in the contact of their bare flesh. At last, he was able to grab both her forearms just above the wrists and immobilize her as she twisted her torso.
Then Roy saw her as he had never seen a girl. Her chest was heaving, her skin glistening with tiny droplets, her auburn hair tousled over half her face, her white bikini top pushed below her left breast exposing a bright pink nipple. He let go of her arms, took a step back. She said nothing, just stared at him, her mouth open, breathing more heavily still. Then she lowered the rest of the bikini top letting it flip over her toned midriff. Roy gawked at her smooth, downy skin, at the pale, plump breasts. His Adam’s apple lurched up towards his throat. She gently clasped his wrists, brought his hands to her breasts and pressed her open mouth to his lips.
“Isn’t it a sin to have some thoughts, Father Roy?” Mrs. Langdon said in a near whisper.
Father Roy was breathless. “About tulips?” he asked, attempting to sound nonchalant, but his voice quivered.
“As a man, do you ever feel the urge to –”
“I am not the one in confession, sister,” Roy said. It was not the first time someone had tried to ask him that question – a query impertinent souls seemed compelled to ask a young priest with the looks of a Hollywood movie star.
“I’m so ashamed, Father. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I just don’t know what to do any more.”
Father Roy grasped the silver crucifix hanging over his chest and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. He considered giving a short discourse on the tenth commandment but decided on a more pragmatic approach.
“When our path grows dim and we’re in peril of losing our way, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of our commitments. Our commitments define who we are. When I step in the shadows, I remind myself of the covenant I made with God.”
“My husband sickens me.”
The suddenness of the statement left Father Roy speechless.
“We haven’t had sex in over six months,” she said. “I wanted you to know that.”
“The Diocese offers couple’s therapy for marital conflicts. Perhaps –”
“Couple’s therapy!” Mrs. Langdon said with a sour chuckle. She shook her head. “I’m such a fool. For some reason I was under the impression that we…” She pulled a crumpled handkerchief out of her handbag, dabbed her nose and sniffed. “Tell me my penance, Father.”
Roy hesitated. “Your penance is to reflect on the holy sacraments of our church. And… say a rosary.”
“Am I absolved of my sins?”
Father Roy made the sign of the cross, trying not to make it appear perfunctory and said, “Go in peace, sister.”
He listened to the clicking of her heels resonating off the church’s tiled floor as she walked away, brought a knuckle to his lips and inhaled deeply through his nose. How was it that he had still not learned to recognize when women were attracted to him? Was he doing something to garner this type of attention? Could he whole-heartedly deny that he enjoyed it?
A figure entered the confessional and sat heavily on the wooden bench. “Forgive me father, for I’m about to sin.”
The musty smell of stale beer and sweat permeated the enclosed space making Father Roy sit back and turn away.
“How long has it been since –”
“You know damn well the last time I went to church, Roy.”
“Andrew?” Father Roy studied the silhouette through the perforated partition. “Is something wrong?”
“It started, Roy.”
“It has begun. How did Churchill phrase it? Not the end of the beginning but the beginning of the end… or maybe I’m saying it all wrong. I don’t know, you’re the one with the fancy schooling.”
“Maybe we should go in the Parish office.”
“It’s been going on for months. I know you’ve seen it too. You just didn’t want to say anything and of course I’ve been trying to hide it. That’s the Copeland family way, isn’t it? Ignore things, deny they’re happening, hide all the evidence and go about your business with a stiff upper lip. Isn’t that what Pops did?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But he did know. He couldn’t deny that in the last year he had witnessed his brother’s worsening mood swings and those barely perceptible moments of hesitation that were becoming more frequent; those same tell-tale signs he had witnessed in his father when the illness had yet to progress to its extreme. Signs that made Roy feel powerless, like a sandcastle on a beach in the face of a slowly rising tide. So he ignored it all, said nothing, and prayed.
“At first I thought I was just overworked, you know,” Andrew said. “Pulling overtime, staying out late with the boys, getting burned by the candle at both ends, so to speak. Then this morning, I’m driving to work. I got my thermos and lunch pail on the front seat. I get on the Eisenhower, same damn route I’ve taken for twelve years. But today I get to South Damen and I realize I don’t know where the hell I’m going. I don’t have a fucking clue!”
He lowered his voice. “I don’t have a flipping clue, Roy. I pull over in front of Cook County and I start bawling like a kid in a department store who can’t find his mom.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“It’s not the booze, Roy. It’s not the damn booze.”
“Have you seen a doctor?” the priest asked.
“They might be able to help.”
“Like they helped our father…who art in heaven?” Andrew snorted. “You know there’s not a damn thing they can do.”
Roy swallowed hard. He wiped beads of sweat from his upper lip as a rhythmic pounding grew in his temples.
“You’re frightening me, Andrew.”
“I’m frightening you?” Andrew let out a chuckle. “Hell, Roy, you never had nothing to be frightened of your whole life except God above.”
Someone knocked on the door of the confession box.
“Hold your piss out there! The stall’s taken,” Andrew said in a gruff voice. There was a timid shuffling of feet, then the resonating silence of the church. “Roy, I’ve never been good with words, and I don’t like to wear my feelings on my sleeve like a damn chevron, but I want you to know something. I want you to know that you’re the best damn brother I could have ever asked for.”
Roy felt a pall of guilt draping over him. “I’m the one who should say that to you.”
“Just hear me out. I know I haven’t always told you, but I’m proud of you. I’ve always been proud of you… even when you made us lose at stick-ball.”
“Which was all the time.” The men chuckled.
“You made me a better man,” Andrew said.
“After all you’ve done for me I can’t bear to hear you say that.”
“I thought this was a confessional. Don’t people come here to get things off their chests?”
“They come to be absolved of their sins,” Roy said.
“And you can do that?”
“God can do that. It’s never too late to open your heart.”
“It’s too late for me. But I do need to get something off my chest.”
“It’s time to come clean with you about something, Roy. Something you should have known long ago.” Andrew rubbed his massive hands together, stopped suddenly and cracked his knuckles. “Two things we Copelands have always been able to do: hold our liquor and keep a secret.”
“I’m afraid I’m not so good with the liquor part,” said Roy.
“No, I suppose not, padre,” Andrew said with a wistful smile. The wooden bench creaked as he shifted his weight and leaned into the partition. “Now listen carefully. I can only stand to say this once.”
The two men sat with their heads inches from each other as Andrew spoke in a hushed tone. At one point Roy let out a gasp and recoiled. Andrew paused as his brother gazed at the darkness hanging over the floor – the priest’s eyes darting about – and resumed his soliloquy when Roy leaned heavily towards him again.
Andrew murmured for another minute or two. Finally, he straightened and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as if trying to brush off the bitterness of the words from his lips. “Just promise, if something happens to me, you’ll take care of the bride and child.”
“What’s going through your mind?” Roy said between heavy breaths.
“Just promise me.”
“You know I would never abandon them.”
“That’s all I needed to hear.” Andrew cleared his throat and sat silently.
Roy felt as though he were inching towards the edge of an abyss. That he would fall into the darkness if left alone to ponder his brother’s revelation. But an even stronger fear was pulsing through his veins. There was something in Andrew’s countenance: an eerie sense of relief, a cool resoluteness that sent a shudder down the base of Roy’s neck.
“Maybe I can come by the house tonight,” Roy said. He wanted to punch through the partition, to clench his brother and not let him leave.
“You got customers waiting,” Andrew said. “Business is good for you these days.” Andrew got to his feet. “Good-bye, Roy.”
When Andrew opened the oak door of the confession box, a small man wearing a tweed jacket stood outside, a crest of wild gray hair spilling over his wrinkled forehead. The man’s eyes opened wide at the site of the large police officer stepping out of the confessional and he began to finger the well-worn fedora he held by his paunch, turning it in his hands as if it were a steering wheel. Andrew stopped in front of him and said, “Give a man a chance to pull his pants back up, will you?”
Roy greeted the next penitent in the confessional but his mind remained on his brother. How was it possible to feel such dread and deliverance, contempt and gratitude, guilt and utter relief all in the same breath? He had witnessed souls under severe strain shift from throes of laughter to sobs of despair in the span of a few seconds and always wondered how this was possible. But now he understood. He rested his head in his hands, elbows digging in his thighs, and tried to catch his breath.
A sound like a hollow crack startled him. Not the sound of a kneeler. It must have come from outside. It brought his focus back on the words of the old gentleman who confessed that he lied to his wife about going to Cicero and losing fifty bucks at the Hawthorne race course, and that he harbored less than charitable feelings towards the Negroes who were moving westward into good Irish neighborhoods.
The murmur of voices reverberated off the church’s arched ceilings; then a single plaintive voice: “Someone call an ambulance. A cop’s been shot!”