Penance

by Ed Ahern

 
Walter Mueller waved a thick arm toward the stained-glass windows. “We’re not going to knock those out, Imre, even with what the heat loss will cost me. We’re going to back-light and strobe them so they’ll pop out at our drinkers. Sanctified eavesdroppers. Should give the clubbers guilty pleasure staring at them while they’re hooking up.”

Father Imre Herceg winced at the man standing next to him in St. Emeric church. The Connecticut parish, once full of Hungarian-Americans, was almost without members, and unable to pay its bills. But its sale to a man creating a singles bar seemed close to sacrilege.

The two men made an odd pairing. Father Herceg was gaunt and tall, with white hair, and in his black cassock looked like a lit funerary candle. Walter Mueller’s well-tailored gray suit struggled but failed to mask his portly frame. They looked like the personifications of starvation dieting and binge eating.

“I’m glad the bishop let you handle matters, Imre. You’ve been a lot easier to deal with than some of the bishop’s gofers.”

“Thanks, I guess. You paid a large amount for a hundred-forty-year-old church in need of serious repairs. And disregarded the rumors about the church being haunted. So long as what you do with the desanctified building is legal,we will have no objections.”

The concern in Father Herceg’s eyes was apparent.

“Don’t worry, Imre, no sinning will be done here. Well, at least not consummated here. And the ghosts just add to the clubbing experience. I’m going to have the wait staff in pale makeup, like vampires.

Imre Herceg shifted topics. “The religious items—altar, tabernacle, statues—will be out by the end of next week. You do still want the pews and organ?”

“Hell, yes. We’re going to step the pews two high along the side and front walls. Pad the seats with suggestive cushioning, bolt down some bitty little cocktail tables and let er’ rip. Figure to use the organ as background music for the wet tee-shirt contests.”

The priest kept silent. He’d been given the failing parish as the last gasp of a forty- year career. Imre had wondered at his ordination if he might become a prince of the church, bishop perhaps, or archbishop. But between a weakness for the bottle and an unwillingness to be unctuous, he’d remained a journeyman priest.

After showing Mueller out through the sacristy door, Father Herceg left the church lights on and slowly paced down the central aisle to the rear of the church. The winter dark made the empty church seem dim, as if the season was fighting against the lights. As he walked, the priest once again thought he felt the brushed contact of others, like commuters ignoring him in their passage. Just drafts, he reminded himself, or the misfiring senses of old age.

The diocese had ruled that confessions must be scheduled weekly, so St. Emeric held them every Saturday evening from five to six, whether or not anyone showed up to repent. As he reached the confessional, Father Herceg extracted his breviary from a pocket in his cassock and opened the middle door. His flock strongly disliked sitting face to face with their confessor, so the carved oak confessional with kneelers and screens was still in use.

Imre picked up his silk stole from the shelf and placed it over his head so the ends draped down to his waist. Then he sat on the cushion he’d left on the chair and opened the breviary. He’d already read the daily selection, but had the strong feeling that God liked repetition in prayer and started over.

“Páter Herceg.”

Imre started and dropped his prayer book. He hadn’t heard anyone enter, and the confessional doors always creaked.

The man spoke in Hungarian, his voice wavering as if it were windblown. “Páter, I need to confess to you before I can leave.”

Imre said his pre-confession prayer to himself. “Of course, my son, please begin.”

“Bless me, Páter, for I have sinned. It has been a hundred twenty years since my last confession—”

“Wait, a hundred twenty years?”

“Yes, Páter.”

“I don’t recognize your voice, but you sound much too old to be playing a prank like this. If you’re not here for confession, please leave.”

“Páter, this is very hard for me to accomplish, so please listen closely. My name was Halasz István, and I was a parishioner here at St. Emeric.”

Father Herceg had leaned closer to the latticework separating the two men, but the penitent’s side of the confessional was very dimly lit, and all he could see was a vague gray shape.

“Mr. Halasz, you’re not making any sense, and if you don’t leave, I’ll be forced to call 911.”

Halasz’ sigh sounded like a slow leak from an air mattress. “The police could never find me. Please, Páter, I’d rather not demonstrate. Many of us were left here without choice after our funerals. But with the church closing, we must find a way to leave. We hope if you confess us we can go.”

Father Herceg found his voice and took out his flip phone. “I warned you. Now get out, before the police come.”

He pushed the three numbers, but before he could hit send, his hands went numb with bitter cold, the fingers frozen in claw shapes.

“Please, Páter, we are desperate for your help. We live here with you, and know you to be a good man, despite your watching those cable television shows and drinking too much vodka.

Father Herceg shook his hands to try and get back feeling. The phone popped out and bounced off the side wall of the confessional. He jumped up and grabbed the handle of the confessional door and tried to turn it. But the handle, like his right hand, was frozen.

“Holy Mary, protect me,” he yelled. Imre slammed into the confessional door twice before it splintered off its hinges and hung sideways. As Imre ran out, the hissing voice resumed. “You should have more faith, Father. Now we must demonstrate.”

The priest ran awkwardly toward the front of the church, out of breath by the time he reached the altar. As he did so, he watched the flower-filled vases around the altar tip over one by one, spilling water onto the floor. The ciboria inside the tabernacle began rattling together, and the water in the baptismal font began slopping over. A stray thought broke through his panic—that the vases and the flower stems weren’t being broken, nor was the font. It was careful mayhem.

The telephone land line was already disconnected, and his cell phone, if it still worked, was in the confessional. I am, however fallibly, a minister of God, he thought, and will stand within my faith. If this is demonic, I must face it. I will not abandon this church while I tend to it.

Father Herceg’s hands had thawed, and he took out his rosary and walked back down the main aisle to the confessional. He grabbed the penitent’s door and threw it open. The air inside seemed hazy, but there was nothing else in it. He stepped into the center cabin to retrieve his breviary and phone. The abused phone was dead. As he sat in his chair, punching phone buttons, the voice resumed.

“Páter. We are asking for a sacrament you are ordained to give. What evil can there be?”

Imre shuddered. “Mr. Halasz, was it? If you are a Catholic, you will know that the church’s sacraments are for the living and not the dead.”

Am I in an alcoholic delirium? Imre thought. Some aftershock from a stroke? “What you ask is impossible.”

“Our baptisms are listed in the church records. And our other sacraments and funerals. We’re part of your flock, Páter. I can give you our names and birthdates.”

This delirium will pass, Imre thought. Find a witness who will prove this apparition false.

“Look, whoever you are. It is a cruel, clever trick. I’m going to the Vilmos house next door and call the police. You’d be wise to run away before they come.”

“Vilmos is my great-grandson. Please give him my blessing.”

The priest jumped up, stepped out of the confessional, turned around, and flung open Halasz’s confessional door. And again, nothing was there but a faint shimmer. He walked unsteadily out the rear door of the church and over to the Vilmos house.

Father Herceg watched Vilmos’ shocked expression as the priest telephoned the police. “It was a– an attempted shakedown, I guess, from a man hiding in the confessional.”

“There’s a patrol car on the way, Father, please stay at the Vilmos house until it arrives.”

As the policeman was speaking, Imre could hear a siren getting louder. After the police arrived, they searched the entire church and the rectory, finding nothing, and took Imre’s statement.

“The man wasn’t a thief,” Imre said, “but he’s seriously disturbed.”

“And you didn’t see him when he knocked all that stuff over?”

“No, officer. I know it sounds crazy, but I couldn’t see anyone.

“Yeah, crazy. Well, Father, do you want to move out of the rectory tonight?”

“Thank you, officer, no. You’ve searched the church and I’m sure he’s long gone.”

Once the patrol car had left, Vilmos insisted on walking back into the church with Imre and helping him clean up the spills. As he was removing the splintered door from the confessional, Vilmos jumped backward.

“What is it?”

“I thought I felt something tousling my hair. Just nerves, I guess.” Vilmos’ smile was forced. “Or maybe our famous ghosts.”

“Nincsenek kisértetek itt! There are no ghosts here.”

“As you say, Father, but some of us are superstitious.”

Imre thanked Vilmos, locked up the church, and walked across the driveway to the rectory. Let it go, old man, he thought. You’re not leaving this church, this church is leaving you. You’ll probably go to a nice inner-city parish where everyone speaks Spanish.

He poured himself three fingers of vodka, added ice, and dropped into his recliner, the only piece of furniture in the house that wasn’t convent-Spartan. Imre launched a recorded episode of a mature-rated cable show and let the vodka work its magic. He paused the show twenty minutes later, got up, and dropped fresh ice into his glass.

How did Halasz know how much I drank, Imre wondered, and looked around. He started to pour, glanced around again, and stopped at two fingers’ depth. I could get an exorcist, he thought. But no, they’d never agree to an exorcist for a church that will be profane in a few weeks.

* * *

The next morning, Imre reentered the church and searched through all three confessional cubicles for microphones or wires, but found nothing. He stood outside the oak doors and spoke aloud, his voice echoing in the empty church.

“Infernal or ghostly, if you’re here, show yourself, and I’ll show you what an ordained priest can do with the Roman ritual!”

It’d sounded stupid as soon as he said it, and his bravado died away unanswered. Yeah, sure, he thought, and returned to the rectory. The death of a church involved about as much paperwork as its birth, and Imre got busy officially notifying present and former parishioners of the closure and suggesting alternate parishes that could minister to spiritual needs and would be grateful for donations, however small. The work extended, with a break for a sandwich lunch, until five that evening. It was again dark, and Imre paced slowly back over to the church. After letting himself in, he walked to the front of the altar and looked up at the massive crucifix.

How many marriages, he thought, and baptisms, and holy communions, and funerals. And this wonderful old dilapidated house of God is being discarded like yesterday’s vegetables.

“Páter,” the voice wheezed. “Páter, I’m afraid I must insist.”

Imre jumped and spun around looking for its source. But the church was empty. “So, you don’t need a confessional to speak.”

“No, but dark spaces make it easier. You need to confess us, Páter.”

“Why don’t you all show up at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. I’ll invite the bishop.” Imre realized that he was being sarcastic because he was afraid.

“The light disrupts us, Páter, in a painful way I can’t describe to you. You will need to confess us in the evening, after dark. We were not sophisticated, and you will find our sins commonplace.”

“How many of you do you claim there are?”

“Twenty-seven, counting myself. If you use our years alive, there’s one boy of ten, and the rest of us range from our twenties through our eighties. Sixteen women, ten men. We’re not evil, Páter, it would be like confessing the Holy Name Society.”

Imre sat down in a front pew for almost ten minutes, thinking. Then, without standing, he spoke toward the altar.

“This is a moment when I wish I were trained in logic like a Jesuit. I am probably delusional, in which case what I do will be without moral consequence. And if I, in good faith, administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there should be no evil, perhaps only impropriety. But if you, my mental aberration, do not truly repent, the sacrament is null and your sins will remain with you. Do you understand this?”

“Yes, Páter.” The voice seemed a chorus of softly whistling words.

Imre was silent again for a few minutes. “And these confessions would involve penances.”

“Of course, Páter.”

“Are all these ‘parishioners’ here?”

“Yes, Páter.”

“Then let’s begin. With you. It will probably take a few hours.”

As Imre walked back to the confessional, his thoughts churned. Is what I’m about to do a sin of itself? If they’re not released, will they haunt me instead of my church? Just walk out the back door, priest, and don’t come back.

But Imre knew he couldn’t desert. At the rear of the church, he entered the confessional, donned his stole, said the usual prayer, and slid open the panel that allowed him to hear a penitent.

“Yes, my son.”

“Forgive me, Páter, for I have sinned, it has been a hundred and twenty years since my last confession.”

“Go on…”

Their sins, as Halasz had said, were mundane. Carnality, of course, and theft, greed and gluttony, all the seven deadly sins were well represented. But no murder, no acts so vile that Imre shuddered. All had died before the advent of porn sites or shaming on Twitter, which was refreshing. The boy, Gáspár, made Imre heartsick. He’d died at ten of pneumonia, before he’d had a chance to become good or evil. His confession could have been Imre’s at the same age. The boy did not deserve to serve penance, and Imre absolved him with an extra blessing.

By the third confession, Imre found himself asking their names, and where they had lived, and who among their descendants might still live near the church. He felt he was attending a parish reunion spanning more than a century, and was sorry to end the last confession a little before eleven that night.Cretin, he thought, you’re just pandering to a delusion in hopes it’ll dissipate. May God forgive me for what I’ve just done.

As Imre stepped out of the confessional, he thought he felt hands gently patting his back.

“Thank God for you, Páter!”

“Halasz?”

“Yes, and everyone else. Gáspár has left us. When he came out of confession, he had a smile that would melt gold, and then, no words, he just left. You’ve given us hope, Páter.”

“There’s more for you to do, Halasz.”

“Yes, Páter.”

* * *

Father Herceg handed over the church keys and moved out of the rectory two and a half weeks later, at eight in the morning. Mueller had crews waiting to rip out the pews and rearrange them. As he left, Imre could hear the rusty screams of bolts yanked from concrete.

Priests never really retire, just work part-time. Imre found himself housed in the rectory of a placid suburban parish, Assumption, where ethnicity had lost relevance. His new parishioners thought his being Hungarian exactly as significant as his being a Capricorn.

He read two months later that his old church, newly christened as The Sacred Sinners, had opened with a capacity crowd. Curious, Imre drove by the next Saturday night. The large church parking lot, nearly empty for Sunday masses, was full, and a long line of young men and women stood outside the rear doors waiting admittance. The emblem of the club, a heavily made-up angel wearing a low-cut celestial robe, hung above the doors.

Thousand one, thousand two, Imre thought. Patience. Let’s wait and see.

The wait took three more weeks. As he was celebrating a 10:30 Sunday mass, he noticed a large florid blob in the congregation. It was Mueller, who trapped him after mass was over.

“Father, you gotta perform an exorcism.”

“Mr. Mueller, nice to see you, too. What’s this about an exorcism?”

Mueller waved his arms, and Imre noticed sweat rings that had seeped through the suiting. “The club, ah, church. It’s possessed. People are afraid of it.”

“Please, Mr. Mueller, let’s just sit in this pew.” Imre hitched up his vestments so he could sit more comfortably and turned to listen.

“My club is ruined. People come in, they don’t even finish their second drink, they turn all pale or flushed and almost run out. They claim something’s whispering in their ears, threatening them with damnation if they sin. Word spread; nobody even comes anymore. That damned church is costing me a fortune. I gotta have an exorcism.”

“That’s something you should talk to the diocese about. I’m sure the bishop would listen closely to your complaint.”

“That son of a bitch! He told me there was no such thing as ghosts, and that I’d bought the church as is, problems and all. But you could do it for me. You know the church is haunted.”

Imre nodded in apparent sympathy, but inwardly asked God to forgive him for the almost lie he was about to utter.

“I’m afraid I’ve never seen a ghost, inside or outside of Saint Emeric. Maybe there’s something in the ventilation?“No, no, goddamit! I know fear, and these wanna-be players are scared shitless.

“Language, please, Mr. Mueller. I’m not authorized to perform an exorcism, but I could visit your club, could even bless it if you like.”

“When, Father? I’m hurting bad.”

“Well I’m tied up this week with masses and visits to hospitals, but I could stop by perhaps a week from tomorrow?

“You’re killing me, Father. Look, I’ll pay you to come by later today. We’ll call it a donation.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, but no, thank you. A week from tomorrow?” Which should be enough time, Imre thought, for you to slow-cook properly.

“Oh, hell, all right.”

* *

Father Imre arrived at four in the afternoon. Even in daylight, the interior of the ex-church was garish, with nightmarish pink and purple lighting strips festooning the walls. A long bar with perhaps twenty stools had replaced the altar, and shelves of liquor bottles took the place of the tabernacle.

“It’s quite a change, Mr. Mueller, but I don’t see anything supernatural.”

Mueller frowned. “Nah, nothing’s happened during the day, but then there’s nobody here but the cleaning crew. And it didn’t attack the staff. Can I get you something? A drink?”

“A healthy Grey Goose would be nice.”

After a sip, Imre continued.

“I’ve had a chance to talk to some of my parishioners about your place, Mr. Mueller. It seems that its reputation is terrible. I don’t know how you’ll recover. You have my sympathies.”

“That’s not what I need, Father. If you bless this place, will the demons go away and leave me alone?”

“I’ve never seen real proof of any ghosts, Mr. Mueller. Any blessing is spiritually valuable, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t be much use against something imaginary.”

“So, what the hell am I going to do?”

“I wonder. You have several other businesses I believe, all profitable?”

“Yeah, they’re good money makers.”

“How would it be if you were to take a tax loss on the club by selling it off cheaply and offset the loss against the profits from your other businesses?”

“You sons-a-bitches! You think you’re going to hustle me? I’ll burn this place down first and claim the insurance.”

“No, no, Mr. Mueller, you misunderstand. We don’t want the church back. Just think for a second. Depending on how you declare the value, the church and the costs of improvements, you might actually make money selling the building. I can think of several congregations that might be interested.”

Mueller remained silent during an internal calculation. “I don’t know how, but you’ve screwed me, Father. I’ll think about it.”

* * *

At Mueller’s invitation, Father Imre returned to the church about a month later, shortly after dark, and walked up to the bar.

“You know what I’ve done, Father?”

“Yes, Mr. Mueller, it’s been on the news.”

“I still think you and the bishop diddled me, but I sold it like you said. I’m a little ahead of the game. And I could move the appliances and lighting to another church that hasn’t got any spooks. Would you consider acting as a consultant for me, help me get through all your holy red tape?”

Imre smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Mueller, but I can’t. Good luck though. Maybe the next church will be your conversion.”

“Yeah. No hard feelings. I left you a little something on the bar. Goodbye, Father.”

Mueller let himself out the sacristy door while Imre looked out over the dance floor, trying to visualize people kneeling in pews. When he was sure that Mueller had left, he called out. “Mr. Halasz?”

“Yes, Páter.”

“Is everybody here?”

“Yes, Páter.”

“You’ve succeeded. The club has been shut down, and a Pentecostal group, Joseph’s Many Colored Coat, will be moving in. You have performed your penances well. When you whispered in the ears of those clubbers, you acted as their consciences. I believe your penance is fulfilled, and pray that you can move on. The Lord be with you.”

They answered with a sibilant group “And also with you.”

Halasz spoke a last time. “We’re leaving, Father, the oldest ones first. Köszönöm!”

“You’re welcome. Goodbye, my little flock.”Imre reflexively turned to face the absent crucifix and noticed a bottle of Grey Goose vodka and a glass on the bar. Just one, he thought, for missing members.


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