The God In The Machine
Five o’clock. Time for the third collection run of the day. Father Jameson’s back groaned as he stood, pushing aside the notes for the Sunday Sermon he wouldn’t give, but always wrote. Force of habit. His mortality surrounded him. The curtains had gone sheer and yellow with age, his chair no longer sat level on the floor. The finish on the desk had mostly worn off. The room smelled strongly of stale cigar smoke, although he had given up the vice years ago. He made the sign of the cross as he exited his small room.
The church was empty. As usual. Jesus stared down at him from an oversized crucifix behind a pulpit no one stood at anymore. On Sunday a large white curtain would drop down, hiding Jesus. A young, good-looking, computer generated man would give a sermon to the few folks that didn’t have the funds to livestream from home. He looked down at the worn floorboards, his chest filling with something he couldn’t identify beyond “emptiness”. But how can emptiness fill something? he thought.
He went behind the pulpit and picked up two large duffel bags. They felt heavy over his shoulder and he wondered how he would load them in and out of the church van once they were full. He ran a finger around the inside of his cleric’s collar and set out.
The Confession Machines had renewed religion. When people could stop by for confession on the way into the grocer’s for milk, or outside the welfare office, they were suddenly all Catholic. They didn’t even have to talk to anyone.
Forgiveness for five dollars. Cheaper than a latte.
His first stop was Starbucks. He walked through a room of people sitting one to a table with coffee in hand, to the Confession Machine in the back. He punched in his seven-digit passcode and went into a claustrophobia inducing dark room, shutting the door behind him. Another, longer passcode, and the collection bucket slid out. He grabbed a handful of credit card slips. “No one uses cash anymore,” he said to himself. “Hell, no one uses the church anymore.” He silently cursed the machines that had stolen his congregation from him, and hauled out the rest of the slips.
His second stop was the confession machine at the liquor store.
People could do all sorts of things by themselves these days.
He went into the manager’s office, where the back of the confession machine opened, and punched in his code. He closed the door behind him and took a deep breath. The thing that couldn’t be emptiness filled him again. Here in the dark, he felt it the strongest. He missed his confession booth in the church, where he often sat, running his arthritic fingers over the screen. He hated the machines. They had taken the anointed calling of the priesthood and turned it into a moneymaking gimmick. He started to punch the second code into the control panel when he heard a sound like an old inkjet printer. Someone had paid the machine.
He paused, then checked the door. It was closed. When he was inside the box, it wasn’t supposed to let anyone in. He rubbed his chin. He wondered if he could pull the cash bucket with someone sitting on the other side. Surely it wouldn’t hurt anything. He punched the code in, the bucket popped out. A lonely five-dollar bill sat atop the credit card receipts. Father Jameson smiled, and held it in his hand for a moment, looking at the deep green face of Abraham Lincoln. He smelled it. He never realized how strong the smell of money was until people had stopped using it all together.
He heard a woman’s voice. “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I have come to confess my sins. My last confession was…” she sighed heavily.
Father Jameson felt his face go cold as the blood drained from it. She sounded just like a girl he had known before he went to Seminary, when he was still attending a secular college in Northern California.
“My last confession was when I was a child,” she finished. “I… I don’t know. I suppose I just need to talk?”
“I am here to listen my child,” the machine said. It had the same proud voice as the computer generated Father Jim that ran the weekly sermons. Father Jameson clenched his fists. He hated that thing’s voice.
The woman on the other side didn’t speak, Father Jameson wondered if she could sense the human presence on the other side of the computer and had lost her nerve.
“It’s just that… I didn’t plan on coming in. I came to buy some rum, but I just felt like I should sit in here, is that weird?”
“Your Father in Heaven loves you, my child,” the computer voice said.
Father Jameson closed his eyes. He could see Olivia. He was twenty years old, and she was eighteen. He had already begun thinking of seminary by then, but his thoughts rarely stayed on God when she was around. She had thick, full brunette hair that was so long it brushed the top of her heart shaped ass when she walked. He would lay with her on the grass outside the freshman dorms and try not to look into her big brown eyes when he said he would probably drop out. He would probably go to seminary.
She laughed. “Why would you want to do that?”
“I’m Catholic,” he said.
“Yeah, so am I. I’m not running to the convent.”
“Maybe I’m called,” he said, staring at the clouds.
She leaned in and kissed his face. Her lips always smelled of coconut, and always left a lingering spot of oil on his cheek. “You sure about that?”
He smiled wide and turned toward her, and tasted the coconut on his lips. He wasn’t. Not with her there, with lips that smelled of coconut, and the exposed skin above her pink V-neck sweater smelling of fresh petunias and hard candy.
“I see all these people coming in here,” the woman in the confession machine said. “And, I guess I just wanted to know why. Does it really make them feel better? It wasn’t so long ago that nobody seemed to believe in God anymore.”
The confession machine didn’t have a response for that.
“They still don’t,” Father Jameson whispered. “They don’t even believe in man anymore.” He closed his eyes against tears that pushed against his aging, paper-thin eyelids.
“I guess I wondered how it felt in here,” she continued. “I come here everyday. I walk past five of these machines to get here. I go to the same shelf and buy the same bottle of liquor. I never stop for a Confession Machine. I never have. I don’t know why I’m here. I walk past this thing everyday since my sister died. I walk right past it to buy her favorite rum and a bottle of Coke. She liked it with two lime wedges and called it a Cuba Libre. I never knew anyone who didn’t just call it a rum n’ Coke, ya know? Even if it was Pepsi. Anyway she’s been dead five years. Around the time these things started popping up everywhere. I’ve been coming to this store for five years to get my liquor, and today I come in here. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I do anything anymore.”
He had brought her cherry liqueur. It went down thick and sweet, burning his throat a little. It stained her coconut lips a glossy pink. When she drank, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes shone back at him. It gave him an exhilarating and uneasy feeling that she could see into him. He took a sip from the bottle and she giggled. A warm tingle went from his throat to his stomach, and then filled his groin.
“Maybe I should go,” he said.
“You’re not a priest yet.” She put her hand on the back of his head and put cherry-coconut lips on his mouth.
Her soft breasts pressed against his chest, and his skin went hot. He pulled her tight against him and let his tongue taste the cherry liqueur in her mouth. She pushed her hands up his shirt and pressed her fingers into his belly, then up his chest. His nerves were replaced with something stronger, something overpowering, and he pulled her shirt over her head, breathing in the smell of flowers and candy as he kissed the cleavage pushing out of her bra.
The next morning he awoke naked in her bed, her leg draped over him. He thought about finishing his degree and working as an engineer, like he planned out of high school. He thought of cherry coconut kisses and the feel of her naked breasts on his stomach when she kissed his neck.
“It’s more than that,” the woman in the box said. “This world… it’s so cold. No one talks to anyone anymore. Everyone files into these machines, but if you go to church, you’ll only find empty pews and dusty hymnals. I used to believe. I believed desperately. But… the church feels empty to me now. Not just because no one is there, but because it feels like He isn’t there either.”
“Doubt is natural, faith must be nurtured,” said the machine.
Father Jameson shook his head in the dark. He was still holding the five-dollar bill. He thought of the giant Jesus being covered with a white sheet so people could watch the computer-generated clergyman tell them he understands their struggles. The stained glass windows covered in blackout curtains so they don’t distort the images. Communion was stale bread and whatever alcohol he had left around his room. Why would God live in such a place?
“I understand that,” the woman said. “But where is God? Where do I find Him? He isn’t in the church. He isn’t in the computer screen. How do I find Him? How do I nurture faith when no one even talks to anyone else? When they pray to computer screens?”
“Seek and ye shall find,” the machine said. “Knock and He will answer.”
Father Jameson heard her breath hitch. He thought she was crying.
“Your confession time is up,” said the machine. “Please press ‘OK’ to receive your penance or pay five more dollars.”
“GOD DAMNIT!” The girl said. Another five-dollar bill came through. Father Jameson caught it in his hand. He marveled at it. A woman who carries two five-dollar bills? He held the relics of the past in his hands and rubbed his fingers over them. Ten dollars in cash. If he had anyone to tell this story to, they’d never believe him.
“I just have so much doubt,” she said, sniffling. “I feel so full of… emptiness.”
Father Jameson’s head bolted up, his heart pounding. Had he misheard?
“I just don’t understand why it has to be this way?”
It was the last day of the semester and he had to be out of the dorms by five. His parents would be there in an hour to load his belongings into the family station wagon and take him home. He looked out onto the courtyard. It was raining. She stood just inside the room, arms crossed over her chest. He could feel her eyes burning into the back of his head.
“You’re really doing it.”
“I am,” he whispered.
“I just… I don’t understand why it has to be this way!”
“It does.” He watched raindrops make ripples in the puddles and thought he would like to remember that exact shade of green. Grass-in-the-rain.
“I thought…” Her voice cracked. “You said you loved me.”
That was the first time the emptiness filled him. Back then it was a barbed and ugly thing. He wanted to turn to her and tell her the truth. He did love her. He did want to stay, but he was afraid. But he didn’t. He kept studying the grass. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, picturing that green. Green like a five-dollar bill.
He stood silently at the window until he was sure she had left. When he turned around, his parents were at his open door.
“Is it possible there is no God? Is it possible that people just come to these machines because it makes them feel better about the things they are afraid of? Or that we just want to hear another voice so badly that…”
Father Jameson put his hand against the wall and rested his forehead against it. He wished for an intercom button. He wished for an old style confession booth where he could see the person through the screen, where he could give them answers and guidance that a computer could never generate on the spot. He wished for perfume that smelled like flowers and Jolly Ranchers, and a time when people needed each other.
Mostly, he wished he could tell her she was not alone. This girl who sounded like his first and last lover. This girl who carried money. This girl who knew what being filled with empty felt like.
He would sit in the dark silently, while she waited for answers. And when he was sure she was gone, he would leave.
He wondered if it was raining outside.
“Fuck it,” the woman said.
Father Jameson felt forty-year old tears run down his cheeks. He should have told her. His throat was full of mucous and the emptiness seemed to fill all of him. He smacked his hand against the wall. “I was supposed to believe! I went away because I knew if I stayed I would never believe. Not all the way. I couldn’t look at you because if I did, I wouldn’t leave.”
“Hello? Is… is someone in there?”
Father Jameson pulled at his cleric’s collar, deciding whether he should out himself.
“I thought I heard someone… This is supposed to be a machine, right? Is someone listening in?”
“You can hear me?” he asked.
“Oh my god…”
“It’s fine. I… I’m the priest. I come to collect the payments. I won’t tell anyone. I can’t break the seal of Confession.”
“I thought this was automated. I didn’t think anyone would hear me.” Her voice raised.
“I’m sorry.” He said. It felt lame. He tried to swallow through the mucous and failed. “The machine… God is not in this machine.”
“I mean. You’re right. He’s not in this machine and he isn’t in the church. Not now.”
“Is He in you?” She asked.
He tapped his head against the wall, swallowing years of pride. “I’m not sure.”
“I thought you said you were a priest.”
He folded his fingers over the cleric’s collar and pulled it out. “I thought I was.”
She was quiet.
“Why do you carry money?” he asked.
“What? Is that important?”
He rubbed his thumb over the two bills in his hand. “I guess not.”
He heard a shuffling and the door shut. She was gone.
He held the cleric’s collar in one hand and the two fives in the other. He stared at them.
He dropped the collar into the duffle bag and folded the bills neatly before putting them into his pocket. He stood there for a moment, staring at his worn out shoes, then reached up inside the hole where the bucket usually sat and felt around, his fingers aching. His fingers brushed a thick rod, what felt like a gear, and then, a collection of wires. He forced his arthritic fingers to close around them, winced with pain and pulled as hard as he could. The wires came free. He dropped the ruined wires on top of the duffel bag.
He left the bag lying on the floor, and walked out of the small room.
He could see her, standing in front of the liquor bottles, watching him. Their eyes met.
She didn’t look anything like Olivia.