[Originally Published in Writes For All (Summer 2012)]
The church altar looms in front of me and I clasp my hands between my legs, bowing my head. Mike leans in towards me when I do and I feel this tension in my throat, like the closer he gets the harder it is to breathe. I try not to let it get to me, but it’s hard when I just know he’s going to say something to piss me off.
“What’re we doing here Brig?” he asks.
I stay quiet, keep my eyes on the large, detailed crucifix hanging up on the back wall. This area’s got money. It’s got to, to keep a cross like that up on the wall of a building this fucking big. One of the best looking crosses I’ve ever seen. Or the worst depending on how you look at it. Creepy, all that detail in the spikes around Jesus’ head, the nails in his palms and feet, the hole in his side and the bloody tears on his face.
Me personally, I’m not religious but, if I had to choose, I’d rather have one of the cheap ones myself; like what they’ve got over in Little Havana, where the church isn’t even really a church, just a room with lines of chairs and a picnic table, two popsicle sticks set up on a stand. The type of cross where Jesus looks like a mannequin and the nails in his hands and feet are just dots drawn with permanent marker. At least then you can just feel bad about the story. Listen to the gospel and shake your head, throw a peace sign up at the sky then go on about your business.
But this five foot, thousand dollar crucifix they’ve got over here, carved out of marble and hanging low to the ground, it makes my forehead hurt from frowning so hard. It’s no wonder Catholic people are so damn religious. That shit’d scare anybody to their knees.
I cross myself and kiss my fingers and Mike, he can’t leave it alone. He leans in towards me again.
“Brig, why’re you doing that?” he asks. “You ain’t Catholic.”
“I know that, Mike.”
“Then why’re you doing it?” I don’t answer and he shakes his head. “You don’t make no sense sometimes.”
I look over and try to see through Mike’s big block head, to the other end of the pew I’m sitting in, third row, to the left of the center aisle facing the altar. I do this sometimes, try to see what others see. Or don’t see. Used to be I didn’t try to see the truth. Used to be I just tried to convince myself everybody else was crazy and I was the only one left with any sense. But I know that’s not true, which you’d think would set me free, right?
Wrong. Only in books and movies. Nothing ever gets right in real life. It just sits around until it rots and dies.
Mr. Black paid a lot a money for the shrink he sent me to after my breakdown. I mean, normal circumstances I’d have just been stuck in a corner, left to my own devices. But in my line of work there’s an image you’ve got to portray: cool, calm, calculated. And standing there bawling at your boss’s daughter’s wedding then punching the groom out for patting you on the back is just not a professional way to go about things.
Mike showed up a few days after that whole fiasco, and hasn’t left me alone since. The shrink, I told him about Mike sitting out in the waiting room picking at his fingernails and the doc just stared at me and nodded and said “mm hmm, mm hmm,” over and over again until, I swear, I thought I was going to have to shoot him just to shut him up.
When I was done he told me I had stress-induced schizophrenia and I’d be alright when I relaxed and saw “things how they really are.” Then he handed me a prescription for Clozapine and pushed me out the door. Month later I’d gained ten pounds and got this crazy craving for pork rinds (I fucking hate pork rinds; even when I was craving them, I fucking hated them. You know what that’s like? To crave something you can’t fucking stand?) I could barely lift my gun, had to use both hands just to grip the barrel, recoil damn near knocked me off my feet. And Mike was gone, sure, but I was useless, crying all the time and asking people all these random questions about meanings of life and all that. Mr. Black, being the man he is, he said good help’s hard to find nowadays and told me to get off the meds. Stress or no stress, I see what I see, long as I do what I do best.
But I try sometimes anyways, every once in a while. Try to see what the doc says is the “reality” of the situation.
Mike isn’t real.
“I’m paying my respects,” I say to him, glancing at the crucifix. “You cross yourself when you’re paying respects to a cross.”
“But you don’t even believe in heaven.”
I look back at Mike, the haggard face, the ruffled shirt and crumpled pants. A reason I didn’t believe anybody at first that Mike wasn’t actually there: if he’s really a figment of my imagination, why this guy? Mike looks like a plumber, all mushy and wrinkly and sagging around the edges. A foot shorter than me, couple years older too. Don’t resemble me or anybody I’ve ever known in any way whatsoever. Never met anybody who liked bright colors the way he does: baby blue button-downs and cream shade slacks. And they’re always a mess, greasy, like he washes them in olive oil.
Mike hates my dark suits too, says something about them every time I’m at the cleaners, tries to convince me to trade my black shades in for orange or blue or even gray sunglasses. Even gray would be better, he says. It’s just—the black ones are just so damn depressing.
Looks me right in my face and says Brig, why do you dress like the devil’s son?
Gets damn annoying when you’re standing at the counter paying for your dry cleaning and somebody’s whispering that shit in your ears. And he smiles a lot. Big, toothy smiles. Makes me want to punch him in his goddamn mouth.
I stand up and straighten my suit coat, stepping into the church aisle. Mike jumps up and follows.
“You still haven’t told me why we’re here, Brig.” Mike says. “You’re not going to do what Mr. Black told you, are you? Please don’t tell me you’re going to do it, Brig. It’s not right.”
“It’s my job Mike,” I say, heading to the back of the church.
“I thought you said you were going to quit,” he says.
I reach inside my coat to check my piece, sitting in the left pocket against my chest, the bulging silencer on the right.
“I never said that, Mike,” I say quietly. I glance at him. “You did.”
“But this isn’t right Brig,” he says. “It isn’t right at all. It’s bad, really really bad.”
“Being broke is worse.” I pause. “Being homeless is the shitter. You want us to be broke and homeless?”
“No,” he says, pouting. “But why can’t you just get a real job?”
“How about you go get a real job,” I say. “See if anybody’ll hire you.”
He grumbles behind me as I walk around the last pew, stopping beside the confession booths and sitting on the edge of the pew closest to them. The booths are mahogany, shaped like coffins with floor length wine-red curtains hanging from the top and enclosing the benches inside. The hum of a whispering voice drifts over to me and Mike, whose sitting in the pew right next to mine, staring at me.
“What if you become a fisherman?” he says.
I turn slowly towards him.
“Yeah,” he says. “We could buy a boat, head down to the Keys and push off from the coast. Cruise around the ocean, catch fish, eat some, sell some, go out for more. That sound good?”
“I don’t know how to fish, Mike.”
“Can’t be that hard,” he says, bringing his hands up into fists and placing one on top of the other, like he’s holding a fishing rod. “How do you think all those other people down there do it? You just gotta find the right spot. I bet we’d find the perfect spot.”
“I don’t like fishing, Mike.”
“Then what do you like?” he asks. He leans towards me, conspiratorially. “Killing?”
“I told you,” I say. “It’s a job.”
“I hate to say it,” he says, shaking his head. “But I wouldn’t be around right now if you weren’t doing this. They put me here to help you, you know.”
“Help?” I say, then laugh. “You’re helping me? You’ve got some—and who is ‘they’?”
“They,” he says, motioning around the church and turning to look at the crucifix up on the altar. “Him.”
“Jesus Christ did not send you here to help me Mike.”
“How do you know?”
“Because,” I say quietly. “It doesn’t happen like that. Jesus doesn’t help people like me.”
“Why do you have to be so negative?” Mike says in a chastising tone. “Nobody’s all bad.”
“Never said I was,” I say. “Not that good neither.”
I tense up as the voices in the confessional booth pause and the curtains flutter, the weight of steel in my pocket weighing my jacket down. The voices resume a moment later and I relax.
“We could leave right now,” Mike says and I sigh. “I know you got some money saved up somewhere. We could take it and just go.”
“Go where, Mike?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Canada? England? I always wanted to go to England. Heard it’s real nice over there. England would be good for you, for both of us.”
I look at him and he stares back at me with his big blue piercing eyes. I try again to see through, see the church wall behind, see anything but him.
“You know,” I say, cracking my knuckles. “I used to have a partner.”
“Here we go,” he says, throwing his hands up.
“No, Mike, really. I used to have a partner. Brown. Good man, Brown. You’d like him.”
“I bet I would,” he says.
“Brown was there the day you showed up, you remember?”
Mike stays quiet.
“Martinez job, Downtown. I was cleaning up when you just waltzed right in. You remember Mike?”
“Yeah,” he mumbles. “I remember.”
“You remember what happened when you showed up?”
He stays quiet again, crossing his arms.
“You don’t? Weeeell,” I say, patting my stomach with fake satisfaction. “Allow me to jog your memory, Mike. Gladly. You walked in and—you remembering this, Mikey? You walked in and I told you to get the fuck out, Brown asked me who the hell I was talking to, I pointed at you, and all of a sudden Mr. Black’s sending me to shrinks, Brown wants a new partner, and I’m stuck with you, alone, but not really alone, right? That sound about right, Mikey?” I pause here and stare at him and he’s looking at the windows and the pews and the floor and the confession booths and everywhere but in my direction. “Now, everybody thinks I’m crazy as all hell and I’ve got to hang out with your stupid ass all day long because you decided that I, quote unquote, ‘needed your help.’” I spin away from him, wiping the corners of my mouth. “If this is your idea of help, my friend, well,” I chuckle. “I’m alright. Just fucking alright.”
“Come on, Brig,” Mike says, turning his head to the side and giving me a pleading look. “You can’t swear in church. It’s sacrilegious.”
“It’s a building.”
I quickly duck my head as a figure emerges from behind the curtain of the left side confession booth, a young dark haired woman wearing a tight dress and high heels. She crosses herself standing in front of the booth and stares at the ground, walking quickly around the back pew to the center aisle and heading straight for the altar. Her shoes clack against the floor and the sound rings up to the concave ceiling, bouncing off the walls like a loosed atom. I keep my face turned a little so there’s not much for her to see of me, wait until she’s out of earshot then stand up and approach the booth.
“Brig, you don’t have to do this.”
I pause, clench my fists, then reach into my jacket for my piece. Pushing the curtain to the side, I sit down in the booth and pull the silencer from my other pocket. It touches the barrel of the gun with a soft click of metal against metal and I screw it on tightly. Deep breaths drift over from the priest on the other side of the wall and I can hear the scribble of a pen. I check the clip one more time then click it back in slowly.
I’m about to speak when the curtain in the entrance of the booth suddenly swishes to the side and Mike pops his head in. My gun hand shoots up reflexively, pointed directly at Mike’s forehead, my breath catching in my throat, finger hovering over the trigger. He jumps back, scrunching up his face as if expecting a punch to the nose.
“What are you doing?” I hiss, bringing the gun down, slowly.
“Look at you Brig,” Mike says, pointing at me and the gun as if the combination explains the meaning of life. “You’re wired, man. You don’t want to do this. This is a bad idea, Brig, you know it. We have to go.”
“I’m trying to work,” I whisper. “What’d I say about bothering me while I’m working?”
“I’ve got a real bad feeling about this, Brig. Come on, let’s just leave. Please.”
“No,” I say firmly, pulling the curtain so it closes him out.
“Is everything okay?” the priest asks from next to me.
I check the silencer on the gun and flip the safety off, my hands trembling for the first time I can remember.
“Yeah,” I say. “Just…nothing.”
“That doesn’t sound too convincing, my son,” he says in this light, feminine voice. It’s a real eerie sound, that disembodied voice in my ears, and I’ve got to peek through the small mesh screen separating us just to make sure there’s actually somebody on the other side. I glimpse wrinkled skin and a white collar.
“Yeah,” I say. “Well, I’m not too convinced myself.”
“What’s the problem?” he asks.
“I just came to, uh—confess,” I say, then chuckle. “Isn’t that what you do around here?”
“Yes, my son,” he says gloomily. “That is what you do.”
I grip the gun in both hands. On the other side of the curtain Mike’s feet face me, standing directly behind the curtain. As I watch, they turn and walk away, soundless.
“I’m losing my mind, father.” The priest stays quiet and I chuckle again and realize what I keep chuckling at is the irony of the situation. Me—me—in a confession booth with a priest. If he only knew. “Lost it already, actually,” I add.
“Why do you say that?” he asks.
“It’s Mike,” I answer, loud enough that I’m sure Mike can hear, then I squeeze my eyes shut and rub my forehead. “Not Mike, me. And Mike.”
“Okay,” the priest says skeptically. “Who is Mike?”
“That’s the thing,” I say. “He’s nobody. He’s not even real. He’s in my head, but I think that’s the problem, you know? He’s getting in my head. He knows me. He’s under my skin, making me second guess myself, making me think that maybe I should reconsider some things, you know? But I—don’t know. Thinking like that can get you killed in my line of work.”
“What is it you might be reconsidering?” the priest asks, and I’m suddenly reminded of the head shrink’s office, how he kept asking me questions, kept me talking, kept drawing circles and happy faces on his notepad, like I didn’t notice. I realize then that Catholic priests are like holy psychiatrists or something, and the idea seems so ridiculous that I laugh, long and hard until the priest clears his throat.
“Sorry,” I say, forcing the laughter back. “It’s just, I’m starting to think I shouldn’t be doing what I do. But it’s hard to think like that because I never minded it before. And it isn’t even like I mind it now, I’m just starting to think it might be—hurting me or something, without me knowing it, you know? That’s all it is really. I don’t want to screw myself up.” I pause. “I mean, its guilt that’s eating away at me, but not the type of guilt you’d think it was. I’m not sad for these schmucks out here, nothing like that. It’s the things I could be doing that I’m not, you know? I’ve got dreams. Not like I grew up wanting to get in this business. Just sort of—” I close my eyes, take a deep breath. “—happened. But still, it’s like, I’ve got nothing to complain about right now. And I was happy until Mike showed up. So I’m wondering, is it just Mike making me feel like this or is this real?” I shake my head and stare at the mesh screen. “I can’t even tell what real is anymore.”
I pause and the priest clears his throat, doesn’t say anything. I peek in the mesh screen again, same wrinkled skin and white collar.
“You’re a man of God,” I say. “He created all this nonsense, so you tell me, what is real? ‘Cause I can’t tell anymore. I mean, how is it that Mike isn’t real and all this crap is when everything in my head’s telling me exactly the opposite?”
“My son…” the priest says, his voice sounding tired. There’s a moment of silence and I wait, watching the mesh as if the priest’s face is right there in front of me. He clears his throat again. “What are the sins you wish to confess?”
“That’s just the thing, father,” I say, throwing my hands up. “I’m not even Catholic. I’ve never confessed nothing to nobody a day in my life, with the exception of telling that shrink and my boss about Mike. And even then, I didn’t tell them how I really felt about it, just that he was there in the room. But if they had wanted to know what it was really like, I don’t know what I would’ve told them. So you asking me that, I don’t even know where to begin.” I bite my lip. “I’d never even think half the stuff I did was bad if it wasn’t for Mike. It’s just a job, you know? Just a fucking job.” I pause. “Sorry about that. The swearing.”
“This man you speak of,” the priest says. “Mike, he sounds like he’s trying to help you.”
“But I don’t need help,” I say. “At least, I didn’t. Not until he showed up.”
“Maybe he showed up for a reason then.”
“See,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m not buying that. Mike keeps spewing that same crap but I’m not buying it because—how come it hasn’t happened to nobody else?”
I can hear the priest shuffle around in his seat.
“My son,” he says again, and no doubt about it now. He sounds tired. And aggravated. “Everybody is saved in different ways. It’s how the lord works”
I sit back in my seat and fiddle with the gun between my hands, the booth’s curtain fluttering a bit. On the other side the church’s silence feels like it’s pressing on the outside of the booth. I imagine the dark haired woman with the tight dress and loud high heels on her knees at a pew, crossing herself repeatedly and staring at the statue of Christ in agony on the back wall.
“I just wonder sometimes,” I say finally. “Is there a point? ‘Cause I can’t see it, if it’s there.”
“The Lord is the point, son,” the priest says. “He is the point, and his will is our reasoning.”
“That’s great,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Uplifting and all that, but what if the reason I do what I do—the things Mike’s telling me I shouldn’t be doing—ain’t the reason that would necessarily piss off the man upstairs? Is there like, a person who calculates your thoughts and passes judgment on whether or not you meant to do what you done?” I cough, swallow thickly. “I don’t mean to hurt nobody, not emotionally at least. I just do what I’m told. And somebody else’d do it if I didn’t. Like today.” I pull back the hammer of my gun with a resounding clack. “I’m only here ‘cause Mr. Black sent me. I didn’t ask for it, I’m just doing my job, the job Mr. Black hired me to do. I don’t know you from Joe fucking Schmoe, but Mr. Black knows you. And you probably know Mr. Black. I’m assuming you do, or he wouldn’t have sent me here. Mr. Black’s a lot of things, I’ll say that, but mistaken’s not one of them.”
I stare at the mesh screen and see the wrinkled cheeks on the other side go slack.
“And,” I continue. “If I don’t take you out right now, there’s a good chance Mr. Black’s going to take care of both of us. What would you say is the reasoning behind it all then, huh? What’s the point of that? So we throw the self-defense issue in and I gotta ask, don’t I got a lawful and spiritual right to protect myself? To provide for myself and survive by any means necessary? And what about you? What about your part in this? You obviously did something to piss Mr. Black off, something which probably weren’t too Godly or whatever, something premeditated, malicious, deceitful, take your pick. This’s just a job to me. So, who’s on the back end of that moral dilemma? Wouldn’t I be justified in doing my job and scraping some scum off the street at the same time? Moving on with my life, maybe getting saved in another way along the line? Or am I supposed to sacrifice myself so you can go on doing—whatever the fuck it is you do?”
“I-I,” the priest stutters out finally. “Mr. Black—I told him it was a mistake last week, Johnny came late and things just got—the cash goes—”
“That’s another one,” I say. “What about the economy? Does that account for anything? Did God take that into consideration when he created all these rules? I mean, what’s a man supposed to do: starve his way into heaven?”
“I just—” the priest says, and I think he’s crying, his voice sounds thick. “—I need a few more days, a week maybe. Please.”
I nod like he can see me and the priest coughs on the other side, a strangled sound. The gun glistens in a ray of light peeking through a space in the curtain.
“I just don’t know how anybody’s supposed to know what to do,” I say. “The world’s all fucked up.”
“Please,” the priest whispers. “Tell him I will pay him soon.”
“But like I keep telling Mike,” I say. “A job is a job. We’ve got to live somehow. Better to provide for yourself than be broke and homeless.”
“Please,” he whispers again.
“And like you just said,” I say, turning toward the mesh again. “You just said it. People get saved in different ways. Isn’t that what you just said, Father?”
There’s a muffled, raspy sound on the other side and the priest starts sniffling.
“What are you going to do?” he blubbers.
“The only thing I can be sure of, Father,” I say, snapping the gun up to hip-level, pointed at the wooden wall separating him from me, “is my will. It’s all I got in this world, the only reality the way I see it.” I shrug and glance up at the ceiling. “If there is somebody up there, he should’ve made things a little clearer.”
I pull the trigger and the gun bucks in my hand with a whoomph. I pull the trigger again and my elbow knocks against the wall behind me with the recoil, the whoomph a little louder. I stare at the mesh window and the wrinkled face and white-collar slump down, out of view. Standing up, I scratch my chin, stare at the two smoking bullet holes in the wall, then pull the curtain to the side and step out of the confession booth. I step over to the booth next to the one I just came out of, pull the curtain back and put one more in the priest’s head, then turn back to the church. The woman from the altar’s gone, and so is Mike. The church is empty except for me and the dead priest, which makes the place even creepier than it already was.
I sit on a pew and, at first, I feel fucking amazing. Like I’ve finally figured things out. Five minutes later, though, Mike still hasn’t come back and I start to feel like a kid walking through a mall trying to find his parents. I stare at the gun, waiting, look around. The sun shines through the stained glass window on one side of the church, rays jetting through the set on the other side so there’s this rainbow streak across the walls and ceiling. It’s beautiful until the sun moves behind a cloud and the colors disappear and the church’s thrown back into darkness.
I unscrew the silencer from the gun and stick the pieces in my jacket pocket then stand and leave.
Outside, I get in my car and pull out the half empty pack of cigarettes from the middle console. I shake one out and stick it in my mouth.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take for you to quit smoking those things.”
I jump and the cigarette falls out of my mouth as I grab my gun from my coat and swing it around to point right in Mike’s left eye. He doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch, nothing. Just sits there, staring at me.
“That’s the second time today you’ve pointed a gun at me,” he says.
“That’s the second time today you’ve scared the shit out of me,” I say.
“Sometimes a man needs to be scared,” he says. “For his own good. Can you get that gun out of my face?”
I don’t drop my hand, keep my finger on the trigger and we stare at each other. The air is thick, hard to breathe, and a bead of sweat breaks out on my forehead. Then Mike’s mouth quivers and he breaks into a dumb smile. My mouth does the same and Mike laughs so I laugh, put my gun away, and start the car.