Our Lady of Sorrows

Somewhere in Heaven (probably downtown, where all the freeways come together in a great gleaming golden bow of an interchange...) is an office building the size of Mount Everest, in which angels with massive ledger books and quill pens keep the balance of our sins. When we do or think something bad it is noted in our account summary, and when we go to confession the priest gives us the bill for whatever we declare, and as we do penance our balance is brought back to zero. The Church is nothing if not well-organized.

I knew that the key to ever being able to behold this magnificent skyscraper or any of the other marvels, monuments, rides & attractions that Heaven has to offer was in making sure you didn’t die when you were in the red. But certain thoughts and deeds of mine seemed too strange & terrible to ever admit to, so I confessed to invented sins that I hoped would be bad enough to stand in for those shameful wanting-to-be-a-girl ones. It was a pretty nifty system I had worked out. Until that Sunday when I was twelve, when my whole clever scheme came crashing down around me!

OUR LADY OF SORROWS
== A JACKIE KAISER STORY ==
(Six months before the events of The Abattoir)
by Laika Pupkino

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|||)===[ LAPSED CATHOLICS ]==0==0==0==0==>
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When we lived in town my family had gone to church at Our Lady of the Sorrows every week. But after we moved out to the Badlands my folks started finding excuses not to go. And then after a while they stopped even making excuses. I couldn’t see why, we hadn’t moved that far out into the Boonies-

Or no, actually I had a pretty good idea why. My mom and my stepdad had always been the topic of gossip, of knowing smiles and polite greetings somehow brimming with insinuation, and our moving from town had just seemed to make it worse. We were “those weirdos”, doing God knows what in that miserable little single-wide out at the end of Savoy Creek Road. Ours was a family so rife with dysfunction that even miscreants like the Bagley brothers or the evil Mrs. Krumfelter could look smugly down their noses at us.

“Did you see Sam in church this morning? Half in the bag again, as usual. Almost fell outta the damn pew!”

“That don’t surprise me. When they lived in Pinewood Village my friend Irma had the trailer next to theirs. The stories she told me! Screaming and yelling at all hours of the night, or the morning she opened her drapes and saw Sam passed out naked in her begonias. I don’t see why Fran doesn’t just take that kid and split.”

“You have to realize it’s all they know, that kind. When that’s what you grow up with it just seems normal. You remember the grandfather, right?”

“Gerhardt?! He was a real piece of work, wasn’t he?”

"God yes! Did you hear about the time-"

My parents had taken to doing the bulk of their shopping in Sutcliff ninety miles away, usually after our twice-monthly pilgrimages to the swap meet at the Big Sky Drive In. It was true that a dollar went farther at the WalMart there, but I don’t think this was the real reason we started shopping there.

“And that boy of theirs. That ‘Jackie’...” (these villagers as often as not supplying my name with quotation marks when they said it.)

“No fooling! First time I saw him, I was thinking: ‘My God what a homely girl!’ And then I realized it was...." (laughs), "Christ, what a little pansy!”

“Well with parents like that it’s no wonder he’s so screwed up-”

“Screwed up” was one of the nicer things these people said about me. In what was still something of a rough frontier town a boy like me stood out like a Bird of Paradise on a turkey farm.
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|||)===[ ALLIES & ENEMIES ]==0==0==0==0==>
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And what the adults usually whispered, the kids at our compact little elementary-through-high-school would shout. Pussy. Homo. Bitch…

There were three boys in particular whose mission in life was to torture me. The teachers and the man who drove the school district’s single bus did what they could to stop them but I still got beat up several times a month, covering for the black eyes etc. that I came home with by claiming that I’d fallen off the jungle gym or something, like I was the clumsiest kid on the planet. I regularly “lost” things too, like when my school books would be knocked out of my arms and torn to shreds. It’s no wonder I cherished those days when I got to stay home with a headache or the stomach flu.

While most of the students shunned me---either because they agreed with these three psychopaths or just wanted to avoid trouble with them---I did have certain kids who liked me. My best friends Sherrie and Janine, and a few others.

It was Sherrie who befriended me first, when we were both nine. I stood watching her sitting on the playground by herself, engrossed in some ritual involving a tiny red ball that she was bouncing, and these spiky metal things she was tossing and scooping up.

This new girl who had recently moved to Hellebore looked up and gave me the huge smile that I would soon come to love her for. She gestured, “Hi! You wanna play jacks?”

“I don’t know how,” I confessed.

“That’s okay. I didn’t know either ‘til my mom showed me. She says this is what they used to do when she was growing up, because they didn’t have PSP's or even Gameboys.”

“They didn’t?”

“No. And she says computers were these big giant things you had to shovel coal into to make ‘em go. My mom, she’s like a hundred years old…”

Sherrie and I really hit it off that day, both realizing that we’d found a valuable friend; And shortly after this she introduced me to Janine, who had been in my class since first grade but who I hadn’t really got to know that well. And now---at twelve---I couldn’t imagine life without these two girls.

And because they liked me, most of their girlfriends also decided that I was okay (except for the three who splintered off to start their own group because of me). When we played together it wasn’t long before they all seemed to forget I was a boy, which was something I would’ve loved to forget myself. Hanging out with these girls felt like coming home, the brightest moments in my basically crappy life.

Of course this female peer bonding didn’t go unnoticed by my enemies, who would distract us in our playground games with taunts and catcalls. And then after school…

”Yoo-hoo! Jackie Girl!” came a mocking falsetto cry as they moved in on me.

“Whoah! Lookit all the books. You goin’ for extra credits, you kiss ass bee-otch?!”

I wasn’t very good with comebacks at times like this, and I’d learned that even when a good retort did occur to me, however gratifying it might be to score a verbal hit, the price I payed in the next moment would be far too high.

But of course for me to not respond wasn't satisfactory to them either, and they soon had me on the ground and were teaching me a lesson for daring to be enrolled at their school.

"What a fuckin' pussy! Look at ‘im, he's gonna cry. You gonna cry, little girl?"

Sometimes they did make me cry. And at other times my eyes remained dry---even when these three boys were whaling on me---feeling hot and tight and burning with useless rage. And sometimes I wouldn’t start crying until later, at home; and then only in the safety of my room, as I hugged and commiserated with one of the ten stuffed animals that dwelled at the head of my bed. Because I had an enemy at home too...
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|||)===[ IT'S ABOUT RESPECT, SEE? ]==0==0==0==0==>
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Or if not an enemy, then at least often and quite vocally disappointed in the sort of son I was turning out to be. And who probably would’ve been a lot happier if I had been one of the school’s troublemakers instead of the main focus of their bullying. And who loved to give me lectures on the ways I should walk and talk and be---on ATTITUDE---that might as well have been in Farsi for as useful as I found them:

“Y’know, when I was stationed at Fort Lincoln back in ’86, there was this one dude---little guy, maybe one-fiftyfive soakin’ wet, I had to wonder how he even made it into the Army, puny as he was---that a couple of hard-cases thought they could fuck with. I tell you, that was a mistake someone only ever made once. He didn’t have the reach or much of a punch, but he made up for it in pure crazy! Used to carry this flashlight; it didn’t work, he’d filled it with ball bearings and ready mix, screwed it back together and let the sucker harden and- Well like one time there was this big cholo, Alvarez I think his name was, who really thought he was some kind of bad-ass. And so one night after Lights Out ...... Hey! Would it be too much goddamn trouble to look at me when I’m talkin' to you?”

I’d had a horrible day that day. The self-proclaimed "Body Count Posse" had gotten to me both before and after school, and all I wanted to do was watch WINX CLUB and lick my wounds in peace.

“I am looking!”

“With what? Your eyes are lookin’ everywhere but at me! This is something you need to hear. It's how the world is. Or do you got somewhere more important you need to be?”

“No. I just…"

“It’s about respect, see? About not taking shit from people, or they're gonna- Just what?”

Taking shit.

I pressed my hand to my stomach, “It’s just I have to go to the bathroom, real bad.”

“Go on then. Make it quick.”

Which I didn’t...
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|||)===[ BOOGA-BOOGA! ]==0==0==0==0==>
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I clunked the seat down loudly. Ran water in the sink. Gingerly took my shirt off and looked in the mirror at the scrapes across my shoulder, the bruises along my ribs. They weren't too bad this time…

I pulled my pants and underwear down, then off, and surveyed my body. Skinny, knock-kneed, not curvy in the ways I’d fantasized, but not conspicuously masculine either. Not terribly unlike the physiques of some of the girls that I palled around with, and not all grossly pelted in body hair- Thank God!

But I knew from my sex ed classes (which had stuck to the mechanics of things and made procreation sound about as fun as peeling potatoes...) that it would start changing---in a few months, a few years at best---in ways that I dreaded. That nasty little wrinkled sack under my willie had plans for me that I wanted no part of…

A knock on the door: “What’re you doing in there, writin’ your damn memoirs?”

I spun the toilet paper roller, ran some more water, “I’m almost done.”

“Hell never mind, it’s useless even talkin' to you. You trying to avoid me? Fine! I’m going…”

The front door opening, closing. The truck starting and pulling out. Off to the Wonderbar, the nearest tavern.

And so I was saved from another dismal lecture about the unforgiving harshness of this world, and what I needed to do---to become---to survive in it.

But was this really the way our whole world was? Women seemed to get along with each other okay without having to carry around flashlights filled with buckshot and concrete. Sure girls could be mean and rotten (especially Luanne Winston and her pinch-faced little splinter group); But to the extent that life was physically dangerous, it seemed like it was because men made it that way. And sure there were exceptions on both sides, like with certain members of my own family, but it seemed like in general...

The first time we went to visit my uncle in the state penitentiary, I was pretty young. As we crossed the visitor’s parking lot toward the great grim seven story building, it seemed to me like a weird place for my uncle to want to live.

“Why does Uncle Dean live here?”

“This is a prison. It’s where they keep bad men.”

“Is Uncle Dean a bad man?”

"Pretty much," chuckled my mom.

I pointed at a smaller structure two blocks away, “What’s that?”

“That’s the women’s facility. Where they keep all the bad women.”

It was just as forbidding, surrounded by the same high fences capped with razor-wire, but it was dinky in comparison, maybe three stories tall and covering less ground. I looked at the one building, then the other. The difference seemed to be telling me something about the natures of men and of women…

It was as if men’s brains were stuck back in some booga-booga caveman era, expecting to be ambushed at any time; looking for violence, geared up for it, and because of this creating it somehow ...... when if they'd just chill the h-e-l-l out, and stop trying to convince each other of how freaking “bad” they were, this world might be a pretty nice place. But this simple and sort of obvious notion seemed beyond them.

In some fundamental way the masculine psyche just seemed so alien to me. It was this as much as anything else that convinced me right down in my bones that I really was a girl somehow.
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|||)===[ IF THY RIGHT HAND OFFEND THEE ]==0==0==0==0==>
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Except I wasn’t. Not according to what I saw in that full length mirror on the bathroom door.

I sighed. Stuffed my cock and testes between my thighs and pressed them together. The sight of my now smooth featureless crotch was strangely gratifying.

It wouldn’t be so bad having nothing at all down there. Maybe not as suitable as what girls had between their legs (which I’d first seen on the day Paul Zeltner shoved that HUSTLER magazine in my face: “Hey Fag Meat! You wish you had one of these, don’t you?!”) but way better than being a male. And I wouldn’t become all gross and hairy either.

My thoughts returned to that massive paper cutter sitting on top of the art supplies cabinet in our classroom. Big heavy scimitar-looking thing hinged to the corner of the gridded oak platform. Sometimes during recess when Miss Kellerman let me stay behind and use the computer I was the only one in there. It would only take seconds, a short burst of resolve.

The harsh electric bell ringing; everyone tromping back in from their kickball game...

Blood everywhere. Screams! Pandemonium! Sirens! Random unexplained explosions! And me smiling through the searing pain…

“Oh my God! Jackie, what did you DO?!”

Not a very nice thing to do to Miss Kellerman after she’d put such faith in me, but she wasn’t the one who was facing transformation into some oversized lumbering ape.

And being right in the middle of town, our school was just blocks from Great Northern Medical Clinic, where I knew I would need to be taken, a.s.a.p…

“Where’s the boy’s genitals? We’ll try to reattach them.”

“He wouldn’t tell us.”

“What do you mean he wouldn’t- ”

Then later, after I had been gurneyed off, the schoolroom floor had been mopped and things were calming down, Paul Zeltner opening his lunchbox to find...

This wasn’t the first time this sort of gristly scenario had run through my head. What was WRONG with me???

As prominent and as constant as all this stuff was in my mind, I had never breathed a word about it to anyone. Not with my parents---Hell no!---and not with Janine or Sherrie either- although with them I’d come close several times. And not with our local priest Father Michael or the younger, hipper Father Anthony who had replaced him recently. I just knew this strange conviction I had about my gender was a sin, and no doubt a mortal one.

As was my secret habit of dressing up like a girl, to the extent that I could with the few things I had hidden beneath my dresser, on those days when my folks had made the long drive to Sutcliff and I had the house to myself.

This was something that television comedians reaped great waves of audience laughter for doing. And when men seemed to be doing it in earnest---like on SPRINGER sometimes---the audience laughter turned ugly and mocking, leaving no doubt about how utterly wrong feelings like mine were.
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|||)===[ JOB 37:14 ]==0==0==0==0==>
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Like parents who force fed their infants and toddlers highbrow music from hundreds of years ago that they personally would never listen to (having read somewhere that this would turn their tyke into a genius), my folks apparently felt that my going to church would be good for me, even though they themselves had given up on “all that happy horseshit”. Because when I told them I was interested in going back they were all for it, happy to drop me off in front of Our Lady of Sorrows at a quarter to nine on Sunday mornings; or if they were swap meet bound that day, even as early as 7:00, giving me a couple of bucks so I could go keep warm inside the Dandy Donuts a block away on Main Street.

But today we weren’t early. If anything we were running late, at least (“Goddamnit, wouldja quit whining? We got plenty of time-”) by my standards. I enjoyed the socializing before and after church at least as much as I did the services. Just listening to the adults talk, mostly. It didn’t seem anything like those critiques I would hear about it on the drive home, back when the three of us had gone; about how this person was a phony backstabber and that one was downright nauseating with how he was boasting about his new ride-‘em lawn mower.

I did get the occasional funny look or curt reply to my “Good morning”s but mostly people acted nice, on their best behavior and trying to be genuine Christians for these few hours on the Lord’s Day.

I waved as our old tailgate-less pickup truck pulled away from the curb, and started across the parking lot toward the church. I noticed how its wide lawn was starting to turn green again after the long winter, and that the people clambering out of their cars weren’t all bundled up the way they’d been just a few weeks earlier. The pale blue sky was filigreed with delicate wispy cirrus clouds, and you could smell springtime in the air. Pollen I guessed it was, the same stuff that made poor Miss Kellerman’s nose so red and swollen and tender, but it smelled really good to me.

I was in high spirits. It always felt good to get away from that oppressive little trailer out in the Badlands, and it was great that I still had nearly half the weekend sitting between me and whatever hassles I'd face at school on Monday. But best of all was that I would be spending today with Sherrie and her mother. It was a standing arrangement that I'd hang out at their place through dinner, or on nice days Sherrie and I would go to the little park across the street from their apartments, and then Sally (Sherrie’s mom) would drive me home...

I saw them before they noticed me. Mrs. Cagle was standing off to the side of the church’s giant titanium airlock doors, having a quick last cigarette with a couple of other adults before they went in; while Sherrie stood a safe distance away, intently studying one of the hydrangea bushes in the planter box along the curved metal flank of the church. Sherrie, keeping an eye out for my arrival, smiled and waved when she spotted me.

“Hey,” I called out as I approached.

“Hey,” she grinned. “You seem like you’re in a good mood.”

“I guess I am,” I replied.

Sherrie had on a pretty aqua and white party dress that came down to just above her knees, and pearlish white stockings as a concession to the fact that while the sun was shining the breeze coming down out of the mountains had a nip to it. On her feet were those cute shoes I liked, the ones held on by a strap that went across the top of the foot. I wasn’t sure if the clashing yellow cotton hoody she wore wrecked her outfit or made it stylishly funky, but if I was somehow allowed to walk around in such a pretty dress I would be loathe to cover it up. Although I realized you'd want to at least have a coat of some sort along on a day like this...

I seem to remember wanting to give my friend a big huge hug, but I’m not exactly sure if this was the case. At twelve we weren’t hugging a whole lot- every greeting and every departure and sometimes just because. That habit would evolve a bit later in our friendship; after a horrible confrontation at home (in which nearly everything I cherished was viciously destroyed) would cause me to break down crying in Sherrie’s kitchen, and I would wind up telling her and her mom EVERYTHING that was going on with me. But back in Spring I just wasn’t ready yet.

Sherrie smirked, “So are you ready to get your ass kicked playing Super Wii Skyscraper Skeeball?”

“You wish!”

“Hey Jackie, check this out,” she said in a kind of hushed tone, and pointed out what she’d been gazing at so raptly as I approached.

Between the two main branches of one of the hydrangea bushes a little roan spider was finishing the construction of an enormous web; an intricate geometric design, flawlessly executed. Hard to believe that a little thing with maybe a dozen brain cells could create something so perfect. This was one of the things I loved about Sherrie. She saw so many of the same things I did, that other people would walk right past...

The web wobbled and shook in the faint breeze, but our tiny friend had been born to do this, and held on by keeping one or another leg hooked around it at all times. Minutes ticked by as we stood and watched it in silence.

“Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God…” quoted someone from behind us. Sherrie’s mom. “That’s from the Book of Job. I think …….. Ambitious little booger, isn’t she?”

Despite what my friend always said (and what the woman herself claimed where it said “AGE:” on her MySpace page), Sally Cagle wasn’t really 100 years old. But she did seem pretty old for a mom, with long straight gray hair clear down her back and a tanned face crisscrossed by wrinkles of varying depth. But her eyes sparkled like those of a young girl, and her smile was warm and full of mischief. She was wearing a sort of cowgirl outfit, an elaborate red and white shirt with yellow rosebuds embroidered on it over a pair of nice black jeans, a chic soft leather jacket and boots that made her look like she'd stepped right off the stage of NASHVILLE TONIGHT.

And she definitely did hug me, grabbing me in a way that wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“Oh I swear I could just eat you up, you’re such a sweetie. God, I wish I could just take you home and keep you! Take you out-”

She stopped, not wanting to finish whatever she’d started to say (“take you out of that hellhole you're living in-”) and went into nonverbal mode, growling her affection like a mama bear as she squeezed me tight. I made desperate faces at Sherrie over her Mom’s shoulder but I wasn’t fooling anyone. They both knew I loved this…

“But that wouldn’t be fair to Frannie, would it?” Mrs. Cagle sighed as she pulled back, looking me up and down as she held me at arm’s length, from my hard black shiny ‘church shoes’ to the cowlick that had been plastered into submission with VO5 hairspray, “My, don’t you look nice today?”

“No,” I snorted disgustedly, “I don’t.”

Some adults might’ve bristled at such a response, regarding it as ‘back talk’, but the 60-year-old divorcee was someone who welcomed honest disagreement, even from kids, and considered what I’d said on its own merits…

“No, I guess you don’t. This looks like your dad’s idea of what a proper young man should wear to church. Where do people get the idea that God listens to Lawrence Welk and not Pink Floyd?” she chuckled, causing Sherrie and I to exchange mystified glances (“Who? …….. WHO?”); then she shrugged, “But anyway it’s great that we get to have you over today. Do you like chicken red curry?”

“I don’t know,” I said. "I had some yellow stuff once called curry salad, I liked that."

“Well I’ve got a mess of it simmering in the crock pot at home. I’ve never made Thai before. If it turns out bad I’ll whip us all up some cheeseburgers,” she smiled, then she noticed that we were the only ones still outside- “Oh! We’d better get in there!”
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|||)===[ BODY OF CHRIST ]==0==0==0==0==>
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Built sometime in the 1990’s---after a particularly hard snowfall had totally collapsed the roof of the old building---Our Lady of Sorrows was a really unique looking structure. A convergence of lopsided conic sections that didn’t quite line up with each other, which towered above the prefab and pasteboard houses on the streets around it. It sort of reminded me of the Space Mountain ride at Disney Dominion up across the border in Saskatchewan.

Some of the locals complained about it, saying it was too modernistic for a proper church, and out of touch with our village’s architectural character (WHAT character, I wondered. The McDonalds? The Jiffy Lube?) but I loved it. Especially the inside, which fulfilled everything the dynamic exterior promised. It was like stepping into another world. The sleek cherrywood pews, the ovoid portals leading off to all the anterooms and offices around the perimeter, everything rounded and flowing into everything else; except for that big jazzy asymmetrical cross rearing up 25 feet behind a railed pulpit that looked like a submarine’s conning tower; its jarring lines intended to symbolize Our Lord’s suffering, His abstract form not discernible right at first but sort of fused with it- kind of like Han Solo from Star Wars when they froze him in that plastic gunk. This departure from the usual bloodied Ecce Homo was something else Our Lady’s critics squawked about. And overhead that fathomless vast purple twilight space---mysterious and majestic---which seemed to glow of its own accord; as if with radiation left over from the Big Bang...

Where today as sometimes happened, a bird who had gotten inside was zooming around in a growing panic trying to find its way out, the sermon pretty much a lost cause as we all watched in helpless sympathy, people muttering “poor thing” when it would bat itself against the big angled stained-glass skylights.

The service was okay---the familiar rites, the catechism, the Eucharist, candles and censers, a couple of hymns, Father Anthony reading announcements (“Father Michael is doing well at the alcohol rehab in Scottsdale and asks for your prayers…”) after his sermon, which as usual was both shorter and easier to relate to than those esoteric, scholarly discourses that Father Michael use to favor us with had been.

One Sunday out of curiousity I'd snuck over and tried the service at the Foursquare Pentecostal Church on the other end of town. They had better music---a Christian rock band of all things, and a pretty good one---and their congregation had an energy (“PRAAAAISE JE-SUS!!!”) that ours seemed to lack. But all their manic enthusiasm had started to feel like pressure after a while. To always be “on”, like you were full to bursting with The Holy Spirit, whether you actually felt it or not. And that babbling stuff they did (“Mooshka pooka hooka looka cucamonga temecula shabadoo gaga!”) was just weird! It had only taken me the one visit to decide that this was more where I belonged ……. And I really was a believer- in the grace of God and the authority of the priesthood, which seemed quite well organized with its clear chain-of-command leading right up to Pope Benedict himself.

But in the back of my mind were grave doubts that someone like me even belonged here. If they only knew…
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|||)===[ GUILT ]==0==0==0==0==>
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The guy and the gal from Animal Control had been standing by outside, and as Bob the acolyte popped the big doors open at the end of the service they made their entrance, to scattered applause, dressed in their short-pantsed khaki jungle-explorer uniforms and carrying poles with nets on the end that I knew could telescope pretty far, but didn’t seem nearly long enough to reach where they would need to.

“Are you going to want to stay for confession again?” Mrs. Cagle asked me.

I shrugged complaisantly, “Didn’t you and Sherrie go yesterday? I hate to make you hang around…”

“It’s okay, really,” she smiled, and Sherrie---who seemed caught up in the efforts of the two with the nets---absently nodded her agreement.

“I’ll try and be in and out first then,” I promised.

A lot of Catholic churches allow for confessions to be heard only during certain hours on Saturday. But with gasoline now at over $3 a gallon, and the distances some folks had to drive to get here, Father Anthony had decided to make the confessional available for an hour on Sunday as well. This began a half hour after the service ended, giving him a bit of time to schmooze with his flock and provide whatever informal counseling anyone might need.

And while neither Sherrie or her Mom minded at all, I did hate making them wait on me. Also, the longer we were here the less time I’d be able to spend with them at their place. But I’d done something earlier in the week that had really alarmed me, and that I wanted to get off my chest.

My chest, oh God…

Like most people probably do, I’d always smugly assumed that whatever other faults I might have, at least I wasn’t a damn thief. But on Wednesday after school I had stolen something.

Not only had I stolen these things, but I had taken them from the home of a friend…

And not only that, but they were items that were quite intimate, and which would’ve marked me as an icky weirdo if I’d been caught hurriedly stuffing them into my backpack, as if I was planning to take them home and sniff them or something (no doubt while thinking creepy thoughts about their previous wearer…) instead of simply wanting them for myself. Every girl should have at least one decent change of underwear, and now I did…

So I really did need to confess this sneaky low-down thing I had done, to make my formal apology to God. Although I didn’t plan to tell the exact truth when I did. I knew it was wrong to lie, but the important thing was to admit to X number of sins and to do penance for them. Wasn't it?
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|||)===[ THE LEVER ]==0==0==0==0==>
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Once when we’d gone to see my uncle at the state lockup, I was put into a sort of waiting room with some other kids for several hours. I was so little when this happened that aspects of this strange interlude are cloudy to me, like I’m not sure if I was there because of some rule that said I was too young to visit an inmate, or if this was some optional thing that my folks could’ve done more often if they’d wanted to; or even if they had done it more than once and I can only remember the one instance. But certain details do stand out clearly in my mind…

There was a massive uniformed guard sort of keeping an eye on us as he sat reading a paperback, and I remember wondering if my parents hadn’t just dropped me off there and I was now a prisoner myself ……… There was a pile of crayons on a heavy scarred wooden table next to a DETECTIVE McGRUFF coloring book---which I was disappointed to find had been completely colored in---and a ragged basketball net up on one wall that probably hadn’t had a ball to go with it for a long time ……… And there were four brothers---Indians, probably from some local Blackfoot tribe---all trying to nap sitting up in the hard plastic chairs. They looked like old hands at this. I remember fingering my inch-long hair and wishing it was as long and as full as theirs was, although for reasons that had nothing to do with Native American heritage…

And then there was one young guy---not a kid but 17, 18 or even as old as 20---sweaty and stubble-chinned, with these weird buggy eyes, who I somehow wound up in a conversation with. He told me he was studying for the priesthood, which was probably as big a lie as all the other bullshit he said to me that day. But I was terribly credulous at that age, and he sounded totally serious and quite knowledgeable as he told me about something he called THE LEVER

It was a thing he’d stumbled upon at the priest school he was attending, a church secret that was whispered about by the other young seminarians. Instances where people go into the Confessional booth and never come back out. They just ....... disappear! It’s something that hardly anyone knows about---it doesn’t happen very often---but there’s a short list of a half dozen or fewer sins which warrant a priest’s use of THE LEVER. Every confessional in Catholicdom is equipped with one of these things.

He didn’t know what sins they were, but these deeds were unforgivable; and when an admission of one of them left a penitent’s lips the Father Confessor didn’t waste time suggesting acts of contrition (“Hell, you could Hail Mary ‘til the end of time and it wouldn’t do no good…”), or with any words at all. He just yanked THE LEVER and the poor sinner dropped through the trap door into an interdimensional hellgate apparatus and down a steep funhouse chute to Hell. And the true horror of it all was that you’d never know that you qualified for this instantaneous damnation until it was too late!!!

“Father Michael! Where’s our son?!”

“Where he belongs. Now you must never speak of him again…”

Later in my young life I would figure out that the guy was either crazy or just stoned on something and having a bit of fun messing with the dumb religious kid’s head. But at the time his dreadful story made a tremendous impression on me. The sense of doom I felt on hearing it (and why) might just comprise the earliest transgendered thoughts I can recall ever having; Although these thoughts---and what I’d been contemplating about those Indian kids and their hair a short while before this---clearly point to the existence of even earlier ones; because I remember just knowing somehow that certain things I was coming to realize about myself lie on that list of lever-worthy sins, if not comprising the whole of it. I was utterly terrified!

In retrospect I don’t know where I got this notion that these emerging feelings of mine were some rare and horrible form of sinfulness. Because the message from the conning tower of Our Lady of Sorrows had always been that we were all fairly equal in falling short of God’s grace---mostly because of Eve’s little screw-up in that garden way back when---with Father Michael mainly giving us examples from his own life (although “intellectual hubris” wasn’t a demon that most of our parishoners really had to wrestle with…); and then finally coming clean about his alcoholism on the Sunday he stepped down as our priest. This was an honest, brave appraisal of his flaws and weaknesses that those who heard it had been deeply moved by, but which was often cited as the hair that broke the camel’s back in terms of my own family’s swearing off of church attendance…

”So all this time he was a goddamn lush? Hell, if I wanted to listen to some old tosspot yammering I can do it while suckin’ on a MGD down at the Wonderbar, and be a helluva lot more comfortable doin’ it!”

Although since we’d stopped going long before he resigned the logic of this was a bit hard to follow.

And Father Anthony would mostly illustrate believer’s problems with sin through hypothetical examples (“Let’s call her Mary Smith…”) that usually had a dry Garrison Keillorish sense of humor to them. There had never been any harping on “the sins of Sodom” or “If a man putteth on the raiments of a woman-” for me to wig out over...

I now suspect that I brought the bulk of this shame about who I was into church with me from the outside. The taunts at school and those cutting remarks that The Ogre was always quick to dispense at home filling me with a powerful sense of guilt---the grim suspicion that I deserved this mistreatment for some reason---that I was all too ready to transpose into the spiritual realm...
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|||)===[RAT MAN]==0==0==0==0==>
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By grabbing my spot long before I would've had to and holding onto it, I had made sure I was the first one up for confession. Not counting Sherrie---who was just there to keep me company---there were four others in line with me and a few more perched on the nearest pews, who would jump into line when it started to move. One was a boy who I didn’t know, who sat thumbing through a graphic novel with a glossy black and silver cover, but the rest were all grownups.

The pair from Animal Control had set up a bird feeder inside a wire cage atop a tall pole on a spindly tripod base. The man had a small remote in his hand that would snap the front of the trap shut if and when the bird entered it.

Sherrie and I were quietly speculating about what comic book the seated kid was reading (it looked to be one of those based on that weird Sci-Fi Channel series DARK CITY, but we couldn’t be too sure from where we stood...), when the man behind us pushed roughly on my shoulder- Nudge! Nudge!

I turned. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the bird trap, “Ya think that’ll work?”

He was gaunt, his pants and old flannel shirt hanging on him like they belonged to someone much fatter, and he had a face like a rat’s that was fringed in long gray whiskers. I didn’t care at all for how he’d selected to get my attention, or the way he was looking at me.

“I guess, if he gets hungry,” I responded in a disinterested and disdainful tone, but he didn’t take the hint.

“You’re that Sam Kaiser’s kid, aren’t you?”

Sherrie whirled to face him. “Leave us alone!”

“Jeez, what’d I say? Can’t a guy ask a simple question? I’m just making conversation,” he keened, all wounded innocence. But his ‘simple question’ had seemed not at all friendly, and now he became openly hostile. He sneered down at Sherrie, “So you’re a damn screwball kid too, huh?”

“Maybe I am,” she answered defiantly, “But at least I don’t live out at the dump!”

He chuckled nastily, “Oh, you’re a toughie! You gonna go all bull-dagger and marry your little pal here, start another fucked up family of freaks?”

This was not the most vicious heckling I had ever been subjected to but it was close, and I despised this man for dragging my sweet friend into whatever problem people had with me and my family. Yet when her eyes flared with anger, and she opened her mouth to really go off on him, I shook my head emphatically- “Don’t!”

“Why not?” she snapped at me, “He started it!”

I pointed. Father Anthony had come back into the church and was striding swiftly up the aisle on his long legs. He nodded as he passed us and went in through the door on the priest’s end of the confessional, unaware of the gigantic fireworks display he’d narrowly prevented here.

“I’ll be outside,” Sherrie said quietly, and then turned to the rat man, “And you, Mister! I won’t even say what you are here in God’s house!”

She left, shooting him a last furious look, and I stepped into the confessional.
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|||)===[UNTRUE CONFESSIONS]==0==0==0==0==>
,

If the lighting in the church had been subdued, inside the confession box it was downright dark. There wasn’t really anything to see anyway. As I kneeled on the little padded shelf the floor beneath me felt reassuringly solid, probably the same thick poured concrete the floor of the rest of the place. No trapdoor here.

Not that I believed in any of that “lever” stuff anymore, but I was still convinced that I could get into serious trouble if I divulged anything about my gender conflict, or the modest stash of girlie things I’d accumulating. I knew our faith’s official line was that anything said to one’s confessor was utterly sacrosanct- a policy that had caused Father Tommy Lee Jones a lot of anguish in WITHOUT A PRAYER, where Sean Penn was this crazy serial killer, taunting him in there. But I also knew that what went for serial killers didn’t always apply to kids. I’d had bad luck before with confiding in adults about stuff.

So I continued my habit (born out of my fear of suddenly disappearing off the face of the Earth...) of substituting my actual wrongdoings for made-up ones of equal or greater value; values that I basically had to guess at given my total lack of information about these matters. So I always made sure that the sins I confessed to were good ones. Or should I say bad ones…

I guess I had been just kneeling there for longer than usual. A deep voice came through the screen, prompting me, “I’m here, Son.”

“Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession,” I started. “I’ve done, uh, bad things…”

I’d had a list of equivalent sins all worked out in my head, but the altercation I’d been in a minute earlier had left me riled and rattled---dwelling on all the things I coulda-woulda-shoulda said to that old jerk---and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what sins they were. I said, “I ….. I stoled something.”

Behind the partition the big priest’s ears pricked up, “Really?”

Yes, a pair of panties because they were so silky and brief and just cute, and that bra because I want to have boobs like Janine’s sister Patty, and if I can’t at least I can put something in there and pretend. Can’t I pretend that? I don’t want to make God mad, but why couldn’t he have made me a girl---or even a boy who’s happy with being a boy---instead of a boy who wants to be a girl?

I groped around in my brain for what I could have stolen. “It was a bicycle.”

“Oh my! Anything else?”

“I’ve, uh, had impure thoughts on maybe ………. seventy occasions.” I calculated. This one was safe, an old standby of mine. ‘Impure’ could mean nearly anything, and he would assume I meant whatever regular boys had for impure thoughts. Willies going into hoo-hoos…

“So that’s it then?”

I would see later how I overdid it. But for good measure, just to make sure that all of my sins for the week were good and paid for, I tossed in an act that seemed particularly awful, “And I committed, I mean- I killed a cat.”

A long pause. Then, “Why are you lying to me?”

UH OH...

“What do you mean, Father?”

“You’re a gentle boy. You love animals. I saw that painting you did that’s hanging in the post office, of the cat and the dog sleeping snuggled up against each other. There’s no way you killed a cat! And I don’t really believe you stole that bike either. What’s going on here, Jackie?”

I’d never considered that my confessions might be cross-examined. Father Anthony’s predecessor had never done this, in fact he’d seemed to dish out the same perfunctory few Our Fathers for everything I ever came up with. And he had never called me by name inside the booth either, but pretended an ignorance of who it was he was talking to that was quite unlikely in a town the size of ours…

“I ...... You see I-”

I’d been caught red-handed lying to one of God’s officials on Earth. What excuses could I possibly make?

“Whatever this is, don’t you think God already knows about it?” asked the Father gently. This was the last thing I wanted to be reminded of…

“I’m sorry,” I babbled, “Okay? I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry!”

“That’s obvious, but for what? Why would you confess to things you haven’t done?”

My clever sin-substitution stratagem had gone completely to hell, and I feared that I would soon be joining it! The cramped little room seemed to be tumbling crazily through space, like one of those old-fashioned “space capsules” that had been sideswiped by a meteor-

.
("OH NO! IT'S HEADING STRAIGHT FOR THE SUN!”)
.

“I ……. I can’t,” I whined.

“Can’t what, Jackie?”

.
("WARNING!! WARNING!! HULL BREACH DETECTED!!”)
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“I can’t breathe!” I gasped, and bolted madly from the confessional.
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|||)===[ CAT'S CRADLE ]==0==0==0==0==>
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I ran up the sloping aisle toward the tall sky blue rectangle of the entryway’s open doors. No vampire had ever hotfooted his way off of hallowed ground as fast as I was moving! And in my blind haste to escape I nearly plowed into Sherrie, who hadn’t gone outside after all but was hanging out with the Animal Control people.

Sherrie pointed at the bird, who was zooming around the vaulted cupola above us in a renewed frenzy. She said accusingly, “Aw man, you spooked him! He was on top of the thing, was almost gonna go in.”

Then she noticed my own considerable panic. “Hey what’s wrong?!”

“I can’t- It’s no good! I shouldn’t of said about the cat, it was too much!“

“What cat? What are you talking about?”

I glanced back in the direction I’d come from. Father Anthony was marching up the Church’s wide center aisle toward us with the silent determination of a Terminator robot.

“We have to go. We have to go now!” I stammered, trying to drag my friend toward the entrance.

She pulled her arm free of my grip. With a terse ‘Good Luck’ to her new pals and a last glance up at their flittering quarry she followed me to the doors, “Okay sure, but what is this? What’s wrong?”

“It’s a mess, just a big mess! And it’s ........ it’s complicated. Right now I just want to get out of here and go to your place.”

In the same little patio area she’d been standing in when I arrived Mrs. Cagle was playing cat’s cradle with a well-dressed Mexican American woman. Or that’s what it had looked like at first, but now I saw that they were trying to bring order to a big lump of bright red yarn that must’ve got tangled up in her friend’s purse, Sally standing with her palms held facing each other, and Rosa (“Hi kids, you know Rosa, don’t you Sherrie? Rosa, this is Jackie, the great little artist I was telling you about…”) winding the acrylic string around them as she untangled it (“Shoot! How could it get so messed up when it was fine this morning?”) from the Gordian knot it had become…

Rosa had her two daughters with her, and Sherrie’s mom had begun introducing everyone to everyone else when Sherrie stated adamantly, “We have to leave, Mom!”

“Well this might take a while. You mean like right now? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, something happened to Jackie. He came flying out of the confessional like the Devil was after him and saying we gotta split! We gotta split!”

Mrs. Cagle looked at me with concern, “Oh no, what happened? Father Tony didn’t try to pull The Lever on you, did he?"

But when she saw my expression go from seriously upset to off-the-scale freaked out her remorse was immediate- “Oh God Honey, I’m sorry! That was just thoughtless. You know that story’s not true, don’t you? They’ve been telling that one since I was a kid…”

“I know! I’m not stupid,” I replied testily. There were way too many people here looking at me and wondering what was upsetting me. It was upsetting. I said, “Do you think you could meet me at the Dandy Donuts when you’re through here? I really need to go-”

A large big-shouldered shadow fell across me. Father Anthony.

He indicated the unoccupied patio area on the other side of the big doors, “Could I talk to you over there for a second?”

I gulped and nodded, and we went to the far end of the opposite patio, which was out of earshot of the women if we spoke quietly. He didn’t seem angry, but then he never did. I imagined him calmly telling me that I couldn’t come here anymore- excommunicating me. Which might finish off my immortal soul but it would save me a good deal of embarrassment. I’d stop doing Sundays with Sherrie and just stay at home with my fucked up family of freaks, which was probably where I belonged anyway…

The Father said, “You didn’t stick around for me to tell you your penance. It kind of defeats the purpose of going to confession.”

Staring at the ground between us I gave the smallest of nods, waiting for the stern lecture.

“So, let’s see ………… For the bike you took, you need to say ten Hail Marys and try to return it to its owner, or else put it back where you found it. For the impure thoughts, six Hail Marys. And for that poor defenseless kitty cat you murdered, seventeen Our Fathers and ask St. Francis to help you overcome these bloodthirsty impulses of yours. Okay, you can go…”

I can go?

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

He acted surprised, said mildly, “It’s my job, isn’t it?”

“No, I mean ....... You know I didn’t do those things, but you’re pretending like I did.”

“You know, you’re not the first person who confessed to something he wasn’t guilty of…”

“Really?! This happened to you before?”

“No, not to me. Or at least not that I know of. But there’s people, they go to police stations and turn themselves in for murders that they’d read about in the newspaper.”

“That’s weird!”

“I’ve been a priest for fifteen years. Nothing human seems all that weird to me. These people, they’re not criminals, they’re just- Well they have problems. Some reason why they thought they had to do that. If you can get to the bottom of it, people always have a reason for doing the things they do, even if it’s one that wouldn’t make much sense to anyone else. Or sometimes they themselves don’t know what it is. Not consciously anyway…”

It seemed like he wanted me to say something. I said, “Oh.”

“So I figure you must’ve had some reason why you felt you needed to tell me the things you said in there. And I can’t force you to tell me what’s really going on with you. We haven’t been able to do that since The Inquisition. Now those were the good old days!”

Did he really just say that?! I burst out laughing, “You’re sick, Father Tony!”

“I know,” he grinned sheepishly, “But don’t tell anyone, okay? And anything you might want to tell me, I swear I won’t blab it either. What I’m saying is if you think you might want to talk about what’s bothering you, I’m here. Even something really bad, like say ……… if someone was hurting you at home. There’s laws against that, you know that? Some pretty serious laws.”

But there’s no laws against doing everything you can to make someone feel like a piece of shit, are there? I said, “No one’s doing anything like that. Not really…”

His eyes narrowed, “Not really?”

“No. I mean, nothing like that.”

“That’s good. And you know, if you’re not comfortable talking to me I could find you someone else to talk with. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be through the Church, either. Stephanie Campbell is a youth counselor for the county, she’s really good at talking to kids. I could give you her number if you want.”

Though I hadn’t yet attempted it with anyone, somehow I knew I’d be more a lot more comfortable discussing my gender issues with a woman than with a man, even a nice man like Father Anthony. But because he was a nice man and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings I prevaricated a bit, saying: “No you’re okay. I mean sure, or maybe I will anyway ……… I like you.”

“I like you too, Jackie. And there’s somebody else who likes you.”

I glanced over at where Sherrie and her mom were saying goodbye to Rosa and her girls, the yarn crisis either solved or abandoned. But I could tell he was talking about someone else. “You mean God?”

“Exactly. God likes- well in fact He loves you! You know that?”

I sure would like to think so, I thought. I said brightly, “I know! And Jesus and the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints.”

“That’s right. It’s pretty awesome having a team like that behind us, isn’t it?” he beamed as he started walking me back toward the building’s heavy titanium portico. “Anyway, I just wanted to finish what we started in there, and to let you know ……… well that I'm always here for you. I’ll let you get back to your friends now, and I’d better get back to work before they fire me. Say Hi to your folks for me, and that they’re welcome back any time. See you next week?”

“Yeah sure. Bye!”

He started in through the doorway then turned back to me, sort of hunched over with a weird squinty face, and said in a deep growly voice, like he was imitating Detective McGruff, “Oh. And one more thing…”

“What’s that?”

“Try not to tell me any whoppers in the confessional next Sunday. Killed a cat, sheeesh!”
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|||)===[ TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN]==0==0==0==0==>
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Sherrie and Sally and I made our way across the nearly empty parking lot toward their aged Land Rover.

Mrs. Cagle reached out and tossled my hair, deliberately messing up my stepdad’s ministrations with comb and hairspray this morning---There! We’re done with that nonsense for today!---then handed me a brush from her purse, letting me fix it the way I liked it, eliminating what was left of the rigid left part.

“Feeling better?” she asked.

I didn’t have a clue what I might do to get my terrible secret sins absolved now that my subterfuge had been discovered; Father Tony might be far less jovial if he caught me BS-ing him again. I still looked ahead to facing the Body Count Posse at school tomorrow; and my toxic situation at home even before that…

And yet I was feeling pretty darn good. I said that I was.

“That’s good to know.”

Yeah it is,” seconded Sherrie, and as we got to their car she asked, “Jeez, Mom! Why’d you park way over here?”

“I didn’t want it to get dented.”

We laughed---the thing was nothing but dents---and Sherrie’s mother opened the back door for us, “Monsieur, Mademoiselle, entrez vous! My name eez Babette, I will be your chauffeur zees morn-eng…”

This was a thing she did. Last week she’d been ‘Gundrehild’, with an equally bad German accent. We climbed in and she slammed the door hard- the only way it would shut completely. And as she was getting in front Sherrie asked me, “So what was all that about with Father Anthony?”

“Sherrie!” barked Mrs. Cagle reproachfully, falling out of character.

“What?” whined Sherrie.

“Whatever went on between them it started in confession. Confession,” she repeated for emphasis, “And it’s between the two of them. It’s like your diary; some things are nobody’s business, not even moms or best friends.”

“‘Kay, I see what you mean,” murmured Sherrie, “Sorry Jackie…”

I smiled wide and shook my head, letting my friend know it was no big deal. She surprised me by suddenly grabbing me and pulling me close. She whispered, her breath warm and ticklish in my ear, “I love you!”

I turned to where I was comfortable and leaned up against her. Our hands found each other’s and we both squeezed, connected in what seemed to be more than just this small physical way- as if me and this best friend I’d ever had were communicating our love, the deep admiration we had for each other and nameless other beautiful feelings directly from soul to soul and back again…

Sherrie’s mom smiled at us in the rearview mirror, “So whatever that was, it’s past now. Right? Right?”

“Right!” answered Sherrie.

“Right!” I echoed.

“Okey Dokey then,” she started the engine and proclaimed, “And we’re off…”

This was another of those things Sally always did, so Sherrie and I knew what to say and joined in her cry of:

LIKE A HERD OF TURTLES!!!”

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Whatever that meant. Then we drove off into the sequel.
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~~~ END ~~~

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NOTES:

The views of my narrator don't necessarily reflect my own. Well, most of them do. But those observations she makes about the number of male and female prison inmates and what she concludes this signifies about the inherent natures of men and women ....... It sounds logical on the face of it, but it's nearly identical to what racist fuckheads say is proven by the numbers of African American and European American prison inmates in the U.S.A. Something wrong with it somewhere...

Having only been to a Catholic service only once in my life (a Christmas Mass that was too jam packed for me to really see or hear anything) I may have made some mistakes regarding proceedure, doctrine or nomenclature of the Church of Rome. So this story is set in an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE (note the Disney park in Canada) in which things are done differently in exactly those ways that I screwed up my facts. And if I didn't then hey, I knew that! Heh heh...

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