Robert Klein Engler — The Tourist
Some days it seems to be the same voice. The voice behind the screen. The voice coming out of the shadows. The voice heavy with worry or regret. The stammering voice of a child. The voice asking or the voice searching for a prayer.
Yet, this time it is a different voice. The voice is cold, almost mechanical. It is the voice of darkness speaking.
“Bless me Father, I have sinned.”
I feel a chill run through me when I hear these words. There is a silence, a freakish silence.
“Yes,” I say, “please go on.”
“Bless me Father, I have sinned…I, I don’t know how to say this…”
“Take your time. Just speak your mind, my son…”
“It’s difficult for me, Father. I’m new here.”
“That’s OK, the church is open to new and old.”
There is a long silence. I wait for what will be said next.
“I’m sorry, Father, I shouldn’t have tried this…I’m sorry…”
“It’s fine, please go on…”
I hear breathing, close to panic, but also like something ready to lash out, like a large animal in the darkness.
“No, I shouldn’t have come…”
“Please, I say, “wait.”
There is a longer silence. I am hoping to hear something, but all I hear after that is the dull sound of a body lifting itself from the kneeler, and then the creek of the confessional door opening. It is followed by the soft thud of the door closing. A moment after that, another penitent enters and I hear the soft voice of a woman, “Bless me Father, I have sinned.” The confessions of women are simple. Mostly, they endure rather than sin.
After Mass, when the hint of incense lingers like the perfume of a woman who has left a dinner party, I like to walk through the church and see the play of light from the windows on the tile floor, the wooden pews, the white marble statues of the saints. There is an old woman in the last pews saying the rosary, a couple in love up front, trying to pray but really wanting to hold hands, and a few nuns sweeping up at the altar. It is a holy silence, the kind of busy and holy silence I imagine is pleasing to the Lord.
Only a sinner can forgive sins. That’s the idea I take into the confessional. It’s safe to say all the sins I rail against, I’ve committed, well, most. I have tasted what few have tasted. Imagine, by the power of the Holy Spirit vested in me I can say, “Te absolvo,” I absolve you. The keys for binding and loosing are in my hands. Imagine that. Keys.
It must have been last Thursday. It has to be. That’s my day to hear confessions. I’m in the box from noon to three. Regular hours kept for regular sins. Do you know how regular sin is? It’s teenagers and masturbation, kids telling lies and swearing, and older men lusting after porn. If you are an insider like the clergy, then you can set your watch by the regularity of sin.
Well, most sin. I think it was around 2:30 when I hear that voice come out of the darkness again. I know who it was right away. I get the same chill.
“Bless me Father, I will sin.”
“I decided not to go away.”
“Good, the prodigal son returns. There is much rejoicing in heaven because of that.”
“I did not say I return, I said I decided not to go away. Not yet. I like it here. The river is deep and there are places down river where it is still wild.”
“There is something of the river in us, too. Often we are carried away by powers we do not know.” I meant this as advice, but it sounded more like a kind of fatalism after I said it.
“I will leave, but not yet,” he said.
“Whatever you do, God’s grace is here for you my son.”
“Does that grace forgive all sins?”
“You must repent and make a good confession, first.”
“See, that’s my problem.”
“Isn’t that everyone’s problem?”
“I don’t think so. My problem doesn’t seem to have a solution. I can’t help myself.”
“Sin requires consent to evil,” I explain. If you can’t help yourself, that is another matter.”
“What if I told you something, something really bad, what would you do?”
“First, I will listen.”
“Let me think about that.”
There is that silence again as a body shuffles in the darkness and opens the door to the confessional. I knew he left. I could feel a presence had moved on. The air is frozen still, the way it is when the wind stops for a moment, then there is a crash of thunder and a torment rains down upon us.
“Look, Arthur, these are mustard seeds. I brought them so you could truly see what the Bible means when it speaks of the parable of the mustard seeds. See, how really tiny they are.”
Arthur looks at me with the blank stare beauty sometimes assumes. You do not know if he understands or if he does not care to understand.
Arthur is at church this Saturday morning for a wedding rehearsal. Many couples ask for him to serve at their wedding Mass because his beauty is sexless. He is the earthly image of an angel. Androgynous. Blushing. Irresistible. Arthur is an example of the power that makes angels say when they appear, “Fear not.”
Besides, our parish is conservative. We do not have women or girls serving at Mass or at weddings. I’m fine with that because it means we cultivate a beautiful crop of boys. Only the finest for the Lord, you know, and in this case the finest is the beautiful ephebes our good families offer to the church.
Arthur is one of those rare beauties. I believe his heritage is pure French. His ancestors must have been aristocrats in France. Oh, excuse me, “Fronce.” They must have settled in our New Orleans parish 200 years ago. Nothing of their beauty has been lost. In fact, just the opposite. Each generation of sons are ever more beautiful. If I am right, Arthur will be the last in a long line of beauties, for I sense he will have nothing to do with women. He is here because the Lord has chosen him to be one of his priests.
I’ve been to so many wedding rehearsals my mind wanders. I look out at an almost empty church. A few parishioners are scattered in the pews. They seem tiny, too, and far away, like mustard seeds. Off to the left I notice a middle aged man I had not seen before. Perhaps he’s a tourist. They come here from time to time. Our church is considered a landmark by the city, so if you are tired of Bourbon Street or interested in church architecture, you may wander in here. That fellow seems to me the academic type. When he gets up to leave, I notice the camera in his hand. I feel confident I called the shot about him. I like that feeling. It makes me think I still have it, that I am still on my game.
After Arthur leaves the wedding rehearsal with the few mustard seeds I gave him tucked in his shirt pocket, I walk over to the side altar dedicated to the Virgin. Candles burn there in red votives. I watch their flickering lights. I always think of Augustine when I study those candles, not the Blessed Mother. He wrote, “I came to Carthage, burning, burning, burning.”
I had no idea what was coming next. I have been a priest for 25 years. Since I’ve been doing the Thursday confession schedule I try to prepare myself Wednesday night. I read scripture. I read passages on pastoral care in the handbook I saved from my seminary days. I get restless, too, and find it hard to sleep the night before. Sometimes, I wake up early with my own troubled thoughts. I think of Brother Kevin. He is a gifted linguist. Last I heard he was in Rome working on Latin translations for the Pope. I can’t forget his angelic beauty. I try to turn my wanting into prayers.
Believe you me, I have heard many unusual confessions. Some were grave sins that led to broken hearts and broken homes. Others were your run of the mill sins, the sins we all share. I have heard men confess the sins I have committed myself, and recognize my own weakness in that voice from the darkness. I have absolved many sins, all the while hoping my sins are, too, absolved.
Honestly, I was made speechless by what I heard last Thursday. It was again around 2:30. A boy had just left. He was having trouble with his father who he claims comes home drunk a lot. The boy said he hates his father because of the way he yells at his mother. I tell him it’s not good to hate and to pray five Our Fathers.
After the boy leaves, someone else enters the confessional, that’s when I hear it again. It is that voice from the darkness that earlier turned my life upside down. Imagine, a door to a pit opens in the darkness, and that door leads to an even darker darkness.
“Bless me Father,” the voice says, again.
“Indeed,” I answer.
“You remember me.”
“I saw you at the wedding rehearsal, Father. It will be a beautiful ceremony, Saturday.”
“You are the man with the camera.”
“Oh, you’re so observant. You’re good at spotting sinners.”
“We are all sinners, my son.”
“But some are worse sinners than others.”
“The Church does not make worldly judgments like that.”
“I think I have to tell you now my confession.”
“If you are ready, I am ready to listen. Confession is good for the soul.” I here him exhale and take a deep breath.
“Maybe for yours.”
“Why are you here, then, if not to seek the good of your soul?”
“I want someone to know. Secrets itch.”
“God knows us, even before we are born.”
“I like to kill boys, Father,” the voice in the darkness says to me.
I wish he did not say that.
“Now, why would you want to do that?” I ask him.
“To get even. To get even with God for making me this way.”
“Someone who can only love boys.”
“There are different kinds of love, my son,” I suggest to him with the hope he may understand.
“Oh, you mean the way you love boys?”
“I confess my sins, too, just like you.”
“No. Not like me. First, I have sex with them. Then, I must kill them. I plan it for a long time. Mostly, I like to kill beautiful altar boys.”
After hearing those words it was as if a darkness visible filtered through the screen that separated me from the man on the other side. I thought of my nephew who served aboard a nuclear submarine while in the Navy. I asked him once why they didn’t have windows on the sub, at least one, so they could see where they were going and what was ahead.
He said a window would be useless. They cruised so deep that sunlight never penetrated those deep waters. It was pitch black down there at the bottom of the ocean. It was a dark so dark you could not see anything. It was a liquid darkness unlike any darkness, except the darkness that Moses let fall on the Pharaoh and Egypt.
I can feel my voice shake when I ask, “You’ve done this before?”
“A few times. It’s not that hard to do. I plan it out very carefully. First I take pictures of him.”
“How many times have you sinned?”
“Not enough, I suppose.”
“I was hoping you would want to stop.”
“Maybe I do. I hate to keep moving from place to place. I have a rule: Only one per city. I’d like to settle somewhere, live among the boys, so to speak. Find a place where my seed would take root.”
“I’m afraid you have more confessing to do before that.”
“Well, then, let me tell you about smooth skin. My hands hunger for it. You’d be surprised the number of runaways that hang around down river on Decatur, Father. They have an odor of musk about them men do not have. I love to toy with their hair. It runs through my fingers like silk. Just touch them in the right spot and they grow. I love the taste of hot juice. Some of them enjoy it even when they are terrified. Am I turning you on, Father?”
I was counting the morning collection when detective Gresham from the New Orleans police paid a visit. I had called the police the next day, after spending a restless night. I tried my best to explain the facts. The detective seemed to ask the same questions over and over again.
“I’m telling you again, detective Gresham, I can’t describe him. It’s dark in the confessional, and we are made anonymous by a screen between us. All I remember is his voice, the deep, almost baritone voice. It reverberated with a power. That’s all.”
“And he said he likes to kill altar boys?” the detective asks in a professional way, almost as if he had heard it all before.
“Beautiful altar boys.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it means “young,” young altar boys. I stop short of telling him about Arthur. I know detective Gresham is a practical man, not a spiritual one.
“Are there any other kind of altar boys beside young ones?” he asks rhetorically.
“He sounded very disturbed.”
“Are you sure he was telling you the truth?”
“Sinners come to confession to confess their lies, not to tell more lies.”
“I know, Father, but with all the sex scandals, there’s a lot of folks mad at the Church.”
“I could tell by the darkness in his voice he was truthful.”
“Any thing else you remember?” detective Gresham asks, getting ready to leave.
“There was a man in church the other day, at the wedding rehearsal, who I never saw before.”
“What did he look like?”
“He was too far away to make out any features. The church was not lit. It was just a rehearsal. But I remember he carried a camera.”
“Probably just a tourist.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, call me if he comes back. You know the number.
“I certainly will,” I say trying to emphasize my concern. I did what I could do without breaking my vows.
“By the way, Father, “who’s getting married Saturday?”
“The Gains boy.”
“The judge’s son?”
“Well, I’ll stop by, then, just to check.”
After detective Gresham leaves, I walk to the rectory window and follow him down the street with my eyes. A light, June rain falls on the Quarter. I see him turn up the collar on his jacket and like Lot’s wife, give a quick look back, then he turns the corner at Dauphine. He’s a good man, I think, living with his lover in a small condo on Dauphine. He’s a good man, doing the best he can in the purgatory that is this world. Then, I go to the sink and wash my hands. I always wash my hands after handling money.
On Saturday mornings, Arthur helps me replace the burnt out vigil lights. He lives nearby the church, so he has time to make these helpful visits. For a dollar you can light a little candle and have it burn in your place. It will send your prayers to heaven while your not there.
I show Arthur how to make sure the wicks stand up straight. The candles are easier to light that way. Our old parishioners with shaking hands appreciate that. When Arthur bends over to lift up a wick stuck in the wax, I notice a chain around his neck.
“Arthur, what’s that?” I ask.
“It’s just a skull, Father. They say it’s carved from a goat’s bone.”
“Where did you get it?”
“At a shop in the Quarter. Caligari’s Internet Cafe. I go there with my friends after school.”
“The Quarter, you say.”
“Down river, on Decatur.”
“Maybe you have too much time on your hands.”
“It’s just an Internet cafe, Father, by the Old Mint. All the kids hang out there, tourists, too.”
“Well, please, don’t wear that skull in church. You’re too good for such things. I’ll get you a crucifix. You can wear that.”
No one talks about blasphemy any more. I guess that’s because it’s so common. I try to tell Arthur that certain things are not acceptable in church, like men wearing Bermuda shorts. I thought he understood, but when I saw that skull on a chain around his neck, I realized he was beginning to question, as everyone does, the world he was born into.
When I was a high school student we traveled to Paris on a class trip. That was just before I entered the seminary. Our group went to see the new musical “Hair.” It was a very popular show. People were singing “Good Morning Starshine,” in the shower. I still do, sometimes.
I was surprised at the open expressions of sexuality displayed in the show, but what shocked me most was one of the musical numbers. A cast members who wore nothing but a Speedo swim suit sang and danced, and then he pulled a pair of Rosary beads from his crotch. He dangled them before the audience in a mocking way. That how I learned the meaning of the word blasphemy.
In New Orleans we are heirs to blasphemy and to many troubles. Let me put it this way. Once, Europe was the center of the world. France was the center of Europe, and Paris was the center of France. At the center of it all that stood the guillotine. That skull on a chain marks a line around Anthony’s neck the heavy blade would follow as it falls.
The church fills up slowly the day of the Gaines family wedding. I like having wedding on Saturday. We decorate the church with flowers, mostly white roses and carnations. Everyone has their own life, their own desires, the flowers they like and don’t like. Even boys. They may start small, like a mustard seed, but grow into something of great goodness or evil. One couple wanted yellow roses for their wedding. I told them in the language of roses, yellow roses are the sign of infidelity. You send a yellow rose to the lover who has been unfaithful. “Never mind that,” they said. Yellow roses filled the altar.
You’d be surprised the secrets we all have. I hear of them daily in the confessional. It’s not just the dark voice of a man, but also the soft voice of a girl hiding cookies from her sister. It’s as if we move with a cloak of darkness around us, unable to be seen by others, except by an eye in heaven. So, we live side by side until the end of time.
Let me tell you a secret. On wedding days like this I think of Brother Kevin. How much happier I would be if we could live together, married by our service. It must be six in the evening in Rome. He could be having dinner. Only a few tourists mill around St. Peter’s Square. I imagine a flock of pigeons circling to roost above the colonnades.
Pigeons do the same here, first above the river, then above Jackson Square, to settle on the Cabildo. The same way the spirit stirs and settles where it will. Too bad Brother Kevin likes Latin books more than he likes jambalaya.
I make the rounds, checking to be sure the organist has the right music. Tucking in a rose that droops awkwardly. Now, the groom is worried. “I planned this for a year,” he says to me.
“It’ll be fine,” I tell him, but I’m worried, a little, too. Arthur is late getting to church.
“Where’s the altar boy?” the groom asks in desperation.
Arthur’s never been late before.