Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
 print preview


The confessional did not catch their eye at first. It looked like a part of the dark woodwork in the antique shop or like an old mahogany ticket booth. The dark mesh screen of the opening was rusted, years of dampened breath of all who had knelt and whispered there. It’s had many, many lives, the shop owner told them. She was barely five feet tall with close-cropped orange hair and round, green glasses. She stood with her hands deep in her trouser pockets and swayed to-and-fro as if on the deck of a ship while reciting the history.

It was Italian in origin, probably carved in Florence, and somehow it had found its way across the ocean and then landed in the chapel of a small, southern, coastal town that nearly washed away in 1954 with Hurricane Hazel, a catastrophic Category 4 that devastated the area. A miracle it survived, she said, a total miracle. But, she continued, it was not enough to save that little church, especially as the Catholics (a very small number to begin with) dwindled; the building was razed—a convenience store is there now—and the pews went everywhere, no telling how many entryways in the Carolinas have one—and the confessional, this magnificent prize of artisty—became part of a local bar called Hoho’s Haven, where things were stored out of sight along with cases of empty bottles and broken stools. Hoho was a terrible businessman and ended up going to jail for either murder or rape, she’s not sure, that was ahead of her time, but she knows what he did was really, really bad, definitely something worthy of confession. Who knows when it was rescued—the wood scarred by stacks of bottles not to mention being antiqued with a wash of blue and brown paint in the seventies—THEN found by a young gay couple who had meticulously restored it and for a generation used it as the center attraction of many cocktail parties. “I lied” “I cheated” “I coveted my neighbor’s car, house, wife. Forgive me.”

The woman became more and more animated with her tales of hilarity, and they wondered after, while having coffee, how the woman knew all of those stories. Had she been a witness at one of the parties, or was it all hearsay or imagined—a good story to move some merchandise? She had also spoken of Edwardian button hooks with a similar passion and Theo Haviland and Limoges China of the 1920s, a nosegay pattern in pink and blue that she herself collected and loved but of course would certainly consider the right offer from an eager buyer, perhaps a young couple still searching for their pattern? “People don’t always choose a pattern as they once did,” she added, “but this will be a big regret of the generation, I’m certain.” They didn’t tell her that they, too, were part of the sleek Ikea culture she kept referencing and that the only antiques in their lives before this purchase was their parents, who only visited occasionally because they were on the other coast.

She told them about a rocking chair thought to be haunted and how it would begin rocking slowly, creak by creak, when music was playing—but not just any music. The chair really liked a particular piece by Chopin; perhaps the spirit had once danced or had some kind of life-changing experience as the music played, though once she said she did hear it rocking to a commercial on television, a Hoover vacuum cleaner ad, something she has yet to understand. She had a Franciscan Desert Rose dessert plate that once held a piece of coconut cake eaten by Jackie Kennedy. The plate had never been washed, a dull, dry smudge marring one side.

They left that day but couldn’t stop thinking of the confessional and how wonderful it might look in their home. It would be the focal point, something they would talk about for the rest of their lives, a symbol of their marriage and, by the time they went to bed that night, had decided they had to have it, in fact, they were filled with the awful anxiety that everyone who saw it would feel that way and so were there waiting when the woman arrived to unlock the door. She smiled knowingly as if to say I told you so and gave them the number of a man who could deliver it.

The confessional looked even larger once it arrived; it filled their small living room and led to many jokes. He liked to refer to the holy trinity of I, myself, and me. Eat. Drink, he commanded, sometimes sounding Biblical but more often like an R-rated version of Alice in Wonderland. He would grab and pull her in close for a hard kiss. Eat. Drink. I want your money and I want your time.

A friend or semi-friend—they weren’t really crazy about him even though he was always included—had once been an altar boy and,inspired by the Tom Waits song of that name, made up his own verses in hopes of a laugh—which is what he was always doing, sometimes annoyingly, going for a laugh. Little altar boy, keep your back against the wall. Little altar boy, don’t answer if you get the call.

The friend’s date, a quiet, serious woman getting her PhD in history, said she was tired of his jokes and that it all made her really uncomfortable—the whole scene made her uncomfortable—that it was disrespectful and also silly that the only conversations kept getting stuck on that monstrous piece of furniture, making a joke of anything serious. She hadn’t meant for them to hear her, but they did, and when she realized, she turned bright red and soon excused herself right out of the party, never to be heard from again. Her date said, good riddance, and that he’d now like to confess how he only asked her out because he felt sorry for her, and now more than ever. What a loser, he said, and began to tell personal things about her behavior in bed and that she was a walking yeast infection who did a terrible job managing money; he’d seen at least one overdue bill in her apartment and everything in her refrigerator was past expiration date.

Promise you will never do that to me, they said before going to bed that night, horrified by all the details they now knew of the quiet, timid girl who everyone had thought was too good to go out with their semi-friend anyway.

But the games continued. There were confessions of little white lies, embarrassing moments from childhood and adolescence. Some nights, when it was just the two of them, they leaned close and whispered their own: In high school he stole twenty dollars off his father’s dresser and, when he saw how easy it was, kept doing it. When his parents had company and left their coats and purses on the bed, he slipped in and helped himself to a few dollars here and a few dollars there, something he still did around the holidays if a lot of people showed up. She had once taken some nail polish from CVS but felt so guilty she returned it to the shelf the next day even though she had opened it and used it, her pearly pink nails a reminder. Oh, and she was once responsible for feeding a neighbor’s cat but forgot to do it. They had returned from Myrtle Beach, shocked to see how skinny Pearl looked and that there was no water left in the toilet bowl. What on earth? They cried. Thank God we left the seat up! They gave her the little monogrammed anklet they had bought in appreciation—what else could they do with her initials there in curly script—but they never asked for her help again. In fact, they never spoke to her again, and a few others in the neighborhood followed suit.

“Oh, you were a poor innocent child,” he said from inside the box, his voice deep and slow, as it always was when they were playing. She said that actually she was in her twenties but, yes, still childlike in many ways, and she was thrilled that he, unlike those hard-hearted neighbors, could forgive her. He got quiet, just the sound of his breath, and she could tell he was trying not to laugh when he told her what she had to do to be fully forgiven. And, of course, it became sexual. So much easier in this anonymous way, not unlike the texts they had sent early in their relationship. They wanted to whisper, their words coated in incense and age, mouths near the dark screen saying things only fantasy would allow.

Some days one of them started laughing and they couldn’t stop, but others the time passed in dark, dreamlike waves, late afternoon turning to night, and it was hard to look at one another after.

It seemed there was no end to the well of secrets. It was not her he’d come to see that night after they had broken up, but her friend across the hall. He had always really liked her friend, and in fact, the two of them had gotten together one weekend when she had gone to see her parents. He had thought he could get to the door without her seeing him, but busted. He said she was so glad to see him, how could he ever tell her the truth?

“Until now,” she said. That would have been when her father was dying, and she almost said that. Instead she said: I once read your journal. That was not really true, but his sharp intake of breath followed by silence let her know there was substance there, something to be learned.

She: Sometimes the way you chew gets on my last nerve and I have yet to see you floss.

He: She meant nothing to me—I wanted to make you jealous—and now that you’re ruining the game and saying mean things, if you read my journal, you ought to know that and you also ought to know I hate when you spray your hair like an old woman. I hate when you eat in bed, and wipe your hand on the sheet.

Truce—the rope momentarily placed down in the grass and abandoned like a snake that could rear its head at any time. And then . . .

He: I once saw this kid running from a parentI assumed a parentin the parking lot of Home Depot. The man had a belt wrapped around his wrist and the kid called him a hateful son of a bitch and screamed for someone to help him. I didn’t know what I was seeing. The guy looked decent enough except for that belt. He wants her to say there was nothing he could have done about it, but she refuses to give him that so easily. She would have called 911 or, if not that, she would have at least said something to the store manager. The silence grows uncomfortable, and finally in her slow, measured priestess voice she says: You must never do that again.

He: I swear I will never do that again. I will never do nothing if I see a kid running from a man with a belt in his hand in the Home Depot parking lot when the store is closed.

She: You didn’t say the store was closed. Her mind actively creating the movie: a boy, a belt, a scream for help in a dark, empty parking lot. Was this a sin of omission?

He: Oh, and I sold sperm at the sperm bank as often as they would let me, and when I hit my quota, I used my roommate’s ID and went back to sell more.

She: I detest how the women in your family have bouts of pain and upset and take to their beds like limp southern idiots, and people wonder where the stereotypes come from. I once put some random NoDoz in the aspirin bottle and replaced the ibuprofen on your mother’s dresser with Correctol—same size, both pink. I thought she needed to be up and moving. Silence behind the screen. Obviously, he did not see the humor. Perhaps he was even recalling his mother’s jittery eyes and hands and many times being excused that particular Thanksgiving.


Whenever she confessed, it occurred to her that there were many people who used knowledge as power, something to remind and lord over their victims: Poor you, remember how you did this and said that? What if a priest or therapist lost their mind and spewed it all into the world, all the exhaled foul breath of a long-ago morning that was supposed to be caught and held there in the velvet fabric until the end of time. They had both seen humans take the edge when they could get it, like their semi-friend, spitting secrets and painful intimacies as soon as his date walked out and no one listening could make eye contact, which, they decided, is where the idea of a confessional—the lack of visible contact—might have originated in the first place.

He: I once sat outside of a grocery store at the beach wearing sunglasses and carrying a cane. Got enough money for a tank of gas and six-pack of beer.

She: I once stuck a tiny needle in and out of my brother’s condom packs. She loved his girlfriend, and assumed this act would ensure that she would be her sister-in-law and in her life forevermore. Who could have known that the girl would keep the problem all to herself, that she would panic and seek some backwards avenue to terrible results? No one ever found out.


He: When I had a summer job at US Air, I routinely stole little things from bags. Keys or parking tickets—the kinds of things people would assume they left behind. He said he had a whole collection of these items, and she thought how that explained all that shit—not just keys and parking tickets—in the lockbox at the back of his closet. Easy to pick the lock; strange things to have taken.

“You’ve stolen an awful lot,” she said later when they were eating dinner. This was breaking the rule they had agreed on&8212;all that is confessed stays inside the box. “You’re quite the seasoned thief”

“Well, you’re a liar,” he said. “And a rule breaker!” He said he would grant absolution when the time was right.


He: There was a kid in my junior high forced to do things in the bathroom at lunch. Do things. I guarded the door, so my friend didn’t get caught. His friend.

She listened in silence as he told the details—one boy grew up and hit it big, a real star, and no one knew what happened to the other, moved before graduation. Who knows? Who knows.

He: And here’s one I’ve never told, talk about comedy of errors. One summer when I was working in Colorado, I faked testicular cancer to get a girl to sleep with me. I biked a lot then, and this girl (the unnamed girl) seemed impressed by that, so it was natural to let the parallels with Lance continue. Lance was still a hero, everybody wearing his wristbands in support, and I told her I couldn’t help but notice how much she looked like Sheryl Crow. (Oh my God) All I wanted to do was have some funremember that song?all I wanted was one night, but next thing I knew she was raising money, and not for Lance to get her own wristband, but for ME. She raised like over a thousand dollars.

She listened, trying to picture this. She had never seen him ride a bike, had never heard him sing or hum that song. In all of his drawers and stashes, she had never seen a Livestrong bracelet.

Is that a sin? he asked. I mean I didn’t intend for it to go that way. After a long silence, she asked what he did with the money. After a long pause, he said that he bought a used car and left without telling anyone. Anything else to confess? she asked, and he said, yes. He had one more, and then he was pretty sure he would have told all the big ones.

He: I once dated this woman who liked to get rough, you know? Rough? Well, yeah, you know, playing around the way some people do. A lot of people like it, right? So, no judgment. I’ve taken a vow. Anyway, we thought we ought to have a safe word.

A safe word? All she could think in the moment was of a game she and her siblings had played as children. Someone farted or burped, and everyone had to say safety and lick one finger and touch something blue. Why? Last one to speak and touch blue lost. Someone always lost.

So, we broke up after a year or so, and last I heard she was marrying this guy from California. That was years ago, and then about a year ago, I get this call and it’s all muffled sounding and then I hear her say the word. (She said the word? He didn’t tell me this?) And then what happened? I figured she dialed me by mistake or was just up to her old tricks. (Old tricks?!) She said the word and then the phone went dead.

“Oh my God,” she said. “The woman needed help! What did you do and why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think it was important, or maybe I thought you’d be upset. I don’t know.”

“Did you call to check on her?”

“No, it wasn’t her number. She was crazy, right? Like the wildest person I ever knew, and I didn’t want anything to do with her.” He got up and walked into the kitchen to mix a drink. “You broke the rules again, so let’s quit.”

“You always want to quit,” she said. “You take your turn and then you want to quit. What was the safe word?”

“I can’t even think. So, did you have a big confession or something? Like did you slip my mother some acid or an ex-lax?”

“I was married before I met you,” she said. “But I’ll just wait for my turn. I’ll wait for you to remember and finish your turn.” She really was married, but this didn’t seem like the right time to talk about it. Perhaps there would never be a right time, and besides, what did it matter? The poor guy was dead, and she was acquitted. She was innocent; they said so.

“What? You were married and never told me?”

“No, I’m a liar, remember? My confession is that I used your toothbrush.”

“That’s it? Like, you used it in your mouth or to scrub the bathroom?”

“My mouth; just my mouth.”

“Are you sure you weren’t married before?”

“Yes. Are you sure you don’t recall that word?”

“Yes. If I knew, I would confess.”


Over time, the heavy, dark monstrosity lost its appeal. They had said all they had to say, and it was no longer fun. Even their friends had grown tired of it; even the semi-friend had run out of grotesque things to say, which everyone found was a relief. They had to get rid of it because there would be no room for comfortable chairs if they were going to get the home theatre-sized television and host movie nights. When they told the strange little woman at the store, she nodded knowingly, and then lifted her chin and stared up into the ceiling as if getting some message from the great beyond. She said she shouldn’t be giving them such a good trade, but she would, and then led them to the perfect choice—an exquisite Victorian kissing chair from France. “The perfect tête-à-tête,” she said, and motioned to the ornately carved S-shaped chair, patted one of the velvet seats, and beckoned them to sit, the polished wooden arm solid between.  

return to top