Last Rites, written by Mark Vorenkamp.
The once brilliant blonde hair was nearly all gone and what remained had turned grey-white. The fit physique of a country-boy had become the ponch of an older man in the age of easy divorce and fast food. The boyish charm and easy smile of long ago had been replaced by a pleading look and a slight quiver at the edges of his mouth.
How I hated him.
We had met a lifetime before, 1953, before civil rights, in a small town in the Deep South where even today crosses are burned in front yards and “good old boys” were the celebrated norm. I had the misfortune of having been born there. I walked an hour every morning to the small run-down school in the next town while my neighbors climbed into school busses and rode in comfort to the new brick structure standing as a monument in the center of town. That particular day I had been running late, having stayed after school to finish my work in one of the dozen communal-textbooks shared between the three classes of senior math. I had no choice but to take a short cut through a local farm to get to the elementary school before my brother and sister were released. They weren’t allowed to walk themselves back to town.
I had crossed through the farm only a couple of times before, usually when I was running behind getting to school after dropping my siblings off almost a mile out of the way. On those occasions the farm had been empty save for a few farm hands, mostly lower-class men who tipped their hats at me as I passed through. This time my mind was elsewhere, where exactly escapes me after this many years – the musings of a young man so often turn out to be as dust in a windstorm – but suffice it to say I was not paying attention as I traversed the yard on the blind side of the house. I was yanked violently from my thoughts by a shout from behind me. “Oy boy, what do you think you’re doing here? Why ain’t ya working?” I turned to look, a boy around my age with short-cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes was hanging from the upstairs window. On seeing my face he smiled. “You ain’t one of our hands, what you doing here boy?” He spoke the word as one might address a mongrel dog. “You know what we do to trespassers?” It was that voice that was speaking now.
“Chaplain? Is that you?” The nurse had said that the rheumatism had rendered him almost completely blind. He could see shapes as they moved; his world was now one of shadows and sounds.
“Yes child I’m here…” I could feel the past eating at my stomach, a heavy lump of acid, burning.
He held out a shaking hand. “Thank you Father, I feared you wouldn’t make it in time.” He laughed, a rough chuckle that turned into a hacking cough that doubled him over and sent foaming specks of spittle flying onto his lips and blanket. “Funny, it never seemed too close, but now here it is.” He said, lifting the hand not being held out to wipe his lips.
“Death.” He replied as I took his hand, remembering the last time I felt his flesh on mine.
I hadn’t bothered trying to explain, I just ran, abandoning my shortcut for the dirt road I usually walked along. I was followed by shouts of “Wait, Boy! You gotta pay the toll!” and “I’m gonna get you!” I’d made it to the main road, nearly a quarter-mile from the house before I slowed, believing I had lost him, after all I’d had a head start and he was on the second floor of a house. As I began to catch my breath, I heard a roar of engine behind me and turned to see a rusting pickup barreling down the lane at me, a confederate flag painted on the hood, the blonde haired boy sneering at me behind the wheel.
I made for the woods that ran alongside the road, the truck followed me off the lane and the door flew open when finally the truck could go no further. I had a head start, probably ten yards, but he knew the forest better. I gave him a good chase for possibly a hundred yards before my foot caught a surface root, sending me falling to my face. I turned over to see his smiling face approaching me at a slow walk, his hands kneading each other with expectation. “You should have made it easy on yourself and stayed still. This’ll cost ya more.”
His fist broke across my face again and again until I could feel a split in my lip and blood streaming from my nose. He paused, looking down on me like an artist surveying his handiwork.
“Come on boy, get up.” He barked, taking a step away. I rolled over to my belly and pushed myself up on my hands, getting up to one knee before his fit slammed into the side of my skull and sent me sprawling back to the dirt. The blood from my nose dripped, mixing with the dirt below, as he continued to yell and taunt.
“Come on, you’ve got more fight than that, trespassing on a white man’s farm.” Again I began to push myself up until I was propped on two shaking arms. I spat, blood and spit landing on his shoe. A shoe that second later connected with the side of my head and made me see stars. “You wanna try something like that again boy? This was a trespassin’ lesson before, now it’s a lesson in how you treat your betters.”
He lifted me up, grabbing the scruff of my shirt and pulling me until I was upright, trying to find my legs underneath me as his malice served as the only thing keeping me standing. Then he smiled. His smile was like looking to the jaws of an alligator, all teeth and hunger and hatred, shorn from the face of a boy who could charm any girl he pleased. “Lesson one, you do not make eye contact with your betters.” I pointedly looked him in the eye. He balled his fist and sent it two inches into my stomach, his grip letting me double-over but not fall.
“See, this is what I’m talking about. Now look down at my feet and let me hear a nice ‘yes Master’ from you.” He said in a voice that was sickly sweet, like a teacher explaining a simple concept to the slow kid in class. I looked down.
“Good boy.” He replied. “Now let me hear you, loud and clear.” I cleared my throat, creating in my mouth a ball of phlegm and blood that I spat on his other shoe.
“No!” He shouted, ramming his fist an inch into my kidney. “See you aren’t understanding.” He punched me again in the stomach and let me fall. “You. People. Are. Nothing. But. Scum.” He punctuated each word with a kick to a different part of my body, ending by stamping on my left hand. As I remembered, I looked down, seeing the twisted fingers and off-center knuckles from where the breaks never healed properly.
“We tried to teach you respect, make you better.” He said with venom in his voice. “But you rebelled.” He ground his foot on my hand, dislocating what wasn’t already broken. “You think you’re equal.” He stamped on my right knee and I head a pop right before my leg turned to fire. I screamed, using my good hand to grab my knee reflexively.
“You think you’re equal…” He said again, softer. “But you’re not.” With the finals word he sent his foot in a shallow arc, on the trajectory someone would use to kick a soccer ball, and connected it with my face. I felt my nose break just before I passed out.
“Are you sure this is where you saw him?” I could make out the shape of a large man, overweight, in the telltale dark blue of a police uniform at the side of the road where there were doubtless tire tracks from where the pickup had gone off-road to catch me.
First I tried to push myself up, rolling to my stomach and pushing my weight up on my arms. Barely a second later my hand was kind enough to remind me it was broken. I collapsed into the dried blood and dirt with a groan.
They were walking away. I tried again, rolling to a sitting position before using my good hand and the tree as leverage to pull myself to my feet. As weight settled on my right leg, the knee ground like shards of glass within my leg and gave out. I fell awkwardly, my broken hand shooting out to break my fall. I hit the ground with an anguished scream.
“You hear something?” The other one asked. The police officer walked a little ways towards the woods and peered in, but I was too far back to be seen from the road.
“Anybody in there?” He called. I struggled, pulling myself forward along the ground and making the loudest noises my parched throat could manage.
The officer reached to his belt and drew out a flashlight, turning it on and shining it into the forest as he stepped further into the opening. “Somebody in there?” he called. I pulled myself a little closed, feeling thistles ripping into the flesh of my arms. I kept screaming, partially out of necessity, as I dragged myself toward the path. After a moment the flashlight’s beam passed over me, crossed back, and settled onto my form.
“Lord Almighty!” The policeman exclaimed quietly, staring for a second in shock before coming to and running over to my prone form. He recoiled at the sight of me, a description I’ve imagined a million times but will never know just how I looked that night. As he half-lifted, half-pulled me onto the packed dirt of the path he asked my name, who had done this to me, and if I was hurt badly. Without the strength to answer, I passed out.
I woke up almost an entire day later, my eye still swollen shut, hand in a cast, and leg in a sling above the bed, with tubes sticking out of me in every direction. My father came over to the bedside and as he looked at me I looked at him and instantly knew I was supposed to lie. Papa worked for Mister Coleson, the father of the boy who’d attacked me, jobs were scarce for our people and Old Man Coleson paid better than anybody else, even to a black man. We both knew: even if he’d killed me, nobody would know Samuel Coleson was involved.
So the police questioned me. I told them I never saw my attacker. I told them he had knocked me out from behind, that he had hit me in the eye early and I never got a good look, that he had never spoken or made a noise while he beat me half to death. With every lie they got more frustrated, my father’s eyes began to water with guilt and sorrow, and I became more and more bitter. I told them I’d help in any way I could, that I’d let them know if I remembered anything.
It was that moment, not yet a man but no longer a child, I understood what it was to be a black man in a white man’s world. I was worth less than another man, that my suffering must be endured in silence because justice was something too large to be pursued. I understood it was unfair, and it was wrong, and it was completely inescapable. Today I looked down upon that face I had pardoned by inaction and felt hatred.
He stared at me, unknowing of the lifetime of torment that had played out in the span of a dozen breaths. He stared, unseeing, not sure who the chaplain was but clearly worried. Whatever he had expected, the silence unnerved him. He tried to speak, devolving into a coughing fit. Finally he spoke. “What now Father?”
“Now you confess.” I responded, too quickly, and too eagerly, but I didn’t care. There was going to be closure, he would recall his actions, he would beg for forgiveness, then he’d ask me to absolve him. At that moment the roles would be reversed and he’d be the one taught a lesson in respect. In humility. In that moment I would have a choice. I could either absolve him of his sins and know I’d taken the high road, I’d let him go rather than beaten him mercilessly. Or I could walk away, knowing the future he had in store for him would make that tortured day feel like a sunburn by comparison.
At that moment my job, granting peace to the dying, was the furthest thing from my mind. The man lying on that bed was not a man of 78, blinded by cataracts, and dying of a late stage lung cancer. I saw a nineteen year old with a light tan from frequent farm work, short cropped sun-bleached hair, and a malicious smile flirting with the edges of his mouth. It didn’t matter how much time had changed his appearance, he was the same man, he had to be. It was impossible that a man like that, a man capable of such atrocities, could change.
“A lifetime of sins,” Samuel mused, “not sure I have that much time left.”
“Start with those you consider the biggest, those sins whose presence makes you feel unworthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. If we don’t finish it’s important we handle those first.” I replied by rote, knowing that those most heinous of sins would have to contain our shared moment. The only question is where it would fall on his list, would it be what he regretted most or had he done worse in the years since I’d packed my single bag and moved into the city, leaving family and the promise of a high school education behind.
“Worst thing I ever did…” tears began to form in the wells of his eyes, “I was a much younger man.” I mentally braced myself, wondering how it would be to hear him say it, how much of the memory would be twisted in his mind. Would he view himself as the monster he was, is, or would he simply consider it a moment of adolescent insanity? “It was only a couple of years after I was married, I was maybe twenty three, and I had gone into the city to talk to some banker, and long story short I…” He stopped, overcome by a coughing fit that wracked his body. ” I, I met someone.”
He closed his eyes once in a long blink, sending two fat tears trailing down his emaciated cheeks. “It was only the one night, and I didn’t think anything of it, until four months later I received a call out of the blue. Turns out she was pregnant, and her husband had been away on deployment for six months. She’d tracked down my number through the hotel, told them she was looking for her baby’s daddy and they were happy enough to look up my name and home number.” Tears were coming down his face in a steady stream as I stood appalled that something as relatively inconsequential as adultery and a bastard child was weighing on him more than bodily assault and attempted murder.
“I never did tell my wife, would have broken her poor heart in two. Always wondered if she knew though, might have been what made that heart of gold stop so damned early.” He stifled a sob, wiping his eyes with the back of a shaking hand. “I paid her some money, to help her along, for a few years. Until our own children came along and I could no longer secret away money. Considered telling her I had a gambling issue, but that’d be too close to the truth.” He chuckled, deep, wet, and once again leading him into a coughing fit. “She always told me smoking would do me in; she was always right.”
He lapsed into silence for several seconds, staring into space. “I checked in on him once, a couple of years ago. Just to see how he was. Never told him who I was.” He continued to look at nothing as tears slid from the sides of his eyes to be lost on cheeks already saturated. I was lost for a response. “He’s a lawyer now, in the city. He never moved far from his Momma. He was a good boy, but the lack of a Daddy took its toll.” He closed his eyes again and wiped them. “He’s a homosexual, has his Momma’s looks and he’s wasting them on men. Can’t help but think it’s my fault.”
Conflicting emotions roiled inside. He was a racist and a homophobe, he found more to regret in sentimentality than the brutality of his childhood. For lack of a response, I followed the script honed by hundreds of such bedside moments without conscious thought. “What else do you need forgiven?”
He looked up at me, seeing nothing but a man-shape, his white watery eyes begging me for mercy, to stop the torture of remembering his sin. The man and the chaplain agreed it was best to press on, for very different reasons. “One’s sins must be admitted before they can be absolved.” I replied, a line I had used almost daily with reluctant confessors, but never with such hunger.
“I used to drink, not often, but when I did it was like I was making up for every moment I had gone without.” He began slowly, haltingly, trying to find a rhythm in the memory, something to grab hold of. “I’d come home, stumbling in the front door at all times of the day and night. Sometimes I wouldn’t come home that night. I’d never go home with another woman mind you, not after the first time, but it wasn’t unusual for daylight to be creeping in the windows when I’d come home.”
Drunks were nothing new, in a way they were the bread and butter of the confessional business, but I just had the feeling there was something special about this if it was more prominent in his mind than the majority of his sins.
“I was a mean drunk, I’d come home with bloodied knuckles and black eyes from people who’d look at me the wrong way or those who’d refuse to meet my gaze when I talked at them. I’d walk in with a chip on my shoulder and though I’d never hit my wife, the kids weren’t so lucky.” He laughed once, harshly. “Even after all these years they still hate me, I get to die alone for what I did to them.” The sorrow on his face had turned to self-hatred and he sat in silence for almost a minute, angry tears falling from expressionless eyes. Another coughing fit hit and he doubled over on his bedspread, when he sat back up there was a fine spray of blood on the sheet where he’d been coughing.
“Is there anything else, possibly something from even earlier?” I prompted him, beginning to fear that he was getting close, unsure whether I was afraid for his soul or my own desire.
“I’m old, Father, and the sins of my youth are so far gone.” He replied, leaning back and closing his eyes. Each fit was making him weaker; his voice was now barely above a whisper.
“Perhaps something that stands out, something from childhood that hasn’t faded like the rest.” I was grasping at straws, clinging to his hand as if it would keep him here a minute longer. I’d seen it before though, the gates were opening and Saint Peter was beckoning, it was only a matter of time.
“There was, this one time.” He seemed to force out the words like someone speaking from the edge of sleep. “I was twelve, my brother and I were playing baseball. I hit the ball and it went through Pappa’s window. He was mad.” He cringed as he spoke, entirely lost within the memory. He was once again twelve years old and his father was storming out of the house with a baseball in hand. “He asked who threw the ball through the window. When I dropped the bat it had rolled downhill to Andy’s feet, when I looked at it Papa grabbed Andy.” The old man began to cry like a child, innocent and remorseful tears flowing without concern for appearances or machismo. “Andy got a caneing and I didn’t say anything.” He sobbed. “My brother loved me, he didn’t tell Papa I hit the ball. I never got to thank him before the ‘Cong got him.”
He closed his eyes and sat back, tears still leaking from the edges. His breath began to get shallow and the beeps from his EKG were growing further apart. His lips open and he said, in a barely audible whisper. “Can’t you forgive me, Father?”
The question echoed in my thoughts as the oscillating tones of the medical equipment settled on a single monotonous note. Could I forgive his sins if I couldn’t forgive him? More importantly, did I want to? Here he lay, an emptied shell of the man I’d known in my youth. My vengeance was before me and were it not for my conscience I would simply walk away, content. Was it forgivable, just this once, to refuse a man his last rights? To simply walk away when you stand between a man going to heaven or hell? I couldn’t say yes.
Conflicted, staring down at him and seeing him for what he was, I said the only thing that came to mind. “May God have mercy on your soul.”