Thursday, 23 September 2021

F Fic, Non-fic

Fiction: Father O'Brian's First Case

By Jeffrey Keene Short


Father O’Brian sat still and listened to the rain pound St. Oscar’s Chapel, an old house that had been converted to the only Catholic Church in Calvin County. It was April, and the rainy season had come early. The barrels overflowed after the third day of rain, and the dirt roads that crisscrossed the county devolved into pools of mud. For O’Brian, there was little work he needed to do, and like most mornings he idly read novels. It served as a kind of meditation for him, where he let his brain wander into the meaninglessness of fiction. That morning, he sloshed through one of P. G. Wodehouse’s early works, enjoying the humor while putting the string of interruptions he regularly received behind him one at a time.

Of the many people who called him on his office phone for a chat or a question, few had anything to do with religion, meaning, ethics, morals, or charitable service. Instead, most of the calls he received required him to turn down invitations.

“Hello? Hi Jerry. Nah, no thanks. No, I don’t drink. I just don’t. I just. . . I’ve never had much of an inclination to drink. No, it’s not a sin thing, I just. . . I just am not partial to alcohol. What? No, I’m not judging you. I just have no desire to drink, is all. Stay outta trouble, then. Bye.”

“Hello? Florence, hi, how’re you? Your uncle? Where is he from again? Ohio, that’s right. What part? Yeah, I’ve been there. Yeah? Good. Well, maybe I’ll stop by. Yeah, maybe, if I get a chance. No, I’d love to meet him, your uncle from Ohio. Well. . . I guess he would’ve driven by my mother’s grave. Maybe. Well, take care.”

At noon, he set his book down, glared at the phone on the far corner of the desk, and listened to the chattering rain. Outside, the silver clouds beyond the dark green pines curled and churned with the wind. He stood up, shivered, and decided to make a cup of hot tea to warm himself up. Inside the kitchen, he looked at the magnets on the dorm-sized fridge while the water boiled. There were photographs from his enormous Irish-American family on the O’Brian farm, back in the 1950s, a photo of him on his way to Nicaragua, and various postcards from across the United States.

When the tea was ready, when he gripped it between his scarred, stiff palms, he stepped out of the kitchen into the sanctuary to learn that, for the first time in a month, somebody awaited him for a confession.

“Hold on a minute,” he said to the figure inside the confessional. “Let me get ready, be there in just a second.” Taking only a few minutes to prepare, he stuffed himself into the tiny confessional vessel and waited for the stranger, whose voice he knew from experience he would recognize, to begin speaking. The town had almost two thousand residents, and only a fraction of them was Catholic, and only a fraction of the town’s Catholics were reliably devout. The rain hummed against the chapel’s roof, and O’Brian still gripped the mug of tea. He sipped patiently while waiting.

“Um,” he heard from across the divide.


“Sh –should I just start?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“Ok, then. Uh, forgive me, father, for I have sinned?”

“Why is that a question?”

“I’m not used to doin’ this.” The voice belonged to a woman, and had a mellow, drawn-out quality, as if she spelled out every single word in her head while she spoke them, to deliberately slow herself down.

“That’s ok, most people aren’t. Just tell me what’s on your mind.”

“You mean it?” she stuttered quickly.


“I mean, um. Do you mean I can just say what’s on my mind?” she asked, again controlling her voice.

“Yes. Feel free to express whatever is weighing you down.”

“Ok, then.” O’Brian sipped, listening to the woman take in a deep breath while the rain droned around the cold chapel. The wooden seat creaked when he leaned back and rested his head against the wall, the smell of the rain seeping in through the door.

“I guess I’ve just been depressed lately.” O’Brian closed his eyes, as he always did while hearing a confession. The voice, accompanied by the steady rainfall and the creaking chapel wood, were all that he could see inside his head. “I dunno what it is. I’m scared I ain’t goin’ anywhere in life. And this ain’t the first time I been sad. For a while I thought I was used to it, and then it feels like I’m over it, but then it just comes back again. I don’t feel like gettin’ up in the mornin’, and then Paul –that’s my husband –he goes off to work real early in the lumber mill, and I’m stuck in bed ‘til ten or even eleven.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” O’Brian said, “but could you slow down?”

“What? Oh! I’m doin’ it again. I’m so sorry, Father. Maybe I should go. I don’t wanna waste your time here.”

“Well, no, I just. . . am wondering what this has to do with sin.”

“With sin?”

“I understand people being hesitant to confess their sins, but I’m sure you haven’t done anything that’s unforgivable. I haven’t heard one of those in over twenty years.” O’Brian suppressed a chuckle while the woman on the other side remained quiet.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled.

“Well, you’ve got the first part of being Catholic down.”

“I ain’t Catholic,” she mumbled in a flat, almost defeated tone.

“Oh. Well, that’s fine, you know. I’m willing to hear any sin from anybody.”

“I haven’t sinned.”

O’Brian leaned forward, took a slow sip from his tea, and rubbed his forehead.

“But you’re depressed? Is that why you’re here?”

“I’m sorry, I’ll just go.”

“Don’t go,” O’Brian snapped. His patience lurched and creaked like the architecture around him, but his curiosity stabilized it. He gulped the rest of the tea, looked at his decade-old wrist watch, and sat up straight. For a moment, he stared into his empty mug, still warm to the touch, and wondered if this was somehow a part of his calling. His first calling was to the psychiatric sciences, over fifty years ago. While vacationing in Central America to celebrate the completion of his medical degree and waiting to hear back from a clinic in Cleveland, he had a series of small, if not insignificant, epiphanies that nudged him toward the Church. Now, sent to a small town whose Catholic population could fit inside the restroom at St. Peter’s Basilica, he found himself rummaging around in his memory for the old textbooks on psychology and therapy.

“You came here for a reason,” he said. “I take it that you are here for help, then?”

“I just want someone to talk to. I heard you was a therapist a while back, and we don’t have any other ones in town.”

“Who told you? No, never mind. Just tell whoever told you to keep their mouth shut, and don’t tell anybody else. I don’t want the confessional to become a therapy session. I mean, it’s a Sacrament, not a shrink booth.”


“But as long as you’re here,” he said, “you might as well tell me what’s on your mind. If anything, it might help just to get some things off your chest.”

“It’ll be confidential?”

O’Brian looked at his watch again, and decided that at forty-five minutes, he would kindly cut her off.

“Between you and me, this is still technically a confession. So I’m spiritually obligated to keep it between you and me. Take your time. You mentioned your husband going off early and leaving you in bed. Let’s start there, shall we?”

She spoke, speeding up and slowing down, for the entire forty-five minutes, at which point O’Brian softly interrupted and suggested that she return to the chapel in a few days. He explained that he was not likely to have any other confessions, and he was glad to put something on his schedule that did not involve drinking or visiting uncles from Ohio. When she left after thanking him, he sat on the bench for a long time, the cup frozen between his numbed fingers.

The rainfall continued to hum like a distant choir of one thousand voices. Father O’Brian thought about the decades that had passed, counting them one after the other until he landed at his youth, on a farm in Ohio. Those were the furthest memories he possessed, beyond medical school, Nicaragua, seminary, and all his dioceses. When he closed his eyes, gripped by the cold and the droll of the storm, he could hear his father singing as he marched out to the fields with the farmhands, his two sisters laughing as they left the chicken coop with basketfuls of eggs, and his mother silently washing the dishes as she stared out the window at the farmhands passing a bottle of whiskey to her husband after the sun went down and the crickets began their chanting.

Author Bio: Jeffery Keene Short is a life-long resident of Flagstaff, Arizona. He currently studies English and History at Northern Arizona University, and when he is not writing or reading, he hangs out with folk singers and wayward preachers at local coffee shops.

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