My Mother’s Keeper
by Barbara Callahan
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 2009

I make very little noise when I go into or leave a place because I’ve had thirteen years of practice. No, maybe twelve. I didn’t fully walk until I was a year old. In my grandmother’s house, where mother and I have lived since 1947, I learned to be very, very quiet. If I giggled too loudly or danced with new shoes on the hardwood floors, Mother whispered, “Shush, Catherine, you’ll hurt Grandmother’s already hurting head.” Sometimes my noise hurt Grandmother’s hurting stomach or hurting knees.
At first, it didn’t matter that I made very little noise when I went into St. Bartholemew’s Church on that Saturday afternoon in February. I wouldn’t have distracted anyone from their prayers because except for a few people kneeling at the altar saying their penances the church was empty. I didn’t have to wait in line for confession either, but I did go in very quietly in case someone was confessing on the other side of Father Dennehy, who sat in the middle with penitents on either side of him. As I knelt facing the closed panel between Father and me, I examined my conscience and lined up my sins with the venial ones first—like the lie I told my friend Mary Anne, that I liked her new coat when I thought it was really ugly. The most serious sin, the mortal one, I would tell him last, hoping that Father would be tired and overlook it and still give me absolution for wishing Grandmother dead.
When I finished counting up my sins, I heard a deep voice from the other side saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Right away I tried not to listen, but the confessional is very dark so there is nothing to distract you from listening. That Saturday I tried my ususal don’t-listen game to take my mind off the voice on the other side by running my fingers over the wall on my right side, pretending I was tracing sins that were locked in there, sins the penitents were too ashamed to say out loud. I imagined those sins had escaped from their owners and landed on the walls and were waiting to be absolved by fingers like mine.
The game didn’t work and I heard Father Dennehy asking how long it had been since the man’s last confession. I tried sticking my fingers into my ears like I had once before when I heard a boy telling Father that he told an impure joke, but I recognized Gerald Griffin from my class anyway, because he stutters. Some people’s voices just travel through the panel, no matter what you do.
On that Saturday in February, I didn’t recognize the man’s deep voice. But it went right through Father Dennehy and into my ears. After he told Father that it had been two years since his last confession, he started to cry and then I heard his sin. And it was the worst possible sin, the one that broke the “Thou shalt not kill” Commandment. The man said, “I killed my cousin Tim.”
Oh, this was much worse than hearing Gerald Griffin’s confession. I couldn’t move, even to unplug my ears and open the door to leave the box. For a moment, I tried to excuse him and thought he might have wanted his cousin dead like I feel about Grandmother and that he thought wishing something to happen was as bad as making it happen. When he started to sob, I knew he hadn’t just had an evil thought. I never once sobbed about my thoughts about Grandmother.
Father Dennehy shushed him and told the man to go into the rectory with him so they could talk. Two doors opened and I didn’t hear any more voices. I cramped up waiting for Father to open my door and tell me to go home, but I guess he didn’t hear me when I knelt down. I guess being quiet is not always a protection against awful things.
For a few minutes, I knelt there like one of the figures from Pompeii in my history book, imagining I had been covered with the ash of someone’s sin and would remain stiff and silent forever. When my breathing became so shallow like it does when Mother has me breathe into a paper bag, I stumbled out of the box. I walked shakily to the altar of St. Joseph to ask him to calm me down. I put my head in my hands and started to pray, but the smoke from the candles next to me made my eyes water. After I patted them with my handkerchief, I saw the backs of two men walking through the sacristy toward the door to the rectory—Father Dennehy and a tall, wide-shouldered man wearing a black jacket with lettering on the back that said “Gordon’s Garage.”
“Gordon’s Garage, Gordon’s Garage, Gordon’s Garage,” I panted as I ran from the chuch. I kept up the terrible refrain until I reached my friend Mary Anne’s front porch. I sat down on the top step and hoped I’d freeze to death so I  wouldn’t have to do anything with the words I’d heard. Why, oh why did I ever go to confession that day? I could have waited till the next week, because I’d still have the same sin about Grandmother, especially since she had started calling Mother a tramp and her new boyfriend a “dirty-fingered oaf.”
“He’ll be just as bad as the first one you got tangled up with,” she said, “the one that dumped that one on you and me.”
That one is me.
And the one she called a dirty-fingered oaf was Bill Gordon, who did have a hard time getting clean fingernails because of all the work he did on cars in Gordon’s Garage, the business he owned with his cousin Tim Gordon, now dead, killed by Bill, my mother’s boyfriend.
My nose started to run and I dabbed at it with my mitten. Freezing to death would be too embarrassing. My friend might find me with icicles coming from my nose. I moved inside the porch to the swing. Maybe the part of me that wanted to die would go away a little if I could talk to someone about what I had heard, someone like Mary Anne. She was the smartest person in the class and she would know if someone who heard a great sin in confession was bound by the seal of confession not to tell, just like the priest was. I argued with myself about telling her until her mom came out and took me into the house for cocoa. She told me Mary Anne was at her aunt Connie’s house for the day. I thanked her for the cocoa and told her I’d be fine walking home.
It’s only been a little while since I’ve been fine walking home. Before Bill Gordon came into our lives, I hated facing Grandmother as soon as I came in the house. She had a list of after-school chores for me and a list of complaints about what I did poorly. And before Bill came into her life, Mother looked so tired when she came home from her job at the beauty salon. But after Bill, Mother looked as cheerful and pretty as her customers.
Bill is a big man with curly blond hair and bushy blond caterpillar eyebrows that join each other when he deliberately frowns. He calls them his “kissin’ ” eyebrows. He has a short, curly blond beard, darker than his eyebrows, that looks like a pot scrubber. When he smiles, which he does a lot, he invites you into the funhouse that lives inside him. He always asks about my basketball team and sometimes plays one-on-one with me in the driveway with the hoop he put up. Sometimes he invites me to go to the movies with Mother and him if it’s something approved by the Legion of Decency. And sometimes he even asks Grandmother to go to Ramsey’s for ice cream, but she pulls her sweater tighter across her skinny chest and squints at him like he was something missed by our monthly exterminator.
Mom met Bill at Gordon’s Garage three months ago, after our car started chugging along like it needed vitamins or something. A tune-up was Bill’s cure, along with new sparkplugs and other things, but he only charged Mother for the tune-up. He asked her out for dinner a few days later and has been coming over ever since. Since then, Mother looks like a beautiful doll that has been taken out of a trunk in the attic and was dusted off and appreciated.
When I got home, I told Grandmother I was sick and went right upstairs to my room and closed the door, but I could still hear her yelling that I was faking because I didn’t want to peel the potatoes for dinner. I wasn’t faking about the sickness. I hurt all the way through to my inside self, the one who makes believe that she is the prettiest and smartest and most popular girl in the class. I told her to go away, that I didn’t want her anymore, that I wanted a new self, a self that had overheard a terrible secret and would know what to do about it.
That night Mother came into my room and asked me what was wrong. I told her that Mary Anne and I had had an argument and she said we weren’t best friends anymore. She lay down beside me on the bed.
“We’re having a mother-daughter bad day,” she sighed. “Bill called me and broke our date for tonight. He said he didn’t feel well, but when I asked him what was wrong, he said goodbye really quick and hung up the phone. Maybe he doesn’t want to see me anymore.”
I wished I could say something that would make her feel better. All I could think of was that she was better off without a murderer, but I couldn’t say that until I had cleared the seal-of-confession problem with Mary Anne.
On Sunday, Mother, Grandmother, and I went to the ten-fifteen Mass. Throughout the liturgy, Mother kept looking around, which made Grandmother knuckle Mother’s thigh and hiss, “Pay attention to the priest and stop looking for that dirty-fingered oaf.” I wanted to knuckle Grandmother’s thigh and for once get the better of her, just to see her jaw drop when I corrected her and said, “It’s not dirty-fingered, it’s bloody-fingered oaf, you stupid woman.”
But I didn’t say it. I was too busy concentrating on the communicants. Since Grandmother always made us sit in the first pew, so all her Bingo friends could see how pious she was, I guess, I could see who came to the altar. If Bill came, I knew that I’d have to jump out of the pew and push him away from the altar. It would be a grievous, unspeakable mortal sin for him to take the Eucharist just so nobody would guess he killed his cousin, but I didn’t see him. After Mass I looked for Bill in the vestibule and so did Mother until Grandmother pulled us both out of the church.
During the day and into the evening Mother kept glancing at the phone as if she could stare it into ringing. As the day trudged by, I watched the prettiness fade from her face. It disappeared completely when Grandmother, who misses nothing said or not said, said goodnight and added triumphantly, “He probably met someone else who doesn’t mind dirty fingernails.”
On Monday morning, Grandmother shoved the weekly newspaper into Mother’s hand and pointed at the front page.
“Read this,” she cackled.
Mother took it from her and read for a minute before crying, “Oh my goodness, no wonder Bill was so different on the phone on Saturday night. He must have just learned that his cousin had died.”
She handed it to me and I saw a big headline that read Local Man Found Dead in Shop.
Below it was a picture of Tim Gordon, proudly standing in front of Gordon’s Garage. He had his arm around his cousin Bill, who was smiling, not like the day he was carrying his terrible sin over to the rectory.
Mother dropped the newspaper onto the table and ran to the hallway to the phone. I knew she was calling Bill even before she said his name.
The article said that on Friday the police found the body of “Tim Gordon, 41, lying on his back partway under a Cadillac up on the lift. The owner of the Cadillac, Jim Holgren, discovered him at six-thirty p.m.”
It talked about Police Chief Kearns, who said there would be an investigation, but “preliminarily I’d say that Gordon slipped on an oil spill near the lift mechanism and hit his head on the concrete floor of the garage.” The rest of the article talked about Tim Gordon’s six-year partnership with his cousin Bill, his wife Helen, and their three children, ten, eight, and six years old. It called them his survivors.
It didn’t say anything about Bill Gordon’s survivor, my mother, who walked slowly into the kitchen and said, “He didn’t want to talk to me. All I wanted was to say I’d help him any way I could.” She looked puzzled and hurt, like someone who had reached for a drowning person and had her arm pushed away.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t want to talk to you,” said Grandmother. “Probably found someone else to wipe off his tears.”
For once, Mother answered back. “He was too broken up to talk. Not everybody reacts to a tragedy by talking their heads off.”
Before she kissed me goodbye, she flashed a knowing look at Grandmother, who never stopped talking the day Grandfather died, as if she liked telling the tale.
To have the last word, Grandmother yelled, “He probably killed his cousin. I bet you’ll read that in tomorrow’s paper. And his wife, too. She was young when she died five years ago. Fell down the stairs. He probably pushed her.”
“Those are despicable things to say,” Mother said as she walked out the door.
The battery in my brain went dead. It couldn’t handle the picture of Bill pushing a young, faceless woman down the stairs. It couldn’t make my arms move to pick up my lunch bag or my legs to go out the door. It had to wait for Grandmother to shove the bag into my hand and turn me toward the door. On the way to school, it did return to its usual jobs like telling me to wait for a green light and to tie my shoe when it needed it. My brain did these things even though it kept playing a movie of Bill Gordon at the top of some stairs watching a young woman, my mother, fall horribly to the bottom and lie there very, very still.
At school, Sister Therese, the principal, announced over the loudspeaker that she had sad news.
“Children, three students in our school, Madeleine, Augustine, and Lawrence Gordon, lost their father over the weekend in a tragic accident. Please bow your heads and pray for the soul of Tim Gordon and for grace for his family to bear their loss. And as always, we thank the dear Lord for the blessing of this good man’s life.”
We all bowed our heads and joined our hands in prayer, but I had to force myself not to shout out that Mr. Gordon’s death was not a tragic accident, because shouting out in class is forbidden and so is listening to other people’s sins. We were told to be very careful not to listen to other penitents when we were taught about the Sacrament of Penance. But I did pray to thank God that Bill Gordon didn’t seem to want to talk to my mother and that he would stay that way. Maybe Grandmother was right about his wife; she was right about his cousin. I also asked for help in finding out what to do with the terrible secret I’d heard if I was under a seal like a priest.
I didn’t hear an angelic voice telling me what to do but I did get a note that sailed onto my desk. It was from Mary Anne, asking me to walk home from school with her. I folded it up and nodded yes. She was a very good person and planned to go into the convent when she was eighteen, so she could very well be God’s messenger. I thanked Him for His answer because I knew then that it was all right to talk to her about my problem.
The day dragged by until two-fifty, when we again prayed for the Gordon family before dismissal. Mary Anne scooted next to me in line and squeezed my hand. A block away from school, she told me what was on her mind.
“Cathy, my mom said you stopped by on Saturday and seemed upset. And in church yesterday you didn’t wait for me. And today, you look like you’re sick. What’s the matter?”
I looked around to see if any of the kids in my class were near enough to overhear what I had to tell her. A few of the boys were not far away, but they were clowning around, slamming each other with their book bags. Soon they’d be pulled aside by the traffic cop and marched back to school, but to be safe I told Mary Anne that we could talk on the steps of the House of Usher, the empty house that we named after the story we read in class. Its front yard was overrun with weeds and dead wisteria vines clawed their way down from the roof. Its gray stucco walls had a lot of cracks. No kids ever went near that house.
Mary Anne swallowed a couple of times before she said yes, because she knew from the place I picked that what I had to say was really serious. We brushed off the lowest step and used our book bags as cushions. I had kept my secret inside so long that I blurted it out without giving Mary Anne a chance to get ready to hear it. When I said, “My mother’s boyfriend, Bill Gordon, is a murderer,” her eyes got so wide that I thought they’d pop through her thick glasses. She got up off the step and started to walk in circles, holding her stomach as if I had punched her. After a few seconds, she sat down again and said, “Who did he murder?”
“Tim Gordon,”
“The Gordon kids’ father?” she gulped.
“Yes.”
“Did you see him do it?”
“No.”
“Then how do you know he did it?”
“I overheard him tell Father Dennehy in confession.”
“Dear God, you never should have listened! I think it’s a terrible sin to listen to someone’s confession,” she said, and made the sign of the cross as if she was trying to protect herself from the devil inside me. “Did you tell anybody else?”
“No.”
“Not even your mother?”
I shook my head.
“I really have to go,” she said.
I grabbed her arm and begged her not to think I listened on purpose, that I had covered my ears but still heard, that I didn’t try to see who left the confessional, that she was my holiest friend and I needed her to tell me if I should confess my sin to Father Dennehy.
Finally she told me she believed me and said that she didn’t know what to tell me, but that she would pray about it.
“I’ll pray to St. Jude,” she whispered as she left the crumbling house.
Praying to St. Jude, who was the patron saint of hopeless cases, didn’t cheer me up, and neither did going into my house and hearing Grandmother tell me that I had to go to choir practice that night and the next for Tim Gordon’s funeral mass on Wednesday.
The first night of practice was terrible. Between hymns everyone kept talking about the Gordon kids, how Madeleine and Augustine hadn’t come to school and how Lawrence, who did, ran out of the classroom crying. The second night I stayed home because I got sick. As soon as Mother came home from work, she noticed that I looked flushed. She took my temperature and gave me some aspirin and told me to forget about homework and go to bed.
“It’s no wonder she’s sick,” Grandmother said. “All those sweets that she eats.”
“I do not,” I snapped.
She ignored my comment and decided my sickness was constipation and I needed milk of magnesia. Mother flashed her an angry look and took me upstairs. She lay down on the bed beside me. She still had that missing-Bill-Gordon look on her face and I wanted to make it disappear. I wanted to tell her to forget him, that he was a murderer, but caught myself. If I told her, she might not believe me and think I was happy he was gone because I just wanted her all to myself. And if she did believe me—because I only lie to Grandmother, not to her—she’d be in the same boat as I was, not sure what to do.
Thankfully, Mother dozed off. I tried to fight off sleep because I always have the same dream when I have a fever and I really hate it. I threw off the covers and sank right into that dream. I am always floating in a big bowl of tomato soup and trying to escape from the little alligator-shaped crackers, but I can’t. They bump into me and poke my stomach with their snouts and I fall out of the soup and land all sloshy on the floor that Grandmother has just mopped. She yells at me and I tell her it was an accident, but that night I changed the words to it a bit.
“It wasn’t a tragic accident,” I hollered over and over.
Mother shook me awake and told me I was having a nightmare. She asked me what wasn’t a tragic accident and I lied and told her I didn’t know.
On Wednesday my fever was gone and I went back to school. Although I told Sister Josephine that I still had a scratchy throat, she put me back into the choir for the ten o’clock Mass. At nine-thirty we lined up and went to the church. Walking up the spiral staircase to the choir loft filled me with dread. From up there, the church looked scary. Shadows in back of the statues of Mary and Joseph made them look like looming giants instead of the “comforters of the afflicted” that they were. Votive candles flickered and looked like little dancing demons. To pull my eyes away from them, I scanned the church and focused on, of all things, the confessional door that I had opened quietly, very quietly on Saturday.
The pews were filling up quickly. Mother had told me that she had to work and wouldn’t be going to the Mass, but I knew that she really didn’t want to see Bill Gordon there, holding his grief to himself or sharing it with somebody else. I saw Grandmother, who went to funerals of people she knew and didn’t know, hurrying up the center aisle, squeezing into a pew almost filled to get the end seat for a good view of the mourners. At dinner, she’d give us a report on things like who cried hardest, who was laughing in the vestibule after Mass, and who didn’t care enough to wear a black coat.
She’d have a special comment for the deportment of Bill Gordon, who might not have acted cousinly enough to suit her.  
The organist softly played “Dies Irae,” which meant day of wrath and always made me shiver when I heard it or sang it. As soon as the funeral procession entered the church, the hymn would burst like a fierce heavenly thunder clap, reminding the people there that their day of wrath, their day of judgment, was waiting for them.
The eighth grade always attended funerals of the relatives of schoolmates. I watched as my class filed in through the side door and looked for Mary Anne’s red beret. I saw it and waited for her tug at it, her greeting to me when I was in the loft. She didn’t touch it. Wondering why, I missed the starting note and got poked by the girl next to me.
It was hard to keep on singing when I saw the Gordon kids and their mother genuflect and go into the first pew on the left. The eight-year-old boy hurt me the most. He was small for his age and put his arms around his mother’s waist and wouldn’t let go. She couldn’t kneel to pray until a large man in a black coat that didn’t say Gordon’s Garage gently unlocked the little boy’s arms and set him on his lap where he stayed during the whole Mass. Maybe, I thought, Bill needed an anchor to keep him from jumping up and confessing to all the congregation.
Back in school, I sent a note to Mary Anne asking if something was wrong. She opened it and shook her head no, but she ignored me at lunch and got in line to go home with Bernadette Jones. I knew she was upset at me because of what I’d told her about Bill, making her a part of the sin. It was a terrible mistake to tell her.
I knew it really was a terrible mistake when I saw her mother after school. She waved at Mary Anne and stayed next to the building. I suddenly knew why Mary Anne had been so cold to me. She was embarrassed because she had told her mother, who was waiting to talk to me. She came right up to me and asked me to go with her to the ice cream parlor around the block. I didn’t have time to think up an excuse, so I just went.
We didn’t say anything until we sat in a booth and ordered milkshakes.
“Mary Anne is a big, fat tattletale,” I blurted out. “I’ll never be friends with her again.”
“That would be very sad,” she said. “She cares for you very much.”
“Well, I don’t care for her,” I said and started to cry.
She leaned over the table and handed me a handkerchief and patted my shoulder until I could look at her without blurry eyes. I always thought that Mary Anne’s mother looked like the nice mom in the Dick and Jane reader.
“I didn’t mean to make Mary Anne part of my sin,” I said.
She told me that overhearing Bill was no sin, that just because I heard it in a confessional didn’t make it a sin. She said that something was a sin if a person listened on purpose and wanted to do something evil with it, like get money from the sinner. Even though I knew she was trying to give me a kind of absolution, I didn’t feel better. She wasn’t a priest.
She sipped her milkshake for a few seconds before saying what her family really wanted her to say. “What you overheard was a crime. I checked with Mary Anne’s dad, who is a lawyer, and he said you are not obligated to report it to the police, but it might help you feel better if you do.”
So now three of them knew. I had broken the seal of confession in triplicate. I felt really angry and rudely kept sipping my shake until it reached the slurping level.
Finally I said, “That’s what you and Mary Anne’s dad want me to do, isn’t it?”
“We want what will make you feel better and possibly clear things up.”
“But if I don’t, will you and your husband go to the police?”
“Neither Ed nor I will break your confidence. It’s up to you to do it.”
“But I don’t want to go to the police. Bill Gordon is my mother’s boyfriend.”
She reached over and patted my hand. “I think your mother would want to know.”
I shook my head and slurped as loud as I could before saying. “I can’t do that. I don’t want my mother to know what I know. She loves Bill and she might stop loving me if I tell on him.”
“Your mother could never stop loving you.”
I bit my lip. “Oh yes, parents can stop loving you. My father stopped loving me even before I was born.”
Mary Anne’s mom cleared her throat and paused before she said, “Suppose your mother marries Bill Gordon. Do you want her to live with someone you think is a murderer?”
As soon as she said that, I remembered Grandmother’s words: “He probably killed his wife, too. She was young and died five years ago from a fall down the stairs.”
I stood up. “I have to go now. My grandmother will be worried about me.”
Mary Anne’s mother said, “This conversation might have been too much for you. I’ll walk you home.”
“No, I’m okay.”
“And Catherine, there’s something else. Sometimes people confess to something that they didn’t really do, something that wasn’t a sin.”
I thanked her for the milkshake and stood up. Instead of saying goodbye, I said, “Nobody sobs that loud for something they didn’t do.”
When I left the shop I remembered the day our class went to the high school to hear a debate and learned the word “rebuttal.” I had one ready for Mary Anne’s mom. As soon as she came outside I said, “My mother won’t be living with a murderer. He has stopped calling her.”
“That’s good,” she said, looking a little disappointed that I had rebutted the point that she thought would convince me to go to the police.
At home, Grandmother greeted me with a smile and pointed to the kitchen. I knew I was in for cookies and milk and a recitation of the events and people at the funeral. Grandmother was always at her best after a trip to the cemetery and I had to be bribed into being her audience. Mother wouldn’t listen. I sighed and bit into a cookie. I tried to crunch loud so I didn’t have to hear, but I couldn’t help hearing about the pallbearer who tripped, the aunt who hadn’t visited the family in ten years but sobbed hysterically, “Timmy, my Timmy,” and the eight-year-old son who wouldn’t throw the carnation into the grave when he was supposed to but kept chewing on the stem. I had taken three cookies’ worth of the stories when I said I had to do homework.
“I’m not finished yet.” Grandmother smiled and refilled my glass. From her beaming face, I knew she was leading up to something big.
She waited dramatically as she recapped the milk bottle.
“Bill Gordon was arrested at the cemetery for murdering his cousin, or maybe it was for his wife or maybe for both. Police Chief Kearns put him in the squad car.”
For once something Grandmother said made me relax. All the tension left my body. I went as limp as my old Raggedy Ann doll and could have just flopped off the chair. For the first time since I left that confessional box, I felt free of worry and dread. As I learned in the class trip to the debate, the argument for me going to the police about Bill was now moot and Mother would find out, but not from me. I couldn’t help smiling.
“I can see that you’re just as pleased as I am,” said Grandmother. “Now I hope your mother stops moping over that low-down killer.”
In an instant, I felt guilty for being happy. Mother, my poor mother, I’d forgotten how this news would hurt her. Even though Bill had stopped calling, she still seemed to have hope they’d get back together. This news would push her back into the person who faced every day as if it was a long homework assignment that had to be turned in before bed. I dreaded seeing her listening to Grandmother’s news.
I didn’t have to wait long. She walked right into the kitchen just in time to hear the words “low-down killer.”
“I know who you’re talking about so gleefully,” she said. “Bill Gordon, that good man. Evelyn, one of my customers, told me about seeing him at the funeral getting into the police car. She’s not quick to judge someone like you are.”
“But, but he got arrested,” Grandmother stammered.
“How can you be so sure of that?”
“I saw him get into the police car.”
“Was he handcuffed?”
“I don’t know, but he walked right beside the police chief.”
“Did he sit in the back of the car?”
“No.”
“Did it ever occur to you that Bill is a friend of the chief, that they bowl together every Tuesday night, and that the chief knew his cousin Tim and came to pay his respects?”
“No, but what other reason could there be that the chief would put him in the police car?”
“The chief did not put him in the car. He got in himself. Did it ever occur to you,” Mother repeated, “that Bill might have needed a ride home, since he came in the limousine with Tim’s family?”
Grandmother didn’t answer. She went to the cupboard and pulled out pots and pans, banging them on the counter.
“I can’t keep talking about this nonsense,” she muttered. “Somebody around here has to get the dinner.”
“Forget dinner,” Mother said. “Catherine and I are going out to eat.”
Grandmother looked shocked. Going out to eat was strictly for three celebrations each year, our birthdays.
“Not worried about money, are you? Expect that low-life to come crawling back to you and pay for all kinds of things?”
Mother handed me my coat and grinned. “Just us girls tonight, right?”
“Right,” I answered and got into the car.
“We’ll go to Alfredo’s and you can have lasagne.”
I nodded.
“You’re awfully quiet, Catherine. Please don’t let that scene with Grandmother bother you.”
I tried to smile, because I didn’t want to spoil her treat, but Raggedy Ann had left my body. All the dread I caught in the confessional box came back. Bill Gordon wasn’t arrested. He got into the car with his friend. Now it was up to me to keep Mother away from a murderer.
In the parking lot, Mother hugged me and told me to cheer up, thinking I was upset about the scene with Grandmother. “Arguments happen, that’s all.”
When we sat down, I forced myself to look happy by digging up a thought that might bring the moot back. Bill Gordon hadn’t called Mother since he killed his cousin. Maybe he had lost interest, or his guilt would keep him away from her. I started to feel better and enjoyed the meal and the chat Mother started about high school next year. It wasn’t until we got into the car that my happiness exploded.
“I had some good news today. Remember Evelyn, my customer who went to the funeral? She told me that before Bill went with Chief Kearns he came over to her and told her that now that everything was over he was going to call me.”
I stiffened up. That was the reason we went out to dinner—to celebrate Bill Gordon’s return. Now I had no choice but to tell her. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t get enough air. I started to gasp. Mother quickly pulled the leftovers box from the restaurant out of the brown paper bag. It usually takes only a few seconds for me to catch my breath, but that time it took longer. Mother started the car and said she was taking me to the hospital. We were almost there when my breath came back. I told Mother to pull over. I had something to tell her.
“You shouldn’t see Bill anymore. He murdered his cousin Tim. I overheard him telling Father Dennehy in the confessional.”
She didn’t scold me for listening to someone’s confession. She didn’t say anything. She pulled into the driveway and went right into the house and up to her room. I went upstairs to the bathroom and got sick.
At first, Grandmother looked pleased that our rare dinner out had ended badly, but the next day she looked concerned when Mother came home from work and went upstairs without dinner. She tried to pump me, but I wouldn’t tell her anything. I didn’t want her to know that she was right about Bill. Before going upstairs after work the next day, Mother told her to tell whoever phoned that she wasn’t taking calls.
And of course, the person who called three days in a row was Bill Gordon. Those three days were awful. Mother didn’t eat dinner and went right to her room.
On Mondays, Father Dennehy taught the eighth-grade religion classes. The Monday after I told Mother the truth, he spoke about the Sacrament of Penance and he glanced at me a few times. He knows, I thought. He knows that I know about Bill. But maybe I was imagining it. He looked at other kids too.
When he was finished, Sister Josephine thanked him and we all stood up and thanked him too. Since I sit in the first seat next to the door, I’m in charge of opening it for visitors. As I reached for the doorknob, he said softly, “Come to the cafeteria after the first dismissal bell rings, Catherine, so we can talk. It’s okay with Sister.”
So it wasn’t my imagination that he had been looking at me during his talk. He knew that I had sinned, no matter what Mary Anne’s mother had told me. And it was so serious that he had to speak to me in person, like he did with Bill Gordon. He was not just going to scold me; he was going to excommunicate me.
I dropped my book bag twice on the way down to the cafeteria where the boys’ basketball team was having a meeting. The second time Father Dennehy sent one of the boys he coaches to pick it up for me. It was Gerald Griffin, the boy whose confession I had overheard. Father Dennehy probably saw that in my soul, too.
Father Dennehy waved at me and pointed to a table far away from the team. I sat my zombie-self down and unfroze a little after he dribbled a basketball across the floor and passed it to me.
“Nice catch,” he said as he lowered himself onto the round seat opposite me and stretched his long legs under the table. He took the basketball from me, twirled it like a professional, and set it on the floor.
“Now, Catherine, would you like to talk about what’s bothering you? Sister Josephine says that you’ve not been yourself lately, and during my lesson today, I noticed that you seemed troubled.”
When I started to cry, Father Dennehy stood up and blocked me from the basketball team.
“Time to hit the gym, guys. Meeting over.”
I was so grateful for his thoughtfulness that I started to cry harder. He handed me his handkerchief and told me to take my time. That’s when I sobbed and hiccoughed out the whole story, from the confessional box, to ear-witnessing a crime, to the confessor being my mother’s boyfriend, to telling Mary Anne, who told her mother and father, to telling my mother, and to being the worst sinner of all time. And after I blew my nose, I remembered about Gerald and told him that, too.
After I had settled down, he tossed the basketball to me and for a few minutes we had a catch and I started to feel better.
“Hold on to the ball,” he said, “while we do some one-on-one.”
So I hugged the ball and listened to what he told me: There was no sin in overhearing unless it was intentional, for purposes of blackmail or some other evil; there was no seal of the confessional for the penitent; certainly no excommunication. Aside from telling me he didn’t need to give me absolution because I hadn’t sinned, he really told me the same things that Mary Anne’s mother did, except that he didn’t suggest I go to the police like she had because he couldn’t. If he did that, he’d be admitting he heard Bill Gordon confess to murder. And he couldn’t tell me if I was right or wrong to tell Mother about Bill for the same reason.
I let go of the ball and rolled it to him. He said he hoped he had helped and I said he had. He smiled a small smile, like he knew he had only partly pulled me out of a burning house.
I walked glumly home and opened the door to a beaming Mother. Smiling, she signaled me to stay on the porch. She closed the door quietly for a not-for-Grandmother’s-ears conversation.
“Bill came into the shop today and handed me a beautiful white rose. He asked me if we could go across the street to the park and talk so I could tell him why I wasn’t answering his calls. Of course, the customers were all eyes and all ears. I couldn’t explain to them why I’d refuse such a romantic offer, so I had to tell him I’d meet him at the gazebo on my lunch hour.
“I was so nervous when I got to the bench,” she continued, “that I almost ran back to the shop, but I knew that was cowardly and that I had to tell him the truth, well, almost the truth.”
“Almost the truth?”
“I didn’t tell him it was you who overheard his confession. I told him that a friend of mine was on the other side of the confessional and heard him tell Father Dennehy that he had murdered his cousin. And I said I had to tell my daughter about the confessional to explain why I wouldn’t take his calls,  because we have no secrets from each other.”
She paused to hear what I had to say so I said the first thought I had, “You didn’t tell him it was me to protect me, didn’t you?”
“Protect you from what?”
I shrugged and asked something else, “How did he look when you told him?”
“Shocked, but then he smiled.”
“Smiled? He’s crazy, Mother. Bad people in movies always smile before they shoot someone dead. Stay away from him, Mother.”
The wind blew dead leaves onto the porch and I turned to go inside, but Mother pulled me over to the swing.
“Let me finish, Catherine. He smiled because he said the listener misunderstood.”
“Then I’m crazy.”
“No, sweetheart, you’re not and neither is he. He explained everything and he wants to explain it to you tonight at dinner at Alfredo’s. Please trust me and go with me.”
It took all the trust I ever had to meet him at Alfredo’s. He was already sitting at a table when we got there, making tracks in the tablecloth with his fork. A candle set in a wine bottle in the middle of the table dripped melted wax onto raffia streamers tied around its neck, giving me hope that a small fire might cancel our dinner.
He jumped up when he saw us, sending the fork to the floor. He ignored it and pulled out a chair for Mother and one for me. When we were seated, he rubbed his hands together and smiled. I shuddered. Bad people in movies rub their hands together when they smile before they shoot, stab, or poison someone.
When the waiter came over to give Bill another fork, he ordered wine for Mother and himself and a Coke for me. He remembered what I like to drink from the pre-confessional days. Before the drinks came, he asked me how school was going and how my basketball team was doing. I answered “fine” and “good.” Mother looked embarrassed. He frowned and made his caterpillar eyebrows do the tricks that used to make me laugh.
As soon as the waiter put the glasses in front of us, Bill said he’d better clear the air before we had our dinners.
“Catherine, let me begin by saying that I did not murder my cousin, although I did say that to Father Dennehy in confession.”
He paused to wait for a question from me. I didn’t like the way he was speaking in riddles and I knew he wanted me to ask him to explain, but I didn’t want to so I just sipped my Coke.
He sighed and spilled it out. “When I found out Friday night that Tim had died from a fall, I went to the shop to check something out, something I should have done, but forgot to do. Before I left at five forty-five, I meant to clean up some oil that I had spilled near the lift, but I was anxious to get to the bank with the week’s deposits before it closed and I forgot about the spill.
“When I got the call from the police that night, I rushed back and sure enough, Tim had slipped on the oil I forgot about and cracked his head on the concrete floor. I almost went out of my mind. The police called my doctor and he gave me pills so I could pull myself together. Of course, they didn’t help. The next day, Saturday, I wanted to die. I explained it all to Tim’s wife and she told me it wasn’t my fault.
“I still couldn’t forgive myself, so I decided to ask God’s forgiveness. I went into the confessional and blurted out that I had murdered my cousin. Father Dennehy took me to the rectory and let me tell him all the circumstances. Then he explained that it was an accident, that I hadn’t sinned because I hadn’t intended it to happen.”
His eyes filled with tears. Mother reached over and squeezed his hand.
He dabbed his eyes with a napkin. “Do you understand now, Catherine, why the person who heard me misunderstood?”
Once more he waited for me to speak. Yes, I told him, and sort of believed him because he wasn’t smiling or rubbing his hands together.
I was quiet during dinner, but I am always quiet, even when Grandmother isn’t around. I got even quieter after dinner when the waiter brought a silver tray to our table with a beautiful white rose draped over it. The rose had a pink ribbon around its stem and something sparkly tied to it. Bill took the rose and handed it to Mother. She sniffed it and smiled and then noticed the ring on the ribbon. Right at the table Bill asked her to marry him after he untied the ring and slid it onto her finger. She nodded yes.
“I wanted you to be here when we became engaged, Catherine, to let you know that you will be an important part of our marriage.”
“And you’ll be the maid of honor, too,” said Mother.
This is not real, I told myself, it’s a play. But I smiled because it was my part in the play. I didn’t have to say any lines because Mother and Bill know that I am quiet, very, very quiet.
When Mother showed Grandmother her ring, she got quiet for a while before she asked where we were going to live after the marriage.
“At Bill’s house, of course. He’s going to redo a room for Catherine and let her pick out the furniture and everything.”
Grandmother stared at the floor for a minute and when she looked up, her eyes were watery. “Well, it’s your life,” she said and shuffled down the hallway to the kitchen.
Mother watched her go and said the unbelievable. “She’s going to miss us, you know.”
I was too shocked to say anything.
But I had a lot to say the next day at school to Mary Anne. I told her I wanted to make up so we walked home together. I told her about Bill and how he had confessed something he didn’t mean to do, so that Father Dennehy had to explain in the rectory that he hadn’t sinned, and how he and my mother were going to get married and how I was trying to get used to thinking of him as a stepfather and not a murderer, but it just wasn’t working. I just couldn’t get happy about it, but I didn’t know why.
Mary Anne put on her smartest-kid-in-the-class look, the one she wears after she gets a perfect test paper in math. “That’s because you’ve had your mother all to yourself all these years and now you have to share her with somebody else.”
I wanted to push her into the garden at the House of Usher and claw her smirky face with dead vines. Sure she was right about me wanting Mother to myself. I’d figured that out already, but there was something else that was trying to scratch its way out of my memory, something else that was trying to tell me that I should be worried about Bill.
I gave her a dirty look and she looked ashamed and started talking about our homework assignment for Religion class. We had to pick one of the Sacraments and write an essay about it.
“I’m picking Penance,” she said, “and I’m going to write about Overscrupulous Consciences, about people confessing to things that aren’t sins, like missing Mass on Sunday during a blizzard or to murder, like Bill Gordon did, even though it wasn’t.”
Suddenly she stopped walking and turned to me. “I just remembered something. Bill Gordon is a perfect example for my essay, but I won’t use his real name. I overheard my mother telling my father that Bill was terribly upset for the longest time after his wife died. His sister-in-law told Mother that he felt responsible, that he couldn’t forgive himself for not tacking down the hallway carpet and replacing the light bulb in the hall. His wife fell down the steps one early morning in the winter when it was still dark. He found her dead at the bottom of the stairs. And now he feels guilty about his cousin. Such a terrible coincidence, my mother said. Such an overscrupulous conscience.”
And that’s what I was trying to remember, what Grandmother said about his first wife: “She was young when she died five years ago. Fell down the stairs. He probably pushed her.”
After leaving Mary Anne, I made a vow that there wouldn’t be any more coincidences. There’s no point in telling Mother, because she’s too much in love with him to believe that he would arrange his wife’s death. She will think that I am making up things to make her change her mind, because she can tell I’m not happy about the wedding. But there is something I can do. I have to thank Grandmother’s hurting head, hurting knees, hurting stomach for making me so quiet. After the wedding, when we move into Bill’s house, I will train myself to wake up before everyone else and check the hallway carpet and light fixture, and the kitchen floor for any oily spills. I can do this without waking him up because I am quiet, very, very quiet.