One Time In Hell

Leigh Rastivo

Short Fiction

I went to kid hell when I was eight years old. I stood on a red velvet runner, and I smelled a familiar sweetness—frankincense, I think. I waited in a long line of wee sinners—the queue looped twice round the nave and aisles of our church, en route to the four mahogany confessionals that stood tall on the north wall. To keep calm, I looked down at my feet, and I used my right black patent leather shoe to scuff up my left one, and then vice versa.

There were at least 40 second and third graders there, all oddly quiet and serious. I am Mary Faith Dennison. Since my last name comes early in the alphabet, only a few were ahead of me for First Penance. I was after Isabel Dalton and before Kathleen DiMarco. I watched Isabel’s head because I was supposed to stand tall and pray in preparation, but really, I was plotting what to cop to once I reached the “Dark Box,” as my older brother Mark called it.

I’d been composing my sin list in catechism class for a while, but I didn’t know if it was good enough. I planned to confess to occasional fights with Mark, although in general we got along well—partners in crime, really. I would also confess that I used swear words three or four times, but mostly in my head, which I assumed was a lesser infraction than saying them aloud. And of course, I would confess the offenses the priests knew about—that was a no-brainer. For example, once I asked so many questions during catechism class that it was disruptive, and the “teacher” (who was just our neighbor, Mrs. Reilly—not a real teacher) snitched to the priests and my parents. My mother grounded me, and told me that if I kept questioning the church like I was owed an explanation from God, I wouldn’t believe in anything, and then I’d end up graceless, so I should shut up and have faith like my name decreed, which made zero sense since my questions were about trying to understand why an all-powerful God let his son die, so I could have true faith instead of the fake faith that plagued me.

There was also the “mortifying” (my mother’s word) incident when I won the Thanksgiving with My Family Composition Contest with an essay full of lies. I wrote about a made-up family more wholesome than mine, and Father John—who didn’t know me from Adam—read it at Mass when he gave me my trophy. Anyone who did know my family snickered, or so my mother worried. She said I was a “little liar” who needed to focus more on “God’s honest truth.” My father forced me to give the trophy back, which made zero sense because, fact or fiction, my story was the best. (Mark pointed that out and got grounded too.) Anyway, this was all I had on the sin list: sibling bickering, a few internal shits and fucks, and two infractions for which I’d already done my time. Was that enough? Or was the priest going to think I was holding back and being a little liar again?

Isabel’s black hair was distracting me from my plotting. It reeked of Aqua Net, and it was “curly-for-a-day.” That’s what we called it when our mothers set our hair in tight rollers before an important occasion, and it came out all sausage-shaped, like that cartoon character Little Lulu’s. My hair was just braided and tied in white grosgrain ribbons, but I was wearing my newest corduroy jumper and a clean Peter Pan collared blouse—a little upgraded from every day. Isabel’s mother had overdone it with the curls and a new flouncy, swingy dress—she was one of the mothers who made a big deal out of every little thing, which my mother said was just a way of making nothing special. Or maybe my mother was envious? Maybe I was? Did I need to tell the priest about that? No, I decided I wasn’t jealous of that hair. I hated when I had to be curly-for-a-day and look like a stranger to be good enough. But, if it was “God’s honest truth” we were after, I was mad that Isabel was so spoiled. Damn it. I added it to the list: 1) bickering; 2) internal shits and fucks; 3) interrogating God; 4) inappropriate fiction writing; and now, number 5) coveting nicer mom.

The line to First Penance was progressing. I was four away from my turn. My thoughts fidgeted. First, I was hoping to get pleasant Father Tom, the nice-guy younger priest with the wavy hair, mustache, and full beard. He looked Jesusy. It was probably a sin to even think that, so I added it to the list: number 6) liking priest based on looks. I wondered if I should also add using Jesus as an adjective. Nah, that was a grammatical infraction rather than a sin. Anyway, his appearance wasn’t the reason I wanted to confess to Father Tom. It was more that he was the best option of the four priests that day. My brother Mark had wicked nicknames for the other three: Father Foreign, Father Jackass, and Father Boring. Note that I was not the creator of these bad names, so I did not put them on my account. Mark would have to atone there.

Father Foreign was Father Nayib, and he spoke English with an accent, which meant I would either have to keep asking him to repeat himself (which would be “mortifying” and maybe rude) or just pretend that I understood, which was definitely rude, and probably a sin. And let’s face it, it’s best to avoid sinning while confessing sins—otherwise, you could end up in an endless do-loop, confessing about confessing at confession. And yes, I knew that laughing when Mark called him Father Foreign was unkind and prejudice and a sin, and I genuinely felt ashamed of that one. I teared up right there waiting to be absolved as I added it to the list: number 7) laughing at mean jokes about immigrants.

But there’s the rub, right? How could I confess to participating in mocking Father Nayib to Father Nayib? Even if I somehow deciphered the conversation without saying “Come again?” 19 million times, in the end I would be unable to present the full list of my trespasses to him without my shame swallowing me whole, and so I couldn’t be absolved—unless I got Father Tom. I imagined I could tell Jesusy Tom anything, and afterwards, he’d emerge from his side of the Box, pull back the curtain on my side, and place his big kind paw of a hand on my head and say: “You are forgiven, child.”

Father Jackass was Father Jack, the priest who screamed at us, and would even hit occasionally. And when we giggled, he would glare at us. I thought I would rather have been hit, because then I could have felt righteous—I knew he shouldn’t be punishing us—but that glare made me feel like a shrunken voodoo doll, all reduced and unholy. Mark said I was wrong, that a slap from Father Jack’s bony hand was the worst pain, and I should take precautions not to cause one at my First Penance.

But my catechism “teacher” (Mrs. Reilly) told us that we could not be “physically reprimanded” at confession, which made zero sense to me, because if Father Jackass could flick Mark’s forehead for nodding off during a sermon—which was an accident rather than willful disobedience—then why couldn’t he full out smack Mark for confessing, say, that he cut all the hair off my Barbie doll and positioned his naked GI Joe on top of her until I cried? (I hoped Mark had been absolved of that one.)

Plus, the Jackass thing involved disrespect and a curse word, which—let’s be clear—I never said aloud myself. But still I had to admit that deep in my soul, I relished when Mark said Jackass. Jackass. Jackass. Jackass. And there was no way I was getting that hate off my chest if Father Jackass was the only available confessor. Bless me Father for I have sinned. I hate you? I could not say that. Still, it was a sin and so it had to go on the list as if I could say it, which was another level of evil, right? So, it was number 8) hating a priest; followed by number 9) conspiring to conceal known sins (including hating a priest). I was no longer worried about having enough to say in the Dark Box. I’d gone beyond list to full-fledged catalog. Now it was too much.

I also knew—I knew—that confession was exactly the time when I should apologize directly to Father Nayib and the Jackass. Then I would be unburdened and get to start fresh. And even if I didn’t do so of my own volition, Father Tom might assign me to say sorry to them as part of my penance. That made sense. Now, I wasn’t usually a girl who shied away from taking responsibility. Hadn’t I told our neighbor Mrs. Ingalls that I regretted drawing my chalk mural on her stoop when my parents wouldn’t let me mess up our own pristine cement? I knocked right on her ratty screen door and said it to her mean old face with the yellow teeth, and then I scrubbed her cement clean and even whistled while I did it. It was true, except for the whistle part. (I tried but couldn’t whistle.) And ugh, now I had to add that memory to the register: number 10) vandalism.

Father Boring aka Father Tony had that monotone that made us drowsy and squirmy during sermons. I never personally called Tony boring, nor did I laugh when Mark did because it wasn’t a funny joke. It was a straight-up sad fact. So, while watching Isabel’s dumb black ringlets, I guessed he’d be okay to confess to. Not Jesusy, but okay. So, that was better. At least I had a 50 percent chance of getting a priest that could hear the whole list, and then leaving with a clean soul.

End of the line—Isabel was next. Kathleen leaned forward and whispered in my ear that she was going to confess about the Marlboro that she stole from her mother’s purse even though she never smoked it. I’d seen the cigarette in Kathleen’s underwear drawer. All limp from overhandling, it reminded me of cardboard wrapping paper rolls after Mark and I played swords with them. And a bit of the tobacco had fallen out of it, so there were little leaves all over Kathleen’s panties that made me wonder how she hadn’t been caught. I asked, and it turned out Kathleen’s mother never went into her dresser. Kathleen had to put her own laundry away. Even I didn’t have to do that! Or rather my mother didn’t trust me to do it right. But either way, my mother was always rifling through my stuff, making sure I got punished if necessary.

I couldn’t stop picturing Kathleen’s panties in her drawer—she had fun ones: some with rumba ruffles, and some with the days of the week printed on them, and some with stripes and patterns. All of mine were sensible beige cotton. My mother did not believe in fancy undergarments for young girls. Oh crap, evidently, I was envious of Kathleen’s underthings! So, I had to confess that. But goddamnit to hell, I couldn’t discuss panties with a priest, not even Father Jesusy. And shit, now I’d also taken the Lord’s name in vain—but in my head. Did that count? So, what was it? Number 11) underwear envy; and number 12) taking Lord’s name in vain. Or could 12 be considered part of number 2) internal shits and fucks?

Isabel was called to Father Tom’s booth, and she skipped like she was going to get cotton candy, curls all a bounce. I figured she had nothing real to confess because her mother was never mad at her. This was playtime for her, the little psychopath. It would be but a minute before I would be called. And I needed more time! I turned to Kathleen. “My stomach is upset,” I said. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll get back in line after.”

I rushed out and walked quickly through the empty parish hall to the restroom, head down. I pushed through the door, relieved to find the facilities empty, and quickly locked myself in a stall. I sat on the throne completely dressed, and whispered my accounting over and over:

  1. Bickering
  2. Internal shits and fucks (and relishing the word jackass)
  3. Interrogating God
  4. Inappropriate fiction writing
  5. Coveting nicer mom
  6. Liking priest based on looks
  7. Laughing at mean jokes about immigrants
  8. Hating a priest
  9. Conspiring to conceal known sins (including hating a priest)
  10. Vandalism
  11. Underwear envy
  12. Lord’s name blasphemy (see number 2)

After three novenas of this, I decided Number 7 (laughing at mean jokes about immigrants) was the only truly regrettable one. And—God’s honest truth—I did plan to get back in queue and confess just that one to whatever priest I got, even directly to Father Nayib. But when I left the bathroom and returned to the nave, the lined-up, hushed multitude of kids was now a humming swarm. Kathleen found me and assumed I’d already confessed. She was all aglow, yapping about only having to say a few prayers and dispose of the Marlboro—she did not have to tell her mother, which made zero sense since the logical amends is to face the ones you’ve wronged. Mrs. Reilly, fake teacher, was there asking how it went, and hugging us, and handing us certificates. I took mine. So, yeah, number 13) faked a sacrament.

Leigh Rastivo is an American fiction writer, essayist, and literary critic originally from New York. Her stories tend to fixate on the undercurrents in relationships and social structures, particularly those beneath the idealized “white picket fence.” Leigh earned an MFA from Bennington College and recently attended the Under the Volcano international residency, where she workshopped two novels. Her shorter fiction is published or forthcoming in several literary journals, and her most recent book reviews are published online at The Arts Fuse. A notoriously introverted extrovert, Leigh splits time between remote hideouts in rural Virginia and the mountains of North Carolina. Her website is

Photo Credit: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

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