Despite the snow, his mother insists that the neighborhood is feverish, running a temperature raised by the nearby mill. Their house keeps gathering a film of filth, jaundiced by the industrial air. The city bus drops the disappointed off at the end of the street. Because sidewalks live somewhere else, plows a total stranger, they follow the furrows left in the snow by tires, open doors, and disappear.
Like his birthday, Lent has returned, its Wednesday evenings, non-negotiable, sentenced to sermons and communion and lost television. Earlier today, the next-door Catholic girl was spotted with ashes by a priest, her forehead a neglected windowsill. Last summer, thirteen, he watched her body tan on the other side of the hedge of hollyhocks. From his upstairs window, the pane so small it could be called a keyhole, he stared and stared and memorized. All winter, he has watched her enter and exit the cars of junior and senior boys.
Now, after he asks about ashes to pause her on the shoveled sidewalk, she explains how her thoughts are synonyms for sins both venial and mortal. “Yours, too,” she says, and though he has not been taught to distinguish, he knows that he has practiced gluttony for years and laughed about it. That he lies and swears and sometimes, though petty, he steals, all of those sins so common, as well, to his friends that they must be venial, or else heaven is empty.
Later, while his mother’s minister starts his annual interpretation of Lent’s stories, he remembers that spot of ash, certain his deepest secret is a mortal sin. Not his daily waking to lust, but his all-day watching only the channel devoted to it, his body mortgaged to obedience, unable to pay down that debt. How, right now, he wishes to be a priest who overhears the mortal sins, listening and listening for one of the guilty and sorrowful to explicitly confess what is thrilling enough to damn him.
Hear Gary Fincke read his piece
Gary Fincke’s latest collection of flash fiction is The Corridors of Longing (Pelekinesis, 2022). His long-form story collections have won the Flannery O’Connor prize and the Elixir Press Prize. He is co-editor of the annual anthology Best Microfiction.