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To Do Penance

Kathryn Ordiway

Tongue thick and hoppy, she pulls out into the road. When drunk and driving, she finds herself more likely to contemplate death, and to encourage this she directs herself to the church. The parking lot smells like microwaved french toast sticks. She supposes the parking lot also smells like toasted french toast sticks, but she does not know, as she has never had the patience to take the sweet morning treats from blocks of ice to taught and crispy, preferring the bodiless mush of a quickly heated breakfast.

Inside the church, she admires the statues from a distance. So many of them stand with one palm pressed out, fingers gently curling inward. Always, she has longed to press her own fingers into those tensed palms, to find that instead of stone, the hands are real flesh, to knead that flesh, to shout out that she's discovered a miracle. It has been years since she last believed in the God she was spoon fed for so long; still she longs for that miracle.

This is how she sobers up. She picks a pew, always one by a graceful grey pillar, and settles in. She kneels on the kneelers with almost bruised knees, feeling the screaming in her shoulders, the knots in her thighs. She does not pray but ponders. She is here for physical punishment, not redemption, not prayer.

From the bell tower comes the time, and she presses her fingers together with the tolling, counting the hours. Her husband will be gone for another three, she is sure. Busy months, he's been calling this winter, because when he is not at work, he is out shoveling long, spacious driveways for the nearby elderly, painting their walls, building them cabinets, pulling in whatever extra cash he can.

These are supposed to be their thickest years. The children are grown and gone, living in places that people write stories about. They are busy climbing and eating and smoking things, learning how much space their fresh adult bodies can take up. Education is paid for, weddings are paid for or, in one case, blinked away with elopement. Her husband is fighting for extra, but the cash slips through their fingers like so much sand.

His parents are dying. Have been dying. Her parents have been dead for years, her father gone when she was only fifteen, her mother decades ago. None of that was of any cost to her. Now, it is all her cost.

His parents are dying slowly and they are trying to fight. When they visit, she can see in their eyes that they are frightened, that they can feel cold fingers wrapping around the bases of their spines. His mother carries a pharmacy in her purse: Advil and Tylenol for different pains, moods, Vicodin for the worst of it, their daily medications locked in a jail of plastic boxes with brightly colored clear lids, generic antihistamines, Band-Aids and gauze and clear tape, Neosporin for the odd sores that pop up on their skin, wet to the eye and crusty to the touch, baby Orajel, a cough suppressant. When his mother walks, the containers in her purse shake and click and knock against each other, announcing their contents to the world, warding off those cold fingers.

In the church, she looks up at the crucified Christ, his face serene so as to calm any children who have not yet been conditioned to view the blood streaming from his wounds as beautiful. She looks up at Jesus, who she doesn't believe can hear her thoughts. She looks up at the hanging piece of artwork and admits what she's been drinking to avoid, what she's come to the church to confess, what she's trying to kneel out of herself.

She longs to press her own fingers into those tense palms, to find that instead of flesh, the hand is almost stone, to click her fingernails against that stone, to shout out that she's discovered the end.

She pushes her knees harder into the kneeler, waiting for the pop, the stab, a flinch or whisper of reconciliation.


Kathryn Ordiway is a short story writer, poet, and small-town Pennsylvanian currently living in Oklahoma. She received her degree in English from Saint Vincent College. Her fiction has appeared in New Flash Fiction Review and her poetry in Francis House.

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