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i sell souls at the side of the road would you like to take a number

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The coffee’s weak and burnt cuz it always is, and the basement smells like dust & construction paper cuz it always does. Different church every night of the week cuz going back to one night after night feels too much like worship and something about that makes your skin crawl, but they all smell the same. Dust, floor cleaner, construction paper, sweat, folding tables. You never knew folding tables had a smell until you started paying attention.

You’ve been avoiding the Catholics for Reasons, but your usual Tuesday (cuz there’s nothing wrong with going back on a weekly basis, that somehow feels okay in your scrambled brain, y’know) had a pipe burst and now it’s the Catholics or bust. And your skin itches, and you’re tired, and everything hurts. Your joints ache. The tendons in your hands are screaming from too many hours at work--all the OT you’ve taken to help keep your mind off everything. Make more money. Try to get out of your shithole apartment and into a slightly less shitty one, get some new sheets for your bed. Y’know. Moving up in the world. Being a Real Person. It’s fucking scary.

So--Tuesday, you, in the Catholics’ basement. Shit’s fucked up.

You don’t share cuz sharing is hard, cuz talking about feelings is hard, cuz having feelings is hard--being trapped in your shitty body & your even shittier brain is the hardest, and that’s how you got here in the first place--so you just sit in your molded plastic chair that reminds you of grade school and count the dark brown squares in the floor versus the almond colored squares and the chocolate milk colored squares. Making little patterns in your head. Letting other people’s sharing drift over you, y’know, breathing. These people are here with you, for better or for worse, but it still feels lonely. That’s pretty fucked up. How everyone else can connect and you feel like you just...can’t. Like you’re a fucking robot.

And then it’s over, and people are hugging, and then shuffle out to smoke and do whatever it is they do In Between while you’re either at work or melting into bed in your ratty shitty apartment alone trying to hold off the creeping awful feeling.

You’re always the guy that volunteers to help clean up chairs after everybody’s ducked out because it means not having to go be alone that much sooner but also doesn’t mean having to talk to people either. Like none of these people are your friends and it’s probably better to keep it that way, y’know. Start fresh on your own ground.

It’s just lonely.

Most days it feels like it’s not getting any better, but the one in a dozen that it feels like it might turn a corner eventually is why you keep waking up. Like maybe one of these days it’ll stick.

You almost run over a guy in black dress pants and Chucks while doing your best impression of Hulked Out Third Grader Trying To Carry Twice Their Body Weight In Chairs For Playground Bragging Rights and swear an apology. Your stack of chairs smacks both your shins at once, hard. “Shit man, sorry, I wasn’t--”

“You’re good!” he chirps, all too cheerful for this group. His voice is like raw honey and the sleeves of his button-down are rolled halfway up his forearms to show off his tattoos--weird chunky black swirls and a pair of legs pointed at his wrist bones on both sides. Nice. You’re not supposed to look, y’know, this is not a sexy place but--nice. You have eyes. You will allow yourself that much.

When the chairs are all stacked your leader asks if you need a ride and you say no cuz for once, you do actually got it. She nods at the door and says something like “c’mon, let’s get out of this guy’s hair” and you’re like “it’s alright, I don’t mind” for purely dread-based reasons, not wanting to go back to your empty apartment quite yet. It’s too quiet and the pipes make noise and it freaks you out sometimes, y’know, and it feels nice to just. Be out. In a new place. Even if Catholic Basement isn’t like, peak places you want to be. It’s still new. You’re learning to appreciate things like that, y’know, Being Present and all that shit your therapist says.

Your leader just short of shrugs and waves at the guy as he sweeps and you’re tidying up, unplugging the coffeepot, sweeping cookie crumbs into the tiny trash can and tying off the bag. “Thanks again,” she says, and then she splits.

The guy leans on his broom to stare at you, all casual like he owns the place. “Tough crowd, huh?”

Hmm?” you hum absently.

“Tough crowd,” he repeats. “But y’know. Good meeting. There’s a lot there if you listen.”

“Yeah, I guess,” you shrug, noncommittal. “Were you late? I missed your name.”

“Oh--nah, yeah, no. I’m not--I’m just here,” he says. “Y’know. Been a while since I’ve been to one of these, but it’s always good to pop back every once in a while. I’m Corey.”

He’s got a disarming smile, even if his bottom teeth are crooked.

 

--

 

Here’s some shit you find out about Corey:

He doesn’t smoke, cuz he quit when he got clean, which is probably the biggest dumbass move you’ve ever heard from a person but like also? Respect. The balls. The audacity. The stupidity.

He’s been clean for almost half your life, which is also impressive, but he’s not smarmy about it the way some old-timers are so you appreciate.

He has mild-to-moderately homoerotic feelings about both the Prime Minister of Canada and John Cougar Mellencamp, because there’s no other way to read either “I would climb him like a water tower in a burning city” or a five-minute monologue about the “tragically angry Midwestern reality of the choice between class war or death on Scarecrow” with entirely straight goggles.

And oh yeah, he’s a fucking priest.

As in, the fucking priest, y’know, of this establishment whose basement bathroom counter you are sitting on while he scrubs toilets cuz “somehow the downstairs ones always get worse, y’know?” and you nod along cuz it seems like something he expects you to already know but the memory’s buried under a lifetime of Big Church Nope so like--sure, yeah, whatever you say.

Which is to his credit how he’s stayed clean so long, and he says that much himself, because he admits he’s weak and stupid sometimes and you’re pretty sure this is some psychological warfare tactic to drag you back into routine Mass attendance to get your cut of the tithe but you’re playing along, for whatever reason. Not being ready to go back outside yet. He’s easy to talk to, companionable. Which again---probably because he’s a fucking priest.

You kick your heels against the underside of the counter, swinging your legs like a little kid. Just a little bit. “It’s weird to be here, y’know,” you say because “weird” is the only way to describe...all of it.

“Recovery?”

“Church.”

“Ah,” Corey says, like he knows. The toilet flushes. You can hear him rinsing the scrub brush in the flow of water. “You Catholic?”

Knew it.

“Used to be. I mean, probably technically still am, y’know.”

“Yeah….they don’t like to let anyone off the hook, do they,” he says--like they doesn’t include him in this context--and ducks into the other stall with his scrub brush and Lysol blue goo. The bottle farts when he squeezes it. He starts scrubbing. “Why’d you quit?”

You shrug before realizing, y’know, he can’t see you with the stall door fallen closed behind him and this is some kind of fucked-up reverse confessional, but there’s some comfort in it. The echo of your voices off the tiled walls and water-spotted drop ceiling. The basket of fake ivy and daffodils on the other side of the sink. It’s private and sacred like the middle school bathroom. Cocooned.

“Same reason as anybody, I guess. Just didn’t feel right anymore. Dunno if I believed or if I was just being brainwashed, y’know? Like. Everybody holds it over your head like--oh, if you believe, you’ll feel it, you’ll feel god’s love, you get all this support from god & the church if you just believe--and then y’know, it’s all-----conditional. Y’know, like--over the stupidest shit. Like I’m sorry you don’t like my hair, Deb, I’m sorry I’m fucked up, if god still likes me----” you wave your hands in the air, cuz, y’know???

Y’know? And then like--if god’s real, why am I fuckin’ suffering? Like, no, I don’t put any faith in that ‘hurr hurr, tell the storm how big your god is’ crap cuz--no, I’m out here alone, I don’t have fucking anybody and I have to do it all myself; god’s never backed me on shit. God doesn’t go make fuckin’ iced capps for me all day and get yelled at by Karens, that’s me. I’m the one out here busting my ass and getting mistreated, and----y’know?? It’s just bullshit. I’m tired. I’m so fucking tired. I just want it all to be over with, but like--I’m still here.”

And Corey--Father Taylor--just says “yeah, no, I get you;” the sound of his brushie-brushie crackling through the room.

And he says, “It’s good you’re trying.

And you just grunt, cuz you’re sick of hearing that.

You kinda just….like, I don’t want to sound like one of those pissy holier-than-thou old-timers, y’know, but...it gets easier. Like. The more you do it. It’s a habit, like anything else. Just showing up and staying alive. Like yeah, I’m sure as shit happy I can sneak in on meetings sometimes, but that’s cuz it feels like sometimes, like, nobody in the church gets me, cuz y’know. I’m this shining golden former fuck-up.” You can hear the air quotes around “former”. The toilet flushes. Corey stays in the stall.

“I’m still a fuck-up, I just manage it better, y’know? Like. We’re all flawed. There are some downright shitty people in the world, but everybody’s at least a little shitty. And we all deserve to be loved anyway. I guess that’s what God is for me. Like, that’s what I try to do, y’know, as His messenger. Love people.”

“You wouldn’t if you knew me.”

The stall door swings open and Corey’s leaning against the wall dramatically, scrub brush trailing into the toilet. “Darling, I’m a man of God. I’m not interested like that.”

You bite back the smile, trying to turn your snorted laugh into some kind of cough and play it cool but your cheeks flush for no specific reason really and then you’re hiding the smile behind your hand before Corey nudges you off the counter to rinse the brush in the sink, which is objectively disgusting but y’know. He’s a man. At least he’s trying.

 

--

 

You linger so long the buses stop running for the night and when you mention getting an Uber he offers to drive you home cuz it’s part of his Service, y’know, helping others where he needed help himself once. According to him, he needed a lot of help.

It’s September now and the nights are cooling off, the leaves starting to pile up in the gutters. Outside smells like wet earth. Compost. Asphalt, railroad ties, exhaust. Scrapyards. The shawarma joint down the street from your shitty bachelor walk-up above a laundromat that’s only open five hours a day and probably is only there as a front for money laundering, way out on the edge of town. Two buses and a fifteen minute walk.

Corey rolls the windows down, lets you smoke in his car on the drive which is nice of him for a priest. He begs a drag off your cigarette like you’re old friends, having shed the button-up at some point in favor of just the t-shirt underneath--heathered green, crewneck, looks soft. Nice like he is.

“Don’t tell God on me, alright?” he teases, throwing on the parking brake in front of the laundromat.

“Yeah, I won’t,” you say with your hand hovering on the door handle. “We’re not really on speaking terms anyway.”

“Yeah, well.” His face softens. “Take care of yourself, sweetheart. I’m gonna pray for you, if that’s cool. But y’know. I don’t think you’ll need it. You got this far on your own. I’m proud of you. You just gotta keep going.”

And you wanna say, who are you to say you’re proud of me? And you wanna say, how can you pray for me if you don’t know me. And you wanna say, easy for you to say, Mr. I’ve-Been-Clean-For-A-Billion-Years-And-Don’t-Have-To-Pay-Rent-Anymore-Anyway. But instead you say, yeah. Instead you say, thanks.

And he hollers out the window as you’re unlocking the security gate, “You can call me if you need anything!! You know where to find me!” and maybe, just maybe, the corner of your mouth twitches in a smile.

You’re not gonna go to any fucking Mass, but maybe you’ll see him around.