Prayer for a Punch Line by Michael Guillebeau

A priest hears a confession that creates a difficult moral quandary which makes him question his own career choices; by Michael Guillebeau.

"Forgive me, Father Carson. I've killed a girl."

I started to laugh through the confessional partition. Freddie liked to joke, or at least try. But even a priest who liked jokes in the pulpit couldn't allow jokes in the confessional - and there were enough people who thought I didn't take my calling seriously enough as it was.

"Freddie - my son - this is not a place for jokes. Begin by saying something like, 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.'"

Freddie was crying softly. It was the first time I had heard a man crying in confession. Of course, it was only my second year hearing confessions.

"My son," I said. "We both know you're sometimes confused. Perhaps you're mistaken."

"The news man says she's dead. They haven't found her body, but they said she's pressured dead."

"Presumed dead. OK. Perhaps we do need to talk about this."

"Was Ramona MacAdams, the girl with the red hair. Ramona was always so nice to me, even when others were being mean."

"I know Ramona." I had met her working in the church nursery a couple of Sundays ago. A nice girl, twenty-something like me, but flighty, with a bad boyfriend. Loved working with children. Children and probably mentally challenged young adults like Freddie. I crossed myself and said a quick prayer for her soul. Maybe the prayer's not necessary, I told myself. Freddie's confused a lot. Maybe, in a few minutes, Freddie and I would step out of the confessional doors and laugh about it. Maybe.

"She came up to me early this morning while I was picking up cans. She was sad, sadder than most days. Chip had been hitting her all night, she said, and it was her fault, she said. Her head was bleeding and she was sort of crying. She begged me, Father Carson. I would do anything for her, but I told her I didn't want to do that."

"Where was this?"

"The old docks north of the park. Where I sleep sometimes, when the weather's good."

I was there last week with a group trying to bring the people who lived there into the downtown shelter. Sometimes they came, sometimes not. Sometimes they were good to us and enjoyed the food and my jokes. Sometimes not.

"So Ramona came to you. What did she want?"

"She said she wanted it all to be over. Said she couldn't leave Chip, and she couldn't go on with him. I could tell she was scared, the way she kept looking up at a car on the hill.

"It was him up there. He didn't get out of the car, but I knowed he was there, way she kept looking back. She thought I didn't see, but I did."

He paused. I stayed quiet and gave him time.

"She asked me to push her in the water. Said she couldn't swim and wanted to drown, but that she couldn't get to heaven if she jumped in herself, Father. We talked a lot first, and I didn't want to do it, but she knew I couldn't say 'no' to her and keep her out of heaven that way. I did what she asked, Father. I did it."

Freddie was crying and incoherent for a couple of minutes, and I let him cry, and thought about all the tears a priest would hear over his lifetime. Thought about how little he can ever do about it, except be there. Lately, I was wondering if I had made the wrong choice between laughter and tears when I became a priest, and wanted to go back to a world where there was more laughter.

When the rhythm of the sobbing slowed a little, I said, "What did you do then?"

"I watched her sink under the water until I couldn't see her no more. I knew then that she had done what her heart told her was the right thing. But it didn't feel right for me. I went up the hill to find Chip. He's a lot bigger than me and he picks on me a lot, but I didn't care, this time. But he was gone when I got there."

We sat silently for a time.

"I have to go to the police, Father?"

I waited a long time. "That would be the correct thing to do."

"The police won't believe she asked me."

"Perhaps they will, my son," I said, thinking, yeah, homeless guy confesses to killing a pretty young girl. They won't even hear anything after that.

"Freddie - I mean - my son, let's do this. You need to turn yourself in to the police, but you need time to pray and reflect first. I need time to pray on this, too. Stay off the streets today and come back tomorrow before eight o'clock mass. I'll have the police here for you."

"You sure, Father, wait till tomorrow morning to turn myself in?"

"Yes, my son, I am certain," he said. I wondered if it was a sin to say you're certain when you know you're playing a long shot. Maybe I should confess to myself.

I sat quietly in the dark booth after Freddie left, praying and planning and hoping. The wood here in the confessional was old and dark, rubbed to smoothness by generations of faithful care. I wondered if the booth had ever heard a problem like Freddie's. Now it was my problem. When the time for confession was over, I left the confession booth.

Four o'clock. When I went into his office, Father Murphy was sitting behind the big desk like the CEO of any company, which essentially, he was. St. Mary's was the richest parish in the state and he was mostly responsible for fundraising and keeping the staff in line. Not the things he had probably gotten into the priesthood for.

I admired him, but I wasn't sure this was the path I wanted anymore. I wanted to tell him about Freddie, but I knew that would just put him in the same awkward place I was in. Besides, he had something he'd called me in to talk about.

A secretary scooted in, put a paper on his desk, and Father Murphy signed it without looking at it. Then he focused his bushy white eyebrows on his next problem of the day: me.

"Father Carson," he said. "The Bishop was in the other day, complaining that a young priest in a dignified parish has no business doing standup comedy in a bar like you do."

It was an argument I'd been having with myself lately. "There are things, Father, that I feel like I can say there that I can't say here."

He paused and searched my face. "You're probably right about that. Humor in the pulpit is great - you've had some great homilies. But sometimes you've been a little too... frank. Particularly for a flagship parish like this, where everything gets noticed. That's why I wanted to look at your homily for tomorrow. Bishop's going to be here, particularly to see how you're doing. I don't want him upset." He tossed a pile of papers over at me. "This looks OK. Basic sermon on the importance of tithing. Stick to this script tomorrow with no adlibbing and we should be all right."

I nodded. No point in trying to fight this battle again. Not with him and not with myself.

"And, Father Carson, I know you've got offers to do your comedy full-time. I hope you are praying fervently before you do something like that."

"I am, Father. I am."

He smiled and decided to lighten the mood. "You know, I really do envy you your comedy act. When I was young, I was a pretty good amateur comedian myself. While I was listening to the Bishop, I was thinking up lines for you. You want to hear them?"

I caught myself rolling my eyes, and made myself stop.

"Thank you, Father, but no. My act is improv." I tried to emphasize the word to make it clear. "Somebody in the audience yells out something like: 'A plumber and Jacques Cousteau walk into a bar,' and I'm supposed to take it from there and make it funny. Part of the appeal is for the audience to see me sweat. Without it, they get bored, and realize I'm just a priest trying to show them something with the jokes. A priest doing a comedy act always gets accused of preaching anyway, so I've got to keep them involved."

"I get it. I'm hip." That line, from Father Murphy, was the best joke I'd heard lately. But he was smiling, so I smiled back. "Think about this one for tonight. A rabbit and a penguin walk into church. The rabbit says to the penguin, 'I didn't know it was formal.' How about that?"

"Very funny, sir." I walked out the door and thought, Jesus, now I'm lying to a priest. I'm going to be saying 'Hail Marys' past midnight.

I went to the rec room and turned on the TV and hunted through the channels until I found the local news. A reporter was interviewing a tearful and angry Chip.

"I saw him do it," he said. "That bum did it. Hit her on the head and threw her into the river. I drove downriver to try to catch her but she was gone." He looked at the camera and shook his fist. "After all she's done for him; I hope the cops shoot him when they find him."

I left and went down by the river. At the park entrance, I passed a small knot of police cars, the cops standing around getting a search organized.

I didn't know where to look for Freddie myself, so I started on the street where he usually kept the collection of boxes he called home. Found him twenty feet away, the boxes dragged back from the street but clearly visible.

"Freddie." I tapped on the biggest box.

There was no answer, but something shifted inside.

"Freddie, it's Father Carson."

His head popped out. He looked out suspiciously, but grinned when he saw it was me.

"I thought it might be somebody trying to trick me into coming out."

"No, I... why would you come out if you thought... Never mind. What are you doing here?"

"You told me, get off the street."

I sighed. "So I did."

"C'mon," I said. "There's a storeroom in the old part of the church. I want you to stay there tonight."

Home Plate Sports Bar was dark and crowded like every Saturday night. I looked over at Thomas Daly at the bar and nodded before I started my act.

Sometimes the act would have a moment, a line or an exchange with someone in the audience that would catch people's attention and get them laughing. There would be a rhythm then, the people laughing, me getting funnier by the joke, nothing that they could throw at me that I couldn't turn my way and leave them begging for more. A real connection with real people, instead of standing in a pulpit lecturing a field of silent heads.

Not tonight. The act dragged on, people watching sports on the TV, bored. I struggled with every setup and wondered why I ever thought I could do this. Some days lately, I felt like a comedian pretending to be a priest. Tonight, I felt like I was a priest pretending to be a comedian.

I cut the act short and joined Thomas at the bar where he was talking to James, the owner.

James said to me, "Club soda?"

"I'm Catholic, not Baptist," I said. "Jameson, straight up. Make that a double, tonight."

James mumbled something about the act not being that bad and sat a drink in front of me.

"Good act," said Thomas. I gave him a sour look.

"Alright, crappy act," said Thomas, "what do you want from me? We're friends since high school, you call me up and tell me to be here tonight, I figure you're looking for a pat on the back. The act bombed tonight. It happens. I've seen you kill other nights."

"Probably not good to have a homicide detective accusing you of killing."

He shrugged. "Word's got a different meaning in your business than mine. Lucky you.

James leaned in. "Looks like you had your mind on priest stuff up there tonight. I told you, you can be a good comedian, but you can't be a comedian and be a priest."

I picked up the drink. "There's got to be a point to a joke, some kind of bite or it's just an empty laugh."

He shrugged. "Talking like a priest again. You could make a circuit of the comedy clubs if you gave up the collar. And added a little raunch."

I started to say something but somebody in the back yelled for James and he went their way.

Thomas said, "OK, so we're not here for career advice. You called, and I came. What's up? By the way, this visit counts as church this week. I don't have to come to mass tomorrow."

"You have my dispensation, for whatever that's worth. But we're going to have to kind of reverse roles tonight, if you can."

I had been scanning the crowd while we talked and lost my train of thought for a second.

"Hey," said Thomas. "You're not supposed to be checking out the crowd for chicks anymore."

I smiled, probably my first real smile since Freddie's confession. "No," I said. But, looking at one wild child with bright blond hair, tattoos and a wonderfully tight tee shirt, that did seem like a strong argument for a comedian's life rather than a priest's. "I was expecting somebody else in here tonight so I could talk to him. But he probably has a lot on his mind tonight. Guess he won't be here."

I turned back to Thomas. "All right, so that makes it all the more important that I talk to you tonight and get this thing straightened out. I need you to play priest tonight, let me tell you something in confidence and get your advice. But you can't use any of it professionally."

"Hey, you know me. Long as it doesn't break the law, I'm your man. Hell, I don't even care about minor law-breaking anymore. Long as you haven't killed somebody."

He thought it was a joke and he laughed. I hesitated and he caught my expression and his mouth got tight.

"Sean, you need to tell me what's up. Now."

"I need your promise first."

"No promises. I'm a cop. Look, we cops have a hard bright line on murder and serious bodily harm. You keep information from us on those things, you go to jail. Period. Even that priestly confidentiality thing of yours doesn't apply to those things, at least not as far as we're concerned. You get word that somebody's committed a murder, or about to commit a murder, you better come to us."

"The Church doesn't necessarily see it that way," I said.

"Well, the Church is wrong. You withhold knowledge of a murder and I'll come after you. You've been my best friend since we were kids, but I'll come after you if you're aiding and abetting a murderer. And I'll tell you something else: the Catholic Church with a big C might stand behind you on privilege, but that Chamber of Commerce big parish you work for will throw you under the bus faster than I will before they'll put up with any bad publicity."

"Yeah. I understand. OK, how about if we go the other way? Tell me what you're working on."

He hesitated. "I'm showing a lot of faith in you, Sean. OK, I'm got a vic from a week ago. Looks like a drug deal gone bad. I know who did it, but I want to get to the guy that told him to do it."

Wasn't what I wanted. "Anything else?"

"No. Well, there's that girl that a bum shoved into the water. But they didn't call me in on that. Don't really need a detective when you've got witnesses who saw it, including the boyfriend. Half the department's beating the bushes for the mook. We'll find him, he'll confess because in his fried-brain world he probably thought he had a good reason, and he'll get the needle."

"Suppose he comes in voluntarily?"

Thomas gave me that long, flat cop stare that uses professionally. "It would be good for him. And any one hiding him."

"How good?"

He shrugged. "Probably take the death penalty off the table. Let him spend his life in jail."

The door opened and a group of young men boiled in, loud, full of themselves. I looked in the middle and saw Chip, laughing. At the back was Chip's friend Greg. Greg mouthed something to me and pointed at Chip. I nodded thanks back to him.

James had drifted our way again. Thomas gave him a look that said go away but James never paid attention to those looks.

Chip laughed really loud and stumbled as his crowd sat down and waved at a waitress who rolled her eyes in anticipation of a table full of young men with big ideas and small tips.

"He's handling it well, don't you think?" said James.

"Yeah," I said. "Everybody mourns in their own way."

Thomas looked at us, and looked at the boys without expression. James surveyed the crowd.

"Some mourning. I heard his bookie has already wiped out his debt in anticipation of Ramona's life insurance. Bastard."

James drifted away and Thomas pinned me with a look. "You need to tell me what's going on. Now. Officially."

"Later." I stood up and took two steps toward Chip's crowd. Remembering, I turned back to Thomas. "Stay here a minute." Added. "Please."

I pulled up a chair at the boys' table and sat down opposite Chip.

Chip said, "Greg says you want to see me."

I looked around the table. "Looks like a big day for you boys," he said. The table got somber but one boy was still snickering.

Chip suddenly acted sad. "You ain't heard the tragic news, Father?"

I tried to give him Thomas's cop stare. "My son, I am a priest. My eyes are on God. I have no time to watch the news of the world."

The boys exchanged looks.

"But good news comes for the righteous, my son," I said. "I wanted you to tell Ramona she's a rich girl. She won a thousand dollars in the raffle last week. All she has to do is collect it."

One of the boys started to say something but Chip put his hand on the boy's arm and stopped him.

"A thousand dollars?" he said.

"A thousand dollars," I said. He stood up. "Tell Ramona to come to my office tomorrow morning before eight o'clock mass and I'll give her a check."

I walked across the bar and crossed myself as I went. This would take more than a couple of Hail Marys.

I paused in front of Thomas and pointed a finger at him. "Want you in church tomorrow."

"Thought I had a pass."

"Eight o'clock mass tomorrow. Come by my office a few minutes before and check in with me."

"Check in? What is this, summer camp?"

I jabbed the finger in his face. "Eight o'clock. Be there. I'm not just your old high school buddy anymore. I'm your priest, and I'm telling you to come to church. What's wrong with that?"

Thomas threw up his hands. "All right. I'll be there. Man, you may be a priest, but you sure get weird sometimes."

"You have no idea." I walked away.

I was on my third cup of coffee by seven forty-five, and it showed. I was pacing in my office, already dressed in my robes for Mass with my Bishop-approved homily on my desk. I had said more prayers than I could count. I looked at the clock again. Maybe one more prayer wouldn't hurt. When I raised my head, Freddie was kneeling on the floor in front of my desk.

"You don't have to kneel, Freddie."

"Felt like it couldn't hurt today."

"Maybe you're right. Stay put."

I could hear the prayers Freddie was mumbling when I saw Thomas walking into my doorway. I motioned for him to stay quiet. Freddie finished his prayer and looked up at him.

"I've got something to tell you, Detective Daly," said Freddie.

"I'm sure you do," said Thomas. He gave me the hard look from last night. "I'll need to take you down to the station first. Just you. For now."

"No," I said. "Talk in there." I handed Thomas a pad and pen and motioned to the small conference room between my office and Father Murphy's.

"We need to go to the station," said Thomas.

"Talk in there," I yelled.

Thomas didn't react. "Course, in there looks good, too."

He started to lead Freddie into the conference room. Freddie turned back to me at the door. "Have I atoned, Father?"

"Yes, Freddie, you've atoned."

"Can I ever be forgiven?"

I looked into his sad brown eyes and tried not to think about how the world was going to treat him. "God always forgives."

Freddie smiled and went into the conference room. Thomas closed the door for privacy, but I cracked the door open. Thomas just shrugged and left the door alone.

Father Murphy looked into the office and tapped his watch.

"I'll be there," I said.

"Bishop's waiting. Likes to start on time."

I nodded and he left. I sat at my desk, watching the clock slide closer to eight. I was chewing a pencil, something I hadn't done since grade school. I suddenly wished I smoked, then wondered what kind of sin that was and what the penance was for that.

As the clock on the wall hit eight a small black woman stepped into the door. I started to make up some excuse and shoo her away, but then she pulled back the hood of her sweatshirt and I saw Ramona with her hair dyed black and her skin darkened. She smiled meekly.

"It's a new look, Father," she said.

"It's very... stylish. I guess."

"Chip said you had something for me, Father?"

"Yes." I handed her a check. "Hang onto this."

"Thank you, Father. Chip and I are going away, and this will help us."

"No," I said, sharper than I meant. "I mean, you won this, not Chip. Please hold onto this for yourself. You might need it." I added, "Ramona," a little too loudly.

She looked down at the check. "This is from your bank account, Father, not the church's."

"It was easier that way."

Thomas and Freddie were standing at the door and all three of them saw each other at the same time. Ramona started crying. Thomas looked weary. Freddie was just smiling, glad to see Ramona alive.

She turned back to me. "Father, Chip said it wouldn't hurt anybody. I'd float downstream and climb out at the park and we'd have money and could go away and start a family together."

I took the podium for the homily and looked over at the Bishop. He was still scowling, mad because Mass started five minutes late while they waited for me to join the processional. I looked down at the sheets of paper on the podium. I looked up at the audience and smiled. It was my audience, and I was going to kill. I set the sheets aside.

"A murder victim, her killer, and a cop walked into church today," I began. I took a deep breath and had faith there would be a punch line.


  1. The Priest's character carries this one. He's very believable and interesting, and has a great sense of humour. Him being an improv comedian made him quite unique. I've met young priests, and they are kinda like this guy. You have to have a sense of humour. The plot was interesting too I just suspended belief re: Ramona faking death for the life insurance... Chip wasn't a very bright criminal. The story moved at a great pace and was very entertaining. All the parts fit together. Nice ending.

  2. Brilliant. We don't see where this is going until the end, and the characters are all perfect and perfectly introduced for the plot to be carried forward with brio. Loved it.

  3. Very believable with a plot and well-drawn characters that pull in the reader. The twist was a surprise, but didn’t feel contrived. And the priest wanting to be a comedian provided just the right touch of quirkiness.

  4. Yes, a mostly convincing story. But i liked all the characters and the dialogue, especially the exchanges between the priest and the cop.
    I agree the priest with the stand up improv is a great idea.
    Mike McC

  5. Priest who does standup. Might make a nice series.