S H O R T S T O R Y
IVAN EVANOCHICK'S LAST CONFESSION
b y r o b e r t a k u s i a k ~ b o s t o n , m a s s a c h u s e t t s
FIFTY YEARS ago Ivan Evanochick was already old. School boys threw coal at his windows and pissed on his tomatoes, knowing he was too old to protest. Ivan Evanochick limped out of the house on his bunions, damning them to the inferno.
At least they thought he was damning them to the inferno. English and Slovakian whistled around his only tooth, punctuated by a cough that everyone thought signaled the end of Ivan Evanochick.
But it didn't. Ivan Evanochick had already survived all his long-lived grandchildren, and although it was his most fervent wish to die, something kept him alive yet another cursed day to gum his food and shuffle painfully on feet crippled by bunions.
"Sons of bitches," he said.
Father Slepchuk put his hand over his face and leaned in to hear Ivan Evanochick's weekly deathbed confession.
"Who? The children?" Father Slepchuk asked.
"The birds. Sons of bitches eat everything."
Father Slepchuk glanced out the back window to the dreary landscape, denuded by strip mining. Even then blackbirds lined the crossbar of Ivan Evanochick's scarecrow, cawing at others who tore at the corn.
"Tell me your sins, Ivan Evanochick."
Ivan Evanochick sighed with the weariness of a man with a boulder in his heart.
"I didn't give Georgey Gojuk milk."
"You've already confessed that and done penance," Father Slepchuk said, as he had weekly for decades. "God has forgiven you."
"His baby died." Ivan Evanochick rose up on his supposed deathbed, coughing.
"Everyone was poor then. No one had money."
"I had milk."
Ivan Evanochick lay back down, tears coming to his one good eye. That eye was knocked out in a mine accident and dangled for hours by the optic nerve. The veterinarian who tended to the miners had washed it off and popped it back in. Now it swam in formless pink tissue, but no one was alive anymore who knew it was the only one that worked.
"You had your own children to take care of," Father Slepchuk said, surprised again by the freshness of Ivan Evanochick's sorrow. "I'm sure even He doesn't remember."
"Ha! " He coughed, then put up his finger triumphantly. "Then why won't He let me die?"
Father Slepchuk pulled his hand down from his face and looked up at the old prints over Ivan Evanochick's bed. One was of angels keeping vigil over the dead Virgin's bed. The other one showed angels watching the body of Jesus: death scenes that Ivan Evanochick dreamed would be his.
Truly, the question of why Ivan Evanochick hadn't died also puzzled Father Slepchuk. As a boy he, too, had pissed on Ivan Evanochick's tomatoes and was surprised to see him alive when he came back from seminary. Even now, Father Slepchuk was beginning to anticipate the rewards for his toil on earth long after Ivan Evanochick should have received his.
"A long life is a gift, Ivan Evanochick."
The old man raised a hand in protest and turned to the wall. "Who?" he moaned. "Who would give me such a gift?"
Moved by pity, Father Slepchuk lay a hand on his shoulder. "Gojuk's great-grandchildren still pray for you, Ivan Evanochick. They bear you no ill will.
Interested in this, the old man turned. "They what?"
"They pray for you. Every year a Mass card comes in." Father Slepchuk smiled, glad to bear such news, wondering why he never thought to mention it before to ease the old man's conscience. "They wish you nothing but the best."
"Ha!" Ivan bolted upright and swung his legs off the bed, almost knocking Father Slepchuk off his chair. "I knew!"
The old man bent over with visible distress and moved his shoes closer to the bed, slipped his feet in painfully, and laced them to the ankles. The left shoe had molded itself around the old man's bunion.
"Where are you going?" Father Slepchuk called after him as he made his way, duck-like, down the stairs.
Ivan took his cap and sweater off the hook by the door, not answering. The priest knew that Ivan Evanochick's interest in the clergy extended only to the relief he could get from absolution. When that relief was not forthcoming, Ivan and he would seek solace in the bottle of Old Grand Dad on the night stand. But today Ivan Evanochick sought his consolation elsewhere. Father Slepchuk looked out the window and watched Ivan Evanochick hurry past the scarecrow, not even bothering to shoo the crow who ate his corn and mocked him as he hobbled by.
Father Slepchuk, saddened by his inability to help the old man out of his grief, took a long swallow from the bottle on the night stand. Then he removed the alb from around his neck, stuffed it in his pocket and ran after the old man across the barren hills. He easily caught up with him and the two walked silently until Father Slepchuk squatted suddenly next to a huckleberry bush, the only thing that thrived in the gashes left by the strip miners. "Zedo! Grandfather!" he called. "Have some huckleberries!"
Unhearing, the old man walked on. Father Slepchuk filled his hat with the plump berries before running to him.
"Here." He extended his hat.
The old man took a handful, the berries spilling out of the grip that didn't quite close anymore, encased as his hands were in calluses formed by forgotten chores. He mashed the fruit between his tooth and gums and turned his bunioned feet down the slope towards the Gojuk's light blue house in the valley.
Father Slepchuk had known this house since he was a boy. He watched the Gojuks tack on one room then another as the family grew, then watched it grow neglected as the family waned. As they neared the house, Ivan's pace quickened and Father Slepchuk hastened to keep up.
In the backyard, a woman in a babushka was weeding her garden while a little girl, chortling at her power, stamped away the blackbirds that tried to land on the corn. Each time she jumped, a puff of wind lifted her long skirt and raised her yellow hair so it looked like a halo around her head. The woman rose when she saw the men coming towards her. She pulled off her babushka and smoothed her raven hair.
"Mrs. Gojuk! " Father Slepchuk called.
The woman waved a pretty arm. "Good afternoon, Father."
Ivan Evanochick was the first to reach her. He took off his cap briefly and stared at the young woman's face.
Mrs. Gojuk winced under the one-eyed scrutiny and pulled the girl close to her. "Come inside," she said. "I have a cake."
Mother and daughter walked all the way into the house, but the priest and the old man stopped by a figure lying on the aluminum sofa in the enclosed porch. The man was skinny and unshaven. He was barely breathing and gave off a putrid odor. Father Slepchuk wasn't shocked because he visited here daily, eating Mrs. Gojuk's chocolate cake, while waiting with Felix Gojuk in the screened-in porch for death to come.
"Felix Gojuk," the priest addressed the man, Georgey Gojuk's last living great-grandchild.
Felix Gojuk rolled his eyes on the pair, then rolled them back to a spot on the ceiling when he realized it wasn't the visitor he expected.
Ivan Evanochick squinted at him, then said in a loud whisper, "He's dying."
Father Slepchuk nodded. "He's old, although it's true his wife is young. It's his time. "
"Son of a bitch!"
Mrs. Gojuk appeared on the door, wiping her hands on her apron. She smiled a little at the priest. "The coffee is ready, Father."
Father Slepchuk took Ivan Evanochick by the elbow and guided him to the kitchen, where Mrs. Gojuk had set out three cups and three plates. She took a knife and happily began cutting the cake.
"I'm so glad you came, Father." She gave a tentative nod to Ivan Evanochick, trying not to betray the repulsion that youth feels when confronting its own fate. "You, too."
Father Slepchuk reached for the first piece of cake, which was his because he was a priest, and realized that Mrs. Gojuk, who was not from the area, had never seen his companion.
"This is Ivan Evanochick," Father Slepchuk said, gesturing with his plate of chocolate cake.
"Ah," the woman said. The second piece of cake shook slightly as she handed it to the old man. "Ah," she said again, brightening. "It's almost time!" She ran lightly to the cupboard and pulled an envelope out of a cracked teapot. "This is for you." She waved the envelope teasingly under Ivan Evanochick's nose before giving it to the priest. "It's your Mass card."
"Don't take it!" Ivan lunged at the envelope, but his grip couldn't hold it.
Mrs. Gojuk looked hurt at the priest and his friend. "It's only a Mass card. It's a gift."
"Why do you pray for me?" Ivan thundered, banging his fist that wouldn't close on the table, rattling the cups and saucers. Then he succumbed to a coughing fit and Mrs. Gojuk and Father Slepchuk looked away politely until he finished. "Why don't you pray for him?" Ivan jerked his head in the direction of the porch where Felix lay dying.
Mrs. Gojuk put her hands out, palms up, entreating the priest to help her. "Felix's father gave him fifty-six dollars when he died to buy Mass cards for our friend, Ivan Evanochick."
"How much do you have left?" the priest asked curiously.
Ivan Evanochick slumped, exhausted at the thought of 28 more years of sloshing food around his toothless mouth and limping on his deformed feet. A tear squirted from his good eye. "Give the Mass cards for your husband," he begged her. "He should live." Ivan grabbed for the girl who was sitting under the table, poking at his bunions, but she giggled and escaped. "I want to make amends with God."
Mrs. Gojuk and Father Slepchuk watched the old man blow his nose in self-pity.
"A dying man's wish. It's bad luck to change it," Mrs. Gojuk said, shrugging and sighing.
"Ask Felix Gojuk. Only he can change it."
"My husband is making his peace with God," Mrs. Gojuk said. "I cannot ask him this now."
At this, Ivan Evanochick's body convulsed with sobs of such sorrow that Mrs. Gojuk was moved to go over to him and hold him. She took off his hat and gently rubbed his greasy white hair and the scar made by the rock that knocked his eye out so many years ago, although she couldn't know what it was. Finally, she held out her soft hand and waited for him to put his own callused one into it, and led him onto the porch.
They stood silently until her husband's eyes, already prying open the next life, wandered over to her and the old man.
"I have Ivan Evanochick here," Mrs. Gojuk said softly, putting her hand on her husband's.
Felix focused on the old man intently. "I know him," he said finally, his words barely audible.
Ivan Evanochick was about to beg Felix Gojuk's forgiveness, but seeing the old man in such a horrible condition, couldn't bring himself to upset him further. Instead he started crying. "Peace be with you," he said between loud sobs, making the sign of the cross over the dying man.
Felix Gojuk examined the old man with the clear sight of the dying. He looked for hypocrisy and found none. "You are a good man, Ivan Evanochick."
Ivan straightened up, hoping at last to be released from his bondage, hoping that Felix Gojuk would say the words to stop the life-giving prayers on his behalf. "I am a terrible man. You, more than anyone, should know."
Felix Gojuk shrugged a bony shoulder. "I am dying now."
"I know," Ivan said excitedly. "I want to also. I don't feel so good. Look!" He showed him feet with the bunions. "And this! " He coughed horribly bringing up a hearty amount of mucus.
Felix Gojuk coughed in sympathy, but he didn't have any phlegm to show for it. He was completely dried up and his body cracked noisily with the effort of bringing something up that wasn't there. Exhausted, he lay back on his pillow, staring at the ceiling.
"Felix Gojuk," Ivan said, emboldened by his solidarity with the dying man. "Tell your wife to stop the prayers. I have suffered enough in this life. God must judge me now."
Father Slepchuk waited with Ivan Evanochick for Felix Gojuk's reply but soon realized they would get none. He reached over and closed the dead man's eyes.
Ivan Evanochick cried out in despair and left the house. Father Slepchuk prayed over the body of Felix Gojuk before he too left the house and joined Ivan Evanochick on the pile of slate by the garden. The blackbirds came and ate the corn, one even sat on Ivan Evanochick's head, but neither of them shooed the birds away.
Father Slepchuk and Ivan Evanochick sat silently for quite a while. They didn't notice that the little girl had come out of the house and was staring at Ivan Evanochick until she said, "Did you kill my father?" Her little chin pointed at the old man.
Ivan Evanochick beseeched her with his outstretched hands. "I wish I had died instead," he said through his one remaining tooth.
But she couldn't understand anything he said. "You are a bad man." She stomped around the garden, chasing away all the blackbirds except the one sitting on Ivan's head. It cawed loudly at the girl. She stepped back, but crossed her arms defiantly.
Then she whispered something so softly that Father Slepchuk and Ivan Evanochick had to lean in to hear her, but by the look on the old man's face, Father Slepchuk knew they had heard the same thing. They watched her disappear in a swirl of skirt and corn silk hair, Ivan Evanochick mouthing what the girl had said.
"I hope you die," the girl had whispered before she turned and ran, sobbing, into the house.
Father Slepchuk helped Ivan Evanochick to his feet. The bird was still on his head. "I'll walk you home."
"Yes." Ivan Evanochick smiled the only smile Father Slepchuk had ever seen him give up. His sight was on something far beyond the priest. "Yes."
Father Slepchuk knew the look and was relieved for the old man. The bird glared at him to keep a few paces behind, but Father Slepchuk followed them home, saw the old man to his bed, and heard Ivan Evanochick's last confession.
This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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