Pray and Confess or Else

by Paul Beckman

“Time Heals” my father said as we were approaching my high school in his beat up old red pickup. He slowed but didn’t stop in front of the school, leaned across me and opened my door and shoved me out onto the hard-packed dirt and stone road with the contents of my backpack scattering to the whims of the wind. I struggled to my knees and watched his trail of dust and venom heading towards parts unknown.

Mom still uses the same dinner plates—three sections, two for vegetables and the largest for the main course.

“Pray,” he’d command as my two sisters, mother and I sat after all our plates were filled.

“Thank you dear Father/ husband for all of your hard work and sacrifices in order to put food on our plates and a roof over our heads. We love, revere and bless you even though we don’t deserve you.”

Then one by one, before we ate, we did our confessions.

“Daughter Number One, confess,“ and so on down the line, including Mom. If the confession was sufficient then the person could start eating. If Dad deemed it lame he’d grab the food from one of the sections, fling it to the floor and give the offender another chance. There were times when one of us kids or even Mom had all of our food scooped away and went to bed hungry.

Jimmy Beam, our Shepard mix, sat shaking awaiting my father’s okay to eat the food. Even though the dog’s dish was only an arm’s length away Dad still threw the food on the floor causing more work for Mom.

At breakfast this morning, Mom, bruised from the night’s argument, made pancakes. Pancakes were our Sunday dinner meal as decreed by my Dad. He sat fuming at her rule-breaking and drummed his dirty and broken fingernails on the table—the creases on his hands filled with unwashed axle grease. His drumming became louder as a warning to my mother whose bruised face was painful to look at.

She filled our plates then hers and then put down the fork and grabbed two pancakes with her hand and slapped them onto my fathers’ plate while staring back at him. She blocked his arm as he reached for a pancake.

“Pray,“ she said, “Thank you my dear wife for this wonderful food you made this morning even though your body is sore from yet another one of my drunken nights. Thank you for putting up with me and my stupid rules and before I eat I’d like to confess in front of you and our children.”

Dad sat stone silent with an “I’m going to kill this woman look.”

Mom said, “Pray.”

But he said nothing. Mom reached over, grabbed his pancakes and flung them to the floor next to his chair. “Go,” she said to Jimmy Beam and motioned with her hand and as his breakfast was being lapped up Dad stood, knocking over his chair and started towards Mom.

“Get in the truck,” he snarled at me.

“Finish your breakfast first,” Mom said taking the ice pick from her apron pocket and holding it at the ready.

Leaving my pancakes, I stood to get my backpack. With fists balled and face twisted Dad again stepped towards Mom. I grabbed the ice pick from her hand and jabbed it into the kitchen table between me and Dad. He turned and walked out to the truck and I touched Mom’s cheek and followed him and got in.

My days as a pin setter in a duck pin alley with older kids rolling the bowling balls down the lane as I was setting the pins somehow helped in my later career as an Air Traffic Controller. Stories upcoming in Ink Sweat & Tears, Yellow Mama, No Extra Words, Pure Slush, Gravel, Lunch Ticket & other venues.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Pray and Confess or Else”?

I told my adult son about these segmented plates my brothers and I used as kids. He asked for them and I searched my basement but couldn’t find them—thick yellowish, with, I think pictures of strawberries baked into them.

I couldn’t get them out of my mind because the childhood memories of using them in a fatherless home were not pleasant memories. I was always being accused of lying and the old adage of, “Tell me the truth and you won’t be punished” came back with the plate memories.

I woke up the next morning and wrote this story. I revised it numerous times in the month that followed, sent it to a fellow writer for comments, cleaned it up and sent it to you.

The sadness of the story mirrored the sadness of that period of my life.

The final version, while different from the original draft, is only about a 100 words fewer in the word count.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

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Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now closed. The reading period for standard submissions opens again March 15, 2023. Submit here.


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