Looking back for a low point marking the worst of my insobriety, it might be that signal moment I put out my cigarette in the holy water font of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, right in front of the priest, I might add, who was too stunned to reach in and remove the soggy stub, but who looked at me with such pure scorn that I could feel his ire scorching my everlasting soul through the entire service.

What was I to do? The water had been so still and the font had really seemed so much like an ashtray and it was by the entrance—it all made complete sense to me. This was the seventies, of course, which is why I was even smoking inside a church at all (that made complete sense to everyone then), and I was young, and as I implied before, may have been imbibing at the time. We were there for a wedding and I was a Protestant guest, an outsider unschooled in the mysteries of the Roman Catholic order, naïve about its rituals and rules. I probably kneeled when I wasn’t supposed to; God knows I may have stretched out on the pew, for all I remember. I suspect we had been celebrating the nuptials some days in advance, I suspect I was standing before God with the matchbook of a strip club in my pocket and had probably bathed with a washcloth at best, dressing hastily in the back of a van with carpet on its walls. Now surely, I was bound for hell. There was no sweet-talking my way out of this one.

Even thinking of it now I shudder a bit; I think I can hear the woman behind me gasp as that red-hot Camel straight hissed against the surface of the water. I can see it floating there, turning a little from side to side like a compass needle coming to true north, the paper’s glue starting to give way, flecks of tobacco bobbing at the uncharred end. Bless me father, for I have sinned, big time. I am sorry about the scene I caused. I am sorry about the shame. I am not, however, sorry about that bridesmaid, in fact, my only regret is that I don’t remember more of her, but then that is the tragedy of youth, you can’t keep it forever, not even in memory, especially when you’ve slaughtered as many brain cells as I have, but there’s no use crying over spilt, well, bourbon….

I am a model citizen now. I go to bed early. I’m asleep by 10 o’clock. I don’t recall my dreams and my days follow one upon another like the pickets of a perfect fence. What have I learned? There is a hair’s difference between self-love and self-harm; both being self-importance and delusion. Ironically, I had to prove how unimportant I truly was before I could be happy being trivial. I needed to stand before God as a complete buffoon to make peace with my imperfectness. I had an ego I really should have been licensed to carry.

And what about that font? Should I have recognized what it was right off? Should I have guessed it was something sacred? At the very least, I should have reached in and removed that butt immediately, secreting it in my pocket and slipping into the sanctuary, but I was as shocked as everyone else and ultimately, embarrassed and clueless, I just shambled to the wrong pews.

The bride and groom lasted sixteen years. They had a good run, but those vows didn’t make it a lifetime. I’m rarely in touch with any of that crew anymore. Our aisles have led in separate directions. I’m still embarrassed, though few attendees can recall my name. I’m just the out-of-town dick-wad who ashed in the holy water. I suppose there may come a day when I’m questioned at the pearly gates, and St. Peter will want to know if it’s true, if I’m the one, if I’m the hooligan he’s heard about, and what can I say? It was yours truly. I did it. But I quit smoking a long time ago. And serious drinking. And going to church too, for that matter, so it never happened again. That ought to count for something.

Mark Cox has been publishing poetry for over thirty years, but has only recently ventured into the land of prose. His most recent books are Readiness and Sorrow Bread. He teaches at University of North Carolina Wilmington and Vermont College.

Photo by Paul Bilger