The Problem with Alphabetical Seating

by Michael Pelc

"Naked women," Stanley Burkowski leered. He spoke the words out of the corner of his mouth without moving his lips, the way he'd seen convicts talk to each other in cheap, low-budget prison movies. Though, in this case, he wasn't talking to a fellow inmate. He was talking to the skinny kid seated on the pew beside him, the kid whose name followed his alphabetically--Higby Butterworth.

"Shhh," Higby whispered back, "we're in church."

"Stark naked college girls."

"Quiet, Stanley.  The Bishop's gonna hear you." 

"I seen 'em naked, y'know...seen everything."

"Oh please, dear God, lead me not into temptation," Higby began to pray.

Stanley paid him no mind.  "Yeah, they like to go skinny dipping up there by the college ... in the river, y'know."

Higby didn't want to hear about naked college girls.  Not today.  Not on the day he was being confirmed into the church.  He lowered his head and prayed some more. Rosary beads raced through his chubby fingers.

"Found me a spot where I can sneak up on 'em and watch.  Watch 'em lying out on the rocks, all naked and stuff." 

In the anxiety and confusion of the moment, Higby could think of only one way to get out of the situation:  he had to punch Stanley Burkowski in the nose.  Now it's true that, although he couldn't recall where within his Catechism the topic was covered, Higby was quite certain that young boys who punch out other young boys on the day of their confirmation into the church will surely be damned to hell forever.  Given the circumstances, it seemed a small price to pay.

"Hey, Butterworth," Stanley went on whispering, "you ever seen a woman naked?"

It was at precisely this point in time--some thirteen and a half billion years or so, more or less, after the creation of the universe--but no more than mere nanoseconds before Higby was about to unload an uppercut into the freckled nose of one Stanley Burkowski, that he felt a large hand lay itself upon his shoulder. 

"Well, my son, have you?" asked a voice--a voice that was a full octave lower than Stanley's.

Slowly, Higby turned his head to see who was talking to him. 

It was the Bishop.  And he was asking a question to see if he, Higby Butterworth, was worthy of being confirmed into the Catholic church.  It was just the way Sister Belva said it would be when they were rehearsing for the confirmation ceremony.  Sister had told them that the Bishop would wander up and down the aisle and ask a few questions, picking out a boy here or a girl there, to see how well the children knew their Catechism.  Any child who was fortunate enough to be asked a question by the Bishop, according to Sister Belva, should consider himself to be blessed. 

There was, however, this one particular thing that didn't quite make sense to Higby.  Somehow he couldn't recall Sister Belva, or any of the other nuns for that matter, telling him that the Bishop might want to know whether or not he'd ever seen a woman naked.

Nonetheless, Higby tried to respond.  After all, a simple "no, I have not" seemed like a pretty safe answer under the circumstances, given that the Bishop and the nuns and his mother and father and all sorts of other devout people in attendance--with the possible exception of Stanley Burkowski--were waiting on his answer.  But the best Higby could do when he opened his mouth was to spray the Bishop and the pew in front of him with a fine mist of spit and saliva. 

"It's all right, my son.  There's nothing to be nervous about," said the Bishop as he tightened his grip on Higby's shoulder.  "Just take a nice deep breath and tell me if you have made a good confession."

His mind had been so occupied with Stanley Burkowski and all his talk about naked college girls that Higby had never heard the Bishop ask him if he had gone to confession.  It was as though his brain had gotten stuck on the word "naked," and having heard that, it couldn't process anything else.  Needless to say, once he found out what it was that the Bishop had asked him--had really asked him, and that it did not in any way involve naked women--Higby was incredibly relieved, and the words flowed smoothly out of his mouth.

Unfortunately for Higby, and for his mother and his father and for Sister Belva and the Bishop--in fact for everyone except Stanley Burkowski, who thought the whole thing was a hoot--the words sort of got jumbled up a bit.

"Yes, Your Excellency," said Higby as he beamed with pride in being able to answer the Bishop's question, "I have seen a woman naked."

BIO: Michael Pelc lives on the west coast of Florida with his wife and a black cat that few visitors have ever seen. His stories have been published on various obscure websites including Apollo's Lyre, Crimson Highway, A Twist of Noir, and Kidvisions.