Short Fiction Contest-winning story #14: “The Red Underwear,” by Ellis J. Biderson

March 15th, 2007

 

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New Short Fiction Award

     We value creative writing and wish to encourage writers of short fiction to pursue their goal of being published. Jerry Jazz Musician would like to provide another step in the career of an aspiring writer. Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

     Ellis J. Biderson is the fourteenth recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 15, 2007.

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THE RED UNDERWEAR

by

Ellis J. Biderson

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  ….. I have a problem, Father.

  ….. No, no “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” and the rest. Not this time.

  …..    And that’s it, really: I’m here again, in confession with you, as I have been for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve sinned.

  …..   Yes, of course, Father, I understand about confession. Penance, really, because that’s a sacrament, that’s how a person gets forgiveness of sins. There is absolution by a priest, but you – I, because I am sitting here now – have to have true sorrow and confess your sins, and do something about your behavior. You really have to mean it, not just want a pass for what you’ve done – and may do again, unless you’re genuine in your confession and really want to change.

  …..   I’ve thought about it – confession and penance. I know none of this is just a ritual; in fact, I know that none of what I believe or think or feel or do is simply a ceremony, that it all has to do with Christ. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have become a nun. Confession and penance are things we do that were begun by Christ so that we could impart grace to our souls. After we do so sincerely, this sacrament passes to you, who provides absolution. It’s not very different from a court. I am not only the plaintiff and the defendant, but my own witness, and you are the judge.

  …..   Considering all that, and I definitely have, that means that I must truly be sorry for anything I did, and that you must be sure that I am, because with grace granted, I am delivered from the guilt of sin and, if it is a mortal sin, from eternal punishment.

  …..So I do understand.

  …..What has bothered me is not that I am not sorry for a sin, or that I am concerned that you will not accept my confession. We have known each other, what, almost twenty years now? You know that I am forthright and sincere, and we trust one another.

  …..  Let me start with the key point: the red underwear. If I hadn’t been thinking about it for so long, been so comfortable with it for all this time, I’m not sure I could even say the words. In fact, I’m wearing them now, a red brassiere and red panties. With lace trim on the bra.

  …..    What I believe deeply is that I have not sinned, but that, somehow, wearing red lacy underwear, even if it is nylon, not silk, is not quite something I should be doing. Though not a sin. Otherwise, I would not have bought it anonymously.

  …..  How did I do that? You know that big shopping mall just off the Grand Street exit on the highway? I figured that Saturday was a big day for shoppers, kids out of school and all that, and there would be a lot of people there. So, the Monday before, I checked the ads in the Sunday paper, saw that Jensen’s was having a sale on lingerie, decided what I wanted, and was there around eleven in the morning on Saturday. The city bus stops at the edge of their parking lot. Dressed in plain clothes, of course, civvies as Anna calls them, casual pants and a sweatshirt, like I wear when I am cleaning the yard around our home. Walked in, right to the women’s underwear department, not even enough time for the woman there to give me “Can I help you?” and picked up the red underwear. “Knew just what you wanted?” she said, and I did. Paid quickly, and I was out of there.

  …..It’s bright and shiny. But not as sleek as silk. I thought nylon all along, but, when I first walked in, saw the silk stuff in the department store, admired it, liked its look and feel, but I thought – and what would I know? what could I know? – that red silk would be what a woman kept by some international financier would wear, and I didn’t want to be that, I just wanted to be a woman.

  …..  And I felt just fine about it. There is a difference, Father, between being a nun and being a woman who is a nun. I have become more convinced that, to serve Christ as fully as I want to, I must not hold back any part of my being, my self. To give eighty per cent is not enough; to serve Christ as a nun and ignore who and what I am, including my being female, would be to hold back a part of who God made me from serving Christ. You do see that, don’t you?

  …..   I didn’t want to use my name in the store, not even just Maria, so I paid cash. My father had given it to me without asking what it was for. He talks about my being in the highest calling, how proud he is of me. He knows that money and earthly pleasures aren’t part of that, but he’s always willing to give me a few dollars, even fifty-five, like this time. Thinks he’s giving it to me so that I can have a few comforts to help me do God’s work better, and that the church doesn’t provide enough.

  …..He didn’t ask, and I knew that he wouldn’t. I mean, I’m thirty-eight now, been a nun for what seems like forever – and that’s good, I’m not complaining – and Dad would never doubt my goodness. That’s his word: goodness. I sometimes think he sees a halo around my head.

  …..  Anyway, it was $58.37, including tax, but I had a few dollars to add to what he gave me.

  ….. I have so much time to think, by myself. My room isn’t a cloister, not the fourteenth century in some cold stone building in Europe, all dark. I have time after prayers and work, and sometimes during work, when I think not about me, but about God’s will.

  …..  Yes, of course, I know I am a tool of God’s will, but I am also a result of it. And I know God gave us all free will, and that heaven or hell at the end will result from our exercising that. But then, I think, God had to have known how I was going to exercise my free will, or God wouldn’t be God, would he, omniscient and all that. So, am I wrong to think that my becoming a nun was known by God, from God’s omnipotent, omnipresent will? And if that’s right, then the red underwear are no surprise to our Father.

  …..    Yes, I know what blasphemy is, and I also know that my brain was given to me by God, and I know that I have to use that. And I know what others, outside the Church, have said, that, because God pushed the first domino in an infinite row, knowing they would all topple, there really is no sin. I know, I know, that’s not true, there’s personal responsibility, too. But late at night, particularly, my faith takes away any distress, although I know that I will never understand the mind and will of God.

  ….. It’s not that what I think are doubts, but thoughts. But it still hurts.

  …..    No, it doesn’t mean I’ve made a choice God would definitely approve of, but, on the other hand, I don’t know why He wouldn’t. I read, and I think; I don’t sit on my bed in exotic – or erotic – poses, having fantasies that would make Hugh Hefner smile. In fact, just the opposite: by being a woman, I see myself as whole, as more of a human being, not some object of convenience and subservience from the mind and pages of a Hefner. I feel – what’s that popular culture term? – empowered.

  …..     Sometimes, I sit on the chair in my room, wearing just the underwear. Not in a sexy position, not a temptress in some fantasy. No, just a woman who feels – knows – she is a woman, that she hasn’t given up her whole identity to serve God, even if my soul is with Him.

  ….. All that talk of a personal relationship with God. That’s too much bumper-sticker language, full of pride. If I really want a personal relationship with God, I should be a person, Maria, who is not genderless.

  …..     I know how I feel, but others just see the black uniform, react to it more than to me, and I realize that police and firefighters – and nuns – are seen as police and firefighters – and nuns – more than they are John and Bill – and Maria. I am a nun, no different from other nuns, but still a different person, and that is so interesting, because, even though it is the habit that does it, or the less formal working clothes, I see that others view nuns as being basically the same inside.

  …..  I have thought that this is the only safe way I can be a woman.

  ….. I know that we are all one in God, but there still is a we in that, and lots of Is in the we. I don’t think it’s wrong to be an individual, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or be immoral. It’s not like I’ve gotten a tattoo. It’s just my red underwear.

  …..  I’ve looked at other nuns, my sisters, wondering if they wear red or pink or chartreuse or plain white, but frilly, underwear. I don’t ask them, not because I am embarrassed, but because, as with me, privacy, solitude with God as the only one else to know, is very important, essential.

  …..   It has nothing to do with my breasts and my body. (Can you believe I am actually saying these words to you, telling you this? But it is because we have known each other for so long, and, of course, because the red underwear makes me feel more fully me, adding some confidence.) No one knows except God. And now you.

  …..    I mean, underwear is a part of life. Not something terrible, like rape or war. And wearing red underwear isn’t a bad thing.

  …..   Still, wearing lacy red underwear, why, I’m sure that doesn’t seem right to other people. What about you – how do you feel? Father? James? Oh, I’d recognize your soft snoring anywhere, after all of those long days at the children’s center, you sleeping in the van on the way back. I’ll let you rest.

  ….. But God heard me. Didn’t He?

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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