The Confession Club, page 1
The Confession Club is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Berg
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
RANDOM HOUSE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Berg, Elizabeth, author.
Title: The confession club : a novel / Elizabeth Berg.
Description: First edition. | New York : Random House, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2019007966 | ISBN 9781984855176 |
ISBN 9781984855183 (ebook)
Classification: LCC PS3552.E6996 C66 2019 | DDC 813/.54—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019007966
Ebook ISBN 9781984855183
Title-page images: © iStockphoto.com
Book design by Dana Leigh Blanchette, adapted for ebook
Cover illustration: Ben Perini
Spill It, Girls
In the Nighttime
Man on the Run
It’s About Time
Welcome to the Club
Breakfast at the Henhouse
Making Her Way Back Home
Rules of the Club
The Gift of Rain
Eeenie Meenie Miney Mo
Do You See What I See?
The Value of Pie
Telling It Like It Is
It’s Been Good to Know You
Little Things Mean a Lot
The Way You Are
Leave Well Enough Alone
The Seventh Commandment
Taking Them Up on Their Offer
The Thing That Shall Not Be Named
What Happens Here Doesn’t Necessarily Stay Here
What Babies Can See
All We Need
Oh, What a Beautiful Morning
By Elizabeth Berg
About the Author
The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?
from Two Worlds Exist
Spill It, Girls
For Confession Club, Joanie Benson is going to make Black Cake. It seems right: dense, mysterious, full of odd little bits and pieces of surprising ingredients. It was seeing The Belle of Amherst that gave her the idea. Joanie had enjoyed the play, not so much for all that “Truth must dazzle gradually” stuff—although, come to think of it, didn’t that fit right in with Confession Club? But no, never mind Emily Dickinson drifting around the stage in her white dress, tossing off lines of poetry that made others in the audience quietly gasp; Joanie was fixated on the cake Emily was making. Emily gave out the recipe in a rush of ingredients, but of course one is not prepared to copy down a recipe in a darkened theater, and besides, Joanie wasn’t persuaded that it was a real recipe, anyway. But in the lobby afterward, the theater did a very nice thing: they served Black Cake, and Joanie had some, and it was delicious.
When she was driving home from the play with her friend Gretchen Buckwalter, Joanie waited to get off the freeway to talk. No matter who is driving, they don’t talk on the freeway, they don’t even listen to the radio. (Joanie is a better driver than Gretchen in the sense that she still will make left turns. Gretchen goes around the block, so that she can make a right.) But once they were on the two-lane highway leading to Mason, driving past open fields, Joanie relaxed her grip on the wheel. She told Gretchen she was going to find the recipe for Black Cake and make it for Confession Club, which, don’t forget, was at her house this Wednesday.
“What?” asked Gretchen. She hadn’t been listening; she’d been trying to catch a glimpse of herself in the side-view mirror, never mind the lack of light. Gretchen is sixty-nine years old and one of those former knockouts who just can’t stop mourning the loss of her looks. She admits that if she didn’t think God would punish her by making her die on the OR table—and if she could afford it—she’d have every bit of plastic surgery she could, head to toe. Gretchen knows she is shallow in this regard, but she kind of enjoys being shallow this way. And anyway, she believes her fixation with looking good helps make her store, Size Me Up!, the success that it is. Her boutique is for women of a certain age who still want to fight the good fight, as Gretchen sees it. She has lots of cape-y and drape-y things that cover a multitude of sins. She also sells a lot of jewel-toned scarves that seem to say, Yoo hoo! Up here! Look up here!
Her dressing rooms have curtains that close all the way and her sales staff is trained never to open those curtains—if another size is needed, the customer’s arm comes out when she is good and ready to snatch the hanger. The lighting in the dressing rooms is adequate but merciful, due to the use of pink bulbs; the carpeting is thick, and the white leather benches for sitting on are not those tiny insubstantial things you see in other dressing rooms. Best of all, good music is always playing and wine is available, too, should you need it to counteract the shock of seeing yourself in a full-length mirror in your underwear.
Joanie, on the other hand, has always been satisfied with her admittedly plain-Jane looks. Who cares? She looks friendly! She is friendly! She still wears the bob she wore in high school and she eschews any makeup beyond mascara and pink lipstick. She has a wide-eyed expression that seems to say, Well, hi there! She doesn’t mind the extra weight she carries. She thinks Gretchen is a little nuts for the way she is always dieting, for the way she holds on to her long red hair and hoop earrings. But Gretchen does have her good qualities. And for heaven’s sake, they’ve been friends since they were both in their high school’s production of South Pacific. Gretchen, a senior, was Nellie, the lead; Joanie, a freshman, was one of the native girls wearing a “grass” skirt made of newspaper strips painted green, and a bikini top. She used to help Gretchen run lines and they just hit it off, despite the age difference that then seemed immense and now seems negligible.
“What did you say?” Gretchen asked Joanie, and Joanie told her again that she was going to make the Black Cake Emily Dickinson had talked about. She said she’d go to the library where she used to work and research the recipe. Joanie liked any excuse to go to the library; she liked it especially if a patron came up and said they missed her.
“That was your takeaway from the performance?” Gretchen asked. “The cake?”
During the play, Gretchen herself was all Miss Pittypat, her bosom practically heaving, her eyes damp enough to require Gretchen dabbing a
Well, that’s what you get when you leave the sensible little town of Mason, Missouri, and drive all the way to Columbia, everyone putting on airs all over the place, even the waitstaff in the restaurants: “Good evening, I’m Thaddeus, I’ll be your server for the evening. May I start you out with one of our signature cocktails?” And then that business of not writing down anything she orders, which always makes Joanie a nervous wreck. Joanie prefers the greeting offered by the waitstaff in restaurants she frequents in Mason: “Well, look who’s here. The usual, hon?”
Still, one must endeavor to incorporate a little culture into one’s life. One can’t rely on the Town Players and the Gazebo Summertime Band and Poulet Frisée Olé for everything. Joanie also attends the monthly poetry readings at the library, but that is less culture than charity, Grace Haddock and her impenetrable lines of alliteration every time. Alliteration does not a poem make, thinks Joanie, and she’s not the only one, judging by the gritted teeth and crossed arms of the people around her whenever Grace grips the edges of the podium and lets fly. Most of the poems the participants present aren’t very good. Still, each time Joanie walks home from one of those readings, she thinks about something she heard. Once a man wrote about his first kiss. “Lips as soft as petals,” he’d said shyly, his head down, and it made Joanie go all melty inside, which only went to prove that she was, too, a romantic person, never mind what others sometimes said about her. (Once, at Confession Club, they were talking about first loves and someone said Joanie’s first—and only—love was Dewey Decimal.)
The poet that night said something else, too, about eyes shining in the dark, and Joanie liked thinking about that, those young eyes, that first kiss. It made her think about her own first kiss, which was in a basement and, oh, Lord, it was her cousin, which she will never tell anyone, and she hopes he never will, either. He doesn’t live in Mason anymore, thank goodness. It still makes her squinch up inside to think about that kiss, which was the best kiss she ever had, and isn’t that sad, to have had your best kiss when you were twelve years old? If she’d known that at the time, she might have felt like throwing in the towel. But there’s more to life than sex, especially at her age. She’s at a kind of tipping point, she feels. Not young anymore, not old, but looking down at old like it’s a pool she’s going to have to dive into soon. But not yet. Not yet. She’s glad many of her friends are younger. She and Gretchen agree that it’s good to be around younger people. Things rub off. Totally, Joanie has begun saying, with no self-consciousness at all. Gretchen has yet to follow, but she does say cool. She also says that cool was created more by their generation than by this one. So.
* * *
Confession Club started accidentally. It used to be Third Sunday Supper Club, formed from a group of eight women ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies, all of whom had taken baking classes with Iris Winters. After the women grew comfortable enough with one another, they began sharing things they’d done wrong. It just became, as they say, a thing, and after a while, they decided to meet more often, twice a month, then weekly. At each meeting, someone confessed to something she’d done recently or long ago. And just like in church, it made people feel better, because at the end of the meeting the group said in unison to the confessor, “Go in peace.” Very powerful words, whatever your belief system. On certain days, those words could make you feel like crying.
One time Leah Short, their senior member at seventy-seven, had too many margaritas with dinner (Gretchen had made empanadas and enchiladas and even flan), and Leah said sloppily, waving her hand for emphasis, “Go in peach.” And then the next week someone brought a peach-colored scarf, and now it’s a tradition: whoever is forgiven wears the peach scarf home. And then that person brings it back the next week all hand-washed and ironed and ready for the next sinner.
Naturally, it was endlessly fascinating, what people confessed to. There was a saying someone shared at an early meeting: The truth is always interesting. So, too, an honest confession. And it wasn’t necessarily the sin that was interesting; it was the willingness to say, There. Have a good look at my imperfections. It made you feel better about your own.
There weren’t many times when people missed Confession Club. Joanie feels it’s her job to keep people on track, though. If it was your turn to confess, why, you had to come and confess something.
Rosemary Dolman once confessed to taking cookies off a grocery store shelf at Betterman’s, sampling them, disliking them, and then putting them back on the shelf.
All the women laughed when Rosemary shared this, and she said, “Well, I am very surprised by this reaction. I am upset about this, and I haven’t told anyone, and I thought surely I could confess it here and get some sympathy and some advice! I feel like this was effectively stealing. More than that, it sounds like it was done by someone a little…out of it. I fear I’m getting old and strange like my Aunt Pookie, who makes no sense whatsoever anymore, but holds forth at family dinners like she’s royalty. All people do around her is hold their mouths real tight together so they won’t burst out laughing.”
“How old are you again?” Dodie Hicks asked. Dodie is north of seventy, though she won’t say how far north. “I’m Minneapolis, not International Falls, okay?” she says. “When I hit the big 8-0 we’ll have a party with dancing boys.”
Dodie still dyes her hair a severe black. It makes her face look alarmingly white. And then she draws on long, coal-black eyebrows and wears black mascara and blue eye shadow and blush that Gretchen says makes her look slapped. In the spirit of honesty between friends, Gretchen told Dodie that, and Dodie, in the same spirit, told her to mind her own business. Dodie still smokes, too, though she is courteous enough to smoke outside, even on the coldest winter days. But her cigarettes are unfiltered, so she is always doing that nasty thing of picking tobacco off her tongue and going, Ptuh! Ptuh!
On that day when Rosemary confessed her fear of becoming odd and Dodie asked Rosemary how old she was, Rosemary took a while to answer. She is one of those women with elegant bone structure who creams her face religiously with ridiculously expensive placenta-y things and wears a lot of nice jewelry given to her by her husband, who owns Mason’s only car dealership, Dolman Chevrolet (his sign says, IF YOU DON’T WANT A CHEVY, YOU DON’T NEED A CAR), and she will probably always look at least a little glamorous, even in her coffin. But when she was asked her age, she looked over at Dodie, her chin lifted high, and said, “I’m turning sixty.”
“When?” Dodie asked. The women liked when there were birthdays. Cake.
“In a year and a half.”
A moment of confusion, and then Dodie said, “Well, then you’re turning fifty-nine, aren’t you?”
“I’m just going to get it over with,” Rosemary said. “I’m just going to say I’m turning sixty.”
“The point is,” said Anne McCrae, who had recently turned seventy-four, and had brought the most darling cake to the group for her party—it had been made to look like her poodle—“putting those cookies back on the shelf? That’s nothing. In fact, I think that store sort of deserves it. They’re snobby. The displays are so fancy you don’t feel you can touch them. You stand in front of the cheeses and it’s like they’re whispering to one another about you, in French.
“That’s true,” said Rosemary. “And I guess that was part of it—those cookies cost twelve dollars. Twelve dollars! I thought for that price they’d be delicious, and they were from Europe and everything, so I threw them in the cart. I was hungry, so I had one, and they were awful. I didn’t want to pay twelve dollars for cookies I’d just throw away, so I put them back on the shelf. And then I was so ashamed, I ran out of the store and just left my full basket there. Which I guess was also a sin.”
“That’s nothing, either,” said Anne. “People do that all the time. I guess there are emergencies or something.”
“There were chicken breasts in there!” Rosemary said.
“I’m sure the store has insurance for that kind of thing.”
“And as for it being odd behavior,” said Leah, “you don’t know the half of it. When you get older, you do start acting old and funny. And wearing Poise pads.”
Rosemary’s mouth hung open. If a woman could still look attractive with her mouth hanging open, Rosemary did. Then, “Oh, my God,” she said softly. And with tears trembling in her eyes, she said, “I don’t think I want to live anymore. If this is what’s going to start happening, maybe I’ve had enough.”
There followed such a ruckus, such a loud consensus of outraged disapproval, that Rosemary folded her arms over herself, ashamed, and said no more.
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