Harry Tompkins hadn't been to church for many years. He still
believed in God but going to church didn't interest him. Then on a warm
Saturday afternoon in August, he met Jayne, a lovely woman, at a company
picnic. He liked Jayne a great deal and he thought he might improve his chances
with her if he accepted her invitation to go to church on Sunday morning. Jayne
had a way about her that Harry liked. Besides she looked like a woman who would
bear good children.
"What time should I pick you up?" he asked her. She told him
9:30 would be fine. "That will give us plenty of time to get to the ten o'clock
The priest's sermon, it turned out, was about the importance of
forgiveness and that was a topic Harry knew something about. He had not made a
lot of enemies in life but the ones he had made, he cherished even if their
infractions had occurred decades ago. Forgiving them would never enter his
mind. Enemies are enemies, Harry thought, but he could understand where the
priest was coming from.
Harry had spent many years of a considerable education in
Catholic schools. And one of the basic mottoes in those schools was to forgive
your enemies as you would want Jesus to forgive you. He didn't want to be
disrespectful to the Son of God but Jesus had grown up in Nazareth, after all,
which was quite a bit different than Harry's neighborhood in Chicago back in
the 1950s. In Harry's youth, fights were not a daily occurrence but a week
seldom went by without at least one good fight occurring. Fights were always
fair back then because to fight dirty was the lowest thing someone could do.
You would be branded for life as a dirty fighter. If you couldn't get the job
done with your fists, then don't fight is the way Harry looked at it.
Chief among Harry's enemies from the old neighborhood were Elmer
and John. They were two boys, older than Harry by a couple of years. Decades
ago they beat the Hades out of him in an alley in Chicago. Harry at that time
was in the 8th grade and he was going home from school when he got jumped. The
nun had been happy with Harry that day, even if that was a rare occurrence,
because he had won the all-school 8th grade spelling bee, no small feat in a
class where verbal skills outdistanced math skills. Besides, it was usually a
girl who won the spelling bees. But Harry could always spell. He'd look at a
word once and it was memorized. This time he won because he could spell
"ukulele" and Barbara O'Brien, "Miss Goody Two Shoes," couldn't even come close
and had to settle for second.
His enemies Elmer and John were high school sophomores the day
they pounded Harry, who though big for his age was still only an 8th grader.
Elmer and John were small for sophomores but the two of them together were more
than Harry at the time could handle. It was a beating Harry never forgot,
perhaps because he had won all the other fights he had ever had in grammar
school and would have later on in high school. Besides, it sure wasn't easy
explaining to his parents that night how he had managed to get a black eye and
split lip coming home from school.
"I pay the nuns at St. Nick's good tuition," his father had
said, "to make sure you grow up right." He wanted to go down to the school and
discuss the matter with the nuns but Harry somehow talked him out of it. He
explained that the kids who beat him up didn't go to St. Nick's. In fact, Harry
said, they looked like Lutherans. His father said to tell him if Harry ever saw
the boys again.
Two years later, when Harry was a sophomore in high school,
Elmer and John were seniors at a different high school. Harry was now 6'1" and
about 180 lbs. He'd been lifting weights on a regular basis, hoping to gain
weight for the football team. Elmer and John, on the other hand, were still
relative runts, perhaps 5'6" or 5'7" and maybe 140 lbs at best. Harry hadn't
seen either one of the boys since his throttling. But he had always remembered
the beating and he assured himself that if he ever had a chance to make things
right, he would do so.
It so happened that around that time Harry met a nice girl at a
school dance and it turned out that meeting her led to renewing old
acquaintances with Elmer. The girl's name was Margaret Mary and she lived in a
wealthy neighborhood. She invited him to a graduation party that her parents
had arranged. She didn't know that Harry was only a sophomore.
Harry decided to go to the party because he liked the girl
despite her living in a fancy neighborhood, one that he had visited only once
before when his high school basketball team had defeated the team from Margaret
Mary's school. Besides, Harry remembered that Margaret Mary had said her
parents had hired a caterer to provide the food. That sure beat hot dogs, the
main fare at any party in his neighborhood.
There were a lot of kids at the party that Saturday night and
they were all from different neighborhoods. At first, Harry saw no one he knew,
certainly no one from his blue-collar neighborhood, which was just as well
because with him in a suit and tie he would have had to take a lot of razzing
if any of his friends spotted him. Later in the evening, however, Elmer walked
in, still short and skinny but decked out in a nice seersucker suit.
Harry recognized Elmer immediately but Elmer did not recognize
him. When Elmer decided to go outside to have a cigarette, Harry followed him.
He let Elmer take a few drags before he walked up and asked Elmer how life was
treating him now that graduation was near.
"You going to college, Elmer?"
Elmer still didn't recognize Harry. It was no wonder, then, that
he never saw the uppercut coming. Down went Elmer with Harry on top of him.
Many punches later, one of Elmer's teeth lay on the sidewalk and he was gushing
blood from his left eye. The other kids heard the ruckus and came poring out of
the party but Harry, by that time, had taken off. Elmer had gotten his, Harry
figured. There was no need to hang around and complicate matters.
Besides, Harry figured the cops would be scouring the
neighborhood looking for a kid that fit his description so he spent the five
bucks his mother had given him to take a cab home. He had never told Margaret
Mary his real name, just that his nickname was "Skip." She wouldn't have been
able to tell the cops where to find him. And he didn't think Elmer would
remember who he was.
And so that was one reason why in church that Sunday with the
lovely Jayne--at least thirty years after pummeling Elmer--Harry found the
priest's sermon on forgiveness resonating. At age 46, he had acquired a couple
of college degrees, had held a good job for many years, but had never met a
woman he wanted to marry. It wasn't that he hadn't met some lovely women over
the years. He had met a number of them and enjoyed them all but found them
"Most women are like Kleenex," he'd once told a friend who had
inquired why he had never married. But Jayne seemed different. He thought right
way she'd make a good wife.
So Harry listened to the sermon and even prayed a little. He
remembered all the words to the Lord's Prayer. Having been raised Catholic, he
knew when to kneel, stand and sit which can be confusing to someone not
Catholic attending a Mass. He also thought his prayerfulness might impress
Jayne, who was obviously a very spiritual person. But he didn't join her in
going up the aisle for Holy Communion because he had been living in mortal sin
for years and as a Catholic he knew he should not receive Holy Communion in the
state of mortal sin. He might be a sinner, Harry thought, but he wasn't about
to commit a sacrilege to impress Jayne. A few rules even Harry wouldn't break.
After Mass, Harry and Jayne went to a nice restaurant for
brunch. She took the opportunity to ask him how he liked the Mass and the
sermon--or as she called it, "the homily."
Harry said he liked the Mass in that it brought back memories of
his younger years in Catholic schools but the sermon, he said, had upset him a
"Why," Jayne asked.
Harry then told her in great detail the whole story about Elmer
and John beating him up when he was in grammar school. He also told her how he
had managed two years later to pay Elmer back with a good thrashing at an
otherwise nice party.
That's when Jayne asked him if thumping Elmer wasn't enough.
Couldn't he now forgive Elmer and John for beating him up?
Harry said that maybe, just maybe, he could forgive Elmer at
some point in his life but not now, even though it was 30 years later. Besides
he still hadn't found John. He had even thought about hiring a private
detective to get his address. Harry didn't care what city John lived in because
that's why they have planes and trains. And as he told Jayne over their last
cup of coffee, when he did find John he would beat the hell out of him, worse
than he had beaten Elmer at that party.
"I'll bounce his filthy skull off the concrete," Harry told
Jayne, wiping the corners of his mouth with his napkin, "if the opportunity
presents itself. And I'm pretty sure that some day it will. What goes around
comes around. Even Hitler found that out."
He wouldn't kill John, Harry assured Jayne, when she finally
came back from the lady's room. "But if possible I'll leave the schmuck laying
there in a puddle of blood, wishing he were dead."
Schmuck was a Yiddish word, of course, and he wasn't sure if
Jayne knew what it meant. It would be just as well if she didn't. Harry seldom
used the word but if he started to get riled up about something, it sometimes
fell out of his mouth.
If he got the chance to meet John again and settle matters,
Harry told Jayne, then afterward it might be time to talk about forgiving him
and Elmer but he'd have to give it some thought. He didn't like to make
commitments if he wasn't sure he could keep them. Then Harry drove Jayne home
and told her he'd like to see her again. Jayne smiled but didn't really say
anything except good-bye when she got out of the car.
As time went on, Harry never saw Jayne again even though he
continued to call her for several months. She was never at home, it seemed, or
maybe she was a hard sleeper.
Finally Harry quit calling her and started going out again with
"The flavor of the month," as he told another friend.
He never found another woman like Jayne but as Harry liked to
say, "any port in a storm."