Harry Tompkins and the Art of Forgiveness
by Donal Mahoney
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 Mass.”
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 180lbs. 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 140lbs 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 disposable.
“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 little.
“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 different women.
“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.”
Profile: Donal Mahoney