Harry Tompkins and the Art of Forgiveness by Donal Mahoney

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

“It’s Best to Leave Cootie Alone” by Donal Mahoney

“Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” is all that Cootie Murphy would ever say when he sat on the last stool at the end of the bar in The Stag & Doe Inn. He wouldn’t say it very often, only when provoked by someone or stirred by thoughts known only to him. Mostly he would simply sit at the bar in silence, staring straight ahead, tapping his fingers now and then, and sipping his Guinness.

Cootie had held the rights to the last stool for more than 50 years, ever since he returned from Korea in 1953 after two years spent in conflict. Some people thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, although they didn’t call it that back then. Others thought he was nuts before he went to Korea and had simply come back a little nuttier. Both sides would find their opinions confirmed on nights when the moon was full and Cootie would throw his head back and howl like a wolf. Regular customers were used to it by now and they’d sometimes join in. The bartender would only say, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”

The bartender also said that if Cootie ever died, his stool should be buried with him. But the neighborhood mortician, Rory McCarthy, always a customer after a funeral, had said he had never seen a casket that would accommodate both a man Cootie’s size and his stool as well. He agreed, however, that he would see what could be done if Cootie ever required his services, provided the family didn’t drive the body–as they did his mother’s–to O’Brien’s, another mortuary a few blocks down the street.

McCarthy said that he knew of no law against burying Cootie upright—sitting on his stool, Guinness glass glued to his hand. That might be an option worth looking into. But it would require a customized casket of unorthodox configuration best ordered in advance. That would cost a little more, McCarthy said, but what’s money in a time of grief.

There were no signs, however, that Cootie, despite his age, was a candidate for death. In fact, he took no medications. He was simply a strange and contrary fellow with many eccentricities.
For example, it didn’t matter whether you were a regular customer who had known Cootie for decades or a first-time customer. He would respond in the same way. If someone asked him any question—did he have a match for a cigarette or did he know if the Cubs had won—his answer was always the same.

“Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!”

Regulars had no idea what he meant or why he said it. And strangers would walk away bewildered.
Sometimes, however, a stranger who had drunk too much himself would take offense at Cootie invoking the vernal equinox. Over the years, several of the strangers had threatened Cootie with a thrashing. Such a threat, of course, was like a call to prayer in Damascus for regular customers who, otherwise bored, would bow their heads and turn on their stools quietly toward the commotion. They knew that as soon as Cootie would hear a threat, he’d get off his stool and put his fists up, John L. Sullivan style, and start shadow-boxing around the stranger, flicking left jabs and then a right cross, all just inches from the stranger’s chin.

With Cootie circling him, the stranger wouldn’t know what to do. After all, Cootie might have been old but he stood 6’5,” weighed at least 300 pounds and he had fists like bear paws. He didn’t look his age and he moved and jabbed pretty well. Anyone could see that despite his years, Cootie looked capable of flattening anyone.

Even more discouraging, when Cootie was flicking jabs, was the spinning of his eyes. His face looked like a slot machine malfunctioning. And as he danced around, his tongue would emerge quickly from the corner of his mouth, much like the penis of a younger man on the first night of his honeymoon.

Cootie’s odd behavior had begun 50 years earlier shortly after his return to Chicago from Korea. He came back bearing medals galore and a Korean wife who made her own kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment consisting of pickled cabbage and a variety of spices. One regular customer once said that nothing in Chicago smelled like Cootie’s kimchi. Not even the stockyards, which back then was still in operation.

Soo Loo Park, a good wife, would prepare the condiment with great care, pack it into clay pots, and bury the pots all over their small back yard. Wherever she buried a pot, she would stick a popsicle stick bearing the date the pot had been buried. How long a pot was allowed to ferment in the ground would determine the piquancy of the final product. Cootie liked his kimchi screaming hot, the cabbage leaves as gnarled as his hands, moist and glistening with red pepper.

Oddly, Cootie liked to share his kimchi. He always brought a jar of it with him to The Stag & Doe to eat along with the hard-boiled eggs and pickled sausages that sat on the bar in big glass barrel jars. Give him a few sausages and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, followed by a fork full of kimchi, and Cootie was a happy man. He’d wash it down with glasses of Guinness from the tap, managing to get the froth all over his considerable mustache.

Everyone was welcome to sample his kimchi. They didn’t even have to ask. Regulars, of course, wouldn’t go near the stuff but strangers occasionally did. On such occasions, the regulars would always have to suppress a laugh. Just a pinch of Cootie’s kimchi would make a Mexican weaned on jalapenos scream for a fire extinguisher.

One slow evening the bartender mentioned that watching Cootie arrange his glass of Guinness, sausages, eggs and kimchi on the bar was almost like watching a defrocked priest preparing to say an aberrant Latin Mass, especially since Cootie always made the Sign of the Cross and said Grace before he ate or drank.

He had been taught these and other spiritual practices by his brother, Paddy, a monk in a monastery located not too many miles away. Paddy was said to be a very holy man but maybe not a scholar.

Nevertheless, he had done well in the monastery, over the years, adding pecans to the tops of fruitcakes the monks would bake and sell by mail. He knew how many pecans a cake required and where to place them. He was the only monk trained for this job. He had no understudy. If Paddy had a sick day, some other monk would just plop the pecans on the cakes without any sense of order.

At communal prayers five times a day Paddy would pray for all the reprobates he had left behind in the old neighborhood. Cootie would give him a monthly update on their latest deeds when he’d visit him at the monastery. He would tell Paddy up front that none of the regulars had shown any improvement since his last visit. But, as Cootie would remind him, a lot of them had passed away and the future for the rest didn’t look too promising.

Each death, of course, would force Paddy to pray even harder because he felt that half the souls in Purgatory had probably come from his old neighborhood. Who knew if there’d be room in that Halfway House in the sky when it was time for Cootie and him to check in?

Cootie’s sister, on the other hand, had been quite different than her brothers. She had been a nun and was said to have been very smart. But she had died, young and unexpectedly, while teaching a third-grade English class in the parish school. She fell backwards one day, like a tree falling, and was looking up to heaven from the floor just as the bell rang. She never moved.
The parish priest arrived in minutes to give her the Last Rites but she was already dead. No one had any doubts, however, that she was already in heaven, explaining to some saint weak in punctuation the difference between the usage of a semi-colon and a colon.

No autopsy was performed. And it seemed as if the whole neighborhood took a shower and put on their best clothes to attend her funeral Mass. Even a few Southern Baptists chose to enter a Catholic Church for the first time to pay their final respects. Some of them were surprised to return home spiritually intact.

Cootie never talked about the years he had spent in Korea, the battles he had survived, the number of enemy he had killed or the event that led to the plate inserted in his head. He never explained either what he had done to earn all those medals.

And Cootie’s lack of braggadocio was appreciated because when he first came home, one of the regulars in the bar, a fellow named Stanley, a veteran of World War II, had announced to all the other customers that unlike Cootie, he had been in the “real war,” the one the United States had won.

Cootie didn’t say a word. But a half hour later, after a little small talk with Stanley, Cootie asked him to get off his stool so they could finally settle a bet made in high school as to which of them was taller. Standing face to face, Cootie indeed appeared to be taller. Then he hit Stanley with an uppercut launched from his knee. It took a bucket of water, a lot of encouragement and three sober men who had just walked in to get Stanley on his feet. Two of his teeth were never found.

After the Stanley incident, none of the regulars ever bothered Cootie again. And the bartender always told new patrons, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”

But occasionally a stranger, clearly out of his element, would arrive in a suit and tie or in Bermuda shorts and white bucks. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t be long before one regular or another would engage the stranger in conversation and tell him in glowing terms about Cootie’s status as a hero of the Korean War. He had won so many medals, the stranger would be told, that he needed a suitcase to bring them home.

Often the stranger, after a sufficient amount of Guinness, would stroll down to the end of the bar and extend his hand to thank Cootie for his service. Like others before him, the stranger would learn that it was best to leave Cootie alone.

As every regular knew, Cootie had little to say about the war America hadn’t won. But if pressed to comment on the matter, he’d bounce off his stool and shout, “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” Everything else he said with his fists. And it was always a brief conversation.

Profile: Donal Mahoney