The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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As a newly ordained Episcopal priest in a small Texas seacoast town, I was terribly aware of myself. My new jet-black clericals made me look priestly, and I snuck glances at my reflection in store windows. Since the local Roman Catholic priest wore clerical clothes only on Sundays, I felt a little superior. I thought I was a good advertisement for the Episcopal Church.
One day, I walked into the bank. A young Mexican man was at the teller’s cage ahead of me. He had just come from a highly successful shrimping trip and was cashing the check for his share of the catch. It was a good one, and he asked the teller to count it all out for him in twenties. Slowly, she did, and the young man began, literally, to dance at the counter. When the teller finished, he asked if she would count it all out, just one more time. Everyone present was getting quite a kick out of the scene, and the teller smiled and agreed. The fellow picked up the great wad of bills, turned, saw me, and peeled one off. He stuck it into my breast pocket: “Here, Father, put this in the plate Sunday!”
I was taken by surprise. It was obvious to me that he had mistaken me for a Roman Catholic priest. Flustered, and overtaken by a scrupulous desire always to be honest with people, I handed the bill back to him. “Here, son,” I said, “I can’t take this.” (Good Lord! Did I really call him “son,” when I was only thirty-five years old?)
The man was undeterred. With a grin that told of a memorable party in the works, he stuck the bill back in my pocket: “No, no, Father — put it in the plate Sunday. God was good to us this trip!”
I handed it back. “Wait a minute, son — I’m not who you think I am. You see, I’m not a Catholic priest; I’m an Episco—” He cut me off: “Put it in the plate, Father,” he said. I thrust it into his hand. “I can’t take this,” I said. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
His face went hard as stone, and he carefully put the bill back onto the roll. “OK, you son of a bitch,” he said. “Next time, I’ll know what I’m doing!” And he walked out of the bank.
Waves of shame and remorse rolled over me. I realized too late what I had done. He didn’t care what brand I was; in my new black clericals, I wore the uniform of the Church. When he saw that, he wanted, spontaneously, to give thanks. In my passion to be honest, I had cut off a child of God. I ran to the door, but his car was already speeding down the street. I turned back to the bank, and the entire lobby seemed to stand in silent accusation of me. The teller, a wise and gentle Southern Baptist woman, said it all in three words: “You’re wrong, Preacher!”
That was nearly twenty years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. I hope I didn’t do lasting damage to that young man. I hope I have become less scrupulous, wiser, a better Christian, and a better priest.
James M. Abernathey
Four years ago I gave birth to a daughter who resembles me in more ways than are practical. She colors kangaroos purple and draws houses with smiling faces on them. Sometimes she foregoes the crayons altogether and cuts her coloring books into thin white strips, and together we dine on these “onion rings.” Sometimes she eats with her hands. Sometimes she spills her milk. It’s then that I recall my upbringing and I try — oh I do try — to chide. But more often than not I just laugh, and play along. For the more I look at it, the more it seems that there’s definitely a fine line between being wrong and being alive.
As soon as he accuses me, this shroud of silence overwhelms me and I remember nothing. He says that I have violated his privacy, have invaded the very carefully tended preserve that is his office. He is angry, and his quiet manner and gentle voice convey it more profoundly than a screaming rampage ever could. He asks for a confession. I am too frozen to speak.
I know he must be right. I know he would not even bring it up if he weren’t so sure of my guilt, and his confidence is overwhelming. I tell him the truth: I do not know. I believe him, but I do not know.
I leave his office and walk back toward mine. The old walls begrudge my passage. It is ridiculous, but I think this must be something like dying.
I work for several hours, focusing as best I can while adding columns of numbers, shuffling papers, staring into space. I taste acid from my stomach; my head feels heavy, and my heart feels numb. I wonder how I came to be here, and at exactly what point everything began to go so wrong.
Voices crawl all over each other within my head, each squirming for primacy. One rings through, however; its bass rumble displaces the others. My father’s face gathers from the dust in my mind’s eye and his body builds around it; suddenly I am in one of the bedrooms of my childhood, ten years old and terrified. I wait. I wait. I feel suspended in this fear.
I am waiting for my father to come into my room. I am waiting for punishment.
He pulls the big Buick into the driveway, taking his time, finally entering the house to be briefed by my mother. Their voices are muffled, but I know what they are discussing: she is telling him that I hit my sister, that my sister came home crying, that I am in my room waiting for him.
“It takes a pretty big boy to hit his sister,” he says as he enters. I am lying face down on the bed, my head buried in the sheets gathered beneath my trembling little body. “Is that what tough guys like you do? Answer me, boy.”
I hear the belt slide out of the loops of his pants as he orders, “Take your clothes off.”
I do as he says, as quickly as I can. As I am getting my pants off, he pushes me onto the bed and whips me across the back of my neck. “Answer me, boy.”
“No, sir,” I say.
“Don’t you lie to me, boy,” he yells. He lashes my shoulders, buttocks, lower back, shoulders; in quick succession the belt strikes me, up and down.
“You’re a lying piece of shit, boy.” The belt moves faster and harder, covering my tensed butt and trembling head and spindly legs with its fury — the kind of fury an ex-star quarterback never entirely loses. The sting suffuses my whole body and I plead for him to stop, pleas that bring more lashings.
“Lying piece of shit.” The belt is gone. He hits the back of my head with his fist. Again. Again.
“You’d hit a girl. You little piece of shit.” A numbness begins to swallow the pain. It swallows like some great whale, drinking in my tears and my anguish and a part of my life, forcing me to breathe rapidly to keep from surrendering to it completely. My father stops hitting me at some point, though I am not aware of it. When some sense of awareness returns, I realize, naked and supine on my bed, that he has turned me over and my face is bruised and I can’t see much out of my left eye.
I walk back into his office and tell him what he already knows: yes, I did it. I can tell by his reaction that his anger and sense of having been violated have not abated, but I think he knows I feel angry and violated also.
Still, my admission seems to hold the promise of a deepening of our friendship, of a secret understanding that we cannot yet — dare not yet — try to name. It is there before us, between us, a swelling, living ocean. In it we both float, bobbing like survivors of a shipwreck.
I tell him I am sorry. It is important, even if obvious. What is perhaps not so obvious is how sorry I am: for having lied; for having ever needed to lie to survive; for having lied when survival was not at stake, because I believed at the time that it was.
I’m two years older now. I work elsewhere, in a position more demanding of my time and responsibility. It occurs to me that I would not be here now if I hadn’t learned so much — and regained something of myself — from being so wrong two years ago.
My boss walks in and lays into me for missing a period in a manuscript I proofread. His voice is histrionic, its pitch distorted by anger. I nod my head, waiting, completely unable to see whether there is a period there. Waiting. Waiting for a fist. Waiting for this anguish to end someday, fearing it never will.
Saxapahaw, North Carolina
“Steven, go to bed,” I pleaded. It was 3 a.m., and I couldn’t believe my friend was in his kitchen banging around, while I was trying to get back to sleep on the living room couch. I got up to see what he could possibly be doing. He was cooking rice.
“You just go back to sleep,” he chirped. “I’m fine.”
But he wasn’t fine. Earlier, I was supposed to start the new bag of solution for his IV, but the old one ran out before my alarm went off. The hospice nurse had to come over to find a new vein, but this was difficult and painful, and Steven decided he didn’t want the IV anymore. The nurse tried to make me feel better, saying that this kind of miscalculation happened sometimes, and that he didn’t mind getting called out at 1:30 a.m. But I had failed in my mission to be a big help. I felt terrible.
“Steven, I can’t go back to sleep and leave you alone in the kitchen. You’re practically falling out of your chair. You could leave the stove on all night. This makes no sense, a bowl of rice at 3 in the morning. If I hadn’t screwed up you’d be in bed right now — and so would I. I have to get to work early in the morning.” Maybe guilt would bring him to his senses.
“I’m perfectly all right,” he insisted pleasantly. “You go to sleep.” I could see that this was ludicrous, that the painkillers were making him fuzzy. I had to take charge here. I was frustrated, I was exhausted, but I was right, and I was losing my patience.
“Listen to me,” I ordered angrily. “I’m trying to help you. This is no time to be cooking rice. Go to bed!” My face flushed, and I was immediately ashamed of my anger.
Steven remained calm and looked me in the eye. “I feel good,” he said, “and when I feel good it’s important for me to putter around in the kitchen, whatever time it is. Right now I want to try to eat a bowl of rice.”
There was nothing to say. He was absolutely right and I was wrong, wrong in a way I had never known before: reason, order, logic, common sense — even good intentions didn’t count. In that moment we stepped outside of right and wrong, because just then I knew that Steven would die soon, and there was nothing I could do to protect him. There was nothing to do but sit in his kitchen in the middle of the night and watch the rice boil.
Kristi J. Hager
My grandmother’s hearing aid was an irresistible marvel to me when I was six years old. When she was not wearing it, I would sneak into her room to play with it. I would put it on and turn the volume all the way up so I could listen to the sounds of our house amplified many times. One day I decided to take it to school, convinced that such a wonderful device would make me a hero among the other first graders. During recess I showed it to my friends. They were impressed, and each one insisted on trying it out. After the demonstration I put it in my pocket and resumed playing. When the bell rang for us to return to class, I reached into my pocket for the hearing aid. It was gone. It couldn’t be gone, I thought; it just had to be there. But I couldn’t find it. I scoured the schoolyard, but the hearing aid had disappeared. I panicked: I had no idea how to explain the loss to my parents or my grandmother. Until now, my childhood crimes had been misdemeanors. This was my first felony.
At home that evening, I waited nervously for my deed to be discovered. Eventually, my grandmother searched for her hearing aid and, of course, was unable to find it. Each of the children was interrogated. As the oldest, I was questioned first. I admitted to no knowledge of the missing device. My five-year-old brother, Gerry, was equally vehement in his denials. My three-year-old sister, Kathy, also claimed to know nothing. My parents decided that Kathy, who shared the bedroom with my grandmother, must have lost it. They reasoned that she was too young to realize what she had done, and was therefore not competent to stand trial. I felt a tremendous sense of relief and guilt, but the relief was the stronger of the two emotions. Although my secret bothered me, I never confessed. My grandmother and father died years ago, but Kathy and my mother still don’t know the truth, and they won’t unless I show this to them.
My father liked to hang wallpaper. His desire for perfection flowered in the keenly aligned sheets, the square holes so precisely cut around the electrical outlets. The wallpaper was straight and square — even if the walls of the house were not — and it looked beautiful. He would take all day just to hang three or four sheets. An uneven corner or a splotch of bad color would evoke long periods of fidgeting, culminating in agitated swearing. So I learned early the importance of being right, and the cursedness of being wrong.
The wallpaper covered the cracks in the wall, where the plaster had expanded in the summer sun. It covered the marks where we children had banged against it. It covered the hole where my father had put his fist in a moment of anger.
I grew up thinking that the wallpaper of perfection could cover my own scars; that if I could appear perfect, or at least right, no one could see through to the ugly markings underneath.
I would later observe that people feel comfortable with marks on the wall: they acknowledge the bangings and the flashes of anger; they acknowledge human limitations.
In the clean granite office building where I work, I am offended by the sterility of the corridors, and by the lobby mirrors that remind you everyone is watching. I am intimidated by the tall men in pin-stripe suits, the polished mahogany conference tables. But the flaws are endearing! How comfortable I feel when the executive spills coffee all over the pin stripes and the mahogany. It makes him human, brings us closer, person-to-person. We can stop playing roles for a moment. “It’s OK,” I can say. “Let me help you.”
So essential is the endearing quality of errors, one would have to learn to feign them, if they didn’t come so easily.
Avi Meir Lev
The fifty-year-old disheveled man was waiting for me in the lobby. I greeted him and took him into the interview room. He smelled slightly of alcohol. I had known him for several years and had recently arranged to have his eight-year-old daughter returned to his custody. He had spent many years in jail for murder and had lost a leg in a car accident. The girl had spent most of her life in foster care. He now had an apartment and had been sober for a year.
He was upset. He said that his daughter had just told him that she had been sexually attacked by her former foster father. He said that he was going to kill that man for injuring his daughter. I asked him for details and he didn’t have any. I arranged for him to bring his daughter into the office after school to talk with me. I asked him if he had been drinking and he said that he had had a couple of beers because he was so angry. I told him that I would help to find out what had really happened.
Later he and his daughter came to the office. The local juvenile officer interviewed the girl with me. I had known her for four years, visiting her monthly at her foster home and, during the past three months, visiting weekly with her and her father.
The juvenile officer and I talked to the daughter alone. She described several instances in which she had been sexually molested, giving convincing descriptions of forced oral copulation. We asked her at various times who did this to her; she said each time that it was her foster father. The father agreed not to injure the man and to allow us to proceed with the investigation. I felt physically sick. The foster parents were people that I knew well and respected. I wrote up my report and had their other former foster kids interviewed to explore possible sexual abuse. The police officer interviewed their two young daughters at school and then brought him to the police station for an interview. This took about two weeks. No other child reported any abuse, and the foster father denied having done anything. He was confused and angry, and felt betrayed by the agency and by the foster kids he had tried to help. I personally did not talk to him; I had another worker who might be more objective do the interviews. I too was feeling betrayed and angry. I believed that young kids do not lie about sexual abuse.
He agreed to a lie detector test, which he passed. The police decided he was no longer a suspect — but his life was totally altered. His kids had been subjected to interviews about sexual abuse. His wife had been exposed to the idea that she might be married to a child molester. He had been treated like a criminal.
Two weeks later the daughter was placed in an emergency foster home by the police. Her father had started drinking heavily and was neglecting her. I went to talk with her. I asked her what had happened and she said that her father had molested her. I asked her why she had accused the foster father. She said that she was afraid of her father. He had demanded that she admit to having been sexually active with someone besides him. When I asked her what she had thought might happen to the foster father, she looked very surprised; she hadn’t thought anything would happen. He lived so far away. Everyone knew that he was such a good man. She said that she loved her old foster family and wanted to go back to them. She had lived with them for six years.
The old foster family would not take her back. They no longer trusted her or the agency.
I questioned the father. He admitted to the abuse and was arrested. He acted abjectly sorry that he had injured his daughter. He signed papers so she could be adopted. He was not prosecuted for the sexual abuse: the district attorney’s office did not believe that they could sustain the case in court because of the daughter’s previous lie.
I turned the daughter over to the adoption social worker who tried to convince me a loving home could be found for this eight-year-old girl who had been victimized repeatedly in her young life.
I have thought of her many times in the last ten years and wondered how I could have handled the situation differently. I see now many different actions I could have taken. I have beaten myself up and forgiven myself repeatedly and have come to no conclusions. I realize that I did my best and that my best was not good enough. I participated in causing great harm to a family I respected. I helped create a situation whereby an eight-year-old girl lost not only her father but also a family who had previously loved her. I want to blame the father for all that happened — and certainly his actions precipitated all the problems — but I too was responsible for creating pain and confusion. In spite of my good intentions and my heroic stance as protector of the young, I wasn’t able to perceive the truth in this situation.
“Hey, Chief, these tickets’ll get you in the subway. Can you give me $2?”
The man had pink skin, trembling hands, and Coors-flavored breath.
“If you come down here again with those tickets, I’ll call the officer!” the woman in the token booth boomed, using her microphone.
The man and his buddy ran up the stairs.
I don’t like cheating the transit system, though I did when I was in high school. I wrote a song, “The Subways Are Free if You Want Them to Be,” and hopped turnstiles out of conviction. Riding was a right, in my view.
One day I noticed black women who work in luncheonettes paying, while I sailed over, and I felt small.
IBM should pay for the subways. Why do they deserve to be rich just because people need computers?
(Capitalism to me doesn’t make sense. Six thousand read The Mill on the Floss, so its publisher fails. Sixty million read Danielle Steel, so Steel’s publisher thrives. But isn’t The Mill on the Floss better?)
Still, if those luncheonette women are paying, I should pay. I was wrong to leap the stiles, because I can’t with one leap change the world, unlike Neil Armstrong (and he could only do it once).
Besides, I kept getting caught.
One time, I jumped in, sat in a bench at Dyckman Street and began playing the bongos. I noticed, gradually, two blue legs next to me. It was the Law. “A student at Cornell should know better than this!” the officer said, when I showed him my ID.
(When I flunked out of Cornell, I should’ve gone back and told him.)
I got caught three times; each time cost more greenbacks. The problem with Doing Wrong is it’s expensive.
But Capitalism is wrong too, because. . . . Last night we went to Sipporo, this Japanese restaurant on 10th Street, and we waited in line an hour, and then I had AGE TOFU and brown rice, Violet had the vegetarian platter, Marcus had tempura, Kate ordered chicken teriyaki, and afterward we hung out by the Hell’s Angels headquarters, and when we got home, I opened this letter I got on How to Save the Rain Forests, and it said, “Don’t take disposable chopsticks at restaurants!”
This is why capitalism’s evil. It forces you to eat tempura with the bones of dead trees, 300 years old.
The Manhattan Ecosystem
I’m tired of looking back five years and feeling embarrassed and angry with myself because I was so wrong. Wrong about the conga player, wrong about Marx and cocaine and Arnold Erhart’s raw fruit diet. Wrong about how I spent all that money back in ’85. I should have gone to college in France; gone to Woodstock; studied literature and naturopathy and the bass guitar when I had the time. Should have hooked up with that boat-maker from Key West, gone to Thailand, acted differently when my father died, followed Frank to Iowa City, read James Joyce by now.
Sometimes my past seems like a map of wrong turns. And yet, how is it that so many confused, misguided and flat-out foolish choices have brought me here, to a life that is so good, so right for me? That is the mysterious beauty of being wrong.