Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Merciful

Tony hadn't been up this early in – well – ever, maybe. He thought there'd been a few times in college when he'd still been up at this hour, but that was different.

Nobody should ever get up at 4:00 am on a Sunday.

He tripped over something that wasn't there on the way to Shane's door, had to try twice to grab the door knob before he got it turned and the door open a crack, mumbled something into the darkness, heard a mumble back and shuffled off to the bathroom. Turned on the light and ducked his head to get away from it. What had he been thinking? Why had this seemed like a good idea?

He was aware of only seeing what was directly in front of him. His peripheral vision hadn't turned on yet. It occurred to him that if an axe murderer had to choose a good time to hide behind the shower curtain, this would be the day. He opened it just to be sure. Nobody there. Even the axe murderers were still in bed.

Everybody was still in bed. Except, apparently, fishermen. They were going fishing.

Fishing. He knew it had sounded like fun, right up to bed time last night. Just not at 4 am.

When he came out of the bathroom, he tripped again, this time over Shane, sitting on the hall floor with his eyes closed, waiting. Shane looked up and grunted, and Tony grunted back and went to get dressed.

At 5, Artie would be there to pick them up, and they'd drive down the block to get Walt and Pico. The lake was about 45 minutes away. They'd get there just in time for the sunrise, Artie said. Best time, Artie said. Don't pack a lunch, you'll have plenty of fish by then, Artie said. Campfire, real butter, and a frying pan - the only way to eat fish, Artie said.

Tony still wasn't quite sure what to make of Artie. Shane liked him, but Shane liked everybody. Walt liked him, which carried more weight. Walt liked everybody, too, but he knew enough not to trust everybody. He seemed to trust Artie.

They were a funny pair, Artie and Walt. The tattooed hipppie and the retired Anglican priest. They'd met at the animal shelter when Walt adopted Pico, and hit it off. Since then, Tony'd seen Artie's disreputable 70-something crew cab truck in front of Walt's house a couple of times. Once Walt said that he was teaching Artie to tie a bow tie, and Artie was teaching him how to be groovy. And he laughed so hard he had to sit down.


Regardless, Tony thought the fishing trip was a good thing. Shane was really looking forward to it. He'd been pretty shaken up by the fracas at the Shelter. Pico's former owner had shown up, angry and abusive, to take back the little dog he'd hurt and Shane and Artie had had to deal with him until the cops came. Shane probably wouldn't have to testify at the trial, but the cops had taken his statement and somewhere in a file at the station there were pictures of his knees, bruised from being pushed down. He'd been a bit scared at first, then just angry. Still was. 


He'd been talking to Walt about it. Which was good. Tony knew he was a pretty good dad, but he was smart enough to know when someone was smarter than he was. And with stuff like that, Walt was the man.

He got the coffee started and woke up enough to think that he really, really hoped Artie wouldn't pull into the driveway and honk.


Down the street, Walt was up and dressed (except for his tie - in case of spills) and halfway through breakfast. The older he got, the earlier he found himself awake in the morning. Besides, he'd had decades of getting up early Sunday mornings to pray and go over his sermon. Sundays were a busy day for him. Had been, anyway. He'd certainly never gone fishing on a Sunday morning before. The folks at St. Anthony's would never have stood for it. He smiled, imagining the look on Mrs. Abernethy's face if he'd told her he was taking a week off to go fishing.

He looked down at Pico, smiling back up at him, and said out loud, “I'm sorry, Mrs. Abernethy. I won't be here next week. I'm going fishing and I've invited God to come with me. So you might not want to count on him, either.”
He laughed and scratched Pico's ears. He'd laughed a lot more in the past few weeks. Maybe Pico was good for him. Maybe he was healing. He and Esther had used to laugh a lot. When he'd lost her, he'd forgotten how, for a while.

It had been good to have young Shane and his dad looking out for him. He hoped he was able to give something back to them. Even if it was just listening.

Poor Shane was trying to figure out how to forgive. Whether to forgive. He was carrying quite a grudge against the man who had mistreated little Pico. He knew that you're supposed to forgive people, but what if the person didn't deserve it? What then? Wasn't it unfair to forgive somebody who didn't deserve it? Who didn't want it? Who didn't even admit that what they'd done was wrong?

Tough question. Walt was wise enough not to try to answer it. He just told Shane stories.

Like Gladys and Tim. Gladys had been a member of St. Anthony's. A parishioner of Walt's for – 20 years? Probably. A widow, didn't have much. Just her house and the things that reminded her of what she used to have.

Tim was a kid. Good at heart, like most of us. But he got in with the wrong friends and one night they got into somebody's dad's beer and threw rocks through Gladys' windows. Tim got caught, the others got away. But Gladys had forgiven Tim. She'd worked out a deal where he'd work for her after school every day to pay her back for the windows. But more than that. She'd loved that boy. She'd made him cookies and lemonade and asked him about school. She'd got to know his mom and tried to be a good friend. Showed him her husband's civil war coin collection, dumped them out of their little tin box onto the kitchen table and told him what she knew about them. Hours and hours of love. And Tim started coming around. Some of the edge wore off and he smiled more and talked more. Gladys would come to church and tell Walt how well it as going and what a good boy he really was. 

So happy.

Then one day she caught him with the box of coins, passing it out the window to another boy standing in the backyard. She surprised them and they'd both let go of the box and the coins went into the grass and the other boy ran away. She hadn't yelled, hadn't told him off, hadn't kicked him out. Just sent him outside to pick up the coins and bring them back. He'd come back in to find her sitting at the kitchen table with cookies and lemonade for two. 

They'd had a long talk and he'd been sorry for what he'd done. She'd forgiven him again and they'd started over. 

Clean slate. The little tin box went back on its shelf.

A month or so later, he'd not shown up after school for a couple of days. She'd phoned his mom, but got no explanation. “He's not here. I don't know. I gotta go.”

For the next three days, Gladys had avoided looking at the little tin box. Didn't want to look inside it, didn't want to pick it up and to know that it was empty. But she did. And it was. She never saw Tim again.

She'd told Walt later that she could forgive him for breaking her windows, she could forgive him for stealing from her once, and then again. But it broke her heart that she couldn't forgive him for never coming back. She couldn't forgive him for not giving her the chance to love him. She couldn't forgive him for hurting himself. For not forgiving himself.

How can you forgive someone who won't accept it? Won't admit that they need it?

'Cause we all do.

Forgiveness and mercy are complicated things. And hard work, more often than not. Hard to give, harder to accept. Sometimes years of work, years of trying. Sometimes you can forgive somebody for a while, and then it crumbles and you're back to being bitter.

He didn't have any easy answers for Shane. But he'd always found that it helped to know you weren't the only one who was confused. If nobody else understands either, then maybe you're normal after all.

So he'd go on listening and telling his stories and watching for the light that once in a while would go on behind the eyes.

That was the gift that Walt had to give the people in his life. He'd been given so much, forgiven so much, he had a lifetime's stockpile of grace to give, and he'd keep giving it away with both hands for as long as the Lord gave him. 

The gift of listening without judging, of assuming the best of everyone, of allowing people to make mistakes without condemnation, of not holding grudges.

Not a bad way to live, really. Not bad for an old guy.

He picked up his tie off the kitchen table – a bright green job with a handpainted trout, nearly lifesize – tied it around his collar in a perfect Windsor knot, and attached the leash to Pico's collar just in time to hear a horn honking in the driveway.

He smiled and said to Pico, “We're going to have to ask the neighbours to forgive us, aren't we?”

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