No courage, no contrition

September 23, 2008

A few years ago I wrote a lousy short story. The main character, based loosely on me, carried a burden of regret for wrongs committed in his youth. Although decades had passed, he decided to make amends and began a quest for redemption.

Yes, the premise was cliched. But I was writing based on personal experience, and this public acknowledgment of sins felt good, though fiction absolves no guilt.

The other character, also based on a real person — an elementary school classmate, had become in the fictionalized future a Catholic priest. He lived in self-imposed exile in an impoverished New Mexican hamlet not found on most maps. Throughout elementary school, I and others had called him Butt Wipe. We called his younger brother Butt Wipe II.

I haven’t a clue how the name sprang from the cruel minds of children. What’s still clear is how its repeated use as epithet created shame as vivid as a brand. The boy’s face glowed a fiery red every time the name was said. And it was often said with contempt, though the kid was harmless and friendly in a skittish way.

In the story, the main character tracks down the priest at the town’s only cafe and persuades him to share a meal. He apologizes, expecting absolution. Instead the priest slowly removes his vestments and beats the man to a pulp.

In reality, the classmate had moved away by junior high school, though I could track him down if I wanted to act out my contrition on more than paper.

I was thinking of contrition last week at my high school reunion. A classmate, a girl, has never been far from mind for my mistreatment of her not long after graduation. I speak of a friend at the time, someone always nice to me.

She briefly dated a college buddy. Before he got to know her, I repeated to him a rumor about her I’d heard in high school. Word got back to her. Confused and hurt, she confronted me. Like a weasel, I denied it. Not long afterward she visited my college with friends for a weekend, and I was terribly unkind to one of the girls on a blind date.

After all these years, I planned to pull the classmate aside at the reunion. I’d tell her I had been so very wrong and apologize. A simple act, selfishly motivated but fitting punctuation for an uncorrected part of my life. I didn’t care how she would react. Or so I told myself. A close friend counseled me that leaving the past undisturbed might be a better course. But I had to clean the slate for doing things I still can’t explain.

I said nothing. And as I write this non-fiction, I feel like Bryan, the boy I helped to humiliate, must have felt. At my fifty-year reunion, I’m hoping to muster the courage. A half-century isn’t too long to wait for a beating.