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The day I met the devil in a dime store

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And he really was red!

The memory still stings: there I was, age 7, the veteran of a splendidly moving and memorable First Holy Communion and graced with an oddball love of the sacrament of Confession in all of its velvet-curtained-sliding-screen ambiance, planning to steal a toy “lady’s fan” from a candy store, simply to see if I could.

The fan was red, and I had always been — and still am — a sucker for all things red. It was airy, lacy and flamboyant, and I had the 10 cents the thing cost in my pocket.

But the toy display was on the other side of the cashier, and the devil was on my shoulder: “Take it,” he whispered. “I bet you could slip it into your pocket and no one would know.”

Petty theft, which I had never before aspired to, became suddenly a tantalizing challenge.

And the fan was red.

I took it. I cleverly slipped the thing into my sleeve and casually walked out the door. It was so easy.

And so completely unsatisfying.

By the time I’d walked home, fanning myself all the way in a manner I was sure duplicated the graceful lines of a señorita, I had begun to feel a peculiar emptiness that was new, and throughout the day that feeling grew, until it threatened to become a black hole into which I could disappear. By eventide, I had thrown the fan away from me in disgust. It wasn’t mine; it was ill-gotten booty. I had sinned, and it was not good.

The next day was Saturday — confession day in our neighborhood, for in 1965 it was a rare Catholic who would receive Communion without first reconciling themselves to God. I frankly couldn’t wait to get the theft off my chest — and out of my heart and soul — and had barely gotten the “Bless me, Father” off my tongue before the full story came pouring out. The priest, spending another glorious Saturday within a small, airless box and — at that hour — listening mostly to the piping sins of children, had given a grumpy acknowledgement that my sin was a biggie. “Stealing is mentioned in the Ten Commandments; it especially offends God,” he said, and I thought, “I know, I know, it’s been eating at me.”

Thank God for penance. A Rosary decade on my knees felt sufficiently arduous, and I emerged from church feeling like I’d done my piece. And yet . . . it couldn’t be that easy, could it? Where was the justice? The man at the candy store was still out his 10 cents.

Walking home, I fingered the quarter in my pocket, given me by my grandmother and designated for an orange drink I craved. My sense of justice wrestled with my thirst. I did dearly love my orange drink.

Finally, conscience won out; stepping into the candy store, I approached the counter, meaning to confess my crime, pay the dime and be done. But I couldn’t. Serving justice on a coward’s tray, I waited until the man’s attention was diverted, and quietly slid the quarter on his counter and quickly left the store.

It was not a perfectly balanced redemption; it left me cleansed, but out 15 cents. But I had not yet explored the vagaries of fairness. I was ignorant of all but the most elementary theology, and it would be many years before I could distinguish between the unsophisticated notion of “Catholic guilt” and the heavy grace of a formed and mature conscience, but I felt better. My Catholic grounding had informed my sense of both justice and mercy. I had confessed regret to my God and made a generous, if anonymous, restitution, and the gaping mouth of emptiness so eager to swallow me had been resolutely snapped shut.

The red fan was never again a pleasurable toy, but it became a favorite possession, a reminder that whenever God is pushed aside, only emptiness awaits.

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