We first met in the local Walgreens late on a February afternoon. The snow from the week before, dirty now, was still piled up alongside sidewalks and streets. An even bigger storm was forecast to blow in from the west that night. I was nearly out of tampons, toothpaste, fluid for my contacts, and I needed a new shower cap, having already stapled the old one twice to make it tight.
When I arrived at the drug store, small flakes had just begun drifting down. I took a basket and foraged through the shelves. There was a long line at the prescription counter at the end of which was an elderly lady with a cane. Her stolidity drew my eye, and something about her face. She was wearing a woolen overcoat with a fur collar, the kind you never see anymore. The woman didn’t look at all frail; on the contrary, she made me think of a mother bear.
I could have gone to the front counter with my purchases but instead I took my place behind this imposing, queenly, old lady. I noted that she wasn’t so much leaning on her cane as gripping it like a potential weapon.
The line wasn’t moving. A heavy-set bald man in a Patriots parka was squabbling with the pharmacist. A mother with a whining boy left the line, swearing. People craned their necks and muttered.
My mother bear turned her head. She had lively blue eyes. “According to Saint Augustine,” she whispered, “patience is the companion of wisdom.” This was my first experience of Mrs. Podolski’s odd, random autodidact’s erudition. I took it as a challenge.
“Mary Gordon wrote that waiting’s the vocation of the dispossessed.”
She turned around and gave me a warm smile, her face beaming with delight. “I liked Final Payments and The Shadow Man, too.”
I said I’d read the first but not the second.
“You should.” She sighed. “And so we wait.”
I resumed the game. “Fran Lebowitz said the opposite of talking isn’t listening but waiting.”
“So true. And so nice to talk.”
I looked over my shoulder at the window at the front of the store. The storm had arrived early. Snow was coming down like white drapes blown around when somebody forgot to shut the windows.
“Did you drive?” I asked.
“Since my last accident, I hardly drive at all,” she said rather merrily.
“Let me walk you home. It’s getting bad out. I’ll worry if you don’t.”
She agreed and we exchanged names.
She eventually picked up her medicine then we walked the three blocks to her apartment building. She invited me in, introduced me to Maraska slivovitz, and I stayed for lasagna and a salad. She had a lot to say to me about a lot of things. Since then, I’ve visited Mrs. Podolski at least once every week.
That was four years ago, when I was twenty-two, just a year out of college where I’d majored in English. As I didn’t want to go to graduate school, let alone back home, and needed an income, I trained as a paralegal. I had just taken up my first job.
I relish the astonishing monologues of this wise widow and retired nurse, even the ones that feel interminable, even the most cutting. “After they put in a few years,” she told me, “nurses are tough as an old bull whip—and can be used like one, too.” She has a plenty of friends but none who were prepared, like me, to listen to what they dismiss as her rambling.
“They prefer talking about grandchildren and TV to listening to me. They’re all too old.”
I fill two needs for Mrs. Podolski: for an audience and contact with a younger generation. She’s a great, garrulous friend who’s introduced me to a lot more than good plum brandy. It was as if she had been corked up since her husband died and has been effervescing since the cork came out on that snowy afternoon in Walgreens.
Like many English majors, I’m a poète manqué. I wrote a lot of bad poems in college and had two in the literary magazine. I was the only contributor who wasn’t also on the staff—but I gave up writing after graduation. It was Mrs. Podolski who made me take it up again. I began making poems by recreating and compressing our conversations, which is to say her monologues. Here’s the first one I wrote. It will give you an idea of my versifying and Mrs. Podolski’s ironic way of talking to me.
While we were finishing the dishes
Mrs. Podolski began to talk
in that facetious way of hers
about what she calls “my wishes
for you, dear.” In this fairy tale I walk
through a life Croesus couldn't afford
sealed off from its chills by thick furs,
immunized, triumphant, and adored.
She doesn't really mean it, doesn't
want me to think she does; she'd despise
anyone like that even if it wasn't
me but de Beauvoir or Curie, bent
under the weight of a Nobel prize,
fawned on by the Nordic King and Queen.
No, it wasn't at all what she meant
but precisely what she didn't mean.
Last Sunday, Mrs. P. began a long riff that I’ve tried to reproduce rather than versify. The proximate cause of her homily was something I said. I was describing the comportment of a divorcing couple I’d observed at work while taking notes on negotiations. The husband accepted all the demands of his unfaithful wife then announced that he forgave her. To me, he looked calm, at peace, not happy but resigned to the end of the marriage. When he said he’d forgiven her, the wife, a nervous woman with a pretty face, paled and reached for a tissue.
I said, “He was better off than she was. It was obvious.”
That set Mrs. Podolski off. I said hardly anything but took mental shorthand of what follows, because—for writers at least—writing is the opposite of talking.
You think the forgiver gains more than the forgiven? My dear, I believe you’re right. The guilty can go on feeling guilty while forgiving neutralizes resentment and frees all those nasty ions of vengefulness. It can work even if you’re just pretending.
A couple months ago, Mrs. Debeque confessed that she’d called me an insufferable know-it-all during an afternoon of canasta with Mrs. Ardekian and Mrs. Gutman. Afterwards, she realized it would get back to me before the sun was down, as it did. She phoned to say she was terribly sorry and didn’t really mean it and, well, there was wine. Of course, I forgave her. I even said I didn’t disagree with what she said. Yes, you laugh. Maybe you don’t disagree either? Anyway, now I’m at ease with Mrs. D. while she can’t look me in the face.
Then there’s what happens if you don’t forgive. Gert Talonsky won’t let go of a betrayal half a century old, a boyfriend stolen in eleventh grade. She hugs that old resentment to her withered breast like a new puppy. I’ve heard the story a dozen times. It’s no wonder she suffers from reflux. I doubt the friend who swiped the boy remembers it, let alone the boy, if either of them is still alive.
You know I was raised Catholic. The Church may have coopted sex, tortured so-called heretics, and terrorized the faithful with the threat of frightful after-lives, but in return it offered forgiveness—confession, penance, ways to wipe the slate clean. And, if all else failed, there was the intercession of a mommy to whom daddy had to listen. That’s why there are so many Notre Dames of this and thats. The BVM wasn’t the kind of mother who says wait till your father gets home. There was nothing she couldn’t forgive.
Every Saturday, I had to traipse to Saint Barnabas and climb up to that little booth with its grill and wireless line to God. It wasn’t so bad when Father Joe was the operator, much worse if it was Father Jankowski. Joe liked kids and favored a handful of Hail Marys; Father Jankowski saw everybody under eighteen as sinful vipers and routinely handed out a dozen novenas. Good cop, bad cop. I hated confession yet I liked being officially forgiven. You know that feeling you get after the dentist’s through with you, that sense of invulnerability? That’s what it was like for me for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons.
What? Oh yes, indulgences. Just the objection an ex-Protestant would offer a lapsed Catholic. Do you know much about indulgences, my dear? No? Just the Tetzel-Luther business? Well, there’s a whole history of indulgences.
Forgiveness, like any asset, has to come from somewhere. Indulgences were a kind of banking. The Church taught that the withdrawals came from this thing called the Treasury of Merit. The depositors were the saints and martyrs and the BVM. The biggest was Jesus, of course. An indulgence was a loan or mortgage that had to be repaid by penances prescribed by ordained priests. It was usually money or land, capital for all those medieval lazar houses, orphanages, and crusades. Between the Treasury of Merit and owning the Keys to the Kingdom, the Church was well set up to dispense forgiveness and, in the fullness of time, to be thoroughly corrupted. Tetzel, though, was different. He interested me. I read what I could about him and, in my opinion, the man was a pathetic figure, a dutiful fool.
Tetzel was a Dominican, a popular preacher who rose to be Inquisitor in Poland and then in Saxony, Luther’s stomping ground. I think Brother Tetzel believed all he did was in accord with Church doctrine. He was an insurance salesman who didn’t own the company or write its policies but excelled at selling them. He sermonized, recommending his wares to potential buyers by appealing in the voices of their sinful parents suffering the pains of Purgatory. People forget that.
Imagine the pitch. Bargain-priced forgiveness from a friar and inquisitor, authorized by the Pope himself in Rome. Gutenberg’s contraption mass produced little tickets as it later did Luther’s Theses. Bestsellers all. Heaven knows how many indulgences Tetzel sold, but we do know that one-third of all books bought in Germany in those days were by Martin Luther. Funny, no? Well, doesn’t new technology always give and take away?
But back to our indulgences, my dear. If people would shell out to save a dead parent, why not a live son or daughter, a wife or husband? Why not oneself? Who’d know better what needed to be forgiven? And beyond past sins, why not buy forgiveness in advance especially if, as the chief Father of the Church laid down, we were predestined to commit them? It’s no wonder that when Tetzel’s cavalcade pulled into town it felt like a visit from the heavenly host.
Luther may or may not have nailed those theses to the church door in Wittenberg. I’ve always thought the story too good to be true. I do know that he sent them to the Archbishop of Brandenburg. Turns out that Archbishop Albert bought his post with money borrowed from earthly bankers. The Fuggers didn’t issue indulgences; they had to be paid. So, Albert needed cash, just as Leo did for fixing up Saint Peter's. The two made a deal to split the money collected by Tetzel. There’s no evidence Tetzel ever took a pfennig for himself, making him a bigger dupe than any of his customers.
It’s never good to mix forgiveness up with money; Luther was certainly right about that. And my favorite story about Tetzel is a good illustration. It may be no truer than the one about nailing the theses to the church door. Luther did spread the tale, just as he quoted Tetzel’s infamous jingle.
When the gold in the casket rings,
The rescued soul toward Heaven springs.
Luther painted Tetzel as a money-grubbing conman; but the story shows him as ridiculous, not dishonest, which was probably more devastating.
Who’s a more ambiguous figure than Luther with his constipation and his courage? He aroused the peasants to demand justice then called for their massacre. He inspired the iconoclasts and preached against them for a week. He opposed the Church’s tyranny but championed serfdom. He extolled Christian love and railed against Jews like a Sturmführer.
When Luther learned that Tetzel was dying, he took up his pen again. He was two-faced here as well. Luther composed two things. One was a touching private letter of consolation to his old adversary; the other was this story which he published.
Luther set his story in 1517, the year of the Theses. An impoverished knight had borrowed large sums from the local Cistercians. The monks refused to forgive the debt. This knight happened to be in Juterbog when Tetzel’s parade arrived to the customary acclaim. He listened to the sales-pitch and watched the money pour into the oak caskets. After Tetzel left the town to make his way to Zinna, the knight waylaid the procession and stole the caskets. Enraged, Tetzel shook his fist and bellowed that for this great sin the knight would be damned through all eternity. The knight raised his visor and laughed as Tetzel recognized the man to whom he had just sold, for fifty guilders, an indulgence for the future sin of robbery.
What do you think, my dear? Isn’t the vacuum of forgetting preferable to the condescension of forgiving? The first can be relied on, the second is uncertain.
Back to Brother Tetzel. The Church condemned him. Later, it pardoned him but, of course, he was never forgiven. That thieving knight may have gone to Hell, but it’s the misguided, hard-working, faithful Tetzel history has damned.
The indulgence racket cost the Church half of Europe. I’m sure remission without punishment gave license to those who like getting away with things; but I imagine that, for the principled and guilt-ridden, indulgences weren’t enough. My brother Stan was like that.
One winter evening when we were kids, my mother told me to call him in for dinner. Stan was outside with his friends, sledding and tossing snowballs. Dusk was just turning into night. I went to the door and, coming from the lighted kitchen, couldn’t see anything. I called Stan, but he didn’t answer. I hollered for him twice more. His friends booed. Stan saw me lit up in the doorway. He didn’t want to come in. His friends would make fun of him if he did. So, he threw a snowball at me. More like an iceball, really. It hit me square in the face. His pals cheered. My nose bled.
Stan was torn, proud of his great throw but horrified too. My father saw the blood coming from my nose, yelled at Stan to come in right away and he did. When he saw the blood on my face his own went white.
“Punish me!” he demanded.
My mother, washing my face, said it was just an accident, that she knew Stan didn’t mean it, that it was alright. She told him to go wash his hands and come to the table.
Stan began to cry. “No!” he insisted. “I aimed. Punish me!”
“Go to your room,” Father said. “No dinner for you tonight.” He didn’t say it loudly or angrily but almost tenderly. Tenderly, that’s close to one of the original meanings of indulgence.
I remember Stan running up the stairs that night as fast as he ran down them on Christmas morning.
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eleven collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; three books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.