When I was eleven years old I was told, and I believed it to be true, that God punished evil people, but then I saw that he didn’t, and then I saw that sometimes he did punish them, but then I saw that evil people sometimes were good and sometimes good people changed in midstream in doing good and turned to evil while they were doing good. In the end, I saw that God had absolutely nothing to do with good and evil, that good and evil were, so to speak, none of his business.
And so, one day, at a Lower East Side school where I was educated by military officers disguised as German nuns, when Sister Ildephonse looked at the ceiling and said, as if to herself, “No matter who you are, children, you can always rely on God’s love”, at that moment the course of my life was changed when I snidely whispered to the class forger, Vladimir Petrov, “God owes us nothing”. Sister Ildephonse, upon hearing what I had said, swooped down the aisle, grabbed my red tie, and dragged me upright into the cloakroom, where she beat me about the head, left and right, left and right, with such force that for a moment I stood apart from her beating and wondered at her strength as she delivered her blows. That night, as I lay in my bed in our cold water flat, I rolled over and over thinking of a plan for vengeance on Sister Ildephonse but could think of no way in which I could conceal my identity. But then I prayed to God to help me, and so he did, and I saw that, though he did not owe me anything, he was just. I suddenly realized that the key for concealing my identity was by telling a priest in a confessional something evil about Sister Ildephonse. We had been told by Sister Ildephonse herself that a priest’s mouth was silenced forever, even by the threat of death, about what he had heard in the confessional from any penitent. I was, I may as well say it, transfixed by the joy that my plan for vengeance upon Sister Ildephonse came out of her own mouth. For the next week, I could think of nothing but the variety of lies that I could tell the priest without making him suspicious of me whose identity of course he would know by looking through the grill at my bent form.
And so, having selected Father Fleckenstein, the newest priest in the parish, who was young and nervous looking, I entered his confessional on a Saturday afternoon, the time when the priests every week were in their confessionals ready to deal with the sins of what I thought a surprising number of parishioners. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. My last confession…” “Get on with it, boy, no need to go into that recitation.”
I confessed about five or six sins, none of them extraordinary. Sins of disobedience of my parents, of a choice lie that I was somewhat proud of, of my dreaming of a naked girl, the oversized Sophie Wyzinski who lived in our tenement, and so on until, as if I were munching on a fact that I seemed to be concealing, I blurted out that I saw Sister Ildephonse, after class had been dismissed, in the cloakroom with Father O’Brien, the Pastor, and they were laughing. Father Fleckenstein said, after pausing at length, “There’s nothing wrong with that. Why do you even mention it?” “ I don’t know”, I said haltingly, “except that I could see Sister Ildephonse wasn’t wearing her skirt. It was on the floor.” This time there was a very long pause. “What else did you see?” asked Father Fleckenstein. When I heard that question, fright overcame me. I couldn’t breathe. I began to cry. I could have urinated in my pants. Father Fleckenstein said, “You are never to tell what you saw to anyone. Never tell anyone. God will strike you and even your family dead. Do you understand that… Tell me you understand that.” And I said “Yes, I understood that.”
At Christmas, we learned that Sister Ildephonse was now in the Phillipines. I heard my mother telling my father that the rumour in the parish was that Vladimir Petrov had seen Ildephonse in the cloakroom with one of the priests, which priest no one knew. I marveled at how the seal of the confessional was observed and how God was so right in pointing the way to me. In the end, I could see that he might not owe us anything, but he certainly knew how to be just without disclosing my identity. It was then, I recall, though I cannot be certain, that I began to believe that one day I might become a lawyer.