But for the Grace of God…

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One sweltering August morning many years ago, Jimmy and I were in the alley by the hollyhocks behind my house smoking two long cigarette butts we had found in the street.

Jimmy caught a honey bee in a hollyhock and pressed the glowing ember of his cigarette against the flower. The buzzing was furious for a couple of seconds and then stopped.

He opened the flower and let the bee drop to the ground. We got down on our haunches to watch it twitch. Jimmy held the ember directly against the bee, and it curled up into a little ball. Then he crushed the butt out on the little ball of a bee and stood up and ground it into the dirt with his heel.

“I forgot my knife,” he said.

“Go back up and get it,” I said.

Jimmy lived with his mom Peggy in a little apartment above us. Before the summer Jimmy had been living with his grandma in a small town, but when Peggy got a job waitressing in Denver, she had Jimmy come to live with her.

I was in the apartment once after Jimmy and I had been smoking, and he rushed to the bathroom to brush his teeth, so Peggy wouldn’t smell the smoke on his breath. She became enraged that he hadn’t brushed his teeth earlier and gave him a beating with a belt.

“Did you get your knife?” I asked.

“Yeah, I got it. Let’s go to the park.”

I ground my teeth together to make my jaw move like Jimmy’s. When we got to the park, Jimmy took out his knife, and we started tossing it to make it stick in the grass.

“You wanna do something else?” I asked.

“Yeah, I wanna kill her.”

“Kill who?”

“That bitch.”

“Your mom?”

“Yeah. If she was dead, I could go back and live with my grandma.”

“Yeah, but you can’t kill your mom.”

“Why not?”

“You’d go to jail.”

“What if they never found out who did it?”

Lying in the grass, we fell to discussing ways Jimmy could kill Peggy without getting caught. Jimmy said he would find a way, and I promised to help him when he did.

On Friday afternoon, I went to confession.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a month since my last confession.”

“Go on”

“Father?”

“Yes?”

“Is it a sin to help somebody plan to commit a sin?”

“Would this be a sin of a sexual nature?”

“No, Father.”

“Have you engaged in impure actions with this other person?”

“No, Father.”

“Temptation itself is never a sin, but we must resist temptation and encourage others to resist it.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Before you go to sleep at night, I want you to wrap a rosary around your right hand. Do you have a rosary?

“Yes, Father.”

Before the summer was over, Peggy tired of looking after Jimmy and sent him back to his grandmother.

One night I was awakened by a terrible ruckus. A woman was screaming and pounding on our door. When my mother opened the door, the woman was standing there; her face was all red, and her nose was bleeding. For a horrified minute, I thought it was Peggy and that Jimmy had come back and tried to kill her. But it was a waitress from the bar where my mother worked. Her husband had beaten her in a drunken rage.

The whole incident struck terror in my heart. I constantly feared that for some reason Peggy would bring Jimmy back, and I would once again face the prospect of being an accomplice to murder.

Fortunately for her (and for me), Peggy never brought Jimmy back and eventually moved to another city. I never heard from Peggy or Jimmy again. It has often occurred to me that had Jimmy been in possession of a gun instead of a knife, Peggy might well have been dead before I made it to confession. By now she is long dead. I hope she died of natural causes.

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