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by Steve Passey

A guy I went to school with skimmed. He took his employer’s money and put it into short-term investments of some sort. He’d keep the interest from these investments and return his employer’s money just before audits or tax time. Eventually some of the investments he made lost money and he wasn’t able to return the employer’s money. He was caught. His employer threw him out of the office. He wanted them charged with assault. He was charged with, and convicted of, embezzlement.

He cried in church and was forgiven — not by the authorities you understand, or his former employer as they did not attend the same church and were forgiven their trespasses in another — but by those who speak for Jesus, having deemed themselves worthy to. Hate the sin, not the sinner, they said, quoting nothing.

Someone in his church gave the sinner a job. He stole from them too; stole in the exact same manner as he had from his previous employer. Such is the strength of the sin when matched with the persistence of the sinner and abetted by the surety of Jesus’s forgiveness. The cycle of charge/conviction/crying in church repeated. Another church member gave him a job, this one in another jurisdiction and once again, history rhymed. In his repeated embezzlements there was a type of optimism reflected in my own purchase of lottery tickets but with a reckless bravado that I don’t possess.

He finally did do some time. He came out much heavier, much softer than when he went in. I was surprised. I thought they let you work out in prison. I’d seen too much television, I think, where guys went in to prison and pumped iron. When they came out they didn’t steal — they took. I think that the division between embezzlement and extortion is that one is baptized in churches and the other in prison gyms. But he came out fat, and there was his church waiting for him, a safe place to cry and defer judgment.

Not long after I saw him, I went for lunch with friends. We went for Chinese food. The restaurant had a huge aquarium. While we sat a catfish in the aquarium ate another fish almost its own size. It choked the other fish down with the contortions and contractions of its own body forcing it in whole until the catfish, eyes bulging, was distorted with the shape of its victim. I don’t know anyone who took like that, but I witnessed that catfish eat another, living, writhing thing. It rested there, unashamed in its tank, sated and full, watching me while I ate my lunch too.

Steve Passey is from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short story collection Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books) and many other things. He has been a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee and is part of the editorial collective at The Black Dog Review.