Fiction 2013 / Volume 43

The Art of Apology — Ron McFarland

Approximately three years after celebrating his second marriage, his first having gone, as he liked to say, “the way of all flesh,” even though he had not (not yet) read that novel by Samuel Butler published in 1903, Professor T. Roland Wibbles realized he was apologizing to Katherine Lance (she balked at taking his name because of her children, now grown, from her first marriage, which, she said, had been dreadful) all too frequently. “Sorry,” he simpered upon breaking a wine glass while washing the dishes. “Sorry!”

Katherine said nothing. Glared.

In his first marriage he had rarely done the dishes even though they had no dishwasher: “I married a dishwasher,” he liked to quip. His first wife, Susan, did not much appreciate his sense of humor. Wasn’t she, the professor sometimes asked himself during his frequent one-man colloquies, a bit of a sociopath? She would claim he had strained her sense of humor to the breaking point. A woman not greatly given to laughter or even to occasional sardonic smirks, Susan had however, somehow, yet found it impossible to contain her mirth upon reaching their divorce settlement.

Professor Wibbles—Roland to friends, relatives, and a handful of select graduate students—thought the word “settlement” a profound misnomer for what had transpired, but as Nelda Klontz, his lawyer—he had retained a female attorney on the advice of a colleague who suggested he would need whatever advantage he could obtain in the matter—said, “Susan has the goods on you,” by which she meant “hard evidence” in the form of an old “indiscretion” with a certain graduate student “coupled with” (Nelda Klontz relished the pun) “incontrovertible evidence” of his two-year liaison with Katherine Lance. Theirs was a “family-values state,” his lawyer reminded him. As opposed to what, the professor wondered: a “singles-values state,” perhaps? A swinging-singles-values state—presumably, then: California.

So he had “settled” by awarding Susan the house and all the furnishings including his tools, such as they were (no great loss), the new car, half of all their fiscal assets, and half of his retirement. He could keep his rods and reels and fishing tackle, his shotgun (Susan hated guns) and the twelve year-old Ford Ranger. “It’s only fair,” Susan opined. Despite the fact that she had a good job at the university alumni office, she could have gone for “maintenance,” she admonished him. She hoped, incongruously and a tad disingenuously, that he would be “happy,” and she threatened that if the case went to court it would get “ugly.” She did not elaborate, but she reminded them they lived in a small college town. Wibbles was aware of that.

Susan also retained the affections of both of their grown children Molly (named after Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which the professor had read as an undergraduate) and Ted (named after the Boston Red Sox slugger, Wibbles believed, but in reality after one of Susan’s former loves, as he discovered two years after the child was baptized). Ted and Molly rarely called, even though Molly lived just ten miles away, and they never sent cards on Father’s Day, an oversight that Wibbles might have disregarded if Katherine were not in the habit of calling it to his attention. Katherine’s two daughters never missed Mother’s Day, and one of them even sent flowers. “Hallmark holidays,” he told himself peevishly.

Indeed, Katherine’s was a card-sending family, and Mother’s Day found her mail littered with celebratory notes from her three children, her aunt and two uncles, her sister in Seattle, her aged mother in Albuquerque, even, on occasion, from the random niece or nephew. Katherine’s son did slip up on occasion, and the professor found some solace in that. The second year of their marriage, the professor suffered the humiliation of his son Ted having forgotten his birthday altogether. Molly at least phoned and said she had gotten something for him and would mail it soon, although she never did.

“My bad,” the professor apologized upon being brought up on the charge of not having introduced Katherine Lance to one of the grad students at the symposium in April where said student read seven very forgettable poems and another student, Sam something-or-other, read a paper, laden with the jargon of critical theory, on Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Wibbles had in fact introduced his wife to Sam, whose paper he thought did not so much deconstruct as destroy the poem, but he’d forgotten the niceties when it came to the poet, whose name had slipped his mind. Annie, he now recalled, Annie Bryghte. How could he have forgotten? She had taken his seminar on Hemingway and written a scathing indictment of “Up in Michigan” for her final paper—badly argued, he thought, but well written and carefully documented. He had been obliged to give her an A, to which he affixed a minus in deference to Hemingstein.

“My bad?!” Katherine mocked.

“An old soccerism,” Wibbles explained. It had been the game of his youth, his only claim to athletic accomplishment, sustained too long into his first marriage—the subject came up during the divorce proceedings—the “beautiful game,” although he would modestly confess he had never managed to play it beautifully. He also had not managed to emulate A.E. Housman’s young athlete, had not been a “smart lad,” had not slipped “betimes away,” and therefore had indeed outrun his “honours”: “And the name died before the man.” He thought it one of the saddest lines in all of poetry. Some days he wished he was in fact a young, dying athlete. On the other hand, he did not quite relish the prospect of being a young, dead athlete. He had been constrained to give up the game when he blew out his left knee, and he now walked with a pathetic, he feared, and sometimes painful limp, a sort of latter-day Lord Byron minus the charisma, poetic talent, and sex appeal.

Professor Wibbles was too fond, he supposed, of reciting that poem to his students in every class—he had it “by heart” (he liked to say that and to encourage all of his students, even those in the introductory courses, to commit at least one poem to memory, to “have it by heart”)—and once recently he had made the egregious mistake of actually reciting the poem twice to the same class, once early in the term and once after a football player at the university had been killed in a smash-up on the interstate west of town. A large, angry young-woman with blue streaks in her hair and a menacing tattoo on her left forearm, interrupted him to lash out against his inclination to celebrate jocks in his class. His envy of these gladiators, she accused, was both palpable and pathetic. Her displeasure would be recorded online on some sort of rate-your-prof website that a colleague referred to as “rape-your-prof.”

Another student told him after the class that she “kinda liked that poem.” She was a pretty blonde, gorgeous in fact, and Wibbles would love to have been able to believe she felt even the slightest affection for the poem, but she appeared to spend much of her time in class—when she was in class—text-messaging what he suspected was a broad spectrum of male admirers, young athletes perhaps, who would not be likely to die young. He experienced some petty satisfaction in issuing her a C for the course. He could not, would not, remember her name.

“When we walk down stairs,” Katherine Lance advised, “you should go first. When we walk up stairs, you should follow.”

“I see your point,” Wibbles said. “So if you should stumble…”

“Exactly,” Katherine said. “But I’ve told you this more than once. You don’t listen.”

“I stand corrected.”

“Roland.” Katherine paused ominously. “You know I cannot bear sarcasm.”

It was not long after the Reprimand of the Staircase episode that Professor T. Roland Wibbles came across an important article in his favorite magazine, The Week, abridged from a women’s magazine called Allure: “How to Say ‘I’m Sorry.’” It struck him that the four simple nuggets of advice might save his uneasy second marriage, now in its sixth year, with him stumbling a little, lurching really, from the blocks “betimes” and leaving himself vulnerable to disqualification should it happen again. Nothing so pathetic as a failed apology, he told himself. It was high time he hone his penitential technique.

Wibbles had already become more conscious of introductions at parties, forcing himself to memorize names in advance, grasping at such mnemonic devices associating names with animals, colors, and mixed drinks (think “Tom Collins” but remember his name’s “Tim”), and he was now much, much better at returning the toilet seat to its down position. This was, Katherine would say, his “besetting sin.”

As it happened, Wibbles had to commend himself for having already mastered the first step in the science, or was it really an art, of apology: Act Fast “As soon as you realize you’re at fault, step forward to say so. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re apologizing for the tardiness of the apology.” When had he ever not quickly, indeed very quickly offered up a “sorry” or an “excuse me”? In fact, given his facility with foreign languages, he was familiar with the proper phrase in any number of tongues: “Pardonnez moi,” plus an occasional “s’il vous plait” for good measure, or if not sufficient—”j’ai regret par tout,” or should that be “pour,” should one go so far as “faire grace”? Not that Katherine knew any French at all. She had no facility with languages. Spanish: “Lo siento” or even “Lo siento mucho”; German: “entschuldigen Sie mir, bitte,” and so on. So much for that. “Und so weiter.” He was pretty sure that was accurate German for “and so on.” And, kak no-pycckn, H3BHHHTC!

On the other hand, as his long deceased maternal grandfather, a retired coal miner and lover of Kentucky bourbon, had liked to exclaim (too frequently), “Sorry don’t feed the bulldog!” And as Oliver Wendell Holmes, that venerable old soldier, Supreme Court justice, and quondam autocrat of the breakfast table, had written, “Apology is only egotism turned wrong side out.” Wibbles felt himself conflicted on the subject. Was he apologizing simply as a matter of habit, or because polite society (including in particular Katherine Lance) demanded it, or merely to get himself off the hook, or maybe subconsciously because apologizing, in an odd way, gave one the upper hand, the moral high-ground? Or was an abject apology simply a coward’s easy way of trying to weasel out?

Item of advice the second: Face Your Mistakes “If you’re feeling guilty, the least you can do is say so in person. Apologizing face-to-face rather than through e-mail shows sincerity. But if confrontation really frightens you, putting an apology on paper lends more weight.” Well, the professor had to admit he had never committed his apologies to writing, e-mail or otherwise, and in fact Katherine rarely visited her word processor anyway. But hard-copy apology? Perhaps so. He resolved to write her a note at the next apologetic opportunity, but he would need to be careful not to overdo it, as the journalist, or psychologist, or journalistic psychologist advised that a written apology must be reserved only for more serious blunders, those that occasioned some genuine feelings of guilt on the perpetrator’s part. Simply leaving the toilet seat up, for example, although the error infuriated his wife, would not be sufficient cause to drive him to composition. Only a genuine transgression would merit the rhetorically honed and handwritten apology. With luck, he would never be compelled to descend to print.

The professor did not have to wait long, however, for an opportunity to undertake such an apologetic epistle. When he returned from the office one Monday afternoon following a more grueling than usual day marked by a class that featured a 20% absence rate and an 80% unpreparedness rate, a tedious meeting of the Graduate Studies Committee and an even more tedious meeting of the University Library Committee, and three office conferences with irksome and confused students (actually, one irksome, one confused, and one both), he had no sooner begun to prepare himself a gin-and-tonic than Katherine called for him to help her move the hose. This was not a big deal, of course, except that his heart was still racing from the day’s stress, so he found himself saying, “In a minute.”

But of course it came out prickling with irascible impatience: “In a min-ute!” He also muttered an expletive of some sort under his breath, but apparently not deeply enough under it. Katherine Lance expressed her annoyance in her usual manner, by not speaking to him for the rest of the evening.

After his wife had gone wrathfully but silently to bed, Wibbles took pen in hand and prepared to write his apology. Nothing came to mind. Not a word. “I’m sorry!” he wrote, underlining “sorry,” but he knew at once that she would detect sarcasm in what he intended to be sincerity. He struggled to overcome his defensiveness. But all that came to mind oddly, inasmuch as he was not a Catholic but something of a secular humanist with occasional notions of becoming a Unitarian rather in the Ralph Waldo Emerson tradition, was the Act of Contrition. He had gone with a Catholic girl in his last year of high school and first year of college, and he had taken communicants classes—it had gotten that serious with them before she dumped him for a Mormon guy—so he could recall (accurately he thought) the words, which he might wittily adapt for the occasion: “O my Katherine, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Thee, and the pains of bachelorhood; but most of all because they offend Thee, my Katherine, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.” He carefully placed the note on the kitchen counter and went to bed.

The next morning he could tell at once that his playful irreverence had not gone over. Katherine looked up at him through her inscrutable slate gray eyes, stony eyes. Like agates. She had been raised old-school Presbyterian. “What is wrong with you?” she said. It was not really a question in search of a response.

Third item of advice: Choose Your Words Carefully “Make it clear you know that you screwed up. Avoid halfhearted apologies like ‘My bad’ or ‘I’m sorry you’re upset.’ But be sure to use the first person—as in ‘I made a mistake.’ The injured party wants to see you suffer—at least a little.” Of course the journalist-psychologist had not anticipated the problem of humor. The professor was reminded painfully of certain student evaluations he had received over the years complaining about his “suppose since of humor.” “He’s to sarcastic!” one student scribbled irascibly, appending a frowny face to illustrate her hurt feelings.

T.R.—he would love to have been known as “T.R.” like his boyhood hero, and Papa Hemingway’s, Theodore Roosevelt, dashing recklessly up San Juan Hill, speaking softly but brandishing a big stick, but his efforts to get that option accepted by his colleagues had failed. Would-be “T.R.” Wibbles now, at this time of crisis, recalled the advice of grizzled John Wayne to a young officer in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never say you’re sorry, mister. It’s a sign of weakness.” Something like that anyway. What if the expression of apology failed to pay off?

In fact, no less a personage than Ralph Waldo Emerson had written somewhere (he forgot just where), “No sensible person ever made an apology.” Words to live by. But not words by which to remain cordially married to Katherine Lance. Professor T. Roland Wibbles reconsidered and moved on to the fourth and last piece of advice: Make a Gesture “When ‘sorry’ isn’t enough, give the person you’ve wronged something thoughtful. Sometimes just flowers or wine are enough.” He would give that some thought.

The next morning, at 3:33 a.m. on the digital clock, exactly half the dread number of the Beast of the Apocalypse in Revelation 13:18, Wibbles awoke to a scream from the bathroom, or not a scream really, but a pained and accusatory, high-pitched “0/2!” reminiscent of the cry of Elizabeth Bishop’s Aunt Consuelo from “In the Waiting Room.” He had once again left the toilet seat in the forbidden upright position. He heard water running, heard her drop the bar of soap into the washbowl.

When Katherine Lance returned to the bedroom, she snapped on the light and glared at him silently. His entire mantra came to him in one unspoken blurt: “Sorry,” he might say, but didn’t, “my bad, I’ll put that in writing, my mistake, roses and a really nice Sancerre are on the way!” He might have said that and he knew he should have said that, but the words would not stumble across his lips. Instead, the professor grinned almost maliciously and rolled over on his side. Katherine Lance snapped off the light, ushering in a remorseless darkness. In the poem, which he knew well, the little girl, Elizabeth Bishop herself, was nearly seven years old and was feeling just the way he was at that moment,

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world

into cold, blue-black space.

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