Pharisees

A short story by J.F. Powers
This story is included in these collections

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee and the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing ajar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. 

Luke 18:9-13

TAKING a hard-boiled egg from the bowl on the bar, the publican—if he could be called that, for the joint was in his wife's name and he was now retired from his job as tax collector—squeezed it, trying to break the shell in his grip, and failed. So he held the egg down on the bar, rolled it back and forth, and in this manner broke the shell, which he removed. He sprinkled salt on the small end of the egg, and was eating this when a customer entered the joint. "I see you're eating an egg," said the customer, an elderly Pharisee in a dark suit of conservative cut.

"I'm on this new diet," said the publican.

"What new diet is this, Walt?"

"It's this new cholesterol diet."

"Oh, yes. I've been hearing about it."

"In cholesterol, which I prefer to take in the form of eggs, I get all the things my body needs—animal fats, blood, nerve tissue, bile, to name but a few."

"Sounds good, Walt. Small brandy, please."

The publican was pouting a small brandy when a young thief entered the joint with a gun, saying, "This is a holdup."

While the holdup was in progress, another customer, an unfrocked Pharisee now engaged in community work, entered the joint, saying, "'Hi, fellas. Hey, what's happening?"

"Watch it," said the young thief.

The ex-Pharisee then spoke to the young thief in a nice way, telling him that he could jeopardize his future in the community by such conduct, if, that is, he persisted in it.

"Maybe you're right," said the young thief, sheepishly.

"I don't say I'm right. I don't say you're wrong," said the ex-Pharisee. "I try not to make value judgments. All I ask is that you think again. In the meantime, what'll you have, fella?"

"Just a beer."

"Two beers, Walt."

After serving them, the publican picked up the egg, which was eroding on the bar.

The Pharisee said, "Saw you this morning, Walt, unless my eyes deceived me."

"No, I was there. I was standing afar off."

"Walt, how is it I never see your wife there?"

"She's pretty busy."

"We're all pretty busy, Walt, but we can still find a few hours a day for the things that matter most."

"Such as?" said the ex-Pharisee. "We were talking," said the Pharisee. "Walt and I."

"About what?" said the ex-Pharisee.

The publican leaned over the bar and, with a mouthful of egg, whispered, "Religion."

"Oh, that," said the ex-Pharisee.

A young woman, a dish, entered the joint rattling a can of coins. She approached the Pharisee with it.

"What's it for?" he asked.

"People."

The Pharisee shook his head. "I give tithes of all that I possess," he said.

"Oh, sure," said the dish, and rattled the can at the publican. "My wife takes care of all that. She's off today."

"Oh, sure," said the dish.

"Hey, don't forget us," said the ex-Pharisee—who then folded a dollar and slipped it into the can.

The dish rattled the can at the young thief.

"We give at home," he said. The ex-Pharisee slipped the young thief a five, which he, having seen how it was done, folded and slipped into the can, saying, "Now I see."

Watching the dish leave, the publican squeezed an egg, then rolled it on the bar, removed the shell, and salted the small end. "Want one?" he said to the Pharisee.

"Not today, Walt. Small brandy, please."

"Hey, what's happening?" said the ex-Pharisee. Going out into the entryway, where the dish was being attacked by rapists, he said, "Hi, fellas," and after apologizing for the young ex-thief who had attacked one of the rapists from behind, he spoke to them all in a nice way, telling them that they could jeopardize their future in the community by such conduct, if, that is, they persisted in it. Not surprisingly, they all agreed.

The ex-Pharisee, the young ex-thief, the dish, and the six ex-rapists then repaired to the bar where they sat in a row, but could see each other in the mirror, all talking about poetry, music, drama, and better recreational facilities.

"Tired?" said the ex-Pharisee.

"A little," said the dish.

The young ex-thief said he'd be glad to go out with the can in her place, and offered to turn his gun over to her, the ex-Pharisee, or the ex-rapists, if that would make him more acceptable in her eyes, but that was not required of him, and he came back shortly with a full can.

"Don't thank me," he told the grateful dish. "Thank him."

The ex-Pharisee said, "You did it your way, fella."

The publican squeezed another egg, rolled it on the bar, removed the shell, salted the small end, and pointed it at the Pharisee invitingly.

"Not today, Walt. You see, I fast twice in the week, and this is one of my days."

"Big deal," said the ex-Pharisee. "I don't fast, and I don't give tithes, and I don't go to temple, and I thank God (if there is one) I'm not like the hypocrites that do!"

"And so say all of us," said one of the ex-rapists.

 

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J.F. Powers is author of numerous short stories, several of which have been honored by inclusion in various anthologies.

This story is included in these collections:

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