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Je me suis aperçu alors qu’il n’était pas
si facile qu’on le croyait d’être pape….

—Albert Camus

I found then that it was not so easy
as one might imagine to be pope….

BOB BERGERON had been looking for the Pantheon when, having somehow wandered off the Via del Gesù, which he had been assured by the portiere at his hotel would lead him without fail to the Piazza della Rotonda, he found himself instead navigating the slippery cobbles of the Via dei Cestari. Soon the street broadened into a small square, and the lawyer paused to consider whether he should try to retrace his steps back to where he had gone wrong.

Squinting there in the morning light, scanning the ancient stone buildings for a street sign, Bergeron noticed in a shop window on the square three headless mannequins draped in papal regalia. Beneath the name of the business, in smaller letters, “sartoria per ecclesiastici” explained the service offered within. “Tailor for the clergy,” he translated aloud.

He was amused. Where else but in Rome would one find such a shop? Approaching, he marveled at the quality of the white cassocks displayed in the window. The fabric, he guessed, was silk; and the subtle needlework rivaled the best he had seen in London when he had been fitted for his first bespoke suit the year before. Worth every penny, he insisted to himself, almost out of habit. So hefty an expenditure for a single suit still embarrassed him, and though it frequently drew compliments, he had never confessed to colleagues or even strangers that the beautiful pinstripe had been cut and sewn for him by hand.

Thinking of his colleagues, Bergeron remembered the costume party the firm threw at Mardi Gras every winter and realized he had an excuse to open the door beside the shop window. He needed another excuse, though, to explain to the clerk why a member of the laity should wish to purchase ecclesiastical garb, especially of the color reserved for the pope.

“I’m friends with a priest back home in New Orleans. I thought he might like to practice. You know, just in case.”

“A joke?” the tailor wondered.

Bergeron wasn’t sure whether that was acceptable. “Not so much a joke as a provocation.”

The Italian shrugged.

Bergeron couldn’t tell if he had been understood, but he forged on with his lie. “The priest is my height.” He lifted a hand as high as the top of his head. “This tall.”

The tailor nodded. “And about your weight, too, no?”

The American realized he was not the first tourist to have done business at the shop. “Yes, si.”

“You understand it’s not a cheap provocation, your little joke, eh?”

“The money doesn’t matter. It’s well deserved.”

The clerk, who had knelt beside him to measure Bergeron from waist to heel, looked up skeptically.

“I mean my friend…the priest I know back home. He deserves it.”

The clerk rose and slipped behind him. “It’s true. Where would we be without them, the priests?” He grabbed the back of the American’s pants in his fist, clasping the end of the tape against the belt with his thumb and measuring to the base of the neck.

When Bergeron saw, over his shoulder, the number the tailor had entered in the brown leather notebook, he started to object, then remembered it was in centimeters, not inches, the length of the papal robe for which he was being fitted.

When he was done with his measurements, the clerk seemed to bow as he slipped the tape measure back over his neck with both hands.

The gesture reminded Bergeron of his days as an altar boy, assisting a priest preparing for Mass to don, among the panoply of liturgical vestments, a long silk stole. “Besides the cassock, I’ll also need the little red cape—”

La mozzetta,” the tailor clarified for him.

“Yes, the mozzetta, and….” He put his hand on the back of his head.

Uno zucchetto?”

“The beanie? You know, the little hat?”

Si, signore, the skullcap. The…how do you say?…the beanie.”

§

By the time the package arrived from Italy, more than a month after he had returned to New Orleans, Bergeron had nearly forgotten his expensive little whim that morning in a Roman shop. But alone in his apartment overlooking the city’s business district, he found himself impatient to try on his new clothes.

Gently peeling back the tissue in which each vestment was wrapped, Bergeron laid out the garments on his bed and admired the craftsmanship evident in the stitching of the seams and buttonholes. “Superb,” he exclaimed as he fingered the hem of the cassock. Then, fearing he might soil the white silk, he decided to shower before dressing.

Padding back into the bedroom after bathing and shaving, Bergeron tugged on clean underwear, including a fresh T-shirt. Then he slipped his arms into the cassock. The length was perfect, and as he worked his way down the cloth-covered buttons, he marveled at the fit. He could barely tell he was wearing anything at all.

The small cape took some adjustment before it lay properly over the shoulders of the cassock, and he had to hold his head upright to keep the skullcap from tumbling off. (He’d pick up some hairpins in the morning to clip it in place, he decided.) But once he was fully dressed, he could not have been more pleased with the ensemble. Magnificent, he allowed, as he studied himself in the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door. Absolutely magnificent.

Still barefoot, he walked into the living room and poured himself a cognac from the mahogany cart that served as a bar. Sliding a disc of Renaissance madrigals into his sound system, he reclined in his favorite chair and savored the evening.

As he imagined the reaction to his costume at his firm’s Mardi Gras party, he was distracted by his feet, jutting nakedly from the cassock. The problem of appropriate shoes hadn’t occurred to him in Rome, and the brown loafers he wore around the apartment would spoil the effect of his outfit, he felt.

It took two days to find something compatible: red silk slippers embroidered with golden dragons from a Chinese import shop on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. On his way back to the office with his new slippers, he stopped at a haberdashery on Canal Street to pick up two pairs of red silk stockings.

When he got home that night and tried on the thin socks, he was surprised to find that, stretched over his feet, the silk was more pink than red, but he decided it hardly mattered, concealed as they were under the long cassock and encased in the embroidered slippers. To be certain the stockings would work, though, he again donned the vestments and, finding them more comfortable than his usual loungewear, left the regalia on until he went to bed.

The next night, too, he put on the cassock—technically called a simar, he had learned on the internet that afternoon—as well as the mozzetta and the zucchetto along with his pink stockings and red silk Chinese slippers. It calmed him, he found, to dress this way at home.

After he had microwaved a ready-made dinner from the freezer, he carried it on a cork-lined tray to the dining room, where he chose the armchair at the end of the table. Cathedra, he remembered from a high-school Latin class, the kind of chair in which his teacher, Father Augustine, sat, as distinct from the armless sedes in which the students sat. He repeated the lesson from thirty years earlier: thus, the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, from the chair with arms, the teacher’s chair.

The lawyer started to laugh at the notion that he might speak infallibly, but then stopped himself. There were subjects, he acknowledged as he tried the meatloaf in a traditional tomato gravy, about which he could speak authoritatively. Forced heirship, for example. He had spoken at the state bar association’s annual meeting on that issue. And when it came to the fine points of usufruct, too, there was no one in the local legal community who could touch him. I’m not without authority, he conceded to himself, dabbing a forkful of mashed potatoes into the compartment of green peas on the segmented plate.

It became a habit the next evening, changing out of his suit and into the simar and other accoutrements of his little joke, his little provocation. He understood how it might be misinterpreted as rather ridiculous, even pathetic. But he wasn’t some loser in a costume sitting around in an apartment pretending to be something he wasn’t. No, he just liked the feel of the cassock, the drape of its silk, the line of his shoulders beneath the mozzetta. He had never before worn anything so comfortable—it was nothing more than that.

And if he had been pushed, he could have gone on to explain that lounging after work in a handmade silk robe seemed to him simply—he searched for the word—commensurate with his accomplishments. Though he lived in a culture that scorned all but the subtlest displays of achievement by a man, why shouldn’t he be free in the privacy of his own home to dress as he saw fit? Judges, after all, pranced about in the robes of their rank in open court. Surely no one could object to an extremely successful lawyer wearing comfortable clothes around the house.

§

It was just another joke, really—or that was how it started, at least—his first encyclical, begun a few nights later in the armchair at the dining-room table. An important ruling had gone his way that afternoon, and he celebrated with an expensive bottle of wine when he got home. Opening a second bottle, he decided he’d heard enough Mozart for one evening, and interrupting the piano concerto that had just begun to repeat, he switched to Die Kunst der Fuge.

He loved Mozart, of course, but compared to the stately inevitability of Bach, whose opening fugue now swelled on the recorded organ, he found the younger composer a bit too “ad hoc,” as he had once opined to a fellow lawyer during the intermission at a symphony performance.

“Yes,” he concluded aloud, startling himself as he continued the remembered conversation in his imagination, Bach is just like the law—rigorous, absolute, but capable of moving a man to tears. He sipped the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and opened his leather notebook, the Mont Blanc in his hand poised over a blank page.

It had to be written in English, of course, because his high-school Latin was not up to the discussion of the case against capital punishment. But Louisiana was about to execute a retarded sixteen-year-old convicted of murder, and his sense of drunken outrage at the injustice to be committed in his name as a citizen of the state demanded he object in some form.

The first sentence wrote itself before he had even considered his argument: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”

It troubled him that he did not know the source. His chair scraped as he pushed back from the table and tottered toward the computer on his desk, the hem of his simar barely skimming the golden dragons of his red slippers. A search engine quickly returned a hit: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” He block-saved the verse and its citation, Romans 12:19, pasting the material into a new document that he opened in his word processor.

Staring at the sentence glowing on the screen, he realized he had never actually read an encyclical. His computer easily located a translation of “Deus Caritas Est,” a recent example by Benedict XVI. He was pleased to discover that Benedict, too, had begun with a quotation from scripture. The form of the document seemed fairly straightforward: an explication of the opening quote followed by reflections on its implications and a concluding exhortation to observe the moral principles enunciated in the course of the discussion.

The lawyer smiled at its simplicity; he had written far more complicated legal briefs and memoranda than Benedict’s encyclical.

Piece of cake, he told himself.

When he woke the next morning, a word popped into his mind and stayed there: reprehensible. It took a moment to remember why.

Waiting for a kettle of water to boil for coffee, he sat down at his desk and awakened his computer from sleep. Still on the screen was the final sentence of a long paragraph: “To countenance the execution of an individual qualifying under current Louisiana statutes both as ‘mentally enfeebled’ and as a ‘juvenile’ is not merely an affront to the State’s constitution but, quite simply, morally reprehensible.”

He leaned back in his chair as he scrolled to the beginning of the essay. He was struck by the passion of his argument; it came as something of a surprise, the indignation his prose revealed.

Of course, he had to acknowledge his anger the night before might have been fueled, at least in part, by the contents of the two dark green bottles, nearly emptied of their wine, that now refracted the early sunlight as if a pair of miniature steeples of stained glass. Still, he felt he was not deceiving himself in thinking the eloquence of his argument had sprung from righteous disgust with the legal system he served as an officer of the court rather than from yet another display of the vanity that, he had to admit, often obfuscated his pleadings with garrulous circumlocutions.

He had not appealed to arcane case law in condemning the execution of the slow-witted boy, knitting a cunning argument of legal precedents that opposing counsel would find impossible to unravel. Instead, his encyclical had simply stated undisputed facts and called upon the reader to reflect on fundamental norms of justice. He had spoken from the heart, to the heart. And the candor of the document left him both abashed and exhilarated.

Having been interrupted by the whistling of the kettle on the stove, he let the coffee brew as he returned to the computer and typed a title: “Vengeance Is Mine.” The author’s name could wait, but an encyclical was a letter. To whom would he address the argument on behalf of the condemned? He heard the keyboard clicking before he even realized he was writing, “To My Fellow Louisianians.”

He dated the document and had the computer check the spelling, then experimented with a number of typefaces before settling on Garamond. The ancient font, he was pleased to discover, had been created by Claude Garamont, a Parisian publisher who, in addition to designing type in the century following Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, had introduced to French punctuation the apostrophe, the accent, and the cedilla. Bergeron had always considered punctuation, like grammar, the moral underpinning of language. He sniffed a whiff of impropriety in violations of such conventions, and associates assigned to assist him often had their drafts of filings returned “bleeding with red ink,” as he had heard one young lawyer complain to another. So Garamond seemed to him both aesthetically and morally appropriate as the font of his first encyclical.

There remained, however, the question of authorship. He considered a cloak of anonymity—“a mozzetta of anonymity,” he joked to himself as he poured a cup of coffee and popped a frozen waffle into the toaster. But the absence of a signature suggested cowardice. On the other hand, he certainly could not jeopardize his reputation by using his own name on what was, after all, merely a drunken stunt. He would need a pseudonym, he decided. Popes took the names of saints, so Bergeron chose Christopher, still a saint but removed from the calendar of feast days because no evidence survived that he had, in fact, ever existed. He signed the document “Christopher Pope” and printed a copy.

§

He took the manuscript with him on his Saturday-morning round of weekly tasks: dry cleaner, bank, bookstore, grocery. Ready to head back to his apartment with a trunkful of purchases, he had almost forgotten the document on his back seat when a banner above the door of the office supply house across from the supermarket suddenly bellied with a gusting breeze and then collapsed, snapping the canvas with a loud pop that caught his attention. The sagging sign advertised a special on photocopying.

He was in no hurry to get home. Most Saturdays, he puttered around his place all morning, then wound up at the office after lunch to catch up on work that could have waited until Monday. He was rarely the only partner who’d had trouble filling a day off, so he looked forward to the weekend camaraderie of colleagues he had known since law school. In fact, the desultory affair he had conducted for a year with one of the firm’s most experienced litigators began on such a Saturday afternoon when he had found her weeping at her desk. They had broken it off three months ago; his Italian vacation had been intended as a chance to let his heart heal without the inflammation of daily contact with the woman.

Thanks to the sale, it really was quite reasonable, the cost of copying his encyclical, especially if one ordered at least a hundred copies. He selected from the portfolio of sample sheets an antique style of paper called “vellum.”

“You know,” he told the young woman who took his order, “real vellum is made from animal skin.”

“Uh huh,” the girl responded as she rang up the charges on her computer.

Bergeron was annoyed at her indifference to something he found interesting and wanted to jolt her. “Actually, the best vellum of all is made from stillborn babies.” He hoped to be misunderstood but then elaborated when she failed to register shock at his assertion. “Lambs, I mean, and calves, baby goats. That sort of thing.”

“Well, ours is made out of paper, but if you want a different color, I can still change the order.”

With a sigh, he surrendered to her impenetrability. “No, vellum will be fine.”

“Give us half an hour,” she promised.

He waited in the coffee shop next door, wondering what it would take to awaken the girl. Looking around at students hunched over textbooks, single professionals checking their email, old couples sharing a newspaper on the cozy patio, he began to worry about the promulgation of his encyclical. Who would bother to read it?

His misgivings were confirmed when he handed the girl at the office supply house one of the copies from the stack she had slid across the counter.

“Something wrong?”

“No, I just thought you might want one.”

“For what?”

“To read.”

“I don’t think we’re allowed to.”

“You’re not allowed to read?”

“Confidentiality. We don’t look at the pictures people leave, either.”

“But a customer is asking you to read this.”

“Sorry. Company rules.”

He sat befuddled in his car, the hundred vellum copies of “Vengeance Is Mine” in his lap. He considered slipping them into the mailboxes of his colleagues at the firm that night after the other weekenders had left, but thought better of it. “I haven’t completely lost my mind,” he assured himself. And he didn’t know enough about computers to post his encyclical on the internet somehow. It was too long to submit as a letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune or even to staple to telephone poles beside posters announcing concerts that evening.

In the end, he inconspicuously added the photocopies to a shelf reserved for handbills and weekly magazines in a French Quarter po’boy shop half a block from the Louisiana Supreme Court and popular, he knew, with the justices and their clerks.

Of course, nothing came of it, and the mentally enfeebled boy was executed four days later. The night of the execution, Bergeron lounged in his papal regalia and sipped bourbon as he pondered the indifference of even those whom he addressed as “Your Honor” to the patent injustice perpetrated on death row that evening at the state penitentiary in Angola.

Not that he smugly assumed himself superior to the judges who had denied the defendant’s appeal. He recognized he had never before paid much attention to the sentences of capital punishment handed down in his state. Though he would have described himself in conversation as an opponent of the barbaric practice, he had done nothing—except for his encyclical—to oppose it. So where was his authority to challenge the morality of others?

Somewhat bitterly, he found that his little masquerade had gotten out of hand and he had become the butt of his own joke.

§

Carnival approached, and Bergeron tried to ignore the contradictions in his life that his silk gown and cape and skullcap had begun to expose.

He reminded himself of the impetus for his purchase in Rome: the firm’s Mardi Gras masked ball. Countering his misgivings, he insisted it was simply a frivolity, the outfit he had ordered on his vacation. An expensive frivolity, perhaps, but still, just a joke, just—as he had explained to the Italian tailor—a provocation.

Unfortunately, his costume provoked less of a sensation than he had hoped when he entered the French Quarter ballroom on the eve of Fat Tuesday; others, too, had chosen masquerades they judged commensurate with their accomplishments. Two partners, for example, arrived as George Washington, although the first explained he was actually James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, on which the old attorney was recognized as the firm’s expert. Another partner, the firm’s expert on local restaurants, lumbered in as Henry the Eighth. Beside the buffet, a Shakespeare quarreled with a Mark Twain while, in an alcove, Peter the Great nuzzled Queen Elizabeth, Bergeron’s former lover, whose throat glistened with a choker of pearls, a birthday gift just six months earlier from the pope.

Though the ornate invitation had described the event as a masked ball, Bergeron noticed that, despite elaborate costumes, no one had bothered to wear a mask. But then he saw that the crystal chandeliers overhead were casting their delicate shadows like veils across the faces of his colleagues, and as the room swelled with a waltz by the orchestra—ridiculous in livery ordered for the occasion—and the chatter rose to drown out the music, he found himself overcome with what he first took to be dread but then realized, a moment later, was actually shame.

By the time he staggered down the grand staircase that descended from the ballroom to a marble foyer, where a doorman drowsed on a wooden chair, he had drunk much and eaten little. The old man, rousing himself, asked Bergeron if he should hail a cab.

“No, I can walk home from here.”

“Just as well,” the doorman replied. “A cab would never make it through the Quarter tonight. They think it’s already Mardi Gras out there.”

Jostled by mobs of revelers heading in the opposite direction as he tried to shoulder his way up the street, Bergeron escaped down an alley that led him to Jackson Square. He slumped onto one of the benches outside the gates of the little park to let a wave of nausea pass before he tried to make it the rest of the way home.

Above him, the great clock of Saint Louis Cathedral quietly counted the minutes to midnight. Having grown accustomed to his costume over the last few weeks, he had forgotten that he was dressed as a priest. So he was confused when a young girl, tattooed from her wrists to her throat and pierced through the ears and eyebrows and nose and lips with silver rings, sat down beside him and began to confess her sins.

“But wait,” he slurred, trying to stop her.

“No,” she insisted, her own voice garbled, “I need forgiveness right this very minute.” And there poured out of the teenager a litany of monstrous sins not that she herself had committed but that others, starting with her own father, had committed against her. Though clearly drugged, she spoke in frank detail of the abuse she had suffered, and her harsh country accent hinted that she was a runaway.

“Then the man hauls me off to the back room,” she continued, “’cept it ain’t really a room. Nothing but dirt for a floor and no roof to speak of. More of a stall, I guess you’d have to say. Don’t mind telling you I’m scared, what with them things I just seen him do to Jenny Holman. So it come to be my turn, me, I don’t put up no fight the way she done. I know I ought to resist, I know, but I just lay myself down in that mud and let him have his way with me.”

He let her talk until she looked back up at him and whispered, “So what I’m asking is can you see your way clear to grant my sins forgiveness, even if I ain’t baptized in your church?”

“What’s your name?”

“Perdita.”

“Perdita? You know, that’s Latin for lost.”

“Well, that be so, they named me right, all right.”

He put his hand on her braided hair, dyed purple and green and yellow, and repeated a prayer from the old Mass he had learned as an altar boy years before: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.”

“That’s all there is to it?” Perdita wondered as he lifted his hand.

“Yeah, that’s the whole deal.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

“Appreciate it, I really do. But my experience be any guide, he ain’t got much in the way of mercy to spare on us.” She stood uncertainly, then steadied herself. “I owe you anything?”

Bergeron just shook his head, then reached into his pants pocket under his cassock, pulled out his money clip, and handed it to the girl. “Take care of yourself.”

Perdita hesitated for a moment, then nodded her thanks and began to walk through the square toward the river.

Someone else sat down on his other side.

“You a priest?” a voice rasped.

He turned to face a bearded man—probably homeless, he guessed—in a filthy, ragged coat that skimmed the ground. “No, I’m not.”

Liquor soured the man’s breath. “You sure? ’Cause I just heard you forgive that girl.”

“I didn’t forgive anybody. I’m no priest.”

The belligerent derelict laid hands upon the lawyer, soiling his white costume with greasy palms. “Oh, yes you did. I seen you do it just now. And I want my money, too.”

Pulling free, Bergeron repeated for a third time, “I’m not a priest, I tell you.” And to escape the insistent drunk who staggered after him, he followed Saint Peter Street from Jackson Square past Royal and onto Bourbon, where a bare-breasted woman in a nun’s wimple watched from a balcony as a man dressed as what she took to be a bear pursued another man costumed as the pope, who stripped off his vestments as he fled, casting them into the gutter, until he was indistinguishable in the surging crowd that swallowed him.


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