AFTER LUNCH NAP
By Sam Garfield
Dec. 10, 1955
(Chicago) –I’m sitting in my office, a blank piece of paper in the typewriter. I’m trying to get started on a new column –maybe something on this guy Elvis Presley and his carnival-barker manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who just snared his client a $40,000 deal with RCA. Four stories below my window, snow falls gently into the Chicago River, and down the hall the steady din of the newsroom blends perfectly with my heavy Berghoff Beef Rouladen. My eyes close, and I start to nod off; Elvis and Colonel Tom will have to wait.
I can see myself lying on my belly, pencil and notebook in hand, under the grandstands of Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus. Below me is a squash court where the Pope is taking on all comers. Pop, slap, pop, the hallow rubber ball bounces wildly against the tall walls. NO PRESS ALLOWED, a sign says. I’m scared –and against deadline– trying to hide from the Papal Swiss Guard, their tri-color uniforms marching in formation behind me. A formidable lot, these guys –with their black berets and armor breastplates and shoulder guards. But why can’t they see me? I shudder in fear each time their halberds clink on the track.
Not sure which Pope this is. But he’s a Pope all right, in his white cassock and attached shoulder cape. His pectoral cross flies from side to side as he slams the ball with an oversize aluminum tennis racket. Not fair, I scribble in my notebook; never seen such a racket. Light on his feet, I also write, in his red shoes and cappello romano. For two dollars –the price of a horse bet– anyone can take on the Pope. ASK ADVICE…CONFESS…IT’S YOUR CALL…ONLY $2, a neon sign says. A large copper kettle –the kind my grandfather makes caramel corn in– sits in the near corner of the court. It overflows with dollar bills. Players sign their names on a large blackboard that hangs outside the squash court. And wait for the Pope to announce them.
“MARILYN MONROE,” the Pope calls.
In walks the movie star. She’s wearing white high heels and the same ivory, pleated dress from “The Seven Year Itch.” The same dress that took sail for God and all to see when she stood over the subway grate in the movie, I write. Adding, the great scene that ticked off the great Joe DiMaggio. The Pope extends his hand, his Gold Fisherman’s Ring glowing in the darkened court. For the next several minutes the Holy See and the barefoot screen goddess enjoy a spirited game. They move as carefree as Scott and Zelda, I note. The court becomes filled with billowing white linen, like a schooner in full sail.
They converse as they play. It’s hard to hear everything they say between the pops and slams of the ball. I only catch portions. The Pope talks in Italian, and I’m scribbling in English. I don’t know Italian, so how can I understand him? Marilyn gasps for air as she hits the ball weakly with a stiff arm. Like a girl, I jot.
“That’s why I’m worried about my future,” I hear her say in that breathy voice of hers.
“Don’t be, my child.” The Pope slams a winning forehand shot against the far wall, his pectoral cross clinking against his racket, the ball careening from wall to wall, ceiling to floor, before landing in the kettle of dollars. “You’re destined for great love, but like I said, don’t be tempted by politico.”
As Marilyn leaves the court, I notice one of the Papal Swiss Guards breaking ranks to catch up to the screen star. “Would you please sign my armor, Miss Monroe?” I hear him whisper. At the chalkboard stands a short, scuffled young man. He’s wearing a brown sombrero and beaded moccasins; a red scarf is tied around his neck.
“BILLY THE KID,” the Pope calls.
In walks The Kid, mythical outlaw and desperado, gambler and cop killer, getaway artist and gang leader, horse stealer and cattle rustler. He’s tiny, his six-shooter goes halfway down his leg, I chronicle. But Billy has this nasty backhand; one shot whistles precariously close to the Pope’s ear. Early in the match, a similar backhand slams into the Pope’s cassock, leaving an ugly black smudge on the Papal whiteness. Another shot knocks the cappello romano to the floor. A hat trick, I write.
Billy wants the Pope to help him with his reputation. “It’s the newspapers,” he whines between shots. “They’re out to get me, to see me hang. They’re the ones who give me this stupid nickname, Billy The Kid. My real name’s Henry for God’s sake.”
The Pope doesn’t seem to be listening to The Kid. He stares down at the smear on his cassock and shoots Billy a frown. “But you’ve killed lawmen, my son, and with their own guns, I hear. How can I fix that?”
“Well, you know, maybe put in a good word with, eh, you know, the man upstairs.”
The Pope doesn’t answer. Instead, he unleashes a mighty forearm. His giant aluminum tennis racket shoots the ball into the far wall; the ball ricochets off the floor and finds Billy’s face. Square on.
“An eye for an eye, eh, Your Eminence?”
“So to speak, Billy.”
It’s getting late. I know I have to call in my story if I’m going to make deadline. As I scratch out the last of my notes, I see Billy and the Pope kneeling in a corner of the court. At first I think they’re praying. Not so. The Kid’s teaching the Pope the finer points of the Three-Card Monte. “It’s all in how you bend the cards,” he says. Just then, two Papal Swiss Guards grab my arms and carry me above the court. We’re up through the grandstand, into the sunlight. I look down and can barely make out the squash court. I see a well-dressed woman at the chalkboard. I don’t recognize her. She’s signing her name in grand, flowing strokes; her signature takes up the entire board. We’re high above the campus now, but I’m still able to hear.
“OPRAH,” the Pope calls.
Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.