When in Rome

After Pope Benedict XVI “retires” and Pope Francis is elected, Citizen Jim is ready to try out his new comedy act on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was one of those days at the end of one of those weeks. All I wanted was to close my eyes and wake up on Saturday morning with no place to go, nothing to do, and nobody making me talk to angry strangers on the phone.

My work environment was becoming increasingly hostile. Mrs. Chaingang’s new “behavior policies” for our team were dragging our morale to the ground and sending our visits to the bathroom to cry through the stratosphere. We couldn’t talk to one another, look at each other, laugh, read, knit–once we sat down it was eyes forward, ankles crossed and all hands visible or Mrs. Chaingang would blow her top. If she caught us breaking any rules we had to pay her two dollars.

(In the case of Don Haught, who always made twice the rest of use as the unrivaled “King of Overtime,” she demanded five dollars, a bag of assorted hard candies [no chocolate] and a pork barbecue sandwich every time she caught Don crocheting. When it was suggested she was treating Don unfairly, she said, “I’m Don’s boss. When Don at work, he my bitch. And the bitch gonna pay me if he don’t want cut.”)

I was delighted to realize I was breaking a rule and getting away with it when I glanced to my left and let my gaze settle in that direction for a full ten seconds. I was curious about the new custodian rolling toward me with a giant garbage can on wheels. I’d never seen this one before, but that didn’t surprise me. Where I work they go through custodians like a priest goes through holy water.

“Listen! We gotta talk about this new Pope crap,” said the custodian. He had on a denim hat that matched his denim jumpsuit. His mustache was black and bushy and obviously fake, as were his bushy black eyebrows and the plastic nose attached to his fake plastic glasses.

“Jim?” I whispered, though I knew exactly who it was.

“Shut up,” he whispered, then shouted, “I’m in disguise!”

I knew I would be in big trouble if Mrs. Chaingang caught me talking. I threw a few packages of Smarties, her favorite candy in the world, onto her desk. While she hurriedly crinkled the cellophane and chomped the little candies, she began to fall into a slack-jawed daze.

“Get in this trash can,” said Citizen Jim.

I peered into it: surprisingly, it was empty, so I did as I was told. Citizen Jim began pushing the can, slowly at first, then picking up speed and moving in so many sudden directions that I thought I might get motion sickness.

When the garbage can stopped, I tried to stand up but Citizen Jim pushed me back down. “You gotta stay in there or you’ll fuck up my disguise,” he explained, looking down at me. “We gotta make some plans.”

“Where are we?” I asked.

“We’re in the middle of a great mystery,” said Citizen Jim. “Just like I said–this new Pope stuff stinks to high heaven. And not just the Catholic heaven.”

“What’re you talking about?” I asked. Just then someone threw a half-full drink cup into the garbage can where I squatted like a catcher behind home plate.

“Thank you,” said Citizen Jim, I suppose to the ass who’d just drenched me in what tasted like Diet Dr. Pepper.

“Listen, as soon as you can shove some underwear and clean socks into a grocery bag we’re flying to Rome.”

Before I could answer I was struck on the head with a crushed Mountain Dew can, followed by one-third of a meatball sandwich, a plastic fork, and a still-burning cigarette.

I tipped over the can and crawled out coughing, covered in soda, a Subway sandwich wrapper, and marinara sauce.

We were less than a hundred feet from where I worked. This threw me into a panic. After all, Mrs. Chaingang could turn the corner at any moment, nose to the ground as she tried to find me.

I grabbed Jim’s hand and took off running to my car. “Get in!” I yelled. I had us on the road in fifteen seconds, speeding along backstreets and taking turns on two wheels.

“You’re gonna get us killed before we get to the Vatican!” Citizen Jim shouted, then stuck his head out the window and tried to get the attention of some bums outside the Union Mission as we passed them. “Heeeelllllp meeeeee!” he shouted, but they were a blur in the rearview mirror before he could even finish.

“I need a shower,” I said as I pulled into a parking space outside my apartment building. “Then I need to get back to work before Mrs. Chaingang realizes I’m gone.”

By the time Citizen Jim caught up to me I was already stepping into the shower. Over the sound of running water he shouted, “Just think what heroes we’ll be when we solve the Mystery of the Retiring Pope,” he said. “You can’t tell me that whole situation doesn’t stink.”

“You’re right,” I said, scrubbing my head like a cat scratching a flea.

“Why, it’s as fishy as a port-a-potty at a womyn’s music festival,” he went. “Whoever heard of a Pope quitting his job? I mean, wouldn’t God be the Pope’s boss? How would a Pope ever get a letter of resignation to the Lord?”

“Jim, I don’t know, nor do I care!” I said. “Now go into the kitchen so I can get out of the shower.”

As he left the bathroom he said, “Hey, you’re the one who’s got problems with sinful curiosity of the eyes, not me.”

“What time is it?” I called from my bedroom as I tried to pull on my underwear, pants, and socks at the same time. (I fell into a heap on the bed and had to unitask, much to my chagrin.)

“I’ll tell you what time it is–it’s time for you to be concerned about your goddamned church!” Jim yelled.

At that moment I got a text from a co-worker named Robin that said: “Chaingang just sent the police out to look for you. LOL. That’s what you get for talking bad about the Pope. LOL.”

I wasn’t laughing out loud, especially when Jim said, “Man alive–I just saw four or five cop cars come speeding across that bridge over there! They had their lights flashing and their siren going crazy. I wouldn’t want to be whoever that posse’s after!”

Neither would I.

But I was.

Of course, I wasn’t too worried, as the entrances of Columbia Towers have coded keypads. Plus, Mrs. Chaingang has no idea which apartment I live in. Moreover, I knew the police would give up if faced with a challenge as big as that.

However, we would have to lie low until the cops left. Which meant I would have to listen to Citizen Jim’s ranting about the Pope and going to Rome and God only knew what else if the wait was longer than expected.

When I walked out of my bedroom, Citizen Jim shook his head and waved his hands. “No no noooo! You’re all wrong!” he said, grimacing and holding his nose.

I’ve never been–am absolutely not–the most stylish dresser. I know this. But my clothes were clean and I’d managed to wash all the marinara out of my hair. What else did he want from me?

I asked him this.

“They’re not gonna let a girl into the Vatican!” he said. “We gotta get all your hair cut off and find you a cute little choirboy get-up.”

“We’re doing neither of those things,” I said. “We’re hanging out here until it’s safe for me to sneak back into my chair at work.”

“How can you be so apathetic?” Jim asked.

I sighed. “What do you want me to care about? I’ll care about anything you want if you’ll just hush,” I said.

“Here’s the thing: don’t you think it’s a little odd that the Pope who just so-called retired was fighting for Hitler during the second world war and has been replaced by a fellow from Argentina, where all the fugitive Nazis fled from justice after said world war?”

“My God but you wear me out,” I said.

“I’m just sayin. What if it turns out there’s a vast conspiracy behind all this?” he said.

“I’m sure there is,” I said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. But why do you care? You’re a Quaker, are you not?”

Citizen Jim set about looking around my apartment as if casing the joint for an eavesdropper or a hidden camera, peering behind a bookcase, opening a window and craning his neck for the best view of the sidewalk below. Satisfied, he walked over to where I was now sitting on the floor, my back against the plaster wall.

“Can you keep a secret? Don’t answer!” he said quickly. “Can you keep this secret?”

Worn. Out.

I said, “I’ll try.”

“Okay here’s the deal. I only wanted to go to Rome to make those guards laugh,” Citizen Jim said.

“You mean the Swiss Guard?” I asked.

“I don’t know which homo-loving, commie country they’re from, but they wear those big furry hats and those red jackets and everyone tries to make ’em laugh or yell but they just stand there and stare straight ahead no matter what.”

I shook my head in response.

Jim stomped his foot. “What? I could make ’em bust out laughing–and I need you to make a video of it when I do. It’ll be a YouTube sensation!”

“Oh, Jim! You’re talking about the guards for the Queen,” I said, trying not to laugh.

“Stimpy, you’ve turned into the worst Catholic and lesbian ever!” he said. “You may not agree with the Pope’s dogma but to call him a queen? How cynical you’ve become–cynical with a ‘c,’ not an ‘s’.”

“Jim, listen to me–”

“No, you listen to me! Get your passport and some clean drawers! We’re going to the Vatican to try out my new comedy act and that is that,” he said.

“You’re talking about the wrong guards. The guards you want to entertain are in London, outside Buckingham Palace,” I said.

Jim crossed his arms over his chest. “I may only be a Quaker, but I do know the Pope lives in Rome!”

“But the–never mind,” I said. “You’ll just have to go without me. If our team doesn’t get perfect attendance every day, Mrs. Chaingang makes us clean her house and wash her cars over the weekend.”

“So you’d miss my history-making stand-up act just to keep a stupid job?” he asked.

“Actually, I’ll be missing your sure-to-fail attempt at making the Buckingham Palace guards laugh outside the Vatican so I don’t have to clean a marble bathroom floor with a toothbrush on Saturday,” I said.

(That wasn’t completely true. Don Haught always had to clean the bathrooms–I usually got stuck polishing the silver or dusting the Fabergé eggs.)

“Fine,” Citizen Jim said. “I guess I’d better go, then. But I don’t wanna hear you crying when I’m on the TV and when I have a Wikipedia page linked from the page about the Holy See.”

“Okay. No crying,” I said. “I’ll try to stay tough.”

“And you tell that crazy boss of yours she hasn’t heard the last of Citizen Jim, Stand-Up Comic to the Vatican.”

“I hope I remember to say it exactly like that,” I told him.

“And please return that trash can and give back the fake nose and glasses and the false mustache to Don Haught,” he said. “He’s a nice guy. In fact, he’s as nice a guy as you are a mirthless bitch, you know?” I did.