The Bishop


    "Name?" 
    The jailhouse clerk waited for the young man to respond. But he said nothing. Simpleminded, she thinks I’m simpleminded. 
    He was wrong. The clerk just didn’t care. Nevertheless, "What is your name?" 
    The vagrant standing at the records desk wasn’t Estonian. He had wavy jet-black hair, and wheat colored skin – a foreigner, for sure, probably Turkish or Syrian. Ne'er-do-well, that’s what the officers of District-11 called his kind. He wasn’t a criminal, really; not dangerous, just a headache. The young man had just emerged from the shower room carrying a towel, his hair slicked back over his forehead and ears. What's more, he'd dressed absurdly: A T-shirt that swallowed his slender frame, gray sweatpants, no socks, and a worn-out pair of red loafers. 
    "Surname!" the clerk demanded.
    Like so many, this ne'er-do-well was a feeble soul: pasty skin, hollow eyes, bloated stomach, low energy. The vagrancy unit had dumped him off earlier that morning. Now he was a District-11 problem. He hadn’t eaten for some time, but more importantly, he was dehydrated. 
    Realizing that the bullying was getting her nowhere, the clerk changed her tactics, forced a smile and said, "Tell me your family name. It's just for the record; any name will do."
    “I am Dion."
    “Yes, Dion….”
    "D-r-a," he broke off to take in a breath, "k-o-s." 
    “Did you get toiletries?” The vagrant, brow knitted, was uncertain about the question. “Toothbrush and paste?”
    “Yes… on the bench near the exit,” he replied. “I took a plastic bag of things and these clothes.” 
    The clerk smirked, must have been the last available pair of shoes. Only a very vain man or a very poor man could bear the mantle of red loafers. "Sign here," she said, handing Dion a clipboard. Social services protocol required that vagrants verify their existence before a meal voucher could be issued.
    “Is there someone coming for you?”
    Dion misunderstood. He had gotten the question wrong, and he grew anxious, his face flashed out-and-out dread. “They are coming for me?”
    “No, no, no. No one is after you,” the clerk sighed, “I was just asking… never mind.” She then handed him a meal ticket to Saint Nicholas Haven. 
    Five minutes later, Dion was on the sidewalk outside the police station. He looked left along the long stretch of the boulevard – a streetcar and a taxi were coming his way – then turned right, all clear. He took a long breath and relaxed. Suddenly, his belly began howling, and he knew the tremors would surely follow if he didn’t fill his stomach soon. Food or wine, it didn’t really matter. 
    “It’s to the right. About six blocks,” a voice from behind came alive, “you can’t miss it.” The clerk had followed Dion outside and was pointing the way. He acknowledged the jailor with a nod, and then quietly walked away. 
#
    At the same time that Dion was arriving at the food pantry, another young man named Ben Kellerman was making his way across central Tallinn to the Haabneeme peninsula. He worked at the university there. Just then the speaker box of the Number-9 trolley rattled coarsely, “Katedraal Avenüü,” and came to a stop at Cathedral Square. It was where Ben caught the 15a bus on the last leg of his morning commute. Because it was so cold, Ben hurried across the long stretch of cobblestone and headed for what all commuters called transfer central, a Plexiglas shelter next to the famous Saint George Basilica. Ben wondered, would the bishop be there today? 
    He was referring not to “the Bishop,” but to “his bishop” – a nickname he’d given to the vagrant who was living behind the shelter. None of the commuters used it, not even in the worst weather. It was a place to be avoided because the shelter had become the point of contact between drug dealers and their customers, thugs and their victims. An outbreak of tuberculosis accompanied the illegal trades, and just breathing the air nearby was believed to be harmful. Everyone called it the Turks' Arcade. 
    His bishop was there yesterday, lying in a stupor amid wispy, whirling litter. He was passed out on a little mound of dirt under the elder trees – his cathedral, so to speak – and had covered his legs and feet with old newspapers to ward off the frigid air. This bishop was a pathetic sight, made worse because it seemed that he had soiled himself during the night. 
    But would he be there today? For some unexplored reason, Ben believed it was his duty to help this unfortunate. On several previous occasions, he had wanted to go over to the sleeping vagrant and poke around, just to see if the man was still breathing. But he didn’t. Ben felt guilty about that – dodging the poor soul – but he had argued, I cannot be late for school. 
    Today would be different. Ben didn’t have a class until ten. I’ve got time and can do something. As the Arcade came into view, Ben watched the usual scattering of citizens and felt certain his bishop would be there. But when he reached the shell, the entire area behind was empty. He searched the steps of saint George and the sidewalks nearby but found nothing. Puzzled, Ben meandered over to the 15a queue and waited for his bus. Once on board, Ben decided he would not think about the bishop any more that day. 
    Wow! The 15a was freezing inside. The window in front of his row was jammed open. It was just a small crack, but cold air poured in as the bus picked up speed. Ben wasn’t used to the icy spring. He had just spent three years in Rome and was used to a warm Mediterranean climate. It put the 29-year-old into a funk. He gazed out the bus window at the waters of the Baltic and the ever-present sea geese drifting beyond the seawall. They seemed impervious to the chilly air, to the great gusts of wind, and to humankind’s clattering presence on the shore. As he watched the lingering winter, Ben Kellerman felt uncertain about his decision to come to Estonia, and his hope for a resolution of his Vatican problem seemed as unclear as the gray northern sky.
    However, Ben couldn’t get the bishop off his mind, so he glanced back at Cathedral Square one last time. It was not the bishop that caught his eye but an oversized black SUV, appearing from nowhere. It came to a skidding, skip-over-the-curb stop near the back of the Arcade. Two men jumped out and began searching the grounds intently. They were out of place, not Estonian at all. Decked out in jeans and bomber jackets, they were not rummaging for lost trinkets – they were hunting. 
    "Zaza Wolves," a voice from behind resounded. Ben knew it, but he couldn't, in that instant, put a face to it. "Everybody thinks they're Turks, but they're not." When he twisted around Ben recognized John Potts, a colleague from the Business School.
    "Professor Potts," Ben said. "Not Turks?"
    "No, just Kurdish mafia." 
    "Kurdish mafia? Never heard of it." Ben began processing Eurasian geography. "Who are those guys, and what are they doing in Estonia?"
    "The old standbys: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll."
    "I have no idea what that means.” 
    "You know sex trafficking, drug dealing, and assassins for hire." 
It was Potts’ reference to sex trafficking that caught Ben off guard. It reminded him of certain happenings at the Vatican the previous summer. But then he thought of his bishop and wondered if the Zazas had anything to do with the vagrant’s disappearance today.
#
    As Dion left Saint Nicholas, he had put the gloominess of the police arrest behind him. Now, he wanted to get back to his sanctuary. Everyone thought it disgusting there: the discarded syringes, rubber hoses, and bloodstained rags. But Dion didn't care. The sanctuary was his. So, he headed down the street quickly. 
    The Zazas thugs cornered him just before he reached the Arcade. He was startled at first and fell backward, knocking aside the pull-cart of a babushka going by. 
    "Vasiliou," the headman howled, "the lamb who has gone missing." 
    The old woman, who had been slammed to the ground, realized what was happening. She saw the terror on the other's face and the panic in his eyes. But she chose not to get involved and slipped away stealthily. Other street people witnessed the snatching as well. But it wasn't their business, and none were willing to speak up, let alone interfere. They knew these thugs and their dirty trade, and it was dangerous to stick your nose in such dealings.
#
    Every morning about the same time Ben stepped onto the 15a bus, Raye Peterson and her husband, Karl, could be found in the school’s cafeteria warming up. Raye searched her husband's uninspired, eight-o'clock face. "Ya know, I'm tired of being cooped up in that place we call an apartment,” she said. “Let's go out for dinner tonight… to Old Town. What d’ya say, Mr. Peterson?"
    "Fine by me." Karl’s eyes, however, never left the newspaper. An investigative reporter in another life, he had some morning habits that were hard to break. Scouring newspapers for bizarre happenings was his favorite. 
    A moment later, Raye noticed their boss, "Ari," she called out. This morning there was a stranger with him.
    "Good morning, Raye,” the dean replied. "This is John Douglas Daves. He has just hired our professor of religion." Ari's English was barely useful, and he was regularly tongue-tied. Around the office, the staff called his malapropisms the Dean's English.
    It was the phrase "professor of religion" that made Karl's eyes light up. His search for the bizarre was over, and he could barely contain his giddiness. "Religion at the Losmann Country Club?" he asked. 
    "Country Club?"
    "Professor Daves, please pay lack attention to the cracking wise of your American colleague. He makes the pot to stir." 
    "Okay, Shein, a question," Karl nagged. 
    "Why a professor of religion?" 
    "Yeah, the w-h-y of it, Comrade Shein."
    Before Ari could answer, Raye spotted Ben Kellerman coming through the cafeteria door. "Ben," she shouted, and then made the introductions. "Ben, John, this is Professor Daves. He'll be teaching religion in our College."
    "Nice to meet you. Call me JD." 
    "To the question, Shein," Karl pressed on, "why religion at the Country Club?"     
    "Just business," said the Dean. "A private Lutheran university is licensed quick in our new, ‘officially’ Lutheran nation."
    "Nothing to do with piety, then?" Karl grimaced. He had lost his poking stick. 
    Raye cut in, "We’re going out for dinner tonight, to Bistro Romanov in Old Town. Let’s make it an expat get-together. Everyone's invited." 
    "Sounds like fun," JD replied. "What time?" 
    "Yes, Bistro Romanov," Ari was enthusiastic, "it has best Russian kitchen. But I can’t go… business with board." 
    “Too bad,” Raye replied, then got up to leave, “Got class in 30. See you guys tonight, seven o’clock. Be there or be square.”
    After the Petersons left, Ben turned to JD. "I've read some of your papers. I was particularly interested in your analysis of the decline of Christianity in Scandinavia."
     "You read Nova Religio? That makes two – you and my mother. But I thought you were a language specialist."
    "I teach composition to media students," Ben replied, "and I work cheap." 
    "Then what inspires you to read religious journals?" 
     "I'm a graduate student at Pontificia Università."
    "The PUG?" JD was surprised. The PUG, as he called it, was the Harvard of Vatican City. Pontificia students were recognized as the best religious scholars in Europe, and more than forty popes had called it their alma mater. “So, are you a seminarian or a scholar?”
    That question caught Ben unawares. “I haven’t decided. Estonia is my time off to think about things… kind of a gap year.” 
    “What kind of things, Ben?”
    Ben got up from the table. “Gotta go,” he said abruptly. “Class in 30.” It wasn’t the class, of course, but the uncomfortable confrontation. The real reason for leaving Rome was his alone, and it kept him up long into the night.    
    As Ben was walking away, JD shouted, “Maybe we can talk about it later.” Kellerman didn’t respond. But Daves knew about the scandals involving the Roman Curia, and he was sure Ben was somehow involved.
#
    The drug dealers took Dion to their safe house, a few blocks from Cathedral Square. They dragged him upstairs and threw him on the couch. Then the head of the gang began chiding, "Vasiliou, where are the nice clothes I bought you?" Dion was unresponsive. His eyes had turned dull, his body limp. "Where did you get these rags? They're offensive." Afterward, the Zaza thug ripped off Dion’s T-shirt. "You cannot work in rags, Vasiliou. No one wants to fuck a man who wears rags!"
    The other Zaza was a brute and had slipped into the back of the apartment. When he returned, he carried a hypodermic, one-third full of a seductive, milky white liquid. When Dion saw it, he began squirming. The brute handed off the syringe, walked over to Dion and grabbed him from behind. Dion sought to pull away, but he had no strength to fight back. The other struck Dion across the face violently. At that point, Dion recognized that resistance would just mean more torment, so he became submissive. 
#
    After his lecture, Ben returned to his office on the third floor. It wasn’t much, a 120 square foot cubicle he shared with a fellow instructor. There was a stack of ungraded tests lying at the upper left-hand corner of his desk. He’d promised to return them a week earlier, but for some time the professor had found procrastination his ever-present companion. Next to the tests pile was a spiral notebook with a few pages of handwritten scribble placed out-of-sight behind the front cover. It was the beginning of a letter to Monsignor Francesco Castelli of the Vatican Secretariat – a documentation of events. Ben wondered if he would ever finish the communiqué, and then fretfully twirled the ring on his pinky finger. 
    Instead of tackling either task, a bright stream of sunlight through the window snatched Ben’s attention away. The overcast and unfriendly Tallinn morning had turned into a cheery afternoon. He welcomed the change of focus. As he gazed downward, Ben noticed the walking garden to the left and just beyond that an enclosed playground for the kids from the middle school next door. To the right were the front entrance of the university building and a well-ordered courtyard with tables and benches for eating when the weather permitted. They’ll be sunbathing next week, he laughed. It was true. Whenever the Sun peeked through the clouds, so too did the Estonians – sunshine was sunshine. The building had emptied, and the ordinarily reticent office workers were chatting up the warmish afternoon.
    Suddenly, Kellerman noticed a stranger approaching two women at the far bench. They sat up as the man neared. Ben could see that the man’s invasion of their space was unnerving. One of the women stood up, tossed her cigarette away, and started for the university. So the vagrant turned to the other woman hoping for a bit of luck. He joined his hands together in prayer and began his plea. But she would have none of it and followed her friend into the building. The man, hands held out, chased for a few steps. It reminded Ben of his bishop. Surely, he had returned by now. Ben checked his watch. The 15a bus would arrive in ten minutes. If he hurried, he could make it to transfer central and search for his charge.
#
    "Be still, my Vasiliou." As Dion obeyed, the brute released his grip. "And take off those silly red shoes," the boss man demanded. Face reddening, eyes swelling, Dion braced for the coming pain. Neither of these clods had any skill with a needle, nor were they interested in making life easy for the sex worker they controlled and enjoyed bullying. "Which foot did we use last time?" Dion pointed to his right. "Give me the other. We don't want to leave any scars, do we?"
     Dion's leg began to tremble as the boss man inserted the needle into the fleshiness of Dion’s big toe just under the toenail. The puncture wound there would be hidden from inspection. The jailhouse clerk at District 12 headquarters always gave the vagrant's arms, legs, and the stomach the once over, but seldom did she looked at the feet. 
    It took no time for the plunger to empty, and once withdrawn, Dion's toe began to bleed. "Get a towel," shouted the Zaza, "he's going to ruin my couch; and bring some ice."  
#
    By seven o'clock that evening, Old Town was humming. The Petersons and Professor Daves were seated at Bistro Romanov’s cocktail lounge waiting for Ben to arrive. The bartender had set out three tall liqueur glasses and began pouring a dark brown, rum-based liqueur known as Vana Tallinn. Karl warned, "It's the Hammer and Sickle, Daves. Gird your loins." 
    "Hammer and Sickle?" 
    Raye explained, "An inexcusably risky cocktail." Raising an eyebrow and glaring at her husband, "A person should never have more than one." 
    Karl lifted his glass and cracked, "L'chaim."
    Just as they were taking their first sip, Ben arrived. "You started without me," he whined loudly. 
    "We're warming up with the Hammer and Sickle, Kellerman," said Karl. After finishing the round, the maître d’ escorted them to a private dining room. 
    Once seated, Daves bored in, "So Ben, have the Vatican trials begun?" 
    But Ben hung back, "I'm not privy to such things. I’m just a novice, trying to understand something about my church.” His voice faded with that last word.
    “He’s hiding something.” Karl insisted. 
    “Surely you know a little,” said JD. “Who's the Bishop booting from the Curia?"
    Bishop, Ben thought. His mind leapt to Cathedral Square and then to the Turks’ Arcade. Zazas! He cursed. His search for the bishop that afternoon was in vain. Why did they…? 
    Karl pushed on, “Tell him where you worked, Kellerman.”
    “For the Secretariat, in records. It was nothing.”
    “Don’t believe a word of it,” Karl said. “He worked for Castelli.” 
    “Monsignor Castelli?” JD was amazed. “The man in charge of the investigations?”
    “I did work for him, but now I’m a professor of languages here at Concordia with you fine folks, a thousand miles from Rome.” Fortunately for the Vatican novitiate, at that fated instant, the waiters arrived with a platter of appetizers. 
    But Karl wouldn’t let it go. Smelling blood in the air, he dug in, "Nobody cares about records. We want gossip, man. We want scandal!" It made Ben squirm, and that, of course, pleased Peterson. 
    “Leave him alone,” Raye scolded.
“What about it, Ben?” JD asked, “Why have you come a thousand miles to Estonia; to escape what… who? 
    The old reporter persisted, “Something else, then? The sex scandals, that’s it. You’ve got the goods on Castelli and the Vatican perverts.” Karl was gleeful. “Stoolpigeon, that’s what’s been troubling the professor.”
    “That wasn’t my charge,” Ben replied with a well-rehearsed denial. There was a long uncomfortable pause. Karl watched in amazement as Raye drained the last remnants of her Hammer and Sickle. 
    A moment later, the waiters entered with the desserts: servings of rhubarb pie and the famous pastry, kringel. Then Raye urged Karl to tell the story of pirate radio, how the Eesti underground had booted the Soviets out of Estonia once and for all. Karl could not resist. The supper went on for two more hours, and from that point onward, the discussions were without any Vatican skirmishes. 
#
    While he still had a few minutes of mindfulness, Dion thought about his sanctuary among the elder trees of the Saint George Basilica. He wished he were there now. In his mind's eye, he could discern the people passing by. There was one in particular that entered his consciousness. He was older, but not by much, thin, clean-shaven, European, and troubled, like himself. He was different from the others and often paused for a moment to stare at Dion’s surroundings and desperate situation. Dion thought he would like to visit, but he never did. So uncertain of things, Dion mused. Still gathering his powers. But he never stayed long and never came too close.
    As the drug took over his body, Dion slipped into a half-conscious state. Grim thoughts about how he might die faded in and out: perhaps the heroin would stop his heart, maybe the lack of fluids might drive his blood pressure below the point of recovery, or, grimmest of all, the brute would slash open his chest – just for the fun of it, for the lurid fascination of watching a trembling heart fade away. Dion sighed at his fate, “Melodramatic hokum.” But then the vagrant lost consciousness and would sleep for a while; until they woke him once more to resume the work that had become his profession.  
#
    Time passed, and Kellerman had busied himself with end-of-semester activities. A week later, when most of his friends had gone to Helsinki, Ben had decided to stay in Tallinn. He would not worry about grading tests or other affairs, not tonight. It was the last night of the spring festival, and he wanted to have some fun.
    When he arrived at Cathedral Square, it was jam-packed. Everywhere along the Old Town streets, food vendors and carnival barkers were calling out to the high-spirited passersby. Ben avoided the sugary treats and fatty sausages, but he spent nearly 40 minutes watching giggly teens ride the roller coaster called Toll’s Twist. About two hours later, Ben had had enough. It was time to head home. To his surprise, many festivalgoers had the same idea at the same time. At the outlet gate of the old walled city, there was a long line of people waiting for trolleys. Ben realized it would be some time before he could find a seat on his Number-9, so he walked to the nearby kiosk to buy some bread for breakfast the next morning. "Two Croissants, please." 
    "Kolm dolars." 
    "No, too much, Liiga palju." Ben offered one Euro. The vendor took the coin and then bagged the pastries. Because he could not see the trolley queue diminishing anytime soon, Ben decided to walk on. 
    As Ben neared the Turks’ Arcade, he noticed a shadowy figure under the canopy. At first, he thought it an apparition because the splatter on the walls and the flickering lights made this moving thing seem otherworldly. When he was a short distance away, Ben realized that it was a man. Disheveled and raggedy, he was leaning, no, holding onto one of the pillars for dear life. Just one more homeless drunkard, Ben guessed. The boulevard was oddly quiet, and Ben stayed back, not wanting to get involved. He opened the bottle of water he'd brought from home and took a few sips. 
    The drunkard began staggering about, trying to catch onto something that would prevent a nasty nosedive into the sidewalk. Would he hold on? For some odd reason, Ben hadn’t put two and two together. But as soon as the man stumbled out of the shelter and into the glare of the street lamp, Ben recognized his bishop. When the man began coughing, then gagging, Ben was startled. But once again, he hesitated. "If no one were around, I would…." A taste of bile formed along the sides of his tongue. “Surely a fellow Estonian will….” But no, the streets were deserted and stillness omnipresent – no cars, no buses, no taxis – emptiness beyond imagining. Just Ben and his bishop. Then that nagging voice returned, Do something! 
    Thud! The stomach-turning sound of a body colliding with concrete broke the spell. Ben turned to see that the man had fallen into the street and was now struggling on his knees, a penitent crawling along the sidewalk. But as the vagrant dragged himself along, his sweatpants were being pulled downward, exposing his nakedness. Finding his mettle at long last, Ben rushed over to the bishop. The man had collapsed into a fetal position and was twitching visibly. Seizure! Then there was vomiting. Ben tried to help him to his feet. He reached down to where the tangled pants had become ensnared, but there was nothing he could do until he removed the man's shoes – those damned red shoes! Ben yanked them off and tossed them to the back of the shelter. Next, he tugged at the man's waistband and, for the moment, the bishop had been clothed again.
    Then Ben dragged Dion back into the shelter and held the lost soul in his arms until he stopped shaking. That's when the drooling started – spittle dribbled onto Ben's chin, neck, and shirt. The bishop’s face was flush, filthy and covered with snot, and with his coat sleeve, Ben gently wiped clean what was a remarkably unsullied face. After a few minutes, the quaking stopped, and Dion began easing back into the world. He was groggy at first, but then his eyes became fixed on Ben. "Father?" 
    Amused, Ben shook his head, "No, just a friend… sõbra, sõbra."
    Then the bishop began rambling, "Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my wickedness." Confessional gibberish? Hardly. Prattle of an addled mind? Possibly. Then the vagrant, the beggar, the street wanderer lifted a hand towards Ben and touched his face. "Create in me a clean heart."
    Ben was utterly confused, "Tell me your name." 
    “I am Dion – a troubled spirit, the forfeit of mankind.” 
    “You know me, then?” asked Ben, “at the Arcade?”
    “I am with you always.”
    Ben could see that the situation was perilous. The man needed sustenance. So Ben retrieved the croissant from the pocket of his jacket. Next, he propped Dion up against the shelter wall. "Here, my friend, eat. Sööma." Dion took one small bite. 
    Ben worried that the croissant might be tough to swallow, so he took out his water bottle and gently held the man's head back so he could drink. The moment lingered, and the man seemed somehow renewed. When Dion had finished, he nodded ever so slightly, acknowledging the stranger's kindness. 
    In a voice barely perceptible, Dion spoke again, "I have come back many times, but you have always denied me." The words were clear, but Ben was mystified. He assumed the drug toxicity was about to overwhelm the poor man – body, mind, and soul.
    “I will take you home.”
    “Thank you.” Ben heard the voice, but the words had no sound. That’s when Ben knew the bishop he'd first observed in the sanctuary under the elder trees had found a measure of peace. With that, Dion closed his eyes and died.
    Click-clack – a car door opening. Ben wiped the last bit of spittle from Dion’s lips and then turned to see one of the Zazas heading his way. "What have you done to my Vasiliou?" 
    "Who are you?" Ben challenged the Zaza boss. Then another emerged from the darkness and pulled Dion from Ben’s arms. The brute looked at his boss, tossed his head at Kellerman, and asked, “What about him?” Ben gasped for air.
    Uninterested, the Zaza boss waved his hand, so the brute carried Dion away. Eyes full of fury, the man stared at Ben, “I am no one you should want to know.” Afterward, he returned to the car. A moment later, the SUV had disappeared into the blackness of the night. Ben was alone, dumbfounded and speechless. It was as if the events of the past half-hour had never taken place – except for one thing. In the far corner of the Arcade, the bishop's red shoes, tattered and torn, remained. So Ben walked over, picked up the shoes, and stuffed them into his coat pocket. 
    Then, clang-clang-clang. The sound of steel against steel pierced the night air; the Number-9 bell had broken the spell. But there was no rush now, so Ben strolled over to the stop, stepped on the trolley, and took a seat at the back. 
    As it got underway, Ben turned back to the Arcade. His eyes lingered there for some time as it grew smaller and smaller in the distance. After that, Ben finished the croissant and what was left of the water.

The End.

 

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