The Cardinal of Quarters
By Michael Scott Major
Making his way through the atrium garden, Cardinal Alister passed the statue of venerable old Father Isaias. Yes, once he had consummated his place, he would tear that statue down. No more need for that once all the pieces had been arranged.
Had he not been born in the very avenues of power? Even at the tender age of ten, when he was attending the Academie at Thessalonika, he had lorded it over the other boys, forcing them to walk behind him and to do his bidding by his sheer will alone. And now, scolding him in front of the entire council and the knights(his men) for his brazenness and his much made-of affair. Let them piss in sow's eye. Turning down his request without even so much as an open ear. It was not a request. It was an offer. And they would sincerely regret the day they had rejected it. Did not the Lord even say let he who is without sin throw the first stone?
Damn the do-gooders to hell for their pompous righteousness. They doddle in committees and nothing gets done. And Father Theophilus. The greatest do-gooder of them all, wanting to help the poor every time they came begging; giving them blankets, and suggesting that Church protect them against attacks on their outlying areas. By God's blood, as if that's what the Church is even about. Doddering old fool had the audacity to spew such rot that the day his face was ever seen on a coin, Satan himself would escort him to Hell. A curse, nonetheless. By the Holy Rood of Christ!
After that rot, he had marched into the bishop's quarters, without asking-let fools pray for strength-and strode right up to the scriptorium. The fat old fool had been nodding off. He'd laid out his plans straightway, telling not asking. Was it not right and good that the Cardinal of Nicaea should have his face on the coin of the realm? The city of Nicaea needed a strong leader, someone who could wield the sword sharply if need be. Yes, and the coin was simply a step in this direction. Give the people something to believe in. Bring the city together. Show a united front that would give the Persians reason to doubt their campaign against the east. The bishop hemmed and hawed, with his blubbery pink jowls billeting about, the image of power blah blah blah all the people see blah blah blah the bishops of Byzantine not agreeing. Rot. S'blood, the old fool seemed about to fall off his chair right there and breath his last. To no avail, though.
But this was all part of his plan. If the bishop would not be moved, he would be removed. Yes, by all hell's gates, he would rake the walls with their blood jesu mercy on them for he would have none-By God's wounds! The coin. The coin was only a step, a step in the right direction. Yes, by God's will-and with slight chuckle he congratulated himself on that one-and by right, he would take his place.
He would have his face on the coin. The ultimate symbol of power, the ultimate picture of authority, nay immortality even. Now he would obtain his rightful place in the strata of the Church of Nicaea. Zounds! He might even be worshipped. Crossing himself at the thought, God forgive him. Respect. That was what he wanted. And what he would take, by God, or by his own wits. God forgive him such blasphemy. With that, he ordered the guards to admit nobody, and strode into the Duke of York's chambers to present his plans. Discussion will ensue.
700 years later
Al Papadopoulos, or Al "The Bull", as he was known by his friends for his chess tactics, pulled the taxi over to the curb, pressed the brake as if he had been doing it for a thousand years and pulled the seat back so he could reach under for the lair he'd been saving. His body had gone to hell long before he would so who cares. And hadn't somebody seen the Virgin's face on an lair once, he thought as he wiped his fingers. Well, maybe on the next one. He hadn't been to church in so many years. He'd even once been on the swim team when he was a senior at St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox, a few years and some pounds ago. Lately, the doc'd been telling him to watch it. And to lay off the cigarettes, or this cough would be the end of him. D'hell withat. They're doctors; whadduthey know?
He looked out the window at the parking meter and tried to guess how many coins it took to fill it before they emptied it. He wondered. The rain drove down on the black asphalt like jumping beans, reflecting the light from a thousand windows. The last of the shopkeepers were locking their doors, keys jangling, bag and briefcase in hand. The rain skipped off the yellow taxi hood and drooled down onto the front windshield in ever-widening pools. People just getting off work bustled by him in a cacophony of wet leather and muffled conversation, and the tak-tak scrape of metal on glass drew his head around to where someone walking by had banged him with their umbrella. He made a face and rapped on the window.
He'd thought about getting out to just get a cannoli since it was going on eight o'clock, but then he looked down at the curb again and saw the water lapping against the edge, flowing down to the drain in a sound that was audible even with the window closed. It was the sound of him staying in his taxi because he didn't want to get his shoes wet. It was the sound of hunger. The rain pelted his windshield and the light from the street lamps played tricks with his eyes. Somewhere a horn honked and the sound of a lady's hard-soled heels went staccato-ing by. Some night.
"Getting home late again," he said to no-one in particular. He had a habit of talking to the back seat even when nobody was there. It jogged his memory, though, and he started to check the floor in front, below his steering wheel to see if any coins from the customers had rolled forward. Sometimes they did. Sometimes he found them while the customer was gathering his things and saying goodbye or thank you or whatever. He never returned the change. What for? You think they're gonna care? Besides they were all rich. Nobody cared. Looking down at the disappearing road beneath his window, he pursed his thick lips and sighed with his hands against his chin. Mmmph. This was the life. Some life.
He arrived home and laid the coins out on his old, wooden table. It had seen better days. Scratched and chipped here and there, it still leaned to the side with the uneven leg. He pulled up the chair and started counting with his fat, dirty fingers. One, two, three, four, five...eight...twelve...nineteen... thirty-five...forty-six. 15 quarters, 8 nickels, 22 dimes and a penny. One penny, he thought. No good for nothin'. And skipped it away.
Satisfied with his efforts, he walked over to the couch and sat down to fall asleep watching tv. Only three buttons on the remote worked, one to turn the tv on and off and another to change the channels. Didn't have a vcr. He woke up the next day with the tv on static and rubbed his fingers over his mustache and his eyes. He looked over at the table to check on his coins and they were still there. He didn't bother counting again.
Later that evening, parked outside the cinema in the downpour, he had heard a sharp knuckle rap on the window. Closing his fist around the last of the coins, he raised his head slowly up around the steering wheel and put a face to the annoying sound. The tall, pale-faced man with his bowler hat and black umbrella was mouthing something and pointing to the back seat. Still breathing heavily from the effort, Al eyed the man and reached back to flip the side door lock. The man leaned forward, avoiding the huge puddle, and pulled the door open towards him. Closing his umbrella with the other hand against the roof, he bent down and high-stepped into the taxi with his left foot first and- He never saw it coming. Al couldn't believe it, and just turned around and whistled through his teeth.
Placing his hat back on his head, the man situated himself and wiped the fog off his glasses.
"Do ya think it's funny that I just hit my head against your cab when I was getting' in?
"You coulda parked closer to the curb and then I wouldn't a-had to leap into the
the taxi like that", the man shouted brushing off his pants and sneezing voraciously into a white cotton handkerchief. Al just looked into the rearview mirror with a smirk, waiting for the man to tell him where to go. Idiot.
"To the corner of 15th and Pharmacy Dr, thanks," the man said in response to the silent question.
"Pretty wet out tonight ain't it?" he continued.
"Yeah, I don't think it's supposed to stop all night. Gonna be a real frog-buster!" The harder it rained, the louder he shouted. At least it seemed that way.
Al turned on the corner of Alcoa and Pharmacy, coming to a red light and tapped the squeaky breaks. Responding slowly, the taxi rolled to a stop across the yellow crosswalk line causing several pedestrians to scowl and hurry across the pavement. The rain only seemed to come down harder and harder as the minutes passed by. Soon, he could barely see out the windows even though he had turned on the wipers full throttle.
"Hey look, uh...I gotta pull over for a spell. I can't see a thing in this," he said to the windshield.
The taxi pulled to the curb, with the man still irate. "Well how much farther to 15th?" he continued to shout above the rain.
"About twelve blocks," Al said even though he knew it was only eight. The longer they sat, the more likely they would lose things. He'd seen his share of junk too. Combs, pictures, phones, love notes, stamps and once a kid left his lunch box. Found it cause he'd heard the change jingling around inside. Some out-of-town rich parents just moved here and couldn't find the school. Ham and cheese on rye with a chocolate pudding cup. He'd made short work of that, chuckling to himself about his good luck. People were so stupid. Of course, all he really cared about was the coins.
"Ya wanna see somethin' kewl," the man said and reach into his pocket. With a look of sheer boredom, Al turned his gaze to the backseat and watched as the man took a coin out of his pocket and turned it in his fingers, arching his eyebrows with a smile.
It's a coin, thought Al and rolled his eyes.
"Oh no!" replied the man and with that he tossed the coin forward. To Al it seemed to flip end over end slowly, beautifully, as if on a predetermined journey to a destination of which only it knew, and landed with a wobble under the steering wheel only to roll back down to rest directly between his feet. Al's eyes shot to the man and back to the coin. His heart hammering in his chest, something inside him, some voice it seemed from a distant past, screamed not to pick it up. But this voice was edged out by something else. A desire to... And turning it over in his hand, he looked into his own face. And suddenly, he felt very cold. And very old. The man in the back began to laugh.
Without even looking, Al hit the gas and grabbed at the steering wheel to where he knew not. Shaking and short of breath, with sweat beading on his forehead, he crossed himself, and began to pray, "Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now in the hour of our death..."
The man in the back lurched forward, roaring uncontrollably at the thought, and knocked his glasses off his face. And they disappeared into the night.
© Copyright 2016 Michaelmas. All rights reserved.