I used to play tennis with Ernie Schwerin a couple weekends a month until we finally admitted that, whatever we were doing, it wasn't tennis anymore. After that, Ernie and I would meet for lunch from time to time and feast on foods outlawed by our wives and forbidden by our doctors. Our breeze-shooting was desultory, without a lot of medical talk. Over a Reuben sandwich one Saturday I bragged to Ernie that the next day I was going to install an overhead fan. I was practically rubbing my hands over the project. Now, to say I'm not handy would be putting it mildly, like describing the service in a French restaurant as a tad slow. Ernie knew that, like most unhandymen, I tended to deny what had been amply demonstrated. He was the kind of doubles partner who never complained when you double-fault or serve one to the back of his head. Ernie's forbearing, considerate of other people's feelings. He spared mine about the overhead fan by making fun of himself as an indirect way of giving me sound advice. "You know," he said as he picked up the second half of his corned beef on seedless rye, "experience has taught me that my best home improvement tool's my checkbook."
I recalled this dictum when my wife recently made the same point more directly. This wasn't after I'd failed for weeks to fix the running toilet in the powder room or to stop the faucet in the upstairs bathroom from dripping. She held off until I was making ready to tackle whatever was keeping the kitchen sink from draining.
"Damn it, George. Stop being pig-headed and just call a plumber," she said brutally. "Honest to God, I don't know which is worse, your cheapness or your overconfidence."
That hurt, I'll admit. I didn't like having my manhood and generosity challenged, razed to the ground actually, even by a woman I'm pretty sure loves me for my faults as well as my few virtues. Then I remembered Ernie. He'd have phoned a plumber and this, I felt, gave me permission to call in a pro. Consoled by the solidarity of incompetence, I told my sensible wife I'd do what she told me to.
"Good," she said. "I'm going shopping with Brenda."
I went online to look up local plumbers. I didn't like the guy who came when the hot water heater spewed all over the basement. He had me over a barrel and charged accordingly.
Larry's Complete Plumbing. New business. Introductory offer. All work 25% off. 24-hours.
The site gave Larry five stars and offered three testimonials.
"Quick and reasonably priced."
"Good work. Fair price. Polite. Friendly."
"We had five house guests for the holidays and somebody put something in they shouldn't so our toilet backed up on Christmas morning. Larry was here in half an hour and fixed it. The man's a saint."
Saints go by their first names but plumbers usually favor their last ones. Larry. A man willing to give his first name to the job. And at a discount.
I called and got an answering service, apparently a teenager. She asked me to please wait a moment while she could "like check Larry's schedule." I got thirty seconds of Vivaldi, which I took as another good sign.
"He can be there in like an hour," she said. "Will that be all right?"
"Most satisfactory," I said dryly and gave her (like) my name and address.
Fifty minutes later Larry was at the door. He wore khaki overalls, had his toolbox in hand, a Sox cap on his head, and a gentle smile on his face. There was something familiar about that face but it took me half an hour to figure out what and, even then, I could scarcely believe it. During that half-hour, Larry put a new flapper in the downstairs head, a washer in the upstairs faucet, and, after diagnosing the problem, snaked the kitchen drain until it ran like Niagara after a wet spring.
I'm what's called a lapsed Catholic which, in my case, is somebody who went to church and took CCD classes until he got old enough not to. My wife takes in a mass twice a year, Christmas and Easter. She calls it her "fix" and it's more about nostalgia than faith. If she goes to confession, I don't know about it. I pay far less attention to the Church than I do the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins. But you didn't have to be any kind of Catholic at all to have been riveted by the story coming out Rome a couple years back. Two stories, actually: the choice of the first (probably last) American pope and then his resignation. Laurentius the First. Laurentius the Last.
Larry the plumber? Laurentius the ex-pope? Ludicrous, but he was a dead-ringer. Just take off the ballcap, put on a white zucchetto, substitute robes for overalls and there he'd be. Was it possible?
I was sitting in the living room mulling over this question while Larry cleaned up the kitchen floor and packed up his tools. Then he was just outside the living room, avoiding the carpet with his work boots.
"All done, George. It was George, wasn't it?"
"Yep." I got up to take a really close look at him.
"How's a hundred bucks sound?" Larry asked.
Now, would a pope—even an American one—say "a hundred bucks"? For that matter, would a pope—even an ex one—be fixing sinks and toilets? Still, the closer I looked, the surer I got.
"You're him, aren't you?"
He looked theatrically puzzled. "Him?"
"Laurentius the First."
His face fell.
"You mean nobody's noticed before?"
"And you'd have preferred it if I hadn't either. Right?"
"Sorry. Too late."
"Look," I said, naturally excited, "do you have to go right away?"
With a deep sigh he took his cell phone out of his overalls pocket. I expect he'd have liked to lie and make a quick getaway. But he hadn't even been able to lie about being the ex-pope, which, given the odds, I'd have accepted.
"Not for an hour."
"Then how about I get us a couple of beers and write you a check. I've got pizza slices in the freezer. Good stuff. Bertucci's. One minute in the microwave. Pepperoni. What do you say?"
Larry rubbed nervously at his thigh. It was as if I was holding a gun on him.
"Look," he said, "can you, you know, just keep it to yourself. I'm trying to make a fresh start here. The press—"
"Say no more, Your Former Holiness. I get it. So, pizza and beer? I mean, it's not bread and wine, but still."
"Seriously? You're going to make jokes?"
"Sorry again. Forgive me, Fath. . . Oops. Okay. Come on, let's go into the kitchen. We'll eat and chat and I'll write that check for you."
"You've got questions, don't you?" he said anxiously.
"Some. I'm the curious type. And I guess neither of us goes to church for our answers these days."
I did have questions even though coverage of Larry's resignation had saturated the planet for almost a month. I remembered, in a vague sort of way, that he grew up poor somewhere in New York's classical belt, felt a vocation, became an outstanding parish priest, worked with the hungry and homeless, spoke with eloquent simplicity that led to comparisons with the Master of Parables. He was popular, appeared on TV, was talked about, taken up by Cardinal O'Hara. He became the country's youngest bishop, spent a year in the Vatican carrying out various bureaucratic tasks, making contacts and learning the ropes. The old pope made him a cardinal. After a reported thirty-four-vote deadlock in the Sistine Chapel, his election astonished everyone but, according to his first public speech, no one more than himself.
He threw himself into the job. If young and energetic is what the College of Cardinals wanted, it's what they got. He had ideas for reforms and wasn't slow to act. He retired a hecatomb of deserving bishops, defrocked a score of child-abusers, hired Deloitte to do a professional, outside audit of the Institute for the Works of Religion, aka the Vatican Bank. There was resistance aplenty, especially when he put priestly celibacy and the ordination of women on the table.
I remembered my wife showing me an article about the new pope's troubles. The Curia was resisting just about everything he wanted to do. The Hierarchy grumbled about a colossal mistake having been made, and there was plenty of sneering at "American notions." According to the breathless article, which I thought belonged more in People magazine than The National Catholic Reporter, there were palace intrigues, rumblings of a coup.
Then, suddenly, just a year into his papacy, Laurentius the First announced his resignation, not only from the throne of Peter but from the Church, from Roman Catholicism. He was swiftly replaced by Cardinal Cazares, the feisty Spanish conservative whose all-too-predicable nickname was Torquemada. Cazares took the papal name Pius XIII, tying himself, as the press noted, to Piuses XI and XII who had managed to get on with Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler. Several liberal reporters took pleasure in reminding their readers how thirteen became an unlucky number.
Meanwhile, the quondam Pope Laurentius came home, granted one evasive interview to the New York Times then hid from press. Before long, the Church moved back and the world moved on.
Larry drank his Bass ale straight from the bottle. "All right," he said like a trapped man making the best of it. "What do you want to know?"
"Why Laurentius? I mean, I know Larry isn't your real name so why Laurentius?"
"To honor John XIII, actually. I was a big fan."
"I don't get it."
"John was a progressive, of course, but he honored traditions too, even obscure ones. You've heard of anti-popes?"
"Something to do with Avignon, wasn't it?"
"Started much earlier, almost from the beginning of the Church. Different factions, different popes. A serious threat to the doctrine of apostolic succession. The original John XXIII was a Pisan anti-pope. The second one cancelled him out by taking his name. Magical thinking, I know, but touching. Well, Laurentius was an anti-pope. He held the throne for nearly a decade."
"When was that?"
"498-506. CE, of course."
"So, you cancelled him out?"
"Theodoric forced him out of office but, yup, I cancelled him. Old news."
"The Church has a long memory."
"And is that why you're Larry now?"
He shrugged. "One name's as good as another when you want to disappear with an alias. I liked the irony. From Laurentius on one sort of throne to plain old Larry fixing another kind. Next."
"What did you live on when you came back? Where was it? Utica?"
"Well, I don't suppose you got a pension, or even severance. So, what did you do for money?"
"I had some savings and a small pension from my pre-pontifical work. It was cut but not to nothing. Anyway, I didn't need much. Rents are low in Troy. There are plenty of unemployed men and I was just another one. Next."
"Okay. So far as I know, nobody ever nailed why you did it. So, what was it? Resistance to your reforms? The umpteenth bank scandal? The child-abuse? A bridge too far with celibacy and women priests?"
He gave me a wry smile. "None of those. Want another guess?"
"Then what was it?"
"Simple. I lost my faith and with it my occupation."
I looked at him hard. "Wow. Imagine. The Pope."
"It was one of those massacres of the innocents. Toddlers, babies, infants. Christianity began with a slaughter of babies and ended with the sacrifice of a son. The whole of monotheism began with Abraham prepared to kill Isaac. It all tumbled down for me. I re-read Augustine and couldn't buy it. Not the theodicy with God bringing good out of evil; not the free will business either with God knowing what we're going to do before we're even born. He was attempting to square the circle, trying to reconcile an omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving God with murdered infants. It's all deductive reasoning. Since God's perfect therefore. . . and so on. I knew the argument, that we're too limited and dumb to understand the divine plan. Worse, Augustine put blind faith before reason, even said you couldn't know anything without it. That move clogged progress up for a thousand years, just like orange peels and hairballs did your kitchen sink. I lost it. Zap. After that, I didn't have a choice."
"I guess I can see that."
"So, why here? Why this town?"
"Well, the South was out. I don't like heat and humidity. Rome in summer is insufferable. So, I did some research. This town used to be full of the faithful—Irish and Poles mostly. I'm sure you've noticed how many Catholic schools and churches have been turned into condos and old folks' homes. Or just leveled."
"Everybody said it was the abuse scandals. A short ton of last straws."
"Right." He looked at his watch. "Look, I've really got to go."
"One last question."
"If I answer it, you'll keep your mouth shut about what Larry the plumber used to do for a living?"
"Cross my heart. I'll even give you a sparkling review online. I won't even tell the wife."
"Never been married, of course, but I'm guessing that's not so easy."
"True. But not impossible."
He smiled, chuckled. "Before I went into the seminary, I worked a couple of summers with my Uncle Brian. He was a master plumber and said I had a real knack for the work. I liked it too. Plumbing's not exactly a religious vocation, of course, but it is a kind of calling. Anyhow, after I came back, a friend arranged for me to become the oldest plumber's apprentice in all of Rensselaer and Oneida counties. I worked and studied and, in the fullness of time, got my license."
"So, from poping to plumbing, then."
"Fitting, don't you think?"
Larry stood up and I heard in what he said an echo of the celebrated eloquence of his old homilies and edicts and bulls.
"From the airless, empty heights of a depopulated heaven to the solid, lowly, earthy level of the drains. From nine species of angels and countless saints and martyrs to the stopped-up pipe under your kitchen sink. Not a pretty thing, a clogged drain, but incontestably real. What looks like a step down may be a step up."
I've thought a good deal about what Larry meant by down and up, the directions on which he was briefly the Church's final arbiter. If he meant what I think he did, I'm glad, even, in a way, consoled.
I've kept my promise. It hasn't been hard. My wife wasn't curious about the plumber, just over the moon to have everything working again. During a lull in one of our luncheon chats, I was tempted to tell Ernie Schwerin; but I persuaded myself that he wouldn't believe me anyway. However, if he ever needs a plumber, I'll have my recommendation ready.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg's Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Playand The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. Hsi-wei Tales, a collection of Chinese stories, and Intuition of the News, a book of non-Chinese stories, are forthcoming.