The darkened hallway seemed to only reflect the light from the window of one of the hospital rooms, as Monsignor Cavalieri, dressed in a long black cassock and gold crucifix, proceeded past the entrance way. There was a strong, distinct smell of urine and bodily wastes as he walked gingerly inside the Villa Francesca Nursing Home, located in the western outskirts of Rome. The chattered sounds of whispering nurses at the end of the hallway assisted the young monsignor to navigate his way around the darkened, cluttered pathway to the nurse’s station. “Cardinal Masellis, per favore,” asked the young priest, inquiring about the Cardinal’s hospital bed. He had been sent by his superiors at the Vatican to hear an old, dying cardinal’s confession. The young, dark haired nurse looked at the young, youthful Monsignor intently until he told her who he was. “Stanza 108,” she replied. She then finished her directive in broken English, probably figuring from his Italian accent that the Monsignor was an American. “His room is the last door on the right.” “Grazie,” he replied in Italian. The cluttered darkened hallway was strewn with empty gurneys and IV machines, and it took the young Monsignor all of his navigation skills to avoid bumping into all of the dispersed equipment along the walls of the hospital hallway. The protruding stench seemed to get stronger and stronger as he walked toward the end of the bleak, dirty, dark hallway. As he entered Room 108, the distinct terrible odor of bodily fluids and death overwhelmed Monsignor Cavalieri and he needed a minute to gather himself before he proceeded into the hospital room. In the hospital bed, there laid a very old, pale, balding man that looked to be in his nineties, staring blankly at the ceiling. He had intravenous tubes protruding everywhere from his body and the heart monitor machine making those instinctive beeping sounds as the graph from the monitor continued to spike up and down, reflecting the faint beating of the patient’s heart. “Cardinal Masellis? Sono Monsignor Cavalieri” the young priest said as he bravely entered the room. The old, decrepit man from the hospital bed slowly looked over in his direction, the blank stare from his wrinkled, jaundiced face suggested that the old Cardinal would not be long for this world. “Chi sei?” he first asked in very faded Italian. The Monsignor seemed startled by the Cardinal’s initial reaction. “Why are you here?” the Cardinal asked in a very quiet, faded tone of voice. “I am here for your confession and last rites,” Cavalieri quickly said, as his voice seemed to reverberate off of the walls. The Monsignor began to look for a chair to sit next to him. At that moment, a young blonde haired woman in a white nurse’s uniform, holding a clipboard and a stethoscope, entered the hospital room and administered a blood pressure harness on the old Cardinal’s right arm. The young Monsignor, feeling interrupted, waited until the nurse was finished completing her report on his vitals. Suddenly, a loud drop of an object, which looked to be a cell phone, fell onto the floor from her uniform pocket. The attractive nurse was very slow in picking up her cell phone from the floor and looked to spend several long seconds groping for it under the Cardinal’s deathbed. “Did you find your phone?” the Monsignor asked impatiently as the blonde finally stood up from under the hospital bed.
“Oh, si,” she said very nervously. She completed writing down his vitals and then asked how the Cardinal was feeling. “Would you like some water?” she innocently asked the Cardinal in broken English. Looking even more impatient with the young nurse, the Monsignor quickly grabbed the flask filled with cold water and filled the plastic cup sitting on his serving tray. “Grazie” the old, dying man said appreciatively. By then, the nurse had gathered her stethoscope and quickly, very nervously, exited the Cardinal’s room. Monsignor Cavalieri was well familiar with the long, tainted career of the Cardinal, whose reputation and Vatican power was once legendary, so many years ago. He was very uneasy, giving the last rites and hearing the confession of a dying Cardinal who, after the Pope, was once Rome’s most powerful cleric. “Are you ready, Your Eminence?” The old man looked intently into the eyes of the young Monsignor. “My sins are long and great. Please pray with me in asking the Lord for His mercy,” as the old Cardinal’s voice started to break, his eyes watered up and tears started to stream down his face. “Our Father above is a Father of Divine Mercy. He is always merciful to His children who repent and ask for the forgiveness of their sins. Your soul will have a place in our Father’s Kingdom of Heaven,” replied the Monsignor, not understanding the greatness of the old Cardinal’s sins. The old, sickly man started to laugh, coughing profusely as he grasped for air. “My son,” he said slowly. “My sins are mortal ones. My sins are great and many. There is no place for my soul in the Kingdom of God.” Monsignor Cavalieri then took out his small bible, wrapped with a black, beaded rosary. He placed the bible in the old Cardinal’s hands and wrapped the black rosary beads loosely around the Cardinal’s wrinkled, motionless fingers. Monsignor Cavalieri then began to pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary, as the old man moved his lips with every word of the Lord’s Prayer.
He then moved his old, wrinkled left hand over to Cavalieri’s hand, and gripped it as tightly as he could. “My Jesus, I ask for your sweet mercy, as I confess the terrible wrongs and mortal betrayals which I have committed in Your Name.” The Cardinal took labored breathes with every other word. “My Jesus,” he continued, “Hear my confession, and I beg for your understanding and forgiveness…” The old Cardinal then started to weep uncontrollably, as the Monsignor held the man’s weary hands and helped him grip each black bead that was wrapped loosely around his hand. “I am here for you, Your Eminence,” Cavalieri softly said, as he made himself comfortable for what he expected to be a very long, long confession. “The Lord is listening.” Cardinal Masellis took a long deep breath and swallowed hard, as he slowly began to speak.
“Bless me Father, for I have greatly sinned….”
WHILE IN ROME
The September morning sun was beating callously on the café table as I was fumbling with the sugar packets, carefully emptying them into my espresso cup. The tourists were throwing breadcrumbs on the ground, while the pigeons were flying recklessly around the Café Michelangelo. It was as if the “Non dare da mangiare” signs mattered to no one here on this ancient, weathered, Roman piazza. It was another beautiful Sunday morning here in Rome. The blue, cloudless sky flowed freely around the beating sun, overlooking the majestic Vatican “Il Duomo”. The towering, magnificent Roman structure looked so dominant across the beautiful Italian landscape, as if to provide guidance and solace to all those who wished to pay homage so early that Sunday morning. The chimes from every bell tower seemed to beckon all of Rome, while people were scampering everywhere to finish their cappuccini and were rushing to Sunday morning mass. Each ring was a musical note, tolling with such melody, I could only close my eyes and listen. My imagination would run wild with every sound, with every Italian expression, and the fleeting hope that another espresso doppio would magically appear at my tabletop within this picturesque, outdoor café. I slowly began to stand up from my table, holding the espresso cup with one hand and feeling for my rear pants pocket with the other. A shocking thought suddenly overcame me as I almost dropped my coffee cup. Where was my wallet? I kept rubbing my right hand against my pocket, hoping that if I rubbed hard enough it would magically appear from thin air. How did I leave the hotel room without my wallet?
I remember taking it off the hotel dresser as I was grasping for the room key, almost simultaneously, whisking quickly out of the room and outside of the Hotel Dover. My immediate mission this morning was to seek and search, find and conquer a shot of that amazing, Italian caffeine. It hides so elusively among the crowded, roman cafes which seemed to be scattered everywhere along the Eternal City. As I realized that I had enjoyed a wonderful cup of espresso without paying for it, I was looking around me to see if I would be noticed if I had to make myself scarce and disappear among the Sunday morning crowds. As I glanced to my right, I noticed a beautiful, olive skinned woman, sitting alone. She was a gorgeous young brunette, sitting at the table adjacent to mine. She was reading her Sunday morning “giornale” with her dark sunglasses prompted carefully along the tip of her nose. She was dressed impeccably, wearing a warm, blue blouse unbuttoned halfway along her curvy figure. Her flowing, dark, curly brown hair complemented her attire, as her tanned, shapely legs were crossed so perfectly, showing off those black, Zanotti high heeled shoes. I stood there and waited, to get her attention, hoping that perhaps, in my very worst Italian, I could ask her to lend me 10 Euros to pay for my coffee. She continued to sit there, almost motionless, gazing at her Sunday morning paper, as if to be totally oblivious to my presence. Then without looking over towards my direction, she reached over into her Gucci black leathered purse and pulled out my wallet. She removed her sunglasses, then slowly looked over, as if to not to even notice me as her luscious red lips began to move. “Are you looking for this?” she said, with a half parted smile. Her English was flawless. Her red lipstick complimented her Angelina Jolie lips, well adorning her carefully structured Roman nose and her amazing brown eyes. She was absolutely stunning. “Eh…. yes. How did you get my wallet?” I sheepishly asked, knowing that I wasn’t going to like her answer. “You dropped it on the ground near the doorway. You were in such a hurry to get in line for your espresso.”
Her smile and her expressions were now turning into sarcastic laughter, as if to make fun of my irresponsibility for not noticing my lost wallet. “When in Rome, be aware of your surroundings,” she quietly suggested as she handed my wallet across the table. Her gold, diamond bracelet was dangling around her petite, left wrist and hand, which I noticed, was without a wedding band. As I reached over to grab my wallet, I started to feel the droplets of sweat beginning to flow down the middle of my back. The smell of her perfumed scent cast the air around her as she withdrew her lovely arm away from me. It seemed like the perfect cliche; Boy goes to Rome. Boy loses wallet. Boy looks like a total idiot. Girl goes away, never to be seen again. So, I took a chance: “I’m Michael Prescott, from Chicago.” Okay, I put it out there. A few seconds ticked by for what seemed, like hours, as she quietly studied my face, my features, my physical imperfections. I was left standing there, feeling naked, with my hand extended in the air. “Hello, Michael Prescott from Chicago,” as she politely gripped my hand. “I’m the girl that recovered your wallet and saved you,” she cleverly said. “Saved me from what?” I dared to ask. “Being arrested for leaving without paying,” she pointedly remarked, as she took another sip of her cappuccino. Now I was in shock, as my intentions of dining and dashing must have been written all over my face. “Was I that obvious?” I stupidly asked. Now her beautiful, white smile turned into an outburst of laughter. “Really?” she exclaimed, “Even the Carabinari across the street were watching you.” I glanced over and sure enough, two uniformed policemen were standing at the fountain across the way, watching all of the “bellezzi” gracefully walking across the piazza. “Be aware of your surroundings, my friend.” Again, there I was looking stupid.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked. Now here I am trying to impress her with all my communications skills I learned in kindergarten. She furrowed her eyebrows as she said quite sarcastically, “I never agreed to tell you my name.”
All righty then.
I could tell that she was not going to be your normal, friendly, run-of-the-mill acquaintance that was going to let me wine her, dine her, and have my way with her. If anything, she seemed quite the opposite. This was the kind of girl who enjoyed mystery, who prided herself on being elusive, who got a thrill playing the mental chess games that goes with every phrase, every sentence, every word. This was the kind of woman who challenged your whole thought process, the kind who knows that a single strand of her dark, wavy long hair could pull a thousand and one ships. She spoke with confidence, had the look of a Hollywood starlet, and had enough ‘moxey’ to let you know that she could probably beat you at your own game. The look upon her face seemed to flash a sign to all men in bright, glimmering lights: Bring your A-Game Little Boy or go home. More awkward seconds began to slowly tick by. I slowly sat down, putting my wallet back into my pants pocket, and took a long, admiring gaze at her as she returned the favor. I was trying desperately to undress her with my eyes. But she was going to make me work for it, so for some incredibly stupid reason, I decided to play her game. “The only people that I know with anonymous names are thieves, hoodlums and criminals. You’re too pretty to be either of those,” I volleyed back, thinking I was pretty clever. “One never knows,” she said, her smile gleaming across the table. By now, I’m thinking that with her glamorous smile and her incredible beauty, she could certainly steal anything she wanted. As she finished speaking, I looked and noticed the café waiter, standing behind me, patiently waiting to be paid for that incredible, eye-opening cup of espresso
doppio. He had probably been standing behind me throughout the whole time, witnessing our little foray of bantering back and forth. I nervously stood up and handed him some Euros which I hoped would settle the bill and his services. He gazed back, shook his head smiling, and then quickly walked away. I was totally embarrassed.
As she started giggling, I innocently looked at her and asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Be aware of your surroundings, my friend,” she said again. Now I could feel my face turning several shades of red. How could one beautiful woman, out of nowhere, in the middle of Rome, make me look and feel so damn stupid, not once, but twice. I nervously looked at my watch and realized that I was running late for my Vatican appointment. I was meeting my best friend, Monsignor Robert Cavalieri, whom I hadn’t seen in over two years, and I had less than five minutes to get there. “It was nice meeting you, ‘Mystery-Lady-Who Recovers-Wallets’,” as I was trying to sound clever, suave and sophisticated, all at the same time. But the three second look on her face managed to only make me realize how incredibly stupid I must have actually sounded. “The pleasure was mine,” she said very softly, with her glowing angelic smile. I could have stood there like an idiot and stared at her for hours. I couldn’t remember the last time I laid eyes on a woman so stunning, so classy, so breath taking. I abruptly turned from my table and walked toward the piazza, anxious to catch the auto bus that would take me a few kilometers down Via Vittorio Emmanuelle towards St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City.
I was convinced that I would never see her again.