It was early June, 1963. I had just come off a bad goofball and speed interlude and was feeling preternaturally clearheaded for a change. I heard the news that Pope John XXIII had expired. I had been preparing to attend summer school to salvage my high school education, after having been sick so much I had lost a year (not helped by the goofballs and dexies, but not caused by them, either). I found the news of the Pope's passing to be of passing interest, since I was not (and still am not) Catholic, but as time passed the process of selecting a new Pope seized my morbid attention.
The College of Cardinals was convened. When Pope Pius XII had died no one seemed to care much (I was surrounded by Irish Catholics and Southern Baptists at that time, as well as a few Christian Scientists and at least one practitioner of Voodoo). Pope John, though, seemed to accrue a lot of appreciation, something that perplexed me, since the whole Pope thing perplexed me.
It still does.
After a week, the College of Cardinals was getting TV coverage, as news reporters breathlessly watched the chimney of the place where they burned the ballots and, somehow, magically, made the smoke either black (no Pope yet) or white (Yay! We got us a Pope!). Time and again the vote was taken and black smoke issued forth. My mother was fascinated by this process, as was I, and my cousin who was staying with us and was an Irish Catholic, was as perplexed as the rest of us.
After 30 votes it usually only requires a 2/3 majority to elect a Pope. For some reason this was not happening, and after a week the Catholic world, not to mention my Cousin, had no Pope. I began to wonder if perhaps the pillars of the earth might not begin to shake. I mean, how long have we gone without a Pope? Not very, not in my lifetime. We always referred to the Pope. We'd ask each other, following what seemd a rhetorical question, "Does the Pope shit in the woods?" We were an offensive bunch.
Finally, while discussing just exactly what the Pope gig entailed (infallability, cool outfits, his own city state, vast throngs of adoring fans) I realized there was an opportunity gone begging.
I was known to my family as Johnny. I was technically John. Don't even ask about the A.J stuff. They called me Johnny. It bothered me (and still does) but suddenly I had a revelation:
I would step in as interim Pope. I would declare myself Pope and begin to issue Papal bulls. Being infallable they would have to stick. If the College of Cardinals couldn't get with the program, I would simply pick up the slack. Hell, three years earlier my misfit friends in 9th grade had decided to call me The Pope. I have no idea why. That lasted most of a year. It was time to reassume the position.
I came down the stairs to within 5 steps of the bottom and looked into the living room, where mother, cousin, and cousin's then-boyfriend, Barry (who was the one who'd started that whole Pope thing back in the 9th grade, so that yes, for a while I was Pope Calhoun, this is no lie), were sitting around watching for the white smoke. Barry was a Polish Catholic and a sick son of a bitch. Billy Byrd, professed atheist, was also there, providing a running commentary on the sartorial splendor of the Cardinals and generally making a mockery of the proceedings - or so he thought.
I stood for a while, waiting for the assembly to look up and notice my radiance. Finally I cleared my throat.
"You okay?" Barry asked, he having watched me cough up a lung on occasion during the previous year of plagues.
"Yes," I replied in a magisterial tone."I am more than okay. I am sanctified."
"Oh," he said, and went back to pawing my cousin.
"I have something to say," I said. I had more to say, but that was a start. It got their attention. I think they were expecting me to make a suicidal gesture at some point due to things that had been going on in my personal life. No way. I had a new reason to live.
"I have just voted myself Pope Johnny XXIII.IV. I am the interim Pope."
All eyes turned toward me.
"Are you taking those pills?" Billy asked with a severe look, since he had helped me kick.
"No! You are looking at Pope Johnny."
"You can't do that, " my Catholic cousin stated flatly.
"I just did."
I descended then to walk among them.
"Get outa the way" they all cried as one as I passed in front of the television.
Cousin Sharon then asked me "If you're the Pope, can you cancel the fish on Friday?"
"Consider it done. And now I can get married."
"No you can't! That's one of the rules, " cousin Sharon argued.
"Yes I can," I replied.
"I'm the Pope. The Pope is infallable. His word is law. You know who I'm gonna marry, right?"
Everyone in the room groaned "Nooo!"
"But I can now."
"No!" Sharon shouted.
Sharon seemed to ponder this. My mother shook her head. Barry was trying very hard to not laugh. Billy blurted out "Pope Johnny!" and started laughing hysterically. Barry immediately followed suit. Sharon looked from one to the other, glaring at both of them. My mother cracked a smile.
"Things are gonna change around here now," I announced. "Now I gotta go down to the Harpers and inform Bootsie she is to be Popess."
I did that, too. Bootsie was very cute, with thick orange hair, and also an Irish Catholic. Her parents were not particularly fond of me because I was a few years older than her and I was not Catholic and I was a drug addict. And a few other things.
Bootsie took the news very well, laughed a lot, mentioned the Antipope Hippolytus, which impressed the hell out of me and made me lust after her in a carnal fashion of the sort that had made her father hold me in a sort of weird contempt, weird because he'd still always wave and say hello as I walked down the street to the basketball court. He knew. He just didn't know what to do about it.
Antipope John XXIII
During my brief reign of terror I took a fly page from one of the volumes of my ancient "Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe" and typed upon it a Papal curse aimed at another neighborhood girl, Rosemary, who hung out with Bootsie Harper, and who had designs on me. Rosemary was a very cynical girl, which for some reason didn't really appeal to me back then. Her parents were deeply weird, plus they were Christian Scientists, which was about the only thing Rosemary and I agreed on: We hated Mary Baker Eddy.
I typed the curse using an IBM Executive typewriter, a beast which weighed about 50 lbs and which my father and I kept in an office in the basement, where we had started a business that was to fund my college education. The finished product, which looked strangely like a pamphlet from the French Revolution, was surrepititiously pinned to a tree in the front yard of Rosemary's house. It didn't really carry any clout, because I worded it in such rambling, Al Kelly doubletalk style that while it sounded impressive, it said absolutely nothing, but did mention Rosemary's eternal soul.
Time passed. No new Pope. Basketball was played into the dark each evening. There was a girl down there at the bottom of the hill, too. But she is another story. A better one, probably, but we're talking Popehood right now.
Staggering up the hill one night after darkness had shut down the 3 on 3 basketball game, I heard Bootsie, who was hanging out with my cousin under a streetlight, call out to me: "Rosemary's mother is looking for you!"
"Why?" I shouted back, having absolutely no clue.
"I don't know, but she seems really upset."
"Does it have anything to do with the curse?"
By then I had reached where the girls were standing, and my cousin wisely moved out of the area and into the shadows.
"Uh, nothing. What's her problem?"
"I don't know, but she wants you to come to the house. She was a wreck. What did you do?"
"Me? I didn't do anything!"
"Did you put a curse on Rosemary?"
"Someone might have," I conceded. "Why?"
"You're the Pope now. It just seems like something you might do."
"Don't you worry about it, Popette," I said flippantly, grabbing her by her hips and pulling her closer."
"My father is going to see..." she started, trailing off.
"Probably, yeah. So?" I was quite mad with power.
"Go see what she wants. I'll wait here."
I wandered the hundred feet further to the house of Rosemary's mother, where I was met by the grey-green apparition who was, in fact, Rosemary's mother. She also looked like that in daylight. She held out a yellowed piece of thick paper I recognized as the fly page from one of the Poe books.
"Do you know what this is?" She asked, her voice tremulous.
"No. Let me see it."
"I've been so worried, I thought you might know something about it. Rosemary is all we have," the poor woman moaned.
I took the paper and pretended to read it in the pitch dark. Finally I said "Hmmm..." and handed it back to her.
"What?" she asked, almost in tears. "What does it mean?"
"It is a cheap Catholic denunciation. Do you know any Catholics in the neighborhood who might be on bad terms with Rosemary?"
"Everyone is Catholic here!" she whined.
"Not really, no," I said. "For instance, you're not. You're a Christian Scientist like my father, who is also not Catholic."
"He's a Mason," she said, a slight touch of contempt drifting into her voice.
"Yeah, I know. Two strikes. But NOT a Catholic!"
She nodded as though I had made sense.
"So should we be worried about this?" She asked.
"No. It carries no authority. There is currently no Pope" I lied. "This is not effective. I suggest you burn it. That will eliminate any residual authority it may carry."
"Burn it..." she repeated.
"Yes. Just be careful not to inhale the smoke."
"Yes. Of course. Thank you so much. We were terribly worried. We knew you'd know what to make of it. You're sure it's harmless?"
"I assure you it is. Just remember..."
"Thank you, thank you," she babbled, rusing inside to get some matches and burn the offending document.
I walked back down to the house, where Bootsie was waiting with my cousin in the shadows outside our kitchen door.
"What happened?" she asked excitedly, almost laughing.
"I had to explain to her about a Papal curse that is ineffective because there is no Pope," I explained.
"But...but...you're the Pope! And I am the...what?"
"Stoppit!" Sharon hissed from the darkness.
"Kiss her already," Sharon muttered.
Bootsie waited for me to kiss her, which I did, then turned and walked down the hill toward her house. Sharon made a sound like someone using an iron lung to breathe.
We went inside and proceded to watch "I Bury the Living" on television. I won't spoil the ending.
The next day we were all back at the TV, speculating on how much longer I'd have to be Pope. I was ready to resign after the tension with Rosemary's mother.
Then everyone pointed to the television and, in unison, shouted "White smoke!"
"Thank God," I sighed. It's not all it's cracked up to be.
"Does this mean your engagement to Bootsie is off now?" cousin Sharon asked with a sneer in her voice.
"For now, dear cousin, for now."
I started to laugh. So did everyone else. I laughed harder. Barry was roaring. Billy was on the floor. Shortly I was too, as I momentarily passed out from hyperventilation.
Everyone stopped laughing and crowded around me.
"Shit!"my mom shouted. "Call an ambulance!"
Billy threw a vase of water in my face, which I remember tasted like Sligo Creek. This is not a good thing.
I came to. And started laughing again.
Everyone got up and started to wander off.
I chose to quote Gladstone Gander, the outrageously lucky ne'er do well cousin of Donald Duck, from an old comic book story that does not bear explaining here. I said:
"How awful to sit in sackcloth and ashes whle ragpickers cheer at my downfall."
My mother responded "Jesus Christ!"
She had given me another idea...
Excerpted from an unpublished memoir, "Decade," by AJ Calhoun, copyright 1997.