As everyone who, like me, has passed through Sr. Bernard's fifth grade American History class at St. Jude Thaddeus Academy knows, when the time came to establish a capital city for the United States, it was Maryland who coughed up the acreage. "Awfully sporting of Maryland," about sums up my own fifth-grade reaction to this fact.
Years later, however, as I found myself swimming through an August afternoon in Washington, DC, on my way to a church supply store to pick up an icon for my secretary, Monsignor Reeves, I wondered whether, in unloading this particular piece of real estate, Maryland hadn't come out the clear winner in the deal. If, in fact, "swindle" rather than "deal" wouldn't be the mot juste.
These political ruminations were interrupted by the sound of my cell phone. I had scarcely managed a welcoming "Hallo!" down the line when a voice rushed upon me with the force of the Scotch Express.
"Willie, lad, is that you? Tell me, where in blazes are you?"
"Right here," I replied, looking around to make sure.
"Try not to be an ass for just a moment, will you? Are you or are you not in Washington, DC?"
The p. dropped. "Mother Mary Dahlia! How nice of you to call!"
"Of course it is. Now answer the question, blast you!"
Mother M. Dahlia is one of those Natural Forces in the Church who are always founding congregations, opening orphanages, and telling cardinals to put a sock in it. Her brusqueness toward me was a sign of fondness; she has known me from my youth, even before I had ever set foot in Sr. Bernard's fifth grade American History classroom.
"I am indeed, as you suggest, in Washington, Mother M.," I told her. "Though how you guessed is beyond me. Have you ever wondered whether, when swindlers get together, they begin the proceedings with a teary-eyed toast to Maryland, the standard against --"
"You'll be teary eyed when I get hold of you if you don't stop babbling for a moment."
"Oh, right ho."
"Now then. I suspected you were in Washington because Reeves told me you should be, for one of your USCCB committee meetings. Though, knowing you were traveling on your own, it was entirely possible you were wandering through downtown Seattle, wondering why you were there."
"Seattle would certainly be an improvement. I hear the summers there --"
"Teary eyed, Willie."
"The reason I want to know whether you are in Washington, DC, is that I need you to do a small favor for me."
"Absolutely, aged mother! Always glad to lend a hand to one of your projects."
"And I do appreciate it, Willie, dear. Though this particular favor isn't exactly for one of my projects. It's more of a favor for one of your brother bishops."
"Not Beaky, by any chance?" The Most Rev. Thos. "Beaky" Becksmith was Mother M. D.'s spiritual son, though even she would admit he was a work in progress. One of several assistants to a Midwestern cardinal, Beaky made me look positively Solomonic by comparison.
"Er, yes, actually. It does have to do with Tommy. But only indirectly."
"I see. If Beaky is playing to type, what you're telling me is that he is as we speak neck-deep in the bisque -- not unlike Washington in August, I might add -- and completely unaware of his predicament."
"So, naturally you turn to me for help in devising a way to ladle out young Thos. before he goes under for the third time."
There was a bark over the phone like a German shepherd stifling a laugh at the sight of a French poodle. "Don't be absurd, Willie. I turned to Reeves, and he's already provided the solution."
"Oh." I had to admit that this made even more sense. Monsignor Reeves was widely known to have a ready answer to any conundrum. I put it down to all the fish he eats during Lent. "And you want to run his solution by me?"
"I want you to execute his solution. Even you shouldn't be able to mess it up, and since you're already in Washington, you're the obvious choice."
"Ah, the plan requires a man on the spot, is that it?"
"Exactly. All you need to do is drop by the papal nuncio's office and pick something up for me."
At the thought of dropping by Cardinal Fratricidelli's office, involving as it did the very real possibility of seeing the nuncio himself, no joy welled in my bosom. As it was Mother M. Dahlia asking, though, I answered readily enough, "Certainly, old thing! Will they have it ready for me?"
"Unlikely. It's a letter Tommy imprudently sent, via the nuncio, to the Pope. You need to steal it before Cardinal Fratricidelli opens it."