Prologue from St. John Novel§
by Russell Dyer
published: published: oct 22, 2020; revised: oct 22, 2020; readers in past month: 246
The Pages of St. John
author: Russell J.T. Dyer
publisher: A Silent Killdeer
Why do we push people away? Why do we avoid love, friendship; why would we dismiss a would-be friend? Why do we have trouble accepting someone’s love for us?
More baffling is when we push away a best friend, that one person who knows us well — more than anyone else, more than we do ourselves. Life provides one, maybe two friends like that. And what do we do? We chase them away, not knowing why. Maybe it’s because we don’t trust others, because we’ve been disappointed or hurt before.
There’s perhaps no greater tragedy than when life brings two people together, who should be life long friends, but they instead show disinterest for each other. Or worse, they become adversaries. Thomas Merton said, “We…separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved.”1
Often we’re aware of what we’re doing, but can’t stop ourselves. Later, when we realize we lost something special, we still cannot get ourselves to make amends. What is wrong with us?
Across from the Conrad Hilton in lower Manhattan, there’s a Starbucks Reserve that a young journalist enjoys. I’m not sure about the Reserve concept: I guess they have better coffee. It’s certainly a larger coffeeshop with jazz music, wood paneled walls and the smell of freshly ground coffee. For reasons best not discussed, I’ll refer to this journalist simply as R.
On this particular day in February, R. is preparing for an interview he is to conduct in two weeks. He’s to write a profile article about a famous author, Martin Wentworth. Why Martin agreed to the interview is not clear: He’s old and hasn’t published a book in many years. Still, R. is pleased: it means a free trip to Italy — Martin lives in Milan.
R.’s phone rings: it’s his editor Zusha Lehman.
“Good morning, Zusha.”
“Hey. Change of plans: I need you to get to Milan sooner. Rebook your flight to leave tomorrow, if possible.”
“Why so soon? What’s changed?”
“I spoke with Wentworth’s agent this morning. She said the old man’s heart could give out. So you better get there while the gittin’s good. You know, before he dies on you.”
“Oh, that’s distressing.”
“You have other plans? Can you be ready?”
“Yes, sure. I can, um, switch my tickets,” R. says as he starts to check flights on his laptop computer. “Yeah, um, no problem.”
“We’ll reimburse you for the extra cost. In fact, get yourself a room at the Park Hyatt hotel in the center of Milan. We’ll cover it.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“Yes, it is. Oh, and get some photos of him? Old ones, from his childhood and college years, maybe.”
“Sure. I’ll ask him.”
“Excellent. Later crocodile,” he says and hangs up.
It’s a bit jarring and inconvenient, changing a trans-Atlantic flight and all on short notice, but R. knows he’s lucky to get this assignment. So he rebooks his tickets and heads home to pack.
At the same time, in an old style, Italian coffeeshop not far away from R., in Brooklyn, sits an overweight man with oily black hair and naturally tanned skin. He’s between forty-five and sixty years old — his soft skin and chubby features make it difficult to be sure of his age. He’s reading a newspaper when his phone rings, playing the tone of a classic telephone bell.
“Yello,” he says.
“Joseph. It’s Émile in Rome,” a voice says in a stern tone, trying to suppress his normal effeminate voice.
“Yeah, Monsignor,” Joseph says with his thick Brooklyn accent. “What can I do ya?”
“I need you to send a couple of men to Milan to search Martin’s home. We need to find and secure any letters or documents he may possess related to the Cardinal.”
“Is dat the same Martin yous told me about before?”
“Yes, it is the same.”
“Ah. Okay. Sorry. Why don’t ya get some fellas there, some local talent to do dis for ya?”
“It would be better to keep this situation within a small circle of friends,” Émile says carefully.
“All right. Send me the address in an encrypted email, to the address I gave ya.” Émile says he has done so already, as they were speaking. Joseph checks his phone and then says, “Yep. Got it.”
“Could you dispatch your men immediately, perhaps in the next few days?”
“What’s the rush?”
“I’ve heard from an associate that he will be visited soon by someone researching his past and that may touch on events related to the Cardinal,” Émile elaborates. “We don’t want to take a chance that he’s provided access to the documents we’ve been trying to locate.”
“I never understood why you didn’t send someone earlier to search and what have you.”
“Yes, well, perhaps we should have, but now it has become critical. We don’t want the Cardinal’s situation to be affected, or for our shared interests — yours and his — to be disturbed.”
“Yep. All righty. I’ll send two guys over tomorrow.”
“Thanks for taking care of this so quickly. The Cardinal and I appreciate it very much.”
“Hey. Don’t forget you promised to ask Cardinal Claudio to do my granddaughter’s christening. It’s coming up.”
“Yes, of course. I have it on his calendar. Congratulations again to you and your son.”
“Tanks. Oh, hey. Um, ifin my fellas encounter any problems, you know with the guy or his staff, it’s alright if they engage them by persuasive means?”
“Absolutely. I know you and your people to be professionals. You decide what you must do to do your jobs, properly.”
“And the researcher too? He’s kind of civilian, so we’ll try to keep him out of it. But just in case, what about him?”
“The journalist? His name is R. He’s not important.”
“Oh, a journalist. Nice.”
“Well, I must be going. We’ll see you soon in New York for the baptism.”
“Super! Hey, tanks again,” Joseph says.
“Our pleasure. Have a good day,” he says and hangs up.
Joseph is delighted by the renewed promise of a cardinal from the Vatican officiating his granddaughter’s baptism. He calls his wife to tell her he’s confirmed without being told. He’s hoping to get on her good side for the weekend — a state he rarely achieves or sustains for long.
Meanwhile, Émile sits quietly in his Spartan like room in Rome. He feels sullied for having to deal with criminals. He needs time to remind himself how these people are necessary evils to his ambitions. He lets out a sigh.
As you may have guessed, Émile has planned more than a search of Martin’s home. Don’t let his occupation and gentle nature fool you. He’s a cunning one. Actually, on that note, let me just say that it may seem I’m betraying confidences. However, since many of the players are now gone, and since the actions of other persons are commonly known, I feel that I can reveal all to you — or at least all of which I am aware and that have been privy.
What follows are two stories: one in which we will observe R. in his hunt for truths about Martin, as well as hear his thoughts, which he later shared with me. Since we’ll join R. in Milan when he visits Martin, some Italian words will be thrown about, as that’s what was spoken, what was witnessed and recounted to me. Therefore, that is what I will present to you. Don’t worry, there will be translations in the footnotes.
For the second story, we’ll observe Martin and Claudio, the heroes of our story. So that you may understand them well, we’ll go back to their boyhoods and follow them through their intriguing and perhaps wretched lives — until they’re old men, until they reach the end of their lives. It is the relationship of these two that we will consider with regards to friendships gifted to us, but which we spurn like the fools we are. Maybe we’ll learn something from their mistakes. Let’s hope so.
These intertwined stories, these lives will twist and turn, but will find unison in the end. Again, I rely on first hand accounts, as well as diaries and letters to piece together this complex tale. While I do so without embellishments, I must make some conjecture. So I hope the reader will forgive these rare liberties.
Lastly, please do no look for me in the stories, as you will not find me. Although I was at times present, I have purposely omitted myself. These stories are not about me; I don’t want to obscure this account.
Alright. Enough. The stage is set; the actors are assembled. Let the play begin.
Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain 1948