A contest had been arranged between the President and the Pope. All of their mistakes and misdeeds had been legally documented on paper, and they would both sit on chairs side by side as stacks of this paperwork grew from beneath them and lifted them to enormous heights. Whichever one of them was lifted the highest would be declared the winner. A large, stately manor had been chosen as the venue for the contest. The two chairs were placed at the foot of the grand staircase in the main hall of the manor. I was part of a small group of spectators brought in to witness the event. It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon and we were all dressed in our best suits and ties. We stood around in front of these empty chairs, waiting for the Pope and the President to arrive so that the contest could begin.
Someone saw the cars pull up outside and they ran in to tell us. We all perked up and looked towards the door. Cameras flashed all around as the President and the Pope came into the room. The President smiled and made a huge wave, as though there were a large crowd gathered instead of just a small group of spectators. This gesture itself seemed to swell our numbers and there was a loud roar of applause and excitement. I think we were all mostly rooting for the President to win. The Pope’s entrance was more solemn. He was accompanied by a cardinal in red robes. His head was bowed and weak. He tried to lift his hand to give some kind of blessing, but his old withered fingers trembled and he abandoned the effort and dropped his hand back to his side. He made his way to his appointed chair with slow, struggling steps, and he had to brace himself on the arm of the cardinal as he carefully lowered himself down onto the seat.
Having taken their positions, the two men nodded to each other as a show of sportsmanship. The President had a bit of a smirk on his face. He knew he had the old man beat. The Pope just turned away and hunched forward, studying the floor around his chair as though he wasn’t quite certain where he was and what was going on. An official came forward with a silver whistle and a pocket watch on a chain. He stood with the whistle poised between his lips as he stared down at the pocket watch, waiting for the right second to begin. Everything was perfectly still except for the ticking of the watch.
The whistle blew and the contest began. The paperwork quickly piled up under the President’s chair and he soared up high over the Pope. He was still smirking at the Pope down below. But then, to everyone’s surprise, there was a sudden rush of paperwork under the Pope and he began to catch up with the President. The President looked over in alarm as the piling paperwork brought them nearly side by side again. The spectators below had to lift their heads higher and higher to see the two men soaring up to the vaulted ceiling of the main hall.
When it became clear that they were going to break through the ceiling and take this contest to literally higher levels, I felt a sudden need to know which one of them was going to win, and so I took off running up the grand staircase, trying to beat them to next floor above. The grand staircase gave way to a smaller staircase that turned several corners and wound through darkly paneled corridors. As I came to a landing lit by a small window, I heard the crunch of plaster and wood as they punched through the ceiling of one floor and flew right on up through the ceiling of the next floor. I could see chalky dust and haze through the door of the small room down the hall where they had punched through. Papers that had fallen loose from both piles blew about in the debris, as though there were sins to spare in the reckoning of either man’s failures.
I mounted floor after floor, trying to get above them. Finally, I came to what should have been the attic of the manor. There was a trapdoor in the floor just above me. But when I opened it and raced up though, I found myself in a sunroom in what appeared to be some annex across the grounds from the main house of the manor. There were oil painting portraits on the wall and there was a large window along one side of the room that looked out onto a sunny garden courtyard. Things were much quieter here than they had been in the floors below. There was a small group of women all in black dresses sitting on chairs and couches clustered around the center of the room. They had tea cups poised in mid-air and they looked over at me and considered the impropriety of my sudden arrival with a vast sense of scorn.
I was just about to say something to explain myself, when the ground below started to rumble. The tea cups began to chatter against their saucers and the women in the black dresses began to look more and more alarmed. They look at one another with wide eyes. I knew that either the President or the Pope was about to come bursting through the floor at any second, right up under the coffee table. There was no need to explain it now. I just leaned against bookshelf across the room and folded my arms and smiled and waited to see which one of them it would be.