I saul, p.4

I, Saul, page 4

 

I, Saul
 



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  Augie shook his head. “Petrified about something, and I’ve never seen him other than totally in control.”

  “Roger scared? Can’t picture it. Don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as worldly-wise and confident.”

  “I know, Biff. But now he needs me for some reason, and I can’t let him down.”

  Biff quickly traded out the data chip from Augie’s phone, inserted the old one into a drive to be scanned, got online to arrange for a new number, and loaded the new chip with several hundred minutes for international transmissions. “As secure a cell as you’ll find, so guard that number. Remember, this doesn’t protect anyone’s phone you’re connecting with. It blocks your identity, but anything that shows up on their phone is fair game.”

  “Got it.”

  “This thing sucks power like a vacuum, man. Carry a charger everywhere you go. I know you’ve got a converter for every country on the globe.”

  “I don’t know how to thank you.”

  “I’ll bill you. Listen, I gotta run, but let me show you one more thing.”

  Biff led Augie into the deepest corner of his electronic shack where the decades-old fluorescent lights barely reached. He pulled a tiny flashlight from his nerd belt and held it in his teeth, talking around it as he moved junk to reveal a new and very compact machine. “You won’t bewieve what thith can do, Augie,” he said, mouth full of flashlight. He lifted the boxy apparatus so he could reach a tiny compartment in the back. “Spring loaded.” He pushed in and out sprang a chip no bigger than his finger tip. “Sound activated and can record a hundred hours.”

  “No way! Record what?”

  “Your phone, if you want.”

  Biff explained that top-of-the-line phones can serve as bugging devices, even when turned off. “They can transmit to other phones, or to a recorder like this one.”

  “How can that be?”

  “It would take me too long to explain. But if you want a record of a conversation, you just hold down this button on the side and hit your pound key, and voila.”

  “Even with my phone off.”

  “Miraculous, eh?”

  “From how far away?”

  “Where’d you say you were going? Rome?”

  “Get out.”

  “Want me to program it for your phone, just in case?”

  “Of course!”

  Biff deftly slipped the chip out from Augie’s phone, inserted it into the recorder, hit a button, and replaced it. “Done. And you wouldn’t believe the capacity.”

  “You’re the best.”

  “Just be sure to tell me the whole story someday.” “Promise. And give your wife my best wishes.”

  “Carol.”

  “Carol, right. I haven’t met her, have I?”

  Biff shot him a look. “The Cities of Paul tour? With Roger?”

  “Sure, that’s right. Sorry, Biff. My mind’s already in Italy.”

  When Augie got back on the road toward Arlington Memorial Hospital the sky had turned that pale green that follows a ferocious storm. He realized that within an hour of connecting with his mother he needed to call Sofia before it got too late. As it was, it would be well after midnight in Greece. Difficult as it had been to tell her of his troubled relationship with his father, he had found it freeing. Revealing a part of his history he had shared with few others created a special bond with Sofia.

  One of his earliest memories, he had written her online, was of his mother telling him that he was not born to them the way most babies were, but rather they chose him: “Daddy and I accepted you as a gift from God. Your father so longed for a son.”

  Yet only his mother seemed to have time for him. His father proved a mysterious presence in the house, quiet, sullen, unengaged. Once, Augie wrote Sofia, he had asked his parents if he could have a brother or a sister. “My mother looked pained, and my father said, ‘Your mother is a little fragile, son. And one child was all we wanted.’

  “But later,” Augie wrote, “my father told me that when he realized how difficult raising me was on my mother, he would have been fine having had no children.”

  “Oh, Augie. How old were you?”

  “Nine or ten. It was weird, though, because my mother frequently reminded me that my dad had so wanted a son that I was a true gift. He was an academic through and through. All I wanted to do was play sports. I badgered him all the time to play catch with me or come to my games. Once my mother insisted that he play catch with me, but he never took off his suit coat or tie. And he threw like someone who had never held a ball before. I remember hoping no one was watching. Then I accidentally tossed the ball over his head, and he scowled before he went to get it. When he bent to pick it up, his pants ripped and he stormed inside, saying, ‘This is why I didn’t want to do that!’

  “I became a pretty good athlete, all-conference in baseball and basketball in high school. My dad never saw me play. My mother came when she could, but when she would talk at dinner about how proud she was of me and that Dad should have seen me, he’d mutter about hoping I would ‘outgrow these obsessions. There’s more to life than fun and games, you know.’ The only recreation he allowed himself was crossword puzzles and other word games. Otherwise his nose was always buried in some scholarly book. I learned not to put posters of my ballplayers on my bedroom walls. He’d just tear them down and say, ‘We’re not to idolize men.’”

  “I’m sorry,” Sofia wrote, and Augie sensed her sympathy was genuine.

  “If it hadn’t been for my mother’s faith, I’d have never become a believer. We were all in church, every service every week. I had good Sunday school teachers and friends, and I liked the pastor. Dad was an elder. He preached sometimes, and though I always found him dead boring, everybody else revered him because he was a professor. Head of a seminary department. They say you base your view of God on your father. Imagine my view.”

  “How did you turn out so opposite, Augie? Or is it lucky we live so far from each other?”

  “Good question. But no, people like me. They don’t like him. And he doesn’t seem to care.”

  “Your mother was strong enough to keep you from turning out like him?”

  “She’s a saint. Not perfect, because I wish she’d have stood up to him more often, but that’s easy for me to say. He’s a powerful force of nature. I don’t know what she could have done to change him. But I was also taught that Christians should be known by the joy in their salvation. She had plenty, under the circumstances.”

  “And he had none?”

  “I saw his teeth only in pictures when he was expected to smile.”

  “Sad.”

  “How did you keep from rebelling?”

  “I didn’t. I had no joy either. To me the Christian life was one big chore—rules, limits, dos and don’ts. By the time I was a junior in high school I was this great athlete and a straight-A student, but none of that seemed to please my dad. I thought at least my report card would impress him, but he just gave it a glance and asked if I was sure I was taking all the subjects I needed to get into college. I told him I was working closely with my academic adviser. He said, ‘If your academic adviser had a clue, wouldn’t he be more than an academic adviser?’

  “Something in me snapped. I suddenly knew how to get his attention. Not only did I quit studying and turning in homework, I even skipped school now and then. When some buddies and I got busted for shoplifting, Dad wanted to ground me for life, not allow me to play sports, the whole bit. What pierced me though were my mother’s tears. I hadn’t thought that through. I wanted only to hurt him; to have hurt her crushed me. I told her I would accept any punishment if she would forgive me, and I would never do anything like that again.”

  “I’m guessing she forgave you.”

  “In an instant. But there were still scars, and that destroyed me. She didn’t deserve that. He did.”

  “So what was your punishment?” “It couldn’t have been more perfect.”

  “Do tell.”


  4

  The Letter

  FIRST-CENTURY ROME

  It had not been a request. No, Luke had been issued a macabre order from a man one could not deny. You might counter Paul, argue with him, challenge him, even show disdain for his opinions. But in the end the sheer power of his will prevailed.

  And so the physician, drained as he was, had returned to the home of Primus Paternius Panthera. Now he sat in the dark, massaging his own temples and trying in vain to will himself to sleep.

  Finally Luke stood and moved to the chunky wooden stool before a table little larger than a sheet of writing parchment. He quietly lit an earthenware lamp the size of his palm. As the flame flickered to life, he bent to review one of the last paragraphs of a letter he and his condemned friend had fashioned that night.

  “Luke,” Paul had said, “tell Timothy the others have deserted me and that only you remain.”

  “It isn’t as if they have deserted you—.”

  “Of course they have! Don’t make me try to pen this myself.”

  Luke had shrugged and called for Panthera, who lay over the hole in the ceiling. Luke whispered that he needed parchment and a quill and ink. “Will that arouse suspicion?”

  “I’ll tell the others you need it to record what you’ve found in your visit to the patient.”

  Luke spent the next hour scribbling fast as Paul dictated a letter to Timothy. The paragraph in question came just before Paul closed:

  Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

  There it was again. Above all the parchments. Luke and Paul had been in many desperate situations, but Luke had never seen a look like the one in Paul’s eyes when he spoke of his memoir. It was one thing for him to face his own execution, and, knowing him, Luke assumed Paul would wish that other church leaders would also risk martyrdom for Christ. But that would have to be their choice. He made clear to Luke that their fates must not be determined by something found in his parchments by the wrong eyes.

  But even if Timothy or Mark were able to come to Rome, and even if they bore the treasured parchments, would they be allowed to see Paul? Perhaps Panthera could make it happen. But who knew how long it would take them to get to Rome? And what was Paul to do for a cloak in the meantime? During the day the dungeon was hot as a kiln, but at night, Luke knew Paul shivered as he tried to sleep.

  At dawn the next day the doctor checked on his landlord’s mother. The old woman had seemed to rest and was grateful for a fresh application of ointments, but Luke was a long way from predicting a positive outcome.

  He sat briefly with his hosts and their children and enjoyed a breakfast of bread, cheese, and nuts. His sleepless night assaulted Luke all morning as he carried his leather satchel to centers for the suffering, assisting military medicusi, clinicusi, and capsariori, attempting to alleviate pain and make comfortable those beyond repair.

  At noon, when much of the rest of the city partook of a light meal before taking long naps, Luke headed straight back to his pallet and slept so soundly that when he awoke he feared he had let too much of the day get away from him. Hurrying back to his work—with the small lamp deep in a pocket—Luke bought a handful of carrots and onions from an open-air market and ate quickly on the street.

  As the afternoon faded, he found himself actually looking forward to seeing his friend, even though he would have to again steel himself against the repulsive surroundings. Along the way he found bargains on bread, cucumbers, apples, and figs that had sat in the sun all day.

  He and Panthera conspired to avoid each other at the prison. The guard would merely wave him through the gate, and soon enough the others would think nothing of his daily comings and goings.

  That early evening Paul was eager for the food Luke brought and quickly began to gorge. The prisoner groaned and slowly slid to one end of the stone bench. “Come, sit.”

  Luke joined his friend, the lamp in his lap. “You stink, you know.”

  Paul tossed his head back and laughed, putting a hand over his mouth to keep the food in. Then he grinned at Luke. “Do I?” he said, plainly exaggerating. “Every few days they strip me and douse me with two buckets of water, leaving me to dry myself with my own clothes. And yet still I offend? How can this be? Tell me, is it worse up close?”

  It warmed Luke to see his friend’s smile, which seemed to melt years from the weathered face. He draped an arm around Paul’s narrow shoulders and fought tears as the man laid his bald head on Luke’s chest. How often he’d seen Paul’s glee over the years, after a day of arduous travel, contentious meetings, threats, abuse. Paul had a fierce look too, a resolve that shone in his eyes. And yet somehow, as they shared a room lent by some local believer—not infrequently a stall in someone’s barn—Luke would catch Paul’s beatific smile in the moonlight as he prayed before drifting off.

  Luke wished he himself could find such contentment in his work, or at least in his hope for the future. God knew Paul had little to be smiling about. But the same compassion Luke had always felt for the afflicted also sobered him. Oh, he shared Paul’s ultimate hope. But he feared his own sense of satisfaction would manifest itself only in paradise. There he could smile.

  Here Paul sat in humiliation and despair, facing circumstances that would break a lesser man. Yet he longed to preach. And he could be amused. Luke found it beyond comprehension.

  “Do you have more fruit?”

  “An apple, but you must pace yourself, friend.”

  “When have I ever done that? This is my only real meal of the day. Let me enjoy it.”

  Luke stood and moved away, fetching the apple from his pocket and tossing it to Paul. He caught it deftly in one hand and took a tentative bite, Luke noticing that he was favoring fragile teeth. Paul sniffed the fruit. “It already bears the aroma of this place.”

  “Nonsense,” Luke said. “I can smell its sweetness from here.”

  Paul sighed. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Until you arrived, I feared I would die of hunger. If it weren’t for you and Onesiphorus ….”

  “I’m looking for a cloak for you.”

  “Hmm? Oh, even if Timothy and Mark come—or if they only send my things—I’ll not wear my cloak. I’ll use it only for sleeping and protect its hem from the floor, keep it dry. The mere thought of it cheers me.”

  “And yet you want those dangerous parchments above all. What will you do with those? Use them as a pillow?”

  Paul devoured the apple—core, seeds, stem, and all. He pretended to pat his belly, but even in the low light Luke could see that there was scant to pat. “That feast will allow me to sleep tonight.”

  “The parchments, Paul. Aren’t they better off in Troas, away from the eyes of the Empire? What do you want with them?”

  “I am never hungrier than just before you arrive. It’s as if my belly knows you’re com—.”

  “Paul! You offend by ignoring me! You can’t have me write Timothy, requesting your belongings and putting such stress on the parchments, without expecting me to ask why.”

  “You make me grateful I never married.”

  “Grateful? I know better than that. You told me so yourself.”

  “Mm. But would a wife nag as much as you do?”

  “Not for long if you treated her with as much disdain as you do your friend.”

  “I have anything but disdain for you, Luke.”

  “Prove it.”

  Another sigh. “You will not leave it alone, though I clearly don’t wish to discuss it.”

  “In the letter I’m to send to Timothy, you were clear the parchments were most important to you.”

  Paul sighed. “When the parchments arrive, you
will need to assist me with them.”

  “I am to read to you?”

  “You are to help me write.”

  “You say they contain your memoir and that you name names?”

  Paul nodded. “It’s my story. For years, as I have had occasion, I have chronicled my experiences. I find it most encouraging to peruse these, to remind myself from whence I came and also of the Lord’s faithfulness.”

  “How is it that I have been unaware of this?”

  “Keeping it from you was no small task. I stole private moments, when my eyes were stronger, my pen steadier. I plan to share them with you now only because I am unable to complete them myself. They are for only me, my family, and the brethren. But I will not rest until they are back under my control.”

  “Surely you can’t risk having them here in the prison, so close to the authorities.”

  “True. I must entrust them to you when we are not working on them.”

  “And where am I to store them?”

  “I cannot worry about that. I trust you. You know the danger of their falling into the wrong hands. But I do want them completed. And the account of my end can be written only by you.”

  Fatigue attacked Luke again. He stood in the horrific enclosure, the dim, flickering lamp illuminating the pathetic figure on the stone bench. “You know I will do anything you ask, Paul. But can you put yourself in my place? Can you imagine the pain of describing your demise?”

  “Luke! We will work on it together in advance! It will be an account of the first step of my journey to where I have always longed to go. You need not emphasize the details. Everyone knows how we Romans execute our evildoers. Are you praying I will be spared? Would you have me exist like this, or to be present with my Lord?”

  “I have learned not to argue with you.”

  “And yet you continue!” Paul said, smiling. “Ah, I enjoy the sport. Arguing with you is far better than a pleasant conversation with anyone else.”

  Luke jumped at a loud voice from above. “Time to go, Doctor!”

 
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