This story was written in late 2001. It was the first introduction to Charley Delcruccio, Intake Processing Guide and Afterlife Orientation Specialist (any resemblance to Harvey Delcruccio, swankest Ghede ever to come out of Brooklyn, is purely coincidental).
"The man with the megaphone said everything was going to be all right."
The primly-dressed Jamaican women frown as Charley tacks the INTAKE PROCESSING sign to his card table.
"The plane struck the other tower," the woman in blue says.
"That's right," her friend in red agrees. "Not ours."
Smoke pours from the World Trade Center. Papers spiral in the cool September wind. A leaper spirals screaming alongside them. St. Gerard Majella crosses himself as she enters the Land of the Dead. Charley reaches out, but there are no AOGs left on the table. He reaches over the limbless torso of Robert-Francois Damiens and takes the last two copies from the bench.
"There was another plane, and … look, ladies, read the book, why don't you? It'll save us all a lot of time."
Burning jet fuel streams down the maimed buildings and snakes onto the pavement. A flaming tendril curls toward Charley, then turns left toward Crustyfred the Punk. The woman in red watches Crustyfred scratch his nose ring from the inside, then turns again to Charley and Damiens.
"He specifically told us to return to our desks," she insists again.
Crustyfred sneers. The syringe in his arm sparkles pus-yellowgray in the jet fuel's light. "Sure. Follow orders like the corporate sheep that you are…OWWWW!!!!" Crustyfred looks accusingly at Charley. "Why'd you hit my needle, man?"
"So you'd shut up and make yourself useful. Go get me another stack of AOGs."
"That really hurt, dude…" Crustyfred says as he makes his way back to the Supply Tent.
Damiens snorts. "Ohhhh … poor baby!!! Hees arm hurts."
The Jamaican women examine the cover of the Afterlife Orientation Guide. A burning messenger stumbles past, smoke rising from his dreadlocks as he searches for his bicycle. The women look at each other, then back at Charley and Damiens.
"Good morning, mademoiselles. Damiens would teep hees hat to you, but he hopes you understand."
The woman in blue wanders off, muttering "There's something wrong here" under her breath.
"But he told us to return to our desks…" the woman in red says again, holding her AOG vaguely as she follows her friend.
Crustyfred returns, a pile of books beneath his tattooed and trackmarked arm. Charley looks over at Trinity Church, where two of the Puerto Rican muertos he met at last month's Misa are setting up a processing table. Next to them a Mormon, a Rabbi and Dave the Hippie scan the growing crowd, boxes of freshly mimeographed AOGs by their side. A burning leaper blazes a meteor trail to the ground.
Jesus H. Christ, how big was this thing anyway? Charley wonders.
"Ma liberaci del male!!!"
The high tubercular color drains from St. Gerard's sunken cheeks as he cries out not in the voiceless language of the dead but in the Italian of his youth. Charley runs over to his side.
"What's up, kid?"
St. Gerard whimpers, his gaze affixed on fifteen seconds away.
"It's coming down. Dear Mother of God, it's coming down!"
Something rumbles like D-Day. A hot wind blows from the growling tower. Charley grabs Damiens and puts him atop the stack of AOGs, then ducks beneath a police car.
"You fuck!!! Damiens ees not paperweight!!!!! YOU FUCK!!!!!"
* * *
Damiens spits ashes and powdered concrete as Charley and Crustyfred put him back on the bench. "Damiens speets on you! He speets on both of you!"
"Ahh, lighten up, Stubby," Charley says. "In times like these everybody needs to lend a hand."
"Oh-ho-ho-ho. You funny man. Eef Damiens had knee he would be slapping eet. Ho-ho-ho. You fuck."
A team of firefighters make their way toward the World Financial Center, leaving no footprints as they walk through the ankle-deep ash. Charley looks around at the milling ghostly crowd as he brushes the dust off the AOGs.
"We're gonna be needing all of these and then some. Ya done good, Stubby." Charley looks around. "Anybody seen the kid?"
* * *
The chubby system administrator smiles at St. Gerard. "All the while I was standing on that windowsill I was so afraid I'd go to hell if I jumped. Thank you so much for clearing that up for me!"
"I'm glad I could help, Patrick. I wish I could do more."
"I just have one more question, if you don't mind." Patrick looks down at the shattered remains of a trashcan protruding from his ragged Babylon-5 t-shirt. "Am I always going to look like this?"
St. Gerard shakes his head. "He makes the blind see, the lame walk, and the wounded whole. It's part of His job description."
Patrick looks across the plaza at Damiens. "What about him?"
"Some people never ask to be healed. I don't really understand it. I wish Fr. Liguori was here. He's much better at theology than I am."
Patrick squeezes St. Gerard's hand. "God bless you, Father."
St. Gerard looks away, then, when he sees the crowds of dead, looks back at Patrick. He forces a smile. "God bless you too."
"Santo Gerardo Majella!"
The little man in the bloodstained dishwasher's apron breaks away from the crowd and falls to his knees at Gerard's feet.
"It's all right. You don't have to call me a saint, really." St. Gerard looks around again, trying to avoid catching anyone's gaze. He tries to maintain his balance as the little man embraces him.
"Excuse me! Can somebody help me here?!"
The man with the cell phone hits redial, then curses under his breath until he spots Gerard. "Hello. Excuse me? You know what's going on here, Father?"
"I'm not a priest. I'm just a lay brother…"
"Can somebody tell me what's going on??" The man with the cell phone pushes the dishwasher away. St. Gerard steps back from both, looking about like a trapped animal as he stumbles over the twisted remains of a mailbox. The man with the cell phone pushes forward until Charley grabs his shoulder.
"Anything I can help you with, Chuckles?"
The man pushes redial, then curses again. "My phone's dead."
"I'm biting my tongue." Charley hands him an AOG. "Here, read this."
The man with the cell phone examines the book, then throws it on the ground. "Do you have any idea how many people died today? That is in really, really bad taste."
"So's your tie, but do you hear me complaining?"
"I'm a very busy man. I don't have time for this nonsense." Cellphone man turns around again.
The little man is kissing St. Gerard's hand as he tries hard to pull away. "What's going on here, Father?"
"I keep telling you, I'm not a priest."
Charley taps Cellphone man on the shoulder. "Leave the kid alone. He's handling Catholics. I'm in charge of atheists, agnostics and general assholes."
"I'm an Episcopalian."
"Like I said. You been holding that damn thing all morning. Did you notice it was melted to your hand?"
Charley rips the cell phone away. A pinky and part of the ring finger come off along with the phone.
"You won't need it."
He looks at his maimed hand. "My fingers…"
"You won't need them either." Charley stoops and picks up the AOG. His battered pork-pie hat falls off, exposing his bald spot and the bullet hole in the center of his forehead. "Like I told you before, read this. Start with the section for those what crossed over sudden."
The dishwasher holds Gerard's hand tightly, muttering too softly for Charley to hear. Cellphone man wanders away, the book dangling limp in his maimed hand. Gerard looks up toward the sky, then sees the pillars of smoke and flame. His eyes are hollow as his cheeks as he returns to the dishwasher and tells him, "Yes, yes, of course I'll do everything I can for your family."
Charley puts his hat back on and turns to Crustyfred. "Keep an eye on the kid for me. I'm worried about him."
Again the D-Day rumble.
"Oh no. No. Don't even theenk about eet!!!!! No!! YOU FUCK!!!!!!!"
* * *
"Ptui!!! Ptuii!!! Ptuiii!!!"
Charley wipes ashes from his coat. Damiens spits out dust as Gerard and Crustyfred dig him from the debris.
"You fucks!!! Damiens speets on all of you! All except you, Gerardo. Damiens does not speet on you because you are a pere."
Gerard looks away. "I'm not a priest…"
"Fine. So then Damiens speets on you too. Ptui!!!" Damiens spits out a shard of glass. Behind him, Dave the Hippie takes a long drag on a Marley-sized joint, then passes it back to the smoldering messenger.
"So in 2001 you can have grass delivered to your office?" Dave grins broadly as he lets out smoke. "Cool."
"Why should Damiens care eef you are priest anyway? When they executed Damiens, the priest says, 'After they reep you apart weeth the horses, we weel say Mass for you een the Cathedral.' And Damiens says, 'Oh, thank you, Pere, that makes theengs so much better.'" Damiens spits out more ashes. "You fuck."
"I gotta hand it to you, Stubby. You take a lickin' and keep on tickin.' I'd give you a Timex if you had any place to put it." Charley shakes his head as he examines the crowd milling outside the ruins. "Make sure you save those AOGs."
Crustyfred dances about in a circle, his tattered Doc Martens splitting further with every stomping step. "Take that, you Capitalist motherfuckers!!! Kerblaa … OWWWWW!!!!"
Crustyfred pouts, exposing the moldy safety pin in his lower lip. "Why'd you hit my needle again?"
"Same reason as last time," Charley says. "So you'd shut the fuck up. And go tell Central to send reinforcements."
"That hurt," Crustyfred mutters under his breath as Dave the Hippie passes him the joint.
"Ohhh … the poor revolutionary feels the steeng of oppression."
* * *
"This is Officer Lopez," Dave says as he introduces the mangled cop. "She wants to help out."
Crustyfred sniffs the air. "Whoa … I'm smelling bacon … OWWWWW!!!" Crustyfred rubs his arm. "That hurt, dude."
"It was supposed to hurt, you Red bastard," Charley says. "Now go ask Central when the hell the reinforcements are coming."
Crustyfred looks accusingly at Dave as he walks away. "I never thought you'd sell out, dude… OWWWWW!!!! Not you too…"
Charley tips his hat, exposing his bald spot and bullet hole again. "Pleasure to meet you, Officer Lopez. What's a pretty lady like you doing walking a beat? It's dangerous out there."
Lopez pulls two cigarettes from the flattened pack in her pocket and hands Charley one. "Yeah. I hear you can get killed." She lights Charley's cigarette, then her own. "Look, Pops, can the small talk. We got an emergency on our hands. What can I do?"
"I'd tell you to read the AOG, but since we're in a hurry, here's the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. You see anybody panicking, calm them down. They get too excited, they might get stuck in a loop and wind up haunting somebody's basement for God only knows how long. You see people wandering around, send them toward an intake table. The Buddhists got a Wheel of Death and Rebirth booth on the other side of Liberty Avenue; the Moslems have a table by Brooks Brothers; the Hindus and Protestants are down by the World Financial Center; the Jews and Catholics are set up on Bowling Green; and Neopagans are down by the piers with the Rastafarian camp."
"I know." She smiles as widely as her broken jaw will allow. "If I hadn't busted your buddy smoking a blunt, I still wouldn't know what happened."
"Sorry you had to find out like that. We usually have a more individual oriented approach to your transition."
Officer Lopez shrugs. "It's all right. Anything else I can do?"
Charley gestures toward Gerard. "Keep an eye on the kid. He means well, but he's frail. He's got a delicate constituency."
"I can't be dead," the heavyset woman says firmly. "My feet hurt. How can I be a ghost if my feet still hurt?"
"There's not that much difference between spirit and flesh. I know it's difficult to understand. It took me a long time." St. Gerard looks down at her high heels. "You should talk to St. Francis. I'm sure he can get you some comfortable shoes."
"I. Don't. Need. Shoes." the woman says, enunciating every syllable. "I. Am. Not. Dead."
"I know that you're very confused." St. Gerard tries to walk away. "If you'll just wait here somebody will be with you in a minute. I'm sorry I couldn't be more help."
Gerard wheels as a large man knocks a Pakistani hot dog vendor to the ground. "Wait! Please! He didn't have anything to do with this! Stop!"
St. Gerard runs between them, catching a glancing blow in his chest. He wheezes and coughs up blood as the large man pulls back for another punch.
"Hey!!" shouts Officer Lopez.
The large man stares at the mangled corpse shambling toward him, billyclub in hand. A gas main erupts. The large man falls moaning as Lopez's nightstick meets his exposed kneecap. The Pakistani man returns to the twisted remains of his hot dog cart as Lopez walks to a vantage point beneath a twelve-story steel shard.
The little girl runs screaming through the crowd, her purple dress bloodstained and torn.
Oh Christ, a kid, Charley thinks as he looks away. I hate taking kids.
"It's all right, bambina, it's all right." St. Gerard picks her up. "Nobody can hurt you now."
The little girl sniffles. "I lost Ducky."
"Shhhh. Shhhh. We'll find Ducky. Where did you lose him?"
"I was holding him when Ms. Chen told us the firemen were coming. Now I lost him." The little girl waves the mutilated stump that used to be her right arm. "I want Ducky!"
St. Gerard barely flinches. "Don't worry, bambina. We'll find Ducky. But first we have to get away from here. This is no place for little girls. This is no place for anybody."
"I want my Mommy."
"I know." His voice is calm and soft but Charley can see the lines on his forehead and the rigid set of his jaw. "You must be very frightened."
The little girl nods.
"It's all right. We're all frightened. I'm going to take you someplace safe."
The little girl curls close against St. Gerard, playing with his rosary beads with her remaining hand as he walks away stoop-shouldered.
* * *
"Dude, Central says they're totally maxed out on reinforcements." Crustyfred steps back, moving beyond Charley's reach. "He said they're sending over two more cartons of AOGs as soon as they get them mimeographed."
"Two cartons of AOGs! We got a catastrophany on our hands and they send us two cartons of AOGs?" Charley looks around at the wandering ghosts. "You go tell them we got one police officer managing crowd control here. We need more dead cops."
"Fuckin-A right we do … OWWWW!" Crustyfred looks over at Dave. "You hit my needle, dude…"
Dave shrugs. "Charley was busy."
"When this is all over with," Charley says, "remind me to put Lopez in for a commendation. And does anybody know where the kid is?"
* * *
St. Gerard staggers wheezing to a park bench. The dark man moves aside to let him sit down. "Are you all right, Father?"
St. Gerard shakes his head, coughing. "I'm sorry, I'm not a priest."
The dark man hands him a bottle of water. "Drink this."
St. Gerard takes a sip. "Thank you. You're very kind." He tries to hand the bottle back but the dark man refuses it.
"Drink, drink. I didn't finish it before we crashed. Please. Drink. You need to take better care of yourself anyway."
"You were on the airplane?"
The dark man nods, his smile growing broader but no warmer as he stares at the pillars of smoke. "They never made allowance for devotion."
St. Gerard stares blankly. "I don't understand."
The dark man glances upward. A legal brief crumbles to glowing confetti and falls through them. Charley watches from behind a mangled phone booth.
"Kid! Get away from him!" Charley cries out.
The dark man looks over at him, then returns to Gerard, his eyes peacock-blue and his voice cool and soft as spring water. "You dragged yourself from your deathbed to feed the poor. And why? Devotion." He savors the word like it tastes sweet in his mouth. "You sacrificed your life doing what you thought God wanted you to do. Just like they did." The dark man surveys the carnage. "Blessed are they who do God's will."
"This isn't God's will," Gerard says, his voice edging toward hysteria.
"He's no good, kid! Don't listen to him!" Charley shouts.
"He told the Israelites to slaughter the people of Canaan. He told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac." The dark man raises an eyebrow. "Who are we to question God's will?"
Gerard rises, his face stricken. "You think this is God's will?"
The half-empty water bottle falls from Gerard's hands as the dark man's smile goes from cold to sad. "All we can do is God's will."
St. Gerard steps backward, clutching his stomach like he's just been stabbed. Charley thinks he might fall, but then he rights himself. His face is expressionless and his eyes hollow as he stumbles away muttering. The pavement shimmers amber in the firelight. Gerard falls to his knees in the broken glass.
"Jesus, kid, you OK?"
"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta." St. Gerard's rosary beads jangle together in his trembling fingers as he prays in the Italian of his youth. The dark man laughs softly as he throws the half-empty water bottle into the trash.
"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."
"Snap out of it, kid. You're giving me flashbacks of Sister Maria Giacometti and her Ruler of Pain."
"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."
"Come on, Jerry. You're scaring me here. Don't go looping on me."
Below the twelve-story steel shard, Officer Lopez hustles two more wandering spirits toward the Wheel of Death and Rebirth. The wind shifts. The stench of burning jet fuel wafts above the smell of blood and powdered concrete. Gerard rocks back and forth in time with the dark man's sad laughter. "Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta. Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta. Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta ."
"Yeah, yeah! You guys can't handle reality so you turn to organized religion. OWWW!!!" Crustyfred rubs his abscess, then stares accusingly at Charley. "You keep hitting my arm!"
"Because you keep flapping your jaws. Put a sock in it, why don't you? And leave the kid alone. He's intercessorizing."
Crustyfred pouts. "But that hurt…"
"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."
Damiens snorts. "Ohhhhh, poor baby! Always hees arm ees hurting. Maybe you should find your Mommy so she can kiss eet for you and make eet better. Damiens weeshes hees arm hurt. Damiens weeshes he had an arm."
Charley turns to Damiens. "If you had an arm you'd be your own best friend, Stubby."
"Oh-ho-ho-ho. You are funny man. Damiens can hardly keep himself from laughing you are so funny. You fuck."
"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."
Charley turns back to Gerard. "Come on, kid. Snap out of it. Don't go looping, kid. Come on."
Gerard looks up at the pillar of smoke where the South Tower once stood. His knuckles are white as he clutches his rosary beads. " Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta!"
Officer Lopez directs a charred paramedic toward Charley's intake table. The wind picks up. The sun breaks through the smoke. Charley and Crustyfred throw up their arms against the sudden flash of brilliance. Damiens averts his eyes cursing. Sirens echo in the distance. Gerard grins like a baby, tears rolling down his face as he stares straight ahead at the place where there is no building, where there is no fire, where there is only light.