Penances

Published June 2022 by NYU’s Caustic Frolic

Peter was beginning to irritate Willie. He seemed insatiable.

Willie had always known, even in his earlier life, that letting anger show was a bad idea. He hadn’t been here very long, but he intuited that anger at powerful people up here was an even worse idea. Still, the man kept loading him up with work.

Willie, call Peter,” the pager he’d been given rasped from his hip almost every day. “Call” was not to be taken literally; it meant “go see.” Or rather, “go see, now!” So Willie would hotfoot over for yet another unwelcome assignment.

It had begun the day after he arrived. “Debt collector,” Peter said. He spoke in a flat voice that had none of the resonance one might have expected of the custodian of such famous gates.

He’d hardly looked at Willie because he was busy flicking through what seemed like dozens of pages on an iPad that looked to be least a generation behind the one Willie had brought with him. Ancient technology, maybe, but it must have had had a lot of memory if all those pages being scanned were Willie’s life story, and it had everyone else’s, too.

Or maybe Peter was downloading stuff from The Cloud. Willie, always technologically challenged, had never understood exactly where The Cloud was. Up here, for all he knew.

“You collected debts,” Peter said again. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.

“Yes, sir,” Willie said, as noncommittally as he could.

“For some bad people.”

“Well,” Willie said, “I guess you could say that. Nobody’s perfect.”

“Don’t I know. Hmmm. Willie. An unusual name. Is that your given name?”

“No, sir. I was baptized Guglielmo, in Rome.”

“By the Holy Father?”

“Oh, no sir. By the local priest. My parents were simple people.”

“And how did Guglielmo get to be Willie?”

So Willie explained that his parents emigrated to New York, in the United States, and learned that William – or Bill, or Billy – was the American equivalent of Guglielmo.

“Still, how did that become Willie?”

“When I went to work for the Mafia, sir. The capo saw that I was a very small man, and called me ‘Wee Willie’. There was a nursery school rhyme.”

“I’ve heard it. ‘Runs through the town/in his nightgown,’ right?”

“Yes sir. Crying at the locks, and so on. And the name stuck.”

“You were crying at the locks of people who owed your boss – capo, you said? – money.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And there were – how to say it – some ugly threats involved?”

“Yes, sir,” Willie said. “Or no, sir! I never threatened anyone. Certainly I never harmed anyone. Not a bit, sir. I was never a violent man.”

“Of course. Or you wouldn’t be up here at all. But some violence ensued.”

“Yes, sir. But I never ordered it. The capo would ask if I had hit people up ­ solicited people, I mean ­ for whatever debt they owed, and he kept track of whether or not they’d paid. If they hadn’t, he would send one of his goon squads. I couldn’t stop that.”

Peter looked down at his iPad. “That is indeed what is recorded here. You have what is sometimes called ‘deniability’. But you can’t really deny your role. You’re guilty of sins. Of triggering sins. Greed, envy, wrath. And you’re living in the neighborhood we call Limbo until you expiate those deadly sins.”

“I didn’t know it had a name, sir, but where I’m living hasn’t seemed much like what we’ve been led to expect. I haven’t seen a harp since I arrived yesterday. Or heard any music.”

“No,” Peter said. “The place won’t seem heavenly until you get out of there.”

“How do I do that, sir?”

“You earn your way out. You collect debts. That’s what we’ve been talking about, Willie.”

“How do I do that, sir?”

“We have people up here who owe us. They’re in Limbo, like you, until they discharge their debts.”

“They owe you money, sir?”

“No, no, Willie! Of course not. They owe us good works, or sometimes prayers.”

“How’s that, sir?”

So Peter explained that people went to church – or to a mosque or temple, shrine or shul or synagogue, it didn’t seem to matter up here – and promised to do penance, or restitution, if something important happened, usually if a parent or spouse or offspring recovered from an illness.

Sometimes they prayed for more selfish things. If what the penitent wanted was outrageously self-centered – like winning a lottery – it was just ignored. Usually, though, especially if the seeker was truly devout, the prayers were granted, and the debt was noted. Peter seemed deliberately vague about that bookkeeping, but it must be a spectacular system, Willie thought, compared to which his capo’s record-keeping seemed stodgy.

Perhaps predictably, Peter explained, some of those obligations were never met. People procrastinated. Perhaps they came up here sooner than they expected, and never got around to it. For whatever reason, here they were, their prayerful promises forgotten or unfulfilled.

“Why are you telling me all this, sir?”

“We want you to collect their debts, Willie. Tell them to carry out their promises.”

“And threaten them, sir?”

“Oh, Willie, you’ve had such a sinful past! Of course not! We don’t threaten people. We reward people. You will offer them a reward if they fulfill their pledges.”

“What exactly do I offer them, sir?”

A new, better neighborhood, Peter explained. “To be released from Limbo. They all live in your neighborhood, which will make it easy to track them down.”

So Willie went home with a list of five sinners.

Sinner One – call him that to avoid embarrassing anyone but Willie – had promised to give $10,000 to his local hospital. “You gotta make that gift,” Willie said when he caught up with him, “or you’ll never get out of this crummy neighborhood.”

“How am I supposed to do that? I’m up here! I left all my money to my son.”

“Enough to give ten grand to the docs?”

“Oh, easy! But how do I make that happen?”

Willie had to go back to Peter for the answer.

“I should have guessed,” he told Sinner One when he got back. “You pray that your son makes the gift you forgot.”

“What good does that do?”

“I am told,” Willie said, phrasing it carefully because he was a bit skeptical, “that prayers from up here are like lightning. Your son will wake up in the middle of the night, hearing your voice telling him ‘Send a check to the hospital!’ – and he’ll send it.”

“How will I know that?”

Willie had to go back to Peter again.

“Two ways,” he told Sinner One when he got back. “First, your son will pray that you know he’s done it. Like lightning again, you’ll know. And second, there are people up here who watch this kind of stuff. It’s farmed out, apparently. As near as I can make out, it’s a kind of mental telepathy. Nobody has much to do up here, so people get an assignment, and they tune in to specific people, like we used to be given links to websites, you know? They report when things get done.”

“Wow!” said Sinner One. “That’s a little scary!”

“Tell me about it,” Willie said. “I used to work for the Mafia. I thought they were good, but they were amateurs compared to up here.”

Anyway, Sinner One prayed, his son got the message and sent the check, and in just a few days Sinner One sought Willie out to say goodbye. “Moving to a new neighborhood,” he said. “Thanks for the help!”

It was easier after that. Willie had to go back to Peter for detailed instruction now and then, but he got better at it, and before long there were almost a dozen people he’d helped get out of Limbo. The heirs back home had given a lot of money to hospitals and food banks and churches and temples, which made Willie proud. There had never been anything altruistic about debt-collecting for the capo.

Then came one that flummoxed him. “Promised to pray the Rosary ten times,” read the note Peter gave him one morning.

Willie had not been a really practicing Catholic, so couldn’t remember anything about the Rosary, let alone praying it. Toughing things out was part of his character and experience, though, so he sought out the man we’ll call Sinner Twelve. “You went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral last March,” Willie said. “Your wife had been diagnosed with the coronavirus thing.”

“I remember,” Sinner Twelve said. “They had her on one of those ventilators. The doc said it looked bad. But by the time I got back from the Cathedral to the hospital, she’d rallied. They’d already taken away all the tubes. In a week, I brought her home. It was a miracle.”

“Wrong word,” Willie said. He marveled at himself for having gotten the patter down so well; it was as though he’d been taking locution lessons from Peter. “It was an answer to your prayers, wasn’t it?”

“Of course,” Twelve said. “That’s what I meant.”

“Was there anything you promised to do, back in the Cathedral?” Willie asked. He tried to make it sound like a real question, even though he had the answer in his pocket.

“Oh . . . yessss,” Twelve said slowly. “I think I promised to pray The Rosary if my wife was spared.”

“Just once?”

“No, I guess I said ten times.”

“And did you?” Willie asked, still trying to sound as though he didn’t already know.

“No, I guess not.”

“Aha!” said Willie. “Have you noticed that where we are right now isn’t what you’d expected?”

“I’ve been wondering. Didn’t know who to ask.”

“Ask me,” said Willie. “You’re in Limbo, because you haven’t done what you promised, back there in the Cathedral. Fulfill your pledge, guy, and you’re outta here.”

Twelve’s shoulders sagged. “Do you have any idea how long that will take?”

“No idea,” Willie said. “I hadn’t been to Mass since I was a teen-ager and had my first . . . I’ve haven’t been in a long time. But it can’t take too long, can it?”

“Wait a minute,” Twelve said. He went into his bedroom, and came back with a thick sheaf of papers. “Listen!” he said to Willie, and began to read.

It was an impressive prayer. Willie knew what a Sign of the Cross meant, but that was followed by things called The Apostles’ Creed, an Our Father, a bunch of Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and then a Mystery. “Ten points in a Mystery,” Sinner Twelve said. “I’m supposed to meditate on each one, with more Hail Marys, and a Spiritual Fruit, which is a Grace, and then a Glory Be, and an Oh My Jesus.”

“That’ll take a little time,” Willie acknowledged.

“A little? That’s only one Mystery. There are five to meditate on.”

Willie wasn’t going to be dissuaded. “Look, guy. You promised.”

“I was a busy man. Trying to keep a business running in a pandemic, you know? Family duties. Things kept coming up.”

“You procrastinated.”

“I did.”

“Listen,” Willie said, “You enjoying it up here?”

“Well, it isn’t what I expected.”

“There are better neighborhoods up here.”

“How do I arrange to move? Are there real estate agents?”

“You busy?” Willie persisted.

“No, not exactly. There’s no TV, and nothing to stream on my Chromebook, and no plays or concerts. I don’t want to complain, but there’s nothing to do.”

“Aha!” said Willie again. “So, you’ve got lots of time to pray all those Rosaries!”

“Are you going to sit here and listen so they’ll know I’ve done it?”

“No way. They’ve got their eye on you already. Can you do it in the rest of the day today?”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Twelve said. “It will take a couple of days to do it right. Long days. Are you sure I have to?”

“Do it.” Just as had become his habit, he added, “Maybe by the end of the week, at the latest, you’ll be looking for me to say goodbye.”

With which, Willie left the man to his Rosaries and went straight to Peter, trying not to let his annoyance show: “Can I have a few minutes, sir?”

“What is it, Willie?” Peter had been thumbing through that ancient iPad. He seemed distracted when he looked up.

“Remember, sir, I told you I did the capo’s debt-collecting, but never caused anyone grief myself?”

“Yes, you said that.”

“It’s a matter of conscience, sir. Not to make anyone do anything I wouldn’t want to do myself.”

Peter’s brow furrowed. “What is it you’re getting at?”

“That fellow who didn’t say the Rosaries, sir? That’s pretty heavy, in my book.”

Peter sighed audibly. “It was his own idea, Willie. We didn’t suggest those prayers; he volunteered.”

“Still, sir, it will take him days. Maybe all week, without much of a break.”

“Willie, there are people up here who have even longer prayers. The Catholics don’t have a lock on long-winded. You should see some of them from other parts of the world.”

“Sir, maybe so, but in any case, can you assign any missed prayers to someone else?”

“You don’t want to accept those opportunities for expiation?”

“No, sir. I’d much rather not.”

“Oh, Willie, you are such an imperfect instrument!”

He suddenly became aware that Peter was peering intently at his legs. “Is there something wrong with my trousers, sir?”

“I’m looking at the knees. They’re not worn, are they?”

Willie looked down, perplexed. “Worn, sir? You mean like worn out?”

“They don’t look as though you’d ever knelt in those trousers.”

“Knelt? No, sir, I thought I’d told you I never liked being so short. I have to look up at people even when I’m standing as straight as I can. Let alone kneeling.”

“Oh, dear!” Peter looked down at his iPad, and then fixed his gaze behind Willie, where it seemed others were waiting.

Willie wasn’t going to let himself be brushed aside. “And sir, if you don’t mind, how long will it be to earn my way to a better neighborhood?”

Peter sighed again and looked down at his iPad. He seemed to thumb through several pages, and finally looked up.

“You go along now, Willie. We’ll call when we need you.”

His shoulders sagged as he trudged off. It was a revelation, and hardly the conclusion he’d hoped for. He might not have to learn the Rosary like poor Twelve, but if he was going to get the heavenly Mafia off his back and move to a better neighborhood, he would have to re-learn some lessons forgotten in childhood.

Otherwise, he said out loud to himself, “You don’t have a prayer, Willie.”

-End-

Share

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.