Yesterday, we met Father Frankenburger, Curran’s fellow priest who annoys him because of his naivete. Curran’s meeting with the strange man gnaws at his mind, feeling like a strange dream. Here’s Part 3:
Curran wonders if he’s losing his mind as he dials the number. He stands in his quiet room, pacing the floor and hoping Van Winkle doesn’t answer.
“Is this Mr. Van Winkle?” he asks.
“Yes, sir,” Van Winkle answers.
“I didn’t know if you were real.”
“Here I am. What can I do for you?”
“You tell me.” Curran sits on his bed, nervously tapping his foot.
“I expected you to call. Have you thought about what we discussed?”
“To an extent.”
“Well, we could set up an appointment. Do you know where Ward’s Funeral Home is?”
“Not exactly,” Curran says.
“235 Cedar Street. Upper Darby. Meet me there tomorrow at one o’clock,” Van Winkle says. “Thanks for the call. We can give you more answers tomorrow.”
Curran hangs up the phone and wrings his hands. You are no man of faith, he thinks. Your father was right. You have a weak will.
Curran grinds his teeth through dinner that night with Frankenburger. A few times, he yells at the young priest. Later, he prays for forgiveness before bed, wondering if anyone is listening.
“Take away this heartache, Lord,” he whispers, the quiet of his room tearing away at him. “Can you hear me? Why do you ignore me? Why do I feel this pain?” He feels alone, sitting on his bad knees and talking to himself.
He stops after ten minutes. He slowly rises, the aches and pains from his body shooting through. He tosses and turns in bed that night, fearing one of the strange nightmares. He fears the images of his violent father, the yelling and screaming, the awful temper that marked his childhood.
In the morning, he drives to the funeral home. It’s an ugly brick building a few blocks away from the crime-ridden section of Upper Darby. Curran isn’t familiar with it; he’s spoken at viewings at just about every other funeral home in the area except this one.
The room is empty when he walks in. There is a musty smell, and the carpets are a vomit-colored red. Van Winkle emerges and shakes his hand. He’s still wearing the Metallica shirt and torn cargo pants.
“I want you to meet someone,” Van Winkle says. “Come with me.”
He leads Curran to a cramped office in the basement. When they open the door, Curran sees an older man pecking at a keyboard one finger at a time. The desktop computer must be from the early 1990s, a bulky gray machine.
“You must be Bernie Curran,” the man says, turning around. “Come in, come in. Take a seat. Want some coffee? A doughnut?”
“No, thank you.”
“I’m Stan Ward,” the man says, pulling a business card out of his oversized gray blazer. “Good to finally meet you. Wow. Bernie Curran. Good to meet you.”
“Do you own this place?” Curran sits down in front of Stan’s cluttered desk. Stacks of manila folders look like they’re ready to topple over. There’s a newspaper in front of Stan, turned to the obituaries.
“No, no, not exactly.” Stan straightens his disheveled gray hair and takes a sip of black coffee. “You see, I’m the Director of Transitional Affairs for Delaware County. A mouthful, right? Here …” Stan hands Curran a pamphlet. “You must be very confused. We all are in the beginning. It’s tough. We’re here to answer any questions. So, fire away. I’ll let you talk. Go ahead, go ahead.”
Stan looks like a maniac, a demented college professor, with his messy gray hair and ill-fitting blazer. He has intense brown eyes and a permanent, lopsided smile. Curran wonders what the hell is going on.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Curran asks.
“No, no, I assure you it’s not. You see, we’re with the U.S. Department of Death and the Afterlife. You can say DDA for short. It’s our job – our sworn duty, really – to ensure you make the smoothest possible transition to the afterlife.”
“How do you know I’m going to die?”
Stan takes another sip of black coffee. “We have ways to predict that. Your cardiologist, Dr. Prasad, has predicted you’ll be dead in two months. It’s just an educated guess, really, but we’re about 85% certain.”
“How do you know Dr. Prasad? What is this?”
“You see, he’s with the DDA. He’s been ‘dead’ twenty years. Look, here’s … Excuse me.” Stan searches through the pile of papers on his desk. He removes a case of floppy disks from the desk and fumbles through the manila folders. “There. Here’s your file.” He puts his glasses on and examines the sheet carefully. “Says here you had a stent put in last year. Arteries blocked. Based on Prasad’s analysis, you have an 85% chance of a fatal heart attack in two months.”
“This is bullshit.”
“Oh, but no, no, it isn’t. You see, we’re trying to help you, Mr. Curran. Please don’t take this personally.”
Van Winkle sits in the corner of the room. He grabs a beer from the mini-fridge and is watching Curran closely. Curran sees a cockroach slink out from a crack in the wall and climb up Van Winkle’s leg. “Can I interject?” Van Winkle says. “We’ve all been there, Mr. Curran. It’s very bewildering. But sooner or later, you’ll be with the DDA. It’s just a fact.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Curran shouts.
Stan bursts into laughter. “Oh, that’s rich. Really. I like you, Mr. Curran. You’re genuine. You should see how most people react. Like deer in headlights.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Right, right. All the information is there in the pamphlet. We’re the agency that’s charged with running the Other Side if you will. It’s a tremendous undertaking. Believe me.”
“This is insane,” Curran says. “You know I’m a man of faith. I’ve dedicated my life to helping people deal with death. The Lord has those answers, not you.”
Stan starts to speak, then stops. He leans back in his chair and scratches the back of his head. “Therein lies our problem, Mr. Curran. Men of faith have the most trouble accepting this predicament we’re in.”
“There’s nothing to accept. You two are just a couple of loons, or con men, and I’m missing the Notre Dame game. I’ve about had it with this.”
Curran gets up from his chair and walks toward the door. “Mr. Curran, wait,” Stan says. “Just remember the penalties for non-compliance are quite severe. It’s all there in the pamphlet.”
“Is that a threat?” Curran asks, his face turning red.
“No, no, not at all. Just a fact. You have our number.”
“Catch you later, Bernie,” Van Winkle says.
Curran walks up the narrow, dark basement steps and out of that god-forsaken place. He gets back in his Honda and turns the radio to the football game. The Irish are down 34-0 at halftime. He wonders if he’ll see them win a national championship again before he dies.
To be continued …