Father Joseph Tutombu was the only member of Corpse Corps who did not complain about doing disposal duty. The man never, ever stopped smiling.
As a result, Chuck usually avoided him like the plague. There was something suspicious about a smiling priest, especially a foreign-born one. But today was special. Today was the anniversary of the day when. Chuck saw to it that he was paired with the Kenyan expatriate. Someone had to suffer today, and a priest was as good a target as any.
They set the body next to the bonfire. Joseph knelt down next to it and said a few words under his breath before putting a drop of oil on the corpse’s forehead and using his finger to make a cross with it.
He looked at the gray clouds overhead, a certainty in the Central New York sky. “Hey Joe, beautiful day to be doing God’s work, isn’t it?”
Joseph either ignored or didn’t catch the sarcasm in Chuck’s voice and looked up after a short moment. He grinned broadly. “Every day is a beautiful day to be doing God’s work.”
“Well, you’re slowing us down with all of your praying. What are you saying to them, anyway? They can’t hear you.”
“In pace resquiscat.”
“In peace may you rest? You’ve got to be frakkin’ kidding me. Peace? These things tried to eat our squad this morning.”
“And we have brought them to peace.”
“Stack ’em and frak ’em, that’s what I say. Peace.” He spat on the corpse on the fire. “What a crock.”
They hefted another body off the cart. “This was somebody’s daughter once. She was somebody’s mother. Someone loved her.”
“And she probably tried to eat whoever it was that did. Good riddance.”
Joseph was careful not to touch the forehead on the spot where the ZED had exposed the frontal lobe. He grinned. “She can be with God now.”
“Are you enjoying yourself? You’re sick! Telling fairy tales. Seems you actually like being around dead people.”
“No,” Joseph corrected him. “I like doing God’s work.”
“How can you believe in God in the middle of this mess? Look around you! There’s no frakking God! The Garden of Eden is on the B Concourse. I’ve been there. It stinks.”
“This is nothing at all to God. It’s a blink of an eye. We will be strong for him and do what he demands of us.”
“Yeah, well that’s my problem too. This is nothing to God. It’s a hell of a lot of a mess for us. Nice God you got going on there. He really seems to care a lot about his people.”
“Okay, Chuck. I do not mind that you don’t like me. There are a lot of people here who don’t. You may have noticed that I’m…”
Chuck interrupted. “I don’t care if you’re black. It’s nothing about that.”
Joseph raised his hand. “I was going to say happy. And I am happy because of my faith. I know that God wants me to excel. I see that here in the Zone every day. It is hard, but I am happier than I ever have been.” He bent over, rubbed the drop of oil into the corpse’s forehead, and said his prayer, before they hoisted another body onto the fire. “Can you say the same thing?”
Chuck’s silence answered for him. “I don’t go for platitudes. I’m living my life here. Life sucks, and then you get eaten by walking corpses. That’s it. Game over. Happiness has nothing to do with it.”
“Happiness has everything to do with it. I’ve got it and you don’t. My happiness comes from building and yours can only come from the relief of death. I get happiness from that too. But I cannot live in a faith with a God who would want me to be unhappy, either. So I don’t. Rather than denying the existence of God, I deny the birth of despair.” He stopped suddenly and paused for a second. “Where did you take your first communion?”
Chuck’s jaw dropped, and he nearly missed the fire with the corpse. “How did you know I grew up Catholic?”
“I guessed. Most people who hate me don’t hate me. They hate my church. No one hates it more than people who leave it. All I can do about that is to live above it. Maybe I can be such a good example…” he swabbed another forehead “…that people come back. God will see to it, one way or the other.”
“Well, I’ve got to admit that you swing a pretty mean ZED. You did some pretty impressive work out there today.”
“This staff isn’t made out of the same sort of wood that I’d have in Mombasa, but I’m getting used to it. You also are a good man to have by one’s side in a close fight. Thank you for taking care of that Z that was coming up behind me on Circle Drive. I have one more question for you: What happened to her?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You lost someone close to you. You wouldn’t be this angry otherwise. Normally you avoid me. Not today. You’ve been trying to pick a fight with me for the last three hours. Who was she? How did you lose her?”
“I’m not going to confession here.”
“No. We’re just two men tossing bodies onto the fire.”
“I went to work. My wife kept her home from school that day. She said she was…”
He put out his right hand, palm up. He put his left hand out with the first two fingers extended and dragged his left hand across his right palm. The motion took as long as it took him to say ” ‘really sick.’
“When I got home, they both—I had to—”
“It wasn’t your fault, Chuck.”
“What God would have a man kill his wife and his daughter? Where was your God that day?”
“He has a plan for you, Chuck.”
“Whatever. So long as that plan has me hitting dead things in the head with my ZED. Stack ’em and frak ’em.”
Chuck passed the shift in a brooding silence as they wheeled the cart back to Central. Joseph continued to bless each corpse as it was tossed on the fire.
After they checked in with Clipboard, Joseph turned and held out his hand. “I hope one day we can be friends.”
Chuck replied, “Friends, maybe. Pastor and adherent, never.”
Their hands clasped tightly in the firm grip of men trying to outdo one another while smiling. “You’ll be all right, Chuck.”
“You already are, Joseph. Take care out there. No bites.”
“Vade in pace.”
That night, lying in his cot, Chuck said it in American Sign so she could hear him.
As his shoulders slumped at the sign for “rest,” he knew that he had lost the argument he’d been having with himself for the three years since he’d committed filicide.
Maybe this was the start. Maybe one day they could both rest in peace.