08/16/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011

Just Like a (Recycled) Prayer

An all-day rain in the city of New York makes you think about sad stuff, the things you should have done, the things you shouldn't have done, the things you'll probably never get around to doing.

It gets worse by the hour. On a day like this I sit at the kitchen window and watch the pigeons huddled on a ledge under the eaves of a building across the street, and I'm forced to ponder the ultimate question:

What the hell happens after we die?

I grew up in a neighborhood on the edge of Queens populated by many Catholic families. On a single block in our neighborhood, there were seventy kids. Seventy! That's the rhythm method for you!

We all went to church on Sunday, and I believed in the eternal reward of heaven as fervently as anybody else. The priests could point to the paintings and the statues as definitive proof of an afterlife. Sounded good to me.

The message was clear -- as long as we lived good lives and threw money in the collection basket, we'd go to heaven.

But then you get a little older, and you realize there's a weird subtext to that kind of thinking: life isn't life at all. It's just a rehearsal for the real deal, which doesn't start until you stop breathing.

Whoa. Talk about a leap of faith! You could clear the Grand Canyon with that one!

I began having doubts about everything the church was feeding us when my grandfather died. I was named after him. He was a good man, and if there's a heaven, he's in it.

But the doubts were put there by (of all people!) his widow, my grandmother, Millie Carillo.

At her husband's wake, the mourners handed my grandmother mass cards -- documents
saying that a certain amount of prayers would be said for the soul of the late Charlie Carillo.

One day not long after my grandfather died, a friend of the family died. My mother drove to Brooklyn to pick up my grandmother and take her to the wake, and was shocked by what she came upon in Grandma's kitchen.

Grandma was in the process of erasing her late husband's name from one of his mass cards and writing in the name of the newly dead friend.

As scams go, I defy anyone to do better than this: counterfeit mass cards.

"Mom," my mother gasped, "what are you doing?"

"I'm bringing a mass card," Grandma replied.

My mother was in shock. "You can't use that card! Those prayers have already been said for Daddy's soul!"

My grandmother was unmoved. "You bringin' a mass card?" she asked my mother. "Let me see it."

My mother was (and is) a true believer. Over the years she's spent a lot of money on mass cards, having had countless prayers said for the souls of her departed friends.

She took out her latest mass card and showed it to Grandma. It was a compact thing, the size of a playing card. My grandmother's counterfeit card was big and bold. My grandmother shook her head and clucked her tongue.

"Cissy," she said to my mother, "you ain't makin' a very good impression with that little thing."

"But it's real!" my mother countered. "The prayers will be said!"

My grandmother cocked an eyebrow. "Will they?" she asked.

My mother could think of nothing to say to that. For the next few years, my grandmother recycled her husband's mass cards, making good impressions at wakes all over Brooklyn and Queens.

I could never get over my grandmother's guts, defying the church the way she did. (By the way, when she died, there were mass cards galore -- probably legitimate ones from the loved ones of the people who got recycled cards.)

Of course, the big question is not whether or not those prayers were said. The big question is: is there anybody to pray to?

I don't know. Nobody knows.

But I know this: the rain is letting up, and the pigeons have left the ledge across the street. I've been in this house all day and I could use a good New York hot dog.

Two with everything, hot off the grill at Gray's Papaya, Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. I don't believe in many things, but I do believe in a hot dog at the end of a long, lousy day of rain.

Charlie Carillo's latest novel is One Hit Wonder. His website is He's a producer for the TV show Inside Edition.