Vern stepped out into the world. He planted the rubber tip of the wood cane firmly in front, then pulled his leg with the sponge hip forward. He continued rolling down the block like a square wheel. Red stocking cap, blue parka, mule rue pants, his clothing wore with ambling gait until it all seemed the same color.
His sense of smell had faded due to a toleration of his incontinence, a lack of hygiene, of being alone and old too long. People on the bus were unable to acclimatize to the profuse odor adequately and were too likely to share their story about the "stinky guy on the bus", with coworkers. Vern rode the bus just the same. It was how he got around, his social activity. He could spittle about the weather or trap pretty girls into stories about his youth, he could say, "See you in the spring" to the bus driver. Vern rode the bus complements of the government. His service record and disability provided the free ride. Vern fought for and lived in democracy, in a land where you could ride the buses for free. This was one of his favorite things to tell people on the bus.
This day, like any other, Vern was going to the library. The first stop on his routine. With delicate perseverance he hobbled out of the bus. One hand on the railing of the steps as he negotiated one at a time, sideways, until he stepped off the bus backward.
"See you in the spring." He chimed. The accordion door slapped shut and the as the bus hissed an escape.
The cold seeped out of his bones and he remembered his youth among the pines and birch of Ely, when he would attach the family husky to his sled and whiz around the yard. People in front of the library were waiting for the bus, loitering, making trouble. The city had changed in the last fifty years. When Washington Ave was full of board houses and bars the vagrants stayed in their element. Now the hoodlums ruled, they had free reign and the police were just as bad. They hardly noticed Vern as he entered the library.
He said "good morning" to the front desk librarians as he took off his cap revealing a matted nest of gray. Removing the morning paper from a tree rack of periodicals, he settled in a white plastic chair with blue upholstery. He took off the parka and pivoted around, balancing on his cane and eased with creaks and cracks into the chair. The chair coughed and Vern pulled out the obituaries. He read each one, searching for someone he knew. He scanned the photos and hoped his photo to be young, in uniform before he left for Korea.
He wanted to go to church this day and decided to walk the three blocks to the Lutheran Cathedral, St. Marks. He could hear the hour sing from the castle like tower of the neo-gothic building. He was counting the steps until a pause where he would look up and take a breath. His shadow a silhouette like old footage of Mallory climbing Everest. He walked through Loring Park and watched the squirrels scurry about. Vern liked squirrels, but these mangy, urban rodents were a tough lot to like. Most of their bushy tails had been stripped of fur in the waging battle over large oaks and elm. A shadow of an egret crossed Vern's path as the bells sang the half hour from across the street, the pond rippled in resonance.
Vern negotiated the first few step toward the Church of long sidewalk and wide lawn. Baskets of hanging flowers hung on iron poles on each side. Their brittle dead leaves and stems hung like brown, forlorn faces. The looming, ornate wood doors had brass handles, green, but worn with the shine of handshakes. He braced himself and tugged the door out, fastidiously wedging his elbow into the opening for support. He forced the door open with deliberate motion and stepped inside the church.
The smell of olibanum trickled through his dead sense. He took off his cap and gloves and stuck them in pocket. Staring at himself in a mirror above the marble offering of holy water, he absentmindedly stuck his fingers into the flat water and crossed himself. A second dip was used to pat down an errant wisp of his thinning hair.
The airy draft of light drifted through the stained glass as he meandered down the side wing of the building. He was going to see her and say a prayer. He sat in front of her on the edge of a pew and rested his cane between his knees. This was his favorite statue. She was in an alcove, life sized, holding her blue eyes on a real gold tray. Vern felt a tear begin to choke his eye. The blue robe she wore, her empty sockets looking up to God. It was a tragic story unlike his own. The woman he loved did not send her beautiful eyes to him for admiration, nor was she married to God. His love faded away.
The Priest saw the man slouched over sitting on the pew in front of St. Lucy of Syracuse. He was used to shooing the homeless out before mass and took gentle steps toward the snoring man.
"Sir, are you all right?" (no response). "Sir…" He placed his hand on the man's shoulder.
Vern startled awake. He starred at the kind, blurry eyes of the young priest, clearing his throat he assured the pastor he was fine and apologized for falling asleep.
"Mass is starting in half an hour if you would like to stay."
Vern thanked the pastor, but declined, asking another favor if it "wouldn't be so much trouble". He whispered his request to the Priest who looked at him in shock. His face looked like an oil slick.
"Are you dying? Wouldn't confession be a better choice?"
Vern explained that confession would corrupt him, that this house of God should not hear about the Chinese farmers in Korea. He would rather be absolved of sin, his last rites would be just fine.
The priest reluctantly complied and Vern was absolved of his sin and ready to enter the Kingdom Of Heaven.
That night, the headache did not come and Vern didn't drink a sip of the Mad Dog 20/20 under the sink. He fell asleep eagerly, knowing that the nightmares would not come. Instead of the image of the farmers weilding sickles and spears over that ridge in N. Korea, instead of their platoon mowing the farmers down with swift shot, instead a glorious dream would come. In this dream of a dream, Vern was an old man. He was getting ready to leave life and was walking into the light and all the Chinese Farmers from N. Korea were there. They were smiling and holding flowers and patting him on the back and he understood their words of forgiveness.