The official diagnosis was early-onset Alzheimer’s — early-onset forgetting of everything the old man had done, over 30 years ago, to eight boys in the Parish. The news had followed Mrs. Trozzo’s prayer against the falling barometer and the coming ache of her lumbar spine, in the produce aisle at Wal-Mart. “He’ll be a vegetable soon like my Frank was,” Mrs. Trozzo said to Leonard Jimmy, “then God forgives him, like he forgives all the prodigal ones.” She’d been Father Scanlon’s secretary at St. Mary’s Elementary School for five years — she’d had no clue about his offences, until the news stories, his trial, prison. How many years ago was that now?
Leonard didn’t hear the store security guard shout for him to stop, when he wandered out the sliding door with a shopping cart of unpaid groceries. That Scanlon should saunter into the afterlife purged of his crimes, as if forgiven by those left alive —
“Someone just died, right?” asked the security guard, Terry or Trent or something else with a T. “Just nod. Or I got to tell your mother her boy violated his probation — again.”
Leonard hardly remembered his drive from the Wal-Mart parking lot to Vancouver where the old priest lay consumed by forgetting. Ten hours at the wheel of his mother’s ’81 Thunderbird. Gas in Creston, Osoyoos and some riverside nowhere that smelled of dead salmon and served three day old newspapers. The three bags of groceries for his mother warmed on the back seat.
He combed the grounds of Vancouver General Hospital for Tower 5b, the neurological wing, where Mrs. Trozzo had said Scanlon was staying for now. He shivered. The chill, November air smelled of moldering leaves and the faint snowline on the North Shore Mountains looked like a ring of salt left after a flood. The elevator from the main lobby put Leonard in a short hallway with double doors at both ends and instructions in bold red type, that he’d better disinfect his hands before he talked to a patient. The dying should die from what they’ve got and not what you give them. But Leonard had brought words only, words he’d rehearsed, sober, drunk and high, for 15 years and now he could barely spit out hello. A tall Hindi woman behind the long, high desk on the other side of one set of the doors asked him his business.
“Looking for Father Scanlon,” Leonard said.
They had a Mr. Scanlon. Warren Scanlon.
“Is he your father, Mister —?”
“It’s what we called him. Back then.”
“You’re only his second visitor. A nun came by last month. She wouldn’t come within three feet of him, like he had Ebola. You can’t catch forgetting.”
Leonard had imagined Scanlon at the font of loneliness, dying there and it was good, better than good, just the beginning. But one of them from the old St. Mary’s Elementary School days had come. Sister Ralph maybe, the old warhorse drill sergeant, loyal to the end or even beyond the end, if it was her plump specter that had shown up. Or Sister Eva who’d be in her early fifties now. The laser focus of her Asperger’s was the Catholic religion. It could have been as easily baseball or mathematics or trains. At least St. Mary’s had always run on time. The bells for morning prayer and then recess and lunch and finally 3 o’clock. Leonard craved a rye and 7, though he hadn’t had one in — it was six weeks now. He had a sponsor somewhere, for emergencies. An area code 250 denturist.
“Will he recognize me?” he asked. The nurse’s nametag read Sumana.
“It’s the morning, which is better. His social worker is trying to find somewhere else for him. Somewhere permanent.” A phone rang on the desk. “Do you know if he has any family? He can’t remember.”
Leonard shook his head. He wanted that rye and 7 again and another and another, until he woke up in his mother’s trailer or the drunk tank. He should go home. Phone his mother before she called the cops again, buy a cooler and ice for her groceries.
Sumana pointed at a door across the hall, where an old woman in a white bathrobe sat slouched in a wheelchair. A thick, pink scar made a question mark along the left side of her pale skull and, in her lap, her palms rested on two knitting needles and a tangled skein of red yarn. Sumana had made the word permanent sound like a few days.
Leonard held his breath. The thing that frightened him most in the world was being unable to breathe and, if he could survive that, he could survive this — what was this? Twelve hours ago, the abuse he’d suffered had been what it was for 30 years — the old wound he let booze him, drug him, give him an infallible, fallback excuse for all his failures, for doing nothing; for doing something, a few futile attempts at bettering himself. And now?