Ivan uses the L.A. Daily News as a placemat because his wife – rest her soul – once told him it is easier to throw out a stained newspaper than to wash a stained placemat. He prefers the obituary section; it sits underneath his breakfast. Photos of strangers, most appearing younger than their printed ages, look back at Ivan as he sops up his runny eggs with his burnt toast.
He sounds out the names: Maybelle Giano, Teddy Smith, Lucas “Luke” Cassaway. The names mean nothing to him. But the stories! The stories of these now dead souls staring back at him. A sewing factory worker from West Hills, a Vietnam veteran from North Ridge, a floral designer from Moorpark who counted a duchess as her client.
Ivan lifts his coffee cup, and the face of an angel stares back at him from the newspaper. In the back of his dementia-clouded brain, a tentacle of a memory grabs hold. The angel with the comforting smile who had wiped the sweat off his brow with a cool cloth when he lay in a field hospital during the Korean War. Had held his hand as the pain in his shattered leg raged and was the first person he saw when he awoke after the amputation. The angel who held him as he wept for his lost leg. What was her name?
Mei Choi, age 89, it says below the photo. Calling hours start at four. The funeral will be held in Korea next week. He must pay his respects.
He gets dressed. The black suit jacket hangs on him like it is on loan from his father. The pants, with the left leg cinched at the knee, he hikes up with a belt. His one dress shoe has lost its dressiness and found holiness instead. Well, he thinks, I am going to a sort of church so I can wear my shoe with holes, holy shoe! The thought draws a smile from his thin lips which are the color of liverwurst.
His crutches, older than the jacket and shoes combined, fit under his arms as they should, as it seems they always have.
Every evening, his daughter leaves the things Ivan needs for the day next to his satchel on the table near the front door: his bus pass, twenty dollars, a map of the city, and her phone number, just in case. He stuffs the newspaper with Mei’s photo and the visitation address into his satchel before he leaves.
A chatty woman at the bus stop tells him which bus to take.
He tells a fat bald man on the bus where he is going. “Even though she looks like the enemy, I must pay my respects to my angel.” The man ignores him.
The bus takes him cross town to a Buddhist temple. He uses his crutches to hop up its worn steps as men and women in all-white clothing stare at him. He stares back, afraid.
They look like the enemy; they live only a bus ride away. How the world has changed.
Inside it is cool and dark. Strange smells remind him that he is the foreigner here. Someone touches Ivan’s arm and he flinches. A man. Short. Dark haired. Dressed in white. His eyes are rimmed with red. “Would you like to sit down, sir?” the man asks.
Ivan is tired from his journey. He accepts a seat. “In Korea I knew Mei. She was my angel.” Ivan wants to tell the man more but he cannot find the right way. “Can I see her? I am here to pay my respects.”
“This way.” Ivan follows the man to the front of the temple. The smells are stronger here. The man chants as he walks with Ivan and the others repeat the chant until Ivan is surrounded by whiteness and incense and chanting. The whiteness parts and there is Mei, her angel face sallow and wrinkled. A sadness clutches his heart as he bows in front of her. He wishes he could have seen her one more time before they sent him home. He wishes he could have thanked her better than he had back then.
“Thank you, Mei, my angel,” Ivan whispers below the chanting. He turns to leave but the man escorts him back to the chair. Ivan stays where he is put. He nods off. The man wakes him gently. He explains he is Mei’s son and invites Ivan to stay for lunch.
“Yes, thank you,” Ivan replies.
Lunch is food he has never tasted. The couple sitting with him are his age and they tell him stories of their life together. They lived through the war. Ivan is sad to leave when lunch is over. They invite him to return to the temple someday.
On the bus, he tells a teenager that he visited a temple where everybody looked like the enemy, but they were not the enemy. The teenager ignores him.
The next day, another breakfast. Another set of dead faces stare back at Ivan as he eats runny eggs with burnt toast. He sounds out the names printed below the faces: Tom Harness, Lady Joan Winter, Leo Leopold, who is a Korean War veteran. Wasn’t he on the chow line in front of Ivan in Korea when the explosion occurred?
Leo’s viewing is at three o’clock, a church service and reception to follow. Ivan must pay his respects. He decides to polish his shoe for the service.
Sue Sabia has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has an honorable mention in the Binnacle’s ultra-short competition. Her fiction has appeared in Skyline Review, Literary House Review, and Spinnings Magazine among others. She has also published nonfiction articles.