The chapel and mortuary were deserted as usual. The boom box was gone from the shelf, and Nora’s ear picked up the faint thump of 90s hip-hop emanating from beyond the back door.
Randy was out there with his elderly friend Jim. They ate take-out noodles from paper boxes. Nora’s mouth watered for the noodles. At least she had managed to smuggle her sandwiches out undetected.
“What’s new, Nora?” Randy asked, and took a swig from his travel mug.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, as usual,” Nora answered. She took a seat on the plastic chair and started in on her first cheese sandwich.
Randy’s eye twinkled. “You’re not supposed to.”
“It’s easy,” Jim said. “People get old. Their families ship them out here where it’s cheap and far away, so they won’t have to worry about them again. Everybody goes on with living their lives.”
Randy nodded. “Yeah, it’s kind of sad.”
Nora chewed on fake cheese and contemplated. “What do you mean, they ship them out here?”
Jim looked at her. He had lines on his face, a bald head, and a shiny gray beard like a cartoon old man. “Do you know when family day is around here?”
Nora shook her head.
“Unlike prison, there isn’t one.”
Randy said, “How often do you meet the residents’ visitors?”
Nora thought about it. The truth was, she’d been there nearly a month and she had never seen a visitor. “That is kind of sad,” she said. “But those old people are crazier than they look if they think I can do anything about it.”
Randy looked at her. “What do you mean?”
She shrugged again. “It’s like there’s some kind of old person secret plan and they think I’m going to be the leader. First, Mr. Greenfield tried to talk to me in private, but I’m not sure what he was trying to say. I guess he lost his train of thought.”
Randy and Jim nodded. The residents seemed to have an awful hard time staying on their trains.
“Then,” Nora added, “Mr. and Mrs. Edwards accosted me in the hall at lunch. It’s like they were waiting for me in the games room. But they didn’t manage to say what was on their minds before Ray and Ben showed up.”
Randy shuddered. “Those two creeps.”
“Right?” Agreed Nora.
She bit into the second cheese sandwich thoughtfully. All three ate in silence, considering what it could mean. Finally, Nora said, “I guess they’re just lonely, looking for someone to talk to and trying to find something new to talk about.” She thought about all the repetitive stories. Maybe there was some minor thing going on and the old people were so excited to have a new story to talk about, they were blowing it up into something interesting.
Jim and Randy nodded. “I’ll keep my ear to the ground,” Randy said.
“Yeah,” Nora agreed. “Maybe something will come out at painting lessons.”
“Today’s ping pong.”
Thwack… thwack… thwack… thwack…. Three tables, five old people, six paddles, and Randy transformed the games room to a space of sport and fitness. Until this point, Nora had never ventured into the games room, though she had seen it through the doorway on passing every day. Now the card tables were arranged along the back and front walls to make space for the ping pong tables. Old folk sat at the tables sipping on lemonades and watching the little white balls go back and forth. Thwack… thwack… thwack…
Nora sat down with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards.
Mr. Edwards gave her a slight nod of conspiration. Leaning over, he breathed with his nasty breath, “Have you considered our offer?”
Nora was prepared this time. She held out a tin of Smints. Mr. Edwards glanced at Mrs. Edwards. She nodded, her mouth set in a grimace of fortitude.
With shaking knobby-knuckled hands, Mr. Edwards reached out and took a mini-mint. He placed it on his yellowish tongue, sucked, and fastened his gray eyes on Nora. His flaps of eyelids blinked once.
“What offer?” Nora asked.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards exchanged glances and both flicked their eyes back towards Nora.
“Exactly,” whispered Mr. Edwards.
“Good girl,” said Mrs. Edwards.
At that moment Mr. Greenfield approached. He handed his blue ping-pong paddle over to Mr. Edwards like an Olympian hands over the baton and sat down next to Nora. She held out the Smints.
Mr. Edwards stood to take his place at the ping-pong table.
Mrs. Edwards shouted, “Go, Ralph!”
Other old people turned towards her, and then back to the games.
Thwack… thwack… thwack… thwack…
At that moment Mrs. King stuck her head in the door to the games room. She looked around with a satisfied smile. Then her eyes landed on Nora. She fixed Nora in her glare for a moment longer than necessary, as if to say, “You’re not wanted here.” Then her head disappeared again.