Instead of continuing her morning routine, Nora finished Mr. Hoominz’s room and went straight to the mortuary. As she went down the hall, she noticed there were no old people socializing in the games room or TV lounge; no old people strolling down the hall with their walkers. Out the back door, the garden was deserted; nobody sat on the solitary bench or bent at titanium hips to sniff the roses. They were scared.
And it was no wonder they were scared. Three completely unexpected deaths in a month? It could be anyone’s turn next.
Sure enough, the boom box boomed some kind of old-school rap song about a paradise for gangstas, and Mrs. Rubens lay inert on the white slab. Randy was in the disgusting process of passing a giant curved needle between her nostrils from the inside. He glanced up at Nora and nodded once, then returned his attention to the needle. Under normal circumstances, Nora would have barfed her pop tarts out, but today was definitely not normal. She swallowed the little trickle of bile in the back of her throat and went deeper into the mortuary.
“How did she die?”
Randy glanced up at her again, but she thought she detected a flash of something in his glance before he looked down to his work again and said, “Old age.”
“She was fine yesterday.”
“This is a nursing home, Nora. They’re all going to die sooner or later. You’re just going to have to get used to that, and try to do your part to make their last days and weeks with us as pleasant as possible.”
What bullshit. “Are you used to it?”
Randy didn’t say anything. He just pulled the thread tight so Mrs. Rubens’s mouth would stay closed during the lightly-attended funeral.
Nora was starting to feel very certain that there actually was something going on at Oleander Gardens, and slightly concerned that Randy was part of it. He seemed so nice, and he seemed to really care about the old people, but how could he have been here for so long and not noticed that something weird was going on? Or were the three deaths in a row just total coincidence since she came along?
“Was there, like, a coroner or whatever? Or does the mortician say how she died?”
Now Randy looked at her. She knew damn well he was the mortician. She was basically accusing him of covering up an unexpected death.
“The coroner came, Nora. As soon as poor Mrs. Rubens was found, this morning.”
“Who found her?”
“Ben, of course. He and Ray do the rounds every morning.”
“Doesn’t that seem at all suspicious to you? That Mrs. King, the owner’s, two bulldogs do the rounds every morning?”
Randy started digging in Mrs. Rubens’s soft neck for her artery. “Of course not. They’re the security guards. Part of their job is to do a morning round and an evening round. Look, I know that now you’re starting to get to know the residents a little bit, their passing is going to hit you harder. And it’s certainly very sad that we’ve lost another one of the people in our care so soon after the last one. But you have to understand, this is a nursing home! It’s filled with elderly people, getting close to the ends of their lives. They die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Randy pulled the artery out with a hooked instrument and poked a large hole in it. “If you want a job where people don’t die, try the mall.”
Nora had enough of trying to communicate with Mr. Closed Mind. Maybe he was getting something for keeping whatever it was covered up, although he didn’t really seem like the kind of guy who would be satisfied to profit off other people’s suffering. Maybe they were threatening him. Maybe if someone poked around enough, they got threatened. Mrs. King and her henchmen were definitely a trio to be frightened of.
Nora turned to leave the mortuary and get back to her cleaning duties. More of the residents would be needing her company that morning.
“Don’t ask questions, Nora. There’s nothing we can do.”
She paused in her tracks, back to him. So what that clearly meant was that something WAS going on, and Randy WAS getting threatened. He was warning her not to get into the same position.
Without answering or turning around, Nora left the mortuary and passed back through the chapel with its fake flowers and wooden pews. In a few hours, the pews would be filled with mourners — the staff and residents of Oleander Gardens. No family members or anyone else from beyond the property line. Why was that? Old people have families. Sure, some of them live far away, and sure, they don’t bother to come visit, but surely SOME family members at SOME point would show up for a funeral, wouldn’t they? Did Mrs. King deliberately schedule funerals for so soon after the deaths that she would be certain no family members would show up? But why? What could she possibly gain from shutting out the family?
Nora returned to her cart and her duties. The next room was Mrs. Balanafeel. Mrs. Balanafeel was not her usual goofy self. For once, she seemed to be on the same planet as everyone else; the planet, that is, upon which Mrs. Rubens lay dead with heavy thread holding her mouth closed, about to have her blood replaced with pretty pink embalming fluid. Mrs. Balanafeel sat at her desk. She had a writing pad out, imprinted with pale purple flowers and green leaves, but her desk was so cluttered with framed old faded photos that it didn’t seem like it had any space for writing on it, and Mrs. Balanafeel sat with her pen gripped in one motionless hand while she gazed at a photo of a young child that looked like it had been taken with a retro filter.
“Hi, Mrs. Balanafeel,” said Nora, trying to sound a little bit cheerful, but not too cheerful in light of the fact that Mrs. Balanafeel’s friend was dead.
Mrs. Balanafeel looked in Nora’s direction without actually seeing her, and then returned her gaze to the photos. “Good morning, dear.”
Nora got on with swapping the sheets.
“Why don’t they come?”
Nora had been wondering the same thing.
“Maybe you can tell me. With your gift, you must know. Why don’t they come?”
Nora wadded up the sheet, looking over its white mass at Mrs. Balanafeel’s haggard old face. “I guess they have just gotten too busy with their own lives, Mrs. Balanafeel. But I’m here, and I’ll be here every day. Why don’t you tell me about the time your James won the 4H ribbon?”
Mrs. Balanafeel produced a worn tissue from her sleeve and wiped her face with it. Nora realized she was actually crying.
“You know, for the cow?”
“It was a really wonderful cow.” Mrs. Balanafeel sniffled. She picked up one of the photos. “Do you think he’ll come, Nora dear?” She turned the photo towards Nora. It was a very old, somewhat faded and cracked around the edges black-and-white of her son, James, wearing overalls and beaming next to his ribbon-winning cow. To the best of her knowledge, James had never been out to Oleander Gardens. She highly doubted, given the place’s track record, that he ever would.
“I could be next, you know.” Mrs. Balanafeel replaced the photo on the desk. “Do you suppose he’ll come then?”
Nora felt like crying, too. Her chest constricted so she could barely breathe. That is, if she had breathed, she was certain a tear would escape her eye. She swallowed the feelings and slowly inhaled, exhaled. She smoothed the clean sheet on Mrs. Balanafeel’s bed. “There you go, Mrs. Balanafeel. Clean bedding. Smells like lavender!”
Mrs. Balanafeel didn’t answer. She just sat in the wooden chair at her desk, holding a pen in one hand and the ancient photo of James and the cow in the other.
“Why don’t you write to him?” Nora went into the bathroom and changed the towels.
When she came out again, Mrs. Balanafeel was in the exact same position. Today was Mrs. Balanafeel’s day for the vacuum. Somehow it didn’t seem right to disturb her silent loneliness. Nora pushed the laundry cart out of the room.
As she turned to say bye, Mrs. Balanafeel said, “I don’t think it’s any use,” and put down the pen, gripping the photo frame with both hands. A tear ran through the powder on Mrs. Balanafeel’s cheek.
Nora continued her morning duties in dreary silence. The other old people whose rooms she cleaned were unnaturally subdued and introspective; no stories for her today. It was somehow worse than when the previous old people had died; either the silence penetrated her conscience more forcefully, or else this was the first time she genuinely missed the chatter. Had she really been so callous as to enjoy a day of death because it meant less banter from her wards? The dreary quiet was so deafening that she was tempted to drag the old Hoover back to Mrs. Balanafeel’s room just to break it up a bit.
She took lunch with the old people. Not only because it was hand-made from scratch elbow macaroni with cheese day. Even being in the dining hall felt like being in the grand ball room on the Titanic in its current state. The only sounds were the muffled clunkings of high-quality plastic cutlery on melmac dishes and the light clatter of tea cups upon tea saucers. At one point, Mrs. King clacked in, took a triumphant look around with her lovely manicured hands on her hips hugged by her nice dusty-rose retro dress-suit. Then she clacked out again without speaking to anyone. What was this? Head count? Assuring herself that none of the inmates had escaped? Nora snorted at her noodles. The others at her table turned slowly in her direction and then like so many tortoises, turned their wrinkled countenances back down to their plates.
By afternoon Nora was so determined to speak with someone, anyone, that she hurried through the washing up and wheeled the cleaning cart directly to the games room. What games would be underway in there? A rousing round of bridge? Perhaps the clatter of Yahtzee dice in their velvety black cup?
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards sat at one table, eyes downcast, resolutely placing cards down and moving pegs in a cribbage board.
Mr. Hoominz sat at a card table and did nothing. Not so much as solitaire.
Nora couldn’t avoid vacuuming in here. The ear-splitting wail of the decades-old Hoover did not even cause the batting of an eye or the reducing of a hearing aid.
By the time 3:55 rolled around, bringing with it the impending arrival of Ryan, Nora had not even thought about evian mist bottles or light spot cover-up. She was so down that there was actually no way she wanted to run into him. He would think she was some kind of lame derp for being so depressed over the inevitable loss of an old person. And what did she care, anyway? What did she really think was going to happen? Ryan Calder, Cute Guy from across the street who had entirely ignored her for a decade was going to spend 40 hours at the building where she cleaned up shit and piss for minimum wage and fall truly madly and deeply in love with her because of a few spritzes of expensive water? It was almost enough to make her LOL. Who needed him anyway.
Nora cleaned the deserted salon, although its floors shone from the previous day with nary a gray hair to be found, and then began her last duty, the mopping of the back hall.
As she passed the two locked storage doors, she slowed, lingering outside the second of the two in contemplation. What was behind the doors? She wanted more than anything at this point to find out. What happened to the bodies of the dead people Randy so carefully prepared for their open-casket funerals? What normally happened to dead bodies? Nora actually did not know. That would be one for Google later, after she got home.
The wooden door at the end of the hall clicked open and Mrs. King emerged, followed by Ray and Ben. As usual, Mrs. King glared at her, and Ray and Ben tried their best to look menacing with their ape-like faces and black suits stretched too tightly over their steroidy muscles. Nora gave Mrs. King a quick smile, and did a small two-finger salute at each of the dobermans.
“Just about finished for the day, Mrs. King,” she said. What was getting into her? This was definitely the first time Nora had addressed her boss without being bitched to first. And her eartips weren’t even burning from it. “Shame about Mrs. Ruben.” Oh, now she was really pushing the envelope, whatever that meant.
“Yes, Nora, it certainly is. It has been quite a first month for you, hasn’t it? First Mr. Carpenter, and then our dear, poor Mrs. Cranberry, and now this. I’d imagine by this point you will be getting somewhat close to the residents.”
Mrs. King took a few steps towards Nora, until she was in touching range, but did not move to touch her. “Mrs. Ruben was a friend of yours, was she not, Nora?”
Was she? Until earlier this week, Nora had found the residents of Oleander Gardens irritating, and the staff, except for Randy, frightening. But perhaps she was beginning to feel friendly towards them. The old people, that was.
“Yes, I guess she was, a little. I haven’t really been here long.”
“No, you haven’t. Still, it must have been quite a shock for you to come here this morning and have to face yet another death. I assure you, Nora, it isn’t always like this.”
Nora swallowed the river of spit that was accumulating in the back of her mouth. “It isn’t?”
Mrs. King’s face relaxed ever so slightly from poltergeist mode to angry witch mode. “Not always, no. Sometimes we go for months without a death, or even an illness.”
“What was wrong with Mrs. Ruben? Why did she die? She actually seemed fine to me,” Nora said.
“You have to keep in mind that our residents are old. They come here to live out the remainders of their lives in relative comfort. Unless they become severely ill and need to be moved to a hospice or hospital, where they can receive the kind of treatment we’re not set up to give, the only way our residents leave us is by passing to the other side.” Mrs. King finished off this enlightening spiel with a glance towards the ceiling.
“Yeah, I get that,” Nora persisted. “But was she sick? I mean, what did the coroner or whatever say?”
Mrs. King resumed looking enraged at the entire world and likely the universe beyond it, too. “He said what he always says, of course. She died of natural causes. Now, Nora, why don’t you finish up your work and go on home where you can mourn properly.”
Without extending Nora the courtesy of a good-bye in any form, Mrs. King turned and pushed past her two apes, who obediently turned, too, and followed her down the carpeted corridor to the main entrance.