Nora had scheduled her day fairly effectively to avoid Ryan after he arrived at four. She gave him a small flicked-wrist salute as she pulled the dust mop out of the janitorial closet at one end of the corridor and he emerged briefly from the games room and disappeared again into the TV lounge at the other end of the corridor. Aside from that, she didn’t run into him again until it was time to pack up for the day and go home.
What the hell was with Mrs. King anyway? She was so mean to everyone, and kept everything under lock and key. Nora kind of felt like going and asking her some questions, but nope. It would have been like asking a zombie why he growled all the time and wanted to eat her. Actually, there was probably nothing untoward going on at all, like Mrs. King said. Just an unusually high frequency of deaths in a nursing home. Old people are fragile and the slightest cold could knock them out, probably. But then why did Mrs. King keep those two storage rooms and her office locked up all the time? Why did Nora clean the whole place except for those three rooms, that nobody had access to? What secrets need to be kept so carefully at a normal nursing home? There was one person who would be able to help her get to the bottom of it, and hopefully tell her it was all normal: her mom. Nora’s mom had worked in probably a million places over the years. She’d be able to tell Nora in a second if this was a normal work environment, or if something was fishy and required further investigation.
Nora stopped mopping for a moment and pulled out her phone. She might as well keep a small flat stone in her pocket for all the calls and messages she got every day. She facebook messaged her mom: Hey! Are you going to be home at all today?
After about twenty minutes, the pithy response came: Of course. Gotta change for Denny’s. Why, is something broken?
No, Mom. Why would she assume that Nora was only texting her because something was broken? Just wondered if you had a chance to talk.
Another fifteen minutes or so. Probably could spare five minutes or so, if you don’t mind watching me change. Is something wrong?
Why did something have to be wrong for a girl to want to talk to her mother? Before she could reply, another message bleeped through: Are you pregnant?!
Oh, for god’s sakes, mother! It was unbelievable how very little her mother actually knew about her. Forget it.
No, what is it, Noogie?
Okay, so at least she knew enough to recognize that she’d fucked up, as was evident by her using her baby-name for Nora, which was only applied in serious situations. Who asks her daughter if she’s pregnant via facebook messenger? Somebody who hasn’t spoken to her daughter except in passing between jobs for approximately sixteen years, that’s who.
Never mind. Just a work thing. I’ll figure it out myself.
By then it was time to wrap things up. Nora did a quick pass up and down the back corridor, then after replacing everything in the janitorial closet, she went through the chapel and into the mortuary to see how Mrs. Ruben was looking for her big day tomorrow. The boom box was still booming and Randy was still touching her up. He was a tireless advocate for looking good in one’s casket. Ryan was there, too, watching Randy apply blusher to Mrs. Ruben’s peaceful face.
“She looks so peaceful,” Nora said.
“It’s the embalming fluid,” said Randy. “It gives her that soft, glowing life-like colour.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her make-up done so tastefully.”
“Thank you. I actually did have a look through her make-up bag, since Mrs. Rubens was somewhat known for her lipstick colours, but none of them really seemed right for the occasion. This is one of mine.”
Nora bent closer to examine Mrs. Ruben’s carefully done lips. It occurred to her that the main difference was that the lipstick colour had not run into the little lines emanating from Mrs. Rubens’s lips. “Are you sure it won’t run by morning?”
Randy shook his head. “With the amount of powder I used, this face is solid. If she was alive, Martha would probably not be able to talk right now.”
“Um, because her mouth is wired shut.”
“Well, that too. But it’s also covered in about a half-inch of powder, which basically solidifies the make-up. Also, I’ll be keeping her in the fridge, so…”
By ‘fridge’ Randy meant the slots in the back of the mortuary which dead bodies could be rolled into and out of. Oleander Gardens had a floor-model two-body refrigerator. Nora had originally wondered, when she first saw it, if it would ever be possible in such a small retirement home such as this one to need both fridges at the same time, but now it seemed more possible, even perhaps likely.
Ryan kept stealing glances at her. She didn’t want to look back at him, since she had not had her hair fixed up or her face spritzed, so she said goodbye to Mrs. Rubens, then to Randy and Ryan, and then left through the mortuary back door.
To find Jim waiting on his bike next to the loading dock.
“Hey, Jim!” She gave him a wave and walked over to him.
“Hey, Nora! What’s new?”
“If you’re waiting for Randy, he might be a while. Mrs. Rubens died and he’s just working on the finishing touches, I guess.”
Jim waved his phone in the air. “Yep, I know the drill. That’s okay; I don’t have anything else to do.
Nora laughed. “Retirement must be boring. You could move in here!”
Jim laughed too. “And be around that knucklehead Randy all day, too? No thanks! A man needs some time to himself!”
“What, are you guys roommates or something?”
Jim smiled in a naughty way and winked. “Something, yeah.”
What. The. Actual. Fuck. How had she not clued in to this? Randy and Jim… “But you’re like, so much older than he is!”
Jim laughed heartily. When he caught his breath, he said, “I’ve always been a bit of a cougar!” and did a little scratchy-cat-hand thing at Nora, which was just wrong. “And on that subject, how’s our little teenage romance coming along? Randy told me that you got all gussied up for Ryan’s first visit here.”
“Seriously?” Randy was unbelievable. “He sprayed water on my face and refused to pluck my eyebrows or anything. I’d hardly call that getting gussied up.”
“Well, I”m sure Ryan sees the many nuanced layers that make up Nora. Besides, you’ve got lovely eyebrows.”
Nora tried to frown, but since both Randy and Jim had now complimented her eyebrows, she did feel a little prettier than she had last time she’d examined them closely in the mirror a few days earlier.
The big metal door creaked and Randy came out, followed by Ryan. Randy gave Jim an adorable little wave. Nora couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it before. But she hadn’t actually been around a lot of gay people, to her knowledge, or a lot of people at all, for that matter. Her limited view of other people’s lives came from TV and movie stereotypes. Ryan gazed at Nora a little too long as he and Randy approached her and Jim, and she wondered why she’d been avoiding him all afternoon.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey. So, did you do any gardening?”
“Oh, no. I guess gardening is cancelled when there’s a corpse to deal with. I feel really bad about Mrs. Rubens, but it was extremely cool seeing Randy at work on her.”
Jim tossed him his helmet and said, “Let’s go. We’re just in the way here.”
Oh my god. As the two of them peeled out, Nora turned to Ryan and rolled her eyes. He laughed.
“Are you taking the bus again today?”
“Every day,” she answered. “If we hurry up, we can make the 5:07…” she glanced at her phone. “Or not.”
“When does the next bus come? 5:30?”
“5:27. So let’s boogie.”
“Boogie, eh? Okay, let’s. Sounds groovy.”
It was rare to find a person, a guy especially, who not only appreciated her use of outdated retro slang, but participated in it. They boogied to make the 5:27 bus, neither of them apparently too fussed about whether or not they caught it.