It was becoming a daily lunchtime conundrum. Was homemade elbow macaroni and cheese from scratch worth going to the dining hall where she would have to listen to those stories again? Or should she lurk around the kitchen waiting for the old people to have their fill and just hope that there was some left over? Or just settle for a sandwich? Nora was a noodle maniac, so this Monday the noodles won out and she found herself at a table with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, whose granddaughter was in a movie once, Mr. Hoominz, and Mr. Greenfield.
Nora braced herself for the onslaught of boringness and dug into the mac and cheese. Inevitably, the conversation turned to movies.
“Our granddaughter, Ellie, was in a movie once.”
The mac and cheese was unremarkable. Definitely not worth sitting through stories for. “The one with the handsome actor’s son in it?”
Mrs. Edwards stared at Nora with her mouth hanging open, a few cheesy noodles poking out between her wrinkled lips.
“How did you know?” Mrs. Edwards asked in a hushed voice.
The table fell silent. All the old people stopped masticating their mac n cheese, forks and spoons held aloft, and stared at Nora.
“How did you know,” repeated Mrs. Edwards, “that it was the one with the handsome actor’s son in it?”
Mr. Edwards swallowed and said, “Obviously, Jean, she has seen the movie. Right, Nora?”
Mrs. Edwards shook her head slowly from side to side. “But she has not met Ellie.”
Mr. Edwards stared away into the distance as this sank in, and then his eyes returned to Nora with renewed awe.
From the neighbouring table, Mrs. Tillynaught, who had been listening somehow despite her hearing aid most likely being on low, said, “She’s got the gift.”
All gray heads at Nora’s table turned immediately-ish towards Mrs. Tillynaught, who repeated herself, enunciating loudly. “She’s got the gift. She knew that my dear dead Rodney trained our parrot George to say many witty things. Rodney died before I came here. How could she know?”
Now they swiveled like so many dirty twist-mops back to Nora. Five sets of dim eyes peered at her through five pairs of plastic-rimmed reading glasses.
Mr. Hoominz spoke first. “Is it true?”
Nora didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to lie to these old people, but she didn’t want to disrespect them by suggesting that they had bad memories. Especially Mr. Hoominz, who prided himself on his excellent memory and showed her every Monday how successful he was in the Coffee News trivia quiz.
Mr. Hoominz said, “I have an idea. We’ll ask her things nobody could possibly know unless they were gifted with the power of extra-sensory perception. Nora–” He paused dramatically.
Nora placed another small bite of now slightly congealed mac n cheese in her mouth and chewed quickly. Mr. Hoominz narrowed his already narrow eyes and squinted through his thick lenses. “What was the name of my first cat?”
Mr. Hoominz must have been playing along. He’d just told her the story of his first cat for the seventh or eighth time that morning.
the other old people at the table squinted at her and nodded slightly, as did Mrs. Tillynaught. By this time the rest of Mrs. Tillynaught’s table was watching, too, chewing their macaroni in baited silence. Nora played Mr. Hoominz’s game. She winked at him and said, “The cat that used to bring you dead mice and birds, and one time brought you your next-door neighbour’s missing canary?”
Mr. Hoominz gasped and clutched at his chest. The other old people’s jaws dropped. Mr. Hoominz leaned forward slightly and spoke in a hushed voice. “Yes. That cat… What was his name?”
The truth was, Mr. Hoominz had told her many tales of many cats. She couldn’t be expected to remember which cat was which. She grasped at the first Mr. Hoominz’s cat name that formed itself on her tongue. “Socks?”
Mr. Hoominz blinked.
Mr. Hoominz’s fork dropped with a clatter onto his plate. Two elbow macaronis scuttled off and lodged themselves in the folds of his white napkin. Mr. Hoominz just stared. “It’s true. She has the gift.”
There was a chorus of surprised and satisfied hms from the rest of the old people. Then they fell into whisperings amongst themselves.
At that moment, Mrs. King entered the dining hall with a clackity-clack-clack, and the old people fell silent. With surreptitious glances at one another, the old people resumed eating as if nothing had happened, but their sneaked peeks at Nora told her that something indeed had happened.
Less quickly and pointedly, Mrs. King, her eyes moving about the room as if to try to determine what secret she had missed, clacked over to the serving area. Of course the home-made elbow macaroni and cheese was all finished, but that was not what Mrs. King was there for. She leaned across the counter to Loretta, who was sitting in her plastic chair flicking her thumb up and down on her phone screen, waiting for the old people to be finished lunch and the dessert rush to begin. With slumped shoulders, Loretta rose from the plastic chair and went closer to Mrs. King.
Mrs. King spoke in a very low voice that even Nora, with her completely functional hearing, couldn’t make out, and then clacked out again, all eyes in the dining hall on her back.
The residents resumed whispering to each other.
Nora cleaned her plate and got up with it. The old people were all whispering to one another, looking at her, and nodding.
She took her plate to the bussing tray. An assortment of soft lemon bars was laid out for dessert. Yummy, but Nora decided to pass. No lemon bar was worth going back to that weird table. She didn’t even want to walk back through the dining hall. Instead, with a nod at Loretta, she slipped behind the serving counter and through to the kitchen. She passed the gleaming steel food preparation area, where Lynette, Loretta’s assistant, stood wiping the surfaces down with a grayed rag. She passed the deep industrial-quality back sink, its empty maw awaiting the piles of soiled melmac plates, cups, and saucers, and passed the massive blue industrial Rubbermaid garbage can, filled to the top with generic Extra-Cheesy Macaroni and Cheese Dinner boxes and slipped out the back of the kitchen to the corridor where Mrs. King’s office and the storage rooms were.
Nora didn’t particularly want to run into Mrs. King, so she went round to where the hallway met up with the main corridor, just outside the dining hall, and, moving quickly so as to avoid any old people who might already be finishing their lunch and not staying for lemon bars and tea, made her way down to the far end. The back room of the mortuary was the only safe place. Never again would she eat lunch in the dining hall.