Ashley was line leader for Mrs. Avenati’s third grade class as they filed into the Mullen’s Lane Nursing Home. She confidently marched far enough into the lobby for everyone to fit in a straight line behind her, but Luis and Mary slowed down considerably after hitting the piss-scented wall of heat immediately inside the door. Danny, assuming the line had stopped, turned to talk with Dave in the pleasant borderline where fresh air mixed with the sickly warmth. Behind them, Deliah, Beth, Parker, Malcolm, Joe, Vicky, Amber, Liz, Dorothea, Dave, and Dante stood in the dark and blasting cold and craned out of line to see if progress was being made up ahead.
“Luis and Mary, all the way in, please!” called Mrs. Avenati. “Danny, line’s moving, turn around!”
“It stinks in here!” said Danny as he entered the thick atmosphere.
“Danny . . .” warned Mrs. Avenati, catching his eye, and raising one eyebrow. The remaining students entered, wrinkled their noses, kicked the snow from their shoes in chunks around the welcome mat, and quickly dressed down to their t-shirts. Danny, Vicky, Amber, and Dorothea draped their jackets over a couch by a delicate old white man with hearing aids, liver spots, a skull like eggshell, and scabs all over. Mrs. Avenati made them pick their coats up and carry them over their arms.
Once they were all in rows like they had practiced, she saw Luis was still fully bundled. “Luis, sweetie, do you want to take your hat off while we sing?” she said. He obediently removed it and held it over his crotch, absently massaging himself through the fabric.
Mary looked around and saw tennis balls over the feet of chairs and tables, like in school, but also over the four-pronged ends of aluminum canes. In the far corner a dusty grey African-American woman with a limp perm and an IV in her arm sat in a wheelchair and watched them under drooping eyelids, kneading a blanket in her lap. A bright pink nurse named Ms. Ferreti smiled behind the reception desk.
Mrs. Avenati counted them off. They sang:
1. We Wish You a Merry Christmas,
2. The Dreidel Song,
3. Ding-Dong Merrily on High, and
4. Joy to the World
Ashley had a nice voice, thought Mrs, Avenati, as did Mary, when she wasn’t just mouthing the words, thinking she couldn’t tell. The rest of them . . . When they finished the Dreidel Song she heard what sounded like the beginning of a fire siren, and was startled to realize the sound was coming from Luis. “Luis,” she said, “What’s wrong honey?”
“It’s too hot,” he wailed.
“Well why don’t we take off our jacket and scarf, then?” she said.
“I don’t want to hold them,” he sobbed.
“It’s hot over our arms too,” whined Vicky.
“Look, Luis,” said Mrs. Avenati, and jerked his zipper down three times, then held the shoulders while he removed his arms from the sleeves. Ms. Ferretti supervised this scene, then led them to a small room of quiet beeps, where a man lay back, jaw slack, one eye milky white. They sang “Frosty the Snowman.” In another room, to a vacant, misty-eyed woman who whimpered quietly, they reprised “Ding-Dong Merrily on High.” To a small knot of an African-American man with a circlet of white hair spilling down his neck, who shakily tapped one finger on the pillow by his mouth but otherwise did not move, they sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
After a few more rooms, Ms. Ferretti led them single file to the cafeteria, where they had a livelier audience; then the TV room, where they sang their entire repertoire. “Alright class,” said Mrs. Avenati once they had finished, “now we have fifteen minutes for you to talk to your elders. So just go around, politely introduce yourselves, and try to make some friends. Some of the folks in here have the most amazing life stories. Snickers and Milky Ways on the bus for anyone who learns something interesting today, okay? King size for the best story.”
This perked them up, and when she said “Ready, go,” they scrambled to find someone interesting. Danny picked a gruff-looking man in a leather jacket with a military haircut, huge moles on his scalp, spittle on his lips, and beetle-brows. Luis and Mary went together to the frailest woman in the room, assuming that her frailty indicated great age and experience. Ashley talked cheerfully to the nurse, who introduced her to a woman who until a few moments earlier had been playing a vigorous game of cards. Vicky wandered down a hallway. Dante made his shy way to one of the two Black people in the room; Dave marched confidently up to the other.
“I was the lead cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1972 to 1987,” said the beetle-browed man to Danny.
“Were you in World War Two?” said Danny. The man laughed.
“Kids and war,” he shook his head. “Not really. I went to basic, but the war ended before I deployed.”
“Well, that’s pretty good,” Danny reasoned.
“Joey?” said the frailest woman to Luis. “Joey, is that you?”
“I’m Luis,” said Luis helpfully.
“And I’m Mary,” said Mary.
“Joey, you came back,” said the woman. “Will you take me home? Please, take me home!” she cried.
“I don’t think I can,” said Luis. Mary nodded.
“Joey, don’t,” she gasped, “don’t leave me here. Don’t- don’t-” she became fierce and ugly, like a goblin, “You can’t keep me here!” she spat. Luis backed away, then turned and ran down the hall, with Mary hot on his heels. Joe, who had found nobody to talk to, took up the opening.
“Joey?” said the woman.
“Nice to meet you!” said Joe.
“Who do you think Joey was?” whispered Luis to Mary.
“I don’t know,” she whispered back.
“Won’t you be dead soon?” said Danny to the beetle-browed man.
“Hah!” said the man. “We’ll all be dead soon. Sooner than you think!”
“How soon?” said Danny uneasily.
“How should I know?” said the man.
“Psst!” said Vicky. “In here!” A door clicked open to a darkened room.
“What are you doing in there?” whispered Luis.
“I’m hiding!” said Vicky. “There’s nobody in here.”
“Can we come in?” said Mary.
“Just be quiet,” said Vicky.
In the dark they played truth or dare. Luis chose truth and was asked his crush. He said Dorothea, because she was pretty and a plausible substitute for the truth, which was Mary. Then Mary chose truth and was asked her crush; but she wasn’t really interested in boys, was most smitten in fact by Dorothea, but of course that was a stupid thing to say, and was trying to work out an answer when a light came on and, “Jesus, you scared me!” said a nurse with her hand on her chest, who had turned from a reversed wheelchair above which a head sprouted white hair.
“Watch your language, young lady!” said the head.
“That’s rich,” snorted the nurse.
“I don’t do it around children,” said the head. The nurse turned it around: she was hunched woman, blind with milky cataracts. Her skin was pale-pink and shriveled and she had an upward swirl of snow-white hair.“So, who’s there?” she demanded. Luis and Mary introduced themselves. Vicky coughed.
“I heard you singing,” said the woman. “Like a barnful of cats. What are you doing in here?”
“We came to hide from an old lady who thought we were someone named Joey,” said Luis.
Her face lit up. “Joey!” she said, staring blindly, smiling, and shaking her head. “You must have been afraid of Linda. She’s very scary. Razor-sharp teeth. Can lift a hundred pounds and run faster than a cheetah.”
“Really?” said Vicky, petrified.
“She’s making fun of us,” whispered Mary.
“Do you know Joey?” said Luis.
“Joey’s been dead for years,” said the woman. “He was a sweetheart, though.”
“Did he abandon that woman?” said Mary.
“Abandon, heavens no,” she said. “Though I would believe it seemed that way to her. He was the only one in that whole godawful family that kept her out of here. Even when he was sick he came and saw her almost every day. But she doesn’t know what’s going on. All she knows is he was looking out for her and then he wasn’t.”
“Was she always like that?” said Luis.
“Oh, no, she used to be very lively, very funny,” said the woman.
“That’s scary,” said Mary quietly.
“Yes,” laughed the woman, “I suppose it is.”
“But that won’t happen to you, will it?” said Luis. “Or us?” The woman shrugged.
“I wish I could say it wouldn’t. But some people fade long before they die.”
“I meant being abandoned,” said Luis.
“Oh.” Said the woman. “Well—you’re not really abandoned. And it’s not so bad. I wouldn’t have chosen to be here. But when you get old—well, if you take a long time to die, eventually all the people that used to care about you are gone. Your parents, sure, but then your friends, your younger siblings, even your kids sometimes. And your brain doesn’t keep up with it. I feel like I should be able to stand up, walk down the street to the nearest payphone, call my little sister or my best friend; but I can’t. They’re all gone.”
Vicky had blocked out the conversation and was busily braiding her hair. Luis felt a sweet pain in his chest. Mary began to cry. “That is bad!” she said.
“Oh honey, you have a long time to live and be happy,” the woman reassured her.
“But one day I’ll be you!” she sobbed.
“Well, maybe, maybe not. Some have it easier than others.”
“But we all die,” said Luis.
“Yes,” sighed the woman. “We all die.” At that moment the nurse returned.
“I think they’re looking for you three. You okay?” she said.
“Yeah,” sniffed Mary.
“Well, Merry Christmas,” said the nurse. “And thanks for visiting. Clara doesn’t get many visitors.”
“No need to rub it in,” snapped Clara.
“Merry Christmas,” said Luis and Mary.
“Merry Christmas,” said Vicky, who had returned to the conversation.
Back on the bus, they took turns saying what they learned. “I learned the cafeteria food here stinks,” said Dave.
Dante said nothing, eyes shimmering.
“I learned about the Battle of the Bulge,” said shiny-eyed Danny, who proceeded to make up an extravagant and violent story that left dozens of Germans and Japanese dead.
“I didn’t know there were any Japanese in the Battle of the Bulge,” said Mrs. Avenati.
“Well,” said Danny, confused, “I think the Japanese were later. He was really old and probably mixed it up.”
“I learned that we all die,” said Luis.
“I learned if you live long enough you end up alone,” said Mary.
“Okay!” said Mrs. Avenati, handing out fun-sized Snickers and Milky Ways. “Danny, I think you get the prize; your story definitely takes the cake.”
Danny beamed. “Of course everyone dies,” he said, turning to Luis and Mary and noisily chewing his king-sized Snickers; “The point is to make the most of your life while you have it.” As he spoke, they could see his tongue milky, glistening, and bristling with nougat, chocolate, and peanut shards.
Lydia Host was born in 1994. She graduated from Tufts University with an English degree in 2016 and received her MPH from the Chan School of Public Health in 2022. In 2021 her short story “Vera” was published in Oyedrum and her story “A Story about a Man and His Dog” won first prize at the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage festival.