“I go home,” she said in a whisper.
Mrs. Chin sat in her wheelchair in the doorway to her room.
“Soon,” she said.
Jon smiled at her as he made his way past.
Mrs. Chin’s smile broadened, her face was kind and serene. The thin sagging skin of her face seemed fuller, younger, and the greyness of her pallor seemed to have turned more pink, more full of life. Jon recognized her as the 4th lady from the dining hall. He was surprised by her return smile. The sight of her blue tooth caused him to regard her as a friend, as if she belonged in his book. Someone he might have known all his life, a confidant. She sat quietly, always with a soft smile as her companions chatted between slurps of soup and buttering of dinner rolls. Though her tablemates spoke to her, as if she were included in their conversation, it seemed to Jon that she spoke little if any English, a few words here and there.
“I go home soon,” she said again.
“Yes,” Jon said. “You have mentioned that. I’m happy for you.”
The name bar mounted beside her door said, ‘Mrs. Gim Toy Chin’. The photo hanging beside her name bar was a picture of a lovely young oriental woman, with dark black hair, wearing a smart red and black body hugging dress. She smiled broadly in the photo but there was no sign of a blue tooth.
‘How many years ago was that picture taken?’ Jon wondered.
“Good morning Mrs. Chin.” Jon gave a slight bow as he stopped to greet her. “How are you this morning?”
She said nothing, just smiled.
‘No English,’ Jon decided, so he smiled back, nodded his head in greeting and continued to his room.
“Not you,” Mrs. Chin said.
“Gui po comes. Not you. I go home soon.”
Jon nodded as if he understood what she was saying.
Mrs. Chin motioned for him to come closer.
“You take me home, Gui po comes soon.”
He didn’t understand. “You are home Mrs. Chin. Your room is right here behind you.”
She shook a finger at Jon.
“Too many die, not right. Gui po comes, makes them go away. You take me home soon. Today.”
Jon patted her arm. “You’re already home dear lady.”
She waved her finger.
“Gui po taking us all.”
‘Dementia’, he thought. ‘poor old woman. I guess that could happen to any of us if we get old enough’.
Her brow furled; she shook her finger harshly at Jon.
‘Although I don’t think I’ve lost any of my marbles.’ Jon thought. ‘Or have I?’
“In here,” Mrs. Chin said, motioning for Jon to wheel her into her room.
Jon wasn’t sure if he should. There might be a rule against doing that. He checked up and down the hallway. There were no doctors, nurses or orderlies that might object and chastise him so he took the chance, quickly took the handles of the wheelchair and pushed Mrs. Chin into her room, pleased to do the favor but fearing the old woman might now ask him for help with something else.
The room was decorated with red and gold wall hangings and a large intricate watercolor painting of a Chinese scene with birds, mountains, tigers and women in long delicate robes. A stack of red envelopes was piled on her dresser, beside them was another stack of paper money bills and a bowl of small packages wrapped in red and gold foil. A waste high narrow pillar next to the dresser held a stoneware figurine of a bald, large bellied man sitting cross legged, a jocular full jowl face with laughing eyes. Jon recognized the figure as Budai, the laughing buddha. A pleasant aroma of light jasmine incense permeated the air.
“Close door,” Mrs. Chin said.
This was already much more English than Mrs. Chin was known to speak.
With the door closed Mrs. Chin stood out of her wheelchair, crossed the room a few short steps to her rocking chair and sat.
Jon’s jaw dropped. Mrs. Chin motioned for him to sit in a wicker chair next to the window. Jon looked at the closed door, wondering if he could excuse himself and continue to his room or if he might have to try to make an escape if the old woman started to show bizarre behavior. He sat, and then it began, Mrs. Chin’s story, as if all her conversation had been bottled up inside her since coming to The Lodge. Until that moment she had let them all believe she could speak no English and that she was so invalid that she was restricted to a wheelchair for mobility.
She was placed there, against her will, several months after the passing of her husband. Their marriage, she told Jon, was arranged before either she or Fu Chang emigrated, many years ago; arranged when both were still young children, arranged the old country way. Fu came as a teenager, working his way as a crew member on a cargo ship. The Immigration Officer decided his name would be Fred, so he would have a proper Christian name instead of a heathen one. That was the name written on the immigration form and that is the name Fu went by, the rest of his life.
“They said I was too sad to run the business,” she said.
“They? The business?”
“But I was the one that ran the business for years. Fu was the one that visited with customers and played his golfing and spent money foolishly.”
“Fu, your husband?”
“Fred. He was no Fred. He was the one that showed our children to be unwise with money, to flaunt and brag and show off like fools. When he was gone it was them that made the tricks to send me to this place, so they could sell the business and waste the money, waste all the years of hard working and sacrifice. But I go home soon, to my little house that they could not sell. I go home so Gui po does not find me here and eat my soul. You will help me. You are wise, you know ghosts.”
Jon scratched his head. “Mrs. Chin I don’t really understand what you’re saying to me.”
She stood from her rocking chair shaking her finger harshly at Jon, as if she were scolding him. “You do what I say. I go home soon. You take me.”
Jon leaned back in the wicker chair, tilting to stay out of reach of Mrs. Chin’s dangerous finger.
“Perhaps I could make a call to one of your children. Perhaps one of them could see that you get home.”
Mrs. Chin threw her hands in the air.
“You crazy. Ungrateful children put me in this place. You do not talk at them. You just take me to my little house before Gui po comes for me too.”
There were seven children. All birthed and raised by Mrs. Chin while at the same time she managed the businesses started with her husband. Three restaurants and two Chinese herbal medicine shops. “Probably all sold off by now”, Mrs. Chin said, “since locked in this prison”.
“It’s not the grandest place,” Jon agreed, “but I’m sure you are safe here Mrs. Chin. The staff seem very attentive. The food is not too bad and look at this lovely room you have, decorated just the way you want.”
Jon actually thought Mrs. Chin’s room was a bit garish and far too ‘red’.
There was money, plenty of it but Mrs. Chin was not concerned about her wealth or even that her children were selling off the businesses built by her and her husband over more than fifty years. It was the legacy. She and her husband had built something from nothing that was meant to be passed on, built upon, made larger than when it was received and last to be passed on to generations that followed. Now it would all be gone and she was confined to this place, discarded like a spent rag, when she still had plenty of usefulness left in her. None of these old people would be able to understand her plight, none of them were Chinese and many of them were already senile, lost in their own forgotten worlds. The nurses and doctors, orderlies and attendants were her jailers, it was their job to do the bidding of those that wanted her put away out of sight.
Mrs. Chin’s little house was her refuge, her sanctuary. It was very small, quite old and often in need of repair. But it was the place that she and Fred first bought in their earliest years when they were able to scrape together enough money for a down payment. ‘You must own property. It never goes away and always increases in its value. Acquire it as soon as you are able’. That is what she and Fred did. It was what she had left, but it was enough. It was safe, the papers for her little house were in Mr. Leung’s vault and he would never surrender them, he was the loyal attorney that had been with she and Fred all their years of business.
It wasn’t safe here, in this place. Gui po stalked the halls and hid in the dark places. Misty tailings could be seen when the setting sun shadows crept their long fingers of light through the hallways of this place. Gui po could be smelled in the air, musty and acrid.
“You think there is a ghost killing people here Mrs. Chin?”
Her face sank into a blank sullen stare.
“There are many in this place. They are sad, some angry. Some died violent or unhappy deaths; not ready to go to the next place and now they linger here. It could be a very long time before they go to their next life. You must escape me from here so Gui po does not eat my soul before my time.”
She returned to her rocking chair, sat slowly, a defeated look upon her small face.
Of course Jon could not simply pack up Mrs. Chin and walk her out of The Lodge. She was an elderly woman and needed proper care, which sounded like she could not rely on her children to provide. With her fantasies about ghosts, clearly she was losing touch. He could share her concerns with Nurse Clara but was certain the head nurse would sympathize and assure him that it was not uncommon for an elderly person to have unusual thoughts, that might be troubling for them, but that is one of the reasons why they were here. Jon would agree with that logic, of course, but perhaps she thought the same of him.
A serial killer in the midst of The Lodge. ‘Old people die, it’s just the natural end to life’. But Mrs. Chin must know as he did, that someone in their midst was killing residents one by one.
‘She must know that Homesman is this Gui po ghost of hers.’
Mrs. Chin wiped a sleeve across her eyes.
“Blow nose,” she said, pointing to a box of Kleenex she wanted Jon to hand to her. “I have nothing, except money, which by itself doesn’t fulfill life, and I have my little house. Now I go home, I am only 4th lady when I stay here.”
Jon handed her the box of Kleenex from the nightstand. He thought he might make his escape right then, since he was already standing.
“That lady that talked too much. Gui po took her.”
Mrs. Chin held her hand next to her face, forming her index finger into the shape of a hook. Jon understood that she meant the lady with the hooked nose, Mrs. Kyvonis. He had seen the old woman at the dining table, one of the four ladies, and thought it remarkable that such a small person had such a large curved nose.
“Mrs. Kyvonis? I think she just passed away. She was quite elderly; it was probably her time.”
“No,” Mrs. Chin was quite adamant. “You don’t know like I know. I saw it in the other place.”
Jon wanted to leave. He inched one step closer to the door. Mrs. Chin rose and took two steps towards him. He inched one more step, she took two. There would be no escape for Jon Magnusson. She reached him, took him by the crook of his elbow and made him sit back in the wicker chair. Then she talked, like the world was on fire. Mrs. Chin, who everyone believed had only a few words of English, let loose with all the words she had been holding in.
When she was five years old and Fu was seven they were brought together in an elaborate ceremony of betrothal. Arranged by their very traditional families. Families of average means, from nearby average sized villages in Guangdong province. She remembered it quite clearly, though she of course had no understanding that their families had set the course for their future right then. It was a magical celebration and she felt as though great honor was bestowed on her and that she was being recognized as something very special. Fu, on the other hand, wanted to escape the boring ceremony and go play with his friends. He didn’t even know this little girl and had no interest in making her a friend. Girls were not allowed to play with boys anyway.
After the ceremony the families parted and returned to their villages. She, Gim Toy and Fu had no contact for many years after that, until she learned that Fu had taken work on a ship, to work his way to Canada, with a promise to return and fulfill his marriage obligation once he had established sufficient means to start a family, an obligation he dutifully fulfilled.
They were young and smart and very hard working, frugal and diligent in pursuit of prosperity, as promised in the land of opportunity. They knew no different. Having come from families of modest means they knew that times could be lean but hard work and perseverance would eventually bring them around. So they kept at it.
Mrs. Chin declared to Jon that overall her life had been happy and fulfilling and she had no regrets but was disappointed that her children put her away in a ‘home’, supposedly for her own good, and then they sold off the restaurants, because they were lazy. Sad perhaps because she did not teach them well, that the land of opportunity and privilege came at the cost of life lessons not learned, that sooner or later life would make them pay for what they had received without their own effort.
“Mr. Leung not let them sell Medicine Shops,” she said.
Jon nodded his head, as if he agreed and though her story was interesting. He still wished he could escape the room but he didn’t want to be rude. She was an old woman and surely he could spare the little time it would take to hear her story and give her his ear and some company. In the end he was glad that he had. He liked her, she was kind and interesting and liked to talk, just like him. Perhaps they would be friends.
“I see Gui po. Looks old but not old like us. Hair long and shaggy, robe not clean, is fat and drinks too much liquor, eats bad medicine, smells like old dog.”
“Is that your ghost Mrs. Chin?”
“You should not have what you have not earned, it will make your mind loose.” She tapped her head.
Jon had not come by any inheritance from his own deceased parents. He wondered if Mrs. Chin could tell that he too was the possessor of empty wealth. Money had never meant much to him; it was just money. He would have money soon though, once Walden sold his little house. Jon imagined it sold to a young family with three small children. They would make a mess of the place, clutter what had been a meticulously kept yard, with refuse and junk, put holes in the walls and soil the new paint in the bedrooms. After all the years he and Harriet had spent toiling in flower beds, planting, and trimming, pruning, and fertilizing, nurturing the perennials. What a waste, what a shame. Perhaps Mrs. Chin resented her children’s waste of her life’s work, that they disregarded what she had built, the same way the likely new owners of his little house would probably disregard.
‘Was Mrs. Chin talking about him? Was she talking about her children or someone else?’
Jon stood with his back to the door. It opened slowly, a thin strip of light from the hallway broke through, then widened until the door was fully open and the shape of a man stood at the threshold, a silhouette against the light. Mrs. Chin gasped. She clutched her hands to her chest.
“Gui po”, she whispered.
Jon turned slowly to see Karl Homesman standing behind him.
Mrs. Chin could not tell that it was Karl. She didn’t want Gui po to mistakenly take Jon, it was not his time.
“You run fast,” Mrs. Chin implored Jon. She moved as far away from the door as the small room would allow. “Take me quickly, without hurting. I have a great fear of pain. Quick, I do not want to linger, die slow, suffer. No pain please.”
“Mrs. Chin, it’s just that Homesman, there’s nothing to worry about, he won’t hurt you, will you Karl?”
Karl slid his left hand into the large square pocket on the side of the white lab coat. He fumbled around then slowly pulled out a small vegetable peeler. He grinned. His right hand slid into the other pocket and pulled a red skinned apple from it.
“Snack time,” Karl said. “I don’t care for the peel. Hello Jon. Come to see your friend?”
“Yes,” Jon said. “Did you want something?”
“I was just checking on Mrs. Chin. Her door was closed. Very unusual for this time of day. I thought she might be needing something, some help or something.”
“No, we were just having a visit. Thank you.” Jon said.
Karl looked at Mrs. Chin then back to Jon. He pulled the door closed as he left them. They were alone again.
“Peeling things,” Mrs. Chin said. “Like the old potato machine.”
She told Jon about the potato peeling machine in the storage basement beneath the kitchen at the old Fortress Café. Like a cement mixing machine, except it had a hundred sharp teeth inside, like a spinning monster that could slice off pieces of flesh over and over until you were peeled raw.
“You mean the potatoes,” Jon said. “Not you or me or a person.”
“One hundred potatoes just like that,” she said. “Then to cutter to make ready to be French fried. To go with the deluxe burger. Nip and chips it was called. Pay extra for cheese. Not with meatloaf. Meatloaf always with mashed potatoes and gravy sauce.”
Jon reached for the doorknob.
“Watch out for that old ghost,” she said.
Jon opened the door, looked down the empty hallway towards his room. He turned to say goodbye to Mrs. Chin and when he turn back to leave, Karl appeared in the doorway, right in front of him. Jon gasped in surprise. They stood face to face.
“Can I put these peels in your waste bin?” Karl asked Mrs. Chin.
His smile was a mocking sneer. Karl squeezed past Jon and dropped his apple peelings into Mrs. Chin’s trash bin. He studied her room.
“Just making rounds,” Karl said, “checking on people. You know, to make sure they’re okay.” He winked at Jon and began to leave again. “Just checking to make sure you’re okay Mrs. Chin. You know what happened to Mrs. Bleakhouse and Mrs. Kyvonis. Not that something like that would happen to you but you can never be too careful. Not to worry though,” Karl tapped the side of his nose with an index finger. “I’ve got an eye out for you.” He snickered as he turned to leave. “She can speak quite good English,” he told Jon.
“You shouldn’t bother these people,” Jon said.
“We all suffer the pain of living with the knowledge of death,” Karl said. “We all have our ghosts and goblins, things that haunt us and go bump in the night. It’s no bother, I don’t mind checking on you Mrs. Chin.” He left.
“I know him,” Mrs. Chin said. “He creeps around like a ghost.” She sneered and pretended to shiver, to say that Karl Homesman gave her the creeps.
“Yes, that is Mr. Homesman from the 2nd floor,” Jon said. “Sadly, I expect he will be one of your neighbors here soon.”
“He’ll be back. He always comes back. He’s not the man you think he is.”
“Is he your Ghost?” Jon asked.
Mrs. Chin turned and faced her window. “Gui po. You watch out. Sneaky, looks like what is not.”
Mrs. Chin returned to her rocker, shaking her head. “You go now, I not go home today. Soon. You come back.”
“Okay, I will,” Jon said. She seemed like a nice lady. He decided they could be friends.
“Go now, talk to lovely bird.”
share this with your FB, Twitter and other friends and follow me on my website