by Ashley Chipman
Nellie studied the multiplying age spots on the back of her hand. The coffee and auburn spots decorated her opaque skin in every place she could see. She considered those splotches to be unique, individual badges of honor symbolizing her journey through life. Some of the younger women (and even some of the men) at Easton Cottage spent small fortunes on creams that promised to contain vanishing qualities that would erase any signs of the pesky brown spots that seemed to multiply and spread like fungus. Nellie liked the spots. She liked to play “connect the dots” and find pictures embedded and buried in her own skin. Sometimes the pictures jumped out of her head—a kite, a water bottle, a small mouse begging for cheese, two eyes looking back at her—and other times she would sit and have to search for a good time before she could find a new picture. That was the rule with the game: she had to find a new picture every time she played.
The skin on her hands hung softly off her spindly bones and comically clashed with the “Strawberry Margarita”-colored fingernails that had been painted the previous day. Nellie brought the nails close to her clouded eyes and thought of the other colors the beautician had suggested—“Pearly White,” “Gossamer Gray,” “Foggy Peach”—and tenderly felt the smooth surface of each violently pink nail. Both her skin and the nails were smooth to the touch, but while the nails were slippery and uniform in nature, her skin was translucent and had a quiet texture that reminded Nellie of the lamb’s ears that her mother had grown in their home garden. The plant had always looked like a light frost had fallen and covered the leaves that were shaped like miniature lamb’s ears. Her hand resembled that icy-looking plant only in its soft texture. The skin on the hand was aged and had lost all of its elasticity. If Nellie pushed the skin in any which-way, the skin would sag in the direction she pushed and then would slowly creep back to its assumed position. She examined the other hand and saw how the skin hugged the thin needle that had been thrust into it and how the skin fell in ripples around the needle. The skin embraced the clear tube, and Nellie supposed she could see the faint line of the needle beneath her translucent skin. She looked up at the dripping liquid coming from the clear bag above her head. The liquid seemed a sour-milk color and Nellie wished (not for the first time) that they had not made the bag and tube clear.
Soon someone would come in and give her fluid food—the color of liquid skin—through the feeding tube that had been inserted into her stomach and Nellie cringed at the thought. She didn’t like imagining that food could enter her body in some way other than through her mouth. Nellie still remembered when the doctor told her the cancer had spread to her vocal cords and that surgery would be crucial. He informed her that, after surgery, she would never be able to eat or talk ever again because her throat would be too tender. It had been necessary to remove her vocal cords. Nellie could only make little chirping sounds if she tried to speak as air swished through her throat. She liked to sit in her room and chirp to herself, picking out little tunes more familiar to her in years past. Sometimes the doctor would let her drink liquids when he felt it was safe, and Nellie loved the sensation of tossing back some juice or milk and feeling the cold fluids rush straight down into her stomach, chilling her insides. She looked forward to those rare “drink days.”
Easton Cottage was a nice little place with a long, rich history and an even longer waiting list. Nellie was well taken care of there and enjoyed the company of the other residents. Some of the residents had a hard time at Easton Cottage because they felt they were just sitting around, wasting away, waiting to die. Nellie didn’t like such thoughts. Getting old just felt like a light dust settling over her and sometimes it felt like all she had to do was to brush herself off a bit and she would become youthful again. Or at least more youthful than she was now. Other times old age reminded her of a mirror getting foggy after a shower. A light film settles over you, and life becomes just a little more blurry than it was before.
Nellie was not done living her life. Even though she couldn’t talk, she still had plenty left to say and do. First things first—she had to remove that needle from her hand. She gritted her gums together and pinched the needle with the tips of her rosy nails. Like anyone, she disliked needles, but she slipped the needle out as determinedly as if it were an unwanted sliver invading her skin. Nellie edged toward her door and peeked down the hallway. Satisfied that it was quiet outside (the residents were probably taking their second afternoon nap), she shrank back into her room and bolted the door. Darting to her bedroom (as quick as an old woman of 86 years can dart), she went to her old cedar jewelry box, clipped on a pair of polished pearl earrings, and fastened on her blue beaded chain to her reading glasses around her neck. She slipped on her apricot Mary Janes and fastened on a light matching sweater over her floral cotton dress. Nellie placed a small white hat over her wooly white hair, stuck a long pin though it, and pulled a dainty tulle veil over her face. She slipped an empty, oversized embroidered bag onto her slender arm. Lastly, she fished out a set of pearly dentures waiting for her in a hand-painted ceramic mug filled with fluoride next to the sink in her bathroom. Nellie positioned the pearly whites on her gums, sucked the remaining spittle out from where the teeth and her gums met, and set her face in a position of determination. Eyebrows and mouth firmly straight, she checked the mirror to level her hat.
Tottering over to the light switch, Nellie surveyed the tiny apartment one last time and flicked the light off. If anyone came by, they would assume she was napping, and Nellie gave herself three to four hours before anyone came looking for her or before the nurse came to attach her feeding bag. She allowed herself a small smile and moved towards the living room window, opening the shutters and unlatching the window. The well-maintained window easily glided open, thanks to the thick oil Nellie had asked maintenance to apply to it so that she could let a breeze in every once in awhile. She used her velvet doily-encrusted footstool to boost herself up through the window and let out a small twitter of joy for being so fortunate as to have been given a first-floor apartment. She strode down the street, her destination tattooed in her mind.
She had set up the time and meeting place weeks ago and had spent the past week planning her escape and anticipating this very moment. It had finally come, and so far things had gone just as she had planned. Nellie could feel her pulse through her temples, and the smile widened across her face. Her lips remained closed over her teeth and the smile snuck to one side of her face, hiding from the other side. A tiny breeze stirred the few leaves that had fallen, and Nellie went out of her way to step on the crunchiest ones, clutching the empty bag to her side.
Turning the last corner, Nellie saw the object of her expedition. It was a tiny gingerbread of a house that would have appeared quaint had it not been for the forced, startling pink color that enveloped the home. A froofy pink, the color of lipstick tweens wear when they want to start wearing makeup but only have the unusual mosh-poshes of violent purples, blues, reds, and pinks they get as party favors. It was just as the woman had described, and Nellie’s heart leapt into her empty throat at the sight of it. Resolve and teeth set firmly in place, Nellie doddered up to the front door, pink nails gripping the decorative bag in front of her body. Nellie had always thought it rude to ring the doorbell (so demanding and impersonal!), so she drummed evenly upon the wooden door that was the color of a fresh sunburn.
Nellie nervously sucked the gathering moisture under her dentures to the back of her hollow throat as she heard brisk footsteps coming from the other side of the door. The door opened and an airy, breathless young woman stood before Nellie dressed in a cotton dress as violently pink as the house. At first, all Nellie could focus on was the woman’s face, as the rest of her body blended rather oddly, yet uniformly, with the rest of the house. The woman had long, butter-colored, creamy hair that gushed down to her elbows, and she wore no makeup on her clear, heart-shaped face. Her giant green eyes remained fixed on Nellie’s own cloudy-blue ones, and a soothing smile slid across the young woman’s face. She took Nellie by the hand and led her along the porch to the side of the house. Nellie’s wily smile grew as she noticed the woman’s nails that were the exact same color as the house. It reminded Nellie of the color of the pink conversation hearts that are sold by the thousands every Valentine’s Day. The woman showed Nellie to a small shoebox sitting on a rocking chair covered with pink lace and a matching pink silk cushion. Silently the shoebox was transferred into Nellie’s empty bag, and a tight hug was exchanged. The woman gave one last squeeze to Nellie’s hand, and the two departed from each other.
Nellie’s steps down the sidewalk were painfully controlled and deliberate. It was an aggravating and wonderful walk as she willed herself to keep from sprinting down the way. She had to concentrate on each step, making it seem normal and regular. She held the bag gently in front of her, both arms surrounding it in a hug. Nellie’s eyes focused on the path in front of her, and her thoughts focused on the shoebox nestled in her bag. The smile inched from one side to the other, unsure of which side it wanted to be on. It attempted to conceal itself by shrinking, but the wide eyes and heightened eyebrows gave it away. Little chirps escaped from Nellie’s miniature smile as giggles rose up inside her.
Soon enough, she found herself back in front of her open window, and she fetched a small rotting log she had hidden away behind another tree the prior week in anticipation of this moment. Using the log as a boost, Nellie tipped herself back into her darkened room, one hand clutching the window frame and the other embracing the bag to her chest. As soon as she got back in her apartment, she latched the window and surveyed the apartment for intruders. She forced herself to calmly remove and replace the sweater and hat, all the while never removing the bag from her chest (a difficult feat to say the least). An unexpected collection of chirps gushed from her, and she finally could not contain herself. Nellie rushed to her velvet chair soaked in doilies, removed the shoebox from the bag, and placed it on the matching footstool. Twittering gently to herself, she lifted the top off and drew out a month-old kitten. The kitten was as white as Nellie’s hair and had large blue eyes that surveyed Nellie curiously. Nellie lifted the kitten close to her eyes and investigated the kitten, her kitten, tenderly. The kitten looked out of place in Nellie’s old hands. Nellie could see the veins through her spotted hands and compared them with the kitten’s pure, unblemished fur. She stroked the creature with one steady finger and watched as the little thing curled up in her lap. A small purr came from inside the kitten that sounded like a marble rolling down a hallway. Nellie pulled her legs under her up on the couch and joined in the kitten’s purrs with her own gentle warbles.