This story appeared in 2011 in Southword: New Writing from Ireland.
When I arrived at the Chinatown address given to me by Hope for the Elderly, I pulled into the driveway and turned on my hazards. It was a cold Christmas morning in the city, with a layer of fog threatening to seep over the western hills. I sat in my car for a moment, wondering what would happen if I changed my mind—if I decided not to see this stranger after all. I wasn’t getting paid or under any kind of obligation. I didn’t like the look of her building, a large brick façade fenced in by tall rusted iron gates. Next to it was an elementary school with an empty playground; a swing shifted in the wind, as if a child had just leapt off.
There was a damp smell in the lobby and no working elevator. The thick layers of peeling, brown paint reminded me of an old building I lived in more than fifteen years ago, when I dropped out of high school and ran away to upstate New York. I expected to see cockroaches or a rat nearby.
I hiked up four flights of stairs, taking a break halfway up to readjust the bags, which were filled with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and the art supplies the old woman had requested. I knocked on her door but there was no answer. Her profile indicated she was bedridden, eighty-three years old and never married. I knocked a bit louder. Across the hall, an old black man with patches of white, curly hair opened his chained door a few inches and then shut it again.
“Under the mat, the key is under the mat,” said the old woman.
I lifted the corner of the frayed mat, found a single gold key on a small chain and entered the apartment. The hallway was narrow and dark. On my left, there was a galley kitchen with dull fluorescent lighting and a thick film of residue on the linoleum floor. The hallway led to a tiny, prison-like room, with the old woman in a hospital bed on the left and a sealed window on the right that revealed an intrusive view of the financial district. I could see directly into the offices across the street: each little window representing a person, someone who ate, drank, slept, solved problems, developed affairs, and suffered from loneliness or heartache.
The old woman sat up in bed where she must’ve been waiting for me all morning. She was white. I didn’t know white people lived in Chinatown. I looked around for a chair but couldn’t find one.
Her hair, long, silver, hung in thin, greasy strips over her shoulders. Her face was shriveled like a dehydrated apple. The hospital bed she lay in took up nearly half of the apartment, and broken art supplies were scattered around a table on the other half. A bedpan stuck out from underneath the bed. I breathed through my mouth, something I do whenever I enter a public bathroom.
The old woman lifted her cupped hands in the air and asked me to place mine in hers, but I didn’t move. I thought of the rough, scratchy surface of elephant skin.
“It’s so very good of you to come, my dear,” she said, looking up at me like a frail child. “What is your name?”
“Oh, what a lovely name, dear. You can call me Ruth. So nice to have you here. Can you stay with me awhile?”
I looked out the window to see if my car was still in the driveway, but the trees obstructed the view of the street. It was Christmas, after all, and I’d hoped the meter maids would be off work, or at least kind enough not to ticket or tow on a holiday, but there was no guarantee of any of that.
“Merry Christmas,” said the old woman.
“And to you,” I said.
“So how long have you lived here?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve lived in this apartment for a long time. A very long time. About twenty years, I suppose. I lived in an SRO in the financial district before this, but some big shot came to town wielding his dollars around. You know the type.”
The old woman stared out the window, as I imagined she did for most of the day. On her lap, there was a gold-rimmed address book; when she flipped through it, I saw names, telephone numbers, names scratched out, notes in the margins, grocery lists and what looked like recipes.
“He bought the building out from underneath us,” she continued. “Some of the other occupants left for the East Bay and vowed they would never return to the city, even if she opened her golden gates wide!”
She laughed a hearty laugh, and then began to cough. I went to the kitchen, where I found three glasses marked with water spots. I filled one halfway with tap water and brought it to her.
“Thank you, dear. As I was saying, some friends headed out, but I decided to stay. A social worker helped me find this place. What was her name? Maureen. Yes, lovely girl. She said it would do until something else came along, but, here I am. I’ve made some good friends in the building, so I think this is it! This is home.”
“Well, it’s nice and cozy,” I said, looking around at the clutter and mess.
“I didn’t say it was nice, dear. I said it was home.”
“So I see you’re an artist,” I said, trying to change the subject. Above her bed hung a strange painting of a woman with short dark hair, a half smile, with a backdrop of red, orange, and brown swirls. The woman was solid, still, and unnerved amidst all the chaos of color behind her. The message below her read ‘Peace’.
“That’s one of my favorites. I had the building Super hang it up next to my bed so it’s the first thing I see when I wake up, and the last thing I look at as I enter the other world.”
As the old woman admired her own painting, I looked out the window. I’d been laid off from my sales job on the Peninsula and couldn’t afford another towing fee. When I walked back toward her, she asked me to stop so she could look at my outfit. I wore a fitted cashmere sweater, a red silk skirt, and black, knee-high boots. Ryan liked it when I dressed up. If it were up to him, I’d be in a short skirt and stilettos everyday. We’d been dating for the past five years, if you counted the breaks, affairs and triangles.
“I was once stylish and pretty,” said the old woman.
She asked me to turn around, so I did. And then she asked me to twirl a few times. When I looked at her quizzically, she said, “Don’t question the old lady, just do it.”
I twirled around and around. It felt awkward at first, but then I gained momentum, my skirt flowed around me, and I lifted my arms up high the way ballerinas do as they glide through the air. I could do anything I wanted to—dance like a chicken, flap my wings, crow like a rooster.
“Bravo!” she clapped. “Bravo!”
She held her hands to her heart, and smiled at me. I thought about the director’s warning during orientation: we weren’t to make any promises to return, no matter how much our elderly person begged us. Too many broken promises led to disappointments in the past.
I noticed an arsenal of medication on her nightstand, her crusty yellow nails and thin, pole-like legs under the sheets.
“Do you have family nearby?” I asked.
“No family. Just a few friends, but I don’t see them much anymore.”
The old woman flipped through the address book at random.
“Reg Hibberd. Dead.”
“His wife might still be alive,” she continued. “I don’t know. Her Christmas cards stopped coming a few years ago.”
The address book served as her one connection to the outside world; in it, she documented her friends and their contact information, and crossed out their names one by one with each passing. It was like a waste of a life. She would’ve been better off marrying someone—anyone—and having a few children. At least she would’ve had someone to visit her on holidays, and possibly a few grandchildren to help her. She wouldn’t have had to rely on the company of a complete stranger who watched the clock until the right time to leave.
“I know you must think I wasted my life,” the old woman said.
“I wasn’t thinking that at all.”
“Not everyone wanted to go to college, meet a nice boy, live in a big house filled with happy children,” she said. “Who says that’s the only way for a woman to be in this world? I wanted to paint, go to museums, travel for inspiration.”
She gazed out the window. I looked at my watch. We were at least fifty years apart in age and neither one of us had anything to do on Christmas. Ryan was an atheist, and I hadn’t been on speaking terms with my parents for years, ever since the day my father said Ryan was a waste of time.
The old woman asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to keep you company.”
“What are you really doing here, Corrine?”
Suddenly I felt put on the spot. A warm rush went through me. I thought about Christmas when I was young, our house filled with relatives, my parents chopping vegetables in the kitchen, a production line of me and my cousins rolling hundreds of lumpia.
“I got up early today and drove across town to sign up as a volunteer even though their website said registration was closed,” I said. “I was willing to come to Chinatown, a neighborhood most people won’t go to because of the parking situation, and Hunter’s Point. I figured, ‘who would shoot me on Christmas?’”
“That’s very kind of you, my dear.”
“Are you worried you might turn out like me one day?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Most people are afraid to be old and alone. They come out of fear.”
“I came to give back to the community.”
“There’s lots of other ways to give back, Corrine.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Do you want to stay?”
“I’m supposed to stay for at least an hour.”
“Is that supposed to be long enough to prevent me from killing myself?”
“Do you want to die?”
“No, darling. If I wanted to die, I would’ve stopped taking my medication long ago.”
She asked me for the time and I let her know it was nearly nine thirty. She reached for her medication, lifted the cap off a prescription bottle and rolled a blue pill into her palm. And then a white one, a pink one, and a red gel caplet. With the half-empty glass of water, she swallowed each pill, resting in between doses.
“The white one makes me drowsy,” she said, as she closed her eyes.
When she woke from her nap, the old woman said she’d had a recurring dream she’d been having since she was a young girl.
“I walk through a house with warm golden walls, candles lit on the mantel and a sweet smell of cinnamon. As I make my way through the house, I land upon a set of stairs that lead me to an attic filled with paintings, drawings, pictures of all kind.”
It sounded like something I’d seen before in a movie, or an afterschool special.
“Do you have any recurring dreams?” she asked.
There were many recurring dreams, too many to count. Like the one where small bats the size of bumble bees attacked me, dive-bombed my head until they got tangled up in the nest of my long hair and died.
“I have one where I’m driving at night down a dark road when I come across a horrific car accident,” I said. “There’s an ambulance and police cars, their lights whirling in the night as I draw closer, unable to stop, my brakes pushed to the floor, my foot pumping harder and harder. When I run into the scene of the accident, I can see faces up close, the look in their eyes just before they hit my windshield.”
“Do you enjoy crashing into the accident?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“You must like it if you keep dreaming about it.”
“You mean killing people?”
“That’s not what I meant at all, dear.”
I’d met my obligation to stay an hour, and didn’t want to stay a minute longer. I offered her a meal before I left but she wasn’t hungry. Then I presented her with a pad of thick white stock paper. She held the sketchpad on her lap and complained that it was too big, too bulky for her to use. She liked the new color pencils, though. So much so that she wanted to draw a picture of me.
“But I need to go,” I said.
“It won’t take very long, Corrine,” she said. “Stand close because my eyes are starting to go. You need to stand close so I can really see you.”
I stood in front of her as she opened the new box of pencils and emptied them onto her lap. She rolled the pencils up and down between her hands, drew her knees to her chest, and began.
Every few seconds, she opened her eyes wider to swallow in a feature of mine, and continued to draw. Her thin, wrinkled fingers selected colors at random, first a brown, then red, and black, probably for my hair. She began to use colors I wasn’t wearing: blue, yellow, orange, and green. Her hand glided across the paper like a mad woman. At one point, it slipped off the sketchpad but she continued to draw the air like a conductor to a silent orchestra.
After several more touch ups of orange and yellow, she dropped the pencils back into her lap, sank into the bed and closed her eyes. There seemed to be long gaps between her inhalations and exhalations. She embraced the sketchpad as she slept, and it occurred to me at that moment that creating art was the love of her life, the way she warmed and caressed the pencils. This was her source of pleasure.
When she opened her eyes, she looked around, surprised to see me still standing in the room. One by one, she picked up each pencil, stroked it with her long fingers, and placed it back into the box. The drawing was complete.
“It’s time for you to leave, Corrine.”
She reached for my hands again. Her hands felt moist and shaky, the way mine feel when I’m on a plane that hits turbulence. She tore the drawing off the sketchpad. Before handing it to me, she made me promise to replace the key under the mat. I promised. I didn’t have to promise to return because she never asked me to.
I unfolded the drawing in my car. And then turned it over and back again. Was there some sort of mistake? It wasn’t me at all. Instead, it was a picture of a valley, lush and green, filled with wildflowers. So many wildflowers. I sat there for a long while, taking in the field of golden poppies, open to the sun, the endless field of radiant color.