Louella tugged at the hem of her blue-and-red flowered shirt and pulled it over the waistband of her lemon-yellow stretch pants. However, as soon as she moved, her belly showed again. The thrift shop where she bought her clothes didn't have a dressing room.
Another renter at her apartment often asked her, "Hey, lady, do you dress in the dark?" Louella didn't understand. She saw herself as a box of crayons: vibrant, and clear. After all, the sky was blue and flowers were red. When she was young her hair had been yellow like the sun. Nature mixed all kinds of colors.
Her bus fare grew hot in her hands as she shifted the coins from one hand to the other. Her bus was ten minutes late. Helen Conway expected her to arrive at her house at noon, sharp. Louella couldn't read the big words in stories, but she could read the numbers on her digital watch.
She sighed. Her friend, Miriam, had given that watch to her for her sixty-fourth birthday. Louella couldn't look at it without missing her. Miriam had suffered a mild heart attack and her son had insisted that she move in with him on the other side of town.
Louella had been present when Miriam came home from the hospital and her son explained how important it was for her not to be alone. "Think about it, Mom. A house in the suburbs away from the factory smoke around here. Now, isn't that a healthier place for you to be? You would get to spend time with your grandkids. Relax and enjoy." He glanced around at her kitchen as if it were a dumpster and not one of the friendliest places Louella had known.
Miriam hadn't looked convinced. She tugged at the kinky, gray-black curls behind her ears, a habit Louella noticed whenever Miriam became anxious. "I've lived alone for twenty years. A woman gets set in her ways after a few decades." She twisted her nutmeg chin as if she could tie it into a knot. "Well, I wouldn't have to use my social security for rent, but I don't know."
Louella had swallowed hard, and then answered before the lump in her throat grew too large for her to talk. "I think you should go with your son." It wasn't what she wanted -- not even close. She didn't have many other friends, especially no one like Miriam, who didn't talk to her as if Louella came from another planet, or needed sentences broken into loud syllables. Some people didn't even look at her as they spoke; they acted as if they had better things to do, somewhere else.
Now Louella's loneliness weighed on her chest as she tossed her bus fare from one hand to the other. Miriam had been gone almost a week now.
The bus finally arrived and stopped four feet from the curb. Louella lifted wide stiff knees up the steps and then counted the amount aloud as she paid for her fare. "Oh no!"
"What's the matter, lady?" The bus driver took a swig from the thermos next to him and sighed. He seemed to be staring at the polyester balloon of Louella's belly.
"I'm short ten cents. I probably dropped it outside." She looked at her hands as if it could have dissolved into her palms.
The driver sighed and gripped the steering wheel.
"Wait a minute." Louella plopped into a side seat and dumped the contents of her purse next to her: a vial of her arthritis medicine, Celebrex, needed to be refilled at the clinic soon, a package of tissues, her apartment key, a bus schedule, a small change purse. Then she fished out a dime from the coin purse. That money had been counted out for her return trip. "This will work, won't it?"
"Yeah, fine. Just sit down now. We can't have passengers falling, you know. Makes me look bad."
She figured she had enough money for bird seed tomorrow and was grateful, and then hastily returned the items to her purse.
She felt glad to sit, at least for a while. She had tried to apply for a job as a housekeeper in a nursing home, but had trouble filling out the application. Miriam always helped her with writing and spelling. Miriam could spell anything.
"I'm sorry," the man in the employment office had said. "All our employees need a high school diploma. It's our policy." He smiled without showing any teeth, but it didn't last very long. It could have been a twitch.
"I'm sorry, too. Nobody can clean like Louella."
Miriam would have known what to do . She always had. Miriam even had named Louella's parakeet. Another tenant owned it, and then decided it was too much trouble to keep. Louella loved the bird's bright green color. She had bought both bird and cage for four dollars.
"I want a special name for him."
"He'll already be special. Does the name matter?"
"Sure it does. I don't want to call a special parakeet Greeny or Polly."
"Okay," Miriam had said. Her brown eyes flashed as she put one thin, dark hand on Louella's thick, ivory forearm. "I do have an idea for a name, but I need to show you something first."
Miriam went to a bedroom drawer and pulled out a pendant with a green jewel carved into the shape of an ornate turtle. "My husband gave this to me when he came back from the service. He was all over the globe then: Korea, Japan, China. It's a semi-precious stone, but it's more than precious to me. Jade was made into jewelry as long as 2,000 years ago in China. Of course, this pendant isn't anywhere near that old. Although heaven knows, being married to my husband aged me. The turtle is the symbol for long life.
"You see, he liked the women. I forgave him and then moved on. He wasn't ready to change. I keep this pendant to remember to hold onto the good in the past and forget the rest. Live in the present moment. The fact is, most of us don't experience diamond lives. They tend to be more semi-precious. Some of it is rock-crushing ugly. Some of it is semi-precious like this jade."
"I'm not sure what you mean," Louella said. "But I'm guessing the good part is we're friends."
"Right on. And Jade will be your friend, too."
"Jade." Louella hummed as she gave him some seed. He whistled back a bright, yet unintelligible song.
"I think he likes his new name," Louella said.
"Hard to say what a bird thinks. I'd have to be another parakeet to know for sure."
"Well, as long as Jade knows he's special."
"And so are you!" Miriam had hugged Louella so completely she felt the goodness in it for days.
Louella sighed as she thought about Miriam and Jade. She got off the bus at her usual stop. The Conway place stood alone at the top, a house as white as a blizzard, and just as cold. Four Roman pillars held up a porch that was never used.
Mrs. Conway greeted her when she arrived. "You are ten minutes late."
"I'll work overtime. No extra pay."
"Not today. I need to have you out of here by six."
"I don't mind working extra."
"I'm having a dinner party tonight, so you need to leave on time today. I know it's sheet-washing day, but you can do that on Wednesday. I want you to polish the silverware, iron some table linens, and scrub all four bathrooms."
"Gosh, Mrs. Conway, are you having the president or something?"
"The silver polish is under the sink."
Louella finished well before six o'clock. The floors gleamed. The tile reflected with the intensity of a theater marquee. She stood in the third-floor bathroom and saw hundreds of green-and-gold muted versions of her own image. Green, like her parakeet and Miriam's necklace. "Louella, meet Louella. She cleans for presidents."
When Louella was ready to leave, Mrs. Conway beamed. "You did an incredible job today. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Uhm, I need an extra ten cents for bus fare."
Mrs. Conway shook her head and laughed. "No problem. You can have an extra ten dollars as well. Thank you. Will I see you on Wednesday?"
"I'm sorry I made such a fuss about a few minutes. You're a good worker and a precious person, Miss Louella."
"Semi-precious, like jade -- and like everyone else is. I just work mighty hard to get there."
Mrs. Conway narrowed her eyes as if confused.
"You would have to ask my friend, Miriam, what that means. But she moved last week."
By the time Louella reached her apartment complex she felt too tired to open a can of spaghetti for dinner, but she hadn't had much to eat all day. She'd manage. Somehow. She always had. Twilight crept along the horizon. She reached into her purse for her key. It wasn't there. After a long time fumbling through the contents, she emptied everything onto a front step. Nothing.
The superintendent had a key. But, no lights were on in his front window. She knocked. No answer.
She wanted to cry. First she had lost part of her bus fare and now her key. A tightness pressed into her chest. She wondered if this was how Miriam felt when she had the heart attack. But she knew it was fear. She didn't want it to win.
A woman and a small boy passed on the sidewalk.
"Mommy, is that the lady who isn't any smarter than me?"
The woman reddened as she grabbed him by the elbow. "Now who told you that?" She hurried the child up the hill.
Breathe in and out. Slow. Just like Miriam taught you. No, Louella doesn't give up easy. The pressure in her chest went away.
Miriam had a key, but she didn't live there anymore. Louella looked at the apartment window on the second floor where Miriam had lived and saw the kitchen light turn on. Could it be?
She moved as quickly as she could up the stairs and banged on the door.
"What's going on out here?" a familiar voice asked as the door opened.
"I know who I am." She grinned, her dark face alive. "Now, what's all the fuss about?"
"I left my key on the bus and ..."
"I'll bet you haven't eaten either. Canned tuna and apples are about all I've got right now, though. Moved back in late this afternoon. Unfortunately, I will only be able to stay for a few days. Next week when the rent is due a new renter will move in. Now there is something I didn't consider. You should have heard my son fuss when he heard about it. He was unhappy enough about bringing me back."
"Didn't things work out?"
"My big boy has been manager too long. He's a bit bossy. His wife dusts doorknobs twice a day and makes me as nervous as she is. The kids fight more than caged territorial animals."
"You could move in with me. Sell some of the furniture. Heck, we could share rent. It'd be a little crowded for a while, but ..."
Miriam grabbed Louella's arm and laughed until she snorted. "Well, my dear friend, we should have come up with that idea years ago. How super-smart of you. Come on in and we'll tell my son."
Louella lifted her chin and pulled her flowered shirt back into place. If Miriam says I'm smart, I've got to be, she thought. Heck, nobody's smarter than Miriam.