The lobby of the Primrose nursing home smelled like stale cigarettes. It wafted towards me as I pulled open the front door, letting an old man in an electronic wheel chair pass before I stepped inside. He smiled up at me, a plastic tube dangling near his face and leading to nowhere.
“Don’t mind the old black ladies in the hallway,” Natalie had warned me on the phone earlier that morning. “They will give you a weird look, but just act like you’re supposed to be there, you know, wave and it’s cool.”
Natalie had given me all the door codes to get into Primrose, but everything was unlocked. It was not prison. It was a retirement complex. The elevator made crunching noises as it slowly took me up to the third floor. The buttons were rusted with brown flecks. I caught my reflection in the copper panel and attempted to fix my hair.
“Marilyn’s place is the first door when you get off the elevator,” Natalie had said. “When you knock on the door you will hear her say ‘coming”.” She laughed a little into the receiver. “She’s so old. Seriously, when she doesn’t call me back I just assume she is dead. Her place is a mess and it stinks, but she’s sweet.”
I thanked Natalie again.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s a weird scenario, but, you know, I trust you. No one has seen Marilyn but me. It’s kind of funny that you get to meet her. I don’t know why, but she has a prescription for life. I don’t know what she’s sick with or anything.”
Natalie said that Marilyn was 95-years-old. I had two grandmothers. One was 85, fit and worked on a farm outside of Montreal. The other, was 84 and delicate. She lived in a condo by the beach and religiously listened to dubbed cassette tapes of the jazz records my grandfather had made for her before he died.
I knocked on Marilyn’s door.
“Coming,” a crinkled old voice called out exactly as Natalie had described it. When Marilyn appeared she immediately shuffled me into her apartment with jagged movements and stretched up to hug me. She was short and plump with dyed red hair, coarse like a mop, and pounds of make-up caked onto her wrinkled face. The skin on her arms was soft and drooping as she embraced me. “You must be Mish.”
I nodded and smiled at her. “Thank you again for doing this,” I said.
There was garbage everywhere in the sticky, hot apartment. Old Oreo boxes flung on the floor, newspapers in stacks and a kitchen table entirely cluttered with nail polish, powder and tubes of lipstick that she must have had since the late 80s. Everything was off-white, slightly dirty. Marilyn gingerly pulled out her scripts out of a cardboard box on the floor and smiled at me, “I have Xanax too if you need it.” Her voice sounded computerized.
“No,” I said. “Just the Vicodin is good.”
“How many would you like?”
I only had $60 in my pocket. Marilyn sold for $5 a pill, but Natalie had warned me that the milligram was low. I would need probably four pills to even get slightly high with my tolerance. I contemplated running outside to my van and asking my bandmates for more money, but they were already annoyed with me for making them drive me across town to buy drugs. They were mad at me for being so mean and cranky during the mere 10 days I had been off any opiates.
“12 is fine. I’ve got $60 here.”
Suddenly, a little dog more decrepit than Marilyn was rubbed up against my feet. I kneeled down to pet the creature. He sniffed at my leather boots and I watched his toe nails leave tiny marks on the pieces of blank paper on strewn about the floor.
“You have so much make-up,” I commented pointing towards her kitchen table of beauty products. There was about 100 bottles of nail polish in all colors, but pink hues dominated. Marilyn’s nails were painted with thick, gooey coats that had now dried into textured clumps. I imagined her sitting at her table, lathering on coat after coat, her arms shaking as her dog pitter-pattered around the messy apartment.
“You are so beautiful,” she told me as she slowly counted out the white pills in the palm of her soft hand. “All you young ladies these days. Really, quite gorgeous.”
I didn’t feel beautiful. I felt like an ugly addict, but Marilyn’s words afforded me camaraderie with her. She didn’t even question why I was here. She just shelled out the pills. And it wasn’t about the $60. She was just helping me out because she could. Because Natalie had asked her to.
Marilyn’s arms were stacked with bangles, beads and colorful shell bracelets. Around her neck, she had layered costume necklaces the way a child would. She had knowingly abolished Coco Chanel’s rule of jewelry: “Always take one item off before leaving the house as to not over accessorize.” I doubted that Marilyn ever left this place.
“Do you have anything I can take the pills in?” I asked.
“I have saran wrap?” She offered, her eyes dodging around the mess for the thin yellow box.
The thought of using her saran wrap made me feel uncomfortable. “It’s okay,” I replied. “I’ll just take them in my pocket.” I shoved my stash into my jeans.
Marilyn asked for my phone number. She shoved a stack of garbage off her kitchen counter and adjusted her glasses before grabbing a pencil and post-it. I gave her my phone number with one number off. I got paranoid. I don’t know why, but I just imagined something terrible happening to her and my name and phone number being a clue left on the counter.
“Well, thank you again,” I said smiling. I reached down and hugged Marilyn. “Really, thank you. I don’t know what Natalie told you, but I’m traveling and this is really helping me out.”
She smiled and said nothing. Her lipstick stretched just past the natural lines of her lips.
The minute I left Primrose I was giddy. That happy, stomach flip-flop I get right after I score jelly beaned inside me. I popped a piece of gum in my mouth and let my saliva naturally manifest. As I walked across the parking lot in the hot Austin sun, I worked my tongue to create enough spit in my mouth to swallow down a few pills. An old woman in a blue sundress was walking her dog slowly across the cement. Her Jackie O. sunglasses balanced on her bulbous, manly nose. When I had enough saliva in my mouth, I spat out my gum, popped 4 Vicodin and swallowed. The pills got stuck. I worked more saliva. I started running towards my van across the street. I needed water. The old woman looked at me quizzically. I grinned at her as she moved past me, slow as molasses.