Awakened from a colorless life, Edna is painting the town red
Edna woke up to a sharp pain in her head.
Pain was no stranger to her. It had draped itself around her sloping shoulders ever since she became eligible for the senior discount, perhaps even before. Most days Edna wore this pain with pride — to her, it was a sign she’d lived long and well. The ache in her knees was a souvenir from countless sunlit strolls, just as a lifetime of laughter had bloomed into the spiderwebs at the corner of each eye.
In her youth, Edna had proudly shown her friends the stitches she’d received from tumbling out of the old mulberry down the lane. Sixty years later, yet in the same breath, she joyfully complained of her sciatica to the rest of her bridge party, slapping cards down with a crisp snick-snick-snick.
Yes, pain had come calling many times over the years and never so much as in the mornings, when it seemed the body most remembered its woes. But this morning’s was pain of a different sort: sudden, icy, and all too immediate, pressing against her skull like a caged thing.
It was a shame too because Edna had been having the loveliest dream. A long grassy path had stretched before her, crowded with wildflowers in riotous bloom. The air swelled with life, sound, and more colors than she could recognize. It reminded her of photographs she’d seen of the French countryside amidst the dozens of unused travel guides stacked on her bookshelf. Edna had always wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, but family and fear had clutched her ankles like a stubborn toddler until, before she knew it, she’d grown old within 10 miles of where she’d been born. Now, with her kids thrown across the country and the late Mr. Baker nearly 10 years in the grave, Edna had settled into a quiet life. The dream made Edna realize how starved for color she had become. And now, this ungodly pain.
There was no use continuing to stare at the gray, dawn-lit ceiling fan as if it could solve any of her problems. With a heave, Edna sat up and swung her thin legs over the side of the bed. A look around at the drabness of the bedroom made the pain in her skull worsen as she searched in vain for color, any color at all within her surroundings. Edna sighed and shook her head. After an aching odyssey to the bathroom, she took her curlers out and swallowed a pharmacist’s weight in pills. By the time she settled down in her habitual spot on the porch with a nice cup of tea and a muffin, the rest of the street was just starting to wake up.
Mr. Morrison’s sprinklers came on next door, drenching the Perkins’ surprised Pomeranian in the act of leaving a rather unpleasant offering on the old bachelor’s manicured front lawn. The dog’s sharp yelping alerted Hannah the mailwoman coming down the sidewalk, and Edna watched her dodge the soggy bullet just in time as it shot down the pathway and back to the safety of its home turf. Hannah turned to watch the little dog go, then heaved a sigh of relief and shook her head, which made Edna chuckle knowingly. That dog was 10 pounds of pure evil.
Edna got up from her usual porch seat, still wincing from that bizarre head pain, and went down her walk to greet Hannah at the front gate. The postal worker was still a few houses down, wrestling with some slippery catalogs, so Edna simply rocked on her feet and waited, glancing around at the nearby houses.
Her neighbors across the street were stirring as well, it seemed. Through the second-floor window she saw the grinning face of her young friend, Bernard. Buddy, as everyone called him, held two huge shirts up to the glass, filling the entire window. That was understandable; for a 15-year-old, Buddy already showed signs of the tall, strapping man his father was, with none of Bernard Wilson Sr.’s mean streak. Young Buddy was as sweet as they come, no doubt about that, and he and Edna got along like a cough and a sneeze. At least once a week he’d begun asking her to choose the shirt he’d wear to school that day, claiming she had a far better eye for color than he. Edna was flattered and took the job far too seriously.
After flicking her thumb against her nose a few times in thought, Edna pointed to the short-sleeved button-up on the right. That dusty shade of peach would go nicely with his golden skin and dark curls, both inherited from his sweet-voiced mother. Buddy dropped the loser — an emerald green polo — and gave her a thumbs-up before disappearing from the window. The old woman shook her head, smiling.
Hannah drew near and greeted Edna with a friendly nod.
“Thought you were a goner for sure with that dog,” Edna said in greeting, folding her fine-boned hands atop a fence post. Hannah crinkled her eyes and chuckled. It was rare for the postwoman to give a real smile, but Edna had grown accustomed to finding her amusement in other ways, like in her eyes and the twitching of her broad nose.
“I’d be ’clined to agree with that,” Hannah said, riffling through her mailbag. “Never was one for physics, but with the velocity he was goin’, that little booger would’ve taken me out, no problem.” Everyone on the block had a different name for the Perkins’ tiny white dog. Some were age-appropriate, others less so, but none were spoken within earshot of his owners. Hannah favored “booger” for the vicious little thing. His actual name was Edgar.
Across the street, the front door of Buddy’s house burst open with a clatter as the boy emerged, pursued by his towering father. Buddy was wearing the shirt Edna had chosen and, just as she’d predicted, it looked wonderful on him.
Apparently, Bernard Sr. didn’t share this opinion.
His voice rolled down the street both ways as he thundered, “Buddy, no son of mine is gonna wear girl’s clothing. Not today, not ever! You get right back inside and change — quick, now!” Noticing they had an audience, Buddy’s father shot a glare across the street to the two women who were watching, and suddenly they found themselves fascinated with the streetlamp, the gum on the sidewalk, the soggy present Edgar had left on Mr. Morrison’s lawn….
Buddy, no son of mine is gonna wear girl’s clothing. Not today, not ever! You get right back inside and change — quick, now!
Meanwhile, across the street, Buddy stood planted to the driveway, gripping his backpack straps with white knuckles.
“Dad, this ain’t a girl’s shirt.”
“What are you talkin’ about? It’s pink. Pink’s girly.” Clearly Bernard Sr. had quite a limited idea of gendered clothing colors.
“Why should it matter? My guy friends wear pink all the time. It’s not just for girls. Seriously, Dad, what year you think this is?”
“I don’t care what your friends do, and I also don’t care for your tone, Bernard Joseph Wilson! Now go in and change, no more arguments.”
Buddy looked like he wanted to argue. Then he looked like he wanted to cry. He turned toward the street, and when his eyes found Edna, the despondency in his expression scooped her heart right out of her chest. Finally, the husky young man unclenched his death grip and dropped his backpack on the lawn before trudging back inside. His father held the door for him, then let it slam shut on the end of their argument.
“Poor kid,” Hannah mumbled, shaking her head. This was an unfortunately common occurrence. It was always something minor, but Buddy’s father had a knack for finding ways to pass judgment on his son and inevitably find him wanting. Edna cursed herself; she should have known better than to pick a shirt that would spark another of these criticisms.
The pain she’d woken up with was starting to grate on her nerves, and when Edna got like this her grumpiness could get her into trouble. She knew if she didn’t go back inside soon, she’d go over and give Buddy’s father a piece of her mind, despite being easily a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than he. So, the old woman got her mail and waved Hannah off with promises of a lunch date soon.
The morning trickled by in a sleepy sort of way. Edna took medicine for her head, to no avail. It was nearly noon before she decided to venture into the backyard to tend her little garden. After grabbing the watering can by the back door, she came out and looked down into the yard.
Edna gasped, nearly dropping the watering can. It was chaos.
Somehow Edgar, that little demon dog, had managed to tunnel his way into her yard and now was busily digging up the hollyhocks she’d planted just yesterday. His white fur was still damp from the sprinklers, and mud streaked his body in broad tiger stripes. He looked up when he heard her come onto the porch and growled. Then he went back to digging, possibly even more avidly than before.
Edna was furious. She didn’t think. She couldn’t think. She did something amazing.
She snapped her fingers in Edgar’s direction, and the dog turned blue.
This is not to say he became depressed or melancholy in nature. No, sweet Edgar was suddenly a beautiful range of hues, from the pale cornflower blue of his mud-caked fur to the deep blueberry of his snout. The dog was entirely, fabulously, and utterly blue.
Edgar must have felt something was wrong because he looked down at his little blue paws. The sorry little thing must have jumped clean into the air with surprise! Edna could only stare in shock as the Pomeranian rolled on the ground, scrubbed his face, and tried to rid himself of the unfortunate reality of his new coloring. Finally, the whimpering beast turned tail and ran out of her yard. She doubted he would be back anytime soon.
Releasing a breath that she didn’t know she’d been holding, the old woman slid down onto the top step of her back porch, gripping the railing for support. In vain, she wracked her brain to find sense in what just happened.
Then Edna realized a second amazing thing: The pain in her head was gone. Not only that, but all of the aching in her joints had also disappeared. She felt the best she had in years. Wonderingly, she stared down at her hand. One snap had turned that pooch periwinkle. Was it a trick of the sun, maybe a product of her elderly, addled brain?
Edna looked around her yard, searching for something else on which to test this strange new trick. Her gaze fell to the watering can that had fallen from her limp fingers and now lay on the bottom step. Wiping sweaty palms on her house dress, Edna reached out a hand. One snap and the dented metal now shone a hideous traffic-cone orange. Grimacing, Edna tried for a more pleasant color. Once more she snapped at the can, thinking lilac, lilac, lilac over and again in her mind. The orange disappeared into a lovely pale purple, the same shade as the flowering tree that stood watch over her tiny garden plot.
“Well!” Edna exclaimed, shaking her head. Then, she grinned. “Well,” she repeated, this time feeling a rush of giddiness. If this was old age finally seeping into her brain, then it was certainly the fun kind. She wondered what Buddy would make of this.
* * *
Thinking of Buddy made her remember his father’s anger that morning. She stopped grinning. If only Edna had some real way to help her friend or, at the very least, punish his prickly father. She hardly thought a blue dog or a purple watering can would help the young man’s troubles.
There was no telling how long she sat there on the steps, thinking and worrying and watching the shadows play on the lilac edges of her watering can.
That evening, Edna made every chair in her house chartreuse. Chair-treuse, she’d giggled to herself, snapping away like a band leader keeping time until her furniture glowed green. Then, yellow. It began to feel like she was a child drawing on the walls with colored markers, nervous at getting caught but jittery with excitement at the thrill of remaking it as her own. Finally, she changed them back as best as she could. There were one or two pieces of furniture whose original color she couldn’t remember, so she made them the stormy Payne’s gray of a newborn’s eyes.
For dinner she ate viridian chicken breast and burgundy mashed potatoes, then washed it down with an ice-blue glass of sweet tea. Color had reentered her life, and Edna could not be happier about it. She only briefly stopped to question why and how this had come to pass. The wonder with which she’d viewed life as a child had faded in her adulthood with the endless marching rhythm of how, why, and how much, but old age brought back the amazement of her youth as she watched the world explode in newness all over again. Turning tricks with the colors around her thrilled Edna; this was one gift horse whose dental work she had no intention of checking.
When she finally slid her tired body into bed that night, one fearful thought did enter her mind: Would this gift still be there when she woke up? It was after long, pensive contemplation that she finally drifted into sleep, deciding that if she woke the next morning to find this power gone, she would go down to the greengrocer and buy three of every flower they had, open up all the windows in the house, get out her old oil paints and a canvas, and make colors the old fashioned way. Cadmium red, yellow ochre, viridian green … it was on ultramarine blue that Edna finally nodded off with a smile on her face.
The next morning, Edna’s hands shook.
She lay in bed, trying to gather the courage to turn her ceiling fan pink.
Finally, she closed her eyes and raised her hand.
Tremors shook her fingertips, and it took her a few tries to get a good firm snap, but she finally did it. One eyelid cracked open, then the other, and a tear ran down her temple and into her hair. Another closely followed.
Here she was, crying like a fool under a bright fuchsia ceiling fan. Who’d ever heard of such a silly thing?
New life invigorated Edna, and she felt 50 again — no, 40! For breakfast she made green eggs and ham, then brought the feast out to her daily spot on the front porch. With a twinge of guilt, she realized she’d forgotten to check in with Buddy yesterday to tell him what happened and feed him enough multicolored cookies to make him stop worrying about his father and start worrying about his blood glucose. Nevertheless, today was a new day, and she intended to make use of it.
Breakfast went untouched for now. The old woman’s short legs worked like locomotive pistons to bring her across the street to Buddy’s house. His mother answered the door, looking down into Edna’s beaming face.
“Hello, Helen,” Edna said, “and good morning. Is Buddy up and about yet?”
Buddy’s statuesque mother had a slow, graceful way about her that always reminded Edna of a Muse, or perhaps a marble-hewn goddess. This morning, Mrs. Wilson had apparently been cooking. A swipe of chocolate anointed her forehead, and a dusting of flour had settled across one high cheekbone. When Helen saw who’d come to call, a dreamy smile made itself comfortable on her face as if it had always been there.
“The little bear still sleeps, but I can send him over as soon as he’s up. Or, come in for coffee?” But Edna was already shaking her head with a smile at Helen’s invitation.
“Oh, I won’t impose, especially as you seem to be in the middle of some serious baking. Just tell him to come by after school. And …” Edna paused for a moment, flicking her thumb against her nose. Finally, she continued, “Let him know that I thought the shirt he had on yesterday looked very sharp. He should wear it today, too.” With a nod and a wave, she set off back down their driveway and across to her waiting breakfast. If his father still had a problem with that shirt, this time Edna would give him a substantial piece of her mind.
Half an hour later, Buddy’s front door slammed again. Edna hoped they’d invested in good hinges on that sorry thing. She nibbled the last of her breakfast and watched as yesterday’s scene unfolded once more today, perhaps at an even higher decibel. Her brow furrowed, she rose to defend her young, pink-clad friend. But she stopped. An idea had hit her. It was a devious idea, though of course the best ones usually were. Raising her hand toward Buddy’s father, she snapped her fingers.
Buddy’s eyes went round and he gasped, but she sprung to the porch rail before the gawking boy could say anything.
“Mr. Wilson, I simply love that color on you,” Edna called from her porch, waving at the two of them. Bernard Sr. waved back at the old woman across the street, oblivious to his son’s bafflement.
“See, Buddy? I told you. This is the color a real man wears.” Bernard Sr. plucked at his button-up shirt with a smirk.
“B-but dad, it —” Buddy’s stammers stopped with his father’s raised hand.
“Now, son, I don’t want to hear it. Wilson men are known as real men, not afraid to be bold and embrace their masculinity.” To Edna he called, “Thank you, Mrs. Baker, you’re too sweet. I was telling Buddy here that he should wear things like this more often. Right, Bud?” He turned back to his son, who by now was actively stifling a laugh. Bernard Sr. frowned. Something wasn’t right.
“Um … Dad, do me a favor and look at your shirt.” Buddy scrubbed the smile off his lips, fighting another laugh.
“Why …” Still frowning, Bernard Sr. looked down. He yelped.
His shirt was the exact shade of pink as his son’s. That was impossible. Just 10 minutes ago, his shirt had been army green. No article of clothing he owned was even close to this color.
So profound was his alarm that he didn’t register the guffaws from his son nor the satisfied grunt from the sweet old lady across the street. His ruddy skin went pale, and he turned this way and that like a dog chasing its tail, trying to figure out just how this was possible.
It didn’t stop there. Every single morning, without fail, Buddy’s father left the house in a shirt that turned pink before he got to his car. Some days, his pants became pink too. Rose, bubblegum, watermelon, coral, a veritable bouquet of pinks took over Bernard Wilson’s wardrobe.
One day, he sprinted to his car and drove away, looking down at his clothing so often that he nearly got into an accident on the way to work. Finally he arrived, satisfied. Not a single inch of his clothing was pink. He got out and turned to close the car doors then nearly fainted as he realized that his brand-new truck had somehow been transmogrified into a vibrant magenta.
This persisted without deviation, for months on end. Bernard Sr. would never find out how it happened, nor would he discover who was responsible. It became a part of the neighborhood morning routine: gruff mailwoman Hannah, the Morrison sprinkler and the Perkins’ mysteriously blue devil dog, Mr. Wilson’s affinity for pink shirts. And over all of it, there sat sweet old Edna Baker, settled on her front porch with a hot cup of tea, smiling.