In some ways, Nellie Welch's memory is so keen that she delights in recollections, smiling on 80 years that have taken her from Ohio as a baby to Colorado, where she became a printer, then to Washington in 1941.

She never married, opting instead to work the night shift at the Government Printing Office for more than 40 years and save most of her earnings.

But Nellie Welch can't remember what she did with the $120,000 she saved along the way -- including stacks of war bonds two feet high, worth more than $15,000.

In the one-bedroom apartment on 10th Street NE, where she has lived all of her 44 years in Washington, Welch sits by the telephone reading Bible stories as her landlord, Ed Willis, tries to jog her memory.

When he shows her a series of canceled checks from the past year, for sums ranging from $500 to $25,000, she winces slightly.

The money has been paid to the order of a 30-year-old man, of no fixed address, who called himself a nurse's aide.

The money was used for payments on color television sets, two Datsun 300ZX sports cars, cash for trips to Atlantic City, N.J., and $100 a week for "hair process."

"I wouldn't say he was a friend, more like an acquaintance," Welch said of the man as Willis shook his head. "He used to stop in and see me, quite nice fellow. He'd run errands, get checks cashed for me at the bank, and if he needed a little cash, I'd help him out."

Willis has taken on Welch's case as a crusade of sorts.

When he took over his father's apartment building 20 years ago, Welch was his oldest tenant.

She had never bounced a check until she met the so-called nurse's aide.

Then, suddenly, Welch's financial situation was in turmoil.

By the time Willis found out what was happening, Welch had only $12 in the bank and had bounced $600 in checks at the corner grocery store.

"When I look at Nell, I see everybody's grandmother. You know how they get," Willis said.

"Nell," Willis called out abruptly, "what day is today?"

"Sept. 18, 1986," she replied with certainty.

"No," Willis corrected her, "it's January 1985."

She smiled sweetly. "No, Ed. You must be wrong."

Willis shook his head.

"And when I think about some slick dude charging her $500 to change a light bulb," he said holding up a canceled check, "it just burns me up."

The D.C. police's check and fraud squad is investigating the case but has been stymied because Welch's signatures are on the checks and she did sign a bank release form giving the man the right to cash her war bonds.

The U.S. attorney's office has refused to prosecute because it says her memory lapses impair her credibility as a witness.

Meanwhile, her "acquaintance" apparently continues to live the good life.

Ostentatiously dressed in bright colors and sporting a "do rag" over his freshly done hair, he would stroll into the bank and demand $10,000 and sometimes more, bank employes recall, then head for the gambling tables in Atlantic City.

He crashed the first Datsun he bought, then bought another.

Two weeks ago, police picked him up for questioning when the auto tags of his car were discovered on a stolen car, but he was released.

And Nellie Welch is broke, but she doesn't seem to know it.

"I have a savings and checking account -- more than enough to pay for the light, gas and phone," Welch said smiling and patting thinning straw-blond hair with some vanity.

Willis said he never has seen her wear any clothes other than the fading green nightgown and gray sweater she had on.

She once injured her hip in a fall and now getting around is difficult for her.

It has been years since she's been outdoors.

"I feel all right. I have good health," Welch said proudly.

"When did you fall?" Willis asked her.

"Twenty-five years ago," Welch replied.

"No," Willis said. "It was two years ago.

"But Nell, you don't seem to understand," said an exasperated Willis.

"It looks like you gave your money away."

She thought about it briefly.

"I may be crazy, but I'm not that crazy," Welch said as Willis let out a deep sigh.