“I ain’t been on the rag for five or six years and I’m only twenty-seven
years old. The nurse at Public Health said it was because
of poor diet, probably drinking too. Just
as well, I ‘spect. The way we been living it’d
be a hassle fooling with that every month. Nurse said
that’s why I lost some of my teeth too. I know’d that
already. I ain’t much to look at, never was. Sometimes
people at the store stare and say something quiet under
their breath and then turn away. Time was the boys’d give
me a fair looking over. Used to go out
with somebody or other most Saturday nights. Never
got asked a second time. ‘Course, I ain’t the kind of
girl they was looking for over the long haul.”
not so bad looking now, Elizabeth.”
damnit, Kenny, I look like a guy what with all this hair
growing out of my face and my skin like leather. Always
had weird skin.”
are not whiskers, girl, just a sort of peach fuzz, that’s
all. Kind of cute if you ask me.”
August along the Mendocino coastline feels like autumn
in other climes. Around ten-o’clock in the morning the
sun burns through the mist—soft, a hush of quiet with
dampness in the nose. The light glows a honey color. Through
dissolving wisps of fog, sunlight dries the pungent
grass and hydrangea blossoms of white and blue and pink.A mile south of the FortBragg city
limit sign, George’s Lane weaves a strip of asphalt between
groves of redwoods, weed patches, and the borders of lawn
from houses tucked in here and there. One or two of the
homes could grace the feature pages of the Sunday paper
devoted to charmed country living. Fastidious owners pay
laborers to fresh paint and stain every spring. They tuck
the SUV out of sight in an oversized garage, and hire
the lawn manicured along with the extensive beds of roses.
On the other hand, a few properties would frighten off
a process server. In balance, most of the houses express
the lived-in look of a blue-collar town.
walk the middle of the lane. Kenny tucks a thumb under
each strap of the daypack. Since fifth-grade, thick lenses
enable him to both read fine print and judge the drift
of an oncoming truck. He stands shorter than his partner
does, not quite five-foot five, though he pencils in five-eight-and-a-half
on welfare forms. A full beard, curly and nearly white,
hides the rough and tumble experiences of a man only a
smidgen over thirty. Salt and pepper hair curls beneath
a San Francisco Giant’s baseball hat. They both wear running
shoes with wool socks.
Most drivers nod toward the familiar
waves and sometimes forgets about her toothless grin.
Both hands shove deeply into jeans’ pockets; her T-shirt
announces a 5-K race last fall that promoted breast cancer
research. A dull green baseball cap advertising seed corn
shades eyes of the palest blue. Her skin is unblemished,
smooth, tawny—unusual. Blonde hairs grow from her chin,
above the lip, and along the sides of her face. Up until a ten days ago she washed dishes after lunch and supper
for a Mendocino deli. No reason given—fired without no
Without a word to each other, they
turn and walk up a slight incline alongside the road.
A fulsome linden shades the gentle slope covered with
wild grass. Kenny slides his bulging pack to the ground.
They sit and each pop a can of
Old Milwaukee. She knows he’s out, so offers him a cigarette.
He lights hers from a kitchen match drawn out of bundle
held with a rubber band. It takes three damp matches to
light his own. They sip and smoke
in silence. Birdsong in the tree when Kenny breaks wind.
“Something did not agree with me last night, that’s for sure.”
the morning languishes, another beer seems appropriate.
No need to hurry. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, they
conferred with old-man Tompkins, proprietor of a perpetual
flea market located where George’s Lane dead-ends into
Highway One. He gave them work, of sorts. Whatever junk
they sold, they could keep half the revenue. Not a bad
deal. After three days they netted eighteen dollars and
thirty-seven cents. Often, Tompkins absents his roadside
mercantile for “buying trips.” Now and then the Mrs. favors
the pair with vegetables from her garden, sometimes a
Outside of her kindness, their daily
menu varies little. When funds sink their fare consists
of day-old bread and peanut butter washed down with a
beer shake—half a can of beer mixed with a cup of milk.
When fortune smiles, they feast on a couple cheeseburgers
apiece at the new Wendy’s that opened last month next
to the NyoBridge.
Warm clothes sell cheaply at the thrift store. No bills,
really—none to bother about. At night, they take their
rest beside an intermittent creek that flows through a
stand of second growth redwoods where George’s Lane dead
ends. The northern coast boasts a cool Mediterranean climate.
Even in late summer, Elizabeth
favors a blanket inside her sleeping bag. In a rainstorm,
they hang a canvas tarp above them and dig a narrow trench
around their pallet. By morning the rainwater has relocated
a path that soaks the backside of their bags.
Brian, a neighbor located alongside
the Lane’s one sweeping S-curve, offers kindness. Next
to his unused corral stands a dilapidated miniature barn
the previous owner used for tack. Now the building shelters
three cords of wood to stoke the fireplace that comforts
the home he enjoys with his wife and a black cat with
two white boots. On two occasions, Kenny screwed up his
courage and asked if he and Elizabeth might unroll their
sleeping bags inside the barn. Twice the answer was no.
Brian remains firm. He does allow them to store extra
clothes, toiletries, and their sleeping bags inside the
barn during the daytime.And he offers the use of the telephone that
hangs on the wall of his wood shop. Three
or four times a week Kenny accepts. His tenor punches
through the whir of the band saw.
Matt, this is Kenny. Yeah. Say, I was wondering if there
was any work today? Well, yeah, I called a couple of days
ago. Wednesday, I think. Anyway, I left a message on your
machine. I see, so you don’t have anything today? Well,
okay. Say Matt, if you don’t mind, I’ll give you a ring
on Monday to see what’s up for the week. Is that okay?
Great. Well, thanks Matt, talk
to you then.”
brushes dirt and pine needles from the back of her denims
as they resume their commute toward the flea market. They
arrive in time for Tompkins’ lunch break. In the early
afternoon, a school bus deposits its load of seniors from
the community center; they poke and criticize through
the clutter heavy on folding tables. A lady with especially
heavy makeup averts her eyes from Elizabeth
and whispers to a knowing colleague.
in the afternoon, bereft of customers, the pair lounges
on second-hand patio chairs. What remains of the nylon
webbing will not survive another season. Someone unsuccessfully
attempted white paint on the dented aluminum frames. Without
care, Kenny and Elizabeth face west, the sea, and the
dissolving hues that pass through a gathering haze. Cigarette
smoke lingers between them.
lie, Kenny, that gal who bought the elephant bookends
told me that a fella had a palm tree dug up down in Sacramento
and hauled up here and planted right smack dab in his
front yard. Damndest thing she ever saw. All them redwoods,
pines all around, and here’s this palm tree like we was
living in Hawaii.
Palm trees are supposed give coconuts, ain’t they? Now
don’t that beat all. Pretty soon
that fella’ll be selling coconuts up at Harvest Market.”
snickers. He considers the orange disc peeking behind
the layers of mist. Elizabeth
stands and stretches her back, and looks into the fog,
She recalls a familiar voice.
“E-liz-a-beth! Come on now. It’s time to get up. Hey Lizzy,
get a move on.
You’ll be late for school. Hurry up!”
roll over on my side and tug the grandma quilt over my
head and snuggle Poncho.Poncho is my very best friend in the whole wide
world. He’s a brown bear and can sit in my hand under
the covers. It’s a bear cave under here.
“You moving up there? Lizzy? Elizabeth
Marie if I have to come up there and rouse you up, I am
not going to be happy. Understand? Get moving, sleepy
tell Poncho everything, even more than my best friend
Mona at school.
“Okay Mommy, I’m coming.
like my bed and Poncho. When Saturday comes I’m going
to stay under my covers until lunch.
“Wouldn’t that be silly Poncho?”
don’t like breakfast much. I’m not usually hungry. Mommy
makes me eat something anyway. Today she fixes Cream of
Wheat. I can smell it. It looks like it’s smooth, but it’s not. There’s always
lumps and the lumps are gooey or sometimes grainy
inside. Cold milk makes my tummy flop. Mommy says it’ll
make my teeth white and my bones strong. I don’t know
about that. But it tastes awful. I hurry and eat two spoons
full and then I brush my teeth and brush my hair.
I like walking to the school bus. Walking
home is even better. If Mommy makes me wear a coat, I
unbutton it right away and stuff my mittens in the pockets.
Then I sing. It’s fun the way
my coat puffs out like an umbrella when I dance around
and around. Poncho rides above the mittens in my coat
pocket. I make up songs.
“When I walk to school,
I sometimes see a worm.
It wiggles in the gutter,
And I like to pick it up.
Oh, sunshine where are
All I see are clouds.
Maybe the rain will fall
Or maybe it will snow,
And I like summer best
kids at the bus stop are mean. It’s best when I get there
just when the bus does. The big boys tease me.
“Well, if it isn’t tizzy Lizzy.”
“What did you sing about today, dumb head?”
“What’s wrong with your skin, stupid? You an
Indian or something?”
Jenkins doesn’t like me. I can tell. She doesn’t smile
at me like she does Mona. Sometimes she even smiles at
the dumb boys. Not me. I don’t answer her questions very
good, I guess. One time I forgot my lunchbox after school
and I ran back to the room to get it. I heard Mrs. Brunz’s
voice. She’s the principal. I froze and listened by the
door where they couldn’t see me.
understand, Betty Jo. She is something of an odd child,
but you must at least try to work with her. The mother
is some sort of lawyer. We don’t want any difficulties.”
“Of course not, Mrs. Brunz. I’ll do my best with her, naturally.
But she’s not any easy child, you know.”
“I can appreciate the difficulty.”
that she’s mean or talks back. It’s just that she’s inattentive,
and to me that is disruptive. Elizabeth
lives in her own little world, humming and doodling. She
even brings a stuffed animal to school and talks to it.
She’s too old for that nonsense.”
my name. They’re talking about me. I hold my breath until
my heart yells inside my ears. How did Miss. Jenkins know
“All I ask, Betty Jo, is
that you do your best with the child.”
“Yes, Mrs. Brunz, I will.”
“Good. Anything else, you still look perplexed?”
“Her skin and the hair,
certainly you have noticed.
“I have. Mrs. Jenkins and you are. . .”
stop listening and look at my arms. Usually I don’t look
at me. When I brush my hair in the morning I turn the
mirror so I don’t have to see my face.
Mommy says my skin is beautiful, “like
sunset on golden sand.” “Angel breath,” that’s what she
calls the hair on my face. Once, after supper we stayed
at the table. I sat very still. I knew Momma wanted to
talk. I looked at a spider walking up and down on the
wall above the stove. I squeezed my fingers together real
hard so I wouldn’t cry. I knew she wanted to talk about
the angel breath.
girl, listen to me. Your Papa was born away across the
ocean. He lived on a beautiful island with his mommy and
daddy, aunts and uncles, and bunches of cousins and lots
of other families. Papa grew up and was very skillful.
He could build anything out of wood and he could fix an
engine so that it ran just like new. Everyone on the island
brought him things to fix or they asked him to build something
new for them. He was famous. But even more, what set your
Papa apart and made the other people admire him,
was the glow of his skin and the mist of golden hair that
shimmered over it. Such color was unusual and everyone
liked Papa because of it.
brown spider stops, maybe to catch her breath. I hear
the clock ticking. Mommy clears her throat.
“What do you think about the story I told you Elizabeth?”
Lizzy, I know that sometimes the other children are mean
to you because they don’t understand about Papa, how loved
and admired he was, how handsome. Lizzy?”
face feels hot. The spider disappears into a crack.
“Talk to Mommy, child. I know this hurts you.”
eyes might cry.
can’t Papa come and take it away. I hate it! Mommy, I
hate it! Tell Papa to come back and make me look like
looks for the spider too. I can’t help yawning—so sleepy.
“You know, Kenny, I don’t give a flying flip what the Surgeon
General says, I
I like to smoke.”
“Yep, me too.”
we’re all going to die anyway.”
coming on. Looks like it’ll be heavy tonight.”
believe you’re right. I’m glad we scrounged a plastic
tarp to put under our sleeping bags.”
want to wrap up in that plastic, though. We’d be soaked
shifts her weight and draws pleasurably on the cigarette.
With thumb and forefinger, she takes it from her lips,
flicks the ash, cocks her head back, and slowly exhales
the smoke. A low belch rumbles through Kenny’s throat.
the beer too.”
“I enjoy a brewski now and then as well.”
“You got that right.”
101 rumbles with noise. In both directions, vehicles bustle
people away from work. Like pack horses sniffing the barn,
pick-up trucks laden with toolboxes, ladders, 2 x 4’s,
and a gun racks gallop toward a comforting pub or a sullen
In shared reverie, Elizabeth and Kenny
luxuriate in the midst of boxes and tables sagging with
junk. No sales this afternoon. They should start packing
boxes in the back Tompkins truck. No hurry. A crony picked
him up an hour ago ostensibly to bargain hunt an estate
sale in Mendocino. Likely, they’re at the Mill Tavern
downtown among a coterie of rum aficionados. Elizabeth
draws on the butt. Kenny counsels.
we ought to head south, or inland to Maryville
Rain will be coming soon. It’s supposed to be heavy this
hears screeching tires.
Kenny pets her hair and then tucks
the sheet around her shoulders.