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Elizabeth and Kenny

 By

Rick Scheideman 

 



“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.”

“You’re not so bad looking now, Elizabeth.”

“God 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.”

“Those are not whiskers, girl, just a sort of peach fuzz, that’s all. Kind of cute if you ask me.”

Early 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 Fort Bragg 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.

They 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 pair. Elizabeth 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 notice.

            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.”

As 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 warm batch of tollhouse cookies.

            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 Nyo Bridge. 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.

“Hey 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.”

Elizabeth 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.

Late 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.

“No 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.”

Kenny 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!”

I 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 head!”

I tell Poncho everything, even more than my best friend Mona at school.

“Okay Mommy, I’m coming.

I like my bed and Poncho. When Saturday comes I’m going to stay under my covers until lunch.

“Wouldn’t that be silly Poncho?”

I 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 you?

                        All I see are clouds.

                        Maybe the rain will fall down down,

                        Or maybe it will snow,

                        And I like summer best of all.”

Sometimes 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?”

Miss. 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.

`“I 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.”

“Not 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.”

That’s my name. They’re talking about me. I hold my breath until my heart yells inside my ears. How did Miss. Jenkins know about Poncho?

                        “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  . . .”

I 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.

“Darling 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.

The 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?”

“Okay.”

“Oh, 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?”

“Huh?”

My face feels hot. The spider disappears into a crack.

“Talk to Mommy, child. I know this hurts you.”

My eyes might cry.

“Why 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 Mona.”

Mommy 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.”

“And we’re all going to die anyway.”

“Likely.”

“Fog’s coming on. Looks like it’ll be heavy tonight.”

“I believe you’re right. I’m glad we scrounged a plastic tarp to put under our sleeping bags.”

“Don’t want to wrap up in that plastic, though. We’d be soaked by morning.”

“Surely.”

Elizabeth 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.

                        “And the beer too.”

“What’s that?”

“I enjoy a brewski now and then as well.”

“You got that right.”

Highway 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 home.

            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.

“Maybe we ought to head south, or inland to Maryville or Chico. Rain will be coming soon. It’s supposed to be heavy this winter.”

She hears screeching tires.

*   *   *

            Kenny pets her hair and then tucks the sheet around her shoulders.

“Hey Lizzy girl, how are you doing?”

 With the back of his hand, he strokes her cheek.

                        “It’s me. It’s Kenny.”

 

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