Looking back, I'd have to say my life was one long snooze until the day I met Razzle Penney at the Truro dump. Mom had forced me to go with her that morning. She rationalized my servitude by telling me lifting junk would bulk up the muscles in my scrawny arms. Like I cared.
But there I was at the dump at ten o'clock lugging garbage out of the station wagon, then heaving it over the railing into the big container that would truck it off into oblivion. Make it disappear. So people didn't have to look at piles of discarded crap and think about how quickly their new piece of plastic from Wal-Mart or that cute little Gap outfit had turned into trash.
Okay, I was in a cynical mood that morning. It was the mood I'd been in for two weeks, ever since we'd relocated to that skinny little town with the unpronounceable name way out near the end of the sandy finger of vacationland called Cape Cod. We'd moved here from Boston, where I'd grown up in blessed invisibility in the shadow of the Hancock Tower and the Prudential Center, protected on all sides by insurance.
And now I was being turned into a sanitation engineer because the cottage colony my parents had just purchased came with enough broken-down furniture to redecorate Transylvania. Mom intended to refurbish the places in "a simple style that emphasizes the view." I guess that subscription to Travel and Leisure magazine wasn't wasted on her because the view is absolutely the only aspect of these cottages that would make anybody in their right mind vacation here.
The little houses are lined up right along a main road, so the bedrooms are always lit up by headlights from cars that seem to be driving right through the living rooms. Of course, on the other side they open up on to the beach, the whole line of them, right on the curve of Cape Cod Bay where you can watch the sun rise over Wellfleet and set over Provincetown. Which even I enjoyed the one time we came here as tourists and weren't responsible for anything but getting tan.
Owning the place was a different story altogether. The old mattresses, squeaky bed frames, and plywood bureaus with drawers that stuck like they'd been glued shut had been hauled away last week by an odd-jobs guy with a big truck. What was left for us to bag and discard were mostly the "decorative" items, the seagull paintings and filthy curtains, and various guest leftovers: moldy sheets, moldy towels, moldy swimming suits, moldy condoms. It was not the first time I'd thought about how the guy who sold us these rattraps must be laughing his ass off over the city slickers who'd bought thirteen rotted-out shacks with bad plumbing.
Once we'd gotten rid of our junk, I looked around at the dump. I had to admit, the one thing this town had going for it was great photographic opportunities. Everywhere I looked there were weird vistas and odd juxtapositions, and the dump was no different. I hadn't brought my camera, but I took it all in anyway, the giant stuffed cat guarding the door of a recycling shed while a small pink pony trotted across the top door frame; aluminum cans crushed together into two-foot squares and stacked like Andy Warhol's idea of stairs; and a crooked little shack that looked like an outhouse without a door and had KEEP OUT written across the side in red paint.
An elderly woman wearing a raincoat, pink hair rollers, and fuzzy slippers that looked like small spotted cows got out of an ancient Dodge to toss three or four plastic ginger ale bottles into a container that read: REFUNDABLE BOTTLES AND CANS -- A FRIENDS OF THE TRURO COUNCIL ON AGING PROJECT. How could she be in such a hurry to contribute her four bottles that she'd go out in public looking like that?
How could I be a mere two and a half hours from Boston? Everything, everybody seemed different. The sun was brighter. The wind was stronger. And the people I'd seen so far seemed...bigger. Not in size, but in personality or something. They all seemed to stick out in ways I never noticed people sticking out in the city. Maybe it didn't have as much to do with cow slippers as with the fact that there weren't as many of them, so they spread out more, took up as much space as they wanted to.
I should have known better than to go out without my camera, but I think I was half afraid Mom would pitch it into a Dumpster too in her frenzy to unload everything in sight. She'd already gotten back in the car when I noticed the girl walking toward us. She was as tall as me but even skinnier, and even though she was walking fast, her long arms and legs seemed to sort of swirl around her in this lazy way, like all the joints weren't connected up quite right. Her buzz cut hairdo and the black short shorts and tank top added to the vision of a leggy bug or a jellyfish swimming over to us.
"Let's go, Kenny. I've got lots more to do today," Mom said.
"I think somebody wants to talk to us," I said.
By that time the girl had gotten close enough to yell. "Did I see you guys pitch a lamp in the Dumpster?"
Mom leaned out the window. "Yes, we did. Is there a problem?"
"Whyn't you bring it to the Swap Shop? Somebody mighta used it." I was glad her glare was directed toward Mom.
The girl pointed in back of her to a low, gray-shingled structure with a wheelchair ramp leading inside. "The Swap Shop. You should bring your good stuff in there. Then people who need things can get 'em free."
Mom laughed. "Oh, honey, that old lamp didn't even work."
Our interrogator was not impressed. "So? Anybody can fix a goddamn lamp."
As soon as she hears a swear word Mom switches into schoolteacher mode -- it's an easy transformation -- she taught ninth-grade Spanish for twenty-four years. (I took French.) No more "honey" for our new friend now.
"I don't think it's really any of your business what we do with our old furniture!"
"It's my job," she said. She sounded kind of surprised that we didn't already know this. "I run the Swap Shop. People come in all the time looking for lamps. And then you throw one away, just like that!" She whipped one long arm up in the air as if heaving an unwanted object casually over her shoulder.
"Is it your job to harass people?" my mother said.
She shook her head. "I'm not harassing you. I'm just telling you."
"Well, thank you for the information." I knew Mom was pissed; she looked over at me still standing outside the car, admiring the lip this kid was giving her. "May we go now, please?"
"Have you even been inside the Swap Shop?" the girl asked me. It made me nervous that she was addressing me now. She stuck her hands on her hips where they formed perfect triangles with her curveless body.
"Me? No. We just moved here. We didn't know about it." What I was really saying was: Don't shoot! I'm innocent!
But she nodded. "I'll show ya then." Her wave turned into a crawl stroke as she turned and walked toward the gray building. "Come on."
What else could I do but follow? Besides, the place was just strange enough to appeal to my photographer's eye. And so was she. It would be great to get a shot of her swimming along past the recycling shed -- from down low so the shed would loom above her as her thin arms floated out at her sides.
"Ken, where are you going?" Mom yelled after me. This is how being such a good kid all the time turns against you; your parents start to think you'll never do anything without their written permission.
"I just want to see the place. One minute." She'd be ready to roast my butt by the time I got back, but what the hell? All I'd been doing for two weeks was working on those stinking cottages -- like I was a partner in their stupid idea or something. Most high school kids spent their summers taking trips, or going to camp, or at least getting paid for working. I was lucky if I got a lunch break. And this girl was the first person under thirty I'd laid eyes on since we got here.
"This is where people drop off stuff they don't want," she said as we came into an entry hall. There was a table along one wall with several grocery bags full of clothing on it and some rusty fireplace tongs. A huge bulletin board hung over the table with tacked-up appeals for lost pets, notices for tai chi classes and art openings, offers to sell fishing rods and Chihuahua puppies, and lots of apartment-wanted signs with tear-off phone number strips hanging from the bottom like fringe.
I was reading a paper that said WILL SWAP COUCH FOR TV, trying to figure out which item the writer already had and which one he wanted, when an old guy with a white beard came shoving in the door past me, grabbed the fireplace tongs, and whooped.
"Just what I wanted! Who brought these in anyway?"
"Hi, Eddie. I don't know -- somebody left them by the door overnight."
"Perfect, just perfect. Any other iron come in today?"
"Not today. Just that old bedstead and you didn't want that."
"No, no. It's not junk yet. Somebody could use it." He turned to go. "Okay then. See you tomorrow, Razzle."
"Bye, Eddie." She beckoned me into the main room. "I've got it all organized in here. See? Things used to be stacked anywhere, but now it's all got a place."
"How come he wants iron stuff?" I asked her.
"Eddie's a sculptor. He welds old iron pieces into statues." She started pointing things out again. "So, I sort the clothes into these bins, the shoes go on that rack over there, books along the back wall..."
But I wasn't really paying attention to the tour. People out here were so peculiar. "Did he call you Razzle? Is that your name?"
"I've never heard that name before."
She shrugged. "My mother was into angels. Still is, I guess. Raziel is the Angel of Mysteries. But she thought nobody would be able to spell it or pronounce it right, so she just called me Razzle. My brother Ezra is named for the Angel of Writers. That's what my mom wanted to be, back in the day. Before she was just a screwup."
She turned back to the job at hand. "I put all the breakable kitchen stuff, like dishes and glasses and blenders, high up on the back wall. The electronics, toasters and coffeemakers and stuff, are on the low shelves -- I figure kids can't break that stuff any more than it's already broken. And the toys are all together in that little enclosed space."
Razzle paused and looked squarely into my eyes. I wasn't sure what she expected me to do -- praise her for her organizational skills? The place just looked like a roomful of junk to me.
"So," she said, "do you like it?"
I shrugged. "Sure. I guess it's a good job, huh?"
"It's a great job. And now they even pay me for it."
"They didn't always?"
"I started doing it last year because I liked seeing all the stuff that came in. Then I started fixing the place up because I like things to be organized. So pretty soon the selectmen voted on it, and now they pay me."
I figured Mom was probably laying eggs out in the car by now. I made a slight movement toward the door. "Well, I better..."
"What's your name? You didn't say."
"I'm Kenyon. Kenyon Baker."
"Razzle Penney," she said, sticking out her long, thin arm so that her bony hand could grab mine and pump it up and down. She smiled, too, a lopsided, tomboyish kind of smile that made me think of a girl I used to play with in kindergarten. I liked that kid; we made monster drawings together. Kaitlin hadn't turned out to be a neatnik junkmeister, though; last time I saw her she was smoking dope behind the school with some other losers.
"You here for the summer?" she asked.
"I wish. We've moved here. Bought a cottage colony on the bay."
"Oh, you must be the ones who bought the Landmark Cottages on 6A! Right? God, I didn't think he'd ever sell those places."
"He finally found some suckers."
"They'll be fine once you fix 'em up."
"I don't know..."
"Sure! You got a 180 view and sand outside the back door. People will come even if the toilets do back up."
"How'd you know...?"
But right about then my mother charged in the door; she'd obviously spent a little too much time in a hot car parked between two garbage barges. "Ken! What are you doing? I told you I need to get back!"
"Sorry. I was talking to Razzle."
"Razzle. This is Razzle."
"Oh." Mom glared at her, then leaped back and brushed at her arm. "Ooh, a spider! It was right on my shirt! Where'd it go? I hate spiders!" She kept brushing at herself and looking around.
"This place is full of spiders, but most of them are harmless," Razzle said. "The average person swallows eight spiders in their lifetime. Usually at night. Without even realizing it."
"Thank you. There's a fact I would rather not have known," Mom said, shivering. You could tell the spider incident had gotten on her last nerve. "Ken, you can talk to" -- she waved her hand in Razzle's direction -- "this girl some other time."
"Razzle," she said to refresh Mom's memory. "I'm here nine to three, Monday through Thursday, and sometimes Saturday mornings, unless I'm at the flea with Billie."
"Okay I'll come back," I said.
"Come tomorrow," she ordered. "Thursdays are always good."
"I'll try." She made me laugh, but I have to confess, I wasn't quite sure if I was laughing with her or at her.
"Bye, Kenyon," she yelled after me. "I like your name!"
"She's funny, isn't she?" I said as we climbed back into the car.
"Funny?" Mom tromped on the gas pedal, and we wheeled out onto the highway.
"She's downright strange. Much too outspoken for a young girl. Says whatever comes to her mind. I don't know why you told her you'd come back. She's very...odd."
I didn't argue. The truth was, if Razzle hadn't been odd she wouldn't have asked me to come back. If Mom had been paying attention the last few years, she'd know that. But I guess she got tired of paying attention to teenagers after years of arguing with my sisters and then dealing with all those high school Spanish students, too.
And, of course, she didn't exactly ask for a third child. I was, as she put it, a surprise. Which sounded kind of nice until the time Dad threw her a surprise birthday party, and she walked in the door crying because she'd just hit a squirrel with the car, and thirty people jumped out from behind the furniture to scream at her. After everybody left she kept saying, "Don't you ever do this to me again, Ted. I hate surprises!"
"She's so tall and skinny," Mom said, still ruminating on Razzle as we turned onto our road.
"So am I," I reminded her.
She glanced over at me, as if she'd forgotten that. "Well, yes, but you're a boy," she said, as though one gender made a more acceptable skeleton than the other. Or, more likely, she just wasn't cutting any slack for a girl who could fix a goddamn lamp.
Copyright © 2001 by Ellen Wittlinger