Sharron Bassano is a retired teacher educator with nine published educational books to her credit. This is her first work of fiction. She feels more creative now, at age 78, than ever before in her life. It happens. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.
Eizer Griggs and Eli
by Sharron Bassano
El Dorado County, California, 1949
Old Eizer Griggs arrived home about noon and was startled to find a small boy sitting alone on his porch, a cardboard suitcase at his feet. Eizer said, “Here now! What are you doing on my porch? You don’t belong here.” The little boy looked up, and did not reply.
“What are you doing here on my property, young man?” The little boy put his head down on his knees, and Eizer thought he saw one small tear fall onto the child’s shoe. “Can you not speak?” said Eizer, a little more softly.
“My mama told me to wait here,” the boy answered. “She said Mr. Griggs would be home soon. She said I… I had to stay here for a while and be good and she would come back for me.” He rubbed his cheek with a knuckle.
“Is that a fact now? Well… and who is your mother then, and why has she left you here at my place?”
“My mama is Merlene Flounder. She said I had to stay right here on this porch and she would come back.”
“Merlene? Merlene! Come back when? Where’s she gone off to?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t tell me.”
“What is your name, son?”
“I am Eli. Eli Flounder.” He offered a grimy hand to Eizer. The man, no stranger to grime, shook the boy’s hand, saying, “Eizer Griggs.”
The child was small and thin, and looked as if he hadn’t been fed much. Eizer thought he was maybe five or six. His long hair wasn’t combed and one of his shoe strings was broken. He wore a blue flannel shirt a few sizes too big, the sleeves rolled up. His trousers were torn at the knee. He looked pretty clean, but was still a sorry sight to Eizer. “Well, I guess you better come on in then,” he said. “You’ll be hungry.”
Eli Flounder picked up his battered suitcase and wrestled it clumsily up the steps, half-dragging it through the front door. He looked around at the place Eizer called home. The floors were not clean. The dust on the tabletops was so thick it rose up into the air when you walked by. Large cobwebs hung from the light fixtures, an accumulation of years, no doubt. The curtains looked as if they had not been washed since 1925, and one roller shade was ripped half off. There were stacks of books on every horizontal surface—on tabletops, on chairs, on the floor, like a library gone to hell. The couch had become a repository for so much flotsam, there was no longer a place to sit. The air in the room was redolent of fried onions, cabbage, liniment, dirty socks, and… poultry.
The boy followed the man into the kitchen. Two chickens were pecking around on the drainboard. Eizer yelled and flapped the dishcloth at them. They squawked and flew out the open window over the sink. He lit the burner on the greasy stove and put a lime-crusted tea kettle on to boil. Pushing a pile of unwashed dishes, pots, and potato peelings aside, he made a place on the counter to work. “You like peanut butter? I’ll make us a sandwich. And we got plenty of milk.” He found a half-empty jar of Skippy’s in the cupboard and said, “You make us a place at the table there, son, and we’ll eat.”
Eli gathered up a stack of rubble from the table and arranged it carefully on the chair in the corner. He brushed off the oilcloth in front of him with his hand, scattering crumbs and other unrecognizable substances onto the floor. Climbing up on a chair, he sat down, waiting, feet dangling. Eizer brought him a plate with a sandwich oozing thin peach jam that was made by a neighbor. He added a slightly wrinkled apple and a tall glass of milk. The smear of dried egg yolk on the rim of the plate was just decoration, left over from yesterday’s breakfast. “You eat,” he said. He made a cup of instant Sanka and a sandwich for himself and joined the boy at the table. “That good?” he asked.
“Yeth, thir,” Eli answered through a mouthful of goo. “Thank you,” he added, remembering his manners. Jam ran out of the sandwich between his little fingers, and down toward his wrist. He tried to lick it off. Eizer handed him a rag. A minute or so later, Eli looked around him and said thoughtfully, “This house is a mess.” It was not a criticism, really, just an observation.
“Well… yes it is,” Eizer agreed gruffly. “There’s no excuse for it.”
After they ate and Eli had washed his sticky hands and face, he remembered an envelope he was supposed to have given to Eizer. He took it out of his pants pocket. “I forgot,” he said. “My mama wanted me to give you this. It’s a note.”
Eizer opened the wrinkled envelope and read:
I am sorry, Eizer. I had to leave fast. I am in bad trouble and I cannot keep this boy any more. You have to take him. He is a good boy and I love him, but he is not safe with me now. I will come back for him when if I can. Merlene.
Eizer read the note two more times, thinking he must have misunderstood something, but he hadn’t. He stared out the window, blinked at the boy. What was he supposed to do now? He sat, waiting for inspiration. A minute passed silently, Eli began to fidget.
“Mr. Griggs? Sir? What is it? What does the note say?”
Eizer snapped to and quickly stuffed the note in his pocket. “Ah… your mama says she will come back for you just as soon as she can and that I am to take good care of you,” he said, telling the truth. “You are to stay here and you are not to worry. Now… let’s us go out back and get that cow milked and bring in the eggs.” Eli jumped down from the chair and followed Eizer Griggs out into the yard.
The area between the house and the barn looked like the scene of a train wreck, or an explosion of some sort. Debris everywhere. To the left, old tires, rusty springs, scrap lumber, a defunct water heater, the back end of a pickup truck. To the right, a broken trellis, battered discolored sheets of corrugated tin, various mysterious farming implements, a roll of chicken wire.
The cow was out in the sun in a large enclosure. Eizer tied her lead to the fence. Eli watched Eizer get the three-legged stool and a bucket and sit down beside the cow. The boy had never thought about where milk came from, exactly, other than a glass bottle. He squatted down to watch. “What are you doing under there, Mr. Griggs?” he asked.
“Why, I am milking this cow.” He patted Rosie affectionately on her flank. “This is where the milk for your breakfast comes from. Did you not know that?”
“No sir, I didn’t.” He watched, fascinated, for a minute as the bucket filled with foamy white milk. “Mr. Griggs, does it have orange juice in there too?”
“No, it doesn’t have orange juice,” said Eizer. “Be nice if it did, though. Be right handy. Now you go over there to those five boxes, take that white basket with you. See if you can find us some eggs. Be careful now, they break easy.”
“But… there’s chickens sitting in there, sir.”
“Pay them no mind. You just reach under, see what you can find.”
The boy approached the chickens warily. He was getting a sideways, beady stare from a large white hen that looked as if she’d as soon peck his eyes out as not. He said, “Excuse me,” to her and slid his little hand under the warm sturdy Leghorn. To his delight, he found a fine large specimen and placed it gently in the basket.
“See there?” said Eizer. “Easy! That will be your job every day now. You will be the egg man here.”
Eli thought about that. I’m the egg man here.
Later, Eizer cleared off a bed for Eli in the room he himself had slept in as a boy, a room as haphazard as the other six rooms in the house. He put all the books on the floor, made up the bed with worn but relatively clean sheets. The blankets were somewhat the worse for wear, but he took them outside and gave them a good shake to get rid of most of the dust and a spider or two.
“Good,” he said, looking down at Eli. “That’ll do. Now let’s see what you have brought here in your suitcase so we know what we have to work with.”
Eli opened his Sears & Roebuck cardboard suitcase and pulled out a pair of worn-out jeans, two cotton shirts, a sad looking denim jacket, various mis-matched socks, and pajamas. Merlene apparently overlooked the underwear, but she had stuck in a book, The Tin Man of Oz and four metal Matchbox cars and a stack of baseball cards with a rubber band around them. In a rolled up paper sack he found a tooth brush and a comb. There was a large torn manila envelope in the bottom of the suitcase, in which Eizer found the boy’s birth certificate, some records of immunizations and his school history, which confirmed his suspicion that Eli’s mother would not be returning any time soon, if ever.
Eizer prepared a dinner of Spam and fried collard greens. Eli helped him whip up a cornbread from a boxed mix. It’s a pretty good dinner, thought the boy. The corn bread was very dry and he had to drink two glasses of milk to get it down. After dinner, Eizer added the dirty dishes, bowls, and skillet to the wreckage on the drainboard and said, “We better get to cleaning up this kitchen tomorrow, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” Eli agreed.
Eizer Griggs, trying to figure out what to do next for this boy, began to hear an echo of his own father’s voice from so long ago, telling him, “You get in there and take a bath and brush your teeth now, son. And remember to scrub behind your ears and wash your hair.” He turned to Eli, and, using what he thought was a tone of benign authority, said, “You get in there and take a bath and brush your teeth now, son. And remember to scrub behind your ears and wash your hair.” He was pleased to see the young man emerge from the bathroom half an hour later in his faded pajamas, damp, shining like a silver coat button.
“You look mighty fine,” he said to the boy. “Good work.”
The boy replied, “Maybe we should get to cleaning that bathroom, too, sir.”
“Right you are,” Eizer agreed.
Food, bath, teeth brushed, now what? How would he entertain this child? He rummaged around in the bedroom closet, and brought out a dusty box of old children’s books. “You look through these, son. Find one that looks interesting and I’ll read it to you if you want.”
“I can read,” said Eli. “I am six and a half.”
“Well that is good, then. So you shall read to me, and we’ll try to learn us something useful.”
Later that evening, before retiring to his own disorderly bedroom, Eizer peeked in at young Mr. Flounder to make sure he was all right. The light from the bare bulb in the hall shone dimly into his bedroom. He stood there in the doorway listening, watching the boy sleep, and was taken by a feeling of responsibility that was utterly new to him. He had someone to tend to, a human being who needed him for the first time in his life.
Eizer had been nearly the same age as this boy when his mother had disappeared. He remembered the confusion, the sadness, the sense of loss and of somehow feeling to blame for it, as if he had done something wrong that drove her away. At that very moment, Eizer found his first clear direction as to how to care for this boy. No matter what, he would never let him feel unwanted.
Copyright 2022 by Sharron Bassano