Bicycle Jenny, by Kathryn Scanlan

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From Kick the Latch, which will be published next month by New Directions.

Before her husband died and her house burned down, Bicycle Jenny worked at Crocker’s, the slaughtering plant. What was left of her house was a scorched concrete hole in the ground. That’s where she lived.

She rode a bicycle with a little cart on the back for carrying sacks of oatmeal from town. She’d stop by our house on the way because we had a lot of dandelion greens in our yard. She’d pick them and cook them up.

She wore men’s shirts, bright red lipstick, bright red rouge. Her face was real weathered, wind-burnt. She wasn’t very big but she was kind of stocky. In summer she wore a kerchief on her head and in winter she wore wool hats, a hood, layers on layers, big men’s coats, warm men’s boots.

She was the best gardener. People in the rich neighborhood hired her to do their grounds work. She could make anything grow and those yards were gorgeous because of her.

When the weather was warm she bathed in the creek or ponds, but in winter she reeked. Most of the boys in our neighborhood, the first naked woman they seen was Bicycle Jenny taking a bath in the goldfish ponds.

She had a lot of dogs—little yipping Chihuahuas—and a chicken-wire fence to keep them in. I’m talking sixty, seventy Chihuahuas without stretching it a bit.

She always said she had a hundred.

When we saw her head off to town, we’d go over there. We’d get through the fence and past the dogs and walk around looking at things. She had clothespins and wire hanging from trees. Down in her hole in the ground was an old-fashioned bathtub and a little cast-iron camp stove. She had test tubes with rubber stoppers, little blue bottles, jars of jellies she made from her raspberry bushes. She had some bright red berries too. Someone said they were probably poison.

Bicycle Jenny had the go-ahead, anytime she needed water, to come into our house and get it. She’d fill her cream cans in our sink and carry them back on her wagon. When it was snowy she used a sled. If our parents were home we weren’t afraid of her, but if she showed up when they were gone, we were. My sister and I would see her coming and hide under the bed. We’d wait and listen for the front door to open.

She talked to herself while she filled up at the sink. Her voice was high, cracked, eerie like a witch’s. She had her big men’s work gloves, her hat and her other hat, and she’d usually have some Chihuahuas stuffed in her coat.

Bicycle Jenny would say, Look what I’ve got, and she’d pull them out of her shirt pocket. She kept the puppies in little strawberry baskets.

One summer a stray cat turned up at our house and had babies. There was a sickly little orange one with a head that wobbled back and forth. When it was just off the titty I showed it to Bicycle Jenny and said, Look at my little kitten, there’s something wrong with its head. She said, Let me take her, see what I can do.

I thought, We’ll never see that kitten again. I kind of forgot about it. I guess I had other cats. I don’t remember worrying about it or wondering. I don’t know how much time went by—maybe a few weeks. But then Bicycle Jenny showed up when I was lying out in the hammock and said, Somebody wants to see you.

I don’t know what she did, I don’t know how she kept her little dogs from killing it, but the cat was fine and its head no longer shook. She didn’t swap kittens—this cat was orange with three distinct white marks. No two cats have the same markings.

A few months later, my sister and I were raking leaves with our mom when an ambulance went by, then cop cars. There wasn’t much traffic on our street and we were nosy—we ran over there. We heard screaming and crying and dogs barking. There was a whole string of emergency personnel. They said she wasn’t taking care of herself. People can’t live like that, they said. It took several large men to get her into the ambulance. The dogs were running everywhere, getting chased with long-handled nets. We were screaming and crying, too.

They hauled her off to a home in Comstock, Iowa. I always wanted to go up to Comstock to see her. She lived at the home a long time. She was close to a hundred years old when she died. I still have the newspaper clipping with her obituary. My mom kept it in a scrapbook. Her name was Marla Weaver. She was originally from Chesterfield, I believe.

Down in the hole in the ground were piles and piles of blankets and sleeping bags for Bicycle Jenny. But those dogs—Chihuahuas are little thin-haired things—how’d they not freeze in the winter? I didn’t think nothing of it when I was a kid but I’m thinking of it now—how’d the dogs survive?


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