Chapter 1: Ernie
“Are we there yet?”
Melissa sighed again. “No, baby, not yet.” The five-year-old squirmed restlessly in the backseat.
“Angela, I’ve told you already. We’ll get there when we get there. Sit down, be still, and hush up!” Melissa felt the tension in her own voice. Could it really only be 10 AM? It was guaranteed to be a long day. Offhand she realized that it had been far too long since Angela had commented.
At Lawrence ’s insistence, she had taken Angela to an ear, throat and mouth specialist, but of course he had found nothing wrong with Angela’s hearing. It was with a certain sense of satisfaction that she had informed Lawrence of the results. She had long since argued with him that Angela could listen; she simply never wanted to. Lawrence, ever the idealist, desperately wanted to believe that there was something physically hindering her obedience, rather than accept the fact that their daughter was obstinate and overly excitable.
By now, Angela should have been bouncing off the walls, but all was quiet in the back seat. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror revealed an enthralled five-year-old, nose glued to the window of the beat up Chevy Astro, staring outside.
“What are you looking at?” asked Melissa as she followed Angela’s eyes to the sidewalk outside. Melissa smiled as she realized what had caught her daughter’s attention. On the left side of the street was a man in a faded wind-breaker walking in their direction.
Well, he wasn’t really walking, he was gyrating. His arms flew out at odd angles from his body, his head bobbed, Melissa assumed in time to the music that was coming out of a pair of ancient, oversized headphones he wore on his ears, and every so often he spun in a full circle and started the whole process over again.
“Why is he walking like that, Mommy?” Angela giggled.
“I think he’s dancing,” Melissa replied, slowing down slightly. The quiet brought on by Angela’s trance was something to be cherished, and Melissa wanted it to last as long as possible.
“Well, he’s not very good at it,” Angela piped up, with a slight hint of disdain in her voice. The ballet lessons to which Melissa and Lawrence had finally given in were paying off in many ways; not all of them were positive.
“Everyone could use practice, Angela. Not everyone is blessed with as much talent as you are.” Melissa caught herself as soon as she said it – there was far too much sarcasm in her voice. Thankfully, the condescension was lost on her daughter, who was now squirming restlessly once again, her interest in the strange man now gone.
Melissa sighed again as she pushed down gently on the accelerator. It was going to be a long day.
Ernie was oblivious to the curious faces peering at him as he jived his way down Sullivan Street . He wouldn’t have cared, even if he had noticed them, but with his headphones on he was in another world – his world. A world where one couldn’t afford to be still. A world of vigorous, deliberate movements, of spinning and twirling, of quick-stepping, of fishtailing, bouncing, and doing it all over again. A world of glorious movement; when surrounded by such miraculous music as Ernie’s, what other choice did one have?
Ernie had been out since last night. He had tried to make it back to St. Ives, but the kids at 34 th and Broadway had been jiving late, and by the time the last of them went inside, it was too late for Ernie to make his return trip safely. Ken snuck him into his garage later that night, after his parents had gone to bed, and Ernie stayed warm playing quietly with Ike, Ken’s German Shepherd.
Ken was a good friend, probably Ernie’s best. He had invited Ernie over for dinner once, but Mr. and Mrs. van Zandt were less than thrilled having a “dirty, disturbed man” at their home. Ernie had heard them arguing about it from outside the house, and though he didn’t understand all the words, he knew that he wasn’t going to be eating dinner at the van Zandt’s then or ever. Ken had come to the door with a sad look on his face telling him that his parents “already had dinner plans.” Ernie didn’t argue; he knew Ken didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Ken’s parents had told him not to hang out with Ernie any more, but fortunately Ken took much pleasure in doing the exact opposite of what his parents told him.
Ernie had woken up early to make sure he made it out of the garage before Mr. van Zandt saw him. He had wanted to stick around to jive with kids some more, but it was too early; they were all still sleeping. He milled about the neighborhood for awhile, but hunger eventually got the better of him, and he started making the long trek back towards St. Ives. Rhonda was probably worried about him anyway.
The perspiration was beginning to gather on his brow. It was going to be a warm day. Ernie preferred it that way. It made him feel as though he was working hard, even though he wasn’t. After all, work couldn’t feel this good. Rhonda made him do work around the shelter every once in awhile, landscaping and such, and she never let him listen to his music while he did it. He hated being without his music; life was so empty, so boring without it.
The first side of his cassette finished, and his trusty Walkman soon made the familiar _click-pah, click-pah _ as it automatically switched to the second side. Ernie turned the Walkman over in his hand and admired it yet again. His rough, calloused fingers traced over the worn buttons. The text identifying their respective functions had long since faded, but it didn’t matter. He knew the buttons by heart anyway. The casing was scratched and cracked, the battery cover was attached by a piece of duct tape, and the small motor made a dull moaning sound as it spun, but the Walkman was his. It belonged to him, and only him; it was his passport to an astounding world of sound and rhythm.
The dull gray stone of St. Ives snuck up on him without warning. The smell of sweetbread and chicken soup wafted gently across the street towards him, and he salivated involuntarily. He jived his way across the way, pausing momentarily while a taxi flew by, horn blaring. Glancing up at the flickering neon cross above the door, Ernie pushed the large oak door open with one hand and reluctantly pulled the large headphones from his ears. Rhonda would already be a little annoyed that he hadn’t come in last night – there was no need to annoy her more by keeping the headphones on.
He took the small staircase from the vestibule to the dining room two at a time, and glanced around the small tables looking for familiar faces. Lester was there, apparently taking a break from his occupation begging down on the Boardwalk, and Michael too, accompanied by his ever-present collection of assorted aluminum scrap.
Ernie briefly considered attempting to bypass the kitchen and head upstairs to his room, then retrace his steps back downstairs to trick Rhonda into thinking he’d been upstairs all along. Of course, it wouldn’t work. Rhonda was already well aware that he’d been out all night, and he’d only incur more wrath by trying to avoid her now.
So into the kitchen he went, head down in his customary ignore-the-world fashion. He was aware of Rhonda’s stare as he moved straight towards the cupboard and grabbed a bowl and spoon.
“Just siddown, Ernie. I’ll git it for ya,” Rhonda said, moving towards him. Ernie didn’t argue. He sat down with his bowl and waited patiently for Rhonda to fill it.
Rhonda walked over to the cupboard, took a nondescript Tupperware container out, and filled Ernie’s bowl. Ernie was more than happy to do this himself, but Rhonda knew it would take him an hour just to find the right container. No matter how hard he tried, he could never remember which container held the magical cereal known as Trix. On the rare occasions he did attempt to locate the Trix himself, he was reduced to tasting each container of cereal to find the correct one.
Rhonda poured the cereal and milk, and Ernie dug in with great fervor. Ah, Trix… or an off-brand that tasted remarkably similar… what a brilliant cereal! An explosion of sugary, fruity flavor in every bite! He wished that Rhonda would give him real Trix – he could tell the difference – but Rhonda said that Trix were for kids and Ernie, unfortunately, was no longer a kid. How could such a wonderful dietary concoction be limited to only those under age 13? He didn’t argue with Rhonda, though, because he had a feeling there were other issues, most likely financial – which he would not even attempt to decipher – at play.
“Wal, it look dat man done done it ageen,” Rhonda shook her head back and forth at the small television in the corner. Ernie peered up at the screen, where the President was prattling on, looking strangely determined and striking his hands against the podium definitively. Ernie wondered briefly what music he was listening to that could make him move like that – if he ever met the President, he’d have to ask to borrow the tape.
Rhonda was still shaking her head and muttering under her breath as Ernie returned to his breakfast. Politics made the same amount of sense to Ernie as finances, so he just avoided getting into any discussions about it. Rhonda, on the other hand, was quite vocal about the upcoming election.
“How we gonna manage with dem cuttin’ this, cuttin’ dat, not thinkin’ about dose ‘round us ain’t got nothin’? How we gonna do dat, Ernie?” She didn’t expect an answer – but the question had to be vocalized in order for it to matter.
Ernie took the last bite of his Trix and stared down at the remaining milk, now the color of rainbow sherbet.