A Novel by William Michaelian
As luck would have it, Ernie was warming up some chicken noodle soup when I knocked on his door. Cordial person that he is, he invited me in and immediately opened another can. Within a few minutes, the soup was ready and we sat down to eat. I hadn�t gone over there looking for food, though. What I was hoping for was a little conversation, plus some indication that I wasn�t entirely alone on the planet.
The soup tasted great. It was nice and salty, just the way I like it. We even had crackers � real crackers � the kind that come wrapped in plastic inside colorful boxes that proclaim, �Now! More Flavor Than Ever!�
Just as we started eating, Ernie let me know � politely, of course � that my eyes were bloodshot. He said, �Man, you look like a zombie.�
�Thanks,� I said. �I feel like one.�
�Busy at the computer, I take it.�
�Too busy. Yesterday and today, especially.�
Knowing how fond I am of typesetting, Ernie found this amusing. �That�s good,� he said. �I�m glad to hear business is booming.�
�Up yours,� I said.
Pleased with my response, but more concerned with the business at hand, Ernie grabbed some crackers and crumbled them into his soup. He rubbed his hands together over the bowl to get off the dust and crumbs. �You know what?� he said. �I wish I had a nice, fresh lemon. Lemon juice goes great on this stuff.�
�I know what you mean,� I said. I gave my soup a stir and inhaled some of the steam. �My dad always put lemon juice. And black pepper. He liked pepper on everything.�
�Pepper�s good,� Ernie said. He raised a spoonful of soup to his mouth. In the process, one of the noodles slipped off and landed in his bowl. �Damn things,� he said. �I don�t know why they make them so long.�
�They�re like worms,� I said. �Only they taste a little better.�
�Yeah. That�s something, anyway.�
For a minute or so, we concentrated on our soup. When it dawned on me that it would probably be my last meal for a good day or day and a half, I was unable to suppress a wry chuckle.
�What�s that for?� Ernie said.
�Oh, I don�t know. Just thinking.�
�Ah-ha. That could get you in trouble.�
All too familiar with the options, I said, �No worse than I�m already in, most likely.�
�I see. Well, then. That�s different. Think away.�
We ate some more soup.
�I�m just cutting it a little close this month, that�s all,� I said eventually.
Ernie looked directly at me. �I know the feeling,� he said. He didn�t pursue the subject. There wasn�t any need. But it was nice to say something about it, and to have it acknowledged by someone who understood.
I asked Ernie if he would be driving cab that night.
�You bet,� he said. �I wouldn�t miss it for the world.�
�How�s it been? Busy?�
�In general, no. But you should�ve seen it last night. Last night was a zoo.�
He told me about a formally dressed couple in their thirties whose car had broken down, and how they were desperate to get to some sort of benefit reception and were arguing in the back seat � until Ernie told them they could either pipe down or walk the rest of the way, since he had a headache and had had about as much of their nonsense as he could stand.
�Wow,� I said. �And you got away with that?�
�What were they going to do, throw me out?�
�I don�t know. Can�t they complain to the company?�
�They can, and they probably will, but it won�t do them any good.�
From what I�d heard about the owners, this made perfect sense. According to Ernie, the company is a partnership that consists of three ex-cab drivers who are about as scrupulous as HMO board executives, without the good manners.
�Did you really have a headache?� I said.
�That figures. So. What did Mr. Hoighty and Ms. Toighty have to say?�
�Not a damn thing � the wimps. They just gasped, and pretended to be horrified. You should�ve seen �em. You know the type.�
�Yeah. No kidding. A couple of real winners. Anyway, when I told �em to shut up, I turned around and put my arm up on top of the seat. That made them jump. They were probably scared I�d reach back there and grab them, and get their clothes dirty.�
�Which is what they deserved.�
�Actually, what they deserved was each other. God. She was ugly, too. They were both ugly.�
Since Ernie was on a roll, I asked him if he�d driven home any drunks. He said he had taken a few, as always.
�I�ll bet that was fun.�
�Oh, yeah. A real riot.� Ernie put another cracker in his bowl, this time without crumbling it. He pushed it down into the remaining liquid with the back of his spoon, then held it there as if he were trying to drown it. Like a bored schoolboy who�d convinced his mother he was sick enough to stay home, he was captivated by the cracker�s transformation and its eventual demise. �They gave me some big tips, though,� he said finally.
�See?� I said. �It pays to haul drunks around.�
�Oh, sure. Especially when you have to hose out your cab after one of them heaves.�
�Oh, no. Did that happen?�
�No. But it has. And it will again.�
�Well, every job has its downside,� I said.
�What are you talking about? Every job is a downside.�
After Ernie gave me the lowdown on the previous night�s drunks, we got up and refilled our bowls. This time we both added pepper. It wasn�t long before we had polished off all of the soup and most of the crackers. When we were through eating, Ernie offered me a beer, which I respectfully declined. Beer was the last thing I needed. Not wanting to be a party pooper, I told him to go ahead without me. But he said he had to hold off since he would be driving later � not that he wouldn�t have been fine with a beer or two under his belt, but there were his customers to consider � the sober ones, at any rate.
After blabbing for a few minutes about my typesetting adventures and the moral decay on Essex Road, I mentioned my trip to Norris. Ernie was glad I was taking Mary. �Heck,� he said. �It�s a good thing. You�re lucky you guys still get along.�
I agreed, for the sake of simplicity, and also because it was true. Then I said I was looking forward to getting out of town, even if it was only for a couple of days.
�Beats playing with yourself,� Ernie said. �Hey � you know what you guys should do? Maybe take a little detour on the way to your mom�s. If you catch my drift.�
�The thought�s occurred to me, believe it or not.�
�That�s good. It should occur to you. I�ve seen Mary�s picture. She�s a doll.�
�Which reminds me,� I said. �You were going to show me a picture of your new sweetheart the other night, but you were too lazy to turn on your computer.�
�You�re absolutely right,� Ernie said. �I was too lazy. But you were too drunk.�
�Yeah, well, that was later on. Anyway, that was all your fault.�
�I see. Just a babe in the woods, eh?�
�That�s right. I�m completely innocent. As pure as the driven snow.�
�Okay. All right. Blame it on me, then. I can take it.�
�I am blaming it on you.�
Ernie got up and stretched. �Good,� he said. �I�m glad that�s settled. Only now I don�t need the computer, because she mailed me a picture. What do you think of that? I got it today. It�s a nice five-by-seven.�
�Uh-oh,� I said.
�That means she knows where you live.�
�Oh, yeah. That�s right. I didn�t tell you. I finally buckled. She knows where I live, and I know where she lives.�
�God,� I said. �Don�t tell me. She lives in this complex.� Once again, the image of my neighbor popped into my head. This time, though, she was topless, and she had the long stem of a red rose clenched between her teeth.
�Wouldn�t that be a riot. Ha! No, as it turns out, Elaine lives in Albuquerque.�
�Well, that�s original. Tell me about it. Are you going to see her?�
�Looks like. Here � let me get the picture. We�ll see what you think. Maybe you can advise me.�
�Oh, yes. I�m sure.�
Ernie disappeared into his bedroom. He came back with Elaine�s picture, which was in one of those lightweight generic frames you get when you order reprints. He pried open the frame and handed it to me. �There she is,� he said. �This is Elaine.�
�Pleased to meet you,� I said. �Hey, she isn�t bad looking.�
�Yep. Looks like I got lucky this time, eh?�
The surprising thing was, Elaine did look like my neighbor. Well, sort of. She was shorter and a little heavier, her hair was longer, darker, and wavier, she looked far more intelligent, and she had a prettier smile. Other than that, they were exactly alike. Unfortunately, she was respectably dressed, but it was obvious she was capable of entertaining certain ideas. In fact, in a pinch, I�ll bet she�s a darn good dancer. She was younger than Ernie had led me to believe. I�d expected fifty, but she looked more like forty � a seasoned, confident, spunky forty, with a definite understanding of the world � the kind of forty that scares the socks off of big-talking little boys in their twenties.
�Okay,� Ernie said. �I see you drooling. Give me that. She�s mine.� He took the picture from me, studied it, then set it down on the table. �Son of a bitch,� he said. �What am I getting myself into?�
�That�s a good question,� I said. �What are you getting yourself into?�
�How the hell should I know? I have no idea.�
We chewed it over for awhile. Whereas before Ernie had been somewhat casual about the whole thing, now that the relationship was heating up, so to speak, he was getting nervous. I didn�t have the heart to ask him if I could see the picture he�d sent to Elaine, because I had the sneaking suspicion he�d cheated in that department. On the other hand, there might have been a little cheating done on the Albuquerque end as well. But that seemed doubtful. What seemed impossible was the two of them actually getting together. And yet that�s exactly what they�d already planned. As for my advice, I told him to go for it � first, because that�s what Ernie wanted and expected me to say, and second, because it wasn�t my place to rule out their chance at love, as corny as that sounds. Not that I�m qualified to advise anyone on anything. I�m not. But I was there, and Ernie asked me.
I found out more. Elaine is divorced, as I had assumed, but it turns out she is also a widow. Her second husband died about two years ago after having a heart attack in bed. I was disappointed, as Ernie had been, to learn that Elaine was in the kitchen making breakfast at the time. But I guess one can�t have everything. That there was no love lost between the couple further dilutes the tragedy. That they had been on the verge of divorce pretty much wipes out any need for mourning at all. In fact, as unkind as it seems, Ernie and I had a good laugh about it � after showing the proper respect, of course. To quote ourselves directly, Ernie said, �Poor devil,� and then I said, �Jeez, what a break.� Then Ernie smiled and said, �I�ll say,� and I said, �Not for you. I meant for him.� After that, we raked the deceased over the coals, unable to control our meaner instincts. This is what happens when you get a couple of losers together. Give us some soup and a picture of a good-looking woman, and we�ll turn it into something coarse and crude in no time. It�s a time-honored tradition. Love may come knocking, but unless it breaks the door down we�re happy to stay inside, scratching ourselves and making fun of the world�s dead. It isn�t something to be proud of, but we can�t help it, being genetically deficient males out for a good time. Someday, I hope, the vastly superior female sex will develop a drug that will make men perfect � perfect husbands, perfect lovers, perfect workers, and, of course, perfectly grateful. Until then, it looks like we�re stuck together � for better or for worse, as the old saying goes.
One thing I found interesting is that Elaine currently works as a telephone solicitor. This means she will be free to move if things go well with Ernie. Of course, the same thing can be said of him. Ernie has already driven cabs in half a dozen cities, so it would be no big deal for him to do it in Albuquerque. Not that he said anything about moving. From what I gather, Elaine has been working the phones for about a year and a half, and actually does pretty well at it. She sits in a stark, desk-filled basement rented out by the solicitation company, and politely wrangles money out of people for whatever campaign, scam, or cause the company�s been hired to take on. I say politely based upon her picture, and also upon my hope that she isn�t one of those obnoxious, name-mispronouncing nitwits who torture innocent people at dinner time. If she is, there will be no point in getting together with Ernie.
Another interesting thing, especially in light of Elaine�s employment, is that the two still haven�t talked to each other on the telephone. I asked Ernie about this, and he said that since e-mail had gotten them this far, they had decided to stick with it until they actually met. This approach reminds me of Matt and his many baseball superstitions. Just to choose one example, for an entire season he refused to let Mary wash his socks, because his socks happened to be dirty when his team won the championship game of an important preseason tournament. He had played several games over a three-day period and had to make due with dirty socks because it had been raining off and on and the tournament was out of town. In the championship game, he had four at-bats and four hits. That did it. When the team got home, everyone washed their socks, but not Matt. Mary protested, Matt called me, and I said I understood. I also recommended that he keep his socks in the garage between games, so they wouldn�t pollute the house, and so his mother wouldn�t have to face them. Then Mary got on the phone and blamed me for encouraging Matt�s childish and disgusting behavior. When I explained to her that the same sort of thing was rife at the professional level, she said that she was doing her very best to keep our son from becoming a spitting, scratching knothead, and that I was of absolutely no help at all. In other words, it was that male thing all over again.
Speaking of boys, Elaine does have a son from her first marriage. Todd is nineteen, and already lives on his own. Being a self-taught computer whiz, he is able to drum up money for rent and pizza pretty much at will, by tutoring bewildered home users and floundering college students who can afford his fee but can�t afford to fail.
While Ernie was relating all this, he let slip the fact that he had a daughter the same age. Until that time, he�d never said a thing about having children one way or the other, and I�d never asked. I figured he was a father, mainly by the relaxed, easy interest he�d shown in Matt on different occasions, but I didn�t know for sure. I still don�t know how many kids he has, or if he has more than the one girl, whose name is Melissa, and who is also off on her own. In the absence of advanced computer skills, Melissa is working her way through school, having a good time, and trying to find out what she�s interested in � something that makes perfect sense to Ernie, and to me as well. Beyond that, I didn�t pry, and our conversation drifted on to other things.
What it boils down to is, anything can happen. Elaine is planning to drive out for a visit in a month or so, when she and Ernie will both take a week off from work to get to know each other. Everything else is up in the air � as it should be, as it can only be, given life, and given the circumstances. I was surprised and flattered when Ernie said he wanted the three of us to get together and go out and eat somewhere. It was another reminder how relationships progress and how things slowly change. If we are indeed real friends, I�m glad. If he just wants me along to help soak up some possible unease, I don�t mind. If things go particularly well and they decide three�s a crowd, that�s fine too. Three is a crowd. I know, because sometimes I�m a crowd all by myself. Either way, though, it will be interesting. That we can count on. And who knows? Maybe Ernie and Elaine will fall in love. It is possible, after all. I can�t imagine anything better. There is certainly nothing better to hope for.
Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know
Cosmopsis Books ~ San Francisco
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