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Ernie's Ark       Monica Wood              Ernie's Ark

Ernie's Ark takes place in the fictional town of Abbott Falls, Maine.  With the paper mill on strike and his wife dying, Ernie Whitten succumbs to his first-ever artistic inspiration and builds an ark on his lawn. A symbol of love, an act of desperation, and a building-code violation, the ark resonates in unexpected ways for the friends, enemies, strangers, and neighbors in these nine connected stories.

Herewith, a glimpse of some of the characters from Ernie's Ark:

 

Excerpts from Ernie's Ark

     

From "The Temperature of Desire"

 Dan Little, electrician

On the afternoon in question, we had been on strike for nine months and counting.  It was around four-thirty, snow in the air.  I was on my way to get a burger with my dog, Junie, feeling dull and thickened, burdened by what my little brother and I had come to.  Under the darkening sky, the mill looked like a ruined picnic, a sorry brick blanket at the deep center of the valley.  Main Street showed signs of wear: a missing letter at Dave’s Diner, and at Showers of Flowers, which is owned by my cheerful ex-wife, the storefront featured nothing but a few carnations headed for the top of some lucky bastard’s cut-rate casket.  Beyond that was the long green arch of  Porter Bridge, the river running low beneath it.  I was seized by an urge to stop the car, pitch my clothes, and hurl myself over the guardrail.

Why not? I asked myself.  I’m a divorced man with no kids; my ex-wife is married to an eggheaded cadaver who welds scrap metal into giant pretzels and calls it art; my little brother who once adored me hates my guts.  The rocks are bare this time of year, I’ll be dead before I know I’m drowning, my sister will take care of the dog.

            You get this way.  You get to thinking God’s got a sticker next to your name.  But it’s strange, the things that hold us to the earth.  Just as I was thinking I could really do it, the water churned up what looked like a lost plank, painted red, maybe six inches wide and about a foot long—part of a front step, maybe, or a kid's wagon.  And I thought of  this guy I’d met, a pipefitter who’d gone a little over the bend.  He was building an ark next to his house over on Randall.  An ark.  As in Noah.  The flood.  Animals two by two.

 

From "That One Autumn"

 Marie Whitten, part-time librarian

          Then she heard it: the sound of a person struggling up the steep, rocky path from the lake.  Swishing grass.  A scatter of pebbles.  The subtle pulse of forward motion.

            It was a girl.  She came out of the trees into the sunlight, naked except for a towel bundled under one arm.  Seeing the car, she stopped, then looked toward the cabin, where Marie uncoiled herself slowly, saying, "Who the hell are you?"

            The girl stood there, apparently immune to shame.  A delicate ladder of ribs showed through her paper-white skin.  Her damp hair was fair and thin, her pubic hair equally thin and light.  "Shit," she said.  "Busted."  Then she cocked her head, her face filled with a defiance Marie had seen so often in her own son that it barely registered.

            "Cover yourself, for God’s sake," Marie said.

            The girl did, in her own good time, arranging the towel over her shoulders and covering her small breasts.  Her walk was infuriatingly casual as she moved through the dooryard, picked up the knapsack, and sauntered up the steps, past Marie, and into the cabin.

Marie followed her in.  She smelled like the lake.

            "Get out before I call the police," Marie said.

            "Your phone doesn’t work," the girl said peevishly.  "And I can’t say much for your toilet, either."

            Of course nothing worked.  They’d turned everything off, buttoned the place up after their last visit, James and Ernie at each other’s throats as they hauled the dock up the slope, Ernie too slow on his end, James too fast on his, both of them arguing about whether or not Richard Nixon was a crook and should have resigned in disgrace.

            "I said get out.  This is my house."

            The girl pawed through the knapsack.  She hauled out a pair of panties and slipped them on.  Then a pair of frayed jeans, and a mildewy shirt that Marie could smell across the room.  As she toweled her hair it became lighter, nearly white.  She leveled Marie with a look as blank and stolid as a pillar.

            "I said get out," Marie snapped, jangling her car keys.

            "I heard you."

            "Then do it."

            The girl dropped the towel on the floor, reached into the knapsack once more, extracted a comb, combed her flimsy, apparitional hair, and returned the comb.  Then she pulled out a switchblade.  It opened with a crisp, perfunctory snap.

"Here’s the deal," she said.  "I get to be in charge, and you get to shut up."

 

 From "Solidarity Is Not a Floor"

 Francine Love, eighth grader

In her head she calls him Jesse.  Just plain Jesse.  Her friend Jesse.

She has come here armed with the facts of his life: his illegitimate birth, his absent father, his Greenville childhood, his faultless forward march toward nobility.  I was born in the slum, but the slum was not born in me.  Into Jesse's childhood street, Haney Street (in which she pictures a lonely, gifted black boy, so lonely and searching), she has placed tin cans rattling mournfully in  the gutter, a single broken streetlight, and two dogs that pack together, one black, one white—little Jesse's first metaphor.  We sit here together, a rainbow, a coalition....  She has acquired two photographs: one, the fragile Jesse, a little child with chestnut cheeks and parted hair; the other, the rakish preacher, broad shouldered and mustachioed, arms folded, an immaculate handkerchief triangled out from his breast pocket.

Gloria is back, rattling keys.  "Now," she says, all business: "You wanted to see some footage?"

Francine nods, eyeing the stacks.  "Whatever you have.  I just want to hear him talk."

Gloria unlocks a room cluttered with sound and video equipment and leads Francine to a computer terminal.  "Most of what we have is on CD," she explains, sitting Francine down and reaching over her to scroll through an index, then another, and another.  Francine, who notes several shortcuts that Gloria either doesn't know or does not wish to take, waits patiently until Gloria finishes her orientation and leaves.

The first thing Francine notices, watching the screen version of her friend Jesse striding to the podium at the 1988 Democratic Convention, is that he walks like a man with no intention of ever stopping.  It is almost a surprise when he does.  His voice is melodic, with certain imperfections of speech, a stoppage here and there as certain syllables blot together.  His mouth fills with poetry, then the poetry floats out, not perfectly.  She is entranced.  Although she has memorized whole sections of his speeches, and this speech in particular, Jesse's voice visits her as something both familiar and strange, as if she'd stepped into her morning shower and out poured gold dust, or feathers, or butterflies.  Francine does not understand that she is falling, that Jesse Jackson is the first in what will be a series of miserable crushes, that when the news of Jesse's love child breaks two years hence, she will be sick with betrayal.  Instead, she feels as if she is rising.  Rising toward knowledge.  She waits for the feeling to pass, and mercifully, it doesn't.  By the time Jesse Jackson lifts his chin and exhorts his listeners to "keep hope alive, keep hope alive, keep hope alive," she believes he is talking directly to her.

  

From "At the Mercy"

 Henry John McCoy, CEO, Atlantic Pulp & Paper

I am not a patient man.  My daughter is reading poetry, aloud, in the seat next to me, because (she says) she has always loved poetry.  Her mouth opens and closes over the words—wide, narrow, wide, narrow—which is either the way people read poetry aloud these days or a signal to me that she suspects I might be unfamiliar with words like urticant or sidereal, which I am.  My daughter's abiding love of poetry is one of many facts that I have not (she says) managed to apprehend about her character, either because I was never home (which is true) or didn't give a sweet goddamn about the machinations of her inchoate soul.  She says.

Why I agreed to this trip in the first place, I cannot say.  I've got a paper mill famously on strike; a fleet of overpaid lawyers getting their intestines rearranged by a couple of crew-cut federal-type mediators in cheesy suits; a cabal of accountants secretly floating trial balloons to South African buyers; and a squadron of attorneys sifting every United States labor case since 1870 through an extremely fine sieve so that if I'm forced to fire the seven hundred replacement workers I hired eight months ago I can find a way to cut the damn place loose and stay out of jail in the meanwhile.

In a word, I've got problems.

 

From "The Joy Business"

Cindy Love, proprietor, Showers of Flowers

            Six days after Cindy's first divorce, the door to her flower shop jangled opened and in walked another man.  He wanted flowers, he said.  Help me.

            "For your wife?" Cindy asked.

            He laughed.  "Hardly."  He drummed his long, ringless, privileged-looking fingers on Cindy's counter.  "Tenure party," he said, making the words sound dull and obligational, but to Cindy they had a different tang altogether.   The college, only forty minutes away by car, occupied a world rarely felt here.

            Bruce Love was his name.  He taught studio art, he told her, though he himself was a sculptor.  Beautiful teeth, an artistic nose, a shiver of well-cut hair.  She recommended something showy—bird of paradise, stargazer lilies—and he went for it, watching as she added lobelia and baby's breath, wrapping the bouquet in tissue so fine it could line a bird's nest.

            When she was finished, Bruce Love asked if she might consider delivering the flowers in person, as his date.  Love to, she said, ringing up his order, her ten childless years as Mrs. Danny Little dropping away behind her, drifty as rose petals.  His wallet contained pictures of children, a boy and a girl.  His check showed that he lived here, in Abbott Falls, only blocks from where she'd moved back in with her mother.  She envisioned a long, glamorous string of tenure parties—plus free courses at the college and two brilliant stepchildren who adored her—waiting at the misty end of the evening.  Yes indeedy, she said.  Tonight.  You bet.

 

From "Shuffle, Step"

Ernie Whitten, pipefitter

            Five months to the day after Marie's passing, Ernie won free dance lessons in a raffle.  He'd bought the ticket from a girl in the neighborhood raising money for her middle-school jazz band.  There were other prizes on the list—movie passes, a year of bouquets from Showers of Flowers, and a month of lunches at the Libby Road Burger King—all of which assumed the presence of a partner.  With Marie gone, Ernie saw the world more than ever as a place for two-by-two.

            He had tried to explain this to the eighth-grader standing on his doorstep who introduced herself as Francine Love, but she merely shrugged her meaty shoulders and informed him, "You won't win, anyway."  She was a round, soft girl with beach-colored hair cut straight off just below her ears.  Her glasses were heavy and squarish, and she wore a big blue sweatshirt over big blue sweatpants.  Ernie's son had been a child like this, inexplicably heartbreaking, out of step in ways hard to pin down.  For her awful glasses alone, Ernie bought four books of tickets at five bucks a crack, enough, he figured, to finance a new reed for her saxophone.

            And now here she was again, back on his doorstep, grinning at him through chapped lips, holding out a pink-and-white brochure for Melanie Bouchard's School of Dance at 425 West Main.  Ernie's had been the fourth ticket drawn.  Last prize, but a prize nonetheless, the only winning ticket Francine Love had ever sold in her eight-year school career.

            "So we're both winners, in a way," she said.


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