Excerpts from Ernie's Ark
Temperature of Desire"
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.
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.
"That One Autumn"
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
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
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.
deal," she said. "I
get to be in charge, and you get to shut up."
"Solidarity Is Not a Floor"
Love, eighth grader
In her head she calls him Jesse. Just
plain Jesse. Her friend
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.
"At the Mercy"
John McCoy, CEO, Atlantic Pulp & Paper
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.
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.
a word, I've got problems.
"The Joy Business"
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.
"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
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.
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.