MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Ernie

Morgan Currier

It was five o’clock. Time to close up shop. Ernie didn’t have a shop; he had a cheap metal desk in a 1970s-era office. But ‘close up shop’ sounded better. More exciting than what in reality was simply putting his current client folders away, tidying up his notes, and shutting down his out-dated computer. Ernie sighed. Nothing very exciting about that. Nothing exciting about a Tuesday night, either. Home, dinner for himself, feed his rabbit, watch Jeopardy, and then sleep.

Sighing again, he packed up the briefcase he carried in the hope that it lent a bit of mystery to his appearance. Ernie thought that he needed to make a change in his life. He needed to go out and meet people. Meet someone. Meet a girl. As he walked to the train station he pictured himself going into a club after work, dressed in a navy blue suit instead of his daily brown one, nodding casually to acquaintances as he passed on his way to the bar. He would sit at the bar and order…

Ernie’s imagination stalled out at this point. He wasn’t sure what would be appropriate to order in this situation. Something sophisticated? Something relaxed? He became flustered over not knowing this detail and obsessed about it during the train ride home.

He opened the door to his one bedroom apartment and called out, “I’m home!” There was no answer, which was what he expected. The light on his phone was blinking. He pressed the message button and listened to a voice tell him his rent was due. The next message was from his sister, asking him to call her back.

Ernie pulled a carrot and lettuce from his refrigerator and brought them over to his rabbit’s cage. The door to the cage was standing open, and Pumpkin was missing. He spent an hour looking around the tiny apartment and finally found where she had chewed through the beige painted drywall.

He called his sister before bed. “Even my rabbit doesn’t want to stay with me.”

“I’m sure your bunny will be back. She probably got bored sitting in her cage all day.”

He pulled at the black spirally cord of the telephone. “Do you think I’m boring?”

Nancy’s sigh came though the line. “Yes.”

Ernie’s shoulders drooped.

“But I’m boring, too. Mom and dad were boring. We don’t exactly come from an exciting line.”

“But mom and dad were happy. You’re happy. Why can’t I be happy?”

Another pause on her end of the line. “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe you’re like your bunny and you need a change.”

He was still thinking about Nancy’s suggestion when his little grey alarm clock went off at six o’clock. Instead of springing out of bed immediately with the first beep, Ernie lay on his bed for an extra minute, counting down the seconds. He swung his legs over the left side instead of the right, ignored his tan slippers and walked barefoot across the cold floor to his closet and removed the striped purple socks his sister had given him as a joke for his birthday. Today was going to be his day of change.

Ernie arrived late to work. He forced himself to stay in the lobby of the office building pretending to read the paper. At seven minutes past his usual arrival time he couldn’t bear it any longer and rushed up the three flights of stairs, almost sprinting to his desk. His boss was just leaving as Ernie arrived, breathing hard.

“I’m sorry…Mr. Stevens…,” Ernie said. He slid his chair out from under his desk and sat down. His boss was quiet as Ernie straightened up his already spotless area. When there was only silence, Ernie finally glanced up at the younger man.

His boss was looking down at him, holding his ever-present clipboard and striking a black ink pen against it. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Ernie cringed with each tap. “I’m very sorry, sir. My…uh…” his imagination stalled.

“‘There’s no reason, ever’ Mr. Hallen, ‘to be late.’ Words to live by from Mr. John Lennon.”

“Noel Gallagher,” Ernie said quietly.

“What?”

“John Lennon didn’t say that. Noel Gallagher did. ‘There’s no reason, ever, to be late. Or Early.’ That was Noel Gallagher.”

Mr. Stevens was shaking his head. “Are you implying that I’m wrong, Mr. Hallen?”

“No sir. Well, on the quote you are, but-”

“I really did not expect this from you, Mr. Hallen. First you’re late. And now you’re talking back to me. After all this company has done for you. After all the chances I’ve given you. I have to say that I am. Greatly. Disappointed.” He began scratching notes on the clipboard.

Ernie flushed and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, sir. But what chances are you speaking of? I have been a model employee for the eight years I’ve worked here.”

The pen slapped against the clipboard and Ernie was being glared at through thick, black-rimmed glasses. Like a bug. “That’s exactly the kind of attitude that will continue to get you in trouble, Mr. Hallen. And I don’t keep troublemakers in my company!”

Mr. Stevens stared at Ernie another moment and then stalked off, the pen and clipboard weathering his wrath.

Ernie’s shoulders slumped as he dug out his folders. He had never in his life been reprimanded before, and he wasn’t sure how to take it. He stared dully at the file in front of him, thinking over what just happened and what had been said. He’d been labeled as a troublemaker. And then the realization hit him. Today really was different.

The rest of the day flew by for Ernie. He used blue ink instead of black, he removed the “very respectfully” from his signature block, only to reinsert the “respectfully” ten minutes later. He went to a street side vendor for lunch and made the man give him a new hotdog without the onions, and then he left ten minutes past his regular departure time.

On the way home, Ernie got off the train two stops before his usual one. He had no idea where he was or what he was going to do. Instead of walking in the direction that would take him to his apartment he walked the other way. The sidewalks and streets were becoming crowded with people heading home from work, but instead of letting himself get jostled around, Ernie squared his shoulders and bulled his way through.

A few blocks from the train stop Ernie found a small bar. It was the type of charming building he’d always imagined that he’d frequent but was never actually brave enough to do so. Today, Ernie opened the old, heavy wooden door and entered the dimly lit establishment. There were maybe a dozen people inside, spread out among a few small wooden tables and the old scarred up bar. He started to panic a little when he couldn’t decide if he should sit at one of the little tables or go to the bar but before he could talk himself out of staying, Ernie drew a deep breath, threw back his shoulders and approached the bar.

A big man with a bushy brown beard was drying glasses behind the bar. He glanced at Ernie and then returned his focus to what he was doing. Ernie waited a moment before clearing his throat. When that didn’t get a response he drew a breath and in his best imitation of his boss, he asked, “Do you serve drinks at this place, or just do the dishes?”

The bearded man looked up again and studied Ernie for a few seconds. “Sure, we serve drinks. What do you want?”

“A double whiskey. On the rocks.”

The bartender pulled a bottle from under the bar, threw some ice in a glass and then filled it from the bottle. He pushed the whiskey towards Ernie. “Fourteen dollars.”

Ernie pulled a carefully crumpled twenty-dollar bill from his pocket, tossed it on the bar and said, “Keep it.” He took a big gulp of the whiskey and promptly spit it back in the glass, coughing and choking.

The bartender raised his eyebrows, smiled smugly as he pocketed the twenty and went back to drying glasses.

Ernie took his glass and turned his back on the man, surveying the other customers. Almost everyone there was with someone else. Three men sat laughing together at one table. Two young women were sitting at another, one woman looking sad and the other patting her arm. A man and woman sat together at a third table, both looking uncomfortable. Finally Ernie turned his attention to a woman sitting alone. She was looking down at her cell phone, a half-empty glass close at hand. Ernie watched her for a few minutes and when no one sat down with her he picked up his glass of whiskey and walked to her table.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” Ernie asked.

The woman looked up from her phone. “Why?”

Ernie tried to think fast but came up with nothing. He looked at the woman, looked quickly around the bar, and then his gaze fell to the glass in his hand. “Because I brought you a drink.” He placed the glass on the table in front of her.

“Thanks,” the woman said. She gave Ernie a tight smile and picked up the glass. As she brought it toward her mouth Ernie realized what he had done and in a panic he tried to grab the glass away from her. Instead he knocked it into her face. Amber liquid went everywhere and the glass hit the woman in the nose. Red blood was soon mixed with the whiskey and the woman cried out.

“Oh my God! I’m so sorry!” Ernie said, reaching to help her. Instead, he was hauled backwards by strong hands.

“What the hell did you do?” The bartender shoved Ernie away from the woman and he fell into the neighboring table where the three men sat. A pitcher and three glasses of beer slid across the surface, and one of the glasses tipped over, pouring beer into the laps of the men. The pitcher slid completely off the table and crashed to the floor. One of the men grabbed Ernie and the last thing he saw was a fist flying toward his face.

A man named Carl drove Ernie home from the bar. During the drive Ernie learned that Carl had been there on a first date, which hadn’t gone well so he’d been glad to have an excuse to end the night early. Carl shook Ernie’s hand and said, “Keep it,” when Ernie tried to give back his bright green handkerchief. As he drove off, he added, “Remember, trivia night on Thursday!” Ernie sighed as he fit his key into the lock of the front door. He smelled horrible, his shirt was blood splattered, his suit was ruined, and he was home much later than he liked to be.

He slowly walked up the five flights of stairs and started down the long hallway to his apartment. He was almost there when he was startled out of his mope by a woman’s voice.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!”

Ernie looked up. And up. In front of him was a tall woman with blue spiky hair, a nose ring, and more tattoos than he could count. She was juggling an armful of papers and a roll of tape. Some of the papers slipped from her hold.

“Blast! Could you grab those for me please?” she asked.

Ernie set his briefcase down and scooped up the papers, turning them over as he did so. On the front was a large colored picture of Pumpkin with “Is This Your Bunny?” across the top of the paper.

Ernie looked up at the woman. “You found Pumpkin?”

The woman looked at the paper. “Is that her name? I’ve been calling her Minerva.”

Ernie smiled, delighted with the name. “Because she escapes,” he said.

The woman grinned back. “Yeah. I can’t believe you got it. She’s a little devil! I can’t keep her in the cage I set up for her.” She looked at the paper again. “I’ve had a good time hanging out with her. She makes my apartment feel,” she shrugged, “warmer.” She looked back at Ernie, studying him. “You know what I mean?”

Ernie studied her back, looking past the blue hair and colorful pictures that covered her lower arms and saw someone who was maybe a bit lonely. Just like he was. “I think I do.” He tucked the papers under one arm with the green handkerchief and then picked up his briefcase. “I need to go get cleaned up. Is it okay to come get my bunny after?”

She nodded. “Yeah, of course. I’m in 506.”

“Oh, I thought that was Mrs. Edward´s apartment?”

“I just moved in a few weeks ago, but I don’t know anything about the person who lived there before me. Honestly, it’s been sort of a hellish month so she could still be living there and I may not notice. I’m just trying to get my life back on track...” She shook her head. “Sorry, you don’t need to know all of that. Anyway, yes, just come by when you’re ready.”

“Thank you. And thank you for looking after Minerva,” Ernie said.

The woman turned to go to her apartment but came back after a few steps. “Hey, you look like you’ve had a pretty lousy night. I was just about to make some tea. Would you like to have some with me and tell me about it?”

Ernie smiled, liking how the light above her highlighted the blue in her hair. “Yes. I would like that very much.”