Ernest

The day was a scorcher.

The metal arm of the chair was poking through the cushion. The hinges squeaked unnaturally as he slowly waved the mosquitos away from his face, gaining a one-second reprieve before they were back, inches from his eyes. He coughed and spit into the detritus next to him before taking a swig.

There was a bird somewhere above him, calling loudly to no one.

The woods were loud. He recognized the birdcalls, the insect chirps, the scatter of squirrel feet, the sluggishly warm breeze in the leaves.

The air was heavy and his cotton undershirt was glued to his back. He was desperately thirsty and he spun the thick, gross amber liquid around in its jar, watching the sun dance off the glass. He choked down another mouthful, swishing it around, mixing it with the grime on his teeth. He swallowed, not allowing himself to pull a face. He preferred the wine buried about four feet deep, some in the shade behind his shack, some in the cooler clay down by the creek. But he was tired in the sun and his knee was throbbing.

A low rumble of thunder was his first warning of the oncoming summer storm.

He let his head loll back as he tried to peer through the canopy of pine and oak and maple to see how close it was.

“Get up, Ernest,” he mumbled, closing his eyes to the gnats. “Get up,” he said again, louder this time. He sighed, took a last swig of beer to steel himself, and rose slowly out of the chair, which groaned with his effort.

“You’re taller than I thought.”

He forced himself a step or two without his crutch before his knee gave out and he didn’t have a choice. He slammed open the door, knowing he shouldn’t abuse it that way unless he wanted to fix it soon, and ducked into the lean-to. He lifted the pile of worm-ridden blankets off of the ground and threw them into his shack, connected to the enclosed lean-to by another door and a step up. He hooked open the lean-to door and shuffled back across the road for the chair. He called it a road out of irony, though it was true enough when he’d had a truck when he first built the place. THe chair leg embedded itself in a mole tunnel and hit him squarely in the shin when he tugged it free. He cursed and threw it into the lean-to ahead of him.

He felt the first wisps of wind dance with his hair.

She laughed delightfully, her thin hand beneath his, grasping the razor. “I’ve got it this time, Ernie. Let me try,” she giggled.

He limped around the lean-to and pulled the meats he was drying off their line. He shoved the strands into his deep pockets and stooped by his garden, checking to make sure there wasn’t anything ready to pick that would be knocked down by the rains.

“Make me a tomato sandwich, Ernie,” she giggled, her hair tousled against the pillow. “I’m ravenous.”

He went around the shack, checking the impermeability of the boarded windows and congratulating himself out loud at each one. He grabbed ahold of the doorframe and hoisted himself into the shack, pulling his crutch in after him.

The clouds were gathering above him and the shack was dark as he undressed, peeling his shirt off first before sitting down on his cot to pull off his boots and trousers. He waited.

The rain started gently, a few pitter-patters on the tin roof, then built gradually into an adequate downpour, dripping quickly through a leak in the corner.

“Damn it, Ernest. I told you to fix that last week,” he grumbled, the phrase familiar in his mouth.

He gently took off his socks and his long cotton underwear and stood up on one leg.

He took the hunk of homemade soap off the shelf by the door and peered out the doorway. It was almost gone; he’d have to go into town soon. The rain was heavy now and he looked at the ground beneath him, hesitant to get his crutch wet but hesitant to take the step down without it. The rain blowing into the shack forced him to action and he stumbled out, both hands supporting himself on the doorframe. He reached up and latched the door shut.

“Don’t come back if you don’t bring a puppy with you. A yellow one. A yellow puppy, please.”

The rain was colder than it should have been and goosebumps rose on his skin. He half-limped, half-hopped about ten yards from the shack to relieve himself.

He tried to wash quickly in the rain, bringing the soap to a lather on his left forearm. He looked over his shoulder as the thunder broke again and noticed the lean-to door still hooked open as he’d left it. He cursed, dropped the soap, and cursed again.

He started the short distance to the open door, but the humidity had been doing its damage on his knee all afternoon. He stopped to lean against a sweetgum, his breathing slightly elevated.

There was the thunder again and a bomb exploded 100 feet in front of him and felt the heat on his cheeks and the rain was sand and grit and he heard Evans screaming and his knee was numb then hot and searing.

He opened his eyes to the mud against his cheek and his face was wet but his whole body was wet and he sat naked in the storm and yelled for all he was worth, yelled at the sky, at the storm, at God, and the sky yelled back, louder each time, and this time he saw the flash through the leaves and he tried to pull himself back and tried to see the rain and the shack and the trees whipping above him. He crawled on one knee to the lean-to. He tried to shut the door behind him but it was hooked to the wall so he kicked and he yelled and the wood split and he felt the splinters enter his heel and he yelled again, cursing over the thunder.

He reached the latch from the step up to the shack and crawled back down to sit against the door, keeping it shut against the storm.

“Ernie! When are you coming back, Ernie?”

He curled into an awkward ball, letting one leg stick out, and his sobs mixed with the sounds of the storm and he realized he lost the soap and Evans was calling to him outside and it was violently loud on the roof.

“Don’t be gone long, Ernie.”

“I’ll be back soon, sweetheart. I’ll be back soon.”

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