ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife

Book One, Part One, Chapter Seven: The Rendezvous

Ernie slips me a note at the office. I’m interviewing a university professor at seven tonight. Will you meet me afterward at the fountain beside the university’s library? He’s typed the note on his green portable Olivetti.

In quick merry strokes, I write back. I guess I’ll be there. Isn’t this exciting? It’s a rendezvous. I don’t think it odd that we’re writing each other rather than talking to each other. I’m caught up in the game.

Wearing a long-sleeved cocoa-colored shirt and white jeans, my hair bunched in the back with a barrette, I arrive at the fountain first. I pace the sidewalk beside the fountain, then take a seat under the thin shade of a birch tree. I study the tree’s bark, peeling to reveal a skin of cream and umber and gold. When I look up, here comes Ernie striding toward me, still in his office uniform — the unbuttoned suit jacket flapping in the breeze created by his quickness.

“We’ll leave your car here and take mine,” he says. “I want to take you somewhere special.”

“To dinner?” At home after work I had only a slice of watermelon. Too excited to eat. But now I’m getting hungry.

“No, not to dinner. Be patient. You’ll see.”

We get into his white Fiat convertible, its top down.

“This car smells new,” I say.

“It is. Maybe I’m going through my second childhood. Or second teenhood. In my twenties I bought an MG midget, dark green. I lent it to my first wife, after we separated and I took a newspaper job in Greensboro. She left it on the railroad tracks. That was the end of that car. And that marriage.”

I just listen to Ernie. I don’t think about what this story reveals — that his first marriage must have been a real train wreck. That his wife must have harbored deep feelings of hurt and anger. Or maybe she was just disorganized and spacey and never even bothered to check the MG’s gas gauge. Whatever, this Fiat is another car and I’m another, completely different woman.

Ernie takes off his jacket, loosens his tie, rolls up his sleeves, and puts on a pair of sunglasses, then a pair of black leather gloves, snapping them at the wrist. “My race-car gloves,” he says.

Ernie’s a race-car driver, I’m riding shotgun, and away we go!

This is thrilling. I haven’t been in a convertible on a summer night since the summer after high school, with Johnny Bissell, proud owner of a dark green Corvette he bought on first arriving in this city to work at a naval ordnance plant, where we met. But Johnny never raced the ’vette. On our dates, he never even liked to put down the top. “The breeze will tangle you hair,” he said.

I unsnap my barrette and unfurl my hair. Let the breeze blow. Tonight, I’ll take the tangles.

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My writer husband’s favorite nickname for me was Ernestina, so in this 2-book memoir, he is Ernie. This is his story, our story, and my story. I invite you in.

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Ernestina

My writer husband’s favorite nickname for me was Ernestina, so in this 2-book memoir, he is Ernie. This is his story, our story, and my story. I invite you in.