ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: Searching
Book Two, Chapter 123: First Breath and Last
I meet Joshua for lunch at the City Cafe. Not the one that closed last Thanksgiving, obviously. This one’s set amid a medical complex, across the street from the building where I’ll meet later this afternoon with therapist Jene.
Joshua seems edgy.
“Just because I ask you to lunch doesn’t mean you have to say yes,” I say. “Please feel free to say no to me.”
“I want to be here. I’m just low on energy. I dropped off the car for a compression check and an assessment. I paid the mechanic ninety dollars to find out the compression’s within an acceptable range, but he wants two thousand to repair all the oil leaks, to replace the brakes on the rear tires, and to fix the gas gauge and oil-pressure gauge. That’s way too much. The parts would cost him four or five hundred. He’s charging too much for a day’s labor.”
I suspect Joshua’s angry about something other than the car-repair estimate, or is he? Trouble with the little red car is enough to unsettle him.
“It was extremely mature of you not to buy the BMW motorcycle.”
“The bike’s worth it, but six thousand dollars is almost one-third of my bankroll. I can’t afford it. It’s an expensive toy.”
Joshua’s a free-lancer. He never knows when the next check will come in. That also keeps him on edge.
We both choose the curried cauliflower soup, and it’s delicious. I’ve forgotten how good the cafe’s soups are, how comforting good food is. I also have flour tacos stuffed with cheese and corn and topped with salsa, and Joshua has a portobello sandwich. He loses a bit of his edginess.
“I lost maybe thirty-five dollars at the track on Saturday. It was a miserable card. No way to make money. One horse I bet should’ve gone off at two-to-one and went off at one-to-five. She won by inches. I had thirty-one dollars to win on her and got back a little over thirty-seven dollars. Not a good return. Not a good bet.”
“Are you going to bet the Derby?” I ask.
“Why don’t we go out on Oaks Day? We can advance-bet the Derby.”
“That’s a good idea.”
I walk him to the little red car, parked in front of a four-story yellow-brick building, lots of wide steps leading to its tall entrance doors. Inscribed in stone over the doors are the words Louisville Public Hospital.
“I think your daddy was born in that hospital, Joshua.”
“Are you sure this is the building?”
“I think so. Let’s check it out.”
Just inside its side entrance we find a blue-uniformed employee. “Is this the old General Hospital?” I ask him.
“Oh, yes, this is the old General. My son was born here.”
“Where would the nursery have been?” Joshua asks.
“You’re at street level now. Upstairs is the main floor.”
“That’s where babies born in the thirties would have been?” Joshua asks.
We take the elevator, turn right, and cross a floor of gray and red travertine. No remnant of a nursery. Walking in the other direction, we pass through a marble lobby, exit the tall doors, and go down the building’s many limestone steps.
“When your daddy was a newborn, his mama and daddy would have carried him down these steps and out to their car. Your grandfather always had a car. He was the first man in La Grange to own one.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m into cars,” Joshua says. “It’s in my blood.”
He gets into the little red car, which was Ernie’s car, and honks as he takes off.
I look back at the building and think: Joshua and I were with Ernie for his last breath, and he and I have come upon the place where Ernie drew his first breath.
Each life has a beginning and an end. If we’re lucky, we have people who hold us close at our beginning, and people who hold us close at our end. And all the time between.