ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife
Book One, Part Two, Chapter 172: Joshua Arrives
It’s the fifth of December.
Joshua’s flight is due in at ten p.m., still ten minutes away. I’m sitting in a black vinyl chair watching a parade of airline passengers pass. Some are greeted with flowers. Most are greeted with hugs.
I see a tall man in a wool plaid shirt and baggy tan corduroys, a thin knit cap pulled low over his forehead. With bristly mustache and shaggy beard, a pack slung over one shoulder, he looks like a Civil War soldier dragging himself the long way home after doing bloody battle with his brothers.
Can this be Joshua?
I rise from the chair, Joshua’s name on my lips. He puts up both hands, palms out, both a sign of hello and a sign to back off. He needs me, but he’s also wary of me. I hug him.
We walk alongside each other down the long concourse. He looks about. Red banners hang from the ceiling, pointing to pots of poinsettias. Christmas music plays.
“Good cheer,” he says. “Good. Cheer is good.”
We wait at the baggage carousel.
“I hope you’re glad to see me,” he says.
I hug him once again. “Of course I am. You must know that. Can’t you see it on my face?”
He picks up his duffel bag, and I carry the backpack.
“Guard that well,” he says. “The heavy loot’s in there.”
He spots a short row of black seats near the escalator.
“Let’s rest a bit,” he says.
In the past, Joshua has always hurried out of the airport. Maybe he wants to delay the moment he sees Ernie’s little red car. He leans back in the seat, stretches his legs.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, someone sings. Then, There’s no place like home for the holidays. Joshua closes his eyes. He’s absorbing the music. A man takes a seat to my immediate right. I don’t notice him, but Joshua springs from his chair. “Let’s go,” he says.
I wonder why he suddenly wants to go. He seemed so relaxed, listening to the music.
Going down the escalator, he says: “That man was up to something. Probably heard me talk about the heavy loot in the backpack. He was waiting for the moment to grab it from you. Look at us. We both look out of it. Easy targets. Gotta have street smarts. . . . Where’s the car? Is it nearby?”
It is. His two bags just fit into its narrow trunk.
“You drive,” Joshua says.
This is a switch. I never drive Ernie or Joshua. They know I don’t like to drive, that I’m not a good driver.
We arrive at my brother Rich’s house, my childhood home. Rich is asleep, so we climb to the second floor, a converted attic, the futon set up at its far end and two comfortable chairs across from it, each positioned under a skylight. I ordered a seven-inch-thick mattress with over three hundred steel springs — so the catalog says — but it’s coming from Atlanta and won’t be in for a week or so. In the meantime, Joshua will sleep on the futon’s saggy, ten-year-old mattress.
He sits in the rocker, under a skylight. “I can’t go to your place,” he says. “It’s claustrophobic. A postage stamp.” He squeezes his eyes shut, makes a miniature square with his hands. “Daddy never liked it, either. Neither do you, but you don’t realize it. That’s why you’re always taking walks. I don’t want to deal with the people over there, either. Don’t want to be stared at. Don’t want to say hello. Don’t want to talk. Don’t want to hear voices. Don’t want to hear the elevator. I just want sleep, nourishment, positive reinforcement, exercise. No stress. I need quiet. Rest and quiet.”
His long fingers pluck at the collar of his red-plaid woolen shirt, pluck at its breast pocket. He takes a deep breath. “I’m okay.” His voice is a whisper. It’s as if he’s talking to himself. He repeats, over and over, “I’m okay. The doctor says I’m okay. I have the classic symptoms of panic attack. Textbook symptoms. I’m okay. The doctor says I’m okay.” Over and over, he repeats this chant.
Rain begins to beat against the skylight, like a lullaby. Perhaps it will soothe him, help him through this night.
I stay with him.