Ernie’s Last Stand
Growing up in my neighborhood there were two things you learned to listen for. One was the heavenly sound of music—usually “Turkey in the Straw”—being blared through the old speakers of the ice cream truck.
My older brother Harry had the best hearing in the family. We’d be watching TV or playing with Legos or something and suddenly he’d stop and tilt his head to the side like our old German Shepherd, Bella. After a few seconds he’d smile. And although no one else could hear anything, we all knew what that smile meant. Harry, my younger sister Gracie, and I would all quickly get up and go to the nearest adult for money and then head outside to await the arrival of the truck. There were few things as satisfying as sitting on a hot curb eating a fudgecicle.
The other thing you were wise to keep an ear open for was the buzzing of playing cards between the spokes of a bicycle. If you were to hear such an ominous noise it usual only meant one thing: Ernie was coming.
Ernie Higgins was the terror of the neighborhood. He wasn’t particularly big or tall but he was mean. Really mean. He took great pleasure in firing rocks and other sharp objects at stray dogs and whatever else might cross his path. Vandalism was his hobby; if there was a shattered window or smashed mailbox, more than likely he was responsible.
Ernie just had a way of looking at you that made you feel cold inside. So even if you only heard the buzz from the cards and didn’t see him flying down the steep hill on Sullivan Street, his unruly red hair twisting in the wind, you’d be smart to find a place to hide.
Ernie was also kind of crazy; you never knew what he was going to do. He once stole a lawn tractor and drove it onto the highway. Part of his index finger on his left hand was missing after he had held onto a fire cracker while it exploded. And when my father came home from work one day and said he saw Ernie humping a snowman, no one was really that surprised.
Ernie was a year older than Harry but because Ernie had been held back a year, they were both in the same sixth grade class. Harry would tell me horror stories about what Ernie would do during school: starting food fights, stuffing kids into lockers, punching a teacher (okay, that last one was probably made up), but I was enthralled nonetheless. I was terrified of Ernie but also fascinated.
We all had run-ins with him. Gracie’s friend Mary Gomez, who lived across the street from us, had a brown cat named Waffles. Waffles wasn’t the smartest cat and one day, as he was sunning himself in front of the house, Ernie spotted him and sped up the sidewalk. Waffles hadn’t yet learned to fear the buzzing cards and didn’t move. Ernie aimed right for him and rode over his leg. Waffles was okay but he walked with a limp after that day.
Harry’s friend Brian Millner, who lived next door, had learned to fear the buzz but it didn’t do him much good. He was walking home from the park one day when he heard it. Unable to find a good hiding place and with the buzz getting louder, he finally managed to scramble up a tree. Brian wasn’t the luckiest kid and as it turned out, Ernie chose that tree to sit under and replace the cards in his spokes. Convinced he was going to be seen, Brian climbed higher. Just as Ernie rode away, a branch snapped. Brian woke up in the hospital with a concussion and a broken arm.
Before the day when he nearly pummeled me, I had had only one encounter with Ernie. It was on a hot day in late spring when Mom had taken all of us to the town pool. As Mom sat in her lawn chair and talked with a few of her friends, we jumped in the cool water. Harry and I splashed each other and Gracie made me watch as she repeatedly jumped into the shallow end, her yellow plastic water wings glistening in the sun.
When adult swim was called, we all reluctantly got out. Gracie and I headed back to our towels while Harry went off to the snack bar with some friends he had found.
As we made our way onto the grass, I saw Ernie coming towards us. He was shirtless and his shoulders were sunburned a dark pink. I grabbed Gracie’s hand and tried to maneuver through the crowd.
“Hey, Ernie,” I suddenly heard someone yell. “How’s Big Bird?”
It was well known that the one thing that could really set Ernie off, the one thing that you’d have to be a fool to mention within a hundred yards of him was Sesame Street. Ernie hated Sesame Street. It wasn’t so much the show as the fact that he shared his name with one of the puppets.
There was a rumor that when he was in third grade someone had brought an Ernie doll to school for show-and-tell and when he saw it he went berserk: throwing books, overturning desks, and ultimately destroying the doll.
Ernie stopped and looked right at me; his eyes boring into mine. I froze. I could feel Gracie tugging at my hand but I couldn’t move. Ernie started charging at me; for some reason he seemed to think I was the one who said it.
“Yeah, Big Bird,” I heard someone else say with a laugh. Ernie quickly turned to his left and started chasing after the real culprits.
I still couldn’t move. “C’mon, Max. Mom’s got sandwiches for us. I’m hungry!”
I glanced down at Gracie’s pleading face and exhaled. I smiled and we hurriedly found Mom and the sandwiches, although all of a sudden I wasn’t very hungry.
On a warm summer day a few months later, with the pool incident gone but not forgotten, Gracie and I were playing in the backyard. Suddenly we heard the familiar melody telling us the ice cream truck was near. We looked at each other and then ran inside. After getting a few dollars from Dad, we headed for the front door.
“What are you gettin’, Max?” Gracie asked. “I’m gettin’ the strawberry shortcake. What are you gettin’?”
“I think I’m going to get the one with the gumball in the bottom,” I said.
“Oh, that’s what I want, the one with the gum at the bottom!”
When we stepped out onto the porch, we could see Harry already waiting on the sidewalk, gazing to the left where the ice cream truck would be coming from. He held a couple dollars in his hand.
Suddenly, from the other direction, Ernie came flying up the street on his bike. Because of the music from the ice cream truck, Harry never heard the warning of the cards. I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out. Ernie hurriedly got off his bike and approached Harry.
“Hey, kid, let me borrow some money.”
Harry was startled and spun around quickly.
“Did you hear me, kid? I said let me borrow some money.”
“I just have enough for me,” Harry said after a moment.
“Just gimme the money, kid. I’ll pay you back I swear.”
Harry took a step backwards onto our front lawn. “No, Ernie.”
As Gracie and I slowly walked towards them, I saw Ernie redden a little.
“Hey, I’m asking nice, I just want some ice cream. Are you gonna give it to me or not?”
Harry looked terrified. “No,” he stammered.
Ernie turned back to his bike for a second and then whipped around. He grabbed for the money in Harry’s hand. Harry didn’t let go and they both fell to the ground.
“Gimme the money!”
For a moment I thought about rushing back inside and getting Dad, but I knew there wasn’t enough time.
Ernie probably outweighed Harry by thirty pounds and he pinned him easily. He cocked his right arm back, ready to punch. Harry cringed.
“Hey, Ernie,” I said without really thinking. I was now only a few feet from them. Gracie hid behind me clutching my shirt. Ernie looked up at me. I swallowed hard; I had never been so scared in my life.
Ernie turned bright red; his whole head looked like a ripe tomato. His eyes blazed and his face twisted into a scowl. He sprung to his feet and lunged at me.
I pushed Gracie to the side and clenched my eyes shut; convinced I only had a moment to live. Suddenly I heard a thud and opened my eyes. Ernie was on the ground; Harry had grabbed one of his ankles.
“Yeah, Ernie,” Harry said a little breathlessly, “where is Bert?”
Ernie, now even redder, stood up and turned back to face Harry.
“Where’s Cookie Monster, Ernie?”
We all turned to see Brian Millner, still wearing a cast on his right arm, emerge from behind a tall bush on the edge of his driveway. Ernie, now breathing heavily, started walking towards him.
“What about Grover?”
Across the street stood Mary Gomez. She was holding Waffles and grinning. Waffles looked at Ernie and hissed.
“Yeah, where’s Snuffalupa, Snuffaloopa, where’s that big furry elephant?” The ice cream truck had pulled up and the ice cream man was leaning out the window smiling. I’m not sure he knew what was going on but he was agitating Ernie nonetheless.
We had Ernie surrounded. He could’ve taken most of us, I thought, but probably not all of us. He knew he was beaten and turned to go back to his bike.
“Yeah!” Gracie yelled, stepping out from behind me. “Where’s Elmo?!”
Ernie spun around and snarled. Gracie shrieked and hid behind me again. After another glance at all of us, Ernie hurriedly walked to his bike. Just before he got there, he tripped over a jagged piece of the curb and nearly fell. Brian tittered; Harry and I looked at each other and grinned. Ernie quickly got on and pedaled away. After a moment, the buzzing from the cards had faded into the distance.
“Okay, who’s first?” the ice cream man asked. We all nervously looked at each other for a moment and then started lining up.
I wish I could say that was the last time Ernie messed with any of us, but I can’t. When Harry came home from school a few days later with a bloody nose, he didn’t want to talk about it, but we all knew what had happened.
But after that day things were a little different. Ernie was held back again so he and Harry were no longer in the same class and we didn’t see him as much around the neighborhood anymore. And when we did he wasn’t able to elicit the same kind of fear from us. Now when we heard those buzzing cards coming, we didn’t have to scurry inside or behind a tree.
We still did of course, just not as quickly.
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Portland Fiction Project
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