Sunday, January 23, 2011

Death of Ernie

Before I describe the accident, it might help to provide a little information about what was going on at the time. Ernie died when people were driving to lunch. I witnessed the car crash, but didn't stop. A lot of people saw Ernie plow the 1967 Oldsmobile into a maple tree on the boulevard. Actually, the police seem to prefer when people don't stop. They shout at you to keep going.

I was driving a van filled with paint supplies. Ed, the paint crew supervisor and another painter were passengers. Ed lost his license for driving while impaired, so I did the driving.

       Ed supervised a small paint crew. I worked for him one summer, back in student days, a company called Edwin Decoration and Design, nothing to do with the Ed I knew. Ed did, by coincidence, have a degree in interior design from Lumpkins University and of course, Ed is short for Edwin. Ed never had a lot going for him. After Ed’s violent, alcoholic dad kicked him out of the house at fifteen and after Ed spent a year on the street and nearly became addicted to heroin, until an attack of hepatitis put an end to his drug abuse career.

     Uncle Fred took in Ed, when Ed was eighteen. Uncle Fred just got out of jail after doing two years for something he would never talk about. Jail taught him to trust nobody, to avoid company and to say as little as possible. It left him bitter, discouraged and without motivation. To earn money, Fred turned the back room into a marijuana growing room. Ed participated in sales. They made enough to make ends meet and to pay for Ed’s interior design degree.

     Uncle Fred liked Ed, partly because Ed was a strange looking kid, a large head, hair thinning out already at the age of eighteen, a potato shaped nose, a kid with no charm or illusions. Fred had no patience with dreamers. He nourished no secret hopes or desires. There was something a little off about Ed, which reassured Fred. He couldn't be comfortable around anyone too normal.

     Ed got a degree, got married and had a son. Ed’s brief attempt to stay on the straight and narrow lasted about a year. During that year of marriage, fatherhood and hard work, Ed was in a bad mood. The divorce happened in May, at the beginning of outdoor painting season. A couple times Ed showed up at work, baby son in his arms and a huge smile, radiating that gleam of success, which we all knew would never last. It was too good to be true. How could a guy like Ed rise to such a level of normality? Sure enough, he blew it.

     His wife Julie ran off with a real estate agent and took the kid, spitting image of Ed, only cute. With that little potato nose, baby Dick was a cute baby. I remember the last time Ed got out of the Chevy Malibu, baby Dick in his arms and then Ed was gone for nearly two weeks. There were rumors that Ed was in trouble and could go to jail. Ed, that’s another reason Ed and Uncle Fred bonded; their names were two thirds the same.

     Their names had an E – D ending. Ed, one day in Henry’s Tavern over few pitchers of beer, Ed explained how his existence felt like ED, something added on at the end of a verb, talked, laughed, loved and so on. Ed described himself as a passive, outmoded man, something added on as an after fact; to push a verb into the past, passé. Ed, half forgotten the moment of his first appearance, Ed pondered the unspoken verb, the never mentioned action to which he was added on, an action he never knew about, a path he never followed.

     Ed's way of describing his name added to the depressing vibes of working in his crew as a house painter for Edwin's. The very company itself was on the skids. We never knew from one contract to the next if Edwin’s would make it through the season. Maybe some workers would have to be laid off. We painted the trim of one outdoor walk way at a plaza building overlooking a large parking lot. Then we did two low-income apartment buildings. I remember standing on sixth story balcony rails in order to paint balcony ceilings. I learned to place a forty foot ladder in position and to climb it, canvas drop-sheet over one shoulder, large plastic paint bucket and screen, roller, pole, paint can strapped to the belt, brushes and rags, all this in the sweltering heat of summer. Occasionally a tenant would stick his or her head out to see what was going on.

     OK, this story is about how Ernie died and how I failed to stop at the scene of the accident. I felt compelled to say a few words about Ed and how I came to know him. He wasn't a pleasant man to be around. Ed was going through a hard time. He took refuge in alcohol. One night he passed out, head in the fridge. His liver was so damaged from hepatitis and heavy drinking; it took as little as two beers to get him drunk.

     Here's what happened to Ernie. I was driving the Edwin company van to lunch, with Ed and a couple guys from the crew. Ed couldn't drive, after three impaired charges. Next time he’d go to jail. Every day, Ed had beer for breakfast and during coffee break. There was no way he would risk driving the company van.

     I met Ernie ten years before the accident, during a nine-month stint as a janitor at a hospital complex. Ernie worked as assistant supervisor of the hospital supplies department. He pilfered food and linen, walked around with a grin and loved cracking dirty jokes. He would also down two or three beers every day around lunch time. The accident happened as a lot of people were heading down a six lane street, three lanes on each side of a boulevard.

     Traffic was moving slow but sure, lunch hour traffic. Suddenly, in the fast lane, a blur of copper, I spotted Ernie’s 1967 Oldsmobile, with its 455 Rocket V8 engine. When you started it up, it growled like a lion under the hood. He let me drive it one time as we headed off to the cottage for a weekend booze up. I pressed heavy on the gas pedal. Suddenly wooden power line poles zipped past twice the normal speed. That was the easiest way to tell the difference between sixty and a hundred miles an hour.

     I hadn't seen that car in ten years, until the day Ernie died. I was driving the van down a busy street to the plaza for lunch. Ed elbowed me in the ribs and said, “Lohbado, there’s someone eager to see you.”

     I gazed over into the fast lane and saw Ernie, whom I hadn’t seen in ten years, smile, wave and then a flash of copper, a loud bang. The car flew up on the boulevard and hit a maple tree. Ernie wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Some cars back then didn’t even have seat belts.

     Ernie flew head first into the windshield. A spider web pattern of cracking appeared in the glass. Ernie flopped back, a fountain of blood pouring down his forehead. His head rolled over the right shoulder. We briefly made eye contact. I saw the last flash of excitement in his eyes, as he had accelerated in the next lane in order to pull up next to the van and say hello.

     I gazed into his eyes. He smiled, as if ready to crack another one of his dirty jokes. His eyes rolled back in the head. By the eye whites and floppy movement and rest, I could tell he was dead.

     Ed shouted, “Don’t stop. Keep going.”

     It was a fairly busy street. Lots of people saw the accident. I listened to Ed and kept going. I regret not having stopped to pay respects to Ernie.

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