July 18th, 2017
North 18th Street is a quiet neighborhood in Milwaukee. If you look to the north, you see Rufus King High School. One block to the south is Capitol Drive. The houses along the block are older, but generally well-maintained. The population is almost entirely black. There was one white guy there, and that was me.
I went up to Ernie’s house and rang the doorbell. Merry, his wife, opened the door to me. She’s a strong, solid lady, with a welcoming smile. Merry greeted me and gave me a hug. Then we went inside the house.
Ernie (Earnel) and Merry have tidy home. It’s full of all the sorts of things that a married couple accumulates in the course of a lifetime together. Merry likes flowers. There are flowers, or pictures of flowers everywhere. The house is clean. Immaculate. The house has that old-school look: some inlaid cabinetry, curved ceilings, solid wood doors. It has character. It has a history.
I saw Ernie as soon as I walked into their living room. He was sitting in a chair, staring at me. There was an empty chair right next to him, so I knew where I was going to sit. I sat down next to Ernie and took a good look at him.
He’s changed. Ernie has lost weight. His arms and legs are almost fleshless. Ernie was never a big man, but he’s shrunken. His hands and fingers are thin and spidery. His hair is longer, and it seems to be much greyer. Ernie doesn’t smile much. He doesn’t laugh. He didn’t while I was there.
I asked Merry what kind of cancer he had. Ernie’s been in chemotherapy for a while. Merry called to her nineteen-year-old granddaughter, and asked her to explain it. Merry said, “Can you tell Frank what your grandfather has? You say it so well.”
The girl and Merry and Ernie told me what was going on. “Ernie has multiple myeloma. It’s a malfunction of the plasma cells in the blood. It’s like the body is fighting an infection that ain’t there. The immune system attacks itself.”
Merry told me about the chemotherapy. She said, “Well, all Ernie’s vitals are better now. When he started he had a viral infection in his GI tract too. They have him doing four courses of the chemo: each course goes every Friday for three weeks, and then a Friday off. So, four months of chemo. Then they will look it all over to see how it’s helped him.”
Merry smiled at Ernie hopefully and said, “This cancer is curable.” Ernie didn’t smile back.
Ernie and I sat in the living room. He talked. I listened. Ernie’s youngest grandchild came to visit with us. Mila is three. She brought Ernie a smoothie to drink. She looked at me and tugged on my beard. The little girl smiled.
Ernie said, “You got yourself a new girlfriend. Don’t be telling your wife now.”
Merry asked me about my beard. She said, “You growing dreadlocks in that thing?”
“It just grows like that.”
Ernie said, “Frank, he just an old hippie.”
“Yeah, that what Hans tells me.”
“He your redneck son.”
“Yeah, he sure is.”
Merry said, “We got your postcards. You wrote about your son. We looked at that and thought, ‘Did he really write that his boy was a redneck? Did he really write that?’ “. She laughed.
Ernie talked some more.
“Yeah, Frankie, I never thought I’d get sick like this. I mean I know people get cancer, but when your own body be fighting against you. Damn.”
Then he said, “Yeah, Frankie, this sickness it makes me feel lazy. I ain’t never been lazy.”
I replied, “No, you never have.”
I can use a lot of words with Ernie, but “lazy” is not one of them. I have never met a guy who worked harder than Ernie. Ever.
Ernie kept saying, “I’m going to get up soon and start cooking them brats. You going to eat some?”
“I got to get up soon and start the grill. My feet swell up. I need to get me my house shoes on first.”
Ernie didn’t cook. His daughter, Tanya, did. Ernie was grumbling about starting the grill and Merry told him, “You ain’t cooked in months. Why you going to do that now? You and Frank go outside and sit.”
We did. We sat in his backyard. Ernie played Bill Withers on the stereo (Ain’t No Sunshine). Then we sat there and listened to Roy Orbison. Some young man next door was having an animated conversation with people I couldn’t see or hear. Ernie ignored him. Mila splashed around in a wading pool. Tanya grilled brats. Merry asked me about our trip across the country.
Eventually, we ate. Merry brought us brats and noodle salad. Ernie ate some. He gave some of his food to the dogs, Tyler and Rocket.
Ernie asked me, “You liked that moonshine I gave you?” Ernie used to bring that stuff up from Mississippi, where he grew up. That shit sneaks up on you. The last time I had moonshine with Ernie, Karin drove me home. I didn’t argue with her either.
“Oh yeah”, I said.
Merry came out and smiled. She said to me, “I’m glad that you are here. Ernie ate more today than he has in a long time. He usually says that the food don’t taste like nothing, and he can barely keep it down.”
I had a sudden memory. Jeanne, Greg Brown’s wife, said the same thing to me years ago. Greg had cancer. He’s gone now.
I had to go. I needed to teach my citizenship class. I talked to Merry. She said that Ernie misses work. He misses driving. I asked her if he would mind having visitors. She smiled and said that he would be okay with that.
I went to the backyard to say goodbye to Ernie. I asked him if I could give him a hug. He was good with that. I held him tight for a minute. I could feel all his bones.
Then he said to Merry, “Go inside and get Frank that glass bottle with the blue writin’ on it.”
She bought out a bottle for me with a clear liquid inside.
“I’ll keep this away from open flames.”
Merry smiled and said, “That would be a good idea.”
She walked me to the street.
Merry told me, “Now you say hi to your wife for me. Tell her I miss her.”
“Okay, I will.“
Then I told her, “You got a great husband.”
She said, ”Oh, he’s okay for now”, and she laughed.
She gave me a hug.