Ernie woke up in another country.
He was on the roof of a bus-depot parking lot, sitting slumped by a garbage can. The signs were all written in a funny language. It was snowing, but there were huge patches of blue sky blowing by, surrounded by low, rippy clouds, scraping along just inches above a ring of crumb cake mountains. Big, husky green double-decker buses raced below him somewhere but they didn’t appear until the edge of the horizon, all racing, it seemed, for that hole in the sky.
Ernie was grateful to have the crazy blue parka wrapped around him. It was surprisingly warm in there. This is before advanced synthetics, you know. It had a vinyl quilted lining inside. There were elastic strings that tied it close to his waist, his face, his wrists. In that coat, Ernie felt invisible. Across the parking lot he watched two little kids scuttle to their car with their mom, who looked at Ernie with some concern, and fumbled with her keys. She drove down the ramp and disappeared.
Just a few minutes later, a copper walked up the ramp. Ernie had never seen the uniform—more like a fireman than a copper, he thought. But he was a copper, alright. Ernie knew a copper the second he saw one.
“Fine day,” the copper said, looking past Ernie, out at the crumb cake. He was a huge bear of a man, framed against the dark clouds in a dark military-drab peacoat, all brass buttons and a crazy hat with a badge on top, like he was the copper-chief of all copper-chiefs, and wasn’t stuck out here on bus-depot patrol.
Ernie decided it was best to start talking.
“As you see sir,” he said, reaching into the pockets of the parka but finding only bottlecaps, and two-thirds of a crumpled cigarette, the tobacco leaflets clinging to his sticky cold fingers like ants, “…if you were to see my ticket stub, which I’ve only displaced temporarily, and my passport, which I’m sure I have stuffed somewhere in my little sackaroo here,” he went on, trying to chuckle, but this only made it sound less authentic, even to Ernie. Because in truth, he was staring down between his folded legs at a little army-surplus backpack that wasn’t his. Where had it come from? Where did Ernie find it? Did he steal it? “Anyway, sir, I hope you’ll trust that I’ve just come into town by boat after a very harrowing overnight ride, and I woke up in this here bus-depot downstairs and I just came up here, you see sir, just to have a better look at those magnificent mountains from up here. And what can you tell me is the name of those mountains?”
“Yank, that’s the Wicklow Mountains.” The copper scratched his chin. “There sits Mullaghcleevaun, the Slieve of the high kings. Every morning as a boy, my father took me up there to look down on this great city.”
“Wow, that is fine, that is really fine,” Ernie said.
The copper pulled out and lit a pipe. His hands were bigger than his head.
“That’s some mountain range there, sir.”
The copper took a long drag of smoke and stared out at the mountain.
“You’ll probably want to be moving on now,” he said without looking at Ernie. “You know, start your day.”
“Yes, sir!” Ernie said. “Thank you, sir.”
Ernie was halfway across the lot on his way to the ramp when the copper yelled, “Son!”
“You’ve forgotten your sack.”
“But, it’s not my sack.”
The copper cleared his throat, folded his big meat-hands behind his back, and looked off toward the mountains again, like he was going to start whistling.
“Your sack, son,” he said. “You’ve forgotten your sack.”
“Thank you sir.”
Ernie ran back, picked up the sack, and walked back toward the ramp. Then he was down some stairs. Then he crossed a busy street where the huge busses seemed to swarm in circles, coming in, coming out of the building he’d just come from. He walked as fast as he could, snow spiraling all around him. He looked over his shoulder to see if the copper was following; he was not. Ernie walked and walked until he stood at the edge of a bridge, looking across a river at a strange, cold city.
So there were some funny things about arriving in Dublin for the first time, at 8 o’clock, on a winter morning in 1986. It smelled like burning coal and burning peat. It was always snowing, just a bit. As the sun rose higher, there were these puffy brown and yellow clouds that looked like dinner rolls that bustled around, seemingly just above the church spires. Somewhere sneaking around that coal-and-peat smell was the smell of bacon, and something else, like sea water; not like the rolling sea water you smell at the beach on a summer’s day, but the kind you smell sloshing around in brown foaming patches in front of a barge moving up a canal. There was a smell of wet wool, too; and a smell of bus fumes. All of these smells were drowned out by the noise. Funny beeping horns and people yelling this and that and bells clanging everywhere and the ladies, the old ladies in shawls and ragged scarves wrapped round their heads, kneeling on the sidewalk next to boxes and yelling Nanas! Nanas! And the boxes all full of bananas. And the next day you’d hear them yelling maters! Maters! Next to boxes of tomatoes.
But it was still today, and Ernie had nowhere to go, so he started walking down O’Donnell Street, trying to look like he had somewhere to go. He walked past little foodstands where sat men in crumpled suits like crazy priests, and ladies in crumpled suit-dresses like mad nuns. They stared at meticulously-neat-and-folded newspapers held inches from their faces, reading something that worried them deeply. Holding cigarettes or buttered toast or steaming tea in Styrofoam cups next to their lips, fingers touching their lips, but never smoking, never eating, just holding them there, frozen, leaning in together at a counter on the street, packed in there like a rack of ribs.
Ernie walked a few blocks, and then he stopped, and reached into the side pocket of the backpack he’d found. His cold fingers clutched a wrap of folded bills. It felt like money. He pulled one out. There was a beautiful, sad girl where George Washington’s face is supposed to go, but off to the side, and surrounded by strange lettering. Her hair was tangled in the letters and numbers. Ernie looked at her a minute, but the smell of bacon started sneaking into his head. He looked up to the counter next to him. A small man suddenly said something to the man next to him—shite something—slammed his newspaper against his knee, turned and marched straight at Ernie, red-faced. He stuffed his newspaper in his inside coat pocket and Ernie stepped aside, then jumped to take his spot at the counter. Suddenly he understood—it was very warm inside the rack of ribs.
“What,” the counterman said, turning from a little grill, wiping his red hands on his white apron. Ernie held out the bill with the girl on it.
“What will this buy me?”
He took the bill. “This will buy you a rasher and a toast and a tea,” he said.
Ernie walked all the way up the river, then he walked all the way back down the river. He cut down a few blocks and found himself walking into the lunch-hour bustle of Grafton Street. Even in the crazy blue parka the cold was starting to sneak its way up and into his bones. He walked past a familiar neon storefront—a McDonalds. The plastic seats were all empty. He reached into the sack and pulled out another bill. He walked up to the counter and ordered French fries and a coffee. He sat staring out at the street, watching a new sweep of snow dust the shoulders of old men with packages clutched in their red hands, collars up, grimacing against the cold. The coffee tasted like a crayon, but the fries glowed with grease and salt and heat. Ernie ate them and then he nodded off, his head in his hands, a floor radiator clanging somewhere near his feet…..
“I’m very sorry, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to move along.”
Ernie’s head lifted from the table. The store manager stood above him in his red and blue shirt with the golden arches emblazoned on the pocket. He was a big, lumbering sort of young man. He clearly was hired to toss bums out of this McDonalds.
“But I’m eating French Fries,” Ernie said. “I’m a customer.”
“You ate them an hour ago, sir. I’m very sorry. You’re welcome to eat here. But we’re not allowed to let you live here.”
Ernie stepped out into the cold. The snow had stopped again. It was late afternoon and those clouds kept ripping over the rooftops. Ernie walked until he reached the gates of St. Stephen’s Green. He sat on a bench, shielded from the wind by thick hedges. An old man walked past, slowly, stroking his beard with his free hand, his hair an oily tangle hanging to his shoulders.
The old man stopped, turned, and held a finger up to Ernie.
“I ask only that you remember my name,” he said.
Then the old man walked away, slowly, stroking his beard. He passed a frozen fountain where starving little birds picked at the concrete. Then he disappeared behind the hedges. The fries had worn off. Ernie was cold. He felt hollow. He stuffed his hands deep in the pockets of the Crazy Blue Parka, the mysterious backpack in his lap. ‘I have to check out what’s inside this backpack,’ Ernie said to himself. ‘As soon as my hands warm up, I’m going to go through it and see what we’ve got here.’ But then he nodded off again, right there in the cold of the park.
When Ernie woke up a streetlamp was on and the last light had faded from the sky; a faint dusting of snow covered him. He shook it off. He heard voices. There were three people sitting on a bench across from Ernie, their backs to him, on the other side of the fountain. They were deep in conversation.
There was one, and then there were two others. Sitting slightly apart from the pair, the first figure was a black-haired boy in an army jacket. ‘I’m telling you this,” he said to the pair, really loudly, leaning in towards them, “I came all this way to see the chipper. Me dad told me where to find him. And I found him. And I tell you they were beautiful. Me dad told the truth, I’m telling you now. He’s the most beautiful chipper in the world!”
“Wow!” a second voice, a woman, an American in a hooded baja jacket, laughed a little. “That really must be some chipper.”
“Those chips must be really special,” said the third, sitting on the far side; a big mess of hair filled with snow, also an American. From where Ernie was sitting he could make out he was fidgeting with something in a bag by his side.
“I’m telling you, he filled the newspaper with chips. Two pieces of fish, and all those big, greasy chips.” Army jacket stopped for a second, sweeping his arms out wide, trying to find words. “Like me dad told me, he wouldn’t lie, he told me it was worth the trip, all the way from Cork! For the chips! I came all this way for the chips! The most beautiful chipper in the world!”
“You’re spitting on me, just a little,” the woman said. But she was laughing; brushing her sleeve.
Ernie got up and started walking, the backpack over his shoulder. He left the park and followed a string of streetlamps in front of warm little buildings with bright painted doors; through windows he could see families sitting down to dinner, just like everywhere else. He had no idea where he was going or what he was going to do. He couldn’t go back to that park; he couldn’t go back to the parking garage. There was still money in the side pocket of the backpack but he had no idea how much.
At an intersection, a black car screeched to a halt and four big men jumped out of the car. Oh, crap, Ernie thought. They looked like all the dead Badfinger band members but bigger and scruffier. One had a vinyl pleather coat and one had a tattered old raincoat. They looked cold and hungry. They said something to Ernie in a foreign language, he had no idea what.
“Hey, I’m not looking for trouble or nothing,” Ernie said.
They stopped and stared at Ernie. “What, are you a Yank or something?” Vinyl said.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Ernie said. He was looking around, to see if anybody was looking out their window or walking down the street; but there was no one.
“Where’d you pick up that little knapsack?” Raincoat said.
“Oh, this? I just found it.”
Ernie pulled it off his shoulder and held it out.
“Is it yours? You want it back?”
Raincoat backed away.
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Vinyl said. “You see, I believe it belongs to a friend of ours. But he has to come get it.”
“Yes, that’s right, Yank,” Raincoat said, lighting himself a cigarette, just standing there. “So if you wouldn’t mind, we wanted to ask if you could hold it for him. We’ll send him by for you and he’ll pick it up. Can you tell us where you’re staying then?”
“Oh, you know, the place up there,” Ernie said, gesturing into the darkness ahead.
“What, at McGuffigan’s Flats? Why that’s a lovely place for the travelers. I understand you can get a fine breakfast and a bed for 5 punt a night.”
“Yeah, that’s the place,” Ernie said. “Very nice place.”
“Well, we’ll tell you what. We’ll send our friend over at 9 in the morning, and if you can meet him out front, it will be grand. He’ll really appreciate it.”
“Absolutely,” Ernie said. “Happy to do it.”
Vinyl and Raincoat and the other dead Badfingers climbed into their car and skidded off. Ernie turned around, walked back to the park, and pulled the clump of bills out of the side pocket. He threw the backpack over the hedge. Then he walked in another direction. He stopped under a street lamp and counted out the bills; it wasn’t bad. He stuffed the bills into an inner pocket of the crazy blue parka-so many pockets! He walked until he came to another street with boarding houses up and down the street. The first was named McGuffigan’s Flats. The last was named Gallagher House. “Travellers Welcome,” the sign said. He walked up the steps and he buzzed the buzzer.
“You’re welcome! You’re welcome! My, you’re a big one! You must be a Yank. Are you a Yank? I’ve a nephew over there, in Boston, do you know him? Timmy Gallagher? Timmy Gallagher? No matter, no matter. Come in, come in from the cold. Me name’s Tummy Gallagher. Tummy. Not Timmy. That’s me nephew. You’re very welcome here. Wipe your boots please. Wipe your boots please. Check in until nine o’clock, but then we slam the door shut for the night. You’ve only just made it. Others let people check in late, but not Tummy Gallagher. No, sir. No, sir. Now mind me cat. She wants to be out, but I won’t let her. She’s fairly along, you see. Soon we’ll have a houseload of cats. What to do. What to do. She was taken by a Tom. She’s no hussy, my cat. But a nasty, vicious Tom got her while she was out. The poor dear. The poor dear. Well, I forgive her. But she was ravaged, you see. No fault of her own. We’ll pray for her and her kittens, won’t we, Miss Elizabeth? We named her after the Queen. I’m no fan of the Brits—we ran them out you know, just like you did–but we all love the Queen. At least some of us did. Before my time. Before my time. Well, I suppose we’ll have to drown them in the river, the kittens, the kittens. Put them in a sack and drown them, we will. Because they are born of sin and won’t make well of this world, innocent so they may seem. Not with that Tom. Not with that Tom as their father. Let’s see now. We’ve a kitchen and a dining room downstairs, you’re welcome to make the most of it. There’s some youngsters down there now chattering away, its all they do. Some are Yanks. Maybe you know them? I’ll run them out at ten o’clock. Ten o’clock’s the quiet time. Wash down the hall. A towel on the bed. Five punts for the night. Here’s a key. Room 5 on the third floor. Third floor for the gentlemen, second for the ladies. Here’s a towel. You won’t be any trouble, will you. You look like a nice young lad.” He leaned over the desk and whispered. “You’ll keep an eye on the pair of them, won’t you? I wouldn’t normally take them in, under any circumstances; a sin is a sin. She’s a lovely girl, I wouldn’t turn her out in the cold, I’d help her all I could. But he’s the one that got her in trouble. Don’t let him pull you in, no sir. He’s trouble. I’d throw him out in a second, but for the girl. Where’s your backpack?”
“Sure! Backpack. Have yet to see a Yank without a backpack.”
“Oh, um. I checked it at the bus station. I’ll go get it in the morning.”
“Good thinking, lad! Smart lad! You can never be too careful these days.”
Ernie went straight up to the little room and opened the door. It had a bed and a wash sink and a tiny bureau. In the mirror he saw he had a nasty bump on his forehead, with a trail of dried blood. Where did it come from? He washed his face and lay down on the bed, boots and coat and all, and tried to fall asleep, but he couldn’t fall asleep. So he got up. He went down to the kitchen. There was a group of young people, all sitting together at one of four long tables. There was a young man with a huge mop of hair at the head of the table, presiding over the conversation; a young blonde woman was at his side. They both may have been 18 years old, and they looked like the big-eyed, hair-waxed bathing-suit kids from the Archie comics, all wrapped up in hand-me-downs. The young woman in the baja jacket, mismatched wool mittens and somebody else’s army pants could be a Betty, Ernie thought. The young man in the army coat and knee-ripped jeans could be a Reggie. But why would Reggie and Betty be together? Isn’t Betty crazy for Archie? Isn’t Reggie crazy for Veronica? Isn’t Archie crazy for Veronica? Ernie thought about this a good five minutes. He could remember details of comics he read when he was a kid, but he couldn’t remember how he got here. But Ernie realized they might be the young couple he saw in the park, talking to the Chipper. What he hadn’t recognized in the park, but saw very clearly now, was that the girl was very, very pregnant.
There were three others, Canadians maybe, sitting around the table. Reggie was explaining to them how to sneak into the Guinness Factory for the short tour, without paying. with the entry fee. The Canadians were mesmerized. They burst into laughter as Reggie told them how he charmed the pub lady in the factory into giving him four free samples. Betty nodded along with his story, beaming, very proud of him. Ernie fumbled with some change and dropped some on the floor at a little tea machine on the wall; he turned quickly to see if they had noticed, but they were deep in their story. He went upstairs, sat on the edge of the bed, and held the warm cup of tea in his hands. The lights were off. Headlights glowed against the little window curtain. Ernie dozed off, still sitting there, the room spinning. There were muffled voices in the hallway just outside his door. He wanted to listen—he wanted to make sense of all the day’s nonsense—but he fell asleep anyway.
Frank Haberle’s novel-in-stories, Shufflers, about minimum wage transients during the Reagan era, is now available from Flexible Press (https://www.flexiblepub.com/shufflers). Frank’s short stories have been featured in multiple collections and they have won awards from Pen Parentis (2011), Beautiful Loser Magazine (2017) the Sustainable Arts Foundation (2013) and the Rose Warner Prize for Fiction (2021). Frank is a volunteer workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition. He lives in Brooklyn and works in The Bronx. More about Frank’s writing can be found on his website www.frankhaberle.com