We haven’t seen much of Ernie lately; he’s the retired printer with ink-stained hands and rumpled jackets who starts and ends each conversation with “Always a pleasure,” and who is given slices of pizza or chunks of burgers or fistfuls of fries by Stenny’s regulars as he traverses the bar.
By the time he settles into his bar stool tonight, a Thursday, he has accumulated a slice of margherita pizza, a corner of a blue cheese burger, and three onion rings. He’s a little disappointed that no one offered him their fries, but the onion rings are a nice change of pace.
Truth be told, he’s a bit nervous tonight. He has invited his 45-year old nephew, his dead sister’s only son, to join him. As he takes a bite of the pizza (the quality of which he thinks has deteriorated since that nasty witch Mary Ann fired Jordan), it briefly occurs to him that he should have waited for his nephew to arrive before beginning to eat, but he shrugs off the thought.
His nervousness comes from the fact that he has nothing to say to his nephew; never did. The pattern of their relationship was set by a conversation he and Ken—that’s the nephew—had when Ken, then Kenny, was three. They were looking at a world map, and Ernie said, as he felt was befitting Kenny’s young age, “Can you pick out the United States?” Kenny immediately pointed to it, and said, “Can you pick out Yemen?”
Kenny grew up to be an attorney, specializing in real estate law. He’s married to a woman, also an attorney, to whom Ernie has even less to say than he does to Ken. He doesn’t expect that she will join Ken tonight, and as he can now see by Ken’s solo arrival, she doesn’t.
“Hello, Ernie,” Ken says as he sits on the bar stool to Ernie’s left. Ken stopped calling him Uncle Ernie when he was six.
“Always a pleasure,” Ernie says.
“So this is the famous Stenny’s,” Ken says.
“Yes,” Ernie says.
Ken looks at Ernie’s plate. “That’s an odd combination. Can you mix and match here?”
Ernie is not eager to share his scavenging habits, and says, “Yes.”
“Interesting,” Ken says, “Do you have something you want to tell me?”
For a moment Ernie thinks Ken is challenging him on how those particular foods got on his plate, and his stomach sinks. But he then decides it’s a more general question.
“Do you mean why I invited you here tonight?” he asks.
“Yes,” Ken says. “Since my mother died, we’ve never gotten together socially.”
This is true. The invitation arose from a long moment of awkwardness in their last phone call; a call that Ken had placed to wish Ernie a happy birthday. After saying “thank you,” Ernie could think of no way to sustain the conversation, and so asked Ken if he’d like to join him at Stenny’s for a drink. Ken was a bit taken aback, but he said OK, and they settled on tonight.
“Well, it’s good to see you now,” Ernie says. Somehow, he refrains from adding “Always a pleasure.”
“So nothing is wrong? Alma is OK?” Alma is Ernie’s wife.
“She’s fine. She was going to come tonight, but….” Ernie is not sure how to finish that sentence, because Alma never goes anywhere, and for no particular reason. “…..she’s home instead.”
Ken nods; he is used to what he thinks of as Ernie’s vacuity.
They sit in silence for 30 seconds or so; mercifully, Melissa approaches and says, “Hey there Ernie. Do you want your usual? And who’s this fellow?”
“Yes, my usual please, Melissa,” he says with a more than a hint of pride. He thinks Ken will be impressed that he has a usual that at least this bartender remembers. “This is my nephew, Ken.”
“Hi there, Ken,” Melissa says. “Glad to meet a member of Ernie’s family. He claims he has a wife, but we never see her.”
“She stays home,” Ernie says unnecessarily.
“She’s real,” Ken says. “Nice to meet you, Melissa. What’s your usual, Ernie?”
“Vodka and cranberry,” Ernie answers.
“Too sweet for me. I’ll have Cutty Sark on the rocks. If you have it.”
Melissa says, “We do. I see you have food already, Ernie. Do you want to see a menu, Ken?”
“I’ll just have what Ernie is having. Great idea to allow for a little of this and a little of that.”
Ernie looks at Melissa with slightly widened eyes; she sizes up the situation instantly and accurately.
“I’ll get your drinks and put the order in for what Ernie’s having. It’s officially called Combo Number 3, but we all think of it as Ernie’s Favorite.”
Ernie is beyond grateful and makes a mental note to tip her more than his usual on-the-dot 17%. As she walks away, he looks at Ken; it’s hard to tell for sure, but he thinks he is impressed, and Ernie is happy.