“So That’s What Happened to Ernie”
The three old men had finished with their breakfast and were loitering in the end booth in the Cobe Diner with their coffee over a table of dirty dishes waiting to be cleared. They sprawled with the easy familiarity of their years, talking in deep, rumbling voices that periodically erupted in raspy, phlegmy laughter.
Sam, whose long, wavy white hair swept back from his forehead like a geriatric Elvis, was clawing at the air over the table for attention.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “You’re talking about Ernie here? Our Ernie? My ex-business partner, Ernie Bauer?”
“Yes, Ernie Bauer. Our Ernie. That Ernie,” said Lester, who was wedged in the corner, his shaved head gleaming like an artillery shell in the diner’s harsh florescent light. The retired cop was the only one of the old gang who still in the neighborhood, but they tried getting together one Sunday a month at the diner for breakfast, Ernie strolling over from his one-bedroom on East 89th, while Sam drove in from Queens and Gabe from Long Island.
“The one you saw?” said Sam.
Lester threw his friend a look that would have made any one other than an old friend instantly back down, but Sam said, “The Ernie’s been dead... what is it? Eight, nine years now?”
“Nine years,” said Gabe, the accountant, as ever verifying the facts and figures.
“Yeah, nine years ago,” Sam said, flinging the words back like a challenge at Lester.
“Allegedly dead,” Lester said.
“Look, you retired a dozen years ago, buddy boy. You can stop with the cop talk already,” Sam said.
“He wasn’t allegedly buried, was he?” Gabe said, half to himself, swiveling in his seat to search for someone to supply more coffee.
“We don’t know if they buried anybody. I didn’t go to the funeral. Did you?”
Gabe shrugged. “Wasn’t time. Dropped dead on Tuesday, the funeral was Wednesday. All of a sudden, they got religious and had to have him in the ground in 24 hours. By the time we heard about him, it was all over, including sitting shiva.”
“It wasn’t Phyllis called me with the news. You?” Lester said.
“Some guy... I guess he was from the funeral home,” Gabe said, nodding as he remembered. “But I’m not surprised Phyllis didn’t call. She never made it any secret she didn’t like us.”
Sam sat fidgeting with a paper napkin, tearing off tiny pieces that he dropped on the ruins of his Western omelet and home fries.
Lester looked across the table at the eyes watching him with curiosity, the same eyes he’d known for more than five decades, now set in faces wilted by the years. He never noticed the passing time in their faces or his own except when he was remembering the past. And Ernie was a relic of the past.
“Anyway, he dropped dead after Phyllis and him moved down to Florida,” Sam said quickly. “Guy you saw must’ve just been someone who looked like Ernie.”
Lester scavenged a surviving French fry from his plate and dredged it through a puddle of ketchup.
“Maybe I don’t have the back or the legs to be a cop anymore, but I still got a cop’s eyes. I ain’t never forgotten a face.” Lester smiled. “Especially not one I know since I’m 14 years old. Besides, Ernie didn’t go anywhere near Florida. He went west to Vegas.”
“Vegas now?” Gabe said, momentarily relenting in his hunt for a refill. “Phyllis hated the desert. That doesn’t make any sense, Les.”
“If the universe had to wait for things to make sense to you, Gabe, nothing would ever happen,” Lester said. “Besides, Phyllis never made it out of Queens.”
Gabe looked surprised. “No?”
Lester shook his head. “Uh-uh. The popular thinking is that Ernie popped her and dumped her in a construction site.” He shifted his gaze to Sam. “Your company was working on that parking garage in Astoria in ‘59, wasn’t it? That’s a lot of cement to cover a skinny little broad like Phyllis, huh, Sammy?”
“Popped? You mean killed?” Gabe said, but Lester was looking at Sam and didn’t answer.
Sam nodded and took a sip of water. “Yeah, that job was a monster,” he said hoarsely. “Last contract me and Ernie worked on before he sold out to me and they moved to Florida.”
“Vegas,” Lester said.
“Vegas,” Sam said.
“And it wasn’t ‘they,’ it was just him. Phyllis was dead.”
“Jesus,” Gabe muttered under his breath.
Sam spread his hands and said, “Look, Les, I don’t know where all this is coming from, but the last time I saw Phyllis she was alive and well, and if Ernie was dumping bodies anywhere, I....”
“You guys are just yanking my chain, right?” Gabe said. “I mean, Ernie couldn’t’ve killed anyone. Sure as hell not Phyllis.”
Conversation stopped as the waitress came by with her twin pots of caffeine and decaf and refilled their cups. Sam kept his eyes down and busied himself with sugar and cream for his coffee. Gabe watched anxiously until the waitress was finished and had moved out of earshot before saying, “Okay, so why make us think he’s dead if he isn’t? I know Ernie liked his practical jokes, but I don’t see him going this far.”
“You want to tell him, Sam?” Lester said. He stared hard at his old friend over the rim of his coffee cup.
“Tell me what?” Gabe said, his head swiveling from face to face like a kitten following a ping pong ball in play.
Sam sat shaking his head.
“You and Phyllis...?” Lester prompted.
“You and Phyllis?” Gabe said, almost a shout.
“Stop it, Les,” Sam said in a whisper.
Lester kept his eyes on Sam but spoke to Gabe.
“Yeah, Gabe. Sam and Phyllis. The heart wants what the heart wants, right, Sammy? I guess it had been going on a while.” Lester looked to Sam for confirmation. Sam stared into his coffee, said nothing. “It doesn’t matter. Ernie isn’t exactly the innocent victim in this story anyway. He used to slap her around when he got tight, which was most of the time. And he was mobbed up, right in bed with the crooked union bosses.”
“Christ!” Gabe said through a sharp exhalation of breath. “Where was I while all this was going on?”
“You were living a normal life out on Long Island that didn’t include having to watch your back all the time,” Lester said. “You were the smart one, Gabie. I became a cop, Sam and Ernie dabbled in the rackets...”
“I... I was just the front,” Sam said suddenly, still staring into his coffee like it held all the answers. “I didn’t know what was going on, I mean the details, at least. I didn’t want to know. I just kept my mouth shut and took my cut. Ernie took care of business, but I still had to sign things. My name was all over his crooked deals. He... he’d order truckloads of supplies for jobs that his gangster pals would drive off with and sell on the street for less than we were stuck paying the suppliers. His union buddies gouged me on the other end, forcing me to pad my crews with thugs who go paid to sit around and do nothing.”
“They were sucking you dry,” Lester said.
Sam nodded. “Yeah. Goddamn vultures. It took me 20 years to build my business and less than two years after I let Ernie in for those bastards to strip it to the bare walls.”
“Was that when you almost went into bankruptcy?” Gabe said.
“No almost. Chapter 11 reorganization. There was hardly anything left to steal so Ernie and the mob moved on to their next victim.”
“You must have wanted to kill him,” Lester said.
“What’s that supposed to be? One of your policeman lines designed to trick a confession out of me?” Sam said, allowing the smallest suggestion of a smile to tug at the corner of his mouth.
“I ain’t that subtle, Sam. I was always more of the rubber hose kind of interrogator,” Lester said with a shrug. “Anyway, I know you didn’t kill Ernie.”
“Even before you saw him again?”
“Yeah. You missed him and got her.”
Sam didn’t answer.
“It’s okay, Sammy. I’m retired and I’ve had a long time to put two and two together. I wasn’t on the case at the time, but the mob squad knew I knew you guys and kept me in the loop. As far as the cops are concerned, you’re clean. There’s no investigation, no one’s looking at you, there’s no evidence waiting to be sprung on you. It’s just us. Bunch of old friends, hanging out in the diner in the old neighborhood and shooting the shit.”
“You wired?” Sam said.
“Wired?” Lester laughed. “What is this, an episode of Dragnet? I told you, it’s just us. C’mon, close the case, Sammy. For me. For old time’s sake.”
Gabe’s eyes were wide with disbelief. “Okay, really, you sure you guys aren’t pulling a gag on me?”
“Sorry, Gabe,” Sam said. He shivered from head to toe, like a man jolted awake from a restless sleep. “Ernie was a thug, I was a patsy, and me and Phyllis had an affair for a little over two years.”
“When?” Lester said.
“What difference does it make?”
“Because we’re closing the case and I need details for my final report,” Lester said. “Besides, confession’s good for the soul, right?”
Sam shrugged. “The last two years. Ernie was completely out of control, drinking, whoring, slapping her around. Me and Phyllis ran into each other at a local restaurant, started talking, one thing led to another.” He shrugged again. “At first, I felt like I was getting back at the son of a bitch by banging his wife, but even before I realized he didn’t give a crap about her, I fell in love with her.
“You want my confession, Les? Fine. Yeah, I had Ernie out of my company, what was left of it, and now I wanted him out of our way so Phyllis and me could be together. So, I waited a few months until things cooled down and the dust had settled. You know that bastard never stopped acting like there wasn’t anything wrong between us? Still good old pals from East 89th Street. But I played it his way, so that after I killed him nobody had any reason to suspect me.
“I waited for a night I knew Phyllis wasn’t going to be home and went over there to kill Ernie. It was easy enough. She’d given me the key, so I walked in, went upstairs, and put two into him while he was asleep in bed.”
“But it wasn’t Ernie in that bed,” Lester said, his voice as flat as glass.
Sam was back in that bedroom, nine years ago.
“Ernie was gone. I wasn’t the only one he’d screwed over. He found out his Mafia buddies knew he’d been stealing from them, so he skipped town. He didn’t even stop to pack a suitcase. His toothbrush was still on the sink.”
“So that’s what happened to Ernie? I always wondered we never heard from again,” Gabe said.
“And Phyllis?” Lester prompted.
“There was a message from Phyllis. I got one of those telephone answering machines at the house, you know? For business. I didn’t hear it until after I’d,” Sam said as a tear spilled from his right eye. He took a deep breath and went on, “After I’d gotten rid of the gun and her body in the parking garage pour, like you said. The message said her girlfriend had canceled their plans and when she got home, Ernie was gone. She said he’d left everything else, but he took the cash he kept hidden at the bottom of that giant bin for the dog food in the pantry. She said I should call her. She had something important to talk to me about.
“The next thing I’m hearing, Ernie and Phyllis have retired to Florida, and all I can think is, it’s over. Ernie’s out of my life, but he’s taken everything away from me. My work. Phyllis.”
“You killed Phyllis,” Lester said.
“I pulled the trigger,” Sam said softly, “but she’s only dead because of Ernie. If he hadn’t...”
“Yeah, but you pulled the trigger,” Lester repeated.
“Hey, okay, Les, cut him some slack, man. He knows what he did...”
“Sure he does, Gabe. He knows he let Ernie push him into a corner, rob him blind, humiliate him, then not have the balls to look him in the eye when he kills him so he can be with his wife. If he wasn’t such a fucking coward, Phyllis would still be alive.”
Sam jerked up straight in his seat. “Jeez, Lester, what the hell...?”
Lester leaned in, his voice low and still without expression as he said, “I was the something important she had to talk to you about.”
“What’d you have to do with anything?”
“I was the so-called ‘girlfriend’ who cancelled on her, Sammy. Something came up and she was home in bed alone instead of in bed with me when you went there to kill Ernie. She’d always been too afraid to leave him, but once he was gone, there was nothing else in our way, except you.”
“How... how long?” Sam said in a stunned stutter.
“Five years. On and off. We were off at the time she started going with you, but she called me a few months before Ernie took off and said she was lonely and missed me.”
“Oh,” Sam said, sagging as though he were a balloon from which the air was being released.
The three men sat in silence, Lester’s eyes fixed on Sam, whose own eyes shifted spastically under twitching eyebrows.
Finally, Sam said, “I loved her.”
“Yeah, so did I. But you killed her,” Lester said.
“Wait,” Gabe said. “Les, you said you saw Ernie. I thought he was hiding from those gangsters?”
“He was. But he did some guys somewhere some favors and he wormed his way back into their good graces, so they let him come home. He’s gonna be getting back into business, right where he left off.”
Sam went pale.
“Oh, Christ. What if he knows...?”
“He didn’t,” Lester said. “When he heard Phyllis had been killed, he thought the boys looking for him had gotten her by mistake or killed her to send him a message.”
Sam was still, turning an even whiter shade of pale, his next words dry whispers:
“How do you know all this, Les?”
“Right. I didn’t say. I talked to Ernie too.”
Sam fell back against the seat.
“Sure. You don’t see one of your oldest friends of over 50 years you thought was dead riding the R train and not say hello.”
“How... how much did he know?”
“Like I say, he thought the mob killed Phyllis,” Lester said with a short bark of a humorless laugh. “Man, was he surprised when I told him I saw you coming out of his house just as I was getting there and found Phyllis dead.”
Sam swallowed. “You saw...?”
“You walked right past my car, you jerk,” Lester said. “You were in six kinds of shock you wouldn’t have seen your own mother riding an elephant down the street. I didn’t know if you’d killed her or just found her body. Before I could make up my mind what to do, I heard someone coming back so I got out of there.” He shrugged. “Maybe I should’ve done something then, but I didn’t know who was about to walk in on me and what they’d do when they found me. I wasn’t a cop anymore.I didn’t have a gun or a badge.”
“But you never said anything about it later?”
Lester spread his hands. “Like I said, I wasn’t a cop. I didn’t have any evidence. It could’ve just as easily been Ernie or one of his goombahs as you. After the body disappeared and no report was made, I couldn’t be sure. Did Ernie kill her? Was she an innocent bystander? Maybe she told you about me and you killed her?”
“No, I had no clue,” Sam said.
“Neither did Ernie. Until I told him.”
Sam blinked. “Wait. You... what did you say?”
“I said I told Ernie you killed his wife because she was trying to break off the affair,” Lester said and glanced at his wristwatch. “I also told him we were gonna be having one of our regular Sunday morning breakfasts today. Said we’d be here around ten o’clock.”
“What did you do?” Gabe said with a startled gasp.
“I lied a little, to give us time to talk,” Lester said. “But it’s almost ten now. Wouldn’t surprise me if Ernie got here a little early, just to be sure he didn’t miss you.”
“Dear god,” Sam whispered and started to shake. “How could you, Les? He’ll kill me. I... I thought we were friends.”
Lester, stone faced, shrugged. “We were. That’s why I’m giving you a head start, Sammy. That’s more than Phyllis ever got from you.”
Sam’s mouth flapped open and shut without sound, his forehead beaded with sweat. But there was nothing left to say before he stumbled from the booth and hurried stiffly out the door.
“Jesus Christ, Les,” Gabe said, breathing hard like he had just been forced to run a great distance. “How could you, I mean, no matter how you felt about Phyllis...?”
“You know what’s been gnawing at me, Gabe? That whoever did it was going to get away with murder, and the old cop in me just couldn’t live with that anymore. I finally just had to know, just had to close the case. But I don’t know where to find Ernie, so I had to go to work on Sam.”
“Wait. So did you see Ernie or not?”
“What difference does it make? Now I know, and now he doesn’t get away with it. Nobody ever paid for killing Phyllis. That isn’t right.”
“You don’t think he’s paid? What about his conscience, living with that guilt?”
“Screw his guilty conscience. He thought he got away with murder? Fuck him. He’s gonna spend the rest of his life running and looking over his shoulder for Ernie.”
“I never knew you were this cold, Les.”
“If I was cold, I wouldn’t care. Or I’d just kill Sam myself. Naw, this is me, giving Sam a break, for old time’s sake.”
Gabe shook his head. “So, no Ernie?”
Lester shrugged, drained his coffee cup, and signaled to the waitress for the check.
“That’s too bad,” Gabe said. “I would’ve liked to know what happened to him.”