Ernie and the Tiger’s Eye

Between the ages of 6 and 9, I lived in a small, remote farming town in the desert/agriculture side of Washington State. The sign as you entered Prosser proudly proclaimed that it was a friendly town with friendly people.

One day I hatched a scheme to scare up some additional pocket money for penny candy at Bonanza 88. I and my best friend Jasmine would draw pictures and go door to door selling them. Now keep in mind that my art skills then were roughly as good as my art skills now. Which is to say that I still can’t draw worth a darn. In a flurry of activity we drew 15 or 20 artistic renderings with crayon on pieces of paper. Then, methodically, went door to door across the whole block – we two little girls.

I’m guessing we failed to ask permission on that one.

Happily, this story does not end up with years going to therapy or my body in a ditch or anything. We had a perfectly lovely time. Some people weren’t home. I have in my memory the face of an immigrant family, completely bewildered by this underage door-to-door salesmanship. Two of the houses I remember particularly. One of them was white, and had snap-dragons lining the walkway. I paused on my way up to make them snap. At home was a grandmother-type, by herself. She had a blue cut glass bowl of ribbon candy – old and sticky – on her table. We stayed quite a while there. I believe she had popsicles. I’m sure she rounded up quarter for us, so we left her house satisfied entrepreneurs.

The last house we left was only three or four doors down from my house. It was blue – a slate blue – with a red door. It was a two story house – unusual in our land-abundant, ranch-heavy town. I suspect it was one of the oldest houses in town. In it was Ernie. Ernie and I formed a strong friendship. He was very old – I believe he was a WWI vet. And his house was filled with all manner of fascinating things. Ernie never moved from his chair between the front door and the kitchen, but he knew exactly where every single object in his house was. Jasmine came with me that first time, but I went back by myself many times.

Ernie’s basement was a hall of wonders. There were mounted heads on plaques. He had a hand-turned crank that lit a light. There were cupboards and drawers and cubbies – all neat and organized and lovely and full of nifty things. Ernie must have delighted to play the classic old guy trick of giving me a tiger’s-eye and telling me I had to keep it with me at all times to fend off tigers, and going on about how well it had worked for him. If I headed up the stairs to the now-still bedrooms, there were daintier things telling of a bygone time when daughters and wives had populated the house. My favorite, on the stairs, was a popup book of gnomes. When you pulled the handles, all manner of funny (and scandalously inappropriate to my mind then) things would happen. Ernie would send me on a quest to a particular room, and have me either look at something there or bring it back to him. Then he would tell me stories about it.

I suspect that Ernie lived an accomplished and interesting life, of which I saw the briefest pages. I’ve loved old codgers my entire life, since I was a young girl, and Ernie was the finest vintage of old codger. I do not remember saying goodbye to him. I wonder if I disappeared? If I told him I was leaving? If I just stopped coming? If, perhaps, he didn’t answer his door one day? I don’t know, and will likely never find out.


Of course, this idyllic turn of entrepreneurial zest somehow did not meet with maternal approval after I got home with five quarters and a bunch of stories. I was *supposed* to be playing at Jasmine’s house, not wandering the block as an itinerant artist. My ear was mightily bent on the topic of “talking to strangers”. (“But mom! He’s not a stranger now!”) But I was chastened, at least temporarily.

Thus it was when, a week later, I seriously hurt myself a mile away from home while with my sister, I walked that entire mile – bloody, with gravel deeply embedded in face, hands and knees – turning down all offers of assistance from kindly grownups who offered to call my mom, explaining through pouring tears that “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers or go into their houses.”

You may all take a moment, friends, to have great pity on my mother.

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