When you teach at the Federal prison, one of the first things you learn is not to ask what anyone is in for. I always assumed big crimes. So I did not expect to see Ernest Higgins in my house six months after the class ended.
"Nice place, Doc."
He was sitting on my couch, the first thing I saw when I came in. I had turned the front door key. But had the door been locked?
"How did you find me, Ernest?" The second thing you learned was to never, ever, give a convict any personal information.
Ernest. Not Ernie. "Don't never call him Ernie, that one," Ron Hedges had volunteered after the first night's class. Ron was a shameless suckup, a pro, like a small dog in a pack of big ones.
"Was this nigger got to calling him Ernie just to piss him off. Ernest broke all his fingers. In the weight room." He shrugged nervously. "Could've been worse."
"What you mean, 'Find you'?," Ernie said. "Shit, you're in the phonebook, Doc."
When they found out I had a Ph.D., I became 'Doc.' I didn't care. It was familiar, but not disrespectful. You learn the difference quickly.
"Sure," I said, and I walked toward the kitchen, past him. "I have coffee on. You want some?" I usually left the pot all day; it was powerful stuff by evening.
"Not in the fridge."
He found my reaction amusing; he cracked a grin.
"I guess not then," I said. "Mind if I get coffee?"
In the kitchen, the cord that connects the handset to the phone was gone. Not ripped out; carefully unclipped and put away somewhere. The deadbolt on the back door was a key lock. I had put my keys in my pocket as soon as I opened the front door. Force of habit. And first there would be the kitchen's interior door, then the four stairs that started you down to the basement, before I could reach the lock. And a chair blocked the door, as if someone had been sitting and not put it back.
"Having trouble finding a cup?" he called.
I poured the coffee, black as molasses, and returned to the front of the house. I sat down across the room from him. He was wearing beat-up jeans and hiking boots, a Los Lobos T-shirt that didn't look new.
"So they let you out," I said.
"Everything ends," he said, and grinned.
Half the convicts just took classes to qualify for G. I. Bill. They sent the money to their families, a trustee told me. There were minimum requirements. They knew them by heart. Ernest had only written one outside assignment of six. I had flunked him at the end of term, along with five or six others out of about two dozen guys.
I remembered Ernest. That was easy. He was small and wore thick glasses. He kept starting a goatee and shaving it off. Here one week, gone the next. Then back again.
The assignment had been to write about something funny that had really happened. When Ernest handed in his paper, handwritten in a crabbed but neat childish script, he had said, "You finally give us a good assignment, man."
I had made a copy of Ernest's essay. His essay was about the evening he and two buddies ran across a friend who owed him money. Ten bucks, I think. It was half the assigned length.
"I said Louie I want my money and he said fuck man I don't have no ten bucks just like that.
"I said Louie you got to remember your debts and took two steps away like I was cutting him off then I turned quick and got him in the teeth. Right in the teeth.
"He was so surprised, my buds laughed out loud. He just stood there with his mouth open all bloody like what the fuck and I got him in the nuts with my knee while he was thinking about it and we stomped the shit out of him. It was fucking hilarious.
"I was just laughing cause he never knew what hit him.
"He was on his knees after I kicked him making this noise like a dog, crying, and when I hit him again his head went back and hit a car parked there behind him and he looked so stupid down there like he was going to pass out and Andy that's my other bud, my homeboy, he just laughed.
"So I kept hitting him, with him up against the car and getting blood on the fender. It was a white car, or light colored anyway.
"It was so funny I had to keep laughing and I kicked him in the gut then and he fell all the way down so I kicked his face.
"When we got done with him, there was blood all over and with the street light I seen his one front tooth like a chicklet on the sidewalk. Andy said he'd be lucky if he still had any teeth left after I was kicking him.
"We were all laughing then but there was a siren coming. Some asshole in the bar called the cops and we split.
"We talked about it all night, just laughing out loud. He looked so surprised, like what the fuck, what hit me?
"We were drinking beer and Andy would say What hit me and we'd all just start up laughing again."
I had given the paper an honest grade and tried to describe what was wrong with it. I looked at the toe of Ernest's boot. "Waffle stomper," I thought, sipping the coffee. It was too hot to drink.
"I got out on good behavior," he said, still grinning.
"Going straight, huh?"
He laughed, louder than was necessary.
"Going to Hell, more's like it, Doc."
"So, what's happenin', Ernest?"
"Want me to tell you something funny, Doc?"
I put down the coffee. I looked at my shoe, then at him, sitting there, smiling at me.
"Sure, tell me something funny, Ernest."
"I sure hated to flunk that class."