Asleep In The Grass
by Anthony Vasko
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Ernie was a very simple man, with a mountain of guilt on his shoulders, which he would never overcome.
He wiped the dish sink dry with a rubber squeegee, flipped the switch on the industrial dishwasher from ON to OFF, and carried the last bag of trash through the back door of the kitchen to the dumpster in the parking lot. Then he nodded his head and waved to the manager, who, in turn, closed and locked the large metal door. Behind the dumpster was his bicycle—his most treasured possession. He hid it back there because he could not afford a lock, and he always said a prayer that it would be there when his shift was over. He slowly lifted his 67-year-old leg over the frame and sat down. The ride home was short, but always some of the most enjoyable minutes of his day. The night air in Key West is usually cool and warm, at the same time. And on most nights, there are stars in the sky—if only a few, there were more than he had seen in prison, the past forty-eight years.
Ernie was the proud new resident of a small, bug-infested room, in a mildew-ridden crack house. After his release from the correctional facility, he stayed at the YMCA for two months, saving every penny he made at the restaurant to obtain his new home. He was very proud of his room, which was complete with an army cot, a lawn chair and a small table, made out of plastic milk crates and a cardboard box—all of which he had found inside dumpsters of the surrounding alleyways. The only book he owned was the Bible—a gift from the warden upon his departure from prison.
Every night when he arrived home he would remove a Styrofoam box from his knapsack and eat his dinner—edible portions of leftovers from the plates that were slid across the soapy dish sink toward him that evening. He would eat while reading Bible verses. Then, when he was finished, he would wrap his rosary as tightly around his right hand as comfortably possible and he would lie down to sleep.
When Ernie woke up on Wednesday his routine did not change.
At 6 A.M. he brushed his teeth, combed his white hair with a part down the right side, dressed himself and grabbed his knapsack and Bible before locking the door behind him. He walked down the steps to the first floor and onto the front porch. He hid his bicycle off of the left side of the house behind a bush and several large trash cans. On this morning it was not there. Someone had stolen it.
“Ah bien. ¿Qué hace usted?” “Oh well. What do you do?” he said to himself and started walking up the driveway toward the road.
He ran a little behind schedule on this day, because he walked significantly slower than he rode the bicycle. But it would not deter him from accomplishing all of his tasks. He just continued down the road, dragging his right foot a bit—the consequence of an injury he endured while defending his cellmate in a fight thirty-five years past. He saved his friend’s life, but his Achilles tendon was snapped like a rubber band by the makeshift shank. He never walked the same, but he was proud of his limp. It reminded him of his friendship with Juan.
He arrived at the food bank around 7:10 A.M., which was fifteen minutes later than usual. The only food left were a few pieces of toast. Before he took a bite he bowed his head and said, “Gracias Dios para este alimento. Gracias Dios por este día.” Thank you God for this food. Thank you God for this day.
He ate slowly and quietly. He liked to be very mindful of every bite to thank God for His blessings. As he chewed he thought about the wheat, flour, water, sunshine and human labor that all worked together to bring that piece of toast to his mouth.
When he finished, he gathered his Bible and knapsack and began walking to his second destination of the day. When paced correctly he could arrive at St. Mary’s with enough time to say his morning Rosary and novena before 8:15 Mass. On this day he walked in late, but was very appreciative to have made it in time for the Gospel—his favorite moment of every morning. Confession immediately followed the celebration of the Eucharist and he was always the first one in line.
Every day he entered the confessional and said the same thing, “Please forgive me, father. I have let my wife down, and for this, I am greatly sorry.” They were the only sentences he ever cared to put together in English. If ever asked to give a further explanation, he would respond, “No comprendo.”
Then he said his penance at the feet of the Virgin Mary statue, lit a candle and continued on in his day.
He left St. Mary’s around 11 A.M. and he began walking to the pier. On the way he stopped at Sam’s and purchased his lunch—an apple. When he got to the pier he walked to the very end and slowly sat down, letting his legs dangle off toward the pearly blue water. He took great pleasure in his two hours of ship watching. And just as he ate his breakfast, he slowly chewed each bite of the apple, thinking of the fertile soil, the strong tree roots that supported the trunk, the branches that supported the growing fruit and everything that God provided to make the meal possible. One by one he watched the ships come and go. Sometimes it was a cruise liner, other times it was a fishing boat. No matter what the size or significance of the ship was he entertained himself, wondering what it must be like to be the captain. When the two hours were over he slowly rose to his feet and continued on his journey.
On the walk from the pier to the cemetery he stopped at the flower shop on Simonton and purchased a rose for one dollar. Then he continued to Olivia Street and entered the graveyard from the southwest corner. When he arrived at the headstone he knelt down, placed the rose on the weathered marble and said the same thing as every other day, “Perdóneme, mi amor. Yo le falla, y para este soy mucho arrepentido.” Forgive me, my love. I have let you down, and for this, I am greatly sorry.
Then he removed a small pair of garden shears from his knapsack and clipped the grass around the headstone so that it was level and short. Once he was done manicuring the grass he kissed the stone and rose to his feet. He never spent much time at the gravesite, though, because it hurt him too much.
So he walked up Olivia to White Street and then two blocks to Truman Avenue. Slowly but surely he made his way to work on time. At 4 P.M. his apron was tied and he stood behind the soapy dish sink, waiting for the dishes and cups and silverware to start sliding toward him.
No one at the restaurant talked to him, even though a great deal of the staff spoke Spanish. The extent of their exchanges would come when they made fun of him being just a few inches over five feet. He could not speak English, but he understood it when spoken by others. They would make fun of him and call him a killer, or a psycho, or a jailbird. When this happened he would close his eyes for a moment and say, “Deme por favor fuerza Dios.” Please give me strength, God.
Hour after hour, the dishes stacked up and the silverware sloshed the sanitizer water of the metal pans into the air and all over him. He never complained. He just washed them all—one by one—until the final rack of glassware emerged from the industrial washer.
He wiped the dish sink dry with a rubber squeegee, flipped the switch on the dishwasher from ON to OFF and carried the last bag of trash through the back door of the kitchen to the dumpster in the parking lot. Then he nodded his head and waved to the manager who closed and locked the large metal door. When Ernie looked behind the dumpster he remembered that his bicycle was not there. So, on he walked with his limp, slowly back to the cemetery.
Although Ernie was a free man for just over two months he had been imprisoned by this date, October 30th, for 48 years. And he would remain imprisoned by this date until the day he died. So he did the only thing he thought would make him feel free; he lied down next to his wife—in the cold grass, without a pillow or blanket.
Forty-eight years ago Ernie lied next to his wife in bed. It was just past midnight when he arose in their small one room apartment. The shipment would be ashore very soon, so he dressed quietly as she slept and locked the door behind him as he left. He met his business partner and co-smuggler at the pier, just as their ship coasted into harbor.
“Hola,” a man said to him as he walked off of the small boat.
“Hola, senor,” a very young Ernie responded, and then handed him every dollar he had.
The man pointed him to a large bag, fifty pounds in weight, at the portside corner of the boat. Ernie and his friend walked over to the bag, opened it, grabbed a handful of Cuban coffee beans and held them under their noses.
“Muy bien!” Ernie said.
“Si. Maravilloso!” his friend responded.
They each grabbed an end of the bag and carried it through the dark and quiet streets of Key West. When they arrived at his friend’s home they put the bag inside of the small shed out back and locked it.
Cuban coffee had become illegal, along with all other forms of Cuban goods just ten days earlier. On October 19, 1960 the U.S. government posed an embargo on Cuban goods, to counter the new Cuban dictator’s expropriation of American landholdings in Cuba. Coffee was Ernie’s business. It was his way of life. And now that Cuban coffee, in particular, was illegal, he could sell it to his customers under the table at an exorbitant price. He and his friend were sure to make a fortune. So they said farewell to one another and parted ways.
When Ernie arrived home the door was wide open.
“Rosa?” he said as he walked in. “Rosa!” he screamed as he rushed to her bloodied body.
She had been savagely murdered—stabbed and strangled to death. Sobbing, he held her and cried out, “¿Dios, por qué? Por qué?” “Why, God? Why?”
Then came the sirens. The police rushed up the stairs, into his apartment, and without asking any questions, arrested him. In such agony, despair, and feeling of worthlessness, he could not muster the words to defend himself. He just continued sobbing as he was dragged away from his wife’s corpse.
Ernie’s friend and business partner had framed him. While they were at the pier, smuggling the bag of coffee, he sent an assassin to Ernie’s house to murder his wife. Then, a few moments after they hid the bag of coffee beans in the shed, he called the police and reported that his friend had just come to him and confessed. The testimony held up in court because the judge was promised 20% of all earnings made from Cuban coffee from that point on.
Ernie went to prison. Rosa went to the graveyard.
Forty-eight years later Ernie lied alongside his wife, like he wished he could have done every day since. As tears welled up in his eyes, he spoke to her.
“My dearest Rosa. My Love. It has been too long since we have lied next to one another. That is my fault. I can never forgive myself for what happened. I do not expect you or God to, either, but I pray for it every day. I served 48 years in prison and I would serve it again and again and again if it meant you would have life. I let you down, my love. I should have never left your side. I should have been a good husband. I should have protected you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will never leave you again. I will never leave you again. I promise.”
Ernie fell asleep to tears streaming down his face and images of his young bride in his mind. When he awoke he returned home. At 6 A.M. he brushed his teeth, combed his white hair with a part down the right side, dressed himself for the day and grabbed his knapsack and Bible before locking the door behind him. He started his day the same way as the day before. And he continued it the same way. The only way he changed his routine was the way he ended it. Every night for the rest of his life he lied down in the grass, alongside his wife and said the same thing before closing his eyes and falling asleep.
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Wow. Such a powerful story that tugs at the heartstrings. Just wow.