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Chapter Four: Get to Work
The first thing that Ernie wrote down in his game plan was the word employees.
He scrawled it in his notebook under the heading Things to Do and he marked it with a star. If Ernie was going to make this project happen, he needed help. The lot was a mess. He couldn't do it all by himself. He needed employees for the dirty work. Ernie thought and thought -- and really only one kid came to mind.
Dusty. The strange kid from three doors down.
After his mom died, Ernie had transferred from the Catholic school across town -- which was his mom's alma mater -- back to the public school in his own neighborhood. "Gotta cut back somewhere," his dad said, meaning the tuition. Ernie didn't mind, except he didn't actually know the kids in his own neighborhood, so all the kids at his new school were basically strangers.
The next afternoon, Ernie tracked down Dusty. He found him leaning over a patch of wet cement in the sidewalk. Ernie ducked behind a tree to see what Dusty was up to.
As Ernie watched, Dusty reached into a large cardboard box beside him and raised an old china plate into the air.
Ernie could never have predicted what happened next.
Dusty smashed the plate against the curb so hard that it shattered into pieces. Then he calmly sifted through the shards until he had selected one particular chip.
Dusty studied the piece closely, rolling it back and forth between his fingers. After some careful thought, he tossed it aside.
When Dusty finally found a shard that was satisfactory, he leaned over the wet cement and carefully pressed the chip into position. For several minutes, he worked in this slow and careful manner.
"This could take forever," Ernie said to himself.
When Dusty was finally done, he sat back to admire his creation. Of course, Ernie had edged closer behind a hedge so that he could see what Dusty was doing. Poking his head through the branches, Ernie saw an elaborate mosaic in the wet cement depicting an intergalactic space battle in wild cartoon colors.
Ernie was impressed. Very impressed.
Unfortunately, a moment later, a boot smashed down right into the middle of the wet cement; a boot belonging to Dion, the neighborhood bully. Dion was a nightmare and a constant threat. Everyone kept wishing he would either grow up or move away. Until that happened, there wasn't much that anyone could do about Dion.
As Dion trampled the wet cement, Dusty flailed helplessly to protect his mosaic.
"Quit! Stop it!"
"Biff! Poweee! Socko! Ooooff!" Dion barked as he stomped.
Ernie ducked inside the hedge. It felt a little cowardly, but Ernie was one to pick his battles wisely.
"Stop! You ruined it!" Dusty cried, pretty much stating the obvious. It was kind of pathetic.
"What are you gonna do, Freakazoid?" Dion snarled.
When the deed was done, Dion charged down the sidewalk. And indeed, the mosaic was demolished. Dusty sat back on his heels, splattered with cement, too wounded to speak, too hurt to cry.
At that moment, a shadow arched over the ruined mosaic. Dusty winced into the sunlight to see who it was.
No surprise here. It was Ernie.
Ernie squatted beside the wet cement and said, "Sweet while it lasted, huh, kid?" He ran his hand over the remnants and continued, "Clever, inventive. Got a sense of humor. And the old plates keep your costs down."
Ernie brushed his hands off and held one out for a handshake. "Good work, kid," he said. "I been looking for a kid like you. Name's Ernie."
"Dusty," said Dusty, wiping off his palm and shaking Ernie's hand.
"Oh, I know your name, all right," said Ernie.
Dusty was bewildered. Nobody in the neighborhood had ever talked to him this way before. They usually just acted as though he was weird.
"I need boxes," Ernie announced with a sense of purpose. "Well, not just boxes. More like boxes for a funeral, say."
"For a funeral?" Dusty asked, completely confused. "You mean, you need a coffin?"
"I prefer the word...sarcophagus," Ernie said with relish. "It's Egyptian. But never mind about that. Got a minute? I got a proposition for you."
And that was how Ernie and Dusty came to be friends.
It was Dusty who tipped Ernie off to Tony. "Look for the kid with the shovel," is what he said. "You can't miss him."
On Dusty's recommendation, Ernie found himself leaning against a lemonade stand late in the afternoon.
Looking across the street, Ernie saw a scrappy little boy, about seven or eight, and sure enough he was flinging a great big shovel, almost twice his size. That must be Tony, he thought.
Tony patted down a freshly filled hole and wiped his brow. With the job done, Tony squinted across the street at the lemonade stand and headed in that direction. He dragged the shovel on the pavement behind him and it made an awful sound.
Ernie arranged himself at the counter so that he looked all nonchalant.
Tony arrived and gestured at the Sweaty Lemonade Girl behind the counter. "Hit me with the usual," he said.
Sweaty Lemonade Girl snapped back, "Move along, Stinky. You scare away the customers." She pinched her fingers over her nose and stuck out her tongue.
Tony balked. "Hey," he cried, all indignant and offended, and why shouldn't he be?
Ernie cleared his throat and rolled his eyes. Tony was stinky -- but Sweaty Lemonade Girl was no prize either. Clearly, he thought, Sweaty Lemonade Girl has no idea how to run a business.
Ernie tossed a few coins on the counter. "Put that one on me," he said.
Sweaty Lemonade Girl eyed the coins and begrudgingly poured a glass of lemonade for Tony. She put it on the counter and scooped up the change.
"Thanks, mister," the kid said, turning toward Ernie. "Name's Tony."
"Ernie, here. Pretty good with a shovel, kid," said Ernie.
"I try," said Tony with a shrug.
Ernie leaned in confidentially and lowered his voice so that Sweaty Lemonade Girl couldn't overhear. "I'm looking for somebody to dig a few holes," he said. "You interested?"
Tony looked both ways and back across the counter. Sweaty Lemonade Girl pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows as if she was suddenly all interested in Tony's business.
Tony turned his back to the counter and perched against his elbows. He tilted his head toward Ernie and answered, "Depends." He knocked back his lemonade, crumpled the cup, and chucked it over the counter.
"Hey!" Sweaty Lemonade Girl grumbled with annoyance. As she bent over to pick up the cup, Tony leaned in confidentially against Ernie and whispered, "What do I have to bury?"
Over the next week, Ernie had Tony and Dusty working like dogs on the empty lot. Tony hacked through the undergrowth with a huge pair of hedge clippers he had borrowed from his dad. Dusty spent the afternoon hauling all manner of debris to the curb.
When the shrubs and trees were clipped back, Tony showed up with his dad's Weedwacker and carefully cut the grass until it was as smooth as a golf course's. Ernie tried to take a crack at the Weed-wacker himself, but Tony held him off.
"Forget it, Mr. Castellano," Tony said, "this is a job for a professional."
When the yard was finally cleaned up, they set about making improvements. And that was when Dusty went to town.
Dusty's first idea was to scavenge through the neighborhood for discarded plants and potted mums. He showed up with a red wagon full of wilted plants, mostly with dead blossoms.
Tony took one look at the wagon and said, "Who died?"
"I don't know about this, Dusty," said Ernie. "Those flowers look kind of ragged and pathetic."
"Give 'em time, Boss," Dusty insisted. "They'll look better in time."
Dusty replanted the flowers around the base of the trees. After a little sunlight and a little water, Ernie had to agree with Dusty. The flowers didn't look bad at all.
Pretty soon, they were all coming up with great ideas like that.
Tony had found a slightly trashed trestle in the alley and dragged it into the lot. "I figure, fix the broken slats with a couple nails, slap on a fresh coat of paint," Tony said, "it'll be like brand new."
And it pretty much was. When the paint had dried, Dusty tugged overgrown vines from the fence and laced them through the trestle, hoping they would grow.
As he was weaving the vines, Ernie arrived with a broken piano bench he'd found on the curb. He placed it below the trestle. "It'll be a place for quiet reflection," he said.
"That's just what I was thinking," Dusty agreed.
Ernie remembered an aluminum picnic table in the basement that they never used anymore. It had belonged to his mom before he was born. He and Tony carried the picnic table upstairs and hauled it down the alley. They positioned it on the back side of the lot and moved it five different times until Dusty decided that it was in the right spot.
Meanwhile, Dusty was scouring the neighborhood for big, flat rocks. He covered the picnic table with newspaper and spent the afternoon painting the rocks all sorts of different colors. "It's like painting Easter eggs," he said, "only much much bigger."
When Dusty was done, they laid the painted rocks in a winding trail across the lawn. It was backbreaking work -- but after he put the last rock in place, Tony looked at Ernie and nodded in favor. Ernie smiled. "The place is looking good," he told Tony. "I tell you, that Dusty, he's got a million ideas."
For the crowning touch, Dusty climbed on Ernie's shoulders to crawl into the tallest tree on the lot. Clinging to the overhead branches, Dusty hung that wind chime he'd been working on. It was made out of those wire hangers, and he had added lots of discarded silverware, hammered flat.
Every time a breeze brushed through the tree, the wind chime clanked and clattered and sent a strange little tune into the air.
All in all, they had turned the old abandoned lot into a lovely little garden.
Only nobody knew.
Text copyright © 2002 by Doug Cooney