By Stephen Morrissey
Bellows, no. 2, fall 1987
We were never introduced to Ernie James; he was just there the way a tree or rock is there, has always been there and is taken for granted until it is gone. Before the Elgin dump was closed, Ernie would pile the garbage to burn. During the summer be spent part of every day at the old quarry where be built a diving board and where he watched people swim. I am not good at guessing ages but he must have been seventy-five when he died, his body found in a ditch on one of the back-roads he travelled everyday on his old black bicycle. He shaved once a week and had a few stumps that were all that remained of his teeth. He had apparently no other source of income than welfare, but he built his own house and I am told be had a wife or woman friend living with him. Ernie James' conversation was preoccupied with the different houses where be had lived many years ago and how they were all worth ten or fifteen times what they originally sold for.
Once the Provincial Police picked him up, most likely for vagrancy, and held him in Valleyfield, twenty miles from his home. He had no money and had to walk borne. He punctuated his speech with constant throat clearing and spitting.
Ernie's job in life, one that be assigned to himself, was to keep an eye on the abandoned houses and woodlots within five miles of his house. Once I met him on a concession road challenging several men who had been digging up the wild garlic from Roy Leslie's woodlot; Ernie was full of impassioned bluster and threatened to get his gun. They had already filled three five gallon pails with garlic and decided to leave. They had confronted Ernie before and ridiculed him, laughing in his face. Ernie protected the forests where he had spent much of his life. The garlic takes years to grow and each year there is less of it, just as each year armfuls of trilliums are picked, thereby killing the plants. On our walks we would meet Ernie James in Roy Leslie's woodlot when he would be cutting firewood for Roy: Ernie would stop his work to complain about how the acid rain was destroying the trees, which were developing ugly marks on the bark and leaves.
I have often thought about Ernie James and the kind of life he lived. It was a life of poverty although Ernie did not act poor; he was in excellent health, he had his integrity, be never asked for anything. I often thought that be could pass for the president of General Motors or another large corporation if only he shaved and washed, got his teeth fixed, and dressed in a business suit. But what a different life be had lived compared to that of any businessman. Ernie, for as long as we knew him, was quiet and reserved; he was not interested in business deals, in making money, or in being anything but what be was. His was not an exemplary life, but it had its nobility as the lives of people do when they are unself-couscious and not confused with the burden of acquiring wealth and prestige.
After Ernie died we heard that his wife had a chimney fire and called the volunteer fire department for help. Later still we heard that his family, brothers or sisters or cousins perhaps (we had heard nothing of Ernie having children), had put the wife out of the house and wanted to sell the place. Today, several years after his death, the house remains uninhabited. For months after Ernie's death, plastic garbage bags were left by the relatives at the end of his long driveway to be collected by the garbage men. Once we found a tin tea box, the top missing, three large gallon bottles, and a wooden box, and they now serve a purpose at our house. Since Ernie's death, we hear that Roy Leslie has stopped visiting his woodlot, not wanting to cut wood there without Ernie.
Copyright © 2007 The author