The Haven
Published in

The Haven

The Importance of Seeing Ernest

Cassia Estrella, Cassie to her friends, Cas to her best friend, and Cassia Eloise to her mother tapped her foot while she craned her neck, searching for the 1 train. The New York City subway system had gone to pieces over the past ten years, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel, both in the figurative and literal sense. She checked her phone, placed her trusty accordion folder in-between her knees, and swiped away the notification reminding her she had a 10 am appointment with Ernest Byner — her creative writing teacher, not the infamous running back for the Cleveland Browns. Truth be told, his name almost caused her to pass on the class when she first saw it on the screen.

ERNEST BYNER

Creative Writing 301

M/W/F 11am to 12:30pm

Her father was a diehard Browns fan and that moment back in 1988, when Byner fumbled at the goal line nearly destroyed him. Her mother couldn’t even speak about the subject, choosing instead to focus the conversation on something more serene, like Guantanamo Bay.

In a bizarre sense, taking the class was almost disrespecting dad’s memory. She hadn’t thought of her father in a couple of weeks. Funny how grief eventually faded into the background.

Cassia shook her head and stared at the 9:38, glowing in big numbers on her phone. Some quick mental calculations suggested if the train arrived in the next five minutes and there weren’t any delays, and she ran straight off the train, she could maybe be only five minutes late and —

“Excuse me, Miss. Do you have the time?” Cassia debated ignoring the gentleman to her left but figured it best to deal with the situation at hand and move on forthwith.

“It’s 9:38.” A beat passed before the man spoke again.

“I notice you tapping your foot. Got someplace to be?” Cassia rolled her eyes and thought, That’s what you get for being nice, C.E. Her pen name was C.E. Estrella, and when she referred to herself, she used her pen name. Cassia let out a sigh and remarked,

“Just waiting for the train, like everyone else.” She moved the accordion folder from her knees to her left hand and let out a sigh.

“Yeah, me too. Waiting sucks, you know?” Her inner monologue ran wild like she was Carrie Bradshaw. Well, there you have it, gentlemen. If you want to court a lady in the sticky bowels of New York City, make sure you use the line, “waiting sucks, you know?” Nothing suggests wit like the word sucks. Realizing the man had remained standing there, lingering, dallying — oooh dallying is such a good word I should jot that down, for the second time in a hot second, Cassia came back to Earth squinted her eyes, and gave an overly sincere head nod. The man continued on, oblivious to her disinterest.

“My name is Burt. Like Burt and Ernie.” Cassia did her best to look everywhere except where he stood. He waited a beat for the assumed laugh, and Cassia realized she had unwittingly entered into a conversation. Well, might as well have fun with it.

“Ohh, I thought you were going to say like Lancaster.”

“Who?”

“Nevermind.” Burt ignored the awkward patter and blazed on.

“Funny story, though. I’m actually on my way to see Ernie.” Burt let out a hearty laugh, and Cassia continued her disinterested two-step. “I always tell him, man, you gotta change your name. Otherwise, everyone will think you’re the guy who fumbled.” Cassia stopped her anxious dancing.

“What?”

“My guy Ernie has the same name as that guy on the Browns back in 88 who fumbled at the goal line and cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.” Cassia’s ears turned beet red.

“Ernie, as in Ernest Byner?” Burt didn’t pick up on her fluster and asked,

“You know him?” Cassia ignored his question, too busy drowning in a bowl of incredulous.

“You’re going to see Ernest Byner?” Burt arched his eyebrow.

“Yeah, how you know him?”

“He’s my creative writing teacher. You’re a writer?” He ignored the question and instead focused on the accordion folder in her left hand.

“Is that what’s in there?” Cassia raised the folder to eye level. It was a beat-up thing, faded green, frayed edges—nothing to look at. But inside was nearly two hundred pages of quite possibly her best work. Of course, she could never say she thought her work was good. That was for others to say. Like hopefully, Mr. Ernest Byner.

“Three months of blood, sweat, and tears. I wish I could have just emailed him, but you know.” Burt nodded.

“He told me a long time ago the only way to feel a story is to wrap your fingers around its edges. You might as well be reading a recipe for chicken if you’re reading it on a screen.” Now it was Cassia’s turn to nod. She had heard the same thing from Ernest when she pressed him on it.

“Well, I’m on my way to hear him say how much I wasted my time.”

“Stop. I’m sure it’s great.” She was surprised how much his sincerity disarmed her. For the second time, she asked,

“You’re a writer too?” Burt let out too loud a laugh, and several men in suits gave a disapproving look.

“Well, more like I’m unemployed, and I do writing on the side,” Burt let out another laugh, and for the first time, Cassia took a look at the fellow. He was short, gruff, and full of scruff. His five o’clock shadow had hit snooze, which combined with the dark circles under his eyes and matted black hair gave off the impression of a man who never purchased a moisturizer. She was nearly at eye-level, which didn’t say much since she barely broke five foot five. He wore a hoodie covered in enough stains to serve Christmas dinner. Feeling like an ant under the magnifying glass, Burt blurted out,

“I swear, if Mussolini were alive, I’d vote him for Mayor.” Cassia wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“That’s a horrible thing to say.”

“What? Sure he did some messed up things, but the man knew how to make the trains run on time. You wouldn’t vote for a Dictator if it meant not standing here talking to me?” His blunt remark hit her in the solar plexus, and she let out an involuntary laugh. “Ahh, well, you look at that. Everyone has a soft spot — yours is dark humor.” Cassia remained quiet for a moment and asked again,

“Are you really seeing Ernest Byner?” Burt ran his hand through his hair, and flakes of dandruff fell to his shoulders like an overturned snowglobe.

“Yeah. I have a book coming out, and he’s the only guy I trust. He was my teacher way back when.”

“Have I read anything of yours?” Burt let out a laugh.

“I don’t know what you’ve read.” Cassia took a step closer. The man had gone from intrusive to interesting quicker than…well quicker than a 1 train.

“What’s your last name?” Burt leaned in, and she could smell a lifetime of cigarettes. It was 2021; who smoked anymore?

“Ahh, now we’re getting personal. Why do you want to know that?” Cassia leaned away; she couldn’t bear standing that close to smoke and let out a glib,

“So I can stalk you later on and see what you’ve written.” Burt let out another booming laugh, and the Wall Street Bros were not happy campers.

“You’re honest. I can work with that. What time is your appointment?”

“10.” Burt shook his head, looking like a dachshund with a chew toy.

“Oh, you’re never going to make that.”

“Don’t remind me. What time is your appointment?”

“Let me check.” Burt removed a folded-up piece of paper from his back left pocket. He opened it up and realized they were directions to his toaster oven. “Whoops, wrong pocket.” He searched his back right pocket and removed a torn-up piece of legal paper. “Says here, 11 am.” At that moment, the lights from the 1 train announced its arrival. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“I’m Cassia.”

“Like the flower?” Cassia did a double-take, and Burt shrugged his shoulders. “What? My father was a florist. I suppose I learned via osmosis. Do you want to ride together?” Cassia surprised herself when she answered without hesitation,

“Sure.” The 1 Train pulled to a stop, and the doors opened up. The penguins inside waddled their way out of the contraption while the ducks on the platform jostled in position. The doors cleared, and the dance commenced. Burt gave a head nod to allow Cassia to enter ahead of him. She shuffled along with everyone else and had just minded the gap when a Wall Street Bro crashed into her, causing her to drop the accordion folder. Fate had an especially keen eye on her that day, for the folder went straight down, through the gap, and into Neverland.

“MY BOOK!” Burt turned and reached, but he was too late. Her most prized possession had fallen to the 6th layer of hell, a New York City subway track. Without thinking, Cassia swam against the current, leaping back on the platform at the same time Burt was carried by the human wave into the train, watching the doors close between them. She stood there screaming, and he wanted to run out, help her, console her. Do something, anything. Instead, he stood at the door, watching as the train continued on its track.

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Tom Starita

Tom Starita

When asked for her thoughts about him, Oprah Winfrey said, “Who?” Tom Hanks refused to respond to an email, and Mookie Wilson once waved from a passing taxi.