“Man is the only being who knows he is alone.”
— Octavio Paz (Poet, March 31, 1914 – April 19, 1998)
“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,baker’s man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can…”
— English Nursery Rhyme
Ernest knew he wasn’t like them, that if someone noticed him standing there, the other kids would snicker. Some jerk would point and say something he thought was funny.
“Hey, Ernie! Have you looked into a mirror lately?”
“Does something smell funny? Why, look! It’s Ernie Bratman!”
Of course, he would try to smile, to pass off the remarks as just another joke at his expense. But inside it hurt, it hurt bad…
Ernest watched as the rest of the world enjoyed another warm summer day without him. On this beautiful Sunday in the park, watching was what he did best, as during those wintry afternoons when, as a child with his nose pressed against the window of his room, he watched the neighborhood kids play in the snow. The younger Ernest would have joined them if he could, but the risk of humiliation was too great. Now at fifteen the boy swore one day he would just utter “fuck it” and take the shot. But today that gamble still wasn’t in Ernest Bratman’s repertoire. He knew the others would make fun, and if Patty Fine laughed too, that might just kill him.
That’s what the boys in school called her, and one look at the young teen queen told you why. Ernest knew the rules, that girls like Patty Fine were never meant for someone like him. And if Patty had known the truth about Ernest’s little ‘problem’… God, the truth was awful.
On so many nights Ernest still was peeing his bed, and despite his father’s lectures and occasional beatings, when morning came the sheets remained damp. The boy understood how difficult it must be for parents to love a kid who regularly pissed in his sleep. His mother never said anything, never even scolded him, but Ernest saw the constant disappointment (or was it disgust?) in her eyes. Who could blame parents for hating a kid who still regularly pissed his sheets? In the mornings he would clean himself, or at least try to, but it seemed the stink remained through the rest of the day no matter how much he scrubbed…down there. Did others at school smell it too?
Lately, Ernest thought a lot about the Fine girl who sat two seats in front of him in Math class, and sometimes, when no one was looking, she smiled at him. Pretty Patty was actually a lot more than pretty, although one front tooth was a little crooked. Somehow that small imperfection made her even prettier.
A day in the park was meant to be fun, but fun was an alien concept to Ernest. Unused to (and uncomfortable with) the company of others, true enjoyment of practically any experience proved elusive. Weeks earlier he had caught a fly near the ball field and, for no special reason, tore off the insect’s wings. He discovered a strange pleasure watching the fly’s futile attempt at wingless flight, and soon more flies met similar fates. Who would care? No one really liked flies anyway, and watching some shit eating insect die wouldn’t matter to anyone.
“Stupid bug,” Ernest often muttered while performing another insect amputation. These moments were among the few when the boy managed the smallest hint of a smile. This was not real happiness, of course, and not really fun either, not the kind that made you feel that life was wonderful. Ernest understood that much. Sharing his suffering with some insignificant insect provided simple satisfaction, maybe mild amusement at best, but it was enough.
…like watching Patty was enough. Ernest could do nothing more than watch her, keeping his distance, of course. Hoping for more was absurd. He never could attract the Patty Fines of the world, that much seemed certain. Probably the girl was nearby in the park, laughing and playing and having a good time with a hundred of her closest friends. Ernest decided to slip away from the picnic area to look for her.
He spotted her near the ball field, tossing around a Frizby with a group of guys (of course!), ripening tits to the wind and bare mid-drifted in cut off shorts. The girl displayed enough milky skin to send any teenaged boy rushing for the Kleenex. Concealed beneath the shade of an old oak, Ernest had a clear view of Patty’s shapely ass, and he would have been content to watch those twin cheeks jiggle long after the last Frizby in existence was tossed.
“Go deep, Patty Cakes!” some putz jock yelled to her. And Patty went deep, all right, making a miraculous catch to a chorus of male cheers. A group of girls watched from the sidelines, whispering among themselves. Ernest guessed the words they shared were tinted green. He would have liked to hear, but he didn’t dare reveal himself. He knew what would follow.
Hey, Ernest! Have you wet your pants lately?
What’s that smell? Why, it’s Ernest Bratman!! And piss!!
Dry off! Dry off!!
Ridiculous, Ernest told himself. Others couldn’t possibly know about his ‘problem.’ It was all in his head, his damp sheets a secret only he knew. Maybe hiding in the shade was stupid. Maybe if he stepped out, if he forced himself into the sunlight. Maybe…
Ernest wished a fly were around.
“Fuck it,” he whispered to no one, and moved closer to the Frizby throwers. He didn’t know what to do standing there alone, and remained fixed in place. No one seemed to realize (or care) that he stood there anyway, and wasn’t that the story of his life? As he watched the disk fly high above him, the yellow Frizby took a boomerang curve in mid-flight and landed at his feet. For a moment he just stared at the plastic saucer, his body frozen.
“Hey! Toss it over here!” one of the jockstraps yelled. Ernest hesitated, then tossed the Frizby, knowing what would follow. Sure enough, the disk didn’t travel very far, landing in the opposite direction from which he had intended. The laughter soon followed. They had outed him!
“Nice throw, Ernie!” someone shouted. “Next time try aiming for the trees!”
More laughter. His face crimson, Ernest forced a smile and braced himself.
“Why, look who it is!” from another gorilla. “That’s young Ernie Bratman, athlete extraordinaire! How ya doin’, Ernie? Anyone ever tell you, you throw like a girl?”
The laughter exploded as others joined in. Ernest’s weak smile faded like melted wax. He wanted to run, but his feet felt cemented to the ground. He noticed Patty Fine whispering something to the guy who had retrieved the Frizby, and for some reason he threw it back to Ernest. He reached for it, but the disk hit him square in the chest, then landed in the dirt. He didn’t pick it up.
“Try again, Ernie! I need a good laugh!”
The chorus began.
“Er-nie! Er-nie!! Er-nie!!!”
These taunts weren’t in his head. These were real, and they were awful. Ernest prepared to turn and run, fuck the humiliation and the tears he felt coming on. But then…
“Leave him alone! Damn you all, just back the hell off!”
Ernest told himself the girl’s words were only in his head, that Patty Fine couldn’t possibly be stepping forward to set things right. But there she was, hands on hips, demanding his antagonists to bug off.
“You guys are morons. I’m not playing anymore.”
Interest in the game ended the moment Patty left the field. One guy called out ,“See ya later, Patty Cakes!” as if the jeers had never happened. She didn’t turn around, didn’t even slow her pace; instead, she headed straight for where Ernest stood.
“Thanks,” Ernest managed to get out, his heart fluttering like a caged bird.
The girl smiled. “Frizby is stupid. I didn’t want to play anyway. Those boys can be mean, but they’re harmless. You okay?”
Ernest nodded like some bobble head doll, but now he did feel okay. And scared to death.
Incredibly, Patty reached for his hand. “Look, I know you’ve been watching me. I’ve seen you in school, and just now I saw you staring. You have been, haven’t you?” Like a man caught with his fly down, Ernest turned crimson. Patty’s smile broadened. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s kind of creepy, but it’s okay. It’s no fun feeling so alone, is it? Come with me. I want to show you something, Ernie.”
He frowned. “Not Ernie. I hate that name. Makes me sound like that gay Sesame Street puppet. Ernest, okay?”
“Like that macho writer Hemingway who killed himself, right?”
Patty laughed. “Okay, Ernest-not-Ernie. Let’s take a walk.” She led him to a dirt path that twisted and disappeared into the woods, her touch sending an electric jolt inside the boy’s pants. Could she see what was happening down there? Ernest considered using his free hand to cover his engorged boyhood but decided that wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t know where Patty was taking him. He didn’t care.
She squeezed his hand. “You like to come to the park, don’t you, Ernest? I’m thinking you do, since you’re here so often, even though you don’t really talk to anyone, do you? I like the park too. Want to know why?”
There seemed only one answer. “The people? I mean, all your friends…”
Patty laughed. “I’m not really much of a people person. I know I seem like I am, but there’s another reason I come here — something I like to do when I’m here. We all have secrets, don’t we. I’d like to share mine with you, if that’s okay.”
Unable to hide his smile, Ernest nodded like a kid who had been asked if he wanted some ice cream. They walked in silence until he heard the rush of the creek near the waterfall. The running water spilling over stones sounded almost musical. Birdsong and butterflies made the area seem almost enchanted as if they were in some Disney movie.
Patty stood near the creek. Removing her sneakers, she wiggled her toes in the water. “I really love this place. It’s quiet and empty. There’s no one around, like it belongs just to me. Now I want to share it with you, and I want to share something else. If you listen closely, if you wait a moment, you can hear it.”
Ernest listened. “I don’t–” She put a finger to his lips.
Except for the rush of water, he heard only a lone bullfrog’s croaks, a deep and unpleasant burping sound. Patty touched Ernest’s cheek, a gesture he felt he had no right to experience and one he knew he would remember for a long time.
“People say girls are supposed to be afraid of frogs because they’re slimy and disgusting. But I’m not afraid, Ernest, not at all. Want to see?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer, just waded into the creek. Moving slowly but purposefully, reaching out quickly with both hands, she turned to Ernest and held up the huge squirming frog for him to see. The toad’s legs were kicking like mad, but Patty didn’t flinch as she waded back to the creek’s edge, her smile now showing teeth. “I’ve seen what you do to flies, Ernest. You didn’t know I was watching you near the ball field, but I saw. We share a little secret in common, you and me.”
Ernest felt his mouth go dry. “It was just a fly. It wasn’t as if I–I–”
Patty flashed her crooked toothed smile again, held the frog tighter as it squirmed. “You don’t have to apologize. Really, Ernest, we’re alike. Look, I just want you to watch for a minute while me and Kermit here get acquainted, okay?”
Grasping the frog in one hand and reaching into her jeans pocket with the other, she pulled out a small pen knife, snapping it open with her teeth. Ernest wondered if doing that enough times would have made her front tooth so crooked. The thought came and went with what the girl did next. Sitting on a large rock, Patty studied the squirming creature in her clenched fist. She kissed its mouth as if the frog might, in the next instant, morph itself into a prince.
“You can get warts doing that!” Ernest warned.
The girl paid no mind to him; instead, she started to sing, “Patty cake, Patty cake, baker’s man, Bake me a cake as fast as you—” She twisted the blade of the pen knife before the toad’s face.“…can!”
…and she sliced off both of the the wriggling frog’s legs. It gurgled like some old woman, making the same ugly burping sounds, but they were louder laced with the toad’s agony. The frog was still alive, squirming in Patty’s hand like some croaking balloon animal. Holding the bleeding creature for Ernest to inspect, Patty burst into laughter. Goo the color of dark snot dripped down her wrist.
“Beats hell out of tearing the wings off flies, wouldn’t you say, Ernest? Who likes frogs anyway?” She slammed both hands together, mashing what remained of the mutilated frog’s head and torso between her palms. “See, the trick is to picture this slimy thing as someone I hate. Like the other girls at school, Justin Bieber, or my father…”
“Jesus, Patty! What you did…That’s…That’s just sick!”
Patty only grinned. Tossing the frog’s remains into the creek, the girl watched the ruined creature float toward the waterfall. She picked up the two dismembered legs and held them close to Ernest’s face until he flinched, then she tossed them too. “You’re telling me what’s sick? Look at your shorts, Ernest. You just pissed your pants!”
Patty Fine (Fine Patty!) laughed loudly, and now she was laughing at him! Ernest felt dizzy, and he was wet. He could smell it, and he knew Patty could too. The ground seemed to drop out beneath him, and he almost fell to his knees. Speech came hard.
“You shouldn’t laugh. Patty, what you did was terrible!”
“Tearing the wings off flies is terrible! Pissing in your pants is terrible! No wonder kids make fun of you!”
Dizzy. Really dizzy…
“Don’t laugh. Please, Patty, I don’t like it when you laugh at me.”
Patty’s lips curled and her crooked tooth showed. She seemed incapable of controlling her own hysteria.
“Do you want to cut off my wings too, Ernest? Like one of your flies? Maybe just a finger will do, huh?” She held out the pen knife. “Go ahead. Cut! Do it!”
Pretty Patty didn’t seem so pretty anymore. Ernest looked at the blade shining in the sunlight.
“Are you afraid? Like a little girl scared of a frog? Are you, Ernest. Or should I say ERNIE?”
“Please don’t call me that–”
“Ernie Ernie ERNIE!!”
“Take the knife, then. Show me you’ve got a pair!”
“This is crazy. I can’t–”
“It’s easy, simple as tearing the wings off a fly. Take the knife and cut me! That’s all there is to it! A finger, maybe a thumb. I don’t give a shit!” Patty shoved the pen knife into his hand, waved her fingers before Ernest’s face. “Go for the pinkie. It’s skinnier than that frog’s legs, not much bone there. My fingers are dainty, long and girlie, don’t you think? Easy to slice! Here, let me help…” She forced the blade in Ernest’s hand, guided it to her pinkie finger. The knife drew a thin stream of blood at the joint.
He pulled the blade away from the girl’s finger and tossed the knife into the creek. Patty watched it sink into the mud below and broke into more hysterical laughter. “See? I knew you couldn’t do it. There’s just so much ‘crazy’ even someone like you can take.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in.
“Someone like me?”
“Someone no one likes. Someone ugly and creepy, who stalks and watches girls when he knows he shouldn’t, who enjoys killing flies and pisses his pants when he’s scared. Is that someone you know, Ernie? Someone you know really well?”
She had set him up, Patty and her Frizby tossing pals. Now she was almost laughing herself sick, her taunts worse than anything her jockstrapped friends had called him, and Ernest knew that laughter would never stop. It would echo inside his head whenever he saw her, echo even in his dreams — dreams that were wet, but not in a good way. Patty Fine wasn’t fine at all, and for the first time he hated her snaggle toothed smile.
(Patty, don’t…please don’t…please…)
The world went purple. His hands acting apart from his brain, Ernest didn’t know what internal demon caused him to push the girl into the creek. It seemed someone else had done it, that he merely watched it happen. Patty tumbled backward into the rushing water, but the creek was shallow and she tried getting to her feet. Ernest found a small rock, hit the girl’s head once, twice. She staggered, but remained on her knees. The third bash struck her squarely in the forehead. Ernest heard her skull crack and Patty went down, a small pool of her own blood staining the clear creek water. She floated toward the waterfall like some discarded doll. Going over the edge, the girl with the crooked tooth disappeared.
Ernest dropped the dripping rock into the creek. He stood, watching the rushing water spill over the falls. Freckles of blood dotted his hand and wrist, and he let the cold water run over them to wash himself clean. His brain seemed emptied of thought. Or maybe it had short circuited having too many thoughts, having too much to comprehend. Unable to move or think, he stood knee deep in the water.
Another bullfrog croaked. This one seemed louder than the one earlier, and Ernest spotted it reposed on a rock not far from where he stood. The frog was a big mother, much bigger than the other one, and he waited before moving slowly toward it.
He grabbed it, the frog gurgling for breath in his grasp. Watching the toad’s wriggling legs, he wondered if maybe, in his bare hands, he might be able to…
(The trick is to picture this slimy thing as someone I hate…)
Feeling better, Ernest smiled. He held the frog close to his face, kissed its mouth. He could care less about warts, Pretty Patty, or anything else.
The frog’s legs did a mad dance. Grabbing a firm hold of them, Ernest’s grin spread.
“Patty cake, Patty cake…”