“Guys, get in here and look at this cat!”

The room slowly fills until six or seven Delta employees are peering into Ernie’s carrier, smiling and cooing. “Have you ever SEEN a cat this big? And isn’t he a sweetie?”

Ernie purrs. He’s been nervous, washing a front paw (Dr. Rick told me this is a stress response) ever since we entered the air cargo office–but the audience calms him right down. He preens. He rolls over and does the “cute kitty airpaw” bit. He rumbles a greeting…and the crowd eats it up.

“What a GREAT cat!” exclaims the manager, “I’ll bet you’re worried about this big guy but we’ll take good care of him.”

I sure hope so. I’m filling out an endless stream of forms (including assurances that Ernie isn’t (1) carrying drugs, (2) an international terrorist bent on poisoning US catnip supplies or (3) a threat to US agriculture–given Ernie’s appetite it’s that last one I’m worried about).

And while I’m writing, I recite Ernie’s life story to the crowd. I lay it on thick.

About Ernie’s bad breaks–his owner going to prison, his fostermama dying and leaving him alone in a dark apartment. How this incredible furry socialite has a golden heart loved by millions, including probably Delta stockholders. Maybe even FAA inspectors, all needing reassurance that he’ll be cared for on the journey. About adorable little Jessie, waiting for Ernie at the end of the road. I give them the URL to Ernie’s Facebook page.

“Doesn’t this cat,” I ask solemnly, “deserve a break?”

They all nod; one lady’s crying. “We’re supposed to take him straight into the back until his flight but…would you like to keep him company instead?” she asks.

erniefly2And so I wait with Ernie up front, petting him through the bars of his carrier while we watch customers come and go.

Counterfolk seem to run in good-cop/bad-cop pairs and the Delta counter is no exception. Dixie tells you why you can’t; Elaine finds a way.

Ernie mugs for Dixie who steadfastly refuses to respond. He grumbles impatiently and she looks up, startled. “Is Ernie…quacking?” she asks, and breaks into a smile. Next thing I know she’s on her knees in front of the cage.

“Do you think he’d like something to eat? I have bacon in my lunch today,” (I explain the no-food travel rule from Dr. Rick). “Let me get him some ice. That way he’ll have water without spilling,” and she fetches a tub of ice cubes that we both pile into Ernie’s waterbowl.

A girl walks in, about 19, red-varnished toenails competing with orange sandals and a hot pink purse. Blonde hair twists casually into the knot on top of her head, and she’s in a hurry. “I left three boxes of fish on your loading dock. For your 12:30 flight to Vernal, Utah. Can I give you the money and go?”

Dixie gives her a once-over. “What’s the confirmation number?” The girl doesn’t know.

“Did you make a reservation? No, the girl says, because they do it every week.

“I doubt that,” scowls Dixie, “I’ve been here every week for ten years and I don’t remember it. And if you don’t have a reservation we don’t know what to charge you. And there IS no 12:30 flight to Vernal, Utah.” Both reach for their phones, and the battle begins.

“Sheila,” complains the girl to her boss on the phone, “This rude lady is making me feel retarded. She says there is no such thing as Vernal, Utah.”

“I didn’t say that,” Dixie snaps from about two feet away. Then, sotto voce into the phone: “Jeeeeez, Frank, this girl is driving me nuts. Do we have ANYthing that gets to Vernal, Utah? Please?”

The girl starts crying. She’s late and her boyfriend will be mad. “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeila! Can you TALK to her? She’s really stupid, Sheila.”

I contemplate suggesting a course in erniefly3effective conflict resolution but doubt it’d be appreciated. Ernie watches with interest.

Finally, Dixie finds a flight. “One stop and your fish will be in Vernal tomorrow. How’s that?”

“Tomorrow?!!?” wails the girl, “The fish will be DEAD!” She slams outside. Ernie watches her go, and rubs against my fingers. I daren’t let him out of the cage, though we’d both like a cuddle.

The phone rings; Elaine answers it. “Salvatore!” she trills, “Are we still on?” They make a date for lunch and she hangs up, beaming. “He’s that guy I told you about,” she tells Dixie, “The Italian professor who rented the condo a couple of times. And took me to dinner.” She winks.

The door crashes open and a woman, about 50, bounces in, trailed by a beer-bellied gentleman in a Billabong t-shirt. “We’re here,” she announces, “to pick up our puppy. From St. Louis. By way of Denver.”

She’s sporting enough breast for six women, as precisely, roundly inflated as basketballs, and most of it’s crammed into a hot pink t-shirt about four sizes too small. She and her breasts are vibrating with excitement, and Elaine smiles. “You have a half hour or so until they unload,” she says kindly.

Her husband grins. “Why don’t you go outside and jog around the block a couple of times, honey?” he says, wiggling his eyebrows, “And I’ll watch.”

erniefly4She giggles and takes his hand. They head outside and through the glass doors I see them kiss.

“Sorry to do this,” says Dixie, “but you’ll want to say your goodbyes to Ernie now. It’s almost time to go.” I reach in to give Ernie a final hug, then Elaine picks up the carrier and takes it into the warehouse.

I watch the door close, thank everyone, and go outside. If I’m gonna cry, I’m gonna do it privately, thank you very much.

Bye, Ernie.

Later I’m having my pre-birthday dinner with Mom and Dad at their favorite Chinese restaurant. The food is trumped by the service, which is fast, friendly and chatty.

Mom and Dad are in here at least once each week and the Chinese ladies that run the place have their orders memorized. Coming here is more like a visit than a dining experience, and my parents glance a bit anxiously at the empty restaurant. “I hope they make expenses today,” Dad says.

We look at the front door, willing someone to come in, and my phone rings. It’s Brenda. “Ernie’s in the car with us now. Jessie took my ID and walked right up to the counter and said, ‘I want Ernie.’ He’s a bit disgruntled, hasn’t stopped talking since we got him, but he looks good.”

And so, finally, Ernie is home. Not a bad birthday present. Thanks all, for all you’ve done to get him there.

P.S. The tale (be thankful I didn’t say “tail”) continues from Brenda’s side of the fence.