Ear

            The new woman had probably walked a lap around the park before Walter Bosewicz noticed her. It was a half-mile around the horseshoe of doublewides with a few transient motorhomes at the back. She walked two more before he mumbled, "Welcome to paradise." Walter was a morning walker, usually with a large coffee or an eye-opener in a long-neck, depending. So, he just had to measure it. It took three circuits in the  fading yellow Cadillac Fleetwood 'til he was sure. Well, and now his second oxy of the evening was kicking in, dissolving in his third Red Stripe, so his mind was drifting anyway. Maybe he missed her the first time around.

            So that was her. He'd seen some of the other codgers helping her unload the U-Haul. Walter congratulated himself that he hadn't thought fresh meat. Always seemed like a stupid label. You had to be fifty to live in Gulf Breeze Village. He knew of some old widowers and divorcees with much younger girlfriends. But you wouldn't find those names on the leases. And they usually turned out to be trouble. Testify! Walt thought. His gaze wandered to the empty concrete slab behind his modular home where the big Trane AC no longer hummed. He was pretty sure Wanda Fowles confiscated that last summer while all the hurricanes were marching through. Or, her new boyfriend did. They must have brought in a fork-lift. He wasn't evacuating next time. The new woman smiled when she came around again. Walt tried to do the mathÉhow many months it had been.

            He winked as she continued on her way. He was situated, shirtless, on a lounger just outside his carport. He stirred the coals in his tripod fire pit. The temperature was hanging in at a humid 85 as dusk descended. The warmest day of spring so far, but he liked a fire to keep the bugs away. This one had started with dried-up Sabal palm husks he gathered in the stunted yard. There was a nice piece of round steak thawing in his straining old refrigerator. He intended to throw it on the grill at some point. For now, he just settled back and waited for the new woman to come around again. He scratched at the damp grey Brillo of his chest. Must remember to set that grill in before adding the steak.

             Walt watched her approach. The sun was disappearing into the jungle which buffered Gulf Breeze Village from occasional storm surges out of the Gulf. His previous live-in, little Merry Braniff, wasn't coming back to Homosassa. Not if she hadn't come back for the Holidays. So, September to Christmas; Christmas up 'til nowÉsix months. Lost in the drug world of Tampa or who-knew-where else. He put in a stag appearance at the New Year's Eve and Super Bowl wakes down at the Clubhouse but wasn't much of a pinochle player. The eligible women were either dowagers lugging oxygen; or, based on a shrillness even he could hear, bossy meat-grinders.

            Wow! What was that already? Five laps? She must be one of those serious walkers, her pace quick even without that silly arm-swinging some of them did. Walt grinned moistly and waggled the Red Stripe, an invitation he quickly regretted. Not the invitation per se, but the signal must seem like that of a hopeless doofus.  Which he wasn't quite, yet. He cursed under his breath when, again, she didn't stop.

            Not a bad looker though, he thought. Short and solid, but a mere slip of a thing on the bell-curve of Gulf Breeze females. Not much chest or hips, either, to speak of. But nice, shoulder length brown hair with gold hoops peeking out, catching the red sunset. The silk kerchief knotted around her neck was an odd fashion touch in this heat. Just the slightest hint of a fleshy roll above her cut-offs.  An old, short-sleeve blouse, clinging damp in spots. She had it knotted above something that glittered in her navel.  No bra. Didn't seem to need it. Sorta junior varsity tits, looked like. Decent shoulders and biceps. Maybe she lifts, too, Walt thought. Cross-training. Hmmm. Cross-something. Now he sat up in time to watch her round the curve up by the Clubhouse. That gait of hers. Like a studied exaggeration ofÉ Well, I'll be damned. No fucking way!

            Walt swung his feet to the ground. Something clunked in his chest like the start of that ol' fight or flight response. But he didn't really care, anymore, what the neighbors thought.  He could always just go indoors.

             Geckos leaped around the base of his palm. The neglected flower bed encircling the trunk should be thinned out before it became a total reptile habitat. How did those decorative stones get moved around without a deep frost? The grill that went with his fire pit was propped there. Lay it over the embers when they were just right then go in for that steak. Or, just close the door and not come back out. Close the door and the screen and crank up his two AC window units. She'd come back around and probably take the hint. Maybe used to it. Embarrassment. Hurt. What it must be like in here. So many gossips and old biddies. Minds stuck in 1960. Gossip their favorite recreation after aquacize and the walking. Biddy. Now that was an old word. Stuck in his mind. Hell, he'd had a crack whore living in here for four months. He'd seen enough torches and pitchforks in these people's eyes.

            He rose from the lounge, unfolding his lanky frame. Better put the shirt back on if he was going to entertain. Cover up his own toneless, sagging abs. Today's rag was an old short-sleeve smock salvaged from his sale of the last family owned pharmacy in north Jacksonville. Almost like those surgical scrubs that were a fashion fad for awhile.  Except his were laundered to near translucency. Never thought they were so fashionable. Made him look half-way intelligent, though, behind the high counter. Now he alternated a few of them with some unraveling guyaberras from the flea market south of town. This one was down to two buttons.

            He dumped some charcoal briquettes onto the fire then returned the bag to the laundry room/tool shed at the rear of the car port. Seemed like she should have come back around by now. The new woman (he was pretty certain they insisted on feminine terms, if that was the deal) arrived when his back was turned to finally pick up the grill.

            "Were you offering me a cold one of those? Before?" She pointed at Walt's half-empty beer sitting by the lounger.

            Walt was just turning back, the blackened grill held before him. He heard the voice but missed her gesture. Really low voice. Of course, he thought. But he liked husky female voices, even though he had no use for heavy smokers. Now, if they got that from sipping bourbonÉthat was another matter. But, it didn't matter. He hadn't caught her words or her meaning and realized that he wasn't wearing his tiny, Miracle Ear. "'m sorry? What was that?" He pointed at his head when he meant to point at his ear: "Old rock 'n' roll injury."

            The new woman smiled. A spa towel now hung around her neck. "Are you a musician?"

            "Nah. Hell, no!" Walt dropped the grill onto the flames. His coals were still too high. The grate sat on them instead of on the catches along the rim. "Too many concerts sitting up front." He watched her daub at her face with the towel. Must have stopped off at her place on the last lap.

            "Wasn't it deafening? Especially up by the speaker stacks," she said, louder. "But I thought you were offering me a beer."

            Walt collected his own bottle off the ground and stepped closer, towering over her. He leaned his better right ear down her way for the time being. "I sure was. This weather is finally coming around. I'm Walter, by the way."

            His guest extended her hand: "I'm Milly. The Welcome Wagon has kinda dried up around here and now I've worked up quite a thirst."

            Walt forgot about the char on his fingers and shook her firm grip. Yup. Kinda knuckly. But it wasn't going to keep him from flirting, apparently. He couldn't resist a little squeeze as he released it.  His eyes darted to the shadow of cleavage as Milly bent to towel the taut flesh of her calves. "Let me warn you, Milly," he said, "and it's not a big secret. You'll hear it when I'm not around. I may walk in the morning, but  I'm always  thirsty."

            Milly finished with her legs and redraped the towel. "Well, I prefer the humidity. I love the burn. Would you believe I used to be quite chunky?"

            "No, ma'am, I would not."

            "It's true, Walt. But when you start making life-style changes, sometimes eating habits are the easiest." Now it was her turn to wink. "Where would you like me to sit?"

            Walt watched her place hands on hips. She twisted slowly at the waist. Like a nervous girl about to ask him to dance, he thought. Oh, for chrissake. It's just some kinda stretching. "Let me go in and get us a couple of fresh ones. You go ahead and sit on the lounge. I think I've got another one in the shed."

            First thing he did after lumbering into the house was to find that teensy hearing aid on his night stand. Half the time he forgot to remove it before passing out and then had to sort through the bedding. But, there it was. He blew on it hard in case of dust and it squealed.  Good thing it's not in, he chuckled. He pressed it into his left ear.

            When he came back down the steps, he brought the slab of top round out on a platter covered by a paper plate. He supposed it might be enough to share. "Here ya go, hon." He held out his left hand dangling two Red Stripes beaded with condensation. She carefully removed one so as not to disturb his hold on the other.  He placed the plate on a large cement block next to the fire-pit then raised his bottle. "Bottoms up, Milly."

            She toasted him and took a long chug, the Adam's apple working under the scarf. "That's usually how the trouble starts." She winked again.

            Walt was sipping at the same time and nearly coughed it back. "Let me go find that chair."

            Once he'd positioned the canvas bag-chair, they started to swap personality profiles. Pathologies, Walt thought, out of nowhere. He poked in the fire-pit, leveling out the charcoal while he told Milly about selling the old drug store and paying off his ex-wives. He intended to live modestly so as to enjoy a long retirement of hedonistic pursuits.  Milly centered herself on the leg section of the lounger, her Merrell hiking shoes still planted in the scruffy grass. Her knees languished apart until she suddenly seemed to realize it wasn't very lady-like. She lifted one smooth thigh up onto the other. Walt paused and asked what had brought her to Homosassa.

            Milly began her own recitation in that low, breathy range.  She raised the volume when Walt cocked the enhanced ear toward her. She'd gone to Wayne State for a business degree up there in Detroit. She'd worked in the lower echelon of Accounting for General Motors but didn't rise very fast for some reason. Then she began to experience various epiphanies. With this assertion, she winked again. "Luckily, I had some savings and then they offered a buyout before the bankruptcy."

            "Let me guess," Walt said. "This place looks like the affordable tropics."  

            "That's part of it," she replied. "The best beaches take some driving butÉand for lifestyle stuff too. It's quieter here than up in Royal Oak, but that's not all bad. I'll have to wait and see, keep an open mind."

            Walt sipped. He let his gaze play discreetly between careful eye contact to the cut-offs and back. He did it a few times to form a composite image. Whatever she had under there was well tucked. For some reason, he assumed it was still there. Maybe shriveled by hormones and easy to hide. He'd seen enough tranny porn, though he couldn't say it was his favorite. But then he found himself watching and wondering. Curious, they called it on the websites. "I hear you, hon. There are all kinds in here. They're mostly your good citizen types. Can't judge them by me, that's for sure.  I've sorta pissed in my own well here."

            Milly reached to pat Walt's knee. "Well, I'll bet that's a good story," she laughed. "You'll have to advise me what it takes to get in trouble in Gulf Breeze Village."

            Two women passed. Serious hikers, one pumping her arms like a British bobbie, a heart-rate monitor Velcroed about her left bicep. The second lady wasn't flailing quite so high with small dumbbells in her hands. Their huffing conversations paused with a side-long glance at Walt and his guest. Your damn purse probably weighs more, he thought.

            He waited until they strutted out of earshot. "Or, I could just as easily show you."

            "How's that? What were we saying?"

            "How to piss off the neighbors. I can relate first-hand parables, or I can just show you." Here the oxy and beer produced another wink. Then Walt's eyelid began to flutter with some kind of spasm. Right in the middle of a veiled proposition, too. Nice time for a facial tick. Or a mini-stroke. He rubbed his eye.

            "I enjoy stories and demonstrations." Milly smiled.

            "Oh yeah? Well, no problem then." Was that a blush, Walt wondered? Probably just the heat. "One thing I'd like to know first." And now he was beginning to slur a bit as well. He touched the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. "Will you be trying to avoid trouble? Or inviting it?"

            Milly's own hand flew to touch the earring, then back, self-consciously, Walt thought, to the kerchief.  She drew her shoulders back then exhaled deeply. "Oh. Well. I guess I'm probably going to invite it."

            Walt leaned carefully to catch her words. He was not deterred by the fidgeting. He blinked to test that the rogue eyelid had relaxed. Now he reached to touch her forearm as he spoke. Couldn't remember where he'd read that touching in a non-threatening way while talking signaled sincerity. "Would you like to stay for dinner?"

 

*

 

            They stayed outdoors while the meat sizzled. A hatch of early mosquitoes did well as darkness fell and the yellow street lamps came on around the horseshoe. Walt lit two coils from a moisture warped cardboard sleeve brought out of the shed. They slapped at the occasional keening. Walt reassured Milly that the park ran a pretty decent abatement program from spring until fall.  A light frost now and then made north-central Florida winters pleasant enough outdoors.

            "Rare, or," Walt paused, blanking on the options. "You name it."

            "Then it's probably done." Milly scratched at a fresh welt on her shoulder.

            They both rose when Walt forked the sizeable cut back onto the platter. The insects didn't bother him much. The Deep Woods Off sat right there on the cement block next to the pepper. But sitting out there with the new woman as the hiking gawkers paraded by made him nervous. Should've moved the Caddy and dragged that fire pit into the screened enclosure when the coals were ready.  Now he'd be just as glad to move the party all the way indoors. Glad it was nearly dark. Might be parts of this hook-up he wasn't ready to see just yet.

            Milly followed him around the hood of the Fleetwood and up the steps into the kitchen. He switched on the stove light so he could see to divide the steak. Before he could select a sharp enough knife, his focus shifted to the refrigerator. After a brief scavenger hunt, he announced: "You've got a choice of potato salad, and/or cole slaw. Both from Publix. I should pitch this cottage cheese. Want me to slice a tomato?"

            "Sounds good," Milly said.

            Walt nearly stumbled over her when he turned with the armload of deli containers. She was either peering around him to check out the groceries, or she was about to make the first move. He put everything down on the dinette and nearly lifted her off her feet as he kissed her. It was a good one, too. Lots of tongue--totally deep; all at once and unexpectedly soft. "There are some fat candles in on the coffee table in my den. Wanta eat in there?"

            "Romantic, huh? Sure."

            "Mmmm-hmm."

            Yeah, romantic. And maybe we won't backlight the whole performance in the dining room. The blinds shading the picture window there had recently jammed half-way open due to a chain and pulley malfunction he hadn't yet diagnosed. The candles were just some old junk Merry left behind. They weren't Christmassy so he hadn't messed with them during the Holidays. Their pungency had almost covered the crack stench. Yellow mostly--saffron, was it? And lemon. Still a selection of long-assed bar-b-que lighters she used to burn rocks. Laid out like the curettes of a dental hygienist. Merry liked fires too. "You go ahead through the dining room and light them. I'll see if I can carve this without opening an artery."

            "Well, be careful."

            There was one sharp knife left in the drawer after all. He sliced the meat and then the tomato. He put a dab of everything on the oversized paper plates. These were deluxe ones, printed with designs to look like china or something. He doubled them up in case they had to haggle and saw with the paring knives. "Hope these aren't too tough," he said, placing the plates on the coffee table. He cleared a two-week-old Sunday Tampa Bay Times onto the floor. The three fat candles really lit up den. "I forgot to pound this round steak."

            Milly sliced tentatively, peering close to see what she was trimming. "Seems fine, Walt."

            "I usually work 'em over with a couple of knife points. Best way to tenderize cheap steak."

            "Ahhh, yes," Milly sighed, chewing her first bite. "I haven't had steak in such a long while. I eat a lot of white-meat poultry, so this is wonderful."

            Jesus, Walt thought suddenly. Hope I grabbed the right potato salad. It dawned on him that there might be a carton in there that was older than a few days. He'd made that mistake before and remembered it as a near death experience. Wrong first impression to make. "Is everything else OK?" he asked. She had put down her fork after about three bite of everything.

            "Oh, yes. Absolutely. It's just that...." Now she eased closer to Walt and began to stroke his arm. "If I'm staying very long. I meanÉWell, I don't want to be too full, if you catch my drift."

            Walt continued to chew carefully, but his next swallow went down hard anyway. "Oh, yeah. Right." Well, that was considerate, he thought.

            Milly pushed her face up for another kiss and it was just as good, her hand slipping higher. "Oh my," she whispered, finding him. "Maybe I should visit the little girl's room pretty soon, if you'll point the way."

            Walt wriggled to adjust his swelling tackle. He sat up straight. "Uhh, sure. Just down the hall and the first door on the right. I'll go ahead and clear if you've had enough."

            Milly stood and tugged her cut-offs in a similar manner. Something must need shifting around in there. "Oh, honey. I haven't had nearly enough." She turned and moved toward the bathroom with a bit more emphasis on that hip action.

            Walt probed at his rear teeth with his tongue. Must take his own turn in there before proceeding. A quick floss and gargle. Had a shower after his afternoon nap. Remembered, chuckling to himself,  wondering what was the point.

 

 

*

 

 

            Nothing much was different about it. He threw in a few touches he thought might add to her feminine experience, as he imagined she might imagine it to be. Like leading her by the hand into the bedroom. He couldn't picture gay guys doing that. But then, he'd hardly pictured this. He brought one of the fat candles along, down the hallway of their shadows--one tall, the short one following. Later, when he put the condom on, it was so 'she wouldn't get pregnant.' "That's so sweet," she whispered, her voice thickening even more. "You know just what to say. When I get to know you better, we won't need it."

            Or maybe I'll have to wear two, Walt thought. When he'd stretched out, she immediately climbed into the 69 position. He wasn't sure what he could manage, but wasn't ready to fully reciprocate, to take her "clit" as she called it, into his mouth. She soon had her own hand around it, anyway. Before he could chance a look, really. He closed his eyes and lapped around without actually probing into her. Nothing tasted too bad. He thought he heard a whimper of pleasure but wasn't sure. He noises were directed away, toward the strange coupling silhouettes they made on the wall. When he was afraid he might soon go off, he warned her, probably louder than he intended. She raised up and crawled toward the shadows.

            Even the reverse cowgirl position she assumed was no different that Merry's favorite. Her motivation, though, was to hit her pipe at the critical moment with dropping burning embers of various substances on him. As Milly settled herself, he heard no exclamations of pain, pleasure or otherwise. All she said was," Please put your hands on my hips, baby."

            She set a slow pace, like most of them. Walt knew he was bigger than average but never thought much about it--about being a discomfort to anyone. Still, he understood that he was in forgotten territory here; of tightness, pressure. It was all working against his control. He wasn't going to last very long. Maybe by her design. He wouldn't want that thing up in him for very long, either.

            He didn't notice any sort of disagreeable odor, or even the musk he was used to. He'd done this with women on rare occasion. He didn't remember it ever being a deterrence. There was the latex scent of the condom. And some sort of botanical fragrance in the personal lubricant she must have used. Did she use a douche, maybe, when she stopped for that towel? Did they do that? Something to think about as a distraction though his finish was becoming inevitable.

            Walt unsquinched his eyes to watch her slow rise and fall. Purposeful, and now using all of him. She was doing something to herself, her elbow flailing. but he couldn't hear her. Not a peep or a moan. He used to have an ear for his partner's approaching climax. Now, not so much. Was that tiny battery dead? from leaving it on all night? "Milly. Milly!" He gasped. She didn't look back or slow her rhythm, even as he clutched her hips. He hoped the condom could take the stress as he lurched into her. His head lifted from the pillow as if he was doing a crunch. Milly's shoulders flexed and then they were both falling backward.

            They came to rest at angles and she didn't pull off of him right away. Now he caught a whiff of semen as her hand lay on his abdomen. With one sense faltering, was he now to be blessed with acute compensations in another? Well, not that terrible so far. Just as soon be able to hear everything.

            His head buzzed softly now. Reason for the name. No trouble hearing it. Plenty warm in the bedroom, too. Needed another window unit comfort of rare visitors. Insurance company screwed him over the Trane. Too old or not properly anchored. Some shit. He didn't remember separating from Milly. Just came-to from dozing and there she was spooned up against him. Been awhile since anything like that. Sorta nice, though. Screw 'em all. He needed that and might need it again. He pinched out the dead Miracle Ear and dumped it onto the night stand like a Monopoly die. He took a pull off a tepid Red Stripe she must have brought in after a trip to the can. He put it back on the night stand before his brain was once again swallowed in humming cotton. 

 

 

*

 

 

            So then he didn't hear Milly finally dress and leave. Didn't hear her huff out the sputtering candle. All she had to do was make it to the dining room where the street lamp got in. And he didn't hear his vigilante neighbors, the aerosol spray can hissing like something out of their jungle. Not even the rattle of warning, unless they shook it somewhere else. They knew he'd find their artwork before his morning walk. Alone, with another frosty one for breakfast while the Mr. Coffee spat and drooled. Already on the outside of two aspirin, he actually chuckled. Gave it up to the poor assholes, wondering who came up with the concept. A bra, looking like one of the many available granny sizes, filled out with two grapefruit halves and draped across the lounger's backrest. Fudgepacker in traffic-cone orange script across the green, nylon webbing. Nice flourish underling the word. Someone a baseball fan.

            Walt tipped the beer, shook his head, and then set out. Pitch that whole mess in the trash when he was done. Needed to start going longer. Starting today. Then maybe a few sit-ups, for Chrissake. Make a list. Another AC. The birds would be making a racket out in the mangroves and Spanish moss. Or, so he supposed. Better look into a battery for that damn ear bud, too. Put that at the top.

© Chris Dungey

Bio:  This is a sequel to "Eye," published a few years ago by paperskinglassbone. I'm currently working on "Nose," so you can see where I'm going with this. I liked the character but don't know how I'll approach 'throat.' As for me: retired auto worker in MI. Feed two wood-stoves, ride mountain bike, watch much English football and MLS, camp at sports-car races, spend too much time in Starbucks. More than 55 story credits. So far in 2015 at Icarus Down and Aethlon: Journal of Sports Literature. Forthcoming in Noctua, Amaranth Review, and Ragazine. Hope you enjoy this one.