As Florida's version of winter approached, Walter Bosewicz was in a serious slump. In coarse terms, he wasn't getting any. He hadn't been with a woman since June. He'd only been with three women in the past two years and one of those was a transgender person. The life of hedonism he'd planned after two marriages of sparsely rationed missionary intercourse had clearly lost momentum. After selling the last independent pharmacy in North Jacksonville, Florida, he'd paid off his back child-support and then chosen a less-than-luxurious mobile home park on the Gulf Coast. He banked the balance of his capital gain toward all those venal pleasures he'd imagined he'd been missing.
It wasn't just for the sex; Walter wasn't above paying for that. But some sort of unfamiliar, he hated to call it loneliness, was setting in. He found, after a lengthy silence, that he had actually enjoyed talking with women. Well, he enjoyed the way they seemed to listen to him. Yes, and he'd even come to miss their much prized cuddling. These finesses did not top the list of his needs, but he accepted that they had their place if one expected reciprocation.
From the first day he'd moved into the park, Walt's profligate lifestyle had set him apart. Perhaps it began with his '86 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham (canary yellow), Beggar's Banquet thudding from the sound system. He'd crawled over the speed bumps, trying to obey the 5 mph limit as Mick growled pleased to meat-chew; hope you guessed my nameÉ Maybe it was the kegger house-warming with Wanda Fowles and her biker friends. Then, inviting Merry Braniff to become his live-in (she was way under the mandatory 50 years-of-age) did nothing to warm the chill between Walt and his new neighbors. She'd been a prostitute in Tampa and was still a crack cocaine enthusiast. She had probably offered her services to a few of the more ambulatory duffers in the park. When Merry split during a hurricane evacuation, Walt began entertaining Milly, who's Adam's apple and biceps could not be long hidden. She couldn't do anything about her man-hands and Walt told her that those lace fashion gloves looked ridiculous in the humidity. "Save 'em for your deb ball." They were some big hands, but among the softest he'd ever touched, he assured her. When the health insurance for her transition was approved, she moved down to Miami to live near the hospital. Walt hadn't heard from her since. He told himself that he might be too big for her now. Well, he'd read online that that could be a concern.
His sense of estrangement grew after Thanksgiving. No quantity of alcohol and recreational drugs seemed to cheer the season. Two weeks before Christmas, he strolled down to the Community Building, telling himself it was just to pay his lot fee early. Then he wandered past the front desk and into the Dining Room. There were five or six women at one of the long lunch tables doing some kind of craft. They paused, scissors poised, to eye him with apprehension as he studied the community bulletin board.
"Can we help you, Mr. Bosewicz?"
He thought the woman's name was Myrna, one of those names no one gives a kid anymore. She was from three lots west of him. Her husband was one of the golf fanatics, a little oxygen tank hanging over one shoulder. Must slow up his back-swing nicely, Walt always thought.
"Just looking around. Never been in here." Now he saw the photos, scattered on the table like autumn leaves up north. Scrap-bookers. He'd heard about this.
"There's a Christmas pot-luck, you may have noticed. If you don't have plans," Myrna told him.
He turned back to the cork board and almost missed the frowns shot at Myrna by her friends.
A pencil dangled from a sign-up sheet. The Association would provide a ham and turkey. That came out of his Association fee, after all. Bosewicz faced the group again. "Hmmm. I can always eat. Real turkey or loaf?"
"Real turkey, of course," one of the other women sniffed. "Probably two."
Walt smiled and winked at the hospitable one. "Is the pool open?" He pulled the sliding glass door which gave onto the patio deck.
"Always," Myrna said. "The water has cooled off though."
Walt resisted, with every fiber of his being, the impulse to make a shrinkage quip. He stepped out onto the redwood then eased the glass shut. Maybe he could get along with these good citizens. It was coming to that or he'd have to get one of those little yapping dogs most of them owned. Walking the loop, he'd overheard many conversations involving only one human participant and a puzzled mutt. Cats were less work but you couldn't put one on a leash to prevent it becoming gator-food in the jungle beyond the chain-link.
The wood looked faded. Wind swirled a few dried palm fronds in one corner of the privacy fence. That maintenance guy should lift his ass off the big mower now that the grass had slowed. Apply some oil. The Jacuzzi gurgled pleasantly next to the azure kidney of the pool. That might feel just right. Soothe his poor blue-balls. If the weather stayed cool he could probably climb in there alone. See, though? That attitude won't ever get you laid, he scolded himself. Well, but he didn't want to look at a lot of sagging flesh just to sit in those caressing bubbles. Maybe they didn't want to either, though he had the decency to stretch his battle-scars over a 6-2 frame. Raw boned, he'd heard his physique described. But, might be best to encounter these folks fully clothed at first.
Then Walt recalled that the ugliness wasn't merely in their old bodies. He sat down carefully on a chaise lounge to think. When they'd all come back from the most recent hurricane evacuation, he had to speak with the cops and fill out a report. The residents must have enjoyed that, laughing and speculating amid the damage. He saw faces in windows. Was it Wanda or Merry who'd appropriated his computer, HD big-screen, even the AC unit from its slab behind the back bedroom? A few months later, someone must have seen Milly leaving one early morning. One indignant Christian had spray-painted Fudgepacker on a piece of his lawn furniture. He went back into the Common Room. It couldn't have been all of them, could it? People weren't universally cruel were they? More importantly, there were still single women in the park.
"So what constitutes a dish-to-pass?" He inquired of the scrap-bookers. "I'm not much of a cook."
Again, it was the one he believed to be Myrna who responded. "That's fine. You aren't the only bachelor in the park, Mr. Bosewicz. We see plenty of deli cartons."
Walt took up the pencil to add his name. "I can't really say what I'll bring. Guess I'll have to go shopping."
Now another lady looked up from her fancy pages and mounting stickers. "I should tell you there are already plenty of deserts signed up. I counted five pies and two sheet cakes."
Walt headed for the door. "OK. The deli section it is. Some kinda salad." He caught the exchange of furtive glances around the table. "Ya'll have a nice day, now. Stay warm in the tropics." They probably wouldn't understand the term frosty. At least in the way he would have used it.
A few days later, Bosewicz decorated for the Holidays. It was the first time in the nearly three years since moving in. There wasn't much--not like some other units. But there was only so much any of them could do on the little plots. How many hips and backs, Walt mused, had gone into surgery after dragging plastic Santas and reindeer up onto the carports?
He unpacked an old ceramic Christmas tree from the guest-room which doubled as a storage unit. Wife number one had failed to smash this little heirloom. After surviving at least one yard sale, it had been swathed in old newsprint for years. The tiny bulbs on the enameled boughs lit up in his bay-window. Walt stood behind an angle of curtain to watch the parade of walkers after dinner hour. Even in the dim light of the park's streetlamps he caught a few ladies doing a double-take at the unexpected display. Next morning, he invested in a wreath of plastic holly. The thing-a-ma-jig securing it over the top of his front door rattled three tinny jingle-bells.
Then, on the morning of Christmas Eve, the Cadillac wouldn't start. You had to run these old classics every few days in this climate. Walt had no jumper cables and didn't feel like waiting for AAA. He cursed only once, then remembered his wobbly three-speed bicycle. It was hanging in the storage shed at the back of his carport. He hadn't been in there lately so carried his little sawed-off .12 gauge in one hand. He wriggled a key into the padlock. No varmints slithered for cover when he pulled the chain for the overhead bulb. He lowered the bike to the floor. The tires weren't flat so he pushed her out. After sliding the shot-gun back under his bed, he returned to the guest-room. He lifted an old backpack out of the closet--his stash. In order to use it, he had to re-hide about twenty pill bottles and three baggies of weed.
Now Walt's stomach growled and he realized he'd skipped breakfast. Wasn't the first rule of grocery shopping not to go while you're hungry? He couldn't carry many purchases in the backpack anyway, but thought he ought to have some nutrition first. He popped the cap on a bottle of Red Stripe, took a swig to wash down a vicodin. That should take the edge off his appetite. The Publix was going to be mobbed with geriatric shoppers trying to score the last ham or turkey breast. He hadn't been on the bike since the move, but after a second Red Stripe, he was ready to ride.
It was less than half-a-mile up to the main intersection of Homosassa. The Publix was right there in its own plaza. Bosewicz peddled past the Community Building and out the gate. He hugged the edge of Halls River Rd. There was almost no shoulder. He didn't want to get off course into the tall vegetation. Those things that slithered were everywhere in this region; any place not covered with asphalt. He had run over a few with the Caddy just along here.
He parked in the Publix bike rack. There were two other bikes. Neither of them had a lock and he'd forgotten his. He'd just have to call a cab if the thing disappeared.
Inside, the place was as frantic as it could be, with so many of the customers inching along on canes. Some blocked the aisles with handicap scooters. Ghosts of his own Christmas future. He picked up a hand-basket then bobbed and weaved to the deli in the back of the store. He took a number and tried to check out all the concoctions over the press of bodies.
There was so much to choose from in the display case. The so-called Mediterranean salad caught his eye. Big fat olives in various shades. Kalamatas and chunks of feta cheese. Maybe a pound of that. Bet Jesus consumed beau coup of olives in His day. Those and salt about the only condiments. Well, garlic. This stuff was sure pricey enough. He hoped the others at dinner would be impressed.
When his number was called, one of the kids behind the cases weighed out the Mediterranean.
"This is a little over," the young guy eyed the scale through hipster glasses, his wide spoon ready to scoop out the excess.
"Not a problem." Then Walt spotted the crab salad. Key West crab salad, sitting on a bed of crushed ice. How about that? He loved Key West. Pink meat and multi-colored pasta, speckles of spice. "Is this crab-salad fresh?"
The kid tore off a price sticker and pushed a lid onto the carton. "Fresh out of the locker this morning. Pretty frickin' cold in there."
"Yeah?" Walt had tried crab salad before from a restaurant buffet, by mistake. Or, he'd been severely impaired. He hadn't smelled anything and couldn't remember what he thought it was. Turkey? Tuna? Didn't smell fishy at all. The meat was sweet when he tasted it, but he knew it was seafood. He didn't finish the dab on his plate. Bar shrimp, breaded and deep-fried, was more his speed. "Pretty expensive. What the hell, it's the holidays, right? Gimme a pound-and-a-half. I'm holding you up."
"Hey, it's not that expensive." The kid laughed.
Walt was momentarily confused, the vicodin now doing a clumsy soft-shoe in his blood-stream with the alcohol. "Oh, nah. I meantÉI'm unarmed." He held up both hands. "But, heyÉand if it's not too much trouble, could youÉ?"
"Whatever you need. You waited your turn." The young man's face reappeared in the case with a fresh, dripping spoon.
"How about some of thoseÉwhatever that is around the edge there. Those garnishesÉCan I get a few of those?" It had to be just water, he thought. Dripping off that spoon. Kid has to rinse it between orders.
"Sure. They're all yours. This tub's about empty anyway." The spoon flashed, the ice glinted fluorescent. Scoop, scoop, done. "I think it's parsley."
"Parsley," Walt repeated. "Thanks." He watched the kid smooth a price sticker onto the second carton. He put them in the basket and turned to get his bearings. Suddenly hungry, he decided to make a pass through the chip aisle.
The ride home was much slower. He tried to sit up straight so the back-pack wouldn't squeeze his purchases. The front tire wandered into the rough a few times. He didn't look down. He heard the bag of taco chips compressing. Chili-lime. Sounded good. Everything sounded good now. Eat the hell out the Med salad with the fugging chips. Then the bike wobbled too far into the road. A motorist had to ease around him, crowding the center line. No angry horn, though; goodwill toward men probably in force for a few more days.
Walt left the bike on its kick-stand next to the Caddy and went straight in to the fridge. He uncapped another beer and split the top of the chip bag. A couple of hours later, after a nap, the salads were still in the bottom of his backpack, leaning against the freezer drawer. They seemed to have stayed chilled in there. It was almost time to light up his little tree. Hey, maybe there'd be carolers. A few more brews and he'd have to join in.
Christmas morning was going to be perfect after Walt had downed enough Gatorade. He remembered taking aspirin before lurching to bed so he must not have been too wasted. But why was he so dry? The sun beyond the car-port sparkled off the dewy asphalt of the drive. Nothing but blue sky above the jungle. Not for the first time, he regretted not stockpiling some of the IV apparatus out of the store's inventory. They would have been easier to diddle on the books than any of the pharma he'd made off with. Half of the red liquid was gone in a single tilt when the phone rang.
Walt's daughter Michelle, by wife number one, was just making sure he was alive. "You're not drinking alone are you? C'mon, it's the Holidays!"
"Oh, uhh, no, hon. I'll wander down to the pot-luck later."
Then she wanted to know about his love-life, though he'd always kept details of the girlfriends vague. "Aren't you seeing anyone?"
"Nope. Haven't heard from Merry, lately. Milly either."
"That was the transgender one, right?" Michelle asked. "I never blabbed that to Mom, by the way."
"Well, I'm in your debt, darlin'. Yeah, that was her. You can breathe easy. She didn't even use me as an emergency contact."
"Did you get my card, at least?" Michelle asked.
"Yeah, sweetie. Hey, I got four, counting my insurance agent. You get mine OK?"
She thanked him for the hundred bucks. "You shouldn't have."
"It wasn't much. I used to do a lot better, butÉFixed income, right? I've got one for Max, too, but his old number doesn't work. I'm not sending it by way of his mother."
"So you haven't heard from him?"
"No, hon. I guess he's still nursing a grudge about transferring to Gainesville. Do you have his new number? He can't afford Miami but that wouldn't stop him from getting the newest smart-phone."
Michelle gave him the number and wished him a 'Merry Christmas' again. "He didn't answer me this morning, either. But you should try."
Before ending the call she promised, again, to come for a visit. Maybe during Spring Break. Walt placed his phone on the coffee table and gave it a satisfying spin. That'll be quick as a NASCAR pit-stop, he thought. But this place was pretty much on her route to Panama City where she and her friends usually went. That other spoiled little prick, thoughÉHe stared at Max's new number on the back of a piece of junk mail. Save that for after the big meal. He'd get real passive after a few beers and whatever pills he decided to imbibe. Take all the blame, though Mona could have easily picked up the slack for the kid's tuition.
Walt turned on the much smaller, insurance-funded television from Walmart that had replaced his hurricane loss. He settled on the Christmas B movie of 50s notstalgia that TBS played over and over. He'd love one of those fishnet leg-lamps for his front window. After draining a second Gatorade, he found the channel for the NBA hoops then pressed Last to return to the movie. He slumped onto a throw pillow. Plenty of time to recover before taking a shower.
When Walt awoke with a start. Ralphie was pummeling the neighborhood bully again. How long ago had he spoken to Michelle? He rolled to a seated position and switched to Cleveland vs. Miami. He turned the volume way up because he still hadn't put in his Miracle Ear. The weak-assed shower sure wouldn't drown out the play-by-play.
He languished until the hot water was gone. Draped in an old beach robe, he shaved, tugging back on his emerging turkey wattles with disgust. In the kitchen, he rifled through his cupboards. There were no glass serving bowls still in his possession and only three pieces of mismatched Tupperware. The lid for the biggest one was warped. LeBron was going off against his old team as Walt scraped the crab salad into the bowl. Key West crab salad, by God! He fit a square of heavy-duty foil around the lip.
Bocewicz stared at his remaining beers in the fridge before leaving them there. He had no idea what the drinking situation would be. The day was already dying as he walked toward the Community Building--that winter slant of daylight taking an acute angle into the park's clearing. Somewhere, a few miles away, the sun slid toward its plunge into the Gulf. Twilight evaporated so quickly on this coast.
The heat must be turned up in the place or there were a lot of more bodies. And what a racket--Kenny G on a CD as background for fifty or sixty gabbing voices, The Little Drummer Boy somehow plaintive.
The garble of conversations abated only slightly as he entered the dining room. A few heads turned briefly. He worked his way around those standing with drinks and those already seated at the cafeteria tables.
"Hey, there he is," one old guy called, raising a shot-glass salute. "Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas to you, uhhÉ" Walt replied. With both hands full he bobbed his head in lieu of a handshake. "I'm WaltÉBocewicz.:
"Oh, yeah, sure," the geezer bellowed. "Herb Czyzkowski. Ain't we the coupla Polacks, though?"
Walt forced a snicker. Spirit vapors filled the space between them. This wasn't fair. "Well, I hope you brought your accordion. Mine's in hock."
Walt's new buddy laughed more potent fumes his way. Herb had been in close conference with the golf fanatic Walt's mind had paired with the old gal from the scrapbookers, Myrna. This old boy laughed, too, but quickly ran out of breath.
"Glad you could make it," the man gasped, raising something amber in a whiskey-sour glass. His oxygen tank swung on its shoulder strap. He touched, with the back of his free hand, the clear tubes terminating in his nose. "Merry fuckin' Christmas. I'm Lyle Farnsworth. Myra said you might be comin' outta your shell."
So, it was Myra. Well Myrna was damn close for my fried wiring, Walt thought. "I don't know about that." He shrugged. "Good to get out though. Where should I put this?" He lifted the Tupperware.
Herb led him to the buffet and they found an empty spot. Walt examined the spread. Pleasant odors rose from several foil-covered pans and casseroles--that green-bean concoction in a couple of them. He resisted the impulse to lift the glass lid of a slow-cooker filled with sauerkraut and kielbasa. He'd like to breathe in some of that. He pulled the foil off his Key West salad. Some of these old farts hadn't even bothered transferring their Publix purchases into serving dishes. He counted four of the familiar deli containers, standing together like low-income housing. There were even some Publix Christmas cookies in clear, plastic dividers, the protective seal and lid not yet removed. Walt wondered what Herb had brought.
He found an empty chair at a back table where a few other singles had gravitated. Two women he didn't know sat across from each other. Before he could muster the nerve to introduce himself, Herb arrived and situated himself as a buffer. "Hey, I see you found the wallflower table," he told Walt. Then he turned to the woman on Walt's side. "Have you met Walt Bocewicz?" Herb leaned back so the woman could have a look.
She was about sixty, Walt guessed, maybe late fifties but definitely in good shape. Fit, in jeans and a burgundy satin Christmas blouse, the auburn tint job in her bobbed hair-do accenting it.
"Suzanne Barr, Walt." She offered a well moisturized hand across Herb's lap. Her friend on the opposite side looked away with a flicker of discomfort. "I can't believe we haven't met."
"You probably listened to good advice," Walt said. "It's good to know you now."
"I wish they'd just pray 'n' eat. And turn down that damn music," Herb said, playing with his hearing device
"That thing giving you trouble?" Walt asked.
"Yeah, I've done something to it. Squeals on that bastard's high notes."
Walt realized that he'd left his own Miracle Ear back at the trailer. It might have helped him sort through background noise. But now he had an excuse to lean in close to this Suzanne.
Then Herb's wish was granted as a female voice called for quiet. With many of the celebrants still standing, Walt couldn't see the woman, but some brand of invocation was spoken. He heard the collective amen and the beginning of a chair-scraping stampede for the buffet. Herb and the two women at the singles table rose immediately. A couple of other ancient bachelors on Walt's left also showed newfound animation. Walt hung back, not anxious to use up his limited small-talk in more introductions. The line wound back to the patio doors. He watched the women chatting with each other, pretty much ignoring ol' Herb. Grandkid updates, probably. When the queue had shortened and he moved slowly to the buffet, his new acquaintances were already eating.
Walt took two paper plates to keep his salad separate when he saw others doing it. Get everything in one trip. He loaded on some turkey and dressing, kielbasa and kraut. OK, the green-beans, though the crispy onion ring business on top was mostly gone. On the other plate he piled a tong-full of tossed salad. There wasn't much missing from his own offering and he still wasn't interested either. Now, though, he could smell seafood. The crab? No mistake, it was coming from his bowl and getting stronger. He hadn't noticed it when scraping from the Publix container. Starting to breathe. Was that normal? That was, what, an hour ago? Fuck, was it in another mayonnaise-based sauce? Hadn't appeared to be. Looked more like an oil of some kind. That mayo, now. That could kill you if it wasn't right. Or, make you wishÉBut it was the strong seafood smell that crawled into his olfactory. The mayo wouldn't warn you. He moved on to collect a hard roll and some butter pats. Put some distance.
Suzanne must be a modest eater. Picking daintily as Walt squeezed behind her. A single slab of white meat and a deviled egg on her entre plate. Not much gone. Tossed salad on her second plate, vinegar and oil. Some cherry tomatoes. And the Key West salad, just a dab. She brought a nibble to her mouth as Walt sat down and arranged his plates.
"How is that," he ventured.
"Mmmm," Suzanne replied, chewing.
"I looked at it. Not a big seafood fan," Walt said.
His concern was still building. He'd better not take ownership of the salad for the time being. An image flashed of his backpack leaning against the refrigerator. Always a warm flow of air. Just the motor running? Heat molecules being sucked out? He couldn't remember if his name or initials were on the Tupperware. But at least he couldn't be lumped in with all those other deli delights. Any one of them could be the spawn of salmonella, e-coli, whatever..
"I like tuna, alright. Like from Subway," Walt added, trying to read the woman's expression for pleasure or disgust.
Suzanne swallowed, nibbled some more of her deviled egg, then began sawing at the turkey. "You're not missing anything. The crab is alright. Not sure about the stuffing in that egg."
There ya go, Walt thought. Could be anything. Should he say something, though, or wait it out? His hung-over imagination was giving him some kind of panic attack. He'd filled plenty of scripts but had never experienced one, personally. The woman was already forking up more crab, eating only the crab. Where would the mayo be hiding? In the pasta, right? Jesus, but he had to quit staring. He sliced a chunk of the kielbasa and chewed slowly, unable to enjoy it. He munched into the crusty roll. What was he supposed to do at this point? Run around knocking forks out of hands? brushing plates to the floor? That would add to his popularity. The place was a solid wall of noise now, volume turned up on all the dinner conversations. All those dentures yakking, chewing, loosening. He cringed.
"You know, I don't wanta be rude, but," he rose partway, nudging back his chair. "Everything isÉall the grub is wonderful, butÉI nearly forgot. My son is supposed to give me a call around six and I've...," Walt patted his pocket, plausibly searching for a missing cell-phone.
"Oh, my," Suzanne said. She stifled a burp into her napkin. "You don't want to missÉ" The napkin leapt, again, to her lips and she twisted in her chair as if to relieve a cramp.
"Funny, isn't it?" Walt said, shoving his chair under the table. "We got along fine without the damned things all our lives. Now we freak out if it's left behind. The hearing-aid, I don't miss."
"Where you off to, there, switch-hitter," Lyle Farnsworth bellowed from the next table. "You ain't even had desert yet!"
Walt ignored the reference to his time with Milly. Is that what the little adventure made him? He supposed it sounded better than fudgepacker. "I left something back home," he called over his shoulder. "I might be back for pie."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Lyle, leave the man alone," Suzanne hollared above the din of gorging. "It's a family matter. Oh. Oh, my."
Walt did not see her slump back into the folding chair, a hand, sans napkin, rising to clamp over her mouth.
He made his way toward the doors. There were people in the way, folks kibitzing loudly over the shoulders of eaters; conversations unhindered by food in their mouths. As he quickened his pace, a woman pushed aggressively around him. His friend Myra from the scrap-bookers slammed into the Ladies restroom, on hand firmly sealing her mouth.
"For Chrissake," Walt groaned, as he hurried through the office lobby. It would just have to be someone else's dish. That would be his story until a CSI team proved otherwise. Please let it be something else.
The phone number for Max went straight to voice-mail and the voice-mail was full. Walt's heart-rate had begun to slow, even before he grappled a Red Stripe out of the 'fridge and popped the cap. Would he like to leave a call-back number? Would he like to hear the menu again? Yeah, he'd like to hear a menu. He was hungry, now that the dinner was ruined. The bit of sausage and roll hadn't gone very far.
He switched on the television and went back to TBS. The family in the Christmas flick was resorting to Chinese food for the umpteenth time, their turkey destroyed by a pack of stray dogs. Chinese sounded good. Nice of those people to stay open for non-believers and single folks. If he wanted to drive up to Crystal River. Then he remembered the dead battery in the Caddy.
There were pies back at the Community Building, and sheet cake, if he had enough balls to go back. Whoever got food poisoning from a store-bought pie? Why hadn't he just kept it simple? A cheap pie, or even a lame cookie tray? He just had to show off, like a teenager, with the most expensive thing he could find, for some menopausal cougars who wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire. But, the more he thought about itÉ.His mouth was actually watering. There should be all kinds of goodies left now. If he made safe choices for a change. He should try to find out if he'd be evicted from the park. Or, even arrested. Walt thrust his arms into a light jacket and snagged the last two beers, their cold necks between his arthritic knuckles.
The dining room had cooled off considerably. Someone had wedged the pool door open. The first thing he saw was the maintenance man hosing off the redwood deck, some cheery colored splatter disbursing under the privacy fence and into the shrubbery. Uh-oh.
"Hey, ya missed all the excitement!" Herb Czyzkowski turned from his cards and poker chips. "Ya got out just in time!"
The old fellow and three peers sat at one end of a dining table. Eight or ten other residents had consolidated for coffee and deserts at the far end. Everyone else had either fled or were done with the festivities.
"What happened?" Walt carried the beers to a refrigerator at the back of the room. He glanced with longing at the diminished leftovers still arranged on the buffet. His crab salad remained while all of the Publix containers were gone.
"Buncha folks come down with some kinda intestinal distress. They hadda drive Lyle up to the ER. You didn't eat any deviled eggs, did ya?"
Walt sipped with restraint the warming beer in his hand. "No, I didn't. Guess I lucked out. Hope everyone's OK."
"Gimme two cards, Fred," Herb told the dealer. "It was them eggs or maybe the store-bought coleslaw. They get them cabbages from Mexico. You don't know if they been rinsed proper or what. You get in touch with your son?"
Walt angled closer to the buffet table. The crock-pot of kielbasa and kraut was still plugged in. There was one last baking dish with a few scoops of green-bean casserole left. The long wicker bread-basket was empty. "Yup. Yeah, we had a nice chat," he lied. "HeÉhe had a chance to go skiing up north with some classmates. Stowe. Couldn't turn that down."
"Brrrrrr." Herb mimed shivering, his poker hand clutched to his chest. "Not for me." He then began a snarling coughing jag, sympathetic to the notion of harsh northern climes. This required him to lay the cards flat on the table, turn away, and cover his mouth with both hands.
Herb on skis. Now there was a troubling image. But it couldn't distract Walt from his growling stomach. "So, the rest of this stuff has been cleared for consumption?"
Herb caught his breath. "Nah, now I didn't say that," he wheezed, eyes watering. "Ya pay's yer money, ya takes yer chances."
"It's OK, for Chissake." Opposite Herb, the portly dealer, Fred, now turned toward the buffet. "All that store-bought garbage and them eggs got dumped. You'll be fine."
Walt set his beer down. He peeled back the saran-wrap from three surviving wedges of lemon meringue pie. He bent close to the tin pan, inhaling the citrus tang. The white topping had begun to settle or maybe melt into the cuts. Smelled alright. Smelled like ambrosia. "I believe I will risk some of this."
The stack of holiday paper plates remained but someone had taken the pie-lifter. He chose a plastic fork out of the tray.
"You're a better man than I, Gunga Din." Herb said in a passable English accent. He laughed and coughed some more, tossing two chips into the kitty. "I'll see that and raise ya one."
Oh, don't sell yourself short, old-timer, Walt thought. The wedge of pie came up in one perfect piece.
© Chris Dungey