He was a wee porky man who waddled slightly when he walked. His pale blue eyes would twinkle with mild confusion when we stopped to stand on the cliffs of Moher or wound round the Ring of Kerry. A single man traveling alone, he was the pet of the tour, harmless enough for the women to mother and the men to tease. When we left the hotel at Cork, he missed the bus, but no one noticed he was not on board. An hour later, on a narrow country road, we heard the horn from a taxi behind us. When the bus pulled over, the little car went round and stopped in front. With considerable effort, he levered himself out; everyone laughed when they realized he wasn't on the bus, and applauded when he climbed in. He grinned and blushed, but he didn't say much the rest of the day.
During one of the heavy pub lunches, I learned he was an Australian cattleman on one of those long vacations that Aussies seem to take, as if to affirm that since they have to travel so far just to get away from home, they might as well make the most of it. Another group of Australians on the bus had been on the road in various countries for two months, which made the one-week tour of the island my wife and I were taking like a Sunday drive.
We were aware of the Australians the first day when the bus pulled away from Dublin heading northwest. Although the tour guide said we were to rotate our seating each day, moving clockwise so we could all sit in different places, the Aussies wanted to stay in the wide row in the back of the bus for the whole trip. Everyone laughed and shrugged, and there in the back they stayed, while the rest of us rotated around them.
Just as we were all settling down, one of the Australians, a middle-aged man with powerful shoulders and thinning black hair, started down the aisle with a boisterous shout that made everyone jump and turn around. "My name is Frank, and I kiss all the ladies,” he said. And with that he lurched down the aisle, leaning over each seat, lips puckered. To maintain the illusion that we were going to be one big happy family, everyone cooperated, with squeals from the women and awkward smiles from the men. When he leaned over me to kiss my wife, who was sitting by the window, I could smell his aftershave. She shyly turned her cheek to him, although he was determinedly aiming for her lips. He caught one young woman in her twenties, with short strawberry blonde hair and an accent that sounded like Tennessee to me, seriously on the mouth. From her blush and embarrassed backhand swipe, I knew she had felt some tongue. The porky fellow was clearly uncomfortable about it all, acting as if he would, if he were used to doing such things, apologize for his countryman's bad manners.
It was my first trip across the waters, as my mother always called it. In fact no one in my family had ever made such a trip, except for my uncle who was stationed in England during World War II. I never felt the need to go before, hated traveling―living out of a suitcase, staying in hotels, eating restaurant food, and being sociable with strangers. I have worked for the post office for thirty years―first as a mailman, then as a window clerk, and finally as a supervisor. Our previous vacations, which weren't very often, were mostly short trips in the Midwest near our Missouri home. However, we did go to Disneyland once when the kids were small.
I kept promising my wife we would travel when I retired, but she was determined to make this Ireland trip now, before we got too old, she said. I didn’t want to think about that.
We were on a bus that went northwest to Donegal, then came back down the coast to Sligo, Galway, Limerick, and from there to Cork and Waterford and back to Dublin. In addition to my wife and me and the Australians, there were two young women from Tennessee, one of whom the sneaky Australian had tongue kissed; a Canadian priest, although we did not know he was a priest until the end of the trip; and an assortment of Americans, Canadians, and Japanese.
We saw so many ruined castles and abbeys that I got sick of the musty smell of them, ate big fried breakfasts of black and white sausage and hard eggs that my cardiologist would never have approved of, and drank lots of dark bitter stout that I grew to like, licking the thick foam off my mustache with pleasure.
One night when we were in Limerick, we went to hear some traditional Irish music and see some local kids dancing in the hotel pub. I drank a couple of pints of stout and was starting to have a pretty good time when my wife said she had a headache and wanted to go to bed. I walked her back to the room but felt restless and not a bit sleepy. "Go on back," she said. "But don't drink too much."
"Well, at least I won't have far to drive home," I said, and went back to the music and the stout.
The two women from Tennessee were sitting at a table with the porky fellow and good old Frank. The strawberry blonde looked up and smiled when I came back in. My wife and I had sat with her and her friend at lunch the day before, and she and I had swapped stories about growing up in the mountains of Appalachia. She was about the age of our oldest daughter, maybe a little older, but not much. I had been thinking about her ever since Frank’s assault on the bus. No matter what my wife says, I am not too old to think about good looking women. But hell, she was awful young, and Frank’s middle-aged slobbering in those pink lips made me feel funny.
I went to the bar, but she waved me over. Frank didn't seem too happy about that, but the porky fellow, whose name was Larry, was friendly enough and, after having a couple of pints, told us all about his ranch in the Outback. Frank was retired from running a hardware store in Sidney and didn't have much exotic to talk about.
You could tell he was itching to get close to the little blonde. Her name was Ronda, and she ran a beauty shop in a small town in East Tennessee. She had a nice smile, a good laugh, and a tight looking little body, like maybe she worked out. Her breasts were small, jutting out against her sweater like those of a teenager. Her friend, Flora, was a junior college student, a big girl with broad hips that she tried to conceal with long dresses. The four of them looked like two couples and I felt like an intruder. But when I tried to leave, Ronda begged me to stay. I guess we made each other feel at home.
Just about then, Frank's wife pushed in from the hotel lobby and crooked her finger at him. He went over and I watched them talk, her with her hands on her hips and he with his hands in the air. Then he waved at us and disappeared. Larry started to nod and acted as if he might go to sleep right there. We walked him back to his room and then I left the girls at their room, where Ronda put her hand on my arm and gave me a little peck on the cheek; the smell of her brought back adolescent memories. When I got into bed, I tried to wake my wife without being too obvious, but she was having none of it. I was too tired to do anything else, so I went to sleep.
The next night we were in Cork and after dinner I went to the hotel pub to have a pint and saw the Tennessee girls sitting alone. I bought a couple of light ales and took them over to them. We talked awhile until Flora said she was sleepy and, with a sneaky smile at Ronda, went to bed. I ordered a couple more pints and we talked some more. She had been living alone for the past three years, first working in a beauty shop and then buying and running her own. I liked her. I had not lived in the South for a long time, and her voice brought back memories of when I was a young man longing for girls who talked just like her. She said that Frank had made a few passes at her, rubbing up against her in crowded tourist shops and trying to get her alone in dark restaurants. She had taken refuge with Larry, who was like a big brother.
On the last night of the tour we were in Waterford in a dark old hotel on the riverfront. When I went for a pint in the hotel pub after dinner, I saw the two girls and the two men from Australia in a dark corner. Frank was leaning intently over the table close to Ronda. She waved at me and I went over. When Frank saw me coming, he pulled himself out of the booth and lurched toward the exit. Larry said, "I better go help him back to his room. He's had one too many tonight." I sat down with the girls and we had a couple of pints.
I kept telling myself that Ronda was young enough to be my daughter, and that was true, but I kept thinking about how firm her flesh must feel. I saw the bartender looking at her, and I knew he was thinking the same thing. When he winked at me, Ronda saw it and smiled. Flora was talking about the classes she was going to take at school in the coming fall. But Ronda had her hand on my thigh. She kept it there until I could feel the heat from it. When we left, she was clinging to me and Flora and I had to help her up the stairs.
At the first landing, she stopped and turned to me and fell in my arms. I could feel her small hard breasts against me and could smell her hair. I held her for a minute but knew there was nothing to do about it and figured we had better get her to her room before I had to carry her, something I was not sure I could do. I left the two of them at their door and went to my own room. My wife was sleeping soundly, but I felt restless. When I reached over to put my hand on her soft breast, she turned on her belly, and that was the end of that.
The next morning after breakfast, while my wife went up to finish packing and I was drinking my coffee, Ronda and Flora, with wide-eyed looks, came in and sat down with me. "Lord, you'll never guess what happened last night," said Flora in a whisper.
Well, nothing, I thought. I was there. Not a thing happened. I shrugged my shoulders. Ronda just shook her head.
“After you left us, Ronda went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and what do you think she found? Tell him, Ronda, tell him," she urged.
Ronda, leaning forward, whispered, “Somebody had been there and had gone to the bathroom in our commode. It smelled awful. And whoever had done it had taken the stuff and had written all sorts of nasty things on the walls. It was everywhere, words like bitch and cunt and fuck you.”
I wasn't sure which got me the most―what the girls found or those words coming out of Ronda’s pink little mouth. The twisted up mixture of disgust and lust was now a familiar feeling for me. I asked what had she done.
"We called the night manager," Flora said. "And he came up and apologized all over the place, saying somebody must have come in off the streets and done it. He said there was no use in calling the Gardai. He gave us another room and a bottle of wine."
Ronda nodded. You could tell that it shook her up and amused her at the same time.
I thought about it all the next day as we rode the bus back to Dublin. I couldn't see how somebody would have come in off the street to do something like that. Why would they? Why did they pick that room? How did they know a couple of women were in it? It didn't make sense. I figured it had to be Frank, mad because Ronda wouldn't give him a tumble. I thought about what he had written and wondered how he could have put his hands in shit to do it.
That afternoon, when we arrived back at our hotel and I came down to check out, Ronda and Flora stood in the lobby waiting for a cab. I motioned to Ronda to come over and told her my suspicions about Frank. She put her hand on my arm and started to say something, but just then Larry waddled by toward his taxi.
As he went out, he gave a swipe to his ass before the door closed behind him. Ronda smiled, shook her head, and leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the lips, just letting her tongue touch my own. She smelled sweet like Magnolia. But I was thinking of the dirty stuff on Larry's fingers as he traced the words about Ronda. The smell lingered in my nostrils until we were well over the Atlantic.
Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He was born and raised in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and taught English at Long Beach for forty years. He has published a half dozen books and a few hundred articles and reviews on his special interest, the short story and currently maintains a blog named Reading the Short Story at may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com He published his first short story, This is Me, in Appalachian Heritage, Summer, 2009.