From Venus Mons Iliad
Chapter 3: Florida
The old man retired from the fire department. He sold our house to a chiropractor who was going to turn it into an office on a street whose other houses already had been razed for businesses as 1950s commercialism swept into the neighborhood. We moved to a North Florida garage apartment two doors from the ocean. It had none of the charm of houses the matriarch tried to persuade him to buy in St. Augustine or St. Petersburg over a two-year search.
My fourth and fifth-grade years were spent on Greyhound buses and in Florida schools, with brief appearances in Georgia schools where I was treated as an outsider. The matriarch led my mother, brother and me on the long house hunt. We rented apartments, my mother waitressed in Walgreen’s in St. Augustine and legendary Webb’s City in St. Pete, to supplement money from home. We got to know a lot of real-estate men. Orlando was a bust; a sudden polio outbreak threatened quarantine before we found an apartment. The matriarch instantly got us out of there on the first bus. I remember a sick fear as if the very air was contaminated with the dread sickness.
Winter in St. Augustine, the landlady had to clean our oil heater, complained kids burning stuff clogged it. The matriarch fished in the boiler with a poker and produced twisted half-melted condoms — I thought they were toy balloons — and said sarcastically:“Kids didn’t do this.” She explained later, another fragment of sex data. I read Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s story seared my brain with poor simple Lenny, led fatally astray by a seductive woman. The matriarch used Lenny as a teaching moment, warning darkly that could be my fate if scheming females got hold of me.
St. Petersburg’s endless sunny weather was next. The afternoon paper was free when it rained. Real estate men carried grocery sacks to fill with oranges and grapefruit from orchards doomed by new subdivisions. My mother’s waitress friends called Central Avenue Rigor Mortis Boulevard for decrepit Yankee retirees. I broke a collarbone playing baseball and lost a Little League season, but discovered my mother’s paperback romance novels in a drawer. The characters engaged in more sex — not graphically — than most 1950s books. Reading, I saw plain as day the naked-sex snapshots my corrupted classmate showed me. The confluence of words and images stirred something wild and hot in my blood: men and women having sex, loving and losing and finding each other again. It fueled a rebellious yearning to defy the matriarch’s warnings if I got a chance. Not that I ever told her.
The old man traveled to each city to examine houses selected — disapproved them all. Then sale of our home closed. He took the matriarch on a plane ride to North Florida into the teeth of a hurricane, Howling Hazel. Came back and said start packing.
We settled into a palm-shaded beach neighborhood where raw sexual energy blossomed like oleander under the Florida sun. There was the Jewish liquor wholesaler whose oceanfront house hosted perpetual parties. The hard-drinking radio exec with the horny nurse wife the old man fixed up. The nubile teen across the lane with her boyfriends. And Blondie.
Blondie was quintessential Floridian, a beach dweller and sun lover. She raised Dachshunds instead of children and owned many nice things. She named her dogs for a Broadway show. You could hear Colonel Pickering and Eliza barking as the three of them came up the lane. The Colonel was the only Dachshund I knew of to run off a Doberman that invaded his back yard. Some sausage dog, the Colonel.
Blondie was in her fifties but her breasts were firm and tip-tilty as a girl’s. I knew this because she stood naked in front of her boudoir mirror next door and daily combed her hair the obligatory strokes to keep it beautiful. I had a perfect line of sight from our upstairs bathroom through the branches of a giant palm tree. As I achieved fumbling puberty I admired her body often.
When you saw her clothed in the lane, walking saucily away from you with that cloud of bright gold hair whipping in the sea wind, you’d swear she was a slim young woman. She worked very hard at staying blonde and beautiful. Her fitness regimen was vigorous yard work in shorts and a sleeveless top under the brutal Florida sun. She did all the yard work for a rich lawyer’s oceanfront spread. Waggish neighbors said she did the bed work too, because Mrs. Lawyer was sick all the time. My personal hero was the lawyer’s rake-hell son who seemed to have a bevy of beauties on call. I was too naive to wonder if Blondie doubled down with the son.
The Beaches legend was that she started as an upstairs maid for one of the rich inland families that kept a beach house and worked her way up. Screwed her way up. She spent time as a paid traveling companion for wealthy men who took trips to Miami and Havana and preferred a blonde beautiful traveling companion.
It should not have surprised me Blondie and the matriarch of my family hit it off. Before long they had their heads together telling secrets. She was a Florida embodiment of the expensive older women who visited the matriarch in Georgia. The matriarch said wryly Blondie spent more money on her body than she spent raising four kids and two grand-kids. Their affinity, so like that with the well-dressed perfumed women of her past, confused my teen-age brain. Blondie was Florida sex appeal walking. The matriarch was dried out by the sun and bent from a lifetime of toil. Her friends stopped coming to see her in Florida. Perhaps Blondie reminded her in their absence of her lost flapper youth.
Blondie shared the secrets she knew about anybody on the Beaches worth knowing secrets about. The matriarch told me that’s why nobody in authority troubled her about the stable of young women she groomed to go on the road as she did. Nobody gonna raid that cat-house is the way she put it.
As soon as brief winters ended Blondie hosted one long, continuous yard party I could only compare to the Alabama Tiger’s boat in Travis McGee novels. The matriarch would sarcastically say, “The Ha-Ha Season has started.” Curvaceous young women came and went with hard-drinking city executives and Naval officers. Sex was the social mixer. I understood, but the act itself remained cloaked in mystery. The McGee books had a lot of sex but in indirect language.
The years slipped by in long summers and autumn Northeasters, with occasional hurricanes passing offshore which made great body-surfing in the angry ocean. High school was a largely unpleasant experience. But one day when I was fourteen, Blondie told me she would like a ride on my new motor scooter.
Holy smokes. I had never had a girl on the jump seat. “Then it’s about time,” she said. She was wearing jeans to avoid getting burned by the hot exhaust; she had come prepared. I wished furiously my scooter could magically become a blazing fast BMW cycle like one of my friends had. But no; it putt-putted away at walking speed, then running speed, finally up to thirty mph, absolute top end.
Her long lean legs were snug around my hips. She leaned those often-ogled breasts into me and tightened her work-toned arms around my middle. When we passed plate glass windows and I saw that glorious blonde hair streaming behind while she hugged me, I almost had a religious experience. She rode well, leaning with me on turns. I wished I could ride forever or at least until everybody on the Beaches saw us. When we got back I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“You took me for a ride on your motor scooter,” she said. “It’s only fair I take you for a ride in my MG.” Holy smokes twice. Was there anything cooler than those little MG convertibles? If there was I couldn’t think of it. I clumped behind her trim figure like a plow-boy jumping furrows. She flipped me the keys. “You drive,” she said.
Oh god. How humiliating to admit I had never driven a stick shift. I waited for ridicule. “You drive and I’ll shift,” she said. Back in those dark sexually repressed days before the sixties, I had read movie reviews about celluloid symbolism for sex: Robert Mitchum releasing a stallion into the paddock with a mare while his hooded gaze held the heroine motionless — fade to black. A woman kneeling in front of a seated man playing a saxophone between his legs. That kind of thing. You drive, I shift was a new one. I worked the clutch while her left hand engulfed the short gear lever so close her knuckles rubbed against my right thigh.
She would say “Punch it. Now!” We got into a rhythm. That little MG flew. Having a good-looking woman’s hand rubbing my leg so close to my groin, the spasmodic leaps of the car and her exclamations as I learned the clutch, gave me a painful erection. When we got back, I had to sit for a while before I could climb out without embarrassing myself. Blondie just smiled and said we’ll have to do that again sometime. We never did. But I knew I would never forget that ride.
Some indeterminate time later, the matriarch informed me Blondie requested my overnight presence in her home. One of the Naval fliers had become possessive of one of her resident girls and threatened mayhem if he caught her with someone else. He had to go to sea soon and Blondie feared it would make him desperate. She needed a man around and I was it. She would pay me of course.
“Didn’t say how she would pay.” The matriarch was grinning! For all that she counseled against wiles of teenage girls, she exempted women of a certain age. Said I had to start somewhere — and like the newsboy of family legend, where better than an experienced older woman? If not Blondie, she added, then the cute brunette I would be protecting. I reminded her I was a confirmed coward.
She said I could take my Jimmy Foxx Louisville Slugger in case the guy showed up, but not my shotgun. She didn’t want me to shoot a Navy officer. She didn’t get it that I didn’t know if I was more afraid of the lurking sailor or the sexy women. I don’t know what she told Blondie. There was no ugly confrontation. The brunette went off to Miami with her latest business executive and it was never mentioned again. It would be decades before I understood that marked the first instance in a life-long string of missed opportunities to get laid.