PETER AND THE EAR
Peterson was a wimp. He knew he was a wimp. He had been one his whole life. He had a tall, beanpolish figure, drooping at the shoulders, which made him look like he might blow away at the slightest breeze. He had wimpy hair and wimpy eyes behind glasses that perched atop a wimpy nose peering down past his wimpy chin pathetically, as if it might just drip off his face altogether.
He left his house in Seaford, Long Island, every morning precisely at six o’clock for his job as a clerk at the local video store, wearing his usual outfit: blue polo with “Tom’s Video” on the sleeve, card pinned to breast pocket proclaiming the cheery message “Hi, my name is Peter!”, a pair of cargo shorts, and strap-on sandals, with black socks pulled halfway up his calves.
This particular morning, he left his house at half-past six, with tousled hair, rumpled polo, and one sock falling down, trying to smooth his hair back with sweaty palms, as this was the day he got the chance to display his Employee Picks. This was his least favorite day of the week; he never had much confidence, but on his Employee Picks day, he felt like somebody was judging him, laughing at his choices and his temerity in displaying them.
He stumbled into work twenty minutes late and fumbled through the video stacks in the ten minutes before the store opened, quickly choosing movies and grabbing them off the shelves. Casablanca, Empire Records, Big Fish . . . He hesitated over Back to the Future, worrying that customers would guess that he liked it because he identified with George McFly. There was no time, though, so he shoved his armful of movies onto the shelf taped “Pete’s Picks” and took his place at the checkout counter as his boss (named Henry, not Tom) flipped the yellow sign on the door from “Go home, we’re closed” to “Come in, we’re open.”
The hours passed. Each time a customer looked over the Employee Picks section, Peter felt his throat constrict, imagining sneers and smiles of contempt on their faces, trying to hide the tag on his shirt that singled him out as the idiot who had made such pathetic choices.
Around three o’clock, a girl came in. She was close to Peter’s age, twenty-four perhaps, with long, slender legs and smooth, black hair escaping from where it was pinned loosely to the back of her head, baring her shoulders to the warm spring sun. He found himself staring at the back of her shorts as she walked by and quickly looked away. His eyes were drawn back, however, as she moved closer to the Employee Picks section, and he clenched his hands into fists, praying she wouldn’t look at his. It was directly to his shelf that she was headed, though, and he could feel her contempt, already hear her laughter as she went home to her muscular surfer boyfriend, saying, “I’ve never seen so many bad movies in one place before! That Peter must be a real loser.” But she wasn’t turning away in derision, no, her hand was creeping up, up, past the lower shelves, reaching his, her neatly manicured nails sliding across the backs of DVDs, pulling one out. And then she was moving away, the movie still in her hand.
As she joined the checkout queue, terror gripped him, for he could see that she would end up at his register. His voice cracked as he called out, “Next!” and, sure enough, she came toward him. She placed the movie on the counter. Back to the Future. He raised his eyes to her face, afraid to look, and smiled weakly. She was beautiful, long lashes framing chocolate-colored eyes, a delicate nose sloping down to a perfectly curved mouth, which opened in a smile as she saw his nametag.
“You picked this one, didn’t you? It’s one of my favorites.”
He swallowed; his mouth felt as if it was filled with cotton, all the moisture drained from it by her smile. “Uh, yes, it’s . . . I like to think of myself—I really identify with Marty,” he stammered. “Y’know, the young, handsome guy, likes to have fun . . . ha-ha . . . ”
“Really?” Her eyes widened and then narrowed conspiratorially, sparkling as she leaned forward, making him feel he had been singled out as the one person worthy of hearing her next words. His breath came faster. “My favorite part is when he goes back in time and meets his parents when they’re young. When he’s young, George McFly is so dreamy!”
Peter blinked. Dammit. She went for George? The weak, lame, loser of a father? He was so flustered that besides nearly dropping the film, trying to put it in the bag the wrong way, and almost forgetting to give her change, he even forgot to say, “Have a nice day!”
At five o’clock, their shift ended. Bruce, one of the other clerks, came up to Peter as he was leaving the store.
“Hey, Pete, you know Dave Finley, right?”
“Well, it’s his birthday, and I was thinking of maybe taking him to the bar, buying him a few drinks. Wanna come?”
“Uh, sure.” The idea of going to the bar made him nervous. But after all, why shouldn’t he go? He was a man, wasn’t he? He had a right to go drinking with his friends.
He and Bruce picked up David at his house, and the three sat down in a row at the bar.
“To David!” Bruce cried, raising his first glass of beer.
Peter joined in hesitantly and, after several more glasses, began to regret coming. His head felt as if it was filled with fluff, and his vision seemed to be moving around without him. It was like the entire world was balancing on him, for if he so much as turned his head, the bar would start rocking back and forth. He was vaguely aware of laughter around him, and Bruce’s voice calling to the bartender, asking for something, but not until a shot glass with a slice of lime holding onto the rim was slid in front of him did he realize that Bruce had ordered tequila.
“Well, here goes!” David said.
Peter watched his two friends knock their shots back in unison, then bite their lime slices. He stared at his own glass as they looked at him expectantly. He picked it up and sipped at it. A fiery taste met his gums and slashed its way down his throat. He was expected to drink this?
“Oh, come on, Pete,” his friends laughed.
Oh, God. He swung his head back, pouring the alcohol down his throat. Or trying to. Tequila splashed on his face, making his eyes burn, and as he leaned back, his stool began to tip over. Desperately, he grabbed the edge of the bar, righting himself. He slammed the glass down, spluttering and shaking his head, the lime slice forgotten in the bottom.
Though much of the tequila had ended up on his face rather than in his mouth, the effect was immediate. After another shot, he became quite as enthusiastic as his friends, flinging his arms about and cheering for David.
While he was doing this, a burly man in a leather vest sat down next to him and set a pair of tattooed arms on the bar. As this man called for a drink, Peter’s fingers had the misfortune to slip and his glass flew from his hand, emptying its contents into the burly man’s face before slamming into his nose with a crunch.
The man leaped to his feet and grabbed Peter’s collar, knocking his stool over backward into a staggering group of men on their way out, who, in turn, seized his collar after stumbling into another man’s table, who, in his turn, seized two of their collars. None of them being steady on his feet, the whole crew was flung into the dining area, causing tables to fall over, utensils, plates, and food to fly everywhere, and many angry, drunken men to grab their chairs and join the fight.
The burly man again turned his attention to Peter, seizing him and pushing Bruce and David out into the fray, which then surged forward, engulfing Peter. He soon found himself borne up on top of the mass of thrashing men, his limbs seized and attacked, his collar still held fast by the burly man. As he was pulled toward his attacker, Peter found the only means of defense available to him was his teeth, and, this being so, he opened his mouth and bit the man’s large earlobe. As he did so, he heard the wail of sirens, and the call of “Cops! Cops!” was taken up through the crowd. The men who had been holding him up began, hastily, to make their way to the door, and Peter felt himself falling. As his feet hit the ground with a jolt, he felt his teeth meet through the burly man’s flesh and heard a snarl of pain. He quickly joined the rush for the door, half-aware of the thing remaining in his mouth and the taste of blood.
As he rounded the corner, he realized what it was that was on his tongue. A wave of nausea came over him and he spat furiously, catching the earlobe in his right hand.
He made his way home, through his front door, and onto his faded yellow couch. What to do with the ear? He couldn’t throw it out; it wasn’t his, what if the man wanted it back? Should he just leave it out or wrap it in something? Tinfoil, perhaps. Maybe put it in the freezer. But would that make a difference as to whether doctors could sew it back on?
He sat, staring at it, for a long time. Then he stood up and went into his tiny kitchen, rinsed it and his hands off, took a box of tinfoil out of the cupboard to wrap the earlobe in so it wouldn’t leak blood everywhere, and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth, leaving the earlobe on the counter.
* * *
He was sitting on the couch with a glass of milk when he heard a set of pounding footsteps coming toward his door. He jumped up, knowing it was the burly man coming to claim his earlobe. But as he ran to the kitchen counter, he saw it was bare except for a moldy half-loaf of Pepperidge Farm whole wheat bread. He looked frantically for the tinfoil packet while the footsteps came closer and closer. Finally, the burly man reached the door and tried to bash it down.
“My ear!” a voice boomed. “My ear, you bastard! What’ve you done with my ear?”
Peter ransacked his kitchen, throwing things everywhere, at the same time knowing the ear wasn’t there and he would have to face the man without it . . . Suddenly, there was a crash. Splinters of wood flew everywhere and an enormous, shadowed figure began to make its way toward the kitchen and—
Peter woke with a start, trembling. He flung his blankets away, leaped out of bed, and ran to the kitchen. The earlobe was still there, on the counter, as was the moldy loaf. Peter threw this into the garbage, and, with nothing else to eat for breakfast, he got dressed and headed for work, putting the tinfoil-wrapped ear into a plastic snack bag, and dropping it into a pocket of his cargo shorts.
He had a terrible day, panicking every time the door opened, afraid it would be the burly man, head bandaged, coming to claim the package in Peter’s pocket and perhaps to punish Peter for taking it.
Though the man never came, Peter was in bad shape by the end of the day, jittery, shaking, and barely able to stand. He made his way as fast as he could to the bar, where he thought he might find the man again and return his ear to him.
The bar was almost empty and most of the furniture was gone. Peter made his way to the owner, who stood serving drinks to the few customers there.
“How can I help you, sir?”
“Well . . . ” Peter faltered. “I was wondering . . . the man yesterday. With the tattoos. Who started the fight. Have you seen him today?”
“Never saw him before that and haven’t seen him since.”
Peter made his way home, stopping to pick up a fresh loaf of bread and a prepared frozen dinner for himself. When he got home, he placed the earlobe in the freezer, figuring that at least that way, it wouldn’t rot.
He microwaved his dinner, poured himself a glass of milk, and sat down in front of his TV to watch the news. He half-expected a report on the bar fight, but there was no mention of it, just a recap of the day’s events and the weather forecast. He turned the TV off and went to sleep.
He woke to find the ear floating over him. Only it was now several times larger and had grown arms and legs. It oozed blood from what looked like a decapitated neck. It made no noise, just stood before him accusingly.
* * *
After that, the nightmares got worse. The man would return with guns, knives, machetes, and, on one particular night, a samurai sword. The ear came back as well, still silent, but multiplying and dancing around his head in almost psychedelic dreams.
Peter went back to the bar every day, but the burly man never came and Peter began to fear that the ear would always remain in his freezer, reminding him of what he had done. Eventually, he left his phone number with the bar owner, asking him to call if the man ever returned and asked for his ear back. Then, one night, as the man pointed a .45 at Peter’s head and demanded his ear, Peter found the ear easily, lying in his freezer. As he was about to take it out, though, he stopped. Why should he give it back? After all, he had bitten it off fairly. He had a right to it. He closed the freezer and turned to the man.
* * *
About a month after the fight, Peter was at work. It was his Employee Picks day, but instead of feeling nervous every time someone approached his shelf, he dared them to disagree with his choices. If they didn’t like his taste, they could watch other movies. Bad movies. They would regret ignoring him.
As he was thinking about this, the same girl came in. She walked over to him and placed Back to the Future on the counter.
“I’d like to return this. I think it’s overdue.” She smiled ruefully.
He took the DVD and scanned it in, flickered his fingers across the keyboard, and pressed the “Enter” button with a flourish. A message blinked on the computer screen and he looked at her conspiratorially.
“Not anymore. We have a policy here—no fees for special guests.”
She laughed. “Thanks.”
As she began to move away, he cleared his throat. She turned back and suddenly, his mouth went dry.
“Have you seen the second one?” he asked. “The sequel. To Back to the Future.”
“No, I haven’t!”
She looked puzzled. “I’d like to see it.”
This was his chance. But would he be able to take it? As he opened his mouth, the image of the ear waiting in the freezer came to him. What would happen if, while they were watching the movie, she became thirsty and wanted something cold to drink? If she then opened the freezer to get some ice for her glass, saw the strange tinfoil packet, and decided to open it? Before she could shriek in disgust and run out of the house, he would explain how it got there. But would that make things any better? “I bit it off in a bar fight.” Hardly the sort of thing a girl would want her boyfriend to be doing. But what if she found it sexy? He was strong, manly. He went to bars and bit people’s ears off. He remembered the feeling of saying “no” to the burly man in his dream. Of course, there was no way of knowing what she would think. It was worth a try though.
“You know, I own it. The second one, I mean. Maybe one night, you could come over and we could watch it together. If you want to. Here. I could give you my number, and you can call me if you wanna come over.” He let the words out in a rush, afraid that if he stopped to think about what he was saying, he wouldn’t be able to go on. He scribbled down his phone number and handed it to her before she could refuse.
She looked at the piece of paper in her hand, then at him. “. . . thanks for the invitation. I’ll—I’ll think about it.”
And with that, she left.
As he was returning home, Peter passed the bar and thought he caught a glimpse of the tattooed arm. Following it into the bar, though, he found the place too crowded to see anyone in particular, and he left. If the man did want the thing, he could always get the bartender to call Peter.
So Peter made his way home, eager for one phone call but dreading another. He went into his kitchen, opened the freezer, and looked at the ear. It seemed to belong there now, fitting in nicely between the ice cream and frozen dinners, one of which he took out before he closed the freezer. He microwaved it and sat down to eat.
Then, loudly, reverberating through the house and jarring him out of his seat far enough to knock the remains of his dinner onto the floor, the phone rang.