Zach VandeZande is the author of Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth, 2008). His work has recently appeared in Hot Street, Local Lore, and
Crack the Spine, and is forthcoming in the Portland Review, Atlas Review, and the Adroit Journal. He is currently a PhD student of fiction at the University of North Texas.
Hard things were happening all over the place that summer. You’ll recall it was the year Miami went underwater for good, which sent the state of Florida into a kind of prolonged chaos. Someone opened up a scuba diving tour through downtown. The rich people lost a little and moved to inland condos while the poor people lost everything and moved to some other doomed coastal town, a slow race to rural Georgia. We were with them for a time, you and I, though we only owned up to our low socioeconomic status when it was convenient or guilt-deflecting. We’d grown up in two-story houses, gated communities, and we were welcome back there whenever. We both knew that, I expect.
There was that squat little house we stayed at with all the palmetto bugs outside of Ocala. We’d fuck whenever the AC broke, because you said at least we should earn our being too hot. You were a really good bartender then, not that you were proud of it, and combined with my job as a line cook we did okay. When I think about that house and that summer it’s like a record’s fuzzy hissing. We were hopeful maybe, or at least we liked each other’s company. Seems the same, now. And yeah, you were annoyed that I was content with what we had, that I wasn’t angling for better pay or to own some stuff from Crate and Barrel, but it seemed more like petty head-butting than anything.
I wish there was more of a story to tell about that time, but it was just lost time, living, which isn’t a story until you take out some of the stuff that happened and call what’s left whole.
Okay, then, a story. The neighbor kid Josué was up a tree in our backyard when I went out there one afternoon. It was that sandhill pine, the one with the low branches. I think you were at work that afternoon, one of those times when you covered the dinner shift for your boss at his other restaurant in Alachua. I remember when I first saw it on a highway sign I pronounced it like a person sneezing in the middle of a hallelujah, and you laughed your native Floridian laugh. Anyway, as I recall your boss was in a bind over a bartender that quit, so you agreed to go the fifty miles and work some shifts in exchange for gas money plus thirty bucks on top of wages earned. At least, that’s how you told it to me. After all that happened I could wonder if it was the truth, but mostly that seems unhealthy.
I was planning to drink High Life on the porch until you got off, but then I saw the kid. I didn’t mind him being up there—the fence between our houses was a low hop, and his yard was bare except for a vegetable garden his abuela worked on, her hunched back all I ever saw of her. Let him climb a tree was my thinking, he’s ten. I waved up at him and he waved back, shouting, “Hey Mister Ben.” Which wasn’t my name. His English wasn’t the best, and maybe he was simple, I don’t know, but in any case I didn’t have the heart to correct him, plus what did it matter. If he were a white kid his mom would have him diagnosed and filed away into a category already. White moms liked to do that so they could talk about their children’s issues as their own, like, My son has high-functioning autism therefore I’m brave. Not that I begrudge people their problems.
Anyway he was up the tree, straddling one of the arm-thick branches about twenty feet off the ground. It was a good tree, sturdy, so I knew he wouldn’t fall out, and he didn’t. I decided it was fine to drink my beer in front of him, so I cracked it open and set up in the lawn chair on the porch, that old rusted-out vinyl one with the adjustable leg and head rests.
I was out there a fair amount of time, two or three beers’ worth. I had got to thinking about some Wittgenstein I’d tried to read, about language being as complete now as it ever was. Like, he said language would be just as total if the only two words we had were this and there. It didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me. Like, the system ain’t closed, dude. Still, I was trying for self-improvement.
Then Josué was shouting Mister Ben Mister Ben, and to be honest I’d sort of drifted off, so he startled me. And I rolled out of the chair onto one knee and was up and walking over to him. He’s pointing at something in the backyard that jams up behind ours that I can’t see—the back fence was a wooden privacy fence, whereas the ones between houses on this street were chain link. I told him I was coming and then I was over there. I poked my head over the fence and still couldn’t tell what he was shouting about, except the neighbor keeps bees and they seem more riled up than usual about something from the way I can see some of them over the fence. You remember her probably. The Haitian lady, Saraphina in her shower-curtain dresses, gave us the honey one time.
Josué said, “Mister Ben, what do they do?”
And I said I didn’t know, because I couldn’t tell, but they were definitely doing something. I hiked myself up onto the fence to see. The hive stood off toward the middle of her yard, a squat little box painted white. But the bees weren’t over there. They were all gathered in the fence corner, thousands of them jammed together in a hot thrumming mass. Some would fall away, and some would return, but mostly they were packed in as tightly as possible. From where I was the sound was like, well, it was like something you’ve not heard, anyway, and loud and sort of ugly.
I leaned forward to see better, and my weight on the fence spooked the swarm some. It grew larger, a little dispersed. From here the bees looked like one clumped thing, like each one was a cell in a body, which probably is about right. Saraphina usually parked her car on the side of her house, and it wasn’t there. I yelled up to Josué that he shouldn’t be in the tree with them riled like this. He whined about it but started climbing down.
I hopped off the fence and met him at the tree. “This isn’t safe,” I told him.
“Nada mas es abejas,” he said, looking up at me with spooky brown eyes. He was more curious than scared.
“Go home, Josué,” I said, and he looked at me like I’d popped his balloon with a cigarette. Still, he ran off, and soon enough I was out there alone.
I took a few steps back and hopped the fence all at once, like I used to do in my hooligan days. In Saraphina’s yard the bees stuck to their corner, but a few of them were winging back and forth between the hive and the swarm. I wasn’t afraid of bees—I’d been stung plenty growing up, enough that I didn’t much care. I knocked on Saraphina’s door in case someone was home to take care of things. No one came.
The hive was pretty much quiet. There were a couple bees floating in and out of it, but that was it.
I went back to the fence. The sound was hard in my ears. I got close enough that I could see the individual bees. I tried following one, but it got lost among the rest. There was heat coming off them.
What I did next, I mean I guess I couldn’t help myself. I kicked the fence, below and to the left of where they were. The bees took off as one and I backed off. They didn’t come to me though. They settled back into the corner.
I kicked again, and again. The bees took off and ranged a little farther. I jogged to the other side of the yard. The swarm crashed against the fence like a wave, hitting low and washing up over the wood before flying back away. This happened over and over again. Each time, a few hundred would stay behind against the fence. There was a rhythm to it, the bees crashing against the fence and leaving some of themselves. There was pattern, reason. Then some of them started to drop. Still, they kept crashing. They were beating themselves to death against the fence.
I stood there and watched it all happen. It took an upsetting amount of time. The swarm shrank as more bodies piled up at the base of the fence. Sweat slicked the hair on my arms. It was July, and the bees kept killing themselves. The sound of them started dying out. Then there weren’t enough of them to be heard at all from where I stood. And then there were no more.
I stood over the bodies and tried to decide if it was my fault. The world was changing. Bees played by their own rules. Still, I hated you a little for not being there, like you had something to do with it. I was bad at things on my own. A born fence-kicker. And I thought I would keep it to myself, what happened, how I felt about it. I didn’t even tell Saraphina, though I should have, and I lied to Josué when he asked me if I saw them die. I hopped the fence and drank more beer and waited to not be alone, waited for you. I thought about it for weeks, thought about telling you, maybe. Then that faded too, and that was it, at least as far as the story goes.
And then all the rest happened, that night you came home crying drunk because you couldn’t bear to hold it in anymore, what was going on between you and your boss. I remember I felt relieved more than anything, like, I was glad it wasn’t me messing everything up. I was going to say so, and I was going to tell you about how I’d maybe driven the bees to do what they did, but your eyes were always so beautiful when you cried—the way the green in them would show through—and you seemed so earnest and visible then that I just let you take all the blame that you wanted and walk back out the door to stay at your mom’s. Sitting there alone I got too drunk, and I remember the thing that finally got me over to having a cry of my own was when I thought of all those little bodies by the fence. Which I guess is a pretty sad way to end things if you think about it, my mouth shut, my thoughts elsewhere, keeping a secret in reserve.
But now I’d like to tell you, at least about the bees, so you know the story. I’d like to say this, and I’d like to say there, and I’d like to set you free if I can. I’d like to give you something like forgiveness. Something whole.