Stinger

The Boy, Part VI: Washington, D.C., 1980

The boy roller-skated from the living room through the kitchen. He was wearing the Captain Klutz mask his mom had made him. A ski mask stitched with a stuffed sock for a nose and a pair of carboard Mercury wings glued on the sides. It drove his sister crazy. “Mom! Tell him to take that thing off. Halloween was nine months ago. I have friends coming over!” The mask had definitely started to smell and crust, especially the honker, but Mom was in her room writing and wasn’t to be disturbed, so the boy ignored his sister even harder, did a pirouette, and took a seat at the table, his math homework spread out in front of him, the two jagged pencils Pa had sharpened with his knife still untouched. On a plate to the side was a mess of runny scrambled eggs and a burnt piece of thick toast. Pa’s homemade bread. Pa had scraped off the blackened bits, giving the misshapen slice a dark, inhospitable-planet look. Margerine had congealed in the craters like yellow lakes. All the boy knew was that it didn’t look, smell, or taste anything like Wonder Bread.

The boy stared out the window, moving his tubular beak to the side so he could see better. Pa was in the corner of the back yard, his pant legs tucked into dress socks, a sweater into his faded Sunday jeans. On his head one of those barbershop quartet hats that looked like it was made of edible wafer. Over his face and neck a net veil, pinched at his collar. In one winter-gloved hand, a silver can wafting smoke, in the other a wooden frame that appeared to writhe with black and gold dots. Soon the basement would be stacked with jars and jars of sunshine-y honey. To be dripped on toast, in oatmeal, in tea, in peanut-butter sandwiches. “Better than candy,” Pa said. The boy didn’t buy that for a second.

In the humid air around Pa’s head hung a cloud of bees, with lines zig-zagging back and forth between two white wooden hives. The boy, his dog, his mom, his sister, they had all been stung plenty. Yeah, it hurt like a good goddamn, but the itchy burn was tempered with the cost to the bee — it’s life. Their stomachs ripped out of their bodies, along with the barbed stinger, throbbing for a second before going still. This fascinated the boy. They had one chance to inflict pain, to fight. How did they decide? Was it heroic or dumb instinct? And what a way to go, to be disemboweled. He always felt a little bad. But still, he freaked like a startled rabbit if one buzzed near his face, swatting and zig-zagging blindly toward anywhere but here. Pa seemed to navigate the airborne hazards fearlessly though. When he was bit, he barely flinched, pinching the stinger from his arm or neck like it was a piece of lint. He turned to the window where the boy was sitting and lifted his smoker in a seeming gesture, white puffs obscuring his head theatrically as if rabbit might be revealed when they parted. The boy stared for a moment and then raised his small hand, but wasn’t sure Pa saw him. He’d already turned back to the hives. The boy picked up his toast and took a loud, crunchy bite, spraying miniature meteors all over the smooth pages of his math book.

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