“Dislodged” by Josh McColough
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Dislodged,” Josh McColough expertly weaves together the narrative of a father-daughter road trip with a commentary on the delicate balance of human needs and a vulnerable environment.
Waiting on a landslide in the redwood forest
Two hours south of Grants Pass, Oregon, we encounter a flashing message board declaring Highway 101 closed. Cars are stopped ahead of us at the top of a hill where the road bends into a dark tunnel of trees near Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. Two Caltrans officials in hard hats and reflective vests are turning people around. Heavy construction equipment—dump trucks and excavators on flatbed rigs—passes us in the left-hand lane and disappears into the forest.
“This can’t be right,” I insist, checking my phone. I have not received any alerts. Then again, we just emerged from the mountains, where reception was spotty.
“Can we go around?” my daughter asks.
Google Maps recalculates the quickest alternative route: a three-hundred-mile journey east back through the mountains to the interior of the state, then a return west through the mountains to the coast further south. It estimates the detour to be over seven hours long.
“Nope,” I say.
She is a high school student; I am a college English comp instructor. We are in the middle leg of a post-vaccine road trip down the West Coast—Seattle to LA. It is partly a college visit trip for her, partly an excuse to stretch our legs after a year and a half locked down in front of glowing screens. We are from the Midwest and are fed up with the flat, wearying Chicago suburbs—as two-dimensional and enticing as a Zoom classroom. I hate the virus for thousands of reasons, but particularly for what it wrought on the dynamic experience of a classroom, reducing it to nothing more than glowing foreheads. Postered walls and ceiling fans, fish tanks, gaming chairs, plaid bed covers, fairy-lit shelves, rainbow LED light strips, an occasional bong. But mainly blue LED backlit stares from deep within a hoodie. Student gazes that go on forever into a virtual middle distance while you make an utter ass of yourself on camera discussing the elements of a short story or how to write a literary analysis essay. My daughter and I are on opposing ends of the same horrific livestreaming scholastic train wreck—she knows what it looks like to witness a teacher on camera beg, cry, or yell for someone, anyone to speak up and join in conversation; I know what it looks like when a young person, already on the verge—uncertain and unsure—opts out altogether by going dark.
We needed a change of scenery.
“Never underestimate the impact that the physical landscape has on your mental health,” I tell my daughter before our trip, more as a reminder to me than anything else.
We have just reached the California coast after twisting our way down the Redwood Highway through rugged, unincorporated towns—Idlewild, Darlingtonia, Gasquet (pronounced Gas-kee). People in the towns weren’t unfriendly, but on the periphery was a population who, based on the politics spelled out in bumper stickers on custom trucks, had been living and working remotely by choice long before the virus. Plenty of handmade “No Trespassing” signs, one of which read “No Trespassing! Iraq War Vet with PTSD,” a dripping AR-15 stenciled in spray paint underneath. We snaked through sunlit mountain passes along dried-up creek beds, until a blanket of coastal fog swept over a crest and enveloped the highway for a few sudden low-visibility-on-sheer-cliffside moments. When we emerged, the Pacific opened up before us, gray and soupy. Fog and cloud cover melded together, giving everything a vaporous edge. Monolithic sea stacks peppered the base of dark green marine terraces. It was a revelatory moment for us Midwestern pilgrims, who, though we might not have set out on foot from Missouri, felt an undeniable rush in reaching the end of the westward road. We rolled down the windows and inhaled deeply. Then we rolled to a stop at the flashing sign and the line of cars and people turning back.
We approach the Caltrans official, who repeats the message on the sign. “Road’s closed,” she says and hands us a flier. “You can go back to Crescent City, or you can proceed ahead and wait in line until the road opens again at one o’clock.”
“Okay, but what’s happening?” I ask.
“There are active landslides at Last Chance Grade, and crews are working to shore up the highway,” she says. “If you want to wait in line, they’re distributing bottles of water and granola bars. But once you get in line, there’s no turning back.”
So be it.
After waiting nearly two years to go anywhere, sitting in our car for a few hours in the forest does not feel like such an imposition. Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus. We turn around and claim our moment at Crescent Beach, where we dip our toes in the frigid Pacific and watch a solitary wet-suited surfer bobbing in the waves. We stock up on water and snacks and head into the forest to wait. A flashing police cruiser escorts a line of cars into the forest at a pleasant minimum speed. It feels as though we’re on a guided tour of the redwood forest. We roll down the windows and poke our heads out to look up at the trees. After a few miles, we reach the line of those who ventured before us and stop along the side of the zigzagging road. We don’t know how close or far we are from the construction—from Last Chance Grade.
We emerge from the car, and our eyes are directed skyward. On either side of the road are colonnades of redwoods. Above us, cathedrals soar hundreds of feet and block out all but slivers of the gray-fogged sky. I reach for my phone to FaceTime my wife, but there is no reception. Not one bar.
“Is this place for real?” my daughter asks, not for the first time on this trip.
The road cuts an unnatural, gray-paved path through the woods. The coastal fog has followed us into the forest. The tops of the redwoods sway, yet there is no breeze at ground level. It feels like we are underwater. Voices are small but distinct. Clear. One man tells his kids to put down their damn phones for a second and come out and look around. The kids stay in the car. Another man opens his car door, grabs his camera, and aims his lens upward, the camera’s shutter rapid-fire clicks. A woman worries about having to go to the bathroom. She wonders if she can hold it until the road reopens. The man she’s with directs her into the forest, and she tells him she’d probably get poison oak all over her privates. Another woman climbs atop her camper and peers into the forest through binoculars in a way that signals she knows what she’s looking for. A man emerges from a RV in full spandex; he unhooks a bicycle from the rear rack, straps on a helmet, and turns on flashing LED lights and pedals ahead. “May as well log a few miles while we’re waiting,” he says as he passes us. Another man opens the door to his SUV, setting free two barefoot toddlers, who wobble onto the road. The man is also barefoot. He lights a cigarette. Someone nearby is smoking pot; this seems as good a place as any to do so. A small group of teens in pajama pants and hoodies walks up the side of the road, happy to get away from their parents.
Right now, the road is connecting us differently than when we drove it. Not ten minutes before, the man in the car behind us tailgated me and honked at me for driving slowly, though we were being paced by a police car. I could see his darkened figure in my rearview mirror throw up both of his hands in a “What the hell?” gesture. Now, he gets out of his car, smiles, and says to me, “Not a bad place to be stuck, is it? Just beautiful.”
Wanderers, all of us, forced to be still for a bit. To see what is around us and see one another. These are the kinds of friendships forged among strangers in a church parking lot.
The ground on either side of the road is covered greenly in sword fern and redwood sorrel, bracken fern, wild ginger, trillium, and moss. Shoots of yellow monkeyflower rise above the brush cover. Tanoaks and Pacific rhododendrons (a woman—clearly local—from the car in front of us tells us that we missed them in bloom by about a month) grow between the colossal redwoods. They are what we Midwesterners might think of as good-sized trees—tall but climbable. Though at the feet of behemoths, they appear wispy and decorative. My daughter and I walk across to the other side of the road and look down upon a ravine. The forest floor is brick red, carpeted with dead, needle-like redwood leaves. The trees creak softly.
Then, a whistle—flat, off-key—breaks through the forest, and another whistle calls back. It sounds metallic. It is constant, like a referee’s whistle, but there is no rise time—it starts and ends at full whistle. The whistling surrounds us like the forest itself. Everywhere I turn, it sounds like it’s coming from behind me. A long, off-key whistle. Another that calls back.
An oncoming dump truck blows its horn, echoing like an alpine horn through the forest, and people on the road alert one another. Parents gather kids in their arms, and the truck barrels by us in a whoosh toward what must be Last Chance Grade.
“Good lord,” the woman from the car ahead of us says. “What’s his hurry?”
Everything is short on this trip. Tempers are short. Hotels and restaurants and gas stations are short-staffed, short on menu items, short on services offered. Operating hours of restaurants, cafes, and bars are cut short. Grocery stores are short on items. Trucking companies are short drivers. The window of opportunity to move safely about the country is shortening (the Delta variant is just beginning to spread in the US.). Expectations of a return to absolute freedom are cut short—some states aren’t yet open for business; others never closed.
Still, all routes on our West Coast trip are flush with families packed into trucks, campers, cars, and RVs. Luggage racks, boats in tow, American flags frayed and flapping at speed down every road. It almost resembles what “normal” looked like before, until you’re reminded how far we have to go still. My daughter and I stop at a diner for lunch. The lights are off, but handmade signs insist “We ARE Open.” One of two servers on staff tells us to “sit wherever,” so we find an open table. The place is packed. Our server stops to take our order and explains, “Sorry, it’s just the two of us. And one cook.” The lights are off to save electricity (the owners are clearly short on funds to pay the bills each month during the pandemic). Despite all odds, the server is kind and smiling. She briefly mentions being happy to work again. We don’t understand why. The patrons are short on time and patience. Short on tact. Where’s my goddamn cheeseburger? I ordered it like an hour ago. You want me to go back there and make it myself?
We all fall short sometimes, despite our best efforts.
The whistling in the forest continues. Long and flat. Odd and off-key. Another whistle calls back. I wonder if it might be hikers signaling to one another. My daughter walks along the side of the road, just looking.
I hold the flier about work on Last Chance Grade and am stuck on the name. Any chances are hard enough to come by these days, I think. And everything these past couple of years has felt like a last chance. Just leaving my house to scrounge picked-over store shelves for toilet paper felt like a kind of last-chance endeavor. And truly, I am tired of thinking about last chances. What if the last time I saw my parents was my last chance to have seen them? What if the last time I stepped foot in the classroom was the last chance I had to do so? What about that last time I went to a concert and screamed in revelatory joy? Or the last time I sat inside a coffee shop? Or the last time I went anywhere without a mask? The last time I saw my students in the classroom, in spring of 2020, I told them that we might have a week or two of online classes, then would be back in the classroom for the end of the semester. That was right before spring break. My parting, in-person words were, “Have a great spring break—see you back here in a couple of weeks!” Now, I would really like to have had a chance to say, “I care about all of you; please be safe. Stay with your families or check in on them as much as you can. Love them.” We were not given any last chances to do these things until, suddenly, we had no chances for a while.
The whistling cuts through the forest. Over and over again.
The woman from the car ahead of us says, “Ooh, look, banana slugs! They’re all over the place.”
We haven’t noticed them—tiny ground creatures in a mammoth forest—but once we do, it is difficult not to spot them everywhere. Bright yellow or mustard brown, the uncanny (and unfortunate) shape and size of a larger dog’s penis, but with eyestalks. They creep about on the ground over dead leaves and hang precariously on low-lying brush like obscene, slimy ornaments. They consume the dead, and in their wake is a trail of slime-nutrients that fertilizes the soil. I crouch down to get a picture of one that is the color of a ripe yellow pepper and see an even bigger one right next to my foot.
I realize that I nearly stepped on it.
I am not a geologist, though I am broadly curious about the reasons why it might not be safe to tread upon parts of the earth, whether it be to preserve the privacy of a wounded veteran or because the ground might give way and wash you into the ocean without warning. Not that we humans are great at heeding warning signs given up by the earth. We exist upon massive lithospheric rafts that float on a layer of plasticine rock. The earth’s crust is but the skin of a grape, relative to the rest of the planet beneath us. We are reminded of this when islands burst forth in the middle of the ocean; when a long-dormant volcano awakens; or when World Series games are interrupted by two plates going bump in the night; or when a tsunami arrives, uninvited, to a tropical holiday. These events are unfortunate reminders of precisely who—or what—is in charge here. Still, we too often move through life not considering our size and stature relative to forces and objects that humble us. Geologic time. Plate tectonics. A virus. A couple of degrees’ difference in the oceans’ temperatures. More rain and less snow. No snow and too much rain. Fire tornadoes. A couple of inches more of the ocean and a few hundred thousand more people underwater.
I tell my daughter, “Stand next to that tree and spread your arms out so we can get a sense of scale.”
Some redwoods are hollowed out so cars can drive through them. Not far from where we are is a famous redwood playland (complete with a talking Paul Bunyan) that will cost admission to explore. We don’t consider how long it took for this tree to grow so large, but who isn’t tempted by a priceless photo or social media op? Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot. It’s where and how we fall short.
This is what will kill us all, I think, as I click pictures of my tiny daughter at the base of a two-hundred-year-old tree. If last chances are the fuel for redemption, our tank feels so close to empty.
I long to understand why my daughter and I are stuck in a whistling forest. Why our West Coast road trip itinerary—Leg 4, Day 7—was blown to hell by an ominously named piece of land. What I learn, long after we return home, makes me thankful that I did not know about Last Chance Grade while we were there. A 2015 engineering feasibility study characterizes this stretch of Highway 101 as failing frequently and the ground beneath the road as unstable. To a Midwesterner, driving along the edge of the California coast is a vertigo-inducing, heart-palpitating experience anyway. If you are the driver, the fear of falling into the ocean is more omnipresent than the image you had in your head about a fun, carefree, top-down thrill ride along a classic stretch of Americana. If you are a really specific kind of Midwesterner, you may obsessively recall grainy dashboard camera videos of cars jettisoning off the Pacific Coastal Highway into the ocean below. No guardrails, nothing stopping the car’s launch. Each time the road hairpins and the land slips away and the height above the ocean becomes clear, I get dizzy, while attempting to maintain calm for my daughter, who is in the back seat, also sick. As I recall that drive now, my palms are sweating.
But here lies Last Chance Grade, existing at the intersection of physical and human geography. There have been hundreds of landslides in this area, dating back to the late 1800s. Some of the more recent landslides have been caught on camera and are shocking in their force—their ability in moments to wash away human-made structures engineered to be permanent and unmovable. This three-mile stretch of the 101 undulates, fractures, dips and, ultimately, fails because it is built upon four deep-seated landslides that are actively in motion. The highway fails because the ground beneath, part of a large subduction zone, is not stable enough to support a highway. The geography of much of populated California is like this, though, and that a major highway runs across an active landslide may only be surprising to pragmatic Midwesterners who think, “Kind of a silly place to put a road, isn’t it?” But that thinking runs counter to the ethos of California, which my daughter and I learn later as we walk around San Francisco and a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hits at the California-Nevada border, causing rock and boulder slides along another major highway while we traipse up Lombard Street and take pictures. We don’t even feel it because we aren’t standing still.
To the east of the road where we stand is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, home to thousands of animal species in addition to the old-growth redwoods that have existed for up to a couple of thousand years. To the west of the road, a mile or so, is the Pacific. It pounds the base of the cliff upon which the highway has been built, accepting residual detritus from the landslides. This is the physical geography.
Also to the east of the highway—beyond the UNESCO-protected forest—are multiple tribes of indigenous people who have inhabited the land for centuries. The 101 itself is the main artery that supplies communities up and down the coast with food and other essential goods. Block the artery, and food deserts are created. All human inhabitants are taxpayers. All human inhabitants are affected when the road shuts down and will be affected if the road has to be moved. This is the human geography.
The problem of the road has brought together experts in both human and physical geography to consider solutions. After years of economic impact studies, risk assessments, geotechnical investigations, ground surveys, botanical studies, wetland delineations, traffic studies, biological assessments, the road still fails. The ground is still unstable. People, communities, still are left stranded. Doing nothing is not a viable option. Though perhaps by engaging communities in coming up with a solution together, the devil’s bargain will be less difficult to swallow: Cut into some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway further east; or tunnel beneath some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway underground.
The two-mile tunnel is scheduled to open in 2038. As of today, it is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.
The metallic whistling in the forest sounds urgent—a bit like a call for help. I listen for voices—for people calling out—but don’t hear anything. I don’t know what it communicates. I think it sounds lonely, and then it sounds deeply melancholy. I think it sounds like a warning, and then it sounds like an urgent call for help. Dump trucks speed past us in the opposite lanes and blow their horns; the sounds ricochet off of the trees, reverberating bass throughout the forest. Could the whistling be nothing more than construction sounds ahead of us on Last Chance Grade? I am reminded of a story I heard once on NPR about a scientist in search of the quietest place on earth, free of human-made noise—aircraft, traffic, cell phones, construction, voices. You have to travel so far to get away from human noise. I consider how easy it is to hear other travelers’ conversations. People think of forests as quiet places, but they are acoustic marvels. Communication travels efficiently, by evolutionary design. Animal calls seeking a partner in the springtime. Calls warning of predators in the area. Whistling perhaps designed to baffle stranded travelers. I imagine someone up in a tree, blowing a whistle and peering down at me through binoculars, laughing as I turn around to try to find the source.
I remember a story from college of a woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill who took up residence in the canopy of an old-growth coastal redwood. Later, I learned that the tree is still there—located a few hundred miles from where we were. She lived in the tree for 738 days on a six-foot-by-six-foot platform to protest a lumber company’s clear-cutting practices. In fact, the company’s overlogging resulted in a catastrophic landslide that buried much of the town of Stafford in
Humboldt County in 1996. She was regarded by the public as a nuisance, an eco-warrior, a curiosity, a crackpot, a neo-hippy, a savior. I remember this. From her tiny platform, she took media calls, debated CNN anchors, responded to mail she’d received from critics and supporters, studied field guides to identify the birds that inhabited trees around her; she let the tree sap cover her feet so that she had better grip while climbing. Loggers shouted vile insults up to her. It was all very loud at the time—everyone had an opinion about her, about the loggers and logging company, about the environment and “environmentalists,” who tended to be cast as a fringe, neo-cultist movement. So West Coast.
But since Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s tree residency, it has been proven that trees communicate with one another via an underground network of fungi. They work together to survive by transferring nutrients—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, hormones, water—to one another. Within a community of trees, there are hubs—mother trees—that nurture their young by way of hundreds of kilometers of fungi below ground. They send excess carbon to the younger seedlings, and if a mother tree is injured or dying, they can send messages to their seedlings to help strengthen them and defend themselves from future issues. Mother trees are vulnerable, though. You take out a mother tree, the system beneath it likely will collapse.
The whistling continues, bouncing off trees.
The distinct whistle remains lodged in my head long after we return from our trip. After the trembling San Francisco, across the interior, seething San Joaquin Valley, down through LA. The whistling follows me. It is a call back to that place—to those hours spent in pause, waiting, looking. But I do not know how to discover the source. I sit with my laptop and some wine and fumble about with far-too-literal search terms.
Whistling in redwood forest.
Whistling noises Pacific northwest redwoods.
Odd metallic whistling redwoods Pacific coast.
Eventually, I find the right combination of words and discover a thread in a forum where others are searching for the same thing. Same location—Jedediah Smith redwoods, Del Norte county, California. Original posters describe the noise as a “referee’s whistle” or “a long, electrical whistling” with another slightly off-key callback. I’m excited by this—others heard the same thing. Crowdsourced responses mean well, sometimes. It is, they say, the trees rubbing against one another. Elk in heat. Bigfoot. Deer. Deer in heat. An owl. Military exercises. Bats. Forestry workers. Mountain lions. A waxwing bird.
A bird. A bird seems like a promising lead, so I search for birds common to that area and become suddenly grateful to the massive online community of ornithological enthusiasts’ meticulous dedication to recording sounds. I listen to dozens of bird sounds with my eyes closed. Pacific wren. Acorn woodpecker. Townsend’s warbler.
Then I hear the unmistakable, indelible off-key whistling and the callback.
Ixoreus naevius. The varied thrush.
I am overjoyed. I call my daughter out of her room, and declare, “I found it!” I play the sound for her, and she says, “Cool,” and recedes back into her iPhone. For me, though, it is a transportive sound. I am back in the forest—in those hours when we were forced to take a good look and listen to where we were. I look up information on the varied thrush, and find it is an ordinary, robin-sized bird. Mostly black with bands of pumpkin orange on its breast, wings, and head. It exists primarily in the Pacific Northwest, though it migrates seasonally up and down the coast when breeding. Still, it is a predominant fixture of the damp, green forests along the Pacific, and like grunge, its haunting call is something of a signature sound of the region. It is also held in mythical regard by both amateur and career bird lovers alike. A post by the US Fish and Wildlife Service about the varied thrush quotes ornithologist and illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who described the varied thrush as “perfectly the voice of the cool, dark, peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home as could be imagined.” In his 1909 book The Birds of Washington, Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the song of the varied thrush as “a single long-drawn note of brooding melancholy and exalted beauty—a voice stranger than the sound of any instrument, a waif echo stranding on the shores of time.”
I am entranced by the descriptions of the sound itself. I stack field guides on my table at the library, and I thumb through all of their descriptions of the song of the varied thrush:
“Song utterly bizarre: long, vibrant, metallic, breathy notes spaced far apart: zeeeeeeng…. Zoiiiiiiiiing… zeeeerng…” (Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America)
“Song a long, eerie, quavering, whistled note, followed, after a pause, by one on a lower or higher pitch. Call a quivering low-pitched zzzzew or zzzeee and a liquid chup.” (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America)
“Call a short, low, dry chup very similar to Hermit Thrush but harder; also a hard, high gipf and a soft, short tiup.” (The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America)
It is an elusive, solitary bird, not easily spotted. By all accounts, the varied thrush likes it that way. How grunge. I stare at pictures of the varied thrush, and it sparks another memory. I recognize the bird somehow, and I can’t figure out from what. Eventually, the Internet tells me that it is the bird that appears for a few seconds in the opening credits of the ’90s television show “Twin Peaks,” which is so fitting, I decide its use must have been on purpose. The varied thrush is the ultimate Gen-X bird.
In the end, it is one p.m., and miles ahead of my daughter and I, blockades open. All down the line, people return to their vehicles. The timeout has ended. I do not want to leave this place, though I want to see Last Chance Grade, maybe to thank it. This diversion will become a centerpiece memory of the trip itself. My daughter and I will recount how we stumbled into a magical interruption on our trip down the coast.
In the end, the line of cars moves forward, and we are pulled along with them. We all move on. We come out of the trees. Out of the banana slug forest. Away from the call of the varied thrush. The road twists and dips through the redwoods until the trees open up to a clearing, and we can finally see it.
In the end, there is a scarred hillside that refuses to stay put, and then a cliff over which things have been falling for many years. Covered wagons, boulders, sediment, stones, cars, trees, dead leaves, mud, construction equipment, banana slugs, fallen redwoods, roots, mycelium. It all slides down into the Pacific. In the end, Last Chance Grade turns out to be neither a place—a pin on Google Maps—nor a natural sight to behold. It is a geological riddle. As the road crosses the Grade, we can see car-sized boulders and mounds of soil that have spilled onto it from a recent slide. The road itself becomes nothing more than jagged pavement and compacted dirt—a callback to its original trail state. Above the road, Caltrans pickups and dump trucks and earth movers and graders and men in hard hats are crawling about the hillside like ants. Thousands of pounds of machinery look barely attached to the earth it seeks to shore up, and I am struck with the familiar sensation of vertigo. In the end, we pass safely across Last Chance Grade—that point of convergence between human and physical geography—a precarious road clinging, like the rest of us, for dear life against all natural forces acting upon it. A waif echo stranding on the shores of time.
Josh McColough’s short fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Puerto del Sol, Split Lip Magazine, and SPLASH!, and his nonfiction in New World Writing. Josh received his MFA from the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program and currently teaches English composition at the College of Lake County in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @joshmccolough, where he mostly shares pictures of his Bernedoodle Gus.
“Keeping” by Thomas Dodson
Thomas Dodson’s story “Keeping” follows seventy-three-year-old Guy, owner of a family hive and honey business, and his neighbor, Taylor, as they make the long journey from Iowa to California to save Guy’s colonies and fulfill his contract with a West Coast almond grower. This fast-paced story takes readers on a buzzing adventure, as Guy faces crime, a fading mind, and his own sexual identity. “Keeping” won the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for fiction.
It was a humbling thing, asking for help like this, needing it so badly. But removing his hat, brushing flakes of snow from brim and crown, Guy knew there was no other way. His neighbors’ fields, already stripped of corn and soybeans, would soon be a single plain of snow, patches of winter rye the only green for acres. Cold winds would blow freely across all that flatness, gathering strength until they reached the stand of pines at the edge of his apiary. The trees would provide a break, and he could wrap the hives in tar paper to keep out the frost, but it wouldn’t be enough. His bees, what was left of them, they wouldn’t survive an Iowa winter. He needed to take them west.
He’d been standing on the porch of Taylor’s place, weighed down with what he meant to ask, when he heard the baby crying. It wailed and wailed, a helpless thing, full to the top with need. When it finally hushed, he opened the screen and knocked. Taylor’s wife answered. She had the baby with her, his head covered in wisps of fine brown hair, face pressed to her breast, sucking away. Guy coughed and looked down at his shoes.
“Come in,” Andrea said, unconcerned. “Taylor’s out back, finishing up.”
He followed her inside, ducking to avoid the transom. Forty-odd years of lifting supers filled with honey, each box heavy as a newborn calf, had stooped his shoulders. But all told, work in the beeyard had done him good. He hadn’t dwindled like other men his age, was still broad-backed and tall. He knew to move carefully in these old farmhouses.
In the dining room, his eyes were drawn to the glass-windowed cabinet. It was built to house pickled beets and bottles of homemade jam, but Taylor’s wife had stocked it with books, their spines emblazoned with words like “feminist,” “gay and lesbian,” “queer.” He could remember a time when it would have been dangerous to have such books where people could see them. “Ain’t much difference,” his father had said, “between a cocksucker and a communist.”
“You’re in your Sunday best,” Andrea said. “Business in town?” She lowered herself into a chair and settled the baby on her lap.
“The bank. Every once in a while, they like to bring you in, turn you upside down, see if anything falls out.”
She smiled politely. In truth, it was only for this visit that he’d traded his work boots for Oxfords, set aside his overalls, and retrieved his suit from the back of the closet. He’d worn it last ten years ago, at Alma’s funeral.
The back door clattered shut, and Taylor called from the kitchen, “Something got at one of the hives. Scat on the ground and some bees chewed and spat out.”
“In here,” Andrea said. “Guy stopped by.”
“Oh, yeah?” Taylor said cheerfully. She strode into the room, wiping her hands on the front of her jeans, the cuffs still tucked into her socks. She placed a hand on Andrea’s shoulder, bent down and kissed the baby’s head. The chair next to Andrea was stacked with papers. Taylor cleared them and sat down.
“Should’ve phoned first,” Guy said, shifting in his seat.
“You’re always welcome, you know that.” The tips of his ears burning, he looked at his hands. These bouts of bashfulness, they sometimes happened around Taylor. She was just so—he couldn’t think of a better word for it—handsome. She reminded him of James Dean in East of Eden and also, vaguely, of Milton Law, a high school classmate and the first boy he’d ever kissed.
“Brought you this.” Setting his hat on the table, he retrieved the package from under his arm, a square section of honeycomb in a clear plastic box. He’d selected, for his offering, a product of his strongest hive. Workers had filled each of the cells with amber honey, sealed them over with the freshest wax. It was a beautiful comb, white-capped and neatly cut. Something to be proud of.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Andrea said. “You know, Taylor keeps trying to win me over to the dark stuff.” Her face crinkled, and she shook her head from side to side. “It’s not for me, though. Too funky.”
“I’ve always been too funky for you, mi reina.”
Taylor had seeded a portion of her land with buckwheat. Bees that fed on its white-petaled flowers made dark honey—near to black—nutty and pleasingly bitter. More traditional, Guy kept his meadows stocked with wildflowers: Shasta daisies and black-eyed Susans, clover that bloomed in shades of white, pink, and crimson. His bees rewarded him with a sweet, light honey that he sold to grocery stores, driving in each week to stock the shelves himself.
“You say you’ve got some critter nosing into a hive?”
“What do you think?” Taylor said. “A raccoon?”
“Skunk more likely. You can put up chicken wire. She’ll have to stand up on her hind legs, and the bees can sting her belly. Or you could set a trap.”
The baby began to fuss again, and Andrea excused herself. She bundled the boy in a sling and carried him away, her flip-flops slapping as she mounted the stairs. Guy sat across from Taylor in silence. Most of the time, it was easy between them. They’d known each other for going on eight years now, ever since she’d come to the beekeepers’ meeting at the VFW hall. She’d had so many questions, been so eager to learn the trade.
He’d invited her to join him in his beeyard, a kind of apprenticeship. Later, when he’d gotten a call from the fire department about a swarm hanging from a picnic table in Happy Hollow Park, they’d gone together to capture it. They’d smoked the bees, doused them with sugar spray, and shaken them into one of his spare supers. He’d given her the box and all the bees inside, her first colony. Together they’d cleared her backyard, transformed it into an apiary. She ran her own operation now, small but thriving. That was how their friendship worked, Guy offering help and advice, passing on the craft, taking pride in Taylor’s success. But this, asking her for help—real help, the kind that involved sacrifice—it felt wrong.
“Guy, is everything alright? You seem, I don’t know, bothered.”
“It’s been a hard year,” he began, “a real hard year.”
He told Taylor about the outbreak of nosema. Bees with swollen guts had deposited smears of brown diarrhea down the sides of the supers. They fell from the boxes, littering the ground with their hollowed-out carcasses. Others perished midflight, some bearing fat wads of pollen, food their spore-ravaged stomachs could no longer digest. He’d lost other hives to mites, passed from bee to bee until they reached the brood chamber. There they fed on larvae and laid their eggs, fouling whole colonies.
And then there were the bees that ranged beyond his meadow. In August, he’d found a pile of dead bees in front of one of his hives, the rest stumbling around like they were drunk. He couldn’t prove that chemicals were killing them, but during the summer months, he’d seen plenty of crop dusters swinging low over the nearby fields, raining pesticides down on the corn.
That was as much as he was willing to tell Taylor, or anybody else. The truth, he knew, was that he was to blame for the bees’ decline. Autry Honey had been a family business, his wife and sons all chipping in. After the boys went away to college and Alma passed, he’d hired help for processing and bottling, an accountant for the books, seasonal workers whenever he needed an extra hand. But the bees, he cared for them himself, alone.
It had worked out fine for a couple of years. But then, last summer, not long after his seventy-third birthday, he’d found himself standing in front of a hive, not sure what he was doing there. The cover was off, his smoker spent. Had he set out to harvest honey or check for a sick queen?
After that, he kept his logbook close, needed it to tell him all the things he used to keep in his head—when and how much he’d fed each colony, whether he’d treated them for pests. And then there was the time he lost the book, wasted a whole afternoon searching. He spotted it the next morning, scrambling eggs over the range. On the shelf by the window, the frayed binding sticking out from a row of Alma’s cookbooks.
Pests and chemicals hadn’t killed his bees, at least not on their own. Some died every year, but well-tended colonies could bounce back. His losses, enough to put his whole operation at risk, those were due to sloppy stewardship. He’d failed his charges, left them vulnerable.
“I treated the hives for mites and all,” he explained. “Had to torch the sickest ones. All told, I’m down to one-third what I should have this time of year. Not enough to make the contract out West; colonies too weak to winter up here.”
“Jesus,” Taylor said, leaning back in her chair. “If I’d have known, maybe we could have . . . so, what are you going to do? Get them indoors, a barn or something? Then buy nucs in the spring?”
Guy chuckled bitterly. “With what money? And besides, I can’t wait for the thaw. First winter storm, and I’ll be finished.” He couldn’t bring himself to look Taylor in the eyes, so he looked instead into the kitchen, at the high chair and the sink full of dishes. “I can see you’ve got your hands full here. And I hate to ask, but . . .”
“Hey, Guy, whatever you need.” Taylor reached across the table. Forgetting himself, he gripped her fingers. There was no sorting out everything he felt—humiliation, gratitude, a shameful urge to seize and cling to this sudden closeness between them, for it to mean something it didn’t. He released her hand and straightened up in his chair. He was a foolish old man.
“All the bees I have left, they’re healthy. You’ve got my word on that.”
Her lips slightly parted, Taylor waited for him to explain.
“The California trip,” he said, “the almond bloom. It’s good money. Real good money.” He retrieved his notes from the breast pocket of his suit, unfolded them, and set them in front of her. “Now inspections, truck rental, equipment—that’s all settled.” He tapped twice on the top page, where he’d written out all the expenses. “That comes out of my end. The profit, though, we split fifty-fifty. I’ve got a Class A license, had it for years, so I’ll do the driving.”
“Guy, what are we talking about, exactly?”
“I leave in three weeks, but I don’t have the hives. Not enough, anyway. I need your bees, together with mine. I’m sorry to come asking, but I need you to come with me to California.”
A rumble strip throbbed beneath his feet, and Guy nudged the truck away from the shoulder. The wind was up, and he had to keep a firm grip on the wheel. The sky was a monolith of low gray clouds, spitting needles of sleet against the windshield.
In spite of the weather, things had gone easy. He’d managed to keep his cool when tailgaters blew their horns, to swing the trailer into traffic as they passed through Des Moines and Omaha. Taking charge of a twenty-ton rig, sending it hurtling down I-80, it might have intimidated another man. But back in Vietnam he’d been the driver for a Patton tank, crashing through the jungle, taking point on thunder runs: top speed with one track on the asphalt, the other spitting dirt, all guns firing, praying they didn’t hit a mine. And anyway, he’d made this trip before, every year for the past five, and always on his own.
That morning he’d found Taylor on her porch, slumped in a rocking chair. It was before dawn, and the house was still dark. He hadn’t asked if Andrea would be seeing them off. The stars were veiled, and a rabbit flung itself into the dark as he turned his headlights to the beeyard. He helped Taylor load her hives onto the flatbed, next to his own. When they were ready to leave, he offered her the little mattress behind the driver’s seat—he’d raised children too, knew how hard it was to get a decent night’s sleep with a baby in the house. Taylor said no, promised through yawns to help navigate.
Hours later, and she was still out cold, strapped into the passenger seat, her temple pressed against the glass of the cab. There was a sign for gas, and he took the exit for the travel plaza. Taylor stirred and looked around. “Everything okay back there?” she said, putting a hand through her dark, upswept hair.
“Sure,” he said. “They’re strapped in tight. We had some weather, but that’s what the tarps are for.”
Taylor looked once over her shoulder, then drew a phone from her chore coat. Splashing sounds came from the speaker, then a woman’s voice, a rhythmic murmuring, together with a child’s happy clamor.
“Andrea sent a video,” she said. “Oscar in the tub.” The warmth that spread over her face, it had nothing to do with Guy, but watching it made him feel close to her. The brakes hissed, then sighed as he eased the rig alongside a bank of diesel pumps. She tapped briefly on the screen, then pocketed the phone.
“The tank’s on my side, I’ll fill her up.”
“Alright,” he said. “I think I’ll stretch my legs.”
“Do you know how to work that thing or what?” said the man in line behind him. Guy was staring down at the card reader, his fingers hovering over the keypad. Had he already paid for the gas?
“Your card’s run,” the cashier was saying, “just need your PIN.” Place like this, no reason to think they would cheat you. In any case, best to play along. But looking down at the blank place on the screen, he couldn’t conceive of what numbers ought to go there. He had to put in something, but if the numbers were wrong, they’d make him start all over. He could hear the man behind him breathing.
“Step aside, some of us have loads to haul.”
“Just a minute,” Guy grumbled.
Alma. The number had something to do with her, but what? And where was she, anyway? Still in the bathroom? Every damn time. And if it wasn’t her, it was one of the boys. He was always having to pull off somewhere.
But no, that was a different time. Years ago. He was here with Taylor now. The card. The machine. She needed him to pay for the gas. He glanced over at one of the display racks. Did they have that gum he liked? The kind that tasted like licorice?
“Hey, I’m talking to you.” Someone tapped him on the shoulder. A trucker. He seemed to be grinding his teeth, the muscles along his jaw visibly taut. One of his arms was badly sunburned, the pale underflesh fringed with translucent patches of dead skin. A molting reptile.
“Quiet, now.” Guy turned back to the machine, waving his hand in the air as if swatting an insect. The next thing he knew, Taylor was there, saying his name.
“And who’s going to make me? You? Your little boyfriend here?” Sneering, the trucker turned to Taylor, looked her up and down. He looked both exhausted and agitated, a man kept awake by chemicals, capable of anything. The cashier, secure behind her bullet-resistant window, watched warily but said nothing.
“Fifty on pump nine,” Taylor said, shoving a wad of bills into the metal drawer beneath the window. “Happy now, asshole? Guy, take your card, we need to go.”
When they got back to the rig, Taylor reached under her seat. She unzipped her nylon bag, packed with snacks and other essentials, and drew out something heavy and black. A handgun, trigger and barrel secured in a molded-plastic holster. “You okay to drive?” she asked, arching her back and tucking the pistol into the waistband of her jeans.
“I’m fine,” he said, not sure yet if he was. He started the engine.
“Let’s go, then. I don’t want that psycho following us.”
“Her birthday,” Guy said when they were back on the interstate.
“The PIN. Five four forty-eight.” Alma’s birthday. How could he have forgotten a thing like that?
It wasn’t until hours later, when they’d traded the foothills of Arkansas for the Colorado Rockies, that Taylor stopped checking the rearview mirror, peering into the cab of every semi that got too close. Later, they pulled into a Safeway parking lot in Grand Junction, as good a place as any to spend the night. Guy insisted that Taylor take the sleeper cab. “My truck,” he said when she protested, “my rules. And that gun, we need to talk about that, too. Can I have a look?”
Taylor considered, then took the pistol out of its holster and handed it over. “I guess I should have said something about it.”
“Probably,” he said, checking that the safety was on and then weighing it in his hand. An all-metal, hammer-fired semiautomatic; a newer model, but not so different from the Colt 1911 he’d carried in Vietnam. “This size, I’d think it would be chambered for .45 caliber. But it’s light.”
“It’s a .22. I take it with me when I go camping.”
“We’re pretty far from the woods,” he said, handing it back.
“Don’t tell Andrea, alright? She doesn’t understand about guns.”
“I guess it’s your own business.”
“It is,” Taylor said, suddenly defensive. “Two thousand miles, to somewhere I don’t know anybody, where truckers and farmers and drunks—any man, basically—can decide that just because he doesn’t like my clothes, or my walk . . . I know what they’re like, what they do. No way I’m taking a trip like this and leaving my gun at home.”
It occurred to him that his idea of Taylor’s life might be distorted: his notion that she’d had it easier, never knowing a world that expected her to hide—at least, not the way he had. But refusing to hide, even now, he imagined there were risks to that, too. Things he probably knew nothing about.
“Well, alright,” he said, forcing a grin. “So long as you don’t point it at me.”
When Taylor was settled, Guy folded himself into a sort of crouch in the passenger seat. Feet propped on the dash, he tried to quiet his mind. The incident at the truck stop had left him shaken. The way he’d fallen out of the world, it was like slipping on black ice. No warning, no chance to catch himself. And that trucker running his mouth, like Guy was nothing at all. The worst of it was that Taylor had been there, a witness to his infirmity. He’d tried to apologize, but she’d just shrugged. No big deal, she’d said. She forgot things too: passwords, birthdays, the names of Andrea’s nieces. If she suspected there was something he wasn’t telling her, she seemed willing to let it go.
No point going into it. He needed only to stay vigilant, focus on the tasks in front of him. A few weeks, that was all, and then he’d be back home with his bees. He’d kept bigger secrets than this from neighbors and friends—from his children—and for much longer.
The next morning, he took a handful of Advil to soothe the pain in his back, and they traversed the whole of Utah. A sheen of still water stood over the salt flats, an enormous mirror perfectly reflecting mountains and clouds. I-80 was a bridge that split the sky.
Just before nightfall, they took the on-ramp to the Vegas Freeway. The Trump Hotel was visible for miles, a tower of gold-infused glass, tarnished by the late-afternoon sun. They pushed on to the San Joaquin Valley, then checked into a motel outside Bakersfield. When they got to the room, they each claimed a bed and fell asleep in their clothes.
After a breakfast of coffee, eggs, and chicken-fried steak, they set out for the Singh family orchard. Guy turned off the highway and onto a rutted access road. Beyond a rail wood fence stood rows of short, sturdy almond trees, an occasional pink-white blossom ornamenting their branches. When they reached the fence line, Taylor climbed down from the cab and swung open the cattle gate.
It was hours unloading, setting the hives on pallets at the end of each row of trees, Guy’s arrayed nearer to the gate so he wouldn’t have to walk as far to tend them. Their hives looked more or less the same, handmade boxes he’d shown Taylor how to craft from wood and wire. Still easy enough to tell apart. For years, it had been his practice, after assembling each box, to brand it with a home-crafted iron, always in the same spot. An AH for Autry Honey, the rough letters encircled by a crooked oval.
When they were finished, they sat with their backs against the trunks, in the shade of the new-blooming boughs. The sun was high in the sky, and across the row, Taylor was gulping water from a plastic bottle. She’d shed her shirt, and in her tank top he could see her shapely shoulders and the hard, lean muscles of her arms. It wasn’t ogling, he told himself. It had never been her woman’s body that fascinated him but something to do with her gestures, her walk, the mix of confidence and vulnerability. His attraction to her was nothing like what he’d felt for Alma: great love, but wan desire. It was more like what he felt for other men.
He wondered if there might be a kind of manliness that didn’t belong to men at all, one possessed instead only by certain kinds of women: the butch lesbians he’d seen in bars in the city, a few women he’d known in the service, the girl in his town who’d stayed a tomboy even into high school, so bold as to take a boy’s name—before her parents sent her away. These women, gay or straight, he’d always felt that they were somehow like him.
Did Taylor excite him, he wondered, or did he envy her, the kind of freedom she had, a self-assurance he’d always wanted but had never been able to inhabit? He looked at his boots, determined not to think about her anymore. Whatever these feelings were, they had to be wrong. It had been this way since he was a boy; he kept wanting the wrong things.
“Ready?” he said and cleared his throat.
They zipped into their bee suits and lit the smokers. Guy knew keepers who burned wooden pellets, burlap, even cotton waste. Though it meant shouldering a satchel from hive to hive, he’d brough
t fuel from home: long dry needles from the pines that grew on his land. He loved the smell of smoldering pine straw, the cool, white clouds that coiled from the funnel.
He directed a few puffs into the first box, then waited, giving the guards time to abandon their posts and wander, drowsily, deeper into the hive. Outside, bees hovered and dipped, drawing looping lines through the air. Others had begun to investigate the trees, lighting on the few flowers already in bloom.
Occasionally, a bee landed on his bare hands, crawled about, and then departed. He’d stopped wearing gloves years ago. They were too bulky, and besides, if you moved slowly and with care, few bees would sting you. Removing the covers and breaking seals of dried resin with his hive tool, he lifted the frames, then searched each box until he found the queen.
He was just putting the cover back on a hive when an SUV, freshly waxed and gleaming, pulled into the grove. Taylor was at the far end of the orchard, too far to hear him call. He removed his veil and walked alone in the direction of the gate. The vehicle’s windows were tinted, and he couldn’t make out the driver until the door swung open. A well-fed man in his thirties, his face framed by a short black beard. Erjot Singh.
Guy had met Erjot’s father, the Singh family patriarch, only once. The old man had gotten his start as a laborer in other men’s orchards, eventually saving enough to buy land of his own. Erjot, the eldest son, managed things now. Guy had heard the workers call him “the Little Prince.” He lived lavishly, it was said, and would, on his father’s death, inherit the Singh empire: two thousand acres of rich, central valley farmland with almond and pistachio orchards and a vineyard for growing raisin grapes.
The two men shook hands and talked in the language of farmers everywhere: weather, soil, seeds. And, because this was California, water. Erjot gestured to a plastic bucket. A line of bees was already marshaled along the rim, others perched on chips of wood that bobbed on the surface.
“We’ve had drought here the last two years. Micro-irrigation, flyover imaging—we’ve got to watch every drop.”
“I hear you,” Guy said. “But if they’re lacking for water on-site, they’ll go looking for it. That’s time they’re not pollinating your trees.”
Erjot didn’t assent, but he didn’t argue either.
They walked along a couple of rows, Guy showing off the hives, Erjot examining his trees.
“You’re just in time,” Erjot said when they were back at the gate. “Another day or two and all these trees will be in bloom. Big money,” he mused. “Small window.”
“Well,” Guy said, trying to sound good-humored, “we sure hauled ass to get here.”
They shook hands again, and Erjot gave him the first payment, a check made out to Autry Honey.
The next day, they slept in and took their time getting ready. He’d wanted to talk to Taylor about how to divide the day’s work, but for most of the drive to the orchard, she was on her phone.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said. “Well, she’s my cousin, actually. You’re being crazy.” She was silent for a long moment, then sighed heavily. “Look, it’s just me and Guy, cariño. It’s all orchards and IHOPS out here. Sweat and dirt and a motel off the interstate. As soon as we’re done, as soon as we’ve made this money, I’ll be home again.”
“Everything alright?” he asked when she was through.
“She’s acting like I’m out here on spring break. And you know how my mom came up, to help with Oscar? I guess she’s bossing Andrea around.”
At the orchard, he went looking for a hose while Taylor got into her suit; he’d top off the buckets and walk the rows before suiting up, see how his bees were taking to their new diet. He got as far as the first tree before he stopped, confused. Two hives, ones he’d tended himself the day before, had vanished, along with their pallets.
He willed himself to concentrate. Surely, he hadn’t lost his mind completely.
At his feet, a jumble of symbols had been pressed into the dirt. Gradually, he registered the marks for what they were: indentations left by pallet slats, together with boot prints and the overlapping tracks of forklifts. Almond flowers, both flattened and freshly fallen, lay in the wide chevrons of the tread marks, the pink blossoms smoldering against the dark earth. Shielding his eyes, he looked down the next row and the next. Gone. All of them gone.
He found himself walking, as if in a trance, toward one of the remaining hives. There was a scent in the air—alarm pheromone, a smell like those hard, banana-shaped candies sold at gas stations. Bees landed on the bare flesh of his neck and arms, stinging. As they pulled free, viscera tore from their abdomens—venom and acid sacks left behind.
“Guy,” Taylor called. “Hey, Guy!”
“Who would do this?” he said. And then, for the first time since Alma died, he began to cry.
“These guys, they knew what they were doing,” the sheriff said. “How many did you lose?”
Guy leaned against the fence, his face in his hands, unable to speak.
“More than half,” he heard Taylor say. “A hundred fifty, maybe? We haven’t had a chance to count.”
The number didn’t matter. There were too few left to fulfill the contract with the Singhs or even to run his operation back home. Insurance might pay out for an injured worker or a tornado, but not for this. With no money to replenish his stocks, the only asset he had was the apiary itself, the land on which he’d lived and worked for years. In one night, he’d lost everything, and, worse, he’d taken Taylor down with him. The shame of his impotence, his selfishness, it was almost too much to bear.
Back in the motel room, they sat at the little end table with the curtains drawn. Taylor had scraped the stingers from his neck and shoulders, pressed dollops of calamine lotion onto her fingertips and dabbed them onto the welts. What he must look like to her. His bare chest, strong but sagging. Tangles of spider veins visible beneath the sagging flesh of his arms. Normally, he would have resisted, embarrassed to be shirtless in front her. But after what had happened, he was past any care for pride or propriety.
“You can do the rest yourself,” she said, tossing the crumpled tube on the table. She paced the length of the room, her boots leaving muddy prints on the thin carpet.
His shirt was hanging over the empty chair, but reaching for it seemed impossible. He’d experienced something like this before, coming back from the war, a week when all he could do was sit, slumped and motionless on the living room couch. Later, Alma had told him that he’d refused to eat or take himself to the bathroom. Whenever she tried to speak to him, he would grimace and turn away.
Their doctor, a family friend, had come to the house to examine him but found nothing wrong. The next day, he returned with release forms for electroconvulsive therapy. Alma had feared their life together was over. But then one afternoon as she was eating cottage cheese in the kitchen, he’d sat up and asked for a glass of water. He hadn’t had an episode since.
“Motherfuckers!” Taylor shouted, sweeping one of the lamps off the nightstand, sending it crashing to the floor, the bulb flaring out with a dull pop. Not satisfied, she kicked it across the room. Guy stared at the crumpled shade, crooked on its dented base, then at Taylor, hands on her hips, practically panting with fury.
“I need you to snap out of it, Guy. I need you to get mad.”
He looked over at his shirt and willed his body to move. But some invisible force seemed to hold him in place. Slowly gathering his strength, he found he was able to lean forward. He grasped the shirt and pulled it over his head.
“Tomorrow,” Taylor said. “As soon as the sun is up. We’ll get a map. We’ll go down every back road, see if they were stupid enough to put them out someplace we can find them.”
They spent the next two days driving around in a rented sedan, scanning the deserts and canyons of the San Joaquin Valley for any sign of the hives. It wasn’t entirely hopeless; the land on either side of Interstate 5 was flat for hundreds of miles, punctuated occasionally by a gas station, a fast-food restaurant, or a field of pumpjacks. There were only so many places to hide the bright white boxes, fewer if the thieves hoped to keep the bees alive and healthy for resale. Besides, what was the alternative? Locking himself in the motel room with the curtains drawn, pinned to the bed by dread? At least this way, they were doing something.
“What did you say to Andrea?” he said. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I told her the people here are assholes. I told her we’re getting sick of each other.” Taylor took a hand off the wheel and dug out some sunflower seeds from the bag in her lap. She cracked one open with her teeth and spat the shell out the window.
“And that’s all?”
“Just watch your side, okay?”
the first they’d spoken to each other all afternoon.
“I just want to fix this,” she said finally. “We fix it, finish the job, and she never has to know.” She shifted another seed from her cheek, cracked, and spat again. “You and Alma. You had secrets, right?”
“We did,” he said. “There were things I kept out of sight, or tried to.” Taylor’s anger, the silence between them, all day it had been like a dull ache in his chest. She was talking to him again, and he didn’t want that to stop. “She went through hell with me, I guess. The kind of man I am.” Taylor looked away from the road, as if trying to see from his expression what he might mean. “The kind that’s attracted to other men.”
He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it. To show her how small her betrayal really was, how much more a marriage could stand. Or maybe just selfishness, a need to unburden himself, a hope that the distance she’d imposed might be narrowed somehow if she knew that this, too, was something they shared. He could tell from her look that she hadn’t suspected. Because he was old. Her idea of him, it probably didn’t include the sorts of desires that quickened and troubled the lives of younger people.
“So, then, when you and Alma were together,” she asked carefully, “did you have other lovers? Did she?”
“Not her. It was my problem. When I met Alma, I thought I was cured. I wouldn’t have gotten married if I’d known it would happen again.”
“Sounds peculiar, I know. But back then, that’s how I thought about it. It wasn’t who I wanted to be, so I tried to stop. But then I’d be tempted again. I’d give in. I’d ask her forgiveness and make promises. Then I’d put her through it all again. We stayed together, had our children, and I kept that other part of my life, well, I kept it separate. We didn’t talk about it anymore.”
“But she knew?”
“She knew who I was. When the kids were grown and out of the house, I offered to give her a divorce. But she didn’t want it. Neither of us did.”
As the light began to fail, they broke off their search and turned back towards the motel. Pulling into the lot, they found a black Lexus parked next to their rig. Erjot met them at the door.
Taylor put herself between the two men, said her name, and stuck out her hand.
“It’s Guy’s name on the contract,” she said. “But half the bees that got taken, they belong to me.”
“I see. I have some news about that. But maybe not out here . . .”
Taylor unlocked the door, and they went inside.
“We’ve been asking around,” Erjot said, removing his aviators and hooking them onto the collar of his shirt. “Someone calling himself ‘Laki’ has been reaching out to the other growers, saying he has hives to rent. My father and I, we think this is the man who stole from you.”
Hope hit Guy like a blow to the chest. All through their search, the frantic activity of the last forty-eight hours, he’d never really believed they’d get the bees back. It was just something to keep from shutting down again.
“One of our friends was contacted. He played me a phone message, and I recognized the voice.” As he talked, Erjot fingered the little diamond stud in his ear. “His real name is Fetu Leota. Years ago, he did some work for our family. But he started causing trouble, and we had to fire him.”
“So, you know where he is?” Taylor asked. “Have you told the police?”
Erjot shrugged. “We could do that. The sheriff will want to go to a judge and get a warrant. But all that will take time. Fetu is a coward. As soon as he senses trouble, he’ll run away. Maybe he takes your hives with him.” His voice was calm and remote, as if he had more important things on his mind. “His family will hide him. Here or in Samoa. Also, my father, he’s old fashioned. This sort of dispute, he doesn’t like to involve the police.”
“Dispute?” Taylor said. “We were robbed. Those colonies are worth thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands.”
“So,” Guy said. “It sounds like you have a different idea.”
“Yes.” Erjot placed a business card facedown on the table, a number jotted on the back. “Tell him you’re growers, willing to pay a high price for the hives.”
“Set up a meeting.”
“Exactly. Fetu and the hives will be at the same place at the same time. If you find that he’s stolen from you, you can handle things however you want.” The corner of Erjot’s eye twitched, stirring his fine black lashes. He set his sunglasses back on his nose and rose from the table. “What this man did, it was a terrible thing. My father and I, we regret that it happened on our land. But the almonds won’t wait to bloom. We can give you two more days. After that, if you don’t have the bees, we’ll have to get them from someone else.”
They met the man calling himself Laki in a suburban neighborhood at the edge of town: a network of cul-de-sacs lined with beige houses, aboveground pools set up in the yards. His fenced-in compound was little more than a split-wing with an attached garage, sitting on an acre and a half of sand and scrub-grass. As they approached the house, Guy saw the uneven rows of palettes, hives stacked two or three high. Most beekeepers painted their boxes white or grey, but these were bright orange, like the tops of traffic barrels.
In the driveway, a middle-aged man in cargo shorts and a sweat-stained polo waved them over. He greeted them with a wide smile, slapped their backs as if they were neighbors arriving for a barbecue.
“Sorry,” he said, “but the A/C isn’t working right now. We’ll be better off out here.” He led them to the backyard, a court of sun-scorched grass and a few evergreen bushes clinging to life. There was a trampoline, the sagging safety net half detached from the poles. Nearby, a miniature plastic chair, the kind used in preschools, lay overturned in the dirt.
They sat at a lawn table. Fetu reached into a cooler and handed them cans of Coors Light. “We can’t go higher than two-ten per box,” Taylor said, once they’d gotten down to business. Fetu tried to hide it, but Guy could see that he was pleased.
“Make it two-twenty and you’ve got a deal.”
“That works for us.” Taylor looked at him, and Guy paused, keeping up the act, then reached out to shake Fetu’s hand.
Fetu raised his beer. “To new friends, and a profitable partnership.” They tapped their cans together. It was all Guy could do not to seize the hive tool hidden in his jacket and see how many of the man’s teeth he could pry out.
“Let’s make it official,” Guy said, setting his beer on the table. “I’ll get the paperwork out of the car.” A quick look at Taylor told him that it would be fine to leave her there.
He went back around to the front of the house. In the driveway, he bent down and tucked his trousers into his socks; a few stings were inevitable, but he could do without bees getting inside his clothes. Leaving the car where it was, he headed in the direction of the orange boxes.
When he reached the first one, he dropped into a crouch and took out his hive tool. Angling the sharp end just above one of the handholds, he scraped off the top layer of paint. Sticky orange shavings clung to his blade, and he reached out to feel the exposed wood. Someone had been at it with a sander, but his fingers could still trace the faint outlines of a four-digit number, and after that, his brand mark, just where he knew to find it.
A popping sound, like the bursting of a plastic bag, echoed through the yard. It was quickly followed by a second pop. It was only after the third shot that he registered the sounds as gunfire. Bees still clinging to his hands and clothes, he turned and ran toward the house.
When he reached the backyard, he found Taylor on the patio, both hands gripping a pistol. She had tears in her eyes, from anger or fear, he couldn’t tell. Fetu was facedown on the ground, half inside the house and half out of it. The sliding door was partly open, the glass punctured and spidered where two bullets had passed through it. Fetu was down, but Taylor kept the gun trained on him. The smell of gunpowder still hung in the air.
“Fuck, I don’t know. He must have figured something was up. We were talking and then he flipped over the table, tried to get past me. Go through me. I mean, what was I supposed to—Fuck, this is bad,” she said. “This is so bad.”
“It’s alright.” Guy approached her slowly. “How would you feel about giving me that gun?”
Taylor glanced down first at Fetu, then at the gun. Guy reached out and, slow and gentle, the way he moved when he was working his bees, he placed his hands over hers. Gradually, she loosened her grip, let him wrest it away.
Fetu let out a little moan. At least he was still alive. Not that Guy cared whether he lived or died. His only concern was for Taylor. The plan, if they found the hives, had been to call the police. That wasn’t going to work now. They’d have to deal with the situation themselves.
“She shot me,” Fetu whimpered. “She fucking shot me.”
“Is there anybody else here?” Guy said, looking into the house. “Is anybody coming?”
“I’m hurt. I’m bleeding.”
“I asked you a question.” Guy pulled back the slider and let it go—the unmistakable click-clack of a round being chambered. He took aim at the back of Fetu’s head, his thumb finding the safety, flipping it on.
“Up on your knees.” Reaching for the doorframe, Fetu complied. Blood seeped from his waist, running down his leg and staining his shorts. Not spurting, though. That was good. Guy had heard three shots, two of which had gone into the door. So, shot once in the hip with a twenty-two, a round better suited to killing squirrels than people. They’d caught a break, it seemed. This man wasn’t going to die; he was barely injured.
“It’s my house. It’s just me. Please, don’t—”
“You got a car in that garage?”
“You’re going to get in it. Now.”
“Guy,” Taylor said, hesitant.
“You’re going to drive far away from here,” he continued, “and forget this ever happened. We know who you are, and we know what you did. The police will too, if you don’t get out of here right now.”
Guy found himself sitting on the couch in an unfamiliar house, a ceiling fan slowly churning the air. His hands were dappled with stings and in one of them he seemed to be holding a pistol. The sound of machinery and shouting reached him, and he got up to look out the window. Men dressed for farm work, people he didn’t know, were loading hives onto pallets. Another man drove a forklift, transferring the hives to a flatbed truck.
They weren’t the right color, but somehow, he knew these boxes were his, full of his bees. He was angry, already very angry, though he wasn’t sure what the feeling was attached to. Whatever was happening out there, he was going to put a stop to it. Was that why he had the gun? He flipped off the safety.
Outside, the sun was blinding. When he could see clearly again, he pointed the pistol into the air and pulled the trigger. It was so light in his hands, made such a pathetic little crack, that he fired again just to be sure he hadn’t imagined it. The men stopped what they were doing and stared. One dropped to the ground, and another dove behind a stack of boxes.
“What’s going on here?” Guy demanded. “What do you think you’re doing on my property?” It looked nothing like his property. But his hives were here. None of it made any sense.
“What the fuck, Guy,” someone shouted. “Put the gun down!”
Shading his eyes, he searched for the source. With the sun at her back, he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to be Taylor, maybe twenty yards away. She was walking toward him, her hands raised. This was wrong, all wrong. He dropped the gun and backed into the house.
As he sat on the couch, certain facts surfaced. He was not in Iowa but California. His hives had been stolen by a man named Fetu, and this was Fetu’s house. The people outside worked for the Singhs; he had been the one to call them. There was a gentle knock on the frame, and then Taylor came to sit beside him.
“Guy, are you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was confused.”
Without thinking, he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his suit jacket. It had begun to run.
Years later, Taylor drove her own rig, bringing her bees to the Singhs’ orchard, then moving on to pollinate plums, cherries, apples—even cotton and lima beans. By the time Guy retired, she was doing well enough to buy him out. After that, he kept only the house and a few hives, working them just for the pleasure of it. In the afternoons, he sat in a chair in the yard, the nurse inside if he needed her, and watched his bees.
His feet bare, he gripped the soft grass with his toes. All these years and his love for the bees—his admiration for their industry, the fierceness with which they defended what was theirs—it had not diminished. They served one another and harmed nothing. Was there any human being who could say the same?
One of the colonies was bearding, a thick curtain of bees hanging from the bottom of the hive. Scouts were already on the wing, looking for a new home. Left to themselves they would choose wild and broken-down places over the handsome boxes he built for them. A hollow tree perhaps, or the eaves of an abandoned barn. In the past, he would have split the colony, placed the old queen and her retinue in an empty box. But there was no need for that now. He’d let them go. A summer breeze brought the scent of pine. The sound of wings, a gentle hum, fading as he closed his eyes.
Author statement: The idea for “Keeping” came from an article in National Geographic about bee heists in Canada and the western United States. I realized early on that to tell this story, I would need to learn about bees and beekeeping, the decline in honeybee populations, the pesticides that leave them vulnerable to fungal parasites and mites, almond growing in California, and more. Luckily, as a librarian, I’m no stranger to research and enjoy opportunities to indulge my curiosity.
For help thinking about Guy and Taylor, queer people of different generations, both seeking to make lives for themselves in the rural Midwest, I consulted oral histories gathered by projects like StoryCorps’ Stonewall OutLoud, the Country Queers podcast, and LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa. There is a moment in the story when Guy considers Taylor’s gender in relation to his own feelings of identification and desire. My thinking about what is happening in that scene was influenced by engagement with drag performances by Alana Kumbier (among others), queer spaces curated by producers such as Aliza Shapiro, and scholarly work by gender theorists—especially Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinities. I’m grateful to my teachers Ethan Canin and Margot Livesey, as well as my fellow workshoppers at Iowa. This story went through several drafts, and it was greatly improved by their comments and suggestions.
Thomas Dodson is a librarian and assistant professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashville, Oregon. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. Founding editor of Printer’s Devil Review, he was also the executive editor of the Best Indie Lit New England series. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.