“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.
“Treading Water” by Dionne Irving
In “Treading Water,” novelist and essayist Dionne Irving recounts her experience of racial battle fatigue in the context of her lifelong relationship with water and the fraught history of race and swimming in America. The essay first appeared in TMR 39:2.
As long as I have been able to afford it in my adult life, I have found, whenever possible, a swimming pool. I learned to swim in Canada of all places, the only little black girl in my swimming class. I had been anxious to get in the water for as long as I could remember. My only delay was the tubes I’d had put in my ears at three years old. I come from island people, and my love of water happens on the pre-reflective level, joyfully, and with abandon. The smell of sea, of salt, of chlorine, of damp, slightly moldy bathing suits—all make me happy. My people come from Hong Kong, India, Africa, Scotland, and have ended up in Jamaica, Canada, and now the United States. I am the first who will have lived most of my life here. My family history is a collection of names and a handful of dates, most lost or faded. Like the way the ocean pounds away at the shore, our history, like the white sand of the island, slips through my fingers all the time.
Both heritage and joy bring me to the water. I swim laps, sometimes in community swimming pools or at fancy gyms with heated pools and bins thick with flutter boards; I will sometimes emerge from a stroke to see an older black person staring at me, the man or woman usually in his or her sixties or seventies. They might be a part of a water aerobics class or running in a physical therapy pool.
If I catch their eye they will say “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Good evening.” Our pleasantries break them from some kind of trance. I return to my laps, turning my head usually to the right, in order to take a breath. I love feeling my lungs expand and contract as I move through the water. I am aware of them for the first time all day. I marvel at my body’s capacity to stay buoyant, to take in air, to propel me forward. There are no sounds but the thrum of my heart and the cadence of my breath. In these moments, I understand the human body as a beautiful construct. When I stop, out of breath and panting, those eyes are on me again, watching.
As a symbol, water can be heavy handed. My writing students too often use it as a metaphor. They come back to it again and again to indicate cleansing or purification.
Bad students’ poems are usually where one finds water used as a metaphor to describe rebirth or the miraculous. But I find that I come back to it as often as my students do. Water captivates me. Water is refreshing but powerful, pleasurable, and dangerous. Figuratively, literally, symbolically, it has no equal for potency. Water is both backyard Slip ’N Slide and tsunami.
When we swim, when we plunge into oceans or lakes or backyard swimming pools, we feel some mastery over water, as though it could be ours to control. In these spaces we don’t wear much clothing and are in close contact with strangers. In and around these bodies of water, we reveal our public private parts. I think about this every time I pull on a bathing suit. I look at the way each of my “flaws” becomes visible and open for judgment. As we swim together, we experience intimacy regardless of age, race, or size. Each time we enter the water in a public space, we show ourselves.
It took me a few years of living in the United States before I understood the way water is loaded for African Americans. A horrible legacy surrounds water, and the story of who has access to it is a story dominated by a violence that is intricately tied to the ongoing battle for civil rights and against racism in the United States. In a hearing regarding public swimming spaces in Baltimore in 1954, just after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, city solicitor Edwin Harlan said, “There must be segregation in fields of intimate contact or else there may be trouble.”
Trouble. What a wonderful word. Purposefully vague, it can suggest innumerable possibilities. Perhaps it was the kind of trouble that Harlan had in mind that resulted in a married couple’s arrest. Only two hours south of Baltimore and four years later, Mildred and Richard Loving would find themselves behind bars after breaking anti-miscegenation laws. Trouble begets intimacy, and intimacy is always trouble for those who believe fundamentally that skin color implies basic biologic difference.
Intimacy has certainly brought me my fair share of trouble because I have a very white life. To steal and alter a line from the old platitude: Some of my best friends are white. My white life happened in the way one usually does: I grew up middle class, attended mostly white schools, a mostly white college, worked in mostly white offices and went to mostly white graduate programs. English departments, for all their best efforts, are still primarily white spaces. I live in the Midwest, which is largely white, and where most of my coworkers and almost all of my students are white. I have compounded this racial isolation by marrying a white man, so much of my family is also white. In my life, so filled with whiteness, I avoid talking about Ferguson, about Eric Garner, about the movie Selma. I don’t remind people how easily I could have been that fourteen-year-old, bikinied black girl in McKinney, Texas, who was recently slammed to the ground by an overzealous police officer on the lawn outside a largely white pool.
Because I am often the only person of color in the room, these topics become loaded. I risk becoming the angry black woman in the eyes of those around me. I risk sounding like I am delivering a sermon, or instruction, or chastising. The angry black woman is a powerful archetype. The finger-waving, head-snapping sister-girl is an image I have to work hard to combat. Not because it represents any part of my character, but because it is the only lens through which many white people see a black women’s anger. It’s as though any time I am angry, I am liable to “go off.” My fear of this image often silences me in meetings where I might like to speak up. It makes me hesitate in moments where my temper flares; it alters my behavior in every single facet of my life; it is one of the things that contribute to my invisibility. So I have avoided conversations that could externalize the pain I’ve felt welling up inside me over these past few months in response to the sad state of the world.
The truth is that even intimacy cannot assure that people I love won’t disappoint me. The malaise and nausea I feel when I recognize the rhetoric of racism and privilege coming out of the mouths of people whom I have confided in, brought into my life, whom I work with and respect, keeps me off the Internet and away from the papers for days; it makes me send incoming calls to voicemail. It visits me with the symptoms of a depression so deep and so all-consuming that I have, more than once, closed my office door in the middle of the day to cry. I cannot eat, cannot sleep, cannot write, and cannot think.
A friend recently sent me an article about a condition called Racial Battle Fatigue. In a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, the authors focused on generalized anxiety disorder and found that people of color in the United States suffer from the condition at alarming rates. Defined as more than six months of general, free-floating anxiety and worry, the disorder was present not only in black people but also in soldiers of all races who live in theaters of war. It is a condition of living in a constant state of anxiety when the perceived threat can come from those who you are close to. I read the piece and thought, “Aha! So it isn’t just me.”
My friends, my extended family, are good, well-meaning people. They are loving, they are accepting, they are generous, but they are people who take their privilege for granted. They don’t have to live in fear of what may happen to them or to their children at an innocent pool party.
Who has access to water and who doesn’t, who is allowed to swim and when and where and how that swimming takes place connotes a privilege. When I read about how other forms of racial discrimination began to be dismantled after World War II, I kept coming back to swimming pools as battlegrounds. In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse explores how, as public places starting in the North became increasingly more desegregated, whites simply abandoned municipal and public swimming pools for private pools and country clubs. A 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70 percent of African American children couldn’t swim. The reasons for this statistic are varied, but the result is a greater number of drowning deaths of African American children each year. Not everyone has the privilege of recreational water, something I’ve learned a little at a time throughout my life. Only now do I consider how I, a young black woman moving confidently through the water, might have warranted a closer look.
I was a teenager when my family moved to Florida from Canada. I didn’t understand then what water meant in America, and what it continues to mean. I didn’t know the way access to water could communicate the underlying issues of race, class, and privilege in the United States. Instead, what I imagined was the beach, the ocean lapping at my toes, and the soft sand. It was a scene that conjured everything that was good about the water. What a disappointment, then, when instead of being close to the beach, we were landlocked in northern Florida, nowhere near the water.
That fall I joined my high school swim team. I was the only person of color, my face little more than a smudge in the back of the yearbook photograph. We swam at the local university early in the morning. We got to practice at 5 am,and were in the water for an hour and a half and then off to high school on the other side of town. In the semi-darkness, the air was damp with the early morning and tinged with the chlorine I loved so much. I loved making my way down the lanes as the sun came up. It was the only time of day when I felt like me, the girl I’d been in Canada, the one who wasn’t always confused and heartbroken and alone. I didn’t understand Florida, and maybe I never would.
“Perfect form,” my high school swim coach would call out at each practice. “But you’re too slow!”
These words, I suspect, were meant to push me to try harder. But I was immune to coaching. I lost every race I competed in, finishing slowly, behind almost everyone in my heat. Half the time, I forgot I was competing. I lost myself in the dreamy state of being submerged in water still warm from the sun’s rays the previous day. I thought about the life in Canada I’d left behind and tried to forget that I was in this odd place, already stiflingly hot by 7 am.
In the locker room, my teammates, all white, wanted to know what I was using to shampoo my hair. They asked if I washed it every day. They told me I “talked funny,” and they would ask me to repeat those same distinctly Canadian words to hear the ways the vowels sounded in out and about and house. My teammates sounded funny to me, too, their words like a set of jangly keys coming together rhythmically in a song I didn’t know the words to. I would mimic their accents to entertain my mother and younger sister on days when we all felt down.
In the water, my teammates cheered me on, told me I would do better next time. They didn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t discouraged by my placement in the races or by my clear lack of athleticism. I couldn’t explain to them that all I really wanted was to be in the water. I didn’t want to be coached or cheered. I just wanted the connection to breath and body and self. Just as people do now, they watched me then, too, but perhaps for different reasons, staring at me from the sidelines as I made my way up and down the lanes.
During that first year in Florida, I swam mostly at home in our family swimming pool. It seemed to me the ultimate luxury as a Canadian girl, being able to swim outdoors into September and early October even. A dream, but not an altogether pleasant one. But then again, all of America was like a dream, familiar in some ways but the rest of it so unfamiliar, so confusing.
My understanding came in the form of a searing punch that connected with my jaw after I left math class on a scorching hot October afternoon. I turned when someone called my name, but didn’t react quickly enough to see the closed fist that connected with the right side of my jaw and sent vibrations shooting up through my face. She hadn’t drawn blood, but I clutched my cheek, thick with pain. The pain floored me and made me drop to the patch of grass between two portable classrooms. I had never been hit before. The girl towered above me, her message clear: You’re either with us or against us. What I wasn’t clear on until later that day was who that “us” was.
“You speak too proper,” a girl confided in me as she helped me press paper towels soaked in cool water onto my face. “You act too white. People don’t like it when they think you think you better than them.”
Too white or too black. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a way to “act” black or white, that one was inherently better or worse. To be “too” something implied that you needed to find a balance, or, more to the point, that your pendulum should swing toward your own race in a way that made you easy to understand for other people. That way no one would question your grooming habits or the way you spoke. At my high school it meant you signed up for girls’ basketball or track and field. It meant that if you were smart, you joined the Black Brain Bowl Team (not its white counterpart, called simply the Brain Bowl) but it certainly did not mean you joined the swim team and signed up to be on the yearbook staff.
I managed to wash the mud from my shorts that afternoon before my mother noticed. But my face—black and blue, swollen and puffy where the girl’s fist had landed—was less easy to hide, and my mother certainly noticed.
I can’t recall the details of the lie I told. Something highly improbable, I’m sure. I relied on my ability to tell a good story. Mostly, I was ashamed. Most fourteen-year-olds think they know everything, and I was no different. I wanted to think I understood the world implicitly and that it had order and sense. I didn’t want my mother to know I had seemingly miscalculated who I was and my place in this new, bizarre world. I was ashamed that although I’d always made friends quickly and easily, I was so emotionally tone deaf that I could not pick up on the rhythms, the strokes, and the breath of this new place.
I can still feel the lingering effects of that punch, all these years later, the way it indoctrinated me into the subtleties of racial life in America, the way I continually find myself being indoctrinated. I’m grateful that there are no longer any overt punches. Instead, a thousand microaggressions land, as painful and as visceral as that closed fist against my jaw. And in my white world, I see those around me taking language for granted. Language—the words we use and the words we choose—is a privilege, and taking things for granted is at the very heart of privilege.
I dragged my feet on where to go to college, and through a combination of apathy and chiding from my parents, I ended up at Big Southern University. In the summer before my sophomore year, I signed up for Multi-Ethnic American Literature. I had taken an American lit class the previous fall with the same professor, who had managed to crack open Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for me. When the book came into focus, I felt as though something made sense, as if the book announced something I had long felt but never been able to articulate. It seemed to explore the sense memory you have in the water when you know innately when to breathe and where your body is most buoyant. I had learned when, where, and how to be invisible in America. When to talk, when to stay silent, when to make sure it felt like I wasn’t there at all. In his novel, Ellison expressed the invisibility I cultivated and made sense of it, identified a purpose. As I began to understand that desire, I wanted to unpack it, to explore it.
But at Big Southern U, who was I to unpack it with? My professor’s summer syllabus looked exciting, full of authors I hadn’t read. They are now authors so dear to me that I hardly remember who I was before I encountered them: Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie, Gayl Jones, and many others. That syllabus became a kind of personal canon for me in those interim years when I languished in corporate America before deciding to return to graduate school.
At a college known more for football and partying than academics, that six-week session was a popular way to squeeze in (or more frequently to make up) a class and not let it ruin one’s entire summer. In six weeks, most of us would receive three credits toward our major or toward satisfying another requirement in the English Department.
The classroom was in an older building that hadn’t been outfitted with the bone-chilling industrialized indoor winter in June that is Florida’s calling card. In the stuffy classroom, my T-shirt stuck to my back and my hair clung to my head, frizzing at the scalp. I would go swimming when the class was done. I could see the pool from the window of the classroom, cool and inviting. It was the same pool of my thwarted high school swim-team days; I seemed to keep coming back to it.
As I do now in my own college classes, the professor had us each introduce ourselves and talk about why we were taking the class. But first he discussed the class and pushed us to consider our own identities, to consider the ways in which race and privilege might define how we considered the texts we were going to read.
Most of the introductions were generic and similar, announcing a desire to learn whatever the student could from the semester. Some students told stories about their own backgrounds. Many were first-generation college students or students who wanted to learn more about a cultural heritage that had been whitewashed. With my professor’s ears, I know now that these are things students say to please the teacher. But then, I didn’t pay much attention. I was terrified of speaking in public, and I waited anxiously for my turn to come, trying to figure out what I was going to say about my interest in ethnic American literature. It would destroy my invisibility if I had to explain why I needed to be invisible.
Eventually I told a story about a racial heritage spanning four continents and owing mostly to the lasting effects of colonialism, ship travel, and—of course—slavery. When I got to the end I felt relieved, ready to return to a kind of invisibility and prepared to listen to the two or three rows of students sitting behind me.
“I’m excited to take this class because it’s amazing to hear about other people’s backgrounds, because I’m just white.”
The words caught my attention immediately. I craned my neck to see who had spoken, a girl in a long, paisley-print skirt, her crop top exposing the soft expanse of belly atop the skirt’s waistband, and her curly hair frizzing away from her head. She was one of the girls I had taken to avoiding in college, those who smelled of patchouli and decorated their dorm rooms with Bob Marley posters. That kind of girl tended only to be interested in the fact that my Jamaican parents might somehow be indicative of a secret stash of pot. In my Canadian upbringing, I had never heard anyone call himself or herself “just white.” Greek, Romanian, Czechoslovakian, Irish; elementary school seemed to capture a wide swath of eastern bloc countries and colonial outliers. Lunch was so inclusive that one could trade a bologna sandwich for some curry chicken or exchange a Jamaican meat patty for a piece of baklava. What did this mean, “just white”? It implied that somehow, in this class of diverse backgrounds and narratives, whiteness was somehow not as exciting, as interesting, as exotic. It was the opposite of being “too white.” “Just” implied a kind of blandness and homogeny in an American cultural paradigm that cultivated and elevated whiteness and simultaneously normalized it to make it less interesting or important. Whiteness, I had quickly learned in my American education, was the standard for beauty, intellect, and acceptability, but no one should admit this or discuss it, particularly not a white hippie girl in a multi-ethnic lit class. Was whiteness somehow not going to be valued in this class? To say “just white” seemed like treading water, not moving toward understanding the course’s purpose and not able to look back and understand what came before this point in time. “Just” implied stasis, a lack of growth regarding ideas of whiteness or anything other than whiteness. “Just” was a lie. The professor chuckled a bit. “None of us are ‘just white,’” he said. “Whiteness is a construct and a category like any other that we will unpack this semester.”
Later that day in the water, I swam my slow freestyle up and down the middle lane. Taking my time and measuring my breath, I made sure to remember the way the girl’s skirt had dragged on the floor, the ring in her nose, and the timbre of her voice: high pitched, girlish, and loud. I gathered these details for a story as my arms glided through the water, barely making a splash on its surface, the sun hitting my goggles as I came up for air again, and again, and again.
“Just white” stuck with me for an entire year. I told the story to a group of friends in a coffee shop, to my older siblings, to my new friend Keith, who like me had parents from the Caribbean and a passion for death metal. The combined naïveté and irony of the statement was typical of so many attempts at racial parity that came out so wrong-headed at Big Southern University. There were those people who tried to convince me that they did not see race, the boy who shied away from introducing me to his parents, the classmate so stunned that I had passed college Algebra on the first try. “You must be really smart!” he marveled, while flipping through his basic math text.
It was at about that time that I met her again, this time at a meeting for the staff of the school newspaper. The girl, this time looking decidedly less like a relic of the 1960s introduced herself as “Alice.”
“Oh, I know you,” I blurted out. “You were in my ethnic American lit class last summer. You were the ‘just white girl.’”
It came out without any thought. I hadn’t realized that this anecdote might be less funny to the person who was the butt of the joke.
“What?” she said, confused.
She furrowed her brow, and I recounted the story to her about her shame at being “just white.” She looked embarrassed, and I felt bad. This person whom I had used in an anecdote for a year had no clue what her language that day had implied. And at the time I didn’t fully understand what that privilege meant. It was a funny story to me, and I didn’t see the ways in which it indicated a naïveté about the world.
“Wow,” she said. “That was dumb. I don’t even know why I said that. My family’s Italian.”
She was chastened, and in that moment of shared embarrassment, we started building a friendship. In this moment of revelation, we seemed to be able to find a kind of honesty. This ability to speak freely to each other became the cornerstone of our friendship. We had agreed to be honest with each other in a way that meant we confessed too much, but it also meant that we held onto each other’s secrets.
My husband, who studies the politics, philosophies, and theories of race, tells me that authentic intimacy might be the thing that helps people move beyond issues of racial difference. He reminds me that if we truly know a person, race recedes into the background and becomes secondary to who they are. I am not his black wife, but his wife. I want that to be true. I don’t want to be anyone’s “black” anything. I only want people to see me, not black me.
As I look through pictures online of the history of the desegregation swimming pools, I click past images of children, black and white, still standing in groups segregated by race, not touching. The white children are in the minority. In the photos each group looks at the other warily. I want to believe they got to know each other, that the intimacy of the shared swimming space meant they learned each other’s names and lives. But the other images, the ones that show a hotel manager throwing muriatic acid into a swimming pool where whites and blacks swam together to protest the segregated space, make me believe otherwise. Intimacy, even when it is only the kind that comes from standing close to one another in bathing suits, is just as frightening when it arrives in a friendship.
After Alice and I graduated from college and moved on to other cities, we visited each other periodically. We slipped back into the roles we knew so well from college: the girl who was “just white,” who said directly, bluntly what was on her mind and in her heart regardless of whom it might offend; and me, caustic and mean, the one who collected small details and used them to make jokes at others’ expense. There are other things I could say about the ways in which our friendship morphed and changed over time that might round her out, things about her wicked sense of humor, her willingness for adventure, her openness to new things. There are times we laughed so hard we cried; we shared experiences that make for excellent cocktail party stories. There are times I cried on her shoulder or she on mine. These are all measures of our friendship, a relationship defined not by our differences but one that seemed to transcend them.
Even so, invariably over the years, we would have odd or awkward moments between us when all of a sudden the girl I’d called “the just white girl” would rear her head and I wasn’t sure what to do. She introduced me to new people as her gorgeous friend, always noting my tiny waist, my ample bosom, and my skin. Only later did I understand that this seemingly flattering list was actually reducing me to my physicality, a collection of pleasing and palatable parts. Again thinking she was being complementary, she would reduce me further, nudging me toward whiteness by telling me she was blacker than I was when she ridiculed me for a succession of white boyfriends, when she told me she thought about dating a black man but never could because of how her parents might react.
We both got master’s degrees in English; she focused on literature while I pursued creative writing. We exchanged professional materials, swapped dating stories, continued to travel together and were in each other’s weddings. Over the period that encompassed my twenties, she was one of my closest friends. As we closed out that decade of our lives, we both, suddenly and rather unexpectedly, found ourselves divorced.
I was excited at what seemed to be a fresh start for us both of us as we entered into new and promising relationships. Alice and I were living closer than we had throughout most of the previous decade, only a six-hour drive apart, and it seemed the opportune moment for a visit. I had met a wonderful new man, intelligent and kind. Less than a year later, he would become my husband in a ceremony that excluded most of the people we know. In that first blush of new love, what I wanted most of all was for him to meet the people who were important to me.
On the drive from Atlanta to Chapel Hill, the sky opened up no less than half a dozen times. Fat drops and steady waves of rain made it feel as though we were crawling along the freeway.
Alice lived in a former cotton and dye mill, recently converted to lofts, on the banks of a river just outside of Chapel Hill. The water in the river churned a muddy brown from the pounding of the constant rain. We held sweaters over our heads and ran into the building as quickly as we could in the late summer rain.
The floors, original to the space, had been heavily varnished, and the contractors had left the occasional textile button or staple to offer what real estate agents and home design shows will often call “character.” On their website, the management company advertised the space as “rural renaissance done right.” The idea of a Southern “rural renaissance” only made me think of the South’s rural history, so closely linked to slavery. I could still hear the overtones of cotton culture. The idea of renaissance “done right” was a juxtaposition that embodied the contemporary South completely. It wanted to revise its past, to focus on its glories, to ignore its fundamental truth.
In the stairwell up to her loft, I kissed my boyfriend. I was excited at the fun weekend ahead, the good time we were going to have. When we arrived on the top floor and knocked on her door, she pulled it open and said, “Oh, good, you got a little fat too!”
I was taken aback by her words. She was trying to make a joke—at least, I think she was. Was it a way to dissipate some tension she felt about the visit? About herself? I wasn’t sure. We drank some wine. Then some more. And then we shared a bottle of sparkling wine when we got to restaurant.
“You look happy,” she remarked when we went to the bathroom midway through the meal.
“I am happy,” I said.
It was true. It was the first happiness I could remember, after a protracted and grueling divorce, after several years of a bad marriage and a life I felt I had settled for.
“I am too,” she said quickly as we washed our hands in the big farm-style sink. In what I thought was a celebratory gesture, she ordered more sparkling wine when we got back to the table. Instead, the mood of the evening shifted startlingly and suddenly. Alice started in with stories of our college escapades and then shifted to a series of stories that seemed intended to lay bare for this new man in my life the worst parts of me, those that would make him cringe, feel insecure, and lead to conflict.
He got quieter and quieter. By the time the evening ended, he would barely look at me. We returned to her apartment, and my boyfriend and I barely spoke. Tossing and turning on her fold-out couch, I tried to figure out where things had gone so wrong. When I finally drifted off to sleep, he got up and walked down to the river. I awoke, startled, after he had been gone a little while. The rain from the previous evening had started coming down harder and faster. The river churned dark and fast. I had no idea where he was or when he was coming back.
After several hours, he did return, cold, wet, muddy, and shivering, I was angry, relieved, and overwhelmed. I was frustrated with him, with myself, and with her. We had a frenzied exchange in the dark, whispering hoarsely, resolving nothing. Somehow I felt I had done something wrong. There was some code of whiteness I had broken, had overstepped, or had failed to see. In that moment I was the outsider. And as Alice woke up and the day began, it seemed that I was the one whom everyone was angry with.
Treading water is hard work. You appear still from the water’s surface, as though you are levitating, yet below the surface, your lower body and arms work frantically, kicking and pounding against the water’s pressure. The energy you exert just to keep your head and neck aloft will tire you out quickly enough. It is one of the best illusions in swimming: the surface doesn’t indicate what is going on below.
I tried to make everything right with them both and to keep my head above water. The day went from drizzly to a downpour, the water less like droplets and more like buckets dropped from the sky. We got soaked going to lunch, and we agreed to stay in that evening. We planned to grill on the communal patio in her converted mills, a giant concrete slab with a roof. The space was lined with an array of gas and charcoal grills, one of those contemporary spaces that invite apartment dwellers to be neighborly. It was this community that had attracted Alice after her divorce, when she felt adrift in a city to which she had relocated for her ex-husband.
Still rain-drenched and cold, I felt exhausted but nevertheless relieved that as the day neared its end I had been successful on both fronts. My friend and my boyfriend both seemed more relaxed, more at ease.
We decided on kabobs and spent the early evening cutting up vegetables and meats. As Alice chattered on about the new place she was living and her fellow tenants, the phrase “porch monkey” hissed and slid out of her mouth like a water moccasin. I was stunned to silence for a moment, and then I said, “What?”
“Oh, you know,” she said, slicing up hunks of smooth, pink, raw chicken and running them through with skewers. “I mean hippie kids who come out to the porch and eat everyone’s food without asking. Porch monkeys.”
But I didn’t know.
“Start over,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “It isn’t racist,” she said. Alice’s tone implied that I was being overly sensitive.
I hadn’t said much of anything at all, yet something in her understood how loaded her words were. How racist the phrase was. Did she think it was okay to say it because she didn’t think I was “really” black? She knew she was wrong but didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to give her an out, so I said, with the slightest hint of a joke in my voice, “I don’t think that expression means what you think it means.”
She shrugged. “That’s what they are.”
She was done with the subject. She had moved on to considering which vegetables to grill next, and I stood there, flummoxed.
The origins of the slur porch monkey are nebulous. However, the words have been used alongside jungle bunny, yard ape, coon, nigglet and a host of other racial slurs that emphasize the animalistic when it comes to black people. The history of assigning the phenotypic characteristics of a monkey or ape to black people goes back even further. It is meant to dehumanize, to make a black person a beast, to ascribe qualities of the feral, the frightening, the untamed, the uncivil and brutish to our people.
I exchanged a glance with my boyfriend across the room. He, too, was incredulous. He was white, I thought. He got it. How could this woman, one of my closest friends for over a decade, be so obtuse? Or worse, so cruel?
Language is tenuous and ever changing. There is nothing fixed about it. All three of us were English professors, and we understood this. Language was our livelihood, and as close examiners and interpreters of that language, to assume that words are without power? It seemed naïve; it seemed callous. This “porch monkey” thing, like a weeping wound in the middle of the meal preparations, compounding everything else that had happened that weekend. While she had been intent on first trying to use my past to subjugate me, when that hadn’t worked she seemed to have gone for the last thing left, the color of my skin. But she had done it covertly, quietly, sneakily. She made my race itself the problem. And what could I do but stand there stunned? I had two options: to reopen the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface or to let it go.
In hindsight, I made the coward’s choice, the passive-aggressive choice. I stayed hurt, and I said nothing. I helped her finish making the kabobs, and we went out to the impromptu party that had assembled on the common patio. But I didn’t stay long. I felt conspicuously black in this forced community setting. And when I heard her retelling the porch-monkey joke over and over again to the delighted young urban professionals, hipsters, and trust-funded hippies who had gathered to draw community from each other, I felt the beginnings of that soul-crushing sadness with which I had become so familiar.
In the days afterward, that’s all I felt. On the way back to Atlanta, I tried to discuss it with my boyfriend, not having the language in that moment to articulate why these two words had bothered me so much. Why I couldn’t just let it go as I had a million times before with her, with other people. A few days after our return she sent me an e-mail in which she wrote the following:
We swore to be honest, so I’m going to tell you what I see. I have to say these things to you because if I didn’t, I would feel like I failed you as one of the few people in your life who can say this. I love you very much, and I want you to be happy. Here’s the real problem: your boyfriend has eliminated YOUR ability to be honest.
The words stung, because there was truth in them. I hadn’t been honest, but the person I hadn’t been honest with was her. I couldn’t tell her the way the words she used resonated in my head. That I felt like she had tried to annihilate me with that phrase, over and over. How I’d thought about it for days after, trying to figure out why she hadn’t understood. But I kept coming back to myself again and again as the person who was at fault, because I hadn’t been honest, I hadn’t been intimate. I had closed the gates to her without giving her an opportunity to defend herself. But really, how many chances do we get? I don’t have an infinite number of chances, so why must I give them?
The truth is that no matter what I accomplish, no matter what I do, no matter what I don’t do, some people in the world will always see my dark skin, not me. In their eyes, I am a rare exception. Like a tap-dancing dog, I am dazzling but not indicative of what other dogs might do.
The term “racial microaggression” has been around since the 1970s and describes the overt and covert ways in which people of color receive messages about how race defines them. It is the most powerful catalyst of Racial Battle Fatigue. It is the casual use of a phrase like porch monkey. It is the student who said I had made her “a bit less racist” because she assumed most young black women were “pregnant, on welfare and ill spoken.” It is the professor who told me that no one wants to read stories about people of color and asked if I weren’t limiting myself by writing those stories. It is the yoga instructor who told me with a pat on my upturned ass during the middle of a class, “We need to get more of your people out here doing yoga. It’s good for them!” It is the friend who fingered my hair and asked if I had a weave. Any one of these things on its own dehumanizes me; the hundreds that I keep in a file on my computer exhaust me. It is enough to make someone not want to get out of bed in the morning. It is a society that devalues your personhood, a friend who makes you an object, and a stranger who turns you into a curiosity.
Like language, a soul is very tenuous. What does it mean to have one? In what way can it be hurt? Can language injure the soul? I cannot point to an injured spot on my body to show a doctor where I have been hurt by language, but the injury manifests itself in creases in my forehead, fluctuating weight loss and gain, in the defeated look in my eyes. I register it by counting the days I fail to leave my bed and eventually in the ways in which I brutalize myself emotionally. All of this. But it’s that drizzly North Carolina afternoon I can’t forget. A small choice of language from, as Alice put it, “one of the people who were supposed to love me,” hurts me most.
The pain echoes still, because no matter how much water I treaded, no matter how much I tried to make Alice (and so many others) feel comfortable with my blackness, I never seemed to get the same in return.
Years later and back in the water, I am eight months pregnant. My pregnancy has brought me back to my body in a way I thought only swimming could. I am acutely aware of each movement, each moment, and each breath. I feel another life, just beneath the surface of my skin, doing his own laps, making his way alongside me.
Swimming relieves the aches and pains of pregnancy, the weight of my yet-to-be-born son on my back, on my belly, in my hips. In the water I feel light. I glide through, effortlessly, forgetting the twenty-five extra pounds on me, feeling like myself in the way I only can in the water. It transforms now, as it always has, the rhythmic movements, the focus on my breath, the concentration it takes so that I slice through without much of a splash.
Swimming clears my mind, offers me a kind of meditation, a meaningful connection between my body and my mind. Between my body and my baby’s. In the water I hear my heartbeat and that of my son echoing though my ears above the din of the senior water aerobics class in the next lane.
I have already found a place for him to swim. By the time he is six months, I plan on bringing him into the water. This desire lives alongside a list of things that all parents want for their children: health, good schools, a passion for reading. I feel strongly about this. I want him to love the water the way I do. I want it to be calming. I want him not to be frightened but to be soothed by it.
He will be my first blood relative who is American. Much of the legacy and the baggage of his skin will be foisted on him before he takes his first breath. But he will also have roots in Kansas, like the President. In the middle of that state, there is a small Kansas town where he will be able to see his last name etched on the side of a building and to find his great-great-grandfather’s picture on the wall of the Main Street Deli. This is one of the things my husband can offer him, that stake in American life that is inaccessible to me. All I have for him is water. Water that is murky at times, and a fluid past absent of dates, names, photographs, or specificity.
Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Dionne Irving has published work in Boulevard Magazine, LitHub, Missouri Review, Story Magazine, and New Delta Review, among others. She has a novel, Quint, forthcoming from 7.13 Books and a short story collection, Islands, forthcoming from Catapult. An associate professor at the University of West Georgia, she lives outside of Atlanta with her husband and son.
“Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you are all having a good start to the new week. We are kicking off this Tuesday with the 2018 Editors’ Prize winner in fiction, “Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus. In this piece, Titus’s clever characters learn lessons on friendship and forgiveness, and the struggles of aging.
by Tamara Titus
Even before I open my eyes, I smell smoke. At first I think I’m still dreaming—too many memories of my time under the stars, when everyone smelled like smoke or sweat—but then I see Cecil’s outline over by the open window. He’s sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his legs, and I can hear the oxygen machine chugging even as the haze from his cigarette settles around us.
“Cecil,” I whisper. The digital clock on my nightstand reads 2:13, and the hallway outside is quiet.
His head is bowed, and he doesn’t answer. While I watch, the orange tip of his cigarette falls into his lap.
“Cecil!” I hiss, and his head jerks. He mumbles, and I pull my chair over to the bed. When I’m fully awake, I can transfer without assistance, but even then I like to know there’s someone within shouting distance, just in case. I set the brakes and hoist my ass into the seat. Then I settle my left stump onto the pad. It only takes five seconds, but it’s too long. When I look back at Cecil, his nightshirt is already on fire.
Cecil screams, and I press the call button clipped to the bedrail and wheel over to the door in nothing but my undershorts. The corridor outside is empty.
I yell Fire! twice before rolling back into the room and grabbing a couple of hand towels at the sink. Cecil flails with his good hand while I soak the towels. I’m wrapping them around my fists when the bedspread catches, and I have just enough sense to switch off the oxygen before I grab the blanket from Cecil’s lap and press my arms against him.
At some point there is noise behind me—people yelling over the fire alarm. The light comes on, and someone blasts us with a portable fire extinguisher. Cecil howls. I hold up my right hand and squint. My skin is splotchy, and pain moves like lightning across my synapses. “Don’t let them take us to Grady,” I say to the nurse closest to me, but she’s not listening. She wraps a clean towel around my hand and wheels me out the door.
When the ambulance pulls up at Grady Hospital, all I can think is it’s a good thing they’ve already shot me full of morphine. Before I moved into Cedar Grove, I spent my share of nights in the ER here. Winter nights, mostly. I lost my foot to frostbite, and they tried hard to talk me into going to a nursing home. But I knew I’d have to clean up, dry out. And I wasn’t ready for that. Not then.
Once we get inside, I can hear the EMTs bringing the staff up to speed. Cecil’s next door in room seven, and I know they’ll work him up first cause he’s bad off. I close my eyes and see the blue print of the dressing gown seared into his flesh. Then my brain misfires, and pain licks me in places I no longer possess. I’m drifting when I hear the one voice I do not want to hear tonight.
“Ben Gibson. I thought you were done being a frequent flyer.”
It’s been almost four years since I broke Dr. Loflin’s nose. I was high on a little bit of everything that night, and I had a seizure in the middle of Briarcliff Road. Apparently, when I woke up in the ER, I woke up swinging. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m sure she does. “A little bird told me you’d been missing me,” I say.
Dr. Loflin pulls up one of those rolling stools and takes a seat beside the gurney. “And a little bird told me you were smoking in bed.”
I’d like to pinch her, grab the tender flesh on the back of her triceps and squeeze like my sister Angie used to do. But I know what that’ll get me, so instead I flip the blanket down and point to my stumps. “I’m a diabetic, not a dumbass.”
“In your case, Mr. Gibson, one diagnosis does not necessarily preclude the other. But I’ll make sure your objection is noted in your chart.” She touches my wrist with one gloved finger. “In the meantime, why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Cecil set himself on fire, and I was trying to put him out.”
When she lifts the dressing from my hand, I hear her suck in a breath. She scoots closer, and I examine her face while she examines my hand. Whoever fixed her nose did a good job; you can’t even tell it was broken. She’s changed her hairstyle, too. There’s silver at her temples now, fine hairs that almost disappear into her blond bob.
“Are you burned anywhere else?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” she says as she rotates my hand. “Okay.”
I can tell by the lack of ill will in her voice that it’s not okay, and for the first time in weeks, I feel a panic attack coming on. It only happens when I’m in close quarters.
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your hand hurting now?”
My palm is puckered, all bright red and weeping. “At least an eight.”
She stands and presses a button on the wall. “Not for long,” she says. Then a nurse steps in and hands her a syringe, and it’s Dr. Loflin’s turn to make my world go black.
When I get back to Cedar Grove the next afternoon, I notice right away that Cecil’s things are gone. The big picture frame that said family. His wall calendar, his clothes. I’m lying in bed staring at my hand, which is wrapped so thick it looks like an oven mitt, when Marianne taps on the open door.
“Knock, knock,” she says, and she waits.
Marianne looks a little like Liv Tyler, only with brown eyes, and she’s wearing a dress that falls to the floor. It suits her frame—it softens her elbows and hips—but I withhold the compliment. Her smile is too tense.
I nod at the chair by the bed. “Is Cecil dead?” I ask as soon as she sits down.
“No.” She glances at the empty side of the closet. “But they’re going to keep him at Grady for a while. He needs skin grafts.”
“I take it I’m in for a new roommate?”
Marianne pulls the tray table over to her and sets a folder on it. Normally we discuss my care in her office, which is really just a windowless closet at the end of the West Unit hallway. The folder is bad news.
“Cecil’s daughters have filed a grievance with the state licensing agency. They want to know how their father, who is wheelchair-bound and partially paralyzed, could have gained access to cigarettes that they did not provide.” She folds her hands in her lap, and I wonder for the thousandth time how she can do this. How she can come to work, day after day, with people who are batshit crazy, and not wind up that way herself?
“Maybe he lifted them,” I say.
“Ben.” She peers at me over her glasses. A strand of hair slips across her shoulder and rests against the side of her breast.
“I shared a smoke with him twice out in the courtyard. That’s it. Both times I gave him one, and he smoked the whole thing outside.”
Marianne opens the folder. “We’re instituting a new smoking policy.”
I don’t move, but the room does. It shrinks around us like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
“From now on, your cigarettes will stay in my office. You can smoke three times a day, but only with supervision. I need you to pick one time in the morning and a couple in the afternoon.” She pulls a form from the folder and turns it around so I can see it. “On the weekends, you’ll have to get the shift supervisor,” she says as she sets a pen on the table.
“I’m grandfathered,” I say. Smoking is the one vice they let me keep. I had to give up booze and drugs, but they promised I could keep smoking as long as I lived at Cedar Grove. It’s written in my resident contract.
“That hasn’t changed,” Marianne says.
“Right. I’m just restricted to three a day, with you as a babysitter.”
She pulls something else from the folder. “Maybe you could tell me what this is,” she says, and as soon as I see the handwriting, I feel my sugar spike. She’s got my list. Normally I keep it on me at all times, but at night I stick it in the Bible in my nightstand.
She points to Rose Green’s name and reads aloud: “Wears Mardi Gras beads and a bad wig. Always has lipstick on her teeth. BSC.” Marianne looks at me. “What’s BSC?”
Keeping tabs on the people here is how I stay sane. It’s how I stay separate from them. I pick up the pen with my good hand. “Batshit crazy,” I say.
“That’s not how we refer to our residents with dementia.”
“Tell that to the CNAs.” Cedar Grove has a politically correct term for everything. When somebody falls out of his chair and busts his head it’s a bad outcome. And the nut jobs who try to escape are exit seekers.
I push the release form away and turn to the last page of my list, to the newest admissions. Under Cecil Carter it says Emphysema. Stroke. I add the word moron in all caps.
Marianne closes the folder and leaves the form on the table between us. “I’m sorry about your hand, Ben. Angie said she’d be in tomorrow to check on you.” She delivers that bomb so smoothly, it’s like she’s opening the cargo doors of a C-130 from an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet.
I tuck my list into my shirt pocket and press the nurse call button. “Do me a favor, Marianne. Come back when you have good news.”
Cecil’s departure means I have a room to myself until they get another male admission. There’s a lot to be said for privacy, especially in this place, and I briefly consider masturbating. But I’m right-handed, and the pain is stronger than my desire to get off. That night, my hand wakes me up at three am, and I watch National Geographic and Pawn Stars until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I hit the call button and ask the nurse for more pain meds.
“You’re not due for another dose until seven. I can bring you a couple of ibuprofen,” she says.
I rest my burned hand against my stomach and imagine the night sky. Orion in winter, Centaurus in spring.
“How about a smoke break?” I say. “A quick one.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. You know I can’t.” A minute later she brings the ibuprofen in a tiny white paper cup. She watches me swallow it before she steps back into the hall, and when I’m sure she’s gone, I roll over and stare at the empty bed.
Cecil was a good roommate; he just got desperate. Right now he’s probably alone in a third-floor room at Grady, staring at a window he can’t see out of. I tuck my hand to my chest and wonder if he hurts as bad as I do. And if there’s a part of him that would jump from that window if he could.
I’m still dozing the next morning when I hear someone settle into the armchair beside me.
“I brought coffee,” Angie says. Waking up to my sister’s voice is a little like waking up naked under a streetlight. When it happens, you know some seriously bad shit has gone down. Angie’s thighs press against the seams of her slacks. Now that she’s pushing fifty, she’s starting to pack on the pounds. She sets the Starbucks cup on the tray table between us.
I take a sip of the coffee, and it’s almost as good as the drugs they’re giving me. She even put real sugar in it.
“Marianne said you had second-degree burns.” She tugs on her earring, a nervous tic she developed when we got sent to foster care. Angie protected me back then.
“That’s what they tell me.”
“She also said your roommate’s daughters are pretty upset.”
I close my eyes and count to ten. I know what she’s thinking. She’s worried somehow she’ll get sued. Angie’s never screwed up in her entire life, and even now, even after I’ve been clean for two years, she still keeps me at arm’s length. “He’s not my roommate anymore.”
“Did you give that man cigarettes, Ben?”
I didn’t, but she won’t believe me. Angie hasn’t believed me since I took her Honda and totaled it when I was fifteen.
“I should have,” I say, and I hold up my bandaged hand. “I’m paying for it anyway, aren’t I?”
The West Unit corridor feels a thousand miles long now that I’ve only got one good hand. I tried to talk the physical therapy department into giving me a motorized chair, a hot rod to cruise around in till I heal up, but they said it would allow my upper body strength to degrade.
I pass Ella on the main hall. She’s got one hand on the rail and one hand on the collar of her nightgown. “Bring me a drink of whiskey,” she says, and for the first time in months, an ache comes over me, a need so strong it nearly blisters me inside.
Marcus is loading the vending machines when I get there, and he hands me a 3 Musketeers. “Your friend’s back,” he says.
“I try not to make friends in this place,” I tell him as I hand him my dollar. “Everybody’s got one foot in the grave already.”
Marcus laughs. “Not you.”
We both look down at my stumps. “No, not me.”
“Seriously, though,” Marcus says. “He’s back.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Your roommate. Sparky.”
I’m pretty sure Marcus is the one who bought cigarettes for Cecil, and I’d like nothing more than to lay him out. Unfortunately, I can’t even reach his head. “Where did they put him?”
“Over on South. Right next to the nurses’ station.”
I look down the corridor to my right. South is the dementia ward, a hellhole full of old women who scream and cry at all hours. Rose Green, of the Mardi Gras beads and the bad wig, lives on South. Cecil will never sleep again.
“The Dr Pepper’s been empty for two weeks,” I tell Marcus. “I’m about ready to call the ombudsman.”
He laughs, and when I don’t join in, he quits stocking the drink machine.
“What crawled up your ass?”
“Nothing. Open that door for me,” I tell him, nodding toward the courtyard. When it slams shut behind me, I wheel myself along among the flowers: salvia and snapdragons, bergamot and butterfly bush. Plants I know only because Angie teaches me their names on Sundays when she visits. She could take me out of here if she wanted to, but she’s never offered. She just brings plants and talks to me while she sets them in the dirt.
I stop when I get to the gazebo and tear open the 3 Musketeers bar. That’s when I notice Cecil at the far end of the courtyard, on the patio, where I’m still allowed to smoke. He doesn’t look too bad, considering. His face is swollen, and he’s got bandages on both arms. I take a bite of the candy. The sweetness is excruciating; it reminds me of the phantom pain in my feet. When Cecil sees me, I wheel over to the patio and turn my chair so we’re parallel to each other.
“You know you fucked us both pretty good,” I say. I glance at him, but he’s staring at his hands. They’re wrapped in gauze all the way to his fingertips. “Marianne’s got my cigarettes now. I can only have three a day, and she has to sit with me while I smoke.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” he says, but on his tongue the words have too many syllables.
“Yeah? Well, at least they didn’t move me to South.” I turn my chair around and tap on the window until one of the CNAs opens the door. Inside, Marcus is closing the drink machine, and when I roll by, I give him the finger.
The next morning, Marianne is late. I’ve been sitting on the patio for ten minutes, watching Marcus drill holes in the brick wall, when she finally shows up with her hair still damp. “Morning,” she says, and she hands me a giant gray bib.
She puts on her sunglasses and pulls one of the rocking chairs off about ten feet so she won’t catch the brunt of my smoke. “Part of the new regulations,” she says. “It’s fire retardant.”
The bib is heavy. Not as heavy as a flak jacket, but I know I’ll be sweating before I can take two drags. Marianne pulls my Camels and my lighter from the pocket of her dress. “We’re admitting a new resident this afternoon. His name is Gus.”
I take my time lighting up. This is her backassward way of telling me I’m getting a roommate. “Is he a lifer?”
“I hope not. His family wants him home before Thanksgiving.”
I pull smoke into my lungs while Marcus hangs a bright red bag that says Emergency Fire Blanket on the hooks he’s just installed. It’s got a black strap at the bottom that you can pull to release the blanket. I exhale toward the sky. “When are the state inspectors coming?”
Smoke drifts Marianne’s way, and she makes a face. “They won’t tell us. But I’m sure they’ll want to talk with you when they get here.”
I turn the lighter over in my hand. “If you bump me up to four a day, I’ll sing your praises.”
Marianne’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows rise above the top of her sunglasses. “I’ve heard you in choir practice, Ben.” She holds out an ashtray. “Let’s leave the singing to someone else.”
After lunch, I figure I’ll take a quick nap before the new guy comes in, but when I get to the end of the hall I hear people talking in my room. They’re not speaking English, and I notice the nameplate by the door says Konstantinos Papadopoulos.
I start to back up in the hallway, but it’s too late. One of the women sitting on the bed has spotted me. “Come in. Please,” she calls. Inside, there’s a kid—seven, maybe eight years old—using my bed as a trampoline, and an old guy in a wheelchair over by the sink. His English isn’t any better than my Greek, so his daughters and granddaughter fill me in. They talk over each other, and the granddaughter keeps grabbing her son by the collar, saying, “Park it, Nick!” It’s all I can do to get out of the room before I hyperventilate.
“Leave the door open,” I tell Marianne when I get to her office.
“Okay.” She smiles calmly, like a veteran teacher on the first day of class.
“There’s seven people in my room right now,” I say. “That’s got to be a code violation.”
“It’s his first day, Ben. Give him time to get settled.”
“I won’t even be able to turn around with all those people in there. Much less take a piss in private. And you know how I feel about tight spaces.”
Marianne folds her hands together. “Yes, I do.”
“It’ll never work. I already need a Klonopin.”
“Well, there’s a private room available,” she says. “Do you want me to talk to Angie about it?”
We both know it’s an extra thirty dollars a day for a private room, and Medicaid won’t pay for it. Angie can afford it, but I’d rather eat broken glass than ask her. “I’ll get someone to pick me up a Powerball ticket,” I say. “But thanks anyway.”
Marianne opens the file cabinet and takes out my cigarettes. “How about we go sit in the courtyard awhile,” she says, “and I’ll walk you back to your room when you’re ready?”
Outside, I chain-smoke three Camels, and Marianne sits by the herb garden, running her hand over the rosemary. She brings her palm up and inhales, and when she sees me watching her, she looks away. “Catnip,” she says, embarrassed. “For people.”
“Careful,” I say. “That stuff will make you crazy.”
“Batshit crazy?” Her smile takes her from pretty to knockout, and just for a second, I imagine touching her nipples. Feeling them harden under my hands.
I want to stay pissed at her. I really do. But I stub out my cigarette and grin.
The only time I see Cecil is at dinner. He sits on the other side of the dining hall, and it takes him forever to eat. I nod at him on my way out each night and hold up my bandaged hand in solidarity. But Cecil is no longer my problem.
I’ve got new stressors thanks to Gus and the Greek chorus. People from his church come in and out all day, and his granddaughter shows up every morning to supervise his physical therapy. She brings her son, and while she’s in PT with Gus, the kid wreaks havoc. He’s supposed to stay in the activities room, but the minute she walks out, he’s off climbing the medication carts and pushing buttons on the photocopier behind the nurses’ station. Marcus even busts him eating Klondike bars from the freezer in the staff lounge. “And they think I’m trouble,” I say when he tells me. “That kid’s a Tasmanian devil. On speed.”
On Tuesday I catch Gus’s grandson on his knees in front of the vending machine. He’s got one arm up inside the plastic door, angling for a pack of Oreos, and his face is beet red from the effort.
“It’s a long road to juvie, kid, but you’re off to a great start.”
He pulls his arm out of the machine and walks over to me. “What happened to your legs?” He stares at my stumps.
“Same thing that will happen to your arm if you don’t keep it out of there.”
Cecil rolls out of the therapy room, inching along with his good foot, and I meet him halfway. The kid follows me.
“First you leave,” I tell Cecil, “and now I have to put up with this hellion.” I gesture beside me, but I’m pointing into space. The kid is over by the fire extinguisher, sizing up the glass cabinet.
“Nick!” his mother yells from the door to the PT room. “Don’t touch that.”
“Gus’s grandson,” I tell Cecil.
The kid takes off down the hall, and I follow as fast as I can. When I get to my room, he’s going through Gus’s dresser. “Find anything good?” I ask.
The kid squeezes past my wheelchair, sizing me up as he slinks out the door. He’s wondering if I’ll tell on him. And I’m wondering if I’ll ever have a moment’s peace. I pull the top drawer out of Gus’s nightstand and flip it over on the bed. Taped to the bottom is Cecil’s pack of Marlboros. Right where he left them. I bet Marianne never even thought to look. I tuck the cigarettes into my fanny pack and take out my list. At the bottom, I’ve written Gus Papadopoulos. Fought with Greek resistance in WWII. Hip fracture. Has night terrors.
When I pass the therapy room a few minutes later, I stop and watch Gus through the window. He’s doing weight-bearing exercises while his granddaughter takes notes. The kid is in the corner, pedaling the little device they use for diabetics with foot ulcers. Gus waves, and I give him a thumbs-up. At Cedar Grove, half of the admissions with hip fractures are dead within a year. If nobody tells him that, he’ll be home eating baklava before Christmas.
Gus’s family takes him out early on Sunday. I feel like I’ve won the lottery, and I spend the morning watching American Pickers and reading a Carl Hiaasen novel. Angie shows up after church, bearing the Atlanta newspaper. “Coupons,” I say. “Just what I need.”
“You want me to take it back?”
I roll my eyes. “It’s a joke, Angie.”
She sits down on the edge of my bed. “How’s your hand?”
I rotate it for her inspection. “Not bad,” I say. “Another week and I’ll be back to popping wheelies in my chair.”
She shakes her head, but I can tell she’s trying not to smile. “And how’s your roommate?”
I look over at Gus’s wall of pictures. “He’s great, actually. It’s his family I can do without.”
Angie picks at a spot on the bedspread. “Some people actually like their families, Ben.” Her expression is part hurt, part anger. It’s a look she’s perfected: she’s been wearing it since we were kids. “And I meant your old roommate,” she says. “Cecil Carter.”
I’m about to say “He’s alive” when Angie reaches for her earring and presses her thumb to the back, checking it.
“I didn’t give him the cigarettes, Angie.”
“I know you didn’t,” she says softly. “He told Marianne he got them from one of the maintenance guys.”
It’s as close as she’s ever come to saying she’s sorry.
I busy myself with the newspaper, flipping through the sections like I’m looking for something. I want to beg her to take me out of here. Anywhere, even if it’s just around the block. As long as we’re moving and the windows are down.
I set the brake on my chair and slide into it. “Let’s go outside,” I say. “The lantana looks terrible. Maybe you can tell them what to do about it.”
I take my last smoke break after dinner, and when I get to my room, Gus is back. With his entire family. There are four people sitting on my bed, and there’s a Dr Pepper and a 3 Musketeers on my tray table. “Who left that?” I ask.
Gus’s granddaughter hands me the candy and soda. “The man with the bandages.”
I back out of the room and head toward South. This time of night it’s deserted, and for once, it’s quiet. Cecil’s got a private room, and I’m thinking he’s a lucky bastard when I find him half out of his chair, clutching the bathroom doorknob. “Cecil?”
The look on his face is pure anguish, and there’s a broad stain across his lap. “Hang on. I’ll get somebody.”
At first I think there’s no one at the nurses’ station, but then I see the guy sitting behind the desk. It’s the second-shift supervisor. The one Marianne has a crush on. “How long has that call light been blinking?” I ask.
He glances at Cecil’s door. “I have no idea.”
Saliva floods my mouth. “Christ on a fucking cracker. Cecil’s pissed himself because y’all just let him sit there.”
“Language, pal,” the man says. He pages a CNA, and a minute later, an aide comes around the corner, swinging her hips slow and easy. “Twenty-two needs attention,” he tells her.
I’m trying to decide if I should wait for Cecil to get cleaned up when I notice Rose Green at the end of the hall. She’s wearing two strands of Mardi Gras beads—one red, one purple—and when she stops by the door to the parking lot, I hear it click, locking in response to her ankle monitor. “Let me out,” she says, leaning over her walker to push the door handle. She’ll be at it all night.
“Could you have someone bring Cecil down to the main hall?” I ask the supervisor.
“Tell him I’ve got something for him,” I say, and I pat my fanny pack just to be certain.
When the big-hipped girl rolls up with Cecil, I’m finishing off the 3 Musketeers. “Thanks for the present,” I say, and he nods. Then we both go quiet. Cecil stares out the window, and I watch Gus’s grandson ricochet like a pinball from one doorway to another, looking for entertainment. He stops in front of the fire alarm, rocking heel to toe while he reads the instructions.
“Hey, Nick!” I yell, and he jumps like I’ve popped him with a pellet gun. “Come here.” I tell him to push Cecil to the courtyard door, and he licks his lips, considering it. His tongue is purple. “Help us and I won’t tell your mom you’ve been trying to rob the vending machine.”
That gets him. He pushes Cecil and comes back for me. “Now hold the door open. It’s heavy.” Cecil inches his way through, and the kid makes a face when I reach the threshold, his purple tongue snaking out to touch his chin. I put a hand on his shoulder. “You ever pull the fire alarm at school?”
He squirms away. “Nope.”
“I did.” I make a show out of glancing up and down the hall, like I’m about to divulge classified information. “The firemen let me sit in the truck while we waited for my mom to come. I got to work the siren and the electric ladder.”
Outside, the air smells like ozone and scorched concrete. I pull Cecil’s Marlboros from my fanny pack. “I believe these belong to you,” I say.
Cecil looks at me like we’re seventeen and I’ve just handed him the keys to my Camaro. Then his head overrides his heart. “They’ll catch us,” he says.
“And do what? Take away our bingo privileges?” I turn off his oxygen and roll over to the red bag that Marcus screwed into the wall. When I yank the black Velcro strap, a blanket falls into my arms. It feels like steel wool against my skin.
“What’s that?” Cecil asks when I hand it to him.
“A smoking jacket.”
Cecil takes off his nasal cannula. “This is a bad idea,” he says, huffing, as I unfold the blanket and tuck it around him.
“You got a better one?”
Cecil shakes his head.
“Me neither. We can smoke one before they miss us. And I have a feeling they’re about to have their hands full,” I say, pointing inside at Nick. I light two cigarettes, and we smoke, and watch, as the kid swoops up and down the hall with both arms out like an airplane. With each pass, he gets a little closer to the alarm.
“You think he’ll pull it?” Cecil asks.
“God, I hope so.”
The wind kicks up, and everything green bends and bows around us as Cecil takes a drag and taps his cigarette carefully into a plastic ashtray. “Not much left without this,” he says, laboring over each word. He stares at the Marlboro between his bandaged fingers. “What do you miss?”
Bourbon. Barbeque at Fat Matt’s. Lullwater Park in winter. My vision blurs, and I tell myself it’s just a sugar spike. I nod at the long wall of windows. Inside Cedar Grove, Gus’s grandson steps up to the fire alarm.
“Being him,” I say, and we both lift bandaged hands to our ears as the kid reaches out and pulls the lever.
Tamara Titus’s short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Sou’wester, Emrys Journal, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Regional Artist Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte–Mecklenburg, as well as a North Carolina Arts Council fellowship in fiction. She co-edited This is the Way We Say Goodbye (the Feminist Press, 2011), an anthology of women’s essays on caregiving, and in 2013 she received an Honorable Mention from the James Jones Fellowship Contest for her novel-in-progress, Lovely in the Eye. Currently, Tamara spends her time writing and editing, caregiving, and serving on the Charlotte Historic District Commission.
When Literary Bromance Goes Bad
In 1920 Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht were friends in Chicago struggling to make a buck as fledgling writers. Hecht, who fancied himself a wit and a conservator of literary taste, said that he didn’t think Anderson’s book The Triumph of the Egg was a work of art and surely Anderson had reservations about his just published Erik Dorn. He proposed that they should attack each other in print, starting a fake feud for the sake of getting their names out there.
Thinking him arrogant and too casual with his criticism, Anderson wrote Hecht a letter telling him that his behavior was unbecoming for such a talented man:
Consider just for a moment that you aren’t as specialized a thing as you think. You and I for example are friends. Try the experiment of saying to yourself that there aren’t any smart thoughts I may have that Anderson may not have them too.
Anderson went on to say that friendship for him wasn’t based on looking either up or down at someone, but eye to eye. He advised that Hecht give up the bluff of being “so energetic, smart and fast” and try to be himself for a change.
I recently came across the quote, “It’s none of your business what others think of you,” which is true. Yet, there are rare times when one needs a friend to tell him what he least wants to hear.
Unfortunately, Hecht didn’t appreciate Anderson’s candor and accused him of a Pollyanna complex. They did not talk or see each other again for twenty years. Their literary “Bromance” took a final tumble.
There have been times in my own life when fellow writers have given me advice that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later.
One friend warned that I tried too hard to be cute and clever in my fiction. “Just tell a good story,” he counseled.
Some of the moments I enjoy most in fiction are when a friend sees in another flaws that they share. In Christopher Isherwood’s “Sally Bowles” from The Berlin Stories, Chris accuses Sally of always trying to shock people with her flamboyant style of dress and sexual escapades.
“You’re naturally shy with strangers, I think: so you’ve got into this trick of trying to bounce them into approving or disapproving of you, violently,” he tells her, as she stretches out languidly on the sofa powdering her nose, obviously not enjoying his analysis.
Sometimes friends can go too far, mistaking cruelty for candor. In the movie Margo at the Wedding, Margo-played skillfully by a dressed-down, almost mousy-looking Nicole Kidman-ambushes her sister and her own son with endless debilitating insights and observations in the name of “being honest.” Her unchecked behavior points out that we don’t have to drag our friends to the alter of truth on every count.
Yet the fact is that most of life’s meaningful lessons don’t come from parents, teachers or preachers but from peers delivered not as a sermon or lecture but as a whisper for our ears only.