“Queen Me” by Margaret Donovan Bauer
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Margaret Donovan Bauer’s “Queen Me” offers a candid perspective on remarriage and the challenge of parenting someone else’s children. The essay was a finalist in our 2021 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize contest.
by Margaret Donovan Bauer
When I met Andrew’s children for the first time, Griffin, age seven, came into the room sobbing, followed by a sheepish-looking Aidan, five, stopping a few feet behind his brother, waiting to see what would happen next, remaining silent as Erin, who had only recently turned ten, reported Aidan’s offense. All this before Andrew had a chance to introduce me. I was surprised that Griffin did not seem embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger.
Andrew and I had been dating a month or so by then, and he had told his children about me, but this was the first time I visited him during a weekend when he had his kids, the first time any woman he was dating had shown up while they visited their dad’s house.
I look back and realize how telling that moment was: Aidan guilty, Griffin crying, and Erin reporting. At the time, all I could think upon seeing the children in person for the first time was, They’re so young. But given my track record with men, I wasn’t really concerned. Regardless of the rose-colored glasses I wore during the early months of our relationship, deep down I assumed I would not be around longer than a few months of these children’s lives, so it didn’t really matter that they were so young.
I do not have children of my own, and I was not looking for father material in my search for love. I hadn’t planned not to have children. Fortunately, I divorced before making the mistake of tying myself to an ex-husband I never wanted to see again after I finally escaped him. A decade passed. I didn’t remarry. A few more years, and then I was forty, childless, and recognizing that I was fine with that. Children were not the gaping hole in my life; I was on a quest for a life partner. I was not averse to dating men with children, though I had not liked the son of one man I was deeply in love with, a problem for me that he was largely unaware of (yet likely still a factor in our failed relationship). I’d found the child of another lover an inconvenience to our affair, as we had a long-distance relationship, and his joint custody meant me seeing him only one weekend a month. In truth, distance was probably what helped that particular relationship last as long as it did.
As I say, I did not have a good track record before I met Andrew, and I was afraid to hope that his warm smile, which reached into and flowed out of his big brown eyes, would not grow cold at some point when he decided that the things that attracted him to me in the first place were suddenly character flaws I needed to work on. What would it be this time? “Too ambitious”? “Too career-focused”? “Too many opinions”? What would he decide I was too much of?
Following that portentous first encounter with Andrew’s children, during every other weekend of our first year together, when his children visited from their home ninety minutes away, Griffin would at some point melt down into one of the temper tantrums he was prone to, sometimes over a minor physical offense to his person but usually over losing a game or simply not getting his way. He either cried unabashedly or erupted into an unrelenting and inescapable temper tantrum until he wore himself out from screaming. As telling as my introduction to Griffin—he crying over some minor offence and unembarrassed by being caught doing so by a complete stranger—was Andrew’s ability to wait these tantrums out, largely unruffled. Sometimes he would pick up the stiffened, screaming boy from whatever central living space Griffin had chosen for his eruption and move him into a room with a door that could be closed between him and the victims of his ear-piercing outrage. Other times, however, he just let Griffin stand in the middle of the room we were all gathered in and scream while I cringed from the noise, usually saying to me, “There’s nothing I can do once he gets started.”
I would spank his little butt, I thought in response, but I knew it was not my place to propose an alternative to his annoyingly calm response. Griffin’s temper tantrums were disturbing to all, but Andrew’s inaction was infuriating to me, at least. While this incredibly patient man could resume normalcy as soon as the screaming stopped—sometimes even while it was still going on in the background—I’d be on edge for the rest of my visit with him and his children. I envied Andrew’s ability to remain calm in the midst of such thunderous chaos, but I also viewed his not being perturbed enough about it as a problem: Why couldn’t he see that not everyone could so easily recover from Griffin’s jarring temper tantrums and resume a pleasant evening as though nothing had occurred? I was shaken, even angry after these episodes, outraged by Andrew’s response as much as by Griffin’s behavior. Griffin had no reason to care about my discomfort, but Andrew should have.
As the weeks and then months went by, I realized how Andrew’s calm was calming—if not to Griffin, at least to me. He was such a contrast to my stressful career and volatile colleagues. Andrew’s comfort within himself contrasted significantly with his son’s need to win. For once, I was dating a man who didn’t find my often single-minded career focus a challenge to him; it wasn’t unwomanly in his eyes, or emasculating. To his children, he was a devoted father, but so too was he committed to and supportive of the other relationships in his life. He was a man who enjoyed weekly long telephone conversations with his mother and who had close male friends, some that went back decades and others already developing among his colleagues in that first year of his new job in our shared community. And now me. He seemed totally committed to me. Even as the months passed, he did not seem to be trying to change me into some room-for-improvement version of his own dream woman.
Still, I was surprised to find myself buying a vacation home on the Pamlico River with this man before we had been together a whole year. Our purchase meant that he would put his house on the market and move into my craftsman house near the university where we both worked. By this time, I had been divorced and living alone for fifteen years. I was horrified when I realized what I’d done, allowing Andrew to sell the house he’d bought in the suburbs, which had enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children, knowing that my relationships with men tended not to last. Though I was still very much in love with him, my experience suggested that it wouldn’t last. My parents had divorced after twenty years together, after all, and though I’d had several years-long relationships, they had all ended.
And yet, just a few months past the one-year anniversary of meeting each other, after settling in to spend the summer months at our new river house, Andrew’s children would join us for their eight-week summer stay with their dad. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children at our co-owned summer home. Anticipating the first lengthy period with Andrew’s children moving into my space—even as Andrew and I were just beginning to share “permanent” space—I worried that I might have made a huge mistake.
But not for long.
In early May, Andrew and I moved into our river home for the summer, and soon the children came for a weekend visit before their school let out for summer and they would join us for two months. At the river house, they found the familiar furniture that had been in their dad’s home. His big leather couch faced the river, leaving plenty of floor space behind it, where the living and dining rooms merged, since we had set the dining table in the kitchen, where we had a wide view of the river. That empty floor space ended up being the kids’ preferred board-game playing area in the afternoons while I cooked in the kitchen.
During this first test visit, at Sunday lunch, just a few hours before their dad would take them back to their mom’s, we sat around the same pine table that had been at Andrew’s house, Andrew at one end, Erin and I on either side of him, my chair facing the river view that had sold the house to us; Aidan next to me, Griffin across from Andrew: largely our regular places, it would turn out, though Erin and Griffin tended to jostle each other for the seat next to their dad. I have no recollection of what prompted my frustration at that particular meal, but I was not yet at a place in my own head where I felt comfortable in the role of disciplinarian to another person’s children, and Andrew must not have reprimanded them for whatever had bothered me. Mimicking his calm whenever he dealt with Griffin’s temper tantrums, I picked up my plate, saying, “I’m going to take my lunch and eat on the deck.” A few minutes later, a concerned Andrew joined me. I told him I was not sure if the whole summer living with his children was going to work for me. Maybe I should just move back to my house in town when they came for the summer and visit on the weekends they went to see their mom.
And then he did the exact right thing, asking me, “What can we do to make this work? What is it that you want me to do differently?” I don’t remember my answer. I just remember my relief. He did not explain to me how, not being a mother, I could not understand, as I’d often heard (still hear) from parents—particularly annoying when it comes from someone whose child you’re expected to take care of occasionally and even learn to love. Maybe Andrew was different from the men I’d previously been involved with. We agreed that this was our house even when the children were there. Andrew would take cues from me in the future so that we would present a united front to them.
Soon, a first test, after we’d set ground rules for the household so that I would not spend my precious summer months, when I was freed from teaching, cleaning up after Andrew’s children, whose stay-at-home mother allowed unmade beds, picked up clothes from wherever they’d been tossed, and didn’t mind toys left out around the house and strewn all over the floors of her children’s rooms. In our house, toys would be returned to closets when not in use. Clothes were to be placed into hampers, shoes put away in closets. Beds would be made before the kids left for swim-team practice in the morning. Upon returning from the pool, as well as after baths, towels would be hung up. Breaches of these simple rules lost them an hour of television or computer games—and we only allowed the use of electronics after the evening meal together, preferring to encourage the children to play outdoors, so those couple of hours of screen time before bedtime were precious to them.
The very first week, when I found a towel and swim trunks on the boys’ bathroom floor, I shook the wadded-up trunks out from the towel and held them up to the other pair, which had been hung over a towel bar. The smaller pair in my hands and presumably the towel they were with clearly belonged to Andrew’s youngest. Exiting the bathroom into the children’s playroom, I reminded Aidan what the infraction meant for his after-dinner activity. His shrug seemed an acceptance of the consequences of his carelessness, but when Andrew returned from work several hours later, his six-year-old suddenly dissolved into tears and climbed his daddy like a tree, sobbing as if he’d just been spanked, though he’d been perfectly happy just minutes before as we were all gathered in the living room, putting together a jigsaw puzzle and taking turns pairing up for checkers on the empty dining-room floor space behind the sofa. “What did you do?” Andrew asked the boy, recognizing the crocodile tears. I was puzzled myself but then recalled the earlier incident, so I relayed the crime and recalled the punishment. “Well, I guess you’ll remember to hang up your towel and trunks tomorrow,” Andrew said as he placed his son back on the floor. Failing to move his father, Aidan resumed the cheerful demeanor that had preceded Andrew’s arrival. A for effort, little man, but this win is mine, I thought. Your dad and I are, indeed, a united front, a “parental unit.”
“Queen me,” I said as I jumped one of Griffin’s checkers, placing my checker into the king zone.
Griffin, incidentally, never had a problem following the house rules. I believe he found them a welcome change from the hidden land mines in the house where the children lived with their mother and her mercurial husband. So while I might have been stricter about household pitching-in than their mother was, they had a clear idea of what my expectations were for household chores and what behaviors would set my temper off, while they could never (still cannot) predict their stepfather’s loud volatility, which often erupted into punishments involving hefty amounts of yard work.
Overall, it was a good first summer, but it did have its moments.
“I’m going to love you no matter what you do,” my father’s mother told him. He often shared this particular life lesson with his children. “But,” she would add, “I’m going to try to raise you so that others like you.”
My chance to pass this parental wisdom on to Andrew’s angry middle child came during that first summer at our river house, when Griffin had one of his temper tantrums while Andrew was not home. My (per)version of my dad’s shared lesson came about following another game of checkers with Griffin, at a time when we were the only two at home. Distracted by a call from Andrew to see if everything was okay, I was not paying attention—certainly not strategizing to win—when I took a triple jump that included Griffin’s only king. “Queen me,” I said as I hung up the phone, not noticing the scowl that had emerged on the little boy’s face.
“You can’t do that,” he said, loudly, startling me out of my distraction.
“Why not?” I asked.
Louder: “It’s not fair!”
Purposefully calm and quiet: “Do you want to look it up in the rules?”
Apparently not. He flipped the checkerboard over, and as checkers scattered, he jumped up and ran upstairs. My calm evaporating, I followed, yelling for him to “Go back downstairs!” and “Find every checker!” He kept going, and when he tried to escape me by seeking refuge in the boys’ closet, I crawled in right behind him.
“Get out!” he screeched.
“Right after you. You have a mess to clean up. Then you can come sit in here if you like, and I’ll give you your privacy.”
A bit quieter, but still outraged: “You know I hate to lose.”
“Nobody likes losing, Griffin,” I answered. “But what’s the big deal? It’s a game of checkers.” Silence. “What is a big deal is that nobody likes you when you act like this.”
Not tactful, I admit.
In spite of Andrew’s insistence that there was no reasoning with Griffin during a tantrum, I continued, “I don’t get it. What does it matter if you lose a game every now and then? Your parents are going to love you no matter what you do.”
“But nobody but a parent likes a sore loser,” I finished undiplomatically. Definitely not as kind and loving as what my grandmother said to my father. I don’t know if my rationale got through, but his anger did not evolve into one of his screaming rages.
I won’t say this was Griffin’s last temper tantrum, but he did eventually outgrow them, and Griffin was the one of Andrew’s children who, unbidden, would seek me out to say good-bye when it was time for the children to leave after a weekend with us, by which time, I was usually ready to resume my child-free life and had found a quiet place alone and away from the chaos. And he was always the first to hug me when they arrived. He still, almost twenty years later, cannot stand to lose, but I like to believe that I got through to him that day and that he accepted my candor as a positive characteristic in this woman who was going to be a part of his life.
Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on the Bayou Teche in south Louisiana and now writes mostly memoir, mostly from her home on the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina. The Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University and author of four books on southern writers, she has served as editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for twenty-five years.
“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.
“Unintended” by Yuko Sakata
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today’s selection is Yuko Sakata’s “Unintended,” a mysterious story about the complexities of family and psychology, set in contemporary Japan. “Unintended” won the 2011 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for fiction and was the author’s first published story.
By Yuko Sakata
Shinji arrived at his cousin’s house early Monday afternoon after a four-hour train ride from Tokyo. His cousin’s wife, Yumi, was the only one home. Despite short notice, she immediately made Shinji feel welcome. Over some tea and homemade apple cake—she said she taught cooking classes at a local cultural center—they had their semi-introductory conversation. They had never had a chance to sit down and talk one-on-one before. And in the course of this initial chat, she told him about an incident involving her son Kazuo.
“Incident,” they called it, because they had never found out what exactly happened. When Kazuo had come home one night a few months earlier, he had seemed a little quiet. He’d called out from the front door that he was home, gone up to his room to change out of his school uniform and come down for dinner. While he helped set the table, he only gave halfhearted responses to Yumi’s questions about his day. But then again, at age thirteen, he was becoming less enthusiastic about sharing his thoughts with his mother in general. Shinji’s cousin Akio had been working late, as was often the case, so it had been just the mother and son at the table. Kazuo wouldn’t look Yumi in the eyes as they ate from the simmering nabe hotpot between them, but he didn’t seem to be consciously avoiding her, either. Then, midway through dinner, he’d said, “I was wondering today, why are manhole lids usually round?”
“Manholes?” Yumi had halted her chopsticks probing the contents of the steaming pot and contemplated for a second. “I think I’ve read it somewhere. . . . Isn’t it to prevent the lid from falling down into the hole? You know, if it’s square or any other shape, it could fall through when the lid isn’t placed perfectly. Or something like that.”
“I see,” Kazuo had said, without particular appreciation. Yumi went on to pick out some more vegetables into her bowl.
After eating in silence for another minute or two, Kazuo had asked again, “So I was wondering, why are manhole lids round?”
Yumi blinked and looked at her son’s face through the inviting steam from the nabe. He was still looking at nothing in particular, now poking at the food in his bowl with his chopsticks. She had not been able to detect any irony or irritation in his voice.
“Well, so you see, if a lid is square, for example,” Yumi said, drawing a shape in the air with her chopsticks, “and if the lid for some reason came down not horizontally but tilted”—she tilted her palm to illustrate—“then because the diagonal opening of the hole would be longer than the width of the lid at this angle, it could fall through. Whereas with a circle, the widest part of the opening, the diameter, is always the same as the diameter of the lid, whichever way you turn it, so it can never fall through. Right?”
“Uh-huh,” Kazuo said.
“Is something wrong?”
He continued to poke at the now mushy food in his bowl. Then Kazuo’s eyes started to swim a little, as if searching for something to focus on. And as he repeated his question for the third time, his eyes settled straight on Yumi’s face, and he was finally there, looking at her. He finished his sentence and sat there blinking, as if he had suddenly come out into the light.
“But Kazuo, you just asked me the same question three times.” Yumi placed her chopsticks down in quiet alarm.
“So it turns out that he didn’t remember anything about the two or three hours leading up to that,” Yumi said to Shinji now, pouring more tea into his cup.
“Thank you,” he said. “The cake is delicious, by the way.”
Yumi gave him a smile that took over one side of her face slightly more than the other, then got up to boil more water. The warm smell from years of cooking, both sweet and savory, seemed to have seeped into the walls of their house. Sitting in the midst of it, Shinji felt comforted by this mark of domestic life.
“He didn’t remember coming home or changing his clothes or eating,” Yumi went on, talking over the kitchen counter. “And the more I tried to make sense of it, the more upset he got. I called Akio and made him come home early, but in the meantime Kazuo fell asleep on that couch over there. When we tried to wake him up, he wouldn’t budge. Boy, that was scary. We took him to the emergency room, but we couldn’t really explain what had happened, and he slept for three days straight at the hospital. Just slept.”
“Did they find out what it was?”
“Not really,” Yumi said and slipped back into her chair. “At least, they found nothing physical. We were worried that he had been hit in the head or something—bullying at school, hit-and-run, you never know these days—but nothing. They said there was no trace of injury, and he was in perfect health. There was no reason he shouldn’t be awake.”
Then, she said, he’d woken up on the fourth day as if nothing was wrong; he ate up the whole hospital meal and, after a few more tests, was released the same afternoon. He’d seemed fine, but he couldn’t remember those few hours leading up to the manhole question.
“The doctors thought it could have been a short-term memory loss called temporary amnesia—or is it transient amnesia?—that has something to do with the hippocampus. They said it’s something very rare for a young person, but not unprecedented. But have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Shinji said. “But I have to say it’s kind of fascinating.”
“Fascinating, yes,” Yumi said and poured more tea into Shinji’s cup. “But you don’t want your child to have anything to do with such a thing.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
Yumi smiled and gave a dismissive wave of hand. “Anyway, thankfully that was the end of that mysterious incident, and everything seems to be fine since, so no worries.”
“Well I’m glad to hear that.” Shinji meant it because he hadn’t planned to impose himself in the middle of a complicated family situation.
Later in the afternoon, Shinji went to meet Kazuo at his school. Kazuo was walking across the school yard with a small group of lively boys, but he wordlessly separated from them to come and meet Shinji at the gate. The group kept on without taking note of his departure. It was difficult to tell if he was actually part of the group or if he had just happened to be following them.
“So you had a fight with your wife?” Kazuo said, once he and Shinji had sat down next to each other on the soft, grassy slope of the riverbank near the school. The wide river flowed at a leisurely pace in front of them, and its smooth surface looked silvery in spite of the clear sky it reflected.
“Who told you that?” Shinji said.
Kazuo shrugged and squinted at the sun. “My dad, I guess.”
“He didn’t tell me, exactly, but I heard him talking to Mom,” Kazuo said and pulled at some grass near his right foot. “Is that why you are staying with us?”
A sweet scent wafted from the ripped grass and made Shinji wonder when he had last sat on the ground like this. On the other side of the river, a little downstream, cherry blossoms along the path had just passed full bloom. Shinji could see some young mothers pushing their bicycles with small children on the rear basket seats. On the baseball field to the left, kids were practicing batting, and once in a while a nice, crisp sound of the ball meeting a metal bat would ring through the air.
“Well,” Shinji said, “long story short, I guess that’s it.”
“What’s the long story?”
“You said ‘long story short.’ What’s the long story?”
Kazuo was mindlessly ripping at the grass. He was short for his age, and his oversized school uniform seemed to assert more presence than the body inside. There was a softness to him that didn’t have much to do with his physicality. His bangs were a little too long, hiding his eyes when he looked down.
It was Yumi who had suggested that Shinji go for a walk and meet her son. Shinji couldn’t tell if she just wanted him out of the house for a while or if she was hoping for his perspective on Kazuo in light of what she had told him. Shinji hoped it was the former, as he wasn’t good with kids Kazuo’s age. Especially now. They seemed tactless and brutally honest, and yet he had no idea what went on in their heads.
When Shinji didn’t respond to his question, Kazuo glanced at him sideways without fully turning his head.
“It’s really boring,” Shinji said. “You don’t want to know.”
Shinji had lost his job the week before. He had taught English grammar at a private cram school in Tokyo for seven years. The school took anyone from five-year-olds trying to get into prestigious private schools to high school seniors aiming for top universities. Shinji mostly taught those in between, which included kids Kazuo’s age. Though he had never outgrown his discomfort with the pubescent kids, he liked the late hours that allowed him to take on freelance translation jobs on the side. That was what he had meant to do after college. He had once intended to become a specialist in film subtitling.
One afternoon, he had been called into the division manager’s office. The HR manager was there as well. A student—or her mother, it was never made clear—had apparently accused him of sexual harassment. Right there in the manager’s office, Shinji was presented with a retirement sum and an offer for impeccable recommendations on the condition that he leave quietly. “We’re sure you understand,” they said. “A scandal of this nature would be disastrous for our type of business.” Shinji could guess who this student might have been: a girl who had had a blatant crush on him, one from whom he had done his best to keep a polite distance. She wore just enough makeup not to be called out, curling her long lashes and constantly reapplying her lip gloss. She kept her skirt short and frequently stayed behind after class to ask questions. It was a completely groundless accusation, but the manager didn’t even attempt to confirm its veracity with him. Shinji sensed this wasn’t really just about the accusation, and understood the futility of defending himself. So he took the offer and left.
In truth, he was ready to go. It was a ridiculous place anyway, and he had felt increasingly alienated from its aggressive culture. In recent years the school, struggling to keep its competitive edge, had started making younger instructors practice enthusiastic, scripted lectures in front of a camera in empty classrooms. They had vigorous training camps. There was a lot of competition among the teachers under the performance-based salary. Penalties were posted openly in the teachers’ lounge. Shinji had been doing okay number-wise, but he’d quietly evaded all the absurd trainings, retreats, and drinking that went with them. Maybe he had stepped on someone’s toes. The retirement money wasn’t insignificant, and he still had his translation jobs. He’d decided to lie low for a while.
But to his amazement, his wife was skeptical.
“With a fifteen-year-old?” she’d said. She had been surprised to find him in the apartment when she came home from work. “That’s clearly underage, an obvious crime, isn’t it? Was it even legal for the school to handle it internally?”
“What are you talking about?” Shinji said, standing beside the kitchen counter in his apron. He had been cooking when his wife came home. “I can’t believe that’s what you are concerned about. I told you, it’s totally bogus, it’s groundless. My point wasn’t even that.”
“You’re sure it was groundless?”
“I don’t know—these things are really complicated. The subjective experiences of victims and offenders often don’t match up. I’m just saying.”
Shinji stared at his wife. She was half reclined on the couch, still in her well-tailored suit. She looked smart and professional but tired.
“What are you accusing me of?” Shinji said. “You are the one who’s actually had an affair. With someone much younger. Your subordinate. That’s textbook sexual harassment right there.”
“But it’s the criminality,” she said. She sounded like a teacher dealing with a slow student. “Mine was consensual.”
“What criminality?” Shinji took an indignant step forward, but then heard the pot boil over and hurried back to the stove. He was boiling water for pasta. The savory aroma of salmon slowly cooking in the oven permeated the apartment. He had a bottle of white wine cooling in the fridge. “Of course it wasn’t consensual. I’m the one who didn’t consent.”
“Then why did you give in so easily? It’s such a dishonorable accusation. You could have sued.”
“You know, I was happy to leave that job,” he said, releasing some linguine into the boiling water. “It wasn’t something worth going through a legal nightmare for. And of course they knew I wouldn’t fight them. Why would they make such a ridiculous accusation otherwise?”
“They knew you well.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He came back out around the kitchen counter. “Just think about what you are saying. You did have an affair, you screwed this coworker, and I forgave you. We put that behind us. And you are accusing me of what? Something that never even happened.”
“Forgave me,” his wife said. She had her elbow on the back of the couch. She looked strangely relaxed. “Why do we even talk about forgiving? Who’s in the position to forgive?”
“We are married,” Shinji said. “Aren’t we in the position to forgive each other, if anyone is? And to stand by each other in a moment of hardship like this?” He paused. “What am I even talking about? I didn’t do anything.”
“I didn’t ask you to forgive me,” she said.
“You probably shouldn’t have forgiven me so easily.”
Shinji stood there. The familiar apartment seemed foreign, as if someone had moved each piece of furniture just by a couple of centimeters this way or that.
“I’m still seeing him,” his wife said.
The kitchen was getting hot from the oven. A burned smell was starting to replace the savory aroma. Shinji realized he had forgotten to set the timer for the pasta. He hated overcooked pasta. But he couldn’t move.
“Why are you telling me this now?” he said.
“I just wanted to be truthful.” His wife remained in the relaxed posture. But then she pinched the corners of her eyes with her fingers for a good three seconds, and the gesture made her look older than her age.
“Why are you suddenly being truthful at this particular moment? Couldn’t you keep it to yourself? I mean, at least for now. Until we got through this crisis?”
“I thought it would only make things worse if I waited,” she said. “The whole thing would get drawn out, and there would be more hard feelings in the end. It’s better that we deal with all these things at once. Maybe it’s all for the best.”
“Wow,” Shinji said.
“Besides, this is not really my crisis.”
“Wow,” he said.
Since the apartment belonged to his wife, Shinji had to find a place to sleep that night. She repeatedly said there was no need, but of course there was. He quickly packed his small overnight bag and left. Later he remembered he had not bothered to turn off the stove or the oven.
“What’s she like?” Kazuo was asking on the riverbank. “Your wife?”
Shinji thought about it for a moment. He no longer knew. “God, you just ask these questions.” He tugged at some grass. The stalks were tougher than he’d thought, and he couldn’t pull any off at first try. “Let’s see. She’s the kind of person who at a restaurant orders a huge sandwich, picks it apart, eats bits and pieces of things between the bread and, leaving most of it uneaten and dissected, absentmindedly pokes at the remaining food mash on the plate with her fork for the rest of the dinner, while talking.”
Kazuo kept looking downstream for a second, but then he turned to Shinji and raised his half-hidden eyebrows.
“I know. That was mean.” Shinji sighed. “No, she’s very smart. Intelligent. She’s pretty. She works out and stays in shape. She makes more money than I do. Or did. She has a great sense of humor when she chooses to. She has lots of interesting friends. I guess she’s just a better person than I am. I don’t know.”
“So are you getting divorced?”
“Jeez, is that what your parents said, too?”
“No. I’m just asking.”
“Well don’t talk about such disturbing things,” Shinji said. “I don’t know yet.”
Akio owned a small printing business in town, and Yumi said he was rarely home. Shinji didn’t see him until Wednesday morning, just as Akio was leaving for work.
“Oh, you’re here, good,” Akio said, when Shinji found him putting his shoes on at the entrance. “Sorry, but I have to run. Make yourself at home.”
“Man, you must be busy,” Shinji said. “I never even hear you come home at night.”
“Well, can’t complain in this economy. It’s a blessing to be busy.” Akio smiled, and wrinkles softly gathered at the outside corners of his friendly eyes. “Stay as long as you like. We have plenty of space.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it,” Shinji said.
“You’re unemployed or freelancing or something, right?” Akio said. “In a way, it’s a luxury that you don’t have to be in any one place.”
Shinji didn’t know what to say to this, so he just nodded.
“Ask Yumi how to get around. Movie theaters and such, you know. Well, then.” And with a little wave of hand, he was out the door.
“He just loves what he does,” Yumi said later, when Shinji told her about the exchange. “I don’t think he even thinks of it as work. It’s like playing with a toy, always experimenting with new techniques.”
From the kitchen table Shinji watched her come and go in her green indoor slippers, watering the plants and picking up misplaced items. There was something fluid about the way she went about her tasks. Their house was never immaculate, but it was kept at a comfortable level of clean untidiness. Observing Yumi’s movement, he realized that she was fit and maintained a shapely figure. Her round eyes curving down at their corners, together with her full cheeks, had given him the impression that she was much softer and plumper than she really was. He found himself enjoying this discovery.
“But don’t you sometimes wish he was around more?” Shinji said. “Hasn’t it ever been difficult for you?”
“Oh, please, it’s not like we are newlyweds.” She laughed. “We make do with what we have.” But then she halted in front of the table and rested a hand on the back of an empty chair. “Are you thinking about your own situation?”
Shinji looked up and was met by her gentle, lopsided smile.
“You are wondering if it would have made any difference in your case?” she said.
He blinked. “How did you know?” he said.
“It’s the wisdom of age,” Yumi said, and winked with both her eyes. That is, although she blinked both eyes, Shinji could tell it was meant to be a wink. “Just give it some time,” she said. “Come help me with the plants in the back. I’ve been wanting to move those heavy pots around for ages.”
“What do you think is the meaning of life?” Kazuo said as he carefully peeled the asparagus stalks. “Do you think there is a meaning?”
He and Shinji stood together in Yumi’s kitchen, preparing dinner in her place because she had an unexpectedly late meeting at the cultural center. People arranged their kitchens differently, and using someone else’s would normally pose a slight inconvenience even if it were well organized. You would have to look for the measuring spoons or spices, inspecting each drawer and cabinet before finding them, for example, in the fridge. Even in his own kitchen, Shinji was often frustrated when his wife “misplaced” items according to her own logic. But Yumi’s kitchen was extremely functional, and he felt right at home moving around in it.
“It depends on what kind of meaning you have in mind,” Shinji said. “I tend to think there is no particular meaning, so I don’t look for one.”
Shinji was chopping off bits of vegetables to make the soup base for risotto. Kazuo had volunteered to help and obediently followed his instructions. Shinji could see it fascinated Kazuo that they got to mess with his mother’s domain.
“Not that you should listen to my silly opinion,” Shinji said a little later. “I don’t quite have what you would call a respectable life. Do you discuss these things with your parents?”
“No. Not really.” Under Kazuo’s careful labor, the asparagus stalks shed their fibrous skin. He inspected each of them before placing it neatly in the skillet. “Do things get easier when you get older?”
“Easier?” Shinji put the vegetable bits into a pot of water and turned the heat on. “That also depends on what you mean by ‘easier.’ From my personal experience, as many things get easier as get harder.”
Kazuo sighed, and put the final asparagus in the skillet. “Now what?”
“Pour the water just enough to cover them, and put the lid on.”
“I meant like dealing with friends and worrying about, you know, things.” Kazuo wiped his hands on the towel and stepped back.
“Well, I would never want to be a junior high student again, so you can take that to mean things get better after that. I think relationships at your age are generally excruciating.” Shinji chopped up some mushrooms and then took an onion from a basket. “Is there anything you want to be?”
“I don’t know,” Kazuo said. “I’m kind of interested in geography. I think.”
“Yeah? Good. That’s more than I ever knew at your age.”
Leaning on the column at the kitchen entrance, Kazuo scratched his ankle with socked toes. “When you look at a map, you see all the roads and city blocks laid out, right?”
“And all the manmade things like streets and bridges and canals were planned by someone at some point, intentionally, right?”
“Right.” Having finished with all the chopping, Shinji placed a saucepan on the stove. “You can turn on the stove for the asparagus, too. See, like this.”
“Okay,” Kazuo said. “But when a city or town develops over a long period of time, it doesn’t only expand outward, but things get changed, right? Like new layers rewriting parts of the old layers, but not completely? So maybe sometimes things get left out. Like underneath where highways and train tracks intersect or where a street gets cut off on both ends. Places no one ever visits or thinks about anymore. I think about these spaces that weren’t in anyone’s plan.”
Shinji glanced at the boy. He heated some olive oil in the saucepan and started cooking the risotto. That familiar smell of garlic and onion wafted off the pan and filled the kitchen. “Well,” he said, “so maybe you are interested in something like urban planning? You want to plan out city streets and public spaces and stuff like that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to build anything.”
“I’m just curious about these unintended places.”
“Huh,” Shinji said. “What about your dad’s job?” He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up his end of the conversation. “Does he want you to go into printing? Take over the family business? You can turn off the stove and dump the water now.”
“I don’t know much about Dad’s work,” Kazuo said, following the instruction. “He’s always off in his own world. We don’t really talk much. When I was small we’d hang out a little more. You know, like playing catch.”
“You want to play catch? Shall we?”
“I didn’t mean it literally. I’m not good at sports, anyway.”
“Oh. Good. I’m not good at throwing and stuff either.”
There was a sound of the front door unlocking, and Yumi sang out, “I’m home!”
Shinji was more relieved than he thought he would be. “Here, let’s roll the asparagus with prosciutto.”
They started on their last project. The risotto was just about al dente, and the dinner was almost ready. It was nice to cook for somebody. The meaning of life, Shinji thought, could be something as simple and small as being able to cook for someone else.
Despite the clumsiness Shinji felt with Kazuo, Yumi seemed to appreciate his presence at their house. It was great to have company, she kept saying, especially for meals.
“I’m really sorry to burden you,” Shinji said one afternoon. “I promise it won’t be too much longer. I just need to get my bearings.”
They were both doing some work on their laptops in the living room, Yumi making the handouts for her next class and Shinji working on a new translation job. The monotonous sound of the raindrops outside seemed to make the colorless scenery even flatter. But it made the warmly lit indoor space all the more cozy.
“Are you kidding me? You cook, you do the dishes, you lift heavy things, you hang out with my teenage son—oh, you’re such a burden.” She laughed but then put her folded arms on the coffee table and leaned over a little. “I’m very glad you are here. Especially for Kazuo. With him being so quiet these days, I can never be sure if it’s just the age thing or if there’s something we should be worried about. I’m glad he’s taken to you.”
Shinji felt awkward about this assessment. “I don’t know if you can say he’s taken to me, but . . .” He saw Yumi’s expectant eyes. “I mean, I think he’s a great kid. A smart kid. A lot seems to be going on in his head, for sure.”
Yumi smiled, satisfied. “Really, take your time. Don’t rush.” She reached over and squeezed his wrist. Her hand was surprisingly soft and cool on his skin. “Akio says so, too.”
“Shinji-kun, shall we go out for lunch?” Akio said.
It was late Saturday morning, and the two of them were reading at the kitchen table. Yumi had gone out already to prepare for her class, and Kazuo hadn’t come downstairs yet. It was apparently a rare occasion that Akio was home on a Saturday; he and Shinji were sitting down together for the first time. Outside the window, the light rain from the day before was still moistening the trees.
“What’s that?” Shinji put down the international section he was reading and looked up.
“There’s this coffee shop that serves great lunch food. Especially curry. Would you like to go?” Akio said. “Two or three days ago I suddenly had a craving for curry. Don’t you get that sometimes? It’s almost lunchtime, too.”
Shinji stroked his stubbly face with his palm. He was still in his pajamas. Akio, on the other hand, was already dressed and clean-shaven. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t do anything before he had made himself presentable, even if he had nowhere in particular to go.
“Sure. Let me go get ready then,” Shinji said. “What about Kazuo-kun?”
“Hmm, I wonder,” Akio said. He went back to reading his newspaper, but when he realized that Shinji was still looking at him, he got up and walked off toward the staircase. “Hey, Kazuo,” he called upstairs without going up, “Kazuo, are you awake?”
“What?” Kazuo’s voice replied from the above.
“We’re going out for lunch. Do you want to come along?”
There was a bit of silence, and then Kazuo said, “I’d go if it’s ramen.”
“I don’t think they have ramen. It’s a coffee shop. They’d probably have pasta, though.”
“Okay,” Kazuo called down.
“So are you coming?”
Akio came back to the kitchen and settled into his chair.
“I guess he’s coming.” He picked up the papers but then put them down on the table again. “The thing is, actually, I was sort of thinking we could go out and have a little chat, you and I. Since we hadn’t had a chance yet.”
“Oh, sorry,” Shinji said. “You should have just told me.”
Akio smiled and shrugged. Shinji thought there was something charming about this gesture. “No, you’re right, he should come. It’ll be good, the three of us together,” Akio said.
The coffee shop was old, but it was filled with abundant natural light. The front portion of the store was a bakery, and the sweet, buttery smell permeated the modest space. Behind the counter a small, elderly woman stood by herself, wearing an apron with pink vertical stripes. On a small display table sat a few dishes with plastic wraps over them, indicating the day’s lunch menu. There were only a few tables and chairs set up along the windows in the back, and a young couple with a little girl was having their lunch at one of them.
“You’d think they can’t possibly be good, right?” Akio said, pointing at the sloppy, not particularly hygienic display. “But you’d be pleasantly surprised. Their food is amazing. Especially curry.”
When the three of them sat down at one of the empty tables, the same old lady came out from behind the counter to take their order. After hearing Akio praise it repeatedly, Shinji had to order the curry as well. Kazuo made it known that he still wanted ramen but settled for spaghetti carbonara.
Even with his raised expectations, the food was delicious. But Shinji felt awkward sitting with the father and the son as they ate quietly. Akio repeatedly made an admiring sound in his throat and shook his spoon at his curry but didn’t elaborate on his thoughts, so it never developed into a conversation. Kazuo kept his head down, his bangs hiding his eyes. He bounced his knee under the table nonstop. Shinji thought about asking Akio some printing-related questions, but he wasn’t interested enough and didn’t know what to ask. He found himself looking forward to dinnertime, when Yumi would be home, leading the conversation.
Halfway through the meal, Akio’s phone rang, and he flipped it open after a glance at the caller ID. “Hello? Yes, so you got it? You’re sure you can open the file this time? Okay, start rendering. I’ll head over now.” Akio stood up, pulling out his wallet from his back pocket.
“Work?” Shinji said.
“Yeah. Sorry, I have to run.” He placed a few folded bills on the table, then put his hand on Kazuo’s head and patted a couple of times. “Take your time. Their pastries are great, too.”
Akio went out the door, and the bell attached to it tinkled in his absence. Kazuo fixed his hair where his father had apparently mussed it up, turning it back into an intentional mess. Classical music was playing at a low volume. The young family had left a while ago, and Shinji and Kazuo were the only customers in the store. Kazuo finished his carbonara and went on to work on his father’s half-eaten curry. Shinji wondered where in his small body all the food went. It was so calm that the clinking of cups and dishes as the old lady rinsed them in the sink started to sound hypnotic. Shinji wished he had brought the papers with him.
“You know, I actually know a place like that,” Kazuo said, as though picking up a conversation where it had been left off. He was still chewing, but he had his elbows on the table now, resting his cheeks in his palms. His voice came out muffled.
“The kind of place I told you about. Near my school.”
“What do you mean? What kind of place?”
“One of those unintended places. Don’t you remember? The spaces that weren’t planned?”
Shinji thought about it for a second. “Right.”
“I go there sometimes,” Kazuo said. Without changing his posture, he looked at Shinji, searching his face. “And sometimes, I leave things there.”
“Just things. I don’t know.” He slurped up the soda at the bottom of his glass with a straw. “Do you want me to show you the place?”
They reached a street with heavy traffic and walked along the narrow sidewalk for a while in single file. Then the sidewalk ended abruptly.
“Hey, should we be walking here?” Shinji called out to Kazuo’s back a few paces ahead. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
Kazuo kept on walking. The two-lane traffic became heavier as they went, and under an overpass even the shoulder disappeared. They had to walk almost brushing against the damp concrete wall. Several cars honked as they sped past. Just on the other side of the overpass, there was a small public playground. Kazuo went in, and Shinji followed, glad to get off the road.
The stench met him immediately. Almost completely in the shade of the highway overpass, the air of the park smelled musty. And there was an assertive undercurrent of something chemical mixed with the bitter-sour fume of a garbage dump. The last time Shinji had smelled something similar was when he was in kindergarten and visited his grandparents. There had still existed near them an open sewage canal where a local factory dumped its wastewater.
It was an oddly shaped piece of land. The busy road and the tall wall of the overpass formed its two sides, and a long chain-link fence cut across diagonally to close off the triangle. On the other side of the fence was a gray, windowless building that looked like a factory. Although the basic amenities such as a swing set, a jungle gym with a slide and a sand box indicated that this was a playground, everything looked dejected. Here and there some bright yellow and red paint chips clung to the rusted structures.
Kazuo walked to the far end of the playground and turned to Shinji with his fingers hooked on the fence. Shinji went over and stood next to him. There was a deep trench between the fence and the factory grounds, and its bottom was covered with trash of all kinds, soaked in foul-smelling liquid.
“So this is it,” Kazuo said.
“Wow,” Shinji said. “It stinks.”
It was as if all the trash people had ever littered in this town had ended up here. There were plastic bottles, diapers, broken umbrellas and food packaging. Disintegrating plastic bags clung to other objects like tattered rags, making it hard to tell what the objects were. There was something that looked like a bicycle frame, and Shinji saw a leg of a chair sticking up. Underneath the busy road was a barrel-sized opening from which the murky water trickled out into the trench, but there was no indication of how these objects might have ended up down there. It was arguably the least suitable location for a playground Shinji could think of.
“You said you come here often?” Shinji said.
“I don’t know. I just do,” Kazuo said and pulled at the fence a couple of times. “I guess I’m interested in this kind of place. Like, conceptually.”
“Man, you know difficult words.”
Kazuo rolled his eyes. “I’m almost fourteen.”
“Right, right. Sorry.”
“Anyway, like I said, I sometimes leave things here,” Kazuo said. “I thought you could use a place like this, too.”
“What, like throw a piece of trash in there?” Shinji said. “Is that what you do?”
“Of course not,” Kazuo said. “It’s conceptual. You know, you can leave things, like, behind. Because no one cares. No one wants to think about a place like this. It basically doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind, so whatever you leave here doesn’t exist, either.”
A plane flew across the sky overhead, trailing an unusually loud, roaring engine noise. When Shinji looked up, the plane itself was far-off and tiny, and it seemed ill-matched to the sound it made.
“I just want to ask,” Shinji said, looking at Kazuo again. “You’re not saying that this has anything to do with that memory incident of yours, are you?”
They stared at each other for a second. Shinji could actually see Kazuo’s eyes from that angle. They were round and turned down slightly at their edges, like his mother’s. Suddenly becoming aware of the silliness of it all, Shinji shook his head. Why was he playing along with Kazuo’s make-believe?
“Well, okay. What have you got that you’d want to leave behind?” Shinji said. “For god’s sake, you’re thirteen. Do you have problems at school? Do you want to talk about it?”
“You don’t have to be middle-aged to have problems, you know,” Kazuo said.
“Well, sure. Thanks. It’s just that—man, you were just born around the time I met my wife.”
“And you two have problems, don’t you? I’ve been alive the same amount of time.”
Shinji thought about it. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “But you’re just not my idea of a troubled youth, you know? You have a great mom and dad who care about you, who seem to understand each other so well. I almost wish I had a family like yours.”
“Please don’t sleep with Mom,” Kazuo said.
“You’re sad because you had a fight with your wife. You can leave that here.”
“What are you—”
“My mom sometimes goes out with these younger men. I’ve seen them,” Kazuo said. He spoke straight into the fence and the ditch beyond. “Because Dad can’t sleep with her anymore. It’s what they’ve worked out.”
Shinji stood there, one hand on the fence.
“They think I don’t know these things because I’m thirteen,” Kazuo said. “But it’s really screwed up, and I don’t think you should sleep with her.” He looked at Shinji. “I think you are a good person.”
A small truck honked at a car slowing down in front of it, and a flock of sparrows took off from the overgrown bushes.
“Kazuo-kun,” Shinji said, but then had to lick his lips. He must have had his mouth open, and now it was dry. He could taste the foul air on his tongue. “I’d never in a million years even imagine such a thing.” But then he wondered if he sounded convincing even to himself.
Kazuo relaxed his shoulder and let out a small sigh. A smile formed just on the edges of his mouth. “I have to run,” he said. “I have a piano lesson.”
Without waiting for reply, Kazuo walked away from the fence. Shinji, left standing in the stench, watched his cousin’s son disappear under the overpass. He seemed so small. He wondered if this was Kazuo’s act of leaving; if he, Shinji, was the thing being left behind.
On Sunday morning Shinji went downstairs and found the kitchen and the living room empty. He had never been the first to come down, and he felt like an intruder moving around in the quiet house. The curtains were drawn, shutting out the sunny day outside, and the dim, empty rooms looked as if they were holding their breaths. He made some coffee in the large coffee maker, but he wasn’t sure if he’d used the right amount of grounds. Being used to making coffee just for himself, he always messed up when he tried to make a larger amount. While it brewed, he went to the front door to retrieve the newspapers and brought them back to the kitchen table.
He opened the curtains, and the sunlight spilled onto the floor, making the different textures of the wood flooring and the carpeted areas flat and uniform. A bird kept chirping right outside the window in regulated sets of three high chirps, then three counts of rest. It was so regular that after a while it started to sound like a truck backing up. Shinji felt a little sorry for the lone bird, who called and called without being answered.
As he sat trying to read the papers, Shinji wondered what he might say to Yumi when they found themselves alone at the kitchen table. Before coming downstairs, he had packed his overnight bag again. He couldn’t be sure whether he really hoped for an opportunity to be alone with her. Because what could he say, really? That he was leaving because they might sleep together?
But it was Kazuo who came down after an hour, still in pajamas, hair pressed up on the side where his head had been resting against the pillow.
“Morning,” he said and lifted his palm toward Shinji.
“Good morning.” Shinji lifted his in response.
Kazuo walked over to the TV in the living room, rubbing his eyes. He set up his video game right in front of the large screen and started playing an elaborate shooting game, with 3-D graphics that moved seamlessly. The volume was turned low, and the image of Kazuo sitting quietly on the carpeted floor in the morning sun, shooting down the realistic looking zombies, was oddly peaceful.
A few minutes later Akio came down, as if drawn out of bed by the electromagnetic wave of Kazuo’s game.
“Morning,” he said to Shinji and poured some coffee for himself. He sipped at it and grimaced a little. It had come out a bit too strong. Akio was also in his pajamas today, and his hair was flattened almost at the exact same spot as his son’s. He went over to Kazuo with his coffee.
“That’s too close. How can you see? Let’s bring it back here so we can sit on the couch.”
They reconfigured the machine and the cords, settled onto the couch side by side and started to play a racing game. They played together quietly, both absorbed in the computer graphics world on the TV screen. Their matching bedheads sometimes bobbed with a slight time lag as they manipulated tight curves and involuntarily tilted their bodies. Watching the pair, Shinji felt he belonged to a generation that had been accidentally skipped over. The bird outside chirped an irregular set of two and then stopped.
Lastly Yumi came down, already dressed and with her light makeup on.
“Good morning!” She flip-flopped into the kitchen with her green slippers, and the house came to life. The water ran in the sink, the fridge door opened and closed, pots and pans clattered. There was chopping on the cutting board, ticking of the toaster and sizzling on the skillet. The downstairs was no longer the same, quietly sulking space Shinji had found earlier in the morning. The life of this family took over, and the space that contained it had receded into the background to play the supporting role.
“Breakfast is ready!” Yumi called out half an hour later toward the living room. She set out on the table the plates of omelets and toast, bowls of cereals and yogurt, glasses of juice and milk, butter and jam and, finally, the utensils. The father and son didn’t budge.
“Come on, guys, eat while they are hot!”
“Just a minute,” Akio called back, without taking his eyes off the screen.
“We’re about to finish this level,” Kazuo said.
Yumi sighed theatrically, but she was already in her chair. She passed the butter to Shinji and winked with both eyes. “There’s nothing to be done with those two,” she said. “We’ll just go ahead.”
He could see traces of faint lines at the corners of her eyes, which would only solidly materialize when she smiled her full smile. He suddenly felt the oncoming loss, although nothing in this picture was his to lose.
Shinji bit into the thick toast, and let the buttery warmth spread in his mouth. The sky outside the window was so clear and so uniformly blue that it almost looked fake. The potted flowers on the windowsill were bright and fragrant. Together they seemed to be conspiring for the impression that the world was completely peaceful, that everything was just as intended and would stay that way.
Yuko Sakata writes in both English and Japanese. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading.