The bee room was uninhabitable in warm weather, but in winter when the swarm hibernated, it served as our playroom. A giant honeycomb, the only insulation the walls held, filled the south wall of the rundown rental that housed our family of seven. The hum of their activity was a constant song accompanying sultry, Minnesota summer days. Our mother never ventured upstairs, so we left boxes of old clothes, comic books, crayons and paints, balls and other paraphernalia strewn about in the play room. In the icy winters, the bees stayed in the walls and left the space to us, but as spring approached and warmth invaded the clapboard house, they reclaimed the playroom, and we kids abandoned the house for the outdoors. Perhaps because they were given free reign of the entire room in their turn and no one repaired missing eave boards that marked their entry way, stray insects seldom ventured into other portions of the house. We established a respectful pattern of cohabitation and lived peacefully side by side for several years.
The bee house was situated in Coates, a sleepy little bump in the intersection of a Dakota County road and a state highway. Children swarmed the entire town outnumbering adults during summer. We took over the village the way the bees took over our playroom. During the days a group of us would pack a lunch and ride our bikes west to Bowen’s Woods to build forts or explore. Or, we’d head east to a swimming hole hidden by a cluster of trees at the corner of fence lines separating two farms. We’d strip off our clothes and swim naked, knowing that anyone approaching would raise a warning dust cloud. During harvest season we’d hide in the bushes, waiting for the pea trucks traveling from nearby fields to slow and turn at the only stop sign in town. Before they picked up speed, we’d run behind the open backed trucks, grab armfuls of pea vines, then sit on the cool grass under a giant oak tree which buckled the driveway back of the solitary store to pry open the sweet young pods and eat the green orbs like candy. We hung out at Gore’s store, watching the local men play cards, and bought Butterfingers and Diet Rite Cola when we had the money. We saved Hershey’s with almonds for cooler weather. They turned to pudding in the summer heat, leaving the almonds lost in a slippery mud bath of milk chocolate.
We’d spend evenings playing touch football in the median strip that separated the highway and the service road. The game always began as supper dishes were being done. Those were girls’ chores, so the boys would start the game, showing off their prowess for the girls who gradually emerged from nearby kitchens. As the sun began to slide towards the tall line of pine trees west of town, the boys would begin taunting the girls, challenging them to join the play. A few older girls would take to the field, unconsciously instructing the younger ones how to flirt effectively. Like bees drawn to flowers, they used the game as an excuse to get close enough to touch the boys’ sweaty arms and take in their inexplicably fascinating scent. With the same bold shyness they would find in the courage to reach for each other at school dances in later months, the older boys and girls would wrestle each other, grabbing for the ball and tumbling onto the trampled grass shrieking with laughter. The size of the group varied from year to year, diminishing each time a new drivers’ license was issued. Those with cars drove to Hastings to cruise Vermillion Street or neck in the loge of the only movie theater.
When my younger sister, Mary Anne, or I had earned a few dollars babysitting from the infrequent farmers’ date nights or, more often, assisting with children so local farmers’ wives could handle other chores, we’d practice another version of grownup behavior. We would don our Sunday clothes and good shoes, and, after brushing our hair and pinching our cheeks, we’d walk to the southern end of town along the service road passed Callahan’s place to the House of Coates. One of the local, unwritten rules allowed unattended, underage people on the restaurant side of the roadhouse during daylight hours. We’d slip quickly through the front door and scurry passed the bar with our eyes averted. Other kids’ fathers, older brothers, and uncles were often in there, sounding and acting more animated than they did at home. They observed the same rule we did—we were invisible to them and them to us.
The smell of Lysol waged a losing battle with a cacophony of sweaty farm dirt, cigarette smoke, and deep-fat-fryer grease. A sigh of stale beer seeped out of torn vinyl benches as we scooted ourselves into the booth nearest the restricted area. We quickly grabbed a menu to display our sophistication. The waitress seemed taken in by our subterfuge and asked us “ladies” what we would like. Always too excited to really read the menu, we ordered what the House of Coates was famous for—broasted chicken. Once the waitress brought our drinks and we had something else to do with our mouths other than pretend a conversation. We could sip at our straws and surreptitiously observe the people in the bar. The “no minors allowed” section was cordoned off by 5 by 8 sheets of grimy white garden lattice and woven with faded plastic flowers. It took little effort to project oneself through the portals and into the salty wetness of the grownups.
A young farm hand stood with a half glass of beer waiting a few inches from his lips while he finished a jibe at his shuffleboard competitor. He glanced towards a young waitress to see if his insult was reaching the intended’s ears. She pretended not to notice in a way that let him know she had: a purposeful look in another direction with just a slight pout to her lips and an even slighter curve of a smile. Like most girls my age, I was intrigued by the scene. Their mating dance was mesmerizing. Him buzzing about her, hoping to be allowed access to the nectar she held. The suitor took his turn, first running the metal puck forwards and back over the sand covered playing field, then letting go and laughing, “Shit!” when he missed his mark. “I must have been distracted,” he grinned in the direction of the young woman.
Later, as Mary Anne and I left the restaurant, late evening was in full swing and the summer heat was giving way to a cooling breeze. The sun peeked through the tops of the tall pines like a child popping out from under her covers, refusing to go to sleep, begging for another story. We sauntered back towards home. The buzz of tonight’s touch football game played like background music to snippets of conversation leaking from the open windows of houses we passed. Far off children’s voices provided a backdrop to television programs and cat and dog squabbles. The hum pulled us in momentarily before we finally reported home to angry parents. It was laundry night, and we were needed to babysit our three younger siblings. On laundry night our parents would disappear with baskets of dirty clothes and return many hours later with clean clothes and beery laughter. It was the only night out our mother got with any regularity.
Our two younger brothers were brats. Even a wire flyswatter couldn’t make them do as they were told. Ronnie, 8, and David, 6, never walked anywhere, never spoke in a normal tone or voice, never stopped talking unless it was Saturday morning and Sky King or The Lone Ranger was on television. They continued to play outside, dodging in and out of the whirling cloud of insects dancing in glow of the back porch light, until Mary Anne and I could corral them inside. Threatening that we’d tell got us nowhere, but threatening to lock them out until our parents got home so they’d have to explain themselves finally worked. Once their feet were washed and most of the grime pushed off their scrawny arms and onto a washcloth, they collapsed in bed and instant sleep. After a few hands of cards, Mary Anne went up to bed in the room she shared with Elizabeth, our silent, timid, almost invisible four-year-old sister. Lizzy was already fast asleep. She was the easy one, always doing as she was told, always looking after herself, always lost in the herd of siblings.
Being the oldest left at home—three older siblings were off being adults—I had been given the tiny bedroom nearest the bee room. I had a single bed and a small dresser piled high with library books, but the room was so small I had to shuffle sideways to get into bed. Our parents slept downstairs. The other two upstairs bedrooms were designated the boys room or the girls room—two in each—one double bed per room. There were so many of us and we had so little money that even bikes were proportioned that way. The red bike was for girls and the blue one for boys. If Mary Anne and I wanted to ride together, we’d have to talk the boys out of theirs. We all learned to negotiate at an early age.
On laundry night, I was in charge. It was my job to stay up as long as possible and make sure all were safe and sound. I loved laundry night because it was the only time I was alone. I could curl up in Mother’s chair and read. If I didn’t take too much, I could raid the refrigerator and sneak some of the congealed brine and a sliver of pink meat from the jar of pickled pigs’ feet or take an ultra thin slice of chocolate cake. With five children still at home, everything had to be doled out. It was easier to get away with a few soda crackers and cheese, less tasty fare. But pig’s feet were more exotic and mother’s special treat for herself alone, so they held considerable appeal. And, it was simply impossible to restrain oneself from sampling the chocolate cake.
When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I hid the evidence of my kitchen foray and headed up to bed. As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, I could hear the snuffling snores of four children on one side of the hall and a subdued chorus of bees on the other. All seemed right with the world. I reached into my room and pulled the long light string hanging over the center of my bed, then stepped back into the hallway to flip the switch.
Maybe if I had made my bed that day, I would have been spared. But mother never came up stairs, so why make a bed. As I flopped wearily onto the tangle of sheets and blankets, a sharp stab hit the back of my right calf. Although I had never been stung before, I knew my attacker immediately. We were taught to be vigilant about checking for bees since we had agreed to the shared domicile. If you are going to live close to an enemy, you must know their habits and preferred means of communication. I uttered some expletive and began to search for the suicidal bee’s remains. I wasn’t sure I believed the theory that they would sting only once and then die. Before I could crush the aggressor, my leg began to throb and my heart began to race with such intensity I became alarmed and tried to make my way to the stairway. I found I couldn’t walk. I tried to cry out, but I couldn’t speak, so I slid myself down the stairs, the wooden planks bruising my tail bone, convinced that if I could get to the telephone, I could dial for help.
By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, I had soiled myself and left a wet, smelly trail in my wake. Each breath was shallow and painful, as if a boulder was resting on my chest. By pulling at the walls and door frames and scratching at the linoleum floor, I drug myself around the kitchen table and toward the wall hung phone beside the front door. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t even pull myself into a sitting position. The phone was mercilessly out of reach. By drawing one arm in and supporting myself on one elbow, I could reach the doorknob, but my hand was swollen and I could not get a grip. My efforts finally opened the door, but my inert body worked as a door stop.
Deep below the shell of pain enveloping my body, I found a depthless silence akin to total darkness. As I dove deep into the heart of it, a sense of expansiveness and clarity came over me. Not as in a dream, but as a complete, irrefutable understanding. The very core of my being dissolved into billions of aspects that included all living things: human and animal—plant life—waterways—sky—minerals—the planets. I knew I was an essential component of a much larger entity. I would survive, and the lethal bee was absolved. He was fulfilling his function, as I was and would. The cool breeze from the cracked door mingled with my final thoughts. In that moment of acceptance, I gave up resistance and consciousness.
I remember little of the next few days. If I hadn’t been so bloated, I’d have looked like a prune from the hours I spent soaking in soda water, the only relief I could get. I took over our only bathroom so often that I wore an undershirt and panties for modesty so others could use the remaining facilities. The pain was pervasive. My tight skin burned and my joints ached. I cried when one of my brothers shoved a mirror in front of my face. My porcine countenance destroyed my taste for pickled pigs’ feet. It took me weeks to recuperate, and my reward was the loss of my private room to Mary Anne, the next in line. She got my single bed, and I was forced to share with Lizzy. Our father taped the bee room door shut, and I was admonished for not being careful.
As the remnants of my childhood were entombed behind the sealed door, I reaffirmed my dying commitment. For me, a reckoning of sorts had taken place. It was time to put away childish things. Like the Manchurian candidate, ready for the inevitable call, and I rejoined the swarm.