Editor’s Pick
MARCH 15, 2012 10:52PM

To Bee, or Not

Rate: 22 Flag

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.


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Well done. Lots of great image. If you could spread this out a little with some more stories about the characters ...the romance of the waitress etc....I think it is book worthy. I'd use it as an outline for a larger piece. Good read.
Ande: Thanks for the feedback. Your points are well taken. This piece has recently been reworked as a chapter in a novel. I just finished the first full draft of the book and have sent inquery emails out to two agents.
There you go. I've been thinking about those Bees all day. This is truly one of the best stories I've read on OS ...with respect to wanting more.
I want more!
Ande: I'll be on the road for a few hours, but I sent you Chapter 1 of the novel via direct message. My question is: Would you want to continue reading this book? Megwich (Ojibwe for thank you, if I haven't mentioned that before to you)
Strong imagery, beauty. How frightening this must have been for you. I got stung by a bee on a subway once, just as the doors were closing, and my finger swelled up but I was okay.
What a beautiful story! To me the ending was a great surprise--I didn't see it coming. To answer the question you posed to another reader, I would want to continue reading. The sense of place is solid and strong, as is the dynamic of the family. Aside from the culminating, vivid trauma with the bee sting, what I also truly enjoyed was the idea of this summer town filled with and taken over by children.
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx (ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥ (ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★(ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★
This is swarming with things to wonder about.
I was in a Amish store and noticed dark honey.
I guessed a jar contained 'Tulip Poplar' honey.
I was wrong.
I bought it.
Miel Pur.
It's great.

It's pue honey from the mountains of Vietnam.
Beehives are fun if a swarm doesn't get in bed.
Chimney beehives are big headaches to have.
I go on & on. But, I use to tend 33- colonies.
I was stunk one day 40 plus times. Honest.
I was moving colonies in my pickup truck.

One colony fell over and `Ouch! Shush.
I never move my apiary after that Sting!
I won't mention one bee Stinger Sticker.
Next sting I get will be a belly button pierce.
No tattoos. I agree with Ande Bliss. Great!

I'd read that book. A beekeeper gave Journals.
I've a huge box of `The American Bee Journal'
I use to Love to let the bees make chunk comb.
The Cover is so very well-deserved!

Well written. Enjoyable pieces sewn in a kind of quilt pattern of life.
Erica, VC, AK, Jon, Cynthia: Megwich (Ojibwe for thank you). I was so encouraged by the feedback from you and others that I plan to work on the piece a little and enter it in a writing contest.

MWG: “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end…” My written comments are often accompanied by song. Megwich.

Art: Reading your response is like putting together a delightful puzzle.Megwich.

Sheila: I like the quilt analogy. My best writing comes out as individual vignettes. Megwich.
This absolutely leaves me wanting more, please!
Sophieh: Megwich.

Barb: Megwich. You might like some of my other posts...although a few are downers. I used to live in Superior, Wisconsin. Is the singing bridge still there between Duluth and Superior?
Wow... I can't believe I missed this post. It's maybe the best writing I've read on OS. Fantastic how vividly you paint with words.
JMac: Megwich. Now I am even more motivated to rework this a bit an enter it in a writing contest.
If you're speaking of the wooden bridge with the trains running right on top of you, it is indeed still there...but the wooden surface was redone a couple of years ago, drastically changing the song it sings. I miss the lumpy ride and mournful sound!
Hey this is a taste of honey, hon.
there's a wonderful cadence in the language. i can't place the source but it gives the piece a "classical" ring--not to mention the evocation of a time, place and event. one wonders what else happened in the "bee" house.
apology? I wanted to get in a better mood.

Google Gold Star Honeybees /

christy@goldstarhoneybees.com /

That's if you wish to do serious beekeeping /
I am having a heck of a time here . . .`gin.
Bronx boy's bedroom . . .
a New York bumblebee
photo, sip crabapple flower
I wonder somedays . . .angry
Kerry's Mom in kitchen
with a big rolling pin
staring at a editor
Barb: That's the bridge!!! I haven't been there in two decades, but I can still hear the hum.

JP: Thanks for reading.
Ben: Your response is especially appreciated. Several of my earlier posts happened in the bee house--Marigolds and Mary, Fatherly Impression (formerly titled S.O.B.). Maybe there's a book in the bee house chronicles. You and Ande make me think about that possibility.
Art: Beekeeping would be a thanatopsic experiment for me. I carry an epipen to weed. I may have created a word or at least butchered one there, but you are poetical and will therefore surely understand. I enjoy your riffs.
the tough part in marketing "memoir" whether fictionalized or not is whether the writer has a "platform" i.e. is famous, rich, notorious, or incredibly fucked up. That's the jargon.

I've tried and that's what I've run into. I'm not sure it matters to them how well written it is. I hope you have better luck. Sometimes, it's just being in the right place at the right time and running into the right person.
DeLICIOUS post (?"meaning no offense"? -- to bees, honeys or writers)! Hey, I'm an optimist. [Except for those days when I'm not....] I don't doubt for ten seconds you can make AND sell a book out of this!! OS has served as a good starting "platform" for a number of books recently. Ben Sen, are you game to try again? I'd sure look for a book of yours too; buy it, and read it.

Is this based on a true event? The imagery is wonderful. A previous home was invaded by bees. Honey started to drip through the ceiling of the sunroom. We called a bee keeper who was very sad about the fact that there was no way to remove the bees, so he had to exterminate the colony.

I agree that this is well enough done to be a chapter in a book or a short story. R
podunkmarte: Your feedback is appreciated. If the book finds an agent, I'll post a birth announcement. I have worked these short memoirs into a novel....'cause some of them tell other people's secrets that my sister told me I shouldn't reveal. Now if the agents I sent queries to find me marketable, maybe it will become a real book.
Rodney: All true. After we moved out, the owner tore down the house. It was a difficult job because the bees were not happy about the invasion. The honeycomb ran from the top floor down into the first floor. I am very pleased you enjoyed the piece. It has been entered in a few writing contests since I posted this a few days ago.
I'm reminded, with the imagery, of Byatt's Angels and Insects. This is a very rich narrative, full of possibilities.
Oops . . .
Bellweather Vance & I accidently 'bumped'
on my way to the Peeper Pond ... Cop no stop.

I hope he no see a six pack of 'Dig' Pale Ale beer.
if so . . .
how to explain
the 'Dig' beer
is nor for me
it's for bees,
Good Night

This is soooooo fabulous. I love the detail, and the things unspoken. I do feel like there could be a stronger connection between your bee reaction (I'm assuming now you're allergic? But you had to stay there? Was there fear of it happening again?) and your coming of age in this place... I know how you were changed DURING the bee sting reaction...I just one more glimpse into how you felt once you recovered: about bees, the house, your family, the town, the House of Coates. Had they changed, too?
Helvetica: You have been missed. Many thanks for your reaction. I value your feedback.

That was a bizarre time in my life. After that experience I began to see the world differently, more as an observer looking for the meaning behind the obvious in people and their actions, in the natural world, in social structures. I remember feeling something more than human--not better, but able to see how all things are connected and therefore I was connected to all things. But that awareness was lost to me within a year. When my friend was killed when we were riding bikes (Marigolds and Mary), I shut down. That senseless tragedy erased that sense of connectedness. I no longer trusted that feeling.

I don't recall being overly cautious or concerned about future bee stings because I didn't realize that another sting would probably prove fatal. I didn't find out how serious my allergy was until I was an adult and finally saw an allergist. Although I went through years of immunotherapy, a sting challenge at the Mayo Clinic revealed that I had not built up any immunity. I always carry an epipen.

The House of Coates is still there. I went there for broasted chicken with my sister, Mary Anne, and brother, David, when we were back in Minnesota on an unhappy trip in a family emergency. Despite the sad circumstances, we drove all over the area arguing about where so and so lived and retelling stories. The old house was gone. It was torn down shortly after we moved out. That honeycomb ran almost two floors and several workers were stung in the process.

I have finished the first draft of the novel in which I used revisions of many of these stories. Three query letters have gone out. Only one rejection so far. Hope brings eternal.

Hope your writing is going well.