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My Own Special Touch
© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers
SHE SQUANDERED HERSELF IN PROTEST and fell to the ground, undone.
“Damn!” Roger set the inner cover, sticky side up, on the grass. He flicked her sting from his wrist with his steel hive tool. You’ve got to scrape them out quick. One time his whole hand had swollen hard and red like a red lobster claw for half a week, from a sting left too long.
He felt bad for this little darling, who had been squeezed as he laid the cover on the top box, whose alarmed response had spelled her doom. Workers are sacrificial creatures, not built to survive long. Any sting is a suicide mission.
“Damned bees,” Roger grumbled. “Don’t know why I put up with them.”
Well, there’s one reason, staring me in the face. Melvina Foster stood by her clothesline, there across the fence, sour as a crabapple. She grimaced as if in pain. A bit of a wasp herself.
He gave back her stare, then turned away sublimely indifferent, picked up the inner cover, and placed it back on hive number six.
He was dead sure that Melvina had authored the anti-bee ordinance proposed last week in the town council. “Bitter, vindictive old bitch,” he muttered under his breath.
“You! Roger!” An eldritch screech. Did the old bat have super-hearing, too?
He approached the fence with all the swagger he could muster, which he had to admit was considerable. His smooth, untroubled stride pleased him no end.
She pointed at a lump of wood in his yard. “I see you steer a wide berth around that old stump. I should think you’d have sense enough to remove it.”
“Tain’t a stump, it’s a log. I’ll move it when I’m good and ready. Was there something else you wanted, Miz Foster?”
She stood sideways, laundry basket under one arm. She shifted to stand a bit taller, winced as she did so. Maybe she was in actual pain.
He pursed his lips. “You all right, Melvina?”
“I was just wondering how many more of those death traps you plan to install.”
“You mean my apiary?” He scrunched up his face and scratched his chin. “Well, let’s see, I’ve got plenty of fresh cedar boards for new boxes. I do enjoy the woodworking. Keeps me out of mischief all winter, you know? Who knows how many new honey factories I’ll be ready to deploy next spring.”
Her mouth set in a firm line. “You’re baiting me, Roger Fjelstad. I won’t rise to the bait. But consider yourself warned. Some day your bees will attack a small child or somebody with an allergy and put them in the hospital. Or worse.” She clucked with concern for her purely imaginary sting victim. “How will you feel then, Mister Honeycomb?”
“These are the gentlest little Italian honey bees in the world, Ma’am. Don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“Because it’s always true. Listen, Melvina Foster, you’ve got no idea what honeybees are about, how they work, or how to coexist with them. Why don’t you come over some time? I’ll introduce you.”
He spotted her as soon as she turned the corner. Since the fence between their backyards had neither gate nor stile, she had to scuttle around the block. Roger couldn’t help but notice she looked more off-kilter than usual.
When she turned up his front walk, he rattled his newspaper. “And how are you today, Melvina?” He leaned back in his wicker chair and looked down his nose at her.
“I’m calling your bluff,” said Melvina Foster. “I’ve come to meet your bees. Bet you thought I wouldn’t.”
He laid down his paper. “Ain’t you scared you’ll get mobbed to death by a swarm of African killer bees?”
She threw him a spiteful look. “You said yours were from Italy.”
He sighed and stood. “Benvenuto alla nostra domee-chee-lay.” He spread an arm in welcome.
Limping through the house en route to the backyard, Melvina said, “This looks just like it did when Doris was still with us.”
Roger stopped and stared at her. “Yeah?”
“I mean, you haven’t changed one thing.”
“Maybe I like the way she had it.”
“Except you’ve let it go to seed.”
“There, you see? I have changed things. Added my own special touch.” He gave her a grin that he hoped was savage.
In the backyard, she wouldn’t go near the hives.
“Come on, what’s to be afraid of?” Roger asked, standing smack dab in the flight path of a hundred foragers. “They’re just bees.”
“I can see them fine from over here.”
He lifted a hive lid, removed the inner cover, pulled a frame partway out.
She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Don’t you have one of those veils? Don’t I see you over here sometimes in a regular beekeeper’s outfit?”
“Veils are for sissies.”
She made a wry face.
He pinched a fat drone between thumb and forefinger. “Yes, I do have protective gear. I admit I’m a sissy sometimes. Mainly when I do something invasive, like collecting honey or giving mite treatments. The girls can get a little tetchy.” He carried the drone over to where Melvina stood.
As he came near, she poised for flight, like a sprinter on the starting blocks.
“Relax, he can’t hurt you. No stinger. This one’s a drone.” He opened his hand to let the bee crawl around on his palm. “Go ahead, you can pet him. See how fuzzy he is?”
Eyes open in wonder, she leaned over his hand, within a foot of the confused drone.
“You might spare him some sympathy. He’s an orphan.”
Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “An orphan? You’re pulling my leg.”
“I would never pull your leg, Melvina.” Heaven forfend. “All drones are fatherless. They grow from unfertilized eggs.”
“Is that a fact.”
He flicked his hand and the drone flew off toward the hive.
She looked uncertain. “I guess I could stand closer. If you’re sure I won’t get stung.”
He gave her a frankly evaluative stare. “There are no guarantees in life, Melvina.” He led her back toward the hives.
Halfway there, she stopped and looked down. “Just a rotten log, didn’t you say?”
She gave it a sharp kick. Dozens of insects flew out from underneath.
“Ow! Help! Oh, help!”
“Run, Melvina!” He sprinted away from her but still felt a couple of nasty stings. “Come on, quick!”
Waving her hands in panic, she flung herself crabwise into the screened back porch as he held the door open for her.
Roger slammed the door shut behind her. He swept his hands around her face and shoulders as she swatted at her bare legs. He grabbed a magazine, rolled it up, and chased down a couple of mad aggressors.
“Sit down,” he said. “How many times you get stung?”
“Hundreds!” She lowered herself onto a battered hassock.
He frowned. “No. Not hundreds. Breathe slowly. Can you do that?” Pink blotches had blossomed in several places on her face and neck.
He kept an epi-pen in case one of his bees should ever sting someone with a real allergy. He wondered if he should get it now.
She took a deep breath, in and out. “It hurts, you . . . degenerate!”
“Nobody said it didn’t. Couple of ’em got me, too—I just run faster than you. Listen, can you breathe okay?”
“Of course I can breathe.”
“I mean, your airway isn’t closing up, is it?”
She opened her eyes wide. “Airway? Am I in danger?”
“That’s what I’m asking. Do I need to get the epi-pen?”
She concentrated on her breath. “No. I just hurt all over. My heart is fluttering a bit.”
“You maybe took thirty or forty stings. Once they start in on you, all you can do is run. Each one of those little bastards can sting you over and over again.”
“Well, you and your damned bees owe me a big apology.”
He bridled. “That’s defamation. Wasn’t my bees. Them were yellowjackets that stung you. Not bees. That’s why there’s no stingers to remove from your hide.”
“German wasps. Ground dwellers. They’ll attack anything, anywhere, any time. You uncovered their nest. Now you see why I haven’t moved that log.”
She bolted up from her hassock. “I see that you’re a menace, is what I see! Bees, wasps, whatever, they’re a danger to the neighborhood. We’ll put a stop to it. Good day, Mister Mayhem.”
She marched out of the house, down the street, around the corner.
From his front porch he watched her go. She steamed down the sidewalk straight up-and-down, nothing off-kilter now. Propelled by righteous indignation.
His bees were threatened, through no fault of their own, by a vindictive bill on the council’s agenda for next week. It was sponsored by Matt Grosswisch, one of the five council members. But Matt never had an original thought in his life. Melvina had put him up to it.
She had not always been this way. Roger remembered when Melvina had been a vivacious, even daring, young woman. Sociable, too. It was her husband, Jack, who had been the town’s chief pain-in-the-ass in those days. Self-important, officious, hidebound, and narrow-minded—he had it all.
When Jack died of a heart attack at age 50, Melvina seemed to have been passed the torch of self-righteousness. She lost her amiable qualities, traded them in for the responsibility of making others’ lives miserable at every turn.
He sighed and went inside.
As he stood in the center of the living room, looking all about him, he had to admit that Melvina was right. He had let it become shabby. It would not have gone downhill like this when Doris was here. She, and she alone, had made this a home to live in.
Oh, God, how he missed her.
Well, at least he had his little Italian darlings. Until next week.
Roger stood on Melvina’s front stoop. He rang the bell. Having heard no sound of a chime inside the house—and his hearing was extraordinarily good for a man his age—he banged on the screen door. He knocked again, scuffing his knuckles in the attempt. He began to fear that she had come home, gone inside, suffered a delayed allergic reaction, and died. Maybe I should have brought the epi-pen.
The door swung open. There stood Melvina. Frowning, as best she could with her nose and lips distorted and swollen.
He presented a pink bottle with a flourish and burst into song: “You’re gonna need an ocean . . . dum, da-dum, da-dum . . . of calamine lotion—”
“Have you gone crazy?” She bunched up a fist and shook it in his face, but he did not flinch.
“Take it, Melvina. Right now it only hurts, but in a day or two those stings’ll itch like crazy. You’ll need this. Plus all the Benadryl you can tolerate.”
She uncurled her fist and took the bottle.
With his other hand, Roger presented his second gift—a heavy jar of golden liquid. “Here. This comes from the bees. They want you to know there are no hard feelings.”
She snorted. “That’s big of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should harbor a grudge.”
“God dammit, woman! Are you going to go around that way all your life?”
Her mouth fell. “All what way?”
“Chip on your shoulder.” He stood, holding the jar of honey, in what amounted to a posture of pure supplication.
She let out a sigh. “Well. To tell you the truth. It seems I may owe your bees a little gratitude after all.”
He resisted the urge to ask.
She looked almost shy, like a school girl. “Ever since, I would swear, almost since the moment of the attack, my knees have been free of pain. First time in years. I’m at a loss to understand it.”
“Funny you should say that, Melvina. Exact same thing happened to my knees when those yellowjackets stung me last month. Instant pain relief. And long-lasting.”
She smiled, nodded. “That’s good to know.”
“It’s such a benefit,” Roger said, “I’m ashamed to admit it was those damned yellowjackets done it, not my bees.”
“Whatever,” she said. Her hand closed over his offering of honey.
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)