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Static

First-place winner – 2018 Fiction Contest

I got stung. On my ankle, I saw three bees, and could feel them right through my sock. I brushed them off, escaped from our vegetable garden where I was weeding, and ran into the house.

“Damn it,” I said to Betty, my wife, who was chopping carrots, “I got stung.”

“Where?” Betty asked. “On your face again?”

“My ankle.” I pulled down my sock and showed her the marks. Three red dots were already starting to swell.

“Right now, take some Benadryl,” she said.

“I’ll be fine.”

“You always say that,” she said. “Your ankle is going to blow up like a balloon and you’ll be up all night.” She turned to our kitchen cabinet. “Here it is.” She dumped the pink pills into her palm, picked two, and gave them to me. “Take ’em.”

I got some water and swallowed the pills. When I was younger, bee stings never bothered me, but as I got older, my reaction grew worse and worse. I’m not sure why. As a kid, I prided myself for never getting poison ivy, or fevers, or allergies, or needing glasses—the commonplace weaknesses among my friends. Perhaps I missed some physical inflection point in my life. I’ve been so busy, I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of things.

My dad came into the kitchen. “What happened?”

My wife pointed to my foot, which had started to swell, “Gary got stung in the garden.”

“Put mud on it,” dad said. “It draws out the poison.”

“Listen to your father.” She nodded. “Mud will help.”

“I’ll get some dirt,” my dad said.

“Don’t go near the garden,” my wife cautioned. “That’s where the bees are.”

He nodded. “I’ll steer clear of them.”

We ate a late dinner together around the kitchen table. My foot, covered in mud, resting on a towel, was propped up on a spare chair.

“I think we should call an exterminator,” my wife said.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said. My foot had started to itch.

“This is the third time you got stung this month.” My wife put a forkful of kale into her mouth. “When?”

“Tonight,” I said. “I know what to do. It’s a ground hive. We just need to pour ammonia into the hole, at night, when the bees are dormant.”

“Not ammonia,” my dad said. “Gasoline.”

“Are you nuts?” I said, “That would be dangerous.”

“Well,” he said, “don’t the terrorists use ammonia to make bombs? That might be more dangerous.” My father sipped his iced tea. “Did you hear about that attack in Paris? I saw it on the news. What’s wrong with these people that they would blow themselves up?” He straightened in his chair. “Before long they’re going to start doing it over here.”

“Let’s not start in on this again,” my wife said. “Can’t we have a normal conversation at dinner for once? No politics.” She dropped her fork on the plate and glared at me.

“I’ll do it tonight,” I said.

My dad looked under the table. “What’s with your foot?”

My wife and I were in bed. I’d finished reviewing a presentation I was on deck with the next day. I looked at my foot. It appeared okay. The drugs and mud had done the job. My wife was turned on her side, asleep, and I turned off my light.

“We need to talk,” my wife said in the darkness. She sat up and turned on her nightstand lamp. “We need to do something.”

“I poured a gallon of ammonia into the hole,” I said. “They should all be dead by morning.”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Listen,” I said, “I’m tired. My foot hurts. I don’t want to argue. Can we just go to sleep?”

“No, we can’t. We have to move your father.”

I turned on my light. “Let’s give the in-home care another try.”

“No,” she said. “We tried that twice and they both quit after a few days.” She raised her hands in the air. “He threw a cup of coffee at the last one.”

“She was messing with his maps.”

“That’s another thing,” my wife said, “he’s got his crap spread out all over the living room: maps, fishing gear, his lure projects.” She turned to me and rubbed my shoulder. “You love your father. I do, too. But it’s been three years, and he’s getting worse. More than we can handle.”

“I’ll work with him to keep the living room clean.”

“It’s not just that,” my wife said. “TJ found him wandering on his property the other day. And I came home from work yesterday and your father had emptied all the kitchen drawers. He said he was looking for the car keys so he could pick up your mother.”

“Maybe my brother …”

“Your brother won’t be of any help, and you know it. We’re in this alone.” She waited for me to respond. “We haven’t been able to take a proper vacation for three years.”

“We haven’t done a lot of things in three years.”

“What is that suppose to mean?” she said.

“Nothing.” I threw off the covers and got out of bed. Why did I say that? It’s like shutting your car door while the keys are still in the ignition: you hear the door slam and feel surprised.

“Where are you going?” She raised her voice. “Don’t walk away from me.”

“I’m going to pee.” I leaned over and scratched my ankle. “Can’t I take a piss?”

“I made an appointment for us at the facility in Oshkosh. Tomorrow. Four o’clock.”

“I can’t go at four. I have that all-day project review”

“Get someone to cover for you. Vivian. You put in enough damn hours.”

I knew Vivian could, and would, fill in for me—she understood the project details as well as I did. I could duck out a little early. “Okay,” I said, “we can check it out.” I really had to pee. “What about my father? That’s not a good time to leave him alone.”

“I called TJ,” she said. “He’s going to come over and sit with your father.”

“You made all these arrangements before we agreed to it?”

“Yes.” She turned off her light. “While you’re up, take some more Benadryl. It’ll help you sleep.”

I thought about Vivian. She was going to wear her green dress and black heels. We’d discussed it. “I’m going to take a shower,” I said.

“Whatever helps,” my wife said, her voice muffled by her pillow.

Our neighbor TJ was a good friend, a real outdoors type. He’d taken my father walleye fishing, but my dad would not remember this.

“It looks like you have quite the project here,” TJ said to my dad. They shook hands.

“I’m going to Canada. In the spring.” My dad pointed to the maps that were spread out on the floor. “I’m going to start on the East coast, high in the North Country, and work my way West.” My dad got down on his knees and traced a finger along the maps. “I’ll start here and follow the change in weather. I’ll hit each lake when the ice has just thawed, and be the first to fish it.” He looked at TJ and I thought my father’s long beard could use a trim. I tried to get him to shave it off, but he said he needed it—for what I was never sure. “I’ll be like Adam in the Garden of Eden. Me and the creator. The first man to see it all.”

“These lures look pretty good.” TJ picked one up. “You make them yourself?”

“Yes.” My dad took in a sharp breath, puffed up his chest. He looked proud of his work, and it made me sad.

My wife came into the room. “Dad, you and TJ are going to harvest some tomatoes, and peppers, and kale from the garden while Gary and I run an errand. You can tell him all about your trip.” She turned to TJ. “Watch out for bees.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I poured a gallon of ammonia in their hive. I’m sure they’re all dead.”

“Bees,” Dad said, “you can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em.”

“You guys go,” TJ said. “Take your time. Your father and I are going to have fun together.”

My dad struggled to get up. TJ helped him to his feet, and my dad bent over and wiped at his knees. I remembered my dad playing softball when I was a kid. From the stands I watched him swing the bat with authority, run the bases, dust off his uniform after sliding home, greeted by his buddies with a plastic cup of beer, and slaps on his back. My mom sat next to me, with a broad rimmed hat to shield her face from the sun. My dad looked into the stands and blew her an exaggerated kiss. She caught it on her cheek and blew it back. She hugged my brother and me, kissed us on the tops of our heads so hard that we spilled our sodas.

“Come on, let’s go,” my wife said, giving my arm a slight tug. The black and white image in my head from the past was replaced with the gloomy color of the moment.

When we came home, my dad and TJ were drinking a beer and working on lures. They pasted hooks to pieces of painted cork, decorated with feathers my father had collected from our chicken pen. The place reeked of glue.

TJ looked up. “How’d it go?”

“I have to admit I was surprised,” I said. “Much different than I thought it would be.”

My dad looked at me. “Where did you go?”

“Hey,” TJ said. “The bees are still there. I got stung twice, so we couldn’t pick the vegetables.”

“Are you all right?” my wife asked. “Do you need Benadryl or anything?”

“Nah,” TJ said. “I’m not allergic. They’re just mosquito bites to me.”

TJ turned down our offer to stay for dinner, he had to go home and let his dogs out. Dad talked about how much he liked TJ, who helped him improve the lures and gave him pointers on the trip. When dad was talked out, we ate in silence. He would go through an almost manic-depressive cycle several times a day: first a lot of talk, lots of random details, and then quiet—a boat traveling through a hurricane and hitting the eye of the storm. That spot of calm worried me; one day I knew that he would never make it back out.

“Who died?” my dad said.

“Not the bees,” I said.

“Gas,” my dad said. “I told you to use gas. You have any?”

“I have a couple of containers I use for the mowers.”

“Let’s do it tonight,” he said. “Those tomatoes are ready to burst on the vine. We should pick them ASAP.”

“So you remember the tomatoes?” I said. There were patterns to his dementia, but I was always surprised, even hopeful, when he remembered something so recent.

“Sure, I remember.”

“Okay,” I said, “you and me tonight. We’ll gas the bees.” My wife looked at me with concern. “It’ll be fine,” I said. And it’ll give us a chance to talk.” Under the table, I gave her foot a gentle tap.

“Okay,” she said. “But be careful.”

Betty had been very kind to my dad at first, but lately she seemed ready to pick a fight with him. I understood. We’d both thought that, with the kids out on their own and the dogs dead, we’d have our freedom. The place in Oshkosh was perfect. Designed to be more of a community than a hospital. They had art classes, concerts, a fishing pond, and even daily Mass that I knew my dad, a fervent Catholic, would appreciate. But, my relief was smothered by guilt.

We stood in the moonlight. I looked at the hole. There were no signs of the bees. I emptied the plastic gas can into the hole. “Two gallons,” I said to my dad, “that should do it.”

“You need to light it,” he said.

“That’s crazy,” I said. “This should do just fine.”

I don’t think so.” He pulled on his beard. “Remember that monk. The one who set himself on fire?”

“I’ve seen that picture,” I said.

“He sat down in one of those yoga poses and covered himself in the gas.”

“Jesus, Dad, what are you thinking about?” He never seemed unhappy, a bit lost in thought perhaps, but not discontent.

“It doesn’t matter.” He leaned over the bee hole. “That monk was doing just fine until he lit the gas.” My dad laughed. “Then he burned like a motherfucker.” He kicked at the hole. “I think this might make the bees angry, and there will be hell to pay for anyone who works around the garden. We need to burn them.”

I thought he might have a point. Two cups of ammonia was supposed to kill the hive. I’d poured in a gallon and it hadn’t had any effect.

“You got a match?” he asked.

I pulled a lighter out of my pocket and a pack of cigarettes dropped onto the ground.

“You smoke?” he said.

“No I don’t smoke.” I shrugged. “Just one or two, now and then.” I put the cigarettes back into my front pocket. “Don’t tell Betty,” I said. “She doesn’t know.”

“Secrets huh?” my dad said. “I guess we all have ’em.”

He looked at his fingers. “I quit thirty years ago. Your Mom made me promise. I did it cold turkey. We didn’t have those patches back then. Kents were my brand. That small box, the castle on top, the word Kent in big blue letters, outlined in gold—it makes we want one right now.” I was often amazed at how much he remembered. Some memories grew deep roots, while the everyday stuff dried up and blew away.

“She said she didn’t want me dying too young.” He rubbed his face. “Then she goes and gets cancer.” He looked me in the eyes. “I wish I never quit. I miss her like all hell. We might be together now.”

It had been a long time since he’d mentioned my mother as part of his past. When her name came up, he was usually wandering around the house, going from room to room, looking for her. Every time we took a drive somewhere, he’d ask if we were going to pick her up.

“Dad, stand back,” I said. I leaned over, and gave the disposable lighter’s flint wheel a sharp spin.

The explosion was a muffled thump. The bright fireball knocked us both on our butts. I couldn’t see my dad. After a few seconds my eyesight returned. I could smell burnt hair. “Are you okay?” I said. His beard was singed. I ran my fingers over the top of my head and eyebrows. I too was singed.

He let out a deep breath and reached towards me. “Give me one of those cigarettes.”

We sat there smoking. “They’re dead now,” he said.

I nodded and blew smoke in the direction of the hole.

“You know I can hear you and Betty fighting at night.” He took a deep draw on the cigarette, held it for a few seconds, and let out the smoke. “I don’t sleep well.”

“It’s normal, Dad. All couples fight.”

“It’s about me.” He reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “I understand, son.” He squeezed my shoulder. His grip was stronger than I expected. “You watch yourself, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“Vivian.”

“How do you know about her? We work together.” I wondered how the project meeting had finished up today; I made a mental note to give her a call later—it was a valid reason. “You’ve never met her,” I said.

“No, but I’d recognize her if I ever did. You talk about her at dinners—all the time. You don’t even know how much, do you?” He leaned towards me, the flame-curled hair in his beard sparkled. “I see concern in Betty’s face when you bring her up.” He flicked away a half-spent cigarette.

I did enjoy Vivian’s laugh, how it filled me with energy, made me feel young. My dad looked at me as though he could read my thoughts and I looked away.

“Gary,” my wife shouted from the deck. “Are you alright?”

“We’re fine. Just talking.” I could see her in the moonlight, in her night robe, arms folded, concerned. “We’ll be in soon.”

“You know I think about her sometimes,” my dad said.

“Betty?”

“No, Vivian. What she looks like.” He laughed.

“Drop it, Dad.”

“I hear you and Betty fighting in your bedroom, but not much else.” He stretched his back. “Your mom and I had sex right up to the end. Even after her chemo.”

“Dad, come on, stop.”

“You and I never had that birds and bees talk.” He laughed.

“I’m a little old for that,” I said.

“Can you promise me something?”

“Sure anything.”

“Your brother.”

“I’ll take care of him,” I said. “I promise.”

“No,” he said. “He’s your older brother. He’s not your problem. Don’t let him tie you down. My father had a drinking problem. I think it passed to your brother.” He sighed. “I’m glad he never had kids. A man can be real hard on his kids when he’s been drinking.” He looked up at the moon. “I want you to be free.”

“Dad,” I said. “I’ll visit you every day.”

“Every day?”

“Every day.” I patted his leg. I knew I could swing down from work and spend dinnertime with him. Longer visits on the weekends. I could bring along my brother.

“It’s quite a distance,” he said.

“Not that far,” I said.

He looked at me. “Your hair’s all burnt.” He touched my head. “No need to visit me. Canada is pretty far away.” He asked for another cigarette and I lit one for myself—just one more. I looked up for a constellation I might recognize.

“You okay, Son?”

“I’m fine. I just have a lot going on.”

“Don’t miss your life,” he said.

I looked over at him. Sometimes his way of speaking bugged the shit out of me. “How can I possibly miss my life?” I said. “I’m in it every second.” I searched my pockets for gum.

Be still and know that I am God. That’s from Psalm 46. I’d spend all year planning my fishing trips. I never liked ocean fishing; I was always a freshwater man. I would spend all year mapping out every small detail. I jumped out of bed every morning to go to work, because I couldn’t wait to get on the lake and get my line in the water.”

I thought we should be heading in but wanted stay outside.

“You know what I would do on those lakes?” he said.

“Fish?”

“I would start planning my next trip.” He rubbed his hands over his face, like he was just waking up. “I’ve missed a lot of moments right in front of me.”

It was quiet. The air was still. Something splashed in the pond, perhaps a frog. I thought about Canada: my dad and me sitting by a campfire under the stars. A crazy idea—but, maybe not.

“I miss the static,” he said.

“Static?”

“Yeah, sitting on the couch, tired from an honest day’s work. Drink a few beers. Watch the news, then Carson, Tom Snyder, the national anthem—and then static. The end of the broadcast day.” He shook his head. “The world would stop.”

A sly grin crept across his face. “Don’t tell your mom I was smoking. She thinks I quit.” He struggled to his feet, and I helped him up. “Aren’t we supposed to be picking tomatoes?” he said.

“We can do that tomorrow.” I patted him on the back. “Time for that tomorrow.”

He cleared his throat. “And even those who are yet to come, will not be remembered by those who follow.” He stretched his arms into the sky, arched his back, and wiggled his fingers. “That’s from Ecclesiastes.” He sighed, and looked at me. “It all goes by too fast. Too goddamn fast.”

I looked down and wondered if the bees were dead. I hoped they were.

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Michael Hopkins is the first-place winner of the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2018 Fiction Contest. Hopkins was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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