There were no flowers near the house, no decorative plants. Just grass, cut short enough to kill it in some places and several trees. The grass was edged cleanly along the path from the driveway right up against the long, squat, beige house. There was little shade and the property was a manicured rectangle surrounded by acres of low brush with a horizon of dense forest in the distance. A thick band of green east of the house seemed to indicate a stream or river. The lawn on the rear side of the house was also cut very short and beyond it the view was expansive and opened to a large field of thigh high grass and wildflowers bordered by thicker brush and squat trees. It was a flat, three acre field and there were sharp paths cut through the tall grass connecting several larger clearings where the hives were.
“Don’t get too close, but there they are,” Sam told her. Several boxy towers were grouped together in each of the twenty by twenty foot clearings. Sam paused for a five count but Margot did not say or ask anything and they moved to the hothouse which was a wooden cube structure with a concrete foundation and an aluminum roof set at a slope.
“Electric heat soon enough,” Sam said. “Paul will install that.”
Margot went to her car to retrieve a bottle of water before they got to work and she put on a spare beekeeper’s suit and helmet.
Sam was sweating heavily and his hands clenched the handles of the wheeled pallet onto which he had just finished loading a dozen honey-laden, capped frames with Margot walking behind him in the bee suit. Sam filled a bucket with water from the outside spigot and dumped it on his head. The water ran down his back and into his open boots. He lay the bucket down and trudged toward the hot house where they would unload the day’s frames and spin the frames collected the day before. Margot followed him inside the hothouse where the bees were darting around exposed beams, the bare bulbs in a row along the ceiling inside, the stove and the neatly stacked wood. They hovered near the the worn wood of the floor, and under her feet Margot felt the tackiness of the old honey, she could see the tar colored spots on the floor and smelled the hot wood smell and wax.
Sam cut the wax cap off of the frames with a heated knife, placed the frames in the centrifugal extractor and began cranking the handle. He built up speed and worked up a sweat and then stopped and looked inside the extractor. The expelled honey that ran down the barrels slowed his heart in watching it. It was honey that relaxed his shoulders to see what a good yield it was. He watched and his pulse slowed and the honey ran down the side of the collecting tub, cooled, and slowly collected. It felt to Sam like the only rest he could get. Before the extractor could slow down too much, he stooped over and cranked the handle again. There would be more in these frames and then he would remove them and keep going three more times before he was finished with this part. He would let Margot work the crank for the last few frames.
Sam had just come in from the hot room and the dry breeze outside had cleared some of the sweat from his face and neck. His boots made a sloshing sound when he walked to the refrigerator to drink from the cold water jug in long, loping gulps. Margot followed him inside and removed the netted helmet from her head and smiled at Sam. She removed the rest of her bee suit and her shirt was soaked through with sweat.
“I’m going to need a shower.”
She filled her empty bottle of water from the tap and drank. It was 1 PM, four hours since she arrived and Sam had not yet shown her the inside of the house. Margot saw that Sam had brought her bags in from the porch and she fished out a towel and wiped the sweat from her face and neck. Sam washed his hands and made two baloney sandwiches with iceberg lettuce, tomato, onions, and miracle whip and placed them on plates with a handful of potato chips each and they sat down at the kitchen table. They were tired and they ate without speaking, but ate hungrily and noisily without regard for manners.
When she finished, Margot wiped her mouth and sat back in her chair and said it was the best sandwich she had ever had.
“We get that stuff from the A&P. We have a lot of baloney because Paul used to work in the deli department and they give him a good deal.”
Three weeks earlier, Paul quit his job at the A&P and now only made the trips to the farmer’s market to peddle the honey. Sam kept up the hives, extracted the honey, bottled, packaged and labeled the jars and loaded them on the truck in racks.
“There he is,” Sam said, and the beige Ford pickup pulled into he drive and Paul came through the door with a jar of honey in his hand. He put the jar on the kitchen table and pulled out a wad of bills from his pocket. He peeled off two of the bills before he ducked and reached into the cupboard next to the sink and pulled out a coffee can and put the rest of the bills in there. Then he folded the two bills he took out of the wad and put them in his pocket.
“200 bucks cash business for the day,” he said. “The rest of it’s shipping to somewhere in Idaho and he’ll cut a check for another 200.”
He picked up the jar of honey and did a twirl of it in the palm of his hand so that the label was right side up for Margot to read it.
“That’s for you. Eat this stuff and it’s better than the meth those tweakers are cooking in town. It’ll give you clean energy for days. I’m Paul, by the way You must be Margot.”
Paul sat up on the counter and looked at Margot. Sam got up from the table to wash the dishes and Paul took his seat at the table with Margot.
“He’s not working you too hard, is he? He’s like a hopped up Frankenstein, isn’t he. Sweats like a racehorse, too.”
“It’s fun work,” Margot said and stood to leave when Sam finished the dishes to complete the filtering, bottling, the labeling of the honey. Paul had old fashioned manners and he stood when Margot stood.
When they came in from the outside, Paul was sitting on the couch in the living room watching television.
“The last step won’t be till late tonight,” Sam told her. “We have to return the wet frames to the towers and leave them nearby for the bees to collect the leftovers. If we do it during the day there’ll be fighting between the hives. At night the bees are calmer. It’s not hard work so you can have a shower before dinner.”
Sam gave Margot a fresh towel and went into the kitchen to wait his turn.
Paul watched her walk down the hall.
“She’s a pretty nice little number. Not your type though, is she? A little bandy for you.”
Sam did not respond.
“What are we paying her?”
“I figured 600 for the few weeks it will take to harvest everything.”
“She a college girl? We mightn’t have paid her at all. Just college credit. I saw that on TV once. Pretty good scam.”
“She’s not in college. Just moving from here to there, I guess.”
“Three hours away, Crownsville, I think. We gotta feed her and all that, so you might have to go to the A&P if she needs anything special.”
“You gonna tell her why you can’t go to the A&P anymore?”
Sam stood and picked up Margot’s bags and placed them on the bed in her room.
Margot came out of the shower wearing a robe and her hair was wet and she carried a ball of dirty clothes.
“There’s a Laundromat in town that we can go to when you need it.”
“I’ve got some clothes yet but these are pretty gross, so yeah.”
Margot went into her room and shut the door. Paul stood up from the table and went back to his room and came back with two wooden boxes. One of the boxes contained a leather wrapped package and cleaning tools and cloths. The other box had ammunition in it and several pistol magazines. He placed them on the table and waited for Margot to come out of her room. When she did, he invited her to sit at the table.
“You want to go out shooting with me before it gets dark, Margot? You ever shot a pistol? I’ll show you how this thing works.”
Paul unwrapped the leather package and there was a small, .22 caliber pistol inside. It had a bright sheen of oil on the blued steel frame and barrel and wood grips with bee caricatures carved in them. Margot sat next to Paul and watched him dismantle the little pistol down to its tiniest parts that looked like little black bones on top of the oiled leather wrap that he laid flat on the kitchen table.
“Now this is something I do after every time I shoot so I don’t really need to do it now but it gives me a chance to show you how it works.”
As he picked up and cleaned each part of the pistol he explained what it’s purpose was and what role it played in the entire machine. He then reassembled it and told her the rules of gun safety.
“Every gun is loaded, never point the gun at anything you don’t plan on killing, never put your finger on the trigger until you know you will kill that thing, and watch your background.”
Paul loaded a magazine, slid the magazine in the gun, and then worked each shell out of the magazine with the bolt. Each bullet ejected like the gun had manufactured them inside and spat them out. The bullets flew out and scattered on the table, with the film of gun oil in the late afternoon sunlight that came in streaks through the kitchen window. When the gun was empty, Paul worked the bolt three more times, removed the empty magazine and worked it again. Then he replaced the empty magazine, and handed the pistol to Margot.
“Is that gun loaded, yes or no?”
“Yes it is.”
“How do you check whether it’s loaded or not for yourself.”
Margot worked the bolt, removed the magazine, worked the bolt again and then pointed the gun toward the wall and pulled the trigger which clicked snappily.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You never dry fire a pistol, sister.”
“This is a Ruger Mk. III. It’s got a pin stop.”
Paul looked at Sam and then at Margot.
“Ha! It looks like there are two brains in this outfit! Why don’t you load up a couple of those magazines.”
Paul and Margot loaded five magazines and Paul gave two to Margot and kept three himself. As they went outside, Sam could hear Paul tell Margot that the gun was a “marvel of engineering,” just like Paul had told him many times, and after watching the disassembly of it and the inner workings of it and what it could do to a corn cob or a raw egg or a dead possum that Paul found and nailed against a board to make it stand upright, Sam agreed. Sam could hear murmuring outside and could hear Paul in his serious tone of voice talking and Margot who chuckled several times. And then the crack of the pistol shot. And a few seconds later, Paul whooping and wooing and Margot’s laugh. It was a loud open-mouthed kind of laugh. And then another shot and Paul yelling again and Margot whooping. There were two more shots and some silence. And then several shots in a row and that was Paul with the gun. Margot yelled out woo-hoo and laughed from deep in her diaphragm that sounded like haw-haw.
Sam sat alone in the kitchen and thought about what he was going to make for dinner and he thought about what he would need to send Paul to the A&P for. He would make a list and put it on the fridge and he would see it gone and then all the items would be in the fridge. It was a good system. Sometimes Paul wanted something special and would tell him what to put on the list, but mostly it was up to Sam. Sam tried not to think about the A&P because it made him think about Rita, a beautiful, round-breasted cashier with thick folds of flesh around her belly that stretched her tight white t shirts. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He would watch the way she bounced when she closed the register. When she hefted a gallon of milk or bent over, he looked in the dark space between her breasts. In his spare time, while he was still a bagger at the A&P, Sam imagined long conversations with her, but no words came to him. In his fantasies it was just her mouth moving silently and her gazing at him with inarticulate emotion and understanding, her large, dark eyes like the eyes of a slow-moving, tranquil, milk cow. When they did speak, she spoke to him as if he were a child and she was kind to him. Sam would unconsciously pull at his fingers when he looked at her or spoke to her, Paul once told her it was to stop himself from reaching out and grabbing her. He wanted to jab the soft folds of flesh with his finger, he wanted to kneed and to bury his face in her and inhale the faintly waxy smell that he sometimes caught when she walked by. He had never been with a woman. He had never seen a naked woman. He had no understanding of the power and the vulnerability of his desire until the last day he ever went to the A&P when Rita bent over a set of grocery bags and he reached down into the v-neck collar of her shirt and grabbed her breast. Rita screamed out and recoiled and in the instant he realized the violation and the wrong of what he had done, he was overwhelmed by a feeling that he was thoroughly tricked and betrayed by his desire. Then the shame of what he did came over him and dizzied him and he swam in it and he dropped to his knees and nearly blacked out, but he could hear Paul in the distance of his awareness.
“You must excuse my cousin. He’s a bit slow in the head. He means no harm. Retarded. He’s had counseling for it.”
Paul helped him to his feet and rushed him out of the store and Sam decided that he would put his desire away and never trust it again.
Paul and Margot finished shooting and Paul came inside. He sat at the table and unloaded, disassembled, and cleaned the pistol. He pulled a handful of spent casings from his pocket and dumped them in a mason jar. He would reload them in the basement for a second use. The smell of cordite came to Sam as he turned on the oven and laid frozen French fries on a baking sheet, then he went outside to prepare the grill for dinner: burgers, sweet corn, and French fries. Paul placed a bottle of bourbon on the table and two glasses and Paul called out to him as he left,
“Tell her she’ll be drinking with dinner!”
Margot sat out on the porch and could hear what Paul said and laughed. She held a target in her hands that had several small holes in a six inch wide group near the center. Sam lit the grill and waited for it to heat up.
“I’m a pretty good shot. The doctor in our town, Dr. Jones, discovered the first cases of swine flu in the Northern US. There were a bunch of pig farms in our town and suddenly the pigs started getting sick. It was a big mystery. All these pigs start dying off. And then the people who owned the pigs started getting sick. And then almost everyone in town got sick and a couple of babies and old people died. Dr. Jones visited Atlanta herself. She brought the blood and saliva and all the fluids down to Atlanta by herself. That’s where the Center for Disease Control is. On the day she left, my dad found three sick pigs on our farm. Word was that once one of your pigs got sick, no amount of separating them or moving them would do any good. My dad was getting sick himself so he gave me a gun, a Ruger Mk III, just like the one Paul’s got and he gave me a mask like they use for spray painting barns and told me to kill every last one of those pigs. And I did it. My dad dug a big pit with a backhoe and we set up a chute and my mom sent one pig at a time down the chute into the pit and I shot each one in right the back of the head. We had 25 of them. Wouldn’t eat them. Just killed ‘em and burned ‘em. A big pit full of burning pigs. It didn’t smell as good as that, I’ll tell you that much.”
After dinner, the three of them sat in the living room and Paul tuned the stereo to a rock station. Paul and Margot had been drinking and they decided to dance so they moved the furniture up against the walls to make a dance floor. Sam’s job was to turn the volume down during the commercials. There were five songs in a row and they gyrated and jumped and turned and looked at one another and Margot raised her hands above her head and swung her head back and forth and closed her eyes and smiled. Paul did the twist and snapped his fingers and bent his knees. Sam watched as Paul got close to Margot who was laughing and letting him get close, but she was holding him off too. Paul kept trying to wrap his arms around her and when that worked he tried then to move his hands up and down her body once he had a hold of her. Paul tried to get his face in her neck to kiss her and Margot put up with this a little bit but then backed away with her hips because Paul held on to her upper body. There was a commercial and Sam turned down the stereo and there was silence and the sound of Paul and Margot panting. They stood in front of one another and took long drinks from their highball glasses and waited for the commercials to end. There was another block of three songs and Paul and Margot danced hard again. This time, Margot danced by herself and drank some more. She had her eyes closed and danced in front of Sam who sat on the couch. During the commercial, Margot dropped down on the sofa next to Sam and she put her arm around him and lay her head on his shoulder and breathed into his neck, and tilted her head back and yelled toward the ceiling,
“Jesus, it’s hot in here!”
Paul was drinking straight from the bottle now and was laughing as he dropped into an armchair. Sam could smell Margot’s sweat mixed with the booze and he stood up from the couch to turn the music back up and Paul reached his hands out to Margot and lifted her from the couch and they danced closer this time. The music was very loud and Sam sat on the couch and watched them for a while and thought about Paul and what he knew about women.
It was late, so Sam left Margot and Paul in the house because she was drunk and would not be of any use with the bees and went outside. He loaded the wet frames and wheeled them into the clearings. There were sharp shadows cast by the bright moonlight and it was dry so there was no haze in the air. Sam looked across the field which was lit up by the moon and he could hear the sound of insects and as he passed a stand of trees he heard birds rustling inside, disturbed in their sleep. There were cries and howls of coyotes that sounded like they were passing within a quarter mile of his position, and the hysterical screaming sound of a fox. In the far distance, Sam could hear the lowing of a herd of beef cattle. He wheeled each set of frames to their respective clearings and set them down for the bees to do their work and then he left the wheelbarrow at the last clearing to be used the next day and made his way back to the house. He could hear the muffled sound of the music inside. Then he heard the two loud pops in quick succession that was Margot shooting Paul twice in the gut.
Inside, Margot was standing nearly naked in the middle of the cleared out space of the living room with her underclothes pulled at and loose. Paul’s pistol was stretched out in front of her. Her shoulders were relaxed, her two arms forming a triangle and the gun was one of the points of the triangle, aimed directly at Paul who sat on the couch, shirtless, with his pants unbuckled and half way past his thighs, with two very small holes in his belly. There was a small runnel of blood flowing from each of the holes and the blood was just beginning to pool in the flat space near his waist but it was flowing regularly in small beats and would be spilling over onto the couch pretty soon. Margot was breathing easy and she had a sheen of sweat on her torso. Sam could see the outline of her muscles on the frame of her body, the biceps and triceps and the articulation of her shoulder showing cleanly as she held the pistol in front of her, the long contour of her spine and the bulge of each vertebrae down to the pointed coccyx at the base of her lower back and her legs relaxed but solidly planted beneath her in a perfect weaver stance. The bare bulb in the middle of the room was directly over her head and her lean, powerful musculature glowed under it with a power that frightened and awed Sam. All at once, he took in the bareness of the room and the furniture crammed against the walls and Margot standing in the middle and her quiet, seething, rage, and he wondered what lie he could tell to cover this.
Sam moved carefully toward Paul. As he approached, Margot moved her finger off of the trigger and lowered the pistol. Paul started panting heavily and was looking at his belly with his arms spread apart. When he moved, the blood ran down the sides of his hips and made two growing spots on the couch. Sam helped Paul stand up and told him it would be OK and they passed Margot who watched them leave with the gun at her side. Outside, the moon was still bright and shone on the two of them and Sam saw their shadow cut cleanly on the ground, hunched, moving like a creature in a painful metamorphosis. Paul made small, panicked, whimpering sounds as Sam helped him into the cab of the truck. As he made his way to the driver’s side, Sam paused when he heard the moonlit silence that had become of his world and he turned to look into the house and saw Margot silhouetted, peering out of the window. Sam turned over the truck’s motor and pulled out of the driveway and the ground around them was lit up by the red of the tail lights and the dusky, brownish light of the headlights and the cool, bluish light of the moon was over all of this and over the bees in the field who compelled one another to their cautious night-gathering.
T.J. Kurita has an M.F.A. in creative writing. This is the first story he has submitted to a contest.