Talking To Bumblebees

A Memoir by Kriss Erickson

Just off Main Street, in the tiny New Jersey town of Butler where I grew up, Arch Street was one of my earliest memories of how the world worked. Fronted by an Elk’s Lodge on the right corner and an electrician’s shop on the left, Arch Street was a microcosm of cracked sidewalks, deserted theaters and crushed dreams.
I loved to skip down to the end of the street—the edge of the known world for me at five—playing “don’t step on the crack”. The houses giggled out various dingy colors, as if laughing at their forlorn neighbors as I hopped past. Neighbors peered through dingy windows in the tiny houses beside the river, no energy remaining except to scrutinize the comings and goings of anyone who chanced by.
The grays, yellows, blues and reds of the flat, rippled shingles were so faded they’d become pastel shades of their formerly assertive and hopeful shades. Our house was white. Not the sparkling white of freshly washed sheets, but the dingy white of unbrushed teeth.
Arch Street was surrounded by dozens of similar dismal neighborhoods where people scraped together ten or fifteen thousand dollars in order to clutch at the American Dream.
Average as our neighborhood might have seemed to the adults who succumbed to endless evenings of flipping through the six available television channels: two, four, five, seven, nine, eleven and thirteen, while sipping cheap beer and scraping cheese off cardboard pizza boxes, the maze of withering houses was a constant revelation for me.
I admit it—I was a watcher.
I didn’t dare to break the code of privacy too openly, yet I couldn’t help staring when our next-door neighbor, Ted, watered his wife, Kelly’s tomatoes, on hot July Sunday mornings in a tattered blue bathrobe. I was mesmerized by the way his curly black hair poked out of holes in the sleeves, chest and back.
And I didn’t dare do more than peek our neighbor on the other side, Gemma, as she squatted at her back door, wearing nothing but a faded housedress, tapping a tin spoon against a can of cat food and calling in an eerie warble, “Pusspusspusspusspuss!”, her plump knees trembling more and more until I was sure she’d fall over.
I did my best to steel my five year-old brain away from the fascinating antics of our neighbors, but it was just so darn easy to see what was going on when I stood in our skinny back yard and glanced across on either side into five or six other skinny back yards.
Our next-door neighbors to the right, Ted and Kelly, for instance, lived in a yellow house that Ted kept spraying with the hose to take the dinge off. Maybe ‘dinge’ isn’t a real word, but that’s what he’d say.
“What are you running the hose for?” Kelly’s contralto voice would holler early on Saturday mornings.
“I’m just taking the dinge off the house,” Ted would call back.
Just after we moved to Butler, Ted built a four-foot high brick and mortar porch, which covered a lot of the dinge on the front of the house, and also created a place for he and Kelly to sit outside on humid summer evenings, drink beer and smoke.
Ted liked to walk around with his heavy belly hanging over his belt, scratching the coarse black hairs that peppered his ruddy skin.
“Look away!” my mother constantly reminded, giving me a shove on the back of my head for good measure, her face red with embarrassment at what she viewed as risqué behavior.
I couldn’t help but see. There wasn’t any other place to look. The yards were so long and skinny it was as if whoever planned the neighborhoods wanted people to be able to see what their neighbors were doing.
Kelly, whose wiry, mouse-brown hair was dyed various shades of red, tried to lose a few of her hundred excess pounds by ordering weight loss pills from Mexico. One day she and my mother, who had become best friends shortly after we moved to Butler, dissolved one of Kelly’s pills in a glass of water and discovered that the secret ingredient was a small white worm. After that, Kelly relied on chain-smoking to counterbalance her addiction to coffee cake.
Our neighbor on the left, a German widow named Gemma, owned a schnauzer named Boxy who liked to roll in the clover that covered most of Gemma’s yard and crept into ours. Ted planted rye and fescue and spent lots of time manicuring his lawn, something my father saw as a waste of time.
Since my mother didn’t complain about me staring at Boxy like she did about me watching our human neighbors, he and I became good friends.
When we ate lunch outside in the summer and my mother made ham sandwiches, which I hated, I could roll the oily lunch meat into my palm and eat the bread, then slip the pungent meat to Boxy when no one was looking.
Gemma’s house was blue with pale streaks running through it where the paint had worn away. The house was as careworn as Gemma, and I wondered if the runny paint was because the house was crying like I’d seen Gemma do into her faded handkerchiefs.
Her house seemed more pleasant than ours, even with its sadness. On hot summer nights when sweat dripped off my body like raindrops, I longed to sit on her large covered front porch and catch any wisps of wind while I rested my head against the smooth texture of the knobby white poles that supported the porch roof.
Our house had a front porch, too, but the rotting gray boards made it too fragile to sit on. I grew up believing that if a porch were falling down, it would stay that way, since ours was falling down when we moved in and it was falling down when I left home for the last time as a young adult.
I liked to look at the knobby white poles on Gemma’s porch as I dangled my bare feet over the edge of our creaky porch (which I sat on despite my parents’ warnings, whenever I could get away with it). I imagined that those white poles were the legs of a huge giraffe that ate leaves from the maple trees that shaded her front yard.
I wished we had a giant giraffe to hold up our porch.
“Bill, are you ever going to fix our porch?” my mother would whine as she tried to cool herself with a construction paper fan.
“It’s on the list, Stacy!” my father promised.
This conversation went on every summer for eighteen years. If they were still alive, I’m sure they’d be having the same exchange.
“You make a lot of promises,” my mother would mutter as she took a drag on her cigarette, “but they’re just words.”
“Didn’t I keep my promise to get you away from your parents?” he’d challenge, his face quickly shifting from bland detachment to purpling agitation.
My mother would sigh and take a sip of chardonnay and mutter, “I didn’t think I’d have to live in a hell hole all my life.”
“Your father was a bully,” my father would counter, his purple complexion darkening to red, “or have you forgotten how he used to get drunk and throw you down the basement stairs?”
“Yes, I remember,” she’d say, her blue eyes filling with mist. “You stood up to him, even though he was bigger than you. He hated that, you know. No one stood up to him without paying for it. Even the dobermans were afraid of him.”
“Your mother never said anything,” my father would answer, his tone softening and his face returning to a calmer color. “She’d just stand as tall as she could and purse her lips so hard her whole face wrinkled. She stared him down, all four feet ten of her.”
“They’re both gone now,” my mother would answer. “She worked so hard, too hard.”
“And don’t forget that you haven’t had to,” my father would answer, his skin beginning to plump with defensive energy again. “I’ve given you everything. All you have to do is—“
“Is sit here and stare at my naval.”
And then my father would either punch another hole in the living room walls or he’d decide we needed milk or the evening paper and leave.
Which was my cue to slip away, too, since if I didn’t move out of the vicinity quickly enough, my mother would begin barking out orders.
“Clean the bathroom!” she’s snap. “And this time make sure you do it right.
I’d groan, not because cleaning the bathroom was that hard, even for a five year-old, especially since I was used to it.
“What’s this?” my mother would snap after I’d scrubbed the tub, sink, floor and toilet with bleach.
“What?” I’d say, rubbing my bleachy hands across my pants and grimacing as I watched the blue denim turn white and simultaneously looking everywhere at once for the flaw she’d found.
“What are you, a pig?” she’d snap. “Clean that toilet again! I want to see my face in it.”
“I want to see the Tidy Bowl man,” I’d mutter under my breath.
“What did you say?”
Her red-lacquered nails would ****** my shoulder so fast that it always made my breath catch in my chest.
“N-nothing,” I’d gulp, grabbing the toilet brush. “See? I’m cleaning it!”
“My mother made me clean the toilet ten, sometimes twenty times,” she’d snap. “Don’t think you’re going to have it any easier than I did.”
The cleanliness of our bathroom, in sharp contrast to the peeling paint on our creaky front porch was the least of the problems in the little white house in Butler.
The roof leaked. Of course, it had leaked since before we bought it.
“It’s a bargain!” my father crowed as we walked from room to room.
“What about that?” my mother scowled, pointing to an obvious depression in the roof above the bathroom.
“Oh, that?” my father said, chuckling. “All that needs is a few new shingles.”
He was right, of course, as always.
Problem is, he never did replace the shingles. Not until the bathroom ceiling caved in and showered my mother with plaster and broken bits of wood while she was taking a bath.
“I’m going to paint this house, once and for all,” my mother mumbled one day when she was about six months along with my sister.
“What color?” I asked.
“What color for what?” she snapped.
I gasped, realizing that she hadn’t known I’d heard her talking.
“Th-the house,” I mumbled.
“It’s going to be ‘Bluebird blue’” she said, lifting a can of paint with light blue streaks running down the side.
“I found this behind the new Laundromat on Main Street,” she continued. “I don’t know how far it’ll go but I’m tired of nothing getting done around here.”
As I watched her pour the paint into an aluminum tray, her belly wobbling as she worked, I thought the color looked closer to robins’ egg blue.
I opened my mouth to say so but decided not to.
“Can I help you paint?” I asked instead.
“You’re too little,” she snapped. You might make a mess or waste paint.”
“I painted the fence last summer, remember?”
“That wasn’t as important as the house,” she said as she filled the paint roller and started painting the bottom tier of clapboard.
When she finished the first four or five rows, she climbed the wobbly wooden ladder Father had scrounged from somewhere, leaning her belly against the steps.
“Need some help?” Ted called from across the fence.
She opened her mouth and I thought she was about to say yes, but Father stormed out of the house wearing a grayish-white tee shirt and ragged plaid shorts. His face was flushed with anger, intensifying the darkness of his raven hair.
I gulped—I’d thought he was at work or something—and crouched down in the unmowed grass.
“We don’t need your help!” he fumed.
He pulled my mother into the house and that was as far as the house painting got. I watched from my bedroom window as Ted shook his head and chuckled. At six foot one, Ted was three inches taller than my father. With the exception of his beer belly, Ted, a construction worker, was so muscular that he didn’t even have to ball his fists to display his strength.
He took a drag on the cigarette that was a constant fixture between his yellowed fingertips, spit on the ground and left through the gate that led from his yard into ours. The gate sat at the corner of his house where the properties touched. That day, Ted nailed the gate shut.
As I crouched in the grass that day, I talked to a bumblebee. I saw it flying from flower to flower in our raggedy lawn and decided it would be safer to talk to than my parents.
“Hello,” I said, as if the bee could understand.
The bee rested on a dandelion bloom for a few moments then laboriously lifted itself into the air. It hovered a few inches from my face, humming, before grumbling off to a clover flower.
I smiled, knowing I’d made a friend.
Without thinking, I followed the bumblebee as it moved across the grass.
Gemma’s voice cursing me in German for wandering into her yard brought me back to reality.
“I’ll take care of it,” my father called as he yanked me back into my own yard.
I didn’t have time to grasp that somehow my father had been watching me follow the bumblebee. He thrust a hammer and a box of nails in my hand and instructed me to nail up boards as he placed them for a fence.
“Where’d you get the wood?” I said as I hammered away, the boards bouncing without the nails penetrating until my father snatched the hammer and did that part of the job himself.
“You hold the wood,” he said.
I obeyed, closing my eyes and hoping he wouldn’t smash my fingers with the hammer.
“I found this at a construction site,” he said, mouthing four or five nails and ******* his head to let me know when to lift the splintery boards into place.
“Can I paint it, like I did the other side?”
“Sure,” my father said.
The following weekend he brought home a mostly full gallon of redwood stain from somewhere and I went to work.
I gloried in my stained hands and clothing and in the drips where the stain was uneven.
“I’m painting this, bumblebee!” I said when I heard the familiar buzzing as I sloshed stain. “I’m really doing it!”
Suddenly, I heard a frustrated bzzzzt! The bee had landed on a freshly painted two-by-four. Its wings were stuck, pinning it to the fence.
“Oh no!” I cried, dropping my paintbrush.
I reached toward the bee
“Ouch! You stung me!”
I blinked away tears and sucked my injured finger as I tried to think of how to help the bee. It would die on the fence if I left it.
“Hello, little bee,” I called, staying a foot away, giving it space. “You’re stuck. Let me help you.”
Again I reached toward the bee, but again it buzzed a warning.
“Am I scaring you?” I asked. “Mommy’s headaches and Daddy’s yelling scares me too.”
I saw a sliver of wood at the base of the fence. Very gently I slid it beneath the bumblebee’s cellophane wings.
“Hang onto the stick,” I murmured once I’d worked the bee’s wings free. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
I gently placed the bee on a dry section of fence. After fanning its wings in the sun, it flew off. After that, bumblebees were my neighbors, just like Ted, Kelly and Gemma.
On a muggy August evening a couple weeks after I’d painted the fence, my mother laid a cool washcloth over her pale forehead lay, moaning, her hugely pregnant belly heaving in the heat.
“Go to the paper store and get the Evening Times and a bottle of birch beer,” she said, handing me a crumpled dollar bill.
Main Street was cooler than the inside of our house, since the traffic created a bit of a wind, so I was eager to go.
“Can I have a Slim Jim at the store?” I asked.
“If there’s enough left,” she mumbled.
I was walking back down Arch Street on the opposite side of the street from our house, the tip of one long honey-colored ponytail in my mouth, when a flurry of motion exploded from a dingy yellow house.
“My street! My street!” an old woman with wildly tangled gray hair shrieked as she charged me with a broom.
The wind ballooned her tattered housedress as she ran toward me, revealing her shriveled breasts and tattered briefs. I heard her soiled pink slippers slap-slapping on the asphalt as I ran toward home.
Mother grumbled that I’d shaken the birch beer.
“Now I’ll have to chill it before I can drink it,” she groused. “I wanted it now. I’m so thirsty!”
“I couldn’t help it! A crazy lady ran after me and said I was on her street.”
“That’s just Joyce,” Mother sighed, sinking onto the ratty couch. “She used to live in a mental institution, you know. Don’t bother her.”
“But, I didn’t—“
“Shut up, shut up shut up!” my mother moaned, clutching her head.
I squeezed my Slim Jim more tightly and ran upstairs to my room. It wasn’t a big dinner but it was better than nothing.
Just before my sister was born, my father started hammering on the front porch.
“Why are you fixing the porch?” I asked.
“Go play, will you?” he snapped.
So I was left to wonder. Until the next day when he brought home a broken piano.
“The case is banged up but the soundboard’s still good,” he said, plinking a key as proof.
I squinted at the sour note, prompting him to pull out a silver tuning fork and a wrench and jiggle the wires attached to dozens of little pegs along the metal soundboard. He stored the piano on the porch, vowing to fix it, sell it and maybe start his own business selling used pianos.
“People used to have these in their living room,” he claimed. “Everyone had one, in the days when children were all taught to play. Now, no one wants them.”
“If no one wants them, how will you sell them?” I mumbled.
“What was that?” my father said, drawing his face way too close to mine to be friendly.
“Nothing—I just saw a bumblebee,” I said.
As if on cue, a bumblebee wobbled over, inspecting the dark caverns of the damaged instrument.
“You don’t want to build your nest there,” I said.
The bee ignored me, gliding deeper into the piano’s guts.
Wincing at the distress I knew I was about to cause, I plunked a bass note. Hard.
The bee zinged out, bumping itself against the soundboard in its rush for open air.
“I’m sorry!” I called as it flew away.
“I’m going to make myself a room in the attic,” may father announced after a sleepless night when my sister was an infant.
He lay down several pieces of plywood over the two by sixes that supported the bedroom ceilings, plunked a rusty metal desk on top of one of the pieces of plywood and a tattered office chair on another and called it good.
“Oh, good,” my mother sneered as he showed her his work. “Now you can do something about all those pianos on the porch.”
“I’ve almost got enough parts to fix one of them,” he said, ignoring her sarcasm.
The next day a blue van pulled up in front of our house.
“Bill wanted me to drop these off,” a burly man told my mother as he wheeled in two pianos, cramming them into the corner of the living room across from the couch.
I held my breath, wondering if this unexpected delivery would spark a headache. But all she did was clutch at my baby sister’s tattered pink blanket and cry.
“I’m glad Daddy didn’t fix the porch so we can sit on it,” I ventured. “Those two weird ladies across the street would probably just say bad stuff to us.”
“Shut up, you little brat,” she sniveled.
“I was just trying to help,” I mumbled.
I saw a bumblebee buzzing around the scraggly peony bush in the front yard and decided the insect would be safer to talk to.
“There’s nothing to look at except those two yucky yellow houses,” I explained as the bee blustered on its way.
“See?” I pointed.” All that’s over there is Reba and Rae’s house. Reba’s husband’s dead—Mommy said because he smoked a lot. All Rae does is yell after her daughter all the time.”
I sighed, wishing the bee could understand.
“I wish Sheila was five like me, instead of ten. “Then maybe she’d want to play with me.”
A few nights later, Reba started shouting so loud that I heard her even after I clapped my hands over my ears.
My father thundered down the steps and dashed across the street.
“Reba was hiding behind a chair,” he explained after he returned. “Rae got herself into a real mess. When I got there, she was begging this guy who’d bought her a few beers and had a few too many himself, not to hit her with the axe he held over her head.”
“Oh no!” my mother cried. “Why didn’t you call the police?”
“I didn’t have to,” my father said, puffing out his chest. “I got the axe away from him and sent him packing!”
“Good old Bill,” my mother muttered. “Johnny to the rescue for everyone but us.”
Mrs. Kranz, a Swedish woman, lived in a red brick house three houses down from us. She was kind and lonely, and invited me inside for a piece of watermelon one sultry Indian summer afternoon.
“This’ll hit the spot on such a muggy day,” she said, smiling at me as she placed a plate of watermelon slices and two tall glasses of freshly made lemonade on her dining room table.
I drew pictures in the condensation on my lemonade glass, unsure of how to respond. The simplicity of her hospitality was such a rare experience for me that I felt awkward.
“Here,” she said, bringing out a saltshaker. “Sprinkle a little salt on your watermelon. It makes the melon taste sweeter.”
As I bit into the salty-sweet fruit, I thought I hadn’t tasted anything so delicious in my life.
“Thank you, Mrs. Kranz,” I called as I lingered in the lovely rose garden in her front yard before pushing my bike home. “Wow! Look at all your bumblebees!”
“Dou you like bumblebees?” she asked.
“They’re my friends.”
“You have good taste,” she called as she waved goodbye.
“Mrs. Kranz?” my mother shrieked when I got home and told her where I’d been. “Mrs. Kranz? I don’t want you talking to that snooty dame.”
“She seemed nice,” I protested.
“She seemed nice!” my mother mimicked, pulling her leathery face into a sneer. “She thinks she’s better than us. Don’t you know that? Sitting there in her hoity-toity house, looking down on the rest of us! How dare she offer you watermelon!”
“She just—“ I began.
“She just wanted to know our business!” Mother snapped. “You better not have told her anything about us!”
“Of course I didn’t,” I said.
How could I tell Mrs. Kranz, who’d been so kind, about my father’s rages? Or my m other’s crippling headaches and waspish comments?
“I’ll just get by until I’m eighteen,” I told the bumblebees later that day. “Then I’ll get out of here for good.”
The bumblebees continued on their way, hovering over flower after flower.
“Yes, you’re right,” I said. “All I have to do is follow my own path.”


slver slver
51-55, F
Dec 14, 2012