An excerpt from the novel
The Bee Whisperer
by Sandra Vahtel
Up high, on the ridge above the farm, Highway 197 stretched out long and to the north. I wasn’t sure how many miles it was into town, to the jail, but I was determined, since every other option was a dead end to me, to make it to see Mom on visitation day. I had done the math, it was simple, in a way. Leaving before dawn had its advantages, in that no one knew where I was headed, Janelle surely asleep and Grandpa out in the fields somewhere.
I waited until I heard Grandma’s shower running to leave. Even though I knew no one would notice, I gently latched the screen door behind me and tiptoed off the front porch, instead of letting it bang shut and my feet fall heavy in satisfying thuds against the clapboard. I wondered, ever so slightly, if the Keds I wore would hold up against the type of walk I was about to undertake. It hadn’t occurred to me then, that not only was the journey on which I was about to embark long, but that I was supposed to come back eventually, too.
I didn’t plan for a lot of things, I realized, quite obviously, as I made my way down the first real sloping hill to the town of Dufur. Mount Hood peaked out from the rolling hills that guarded it, dark in its girth that seemed to shift north and south along its axis as I walked along the highway. Grandma had always joked that the mountain looked as if it were always moving, and that someone, somewhere, must have had, “a lot of faith,” for that mountain to move so much. My feet hurt. Not from the distance, maybe five miles, or the time, close to an hour, that I’d walked, but due to the rocks and burrs and sticks and broken green bottle glass that crunched underfoot as I tried to stay as far from the road as I could. Luckily, it being so early, few cars came veering past and the ones that did stayed far clear of my shape, often going into the empty lane of oncoming traffic to avoid me.
I kept my head down as much as I could, scared that someone driving by would recognize me and stop, checking to see where I was going.
I knew, as I settled into the long, slow climb past the turn-off to Seven Mile Road, the last rolling hill before the flat plain of the Columbia basin could be seen from the road, that I had made a huge mistake in attempting to make this trip on foot. It was easily eight o’clock and I still another two hours to go. The sun, which had come up so gently and golden along the variegated twists and turns of the wheat stalks that swayed in the breeze, was now mid-way through the eastern sky on its trail to the western horizon. It was also already hot. Not warm, but hot. I wanted to kick myself for attempting this trip, my lungs trying to fill as the ascent steepened, knowing that the toughest climb was still to come.
Halfway up the tallest hill, I felt like I wanted to die. Several big rigs passed by, their engines like jets, sucking the air around me, one of them passing so close I was afraid I was going to get sucked underneath his wheels. Several cars honked on the way past, one passenger even sticking an extended middle finger out the window.
As I made it finally down the hill, at the base of Highway 197, where the road forks off and continues over the Columbia River, into Washington, and the direction I took, towards town, nestled between the river and rocks, where the tie plant sprawls out, the smell of tar prominent. I was sweating profusely as I made my way to Big Jims, stopping off briefly for a hamburger and a Coke and some fries. I wasn’t even done with my journey and I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it there, or back home.
I stumbled into the bathroom and locked the door behind me, despite the multiple stalls. My feet throbbed. It was the only thing I truly felt, a pain so great that it radiated through my calves, past my shins and knees and into my thighs. They twitched like a hot car that’s just been turned off, the muscles of my legs finally relaxing, cooling down just a bit.
The reflection in the mirror looked horrific, as if I’d just completed a marathon. My hair stood on electrified ends, billowing out from my head like Medusa. My eyes bulged, sweat beaded all over my forehead and my face was hot and red. I didn’t think to wear sunscreen. I didn’t think this trip would be a bad one at all, actually. I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought what I was doing was heroic, departing on a quest to visit my incarcerated mother while no one else would entertain the idea. She was why I was here. She was why I was risking what tenuous hold I had on my relationship with John. She was why I risked being ostracized by my sister and frowned upon by my grandparents. Her. And here I was, surrounded by dingy linoleum and some sort of lite f.m. station, unsure for the first time whether or not Mom would even want to see me. Would she take the time to come out into the yard, her yellow jumpsuit reflecting the sun, and smoke a cigarette and talk to her daughter? I looked again and my eyes were like sunken pools, dark and deep and dead. Stagnant water behind these eyes. A knock on the door came.
“Is someone in there?” I heard.
I stood upright. I shifted from side to side.
“Just a second!” I yelled back.
“You need to unlock this bathroom. It’s for public use …”
I reached over, clicked the deadbolt and flung the door open.
“Sorry, I just needed to be alone.”
One of the store’s sandy-haired, teenaged employees stood before me, the handle of a mop in one hand and a startled expression on her face.
“I can come back,” she said at the sight of me. “Just leave it unlocked.”
She disappeared and I was alone again. I really did look bad. Sweat stains ringed the insides of my armpits. At this rate the prison guards weren’t even going to let me in. I grabbed a wad of stiff, brown paper towels and dunked them underneath the cold water, lifted my shirt and pressed the coolness under one arm, and then the other. I sighed. It felt good. I wanted to cry but I felt like the sweat was fighting for sole saline consumption of my body. I was about to put the same paper towel against my forehead but thought twice of it. I grabbed another wad and repeated the same process.
I did not want to be in this bathroom, this bathroom with dingy tiles and flickering light fixture above the sink, the mirror full of water spots and the remnants of popped zits and the flimsy, hollow wood door with its gold-painted doorknob. I didn’t want to go see my mom and I felt a steady, rising resentment toward her in that moment.
I blamed her for all the issues I felt I still had left to conquer, like my inability to have a semi-decent relationship, even one as messed up as Roger and my sister Janelle’s. At least they had each other and they knew the other cared, or was at least enmeshed enough with the other to stick around, even if they were the source of much of each other’s pain.
How Janelle got past that moment, that moment of being pulled out of class and sent to the principal’s office five years ago, is beyond me.
There we were, with Ms. Jennings the guidance counselor sitting there with tears in her eyes, as if it was her father who’d just gotten blown into oblivion and not ours, sitting there with her hands squeezed between her knees, a wadded and matted tissue entwined in her fingers, all professional decorum lost. It’d taken her minutes to get the words out of her mouth and while we waited, I felt the entire world in that office, the tension, the dread, all coming at me with the every-day goings on of a functioning school. The nubby fabric of the hard backed chair scratched at the back of my thighs, and despite the air conditioning going on, my face was flushed. Phones rang, students came in and out – there was laughter, some of the mature, adult variety and some of the giggling teenaged kind. We sat behind the glass partition of the principal’s office, watching the rest of the room as if we were in a fishbowl. We sat silently for what felt like hours, the guidance counselor and the cop sitting across from us, watching us, everyone walking past us in the office seeming to look in, knowing … something.
My mind flitting back to the weekend I’d just had with Matt Farmer and his stupid Land Rover, having driven far out into the sticks and smoked weed from two little joints that he’d rolled. He’d called them “tampon joints” for their ability to be hidden in the most discreet of places. I’d made fun of him that he even knew what a tampon was. Now, staring back at the cop, but not so hard to make him think I was looking at him, I thought maybe they’d picked up the butts and traced it back to us and now we were just waiting for them to find him cutting shop class with all the other stoners behind Pulpit Rock.
“Are we in trouble?” I asked.
Miss Jennings shook her head. Only her tears convinced me that she wasn’t lying.
“We’re just waiting for the principal, is all,” she said.
Once Principal Gary came in along a waft of air, smelling like cigarettes, Ms. Jennings had regained her composure. It was so nice of him to finish his smoke break in order to come give us the news but looking back on it, I realized that that cigarette no doubt bolstered his nerve and he steeled himself, preparing for what he was about to have to do, deliver news that, judging by the look on his face, he was not, under any circumstances, accustom to giving.
Principal Gary was one of the only people in town left who wore a suit to work. Strange then that he wanted to be called by his first name and not, more professionally, Principal Wallis, which was his last name.
He came in without saying a word and paused above his office chair to fasten the button of his suit jacket before sitting down. He immediately unbuttoned it again when he sat down, uncomfortable with the pull and bind of the fabric.
What. The hell. Was going on?
“Girls,” he started off. What he said next was said from a place that was very far away from where I was. I knew I was in the principal’s office at The Dalles High School, but I felt as if I was riding in the slipstream of the Pacific Ocean, far below the surface of the water, floating there, lurking in that space where the sun, the light that warms the entire surface of the earth, was barely visible, a pin at the very top of the water that engulfed me from above and from below, sending light in watery ripples to where I floated, fetal and amorphous, naked and disembodied. It seemed familiar, that light, but too far away to access, to see, to attain. Below was soft, vast blackness. Suddenly, what was left of the sun went out and looking up, I saw the silhouette of a gigantic whale shark drifting past, its bulk shimming, dancing past the light as if a dancer in a disco, spinning under the disco ball.
Principal Gary’s words did not make sense. He said murder, he said mother, he said father and as he spoke, I watched Janelle’s face, which started at mild annoyance then emptied into a moment of blankness, the shock before the realization, the grasp on reality. In Social Studies we’d seen footage from the unedited Zapruder Film, always before treated to the edited version where we’d seen John Kennedy happily riding in the back of that black limousine, drifting past crowds of adoring hands and car dealerships and American flags, and then Jackie climbing onto the back of the car and then the limo speeding away. It had been a “big deal” to see the unedited version, so big that we needed parental clearance. I’d asked Grandma and all she said was that she couldn’t believe they thought it was a decent thing to show.
The unedited version of the Zapruder Film was so indicative of how the moment of placid, “all is right with the world” goes to empty, hollow shock and to abject terror in mere seconds. There was John, young and beautiful and relatively innocent, Jackie in that beautiful pink suit beside him, both smiling in the cold sunshine of Dallas, Texas, amid the green grass and tall, red brick buildings, and the crowds and the fans and the political accomplishments and Cuba and Bobby and Marilyn and Vietnam and LBJ and Nixon and all of a sudden he slumped forward and Jackie, not realizing anything, leans over and as she asks what could possibly be the matter – a heart attack, a stroke, a sudden bout of indigestion, a muscle spasm – the entire right side of his face breaks apart, cheek in one direction, hair and scalp in another. Violent and instant and irreparable. The film was so pink, at least in the filmstrip we saw, that it was impossible to distinguish skin from blood to skull to brain matter, but you knew that it was all there, you were certain, so certain you could almost hear the bullet get sucked into his skull and explode out in a wet mess.
There was a gasp in the room when that happened. Some kids laughed. But then the only sound was the whir of the film projector and we all sat dumbfounded as Jackie watched in silent realization and began her iconic crawl out of the back of the limousine. Where was she going? Would she had jumped ship?
That’s how I felt in that room, in Principal Gary’s office, the world going on outside, his secretary taking calls and student workers coming in and out with hall passes, just going on and on, fully unconcerned by the brains and blood that were being splattered against the wall.
I never really left that room. I was fifteen then and more or less fifteen now, give or take twenty pounds.
A hand knocked the doorknob and the door opened, knocking me out of my reverie.
“Oh, sorry, should I come back?”
It was an old lady with white hair and a white t-shirt and a pair of wrinkled white shorts that rode up the front of her dimpled, white thighs. I’m sure my expression was hollow.
“No, I’m just leaving,” I said.
I walked toward the door with both arms stretched out in front of me, past the dimpled woman. Turning the corner to the restaurant, I stopped short. There was Roger, blocking the hallway with both hands.
“Takes you fucking long enough in there, doesn’t it?” He said.
Roger said he’d seen me on the road into town, as I was on the last curve before Big Jim’s. He’d been tasked by Raeanne to come into town to get lumber and paint to build a few hutches for a new batch of bees they were expecting from California. His curiosity had gotten the best of him and he followed me in, almost going into the bathroom several times to see what I was doing.
We sat down and we ordered food, onion rings and salmon burgers and ice cream shakes. I didn’t have any chance of lying to him, I was so exhausted and worn out.
“I’ll take you,” he said between a mouth full of onion ring batter.
“I don’t think I want to go.”
“Isn’t that like, why you’re here?”
“Yeah, but, I mean, what am I going to say, to her? Hi, here I am, I know we haven’t talked in two years, sorry?”
“I don’t think I want to listen to you.”
“What the hell do you know about prison? About murder?”
“Not much, I guess.”
“But would you have really gone over there by yourself?”
“Really? When you got like, a good five miles still to go? I see what you’re wearing on your feet.”
“Okay, so what?”
“Don’t you think I saw you for a reason?”
“Yeah, you know, like how ‘everything has a reason,’ we had a reason for seeing each other here.”
“I didn’t see you, you followed me, you spied on me. You stalked me.”
“I was curious, alright, I got to admit, but Hope, darling, you’re quite a sight walking down the road. Limping, almost.”
“Don’t you think it’s more than a little coincidental that I saw you here? That out of any intersection, in any town, anywhere in America, that I would see you staggering your way into this stupid fucking burger joint just as you’re about to make the biggest decision of your adult life?”
“One of them.”
“One of them, fine.”
I waited for him to say more.
“It was, you know, meant to be.”
I chortled into my milkshake. “Whoa, dude, you’ve been staying over at the lesbo house just a little too long, okay. Meant to be. Why is it meant to be?”
“Cos you’ll go and you’ll forgive her.”
“I’m not forgiving her.”
“So you can get on with your life. That’s what you’re doing.”
Everything was so simple for Roger. Fuck Roger. Roger went by what he felt, said what he felt, did what he felt. That he hadn’t been shot or arrested was a miracle at this point in his life. He said that some people found it refreshing, but I thought it was annoying. Decision-making for Roger was not a problem.