April 22, 2016
It was blazing hot the morning of Great-grandma’s funeral. I was eight years old. Bees tap-tapped into the screen door of Grandma and Grandpa’s old house. Visitors squinted and shielded their eyes from the sun. Cars shimmered in the dazzling light. Stiff-haired ladies in black dresses, slathered with tons of makeup and doused with perfume you could smell a block away, and men in wrinkly dark suits paraded slowly up the walk and into the house. I kept an eye on the bees.
My mother dusted off two big fans my father had lugged up from the cellar. She and Aunt Ellen bustled about, serving coffee from Grandma’s silver pot and slices of cake with no frosting, washing and drying dishes, showing where the bathroom was. Some ladies held hands. Some cried. People spoke softly, as if apologizing. Bouquets of bright, sweet-smelling flowers shivered in the wind from the fans.
When my grandfather strode into the living room and announced that it was time to go, the guests rose, set down their half-empty cups and half-eaten cake, and filed past me out the door. Ladies sniffled and buffed runny streaks of makeup on their faces into gleaming patches. The men wrapped their arms around the ladies’ shoulders and eased them forward protectively. My grandmother, who hadn’t come out of her bedroom all morning, came out now, supported between my mother and aunt. A black veil covered her face. She swayed back and forth, weeping, struggling every few seconds to catch her breath. Grandpa hugged her to himself and guided her to the door. I jumped in front of her and peered up into the black veil, but Grandma didn’t see me.
My mother rocked my shoulder. “Come on, Jimmy,” she said. “We have to go.” Fine creases lined her eyes. She adjusted the black band on her bare upper arm. All the adults in my family were wearing black armbands. Bedsheets covered all the mirrors in the house.
“Anna, are you ready?” Aunt Ellen called to my six-year-old cousin. Anna skipped into the living room and held still long enough for Aunt Ellen to straighten her barrette and smooth down her white, flowered dress. My aunt scooted her along to my Uncle Henry, who stood by the doorway, almost as tall as the doorway, with his hands folded in front of him. He took Anna’s hand and led her outside. She smirked at me as she flitted by.
“Jimmy, you go with Uncle Henry and Cousin Anna, okay, honey?” my mother said. “And Auntie Ellen will go with Daddy and me.”
“I don’t want to go with them,” I said, but she was already busy with something else.
I took a deep breath, checked under the eaves, and pushed against the screen door. I held back a moment, then bounded away from the cloud of bees swirling around the stoop.
“Ma, don’t let the bees in!” I shouted. She ushered the last few people out, and the screen door swung shut and clicked into place.
At the temple, Uncle Henry stayed outside with Anna and me. He hung his jacket on the little hook inside the back door of his car, rolled up his sleeves, and leaned against the fender, smoking cigarettes while Anna and I played on the swings. My hands were sweaty and my back was hot. Little black curls of dirt collected in the crooks of my elbows.
“Can I take my shirt off?” I asked Uncle Henry.
He said yes.
“How come boys get to take their shirts off?” Anna asked.
Uncle Henry smiled.
As people began to emerge from the entrance, six men at a side door struggled to load a long wooden box into a big black station wagon with curtains and dark windows. Anna and I stared.
Uncle Henry crushed his cigarette with his shoe. “Let’s go, kids,” he said.
Anna scampered down to greet Aunt Ellen and threw her arms around her neck. “Mommy, are we going back to Grandma’s now?” she asked.
Aunt Ellen kissed her forehead. “No, honey, not yet.”
Anna leaned forward on tip-toes and asked Aunt Ellen, “Will you ride with us this time?”
Aunt Ellen looked towards my mother.
“Go ahead, Ellen,” my mother said. “We’ll see you there.”
Anna clapped her hands. “Oh, goodie!” she exclaimed.
“Jimmy, get your shirt on!” my mother hollered.
I slipped an arm back inside my shirt as I ran towards my parents. I wanted to ask about the box.
“How about if you stay with your aunt and uncle?” my mother said to me.
“Now, Jimmy,” she said. “Be a good boy. You and Anna can play together on the way.”
“But I don’t want to play with her,” I said.
“I don’t want to play with you,” Anna answered.
“No one’s talking to you!”
Cars were starting up as I stood there with my shirt half on and half off.
“What do you say, Jim?” Uncle Henry asked.
They were all staring at me like zombies. I wanted to scream.
“All right,” I grumbled.
Uncle Henry patted my back.
My parents hurried off, my father trying to hold onto my mother’s elbow as she tried to run in her high heels.
Anna stuck her tongue out at me.
“Cut it out,” I said, and gave her a shove.
“Hey, hey, none of that,” Uncle Henry warned.
“Be nice,” said Aunt Ellen.
Anna climbed into the back seat and I followed. For just a second, I thought of running out back behind the temple so they’d have to come looking for me. But what if they didn’t come?
My father’s car slid in front of us, behind the black station wagon with the box in it and a limousine carrying my grandma and grandpa. The other cars lined up behind us.
Anna shook Uncle Henry’s shoulder. “Look, Daddy, all the cars have their lights on.”
Uncle Henry just nodded.
“Are your lights on?” she asked.
I nudged her aside. “Great-grandma’s in that box, right?” I said.
Aunt Ellen frowned.
“Hey, I was talking,” Anna said as she tried to elbow me away.
Uncle Henry glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “That’s right, Jimmy,” he said. Aunt Ellen started to brush something off her lap, but there was nothing there.
Anna looked at me, then at Uncle Henry. “How can Great-grandma be in that box?” she asked.
“`Cause she’s dead,” I said.
Aunt Ellen groaned, as if someone had punched her in the stomach.
“Well, I know that,” Anna said.
“Well, that’s what happens to you when you die,” I said.
Aunt Ellen cleared her throat.
“Aren’t I right?” I asked.
“Enough, okay kids?” she mumbled.
“How did she get in the box?” Anna asked.
“Look, can we please change the subject?” Aunt Ellen said, more loudly.
“Daddy, how did Great-grandma get in the box?”
“Anna, please,” said Aunt Ellen.
“Anna, honey,” Uncle Henry said softly.
“What? I just want to know how she got in the box. Why won’t anyone tell me?”
Aunt Ellen slammed her hand against the dashboard. “Because I’ve asked you to stop talking about it!”
We all hushed. Aunt Ellen made a soft little noise and hid her face. Then she was crying, her shoulders rising up and down, up and down. Uncle Henry gently rubbed the back of her neck.
Anna turned back around and gazed out at the line of cars with their lights on. I didn’t say a word. Finally we started moving and all the cars wound around the temple parking lot and edged out into the road.
After a while, Uncle Henry lifted his hand from the back of Aunt Ellen’s neck with a little squeeze. He steered with his right hand and stuck his left hand out the window so he could tap the roof with his fingers.
“Boy, it’s a hot one,” he said. “Roll down your windows, kids.” Anna and I raced to see who could roll down whose window first. She said she won; I said I did.
“I wish we had air conditioning,” she said.
The wind made a noise like sheets on a clothesline. My hair blew across my face and stung my eyes. Thick strands of Anna’s long brown hair came undone and flew all over the place; in her eyes and in her mouth. She giggled. Aunt Ellen’s window was still up.
Anna bounced on the seat. “Where are we going anyway?” she asked.
“To the cemetery,” Uncle Henry answered.
“Ce-me-te-ry,” Anna chanted as she bounced. “What for?”
Aunt Ellen looked at Uncle Henry.
“We have to bury Great-grandma,” he said.
“Bury her?” Anna made a face and stopped bouncing.
“Yeah, like when you bury something in the sand at the beach,” I said. I imagined Great-grandma’s toes sticking up out of the sand.
We stopped at a red light. Anna pushed her hair away from her mouth. “What’s Great-grandma’s name?” she asked.
“Ida,” Aunt Ellen answered wearily, her head leaning against the window. She was slowly tearing at a soggy, crumpled tissue in her hands.
“That’s a pretty name,” said Anna. Aunt Ellen looked back at her through puffy eyes and smiled.
We slowed down as we drove into the cemetery. The wind stopped. The tires squeezed small rocks out from underneath the car. Uncle Henry pulled next to my father into a little circle surrounded by trees and bushes and bright yellow and white flowers.
“Daisies!” cried Anna.
Thin clouds of dust rose as cars rolled in. Brakelights flashed. Doors creaked open and slammed shut. Aunt Ellen stepped out.
My mother stuck her head in my window. “We won’t be long,” she said. “I want you kids to stay here.”
“I knew it,” I muttered.
“Can’t we come?” Anna asked.
“No,” my mother said. Aunt Ellen shook her head and stared at the ground.
“Jimmy, you take care of Anna, now,” my father chimed in. Anna was looking out her window, running her finger up and down the inside of the door and humming.
“Please don’t make me stay with her,” I said. “I’m old enough. Why can’t I come?”
“We’ll only be gone a little while,” my mother said. “You’d just be bored anyway.” She patted my arm. My father smiled.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I want to come.”
They shook their heads.
“It’s not fair!” I shouted. I was almost crying. I jerked my head around so no one would see.
There was Uncle Henry, looking right at me, his arm swung over the seat.
“Don’t worry, Jim,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Put the radio on if you want. Just leave the windows down, or it’ll be like an oven in here. Okay?”
He turned to Anna. “Give Daddy a kiss,” he said, and Anna scrambled into the front seat and hugged and kissed him.
“We’ll be okay, Daddy,” she said, and he laughed.
He pulled his jacket off the hook and eased himself out of the car. “See you soon,” he said. Aunt Ellen waved with her tissue and blew us a kiss. My father put his arm around my mother and the four of them tramped away. I slumped down in my seat. I heard their shoes crunching gravel and kicking pebbles and then the sound died out. Anna stayed at the window, her arms resting on the door, her chin resting on her hands. She rocked her head slowly back and forth and hummed. Then she started to sing, first one stupid song, then another. She was driving me crazy.
“Stop singing!” I shouted.
She whirled around. “No! Who’s gonna make me?”
“If you weren’t such a little baby, I wouldn’t have to stay here with you.”
“You’re the one who acts like a baby,” she said.
I was ready to smack her when I noticed a bee outside, hopping from one daisy to another. Then I saw a second one, a yellowjacket, flying around angrily, hurtling wildly from flower to flower.
Suddenly the radio blared. My heart jumped. Anna’s hand rested on the knob.
“Lower it!” I yelled.
She glared at me before turning it down. Then she pressed all the buttons again and again and finally shut the radio off.
“Know any games?” she asked.
She scowled at me and grabbed the door handle. “I’m going outside,” she said.
I reached for her arm. “Oh no you’re not. We have to stay here.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said.
“Then don’t go outside.”
Anna rolled her eyes but let go of the door. She sat back and played with the steering wheel and made engine sounds. She crawled over and rolled down the window Aunt Ellen had left closed. She sprawled across the front seat with her knees raised, dropping one knee sideways to the seat, then swinging it up again. Each time her leg fell, I could see her panties.
“What are you looking at?” she snarled. Her leg stopped swinging.
My face grew hot. “Nothing.”
She pulled the hem of her dress down against her knees. I looked out the window.
A bee buzzed past my face and I toppled back inside.
Anna poked her head over the seat. Her eyes narrowed. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked.
“There was a bee out there.”
“So, bees can sting, you know.” I pulled myself up. “Some people die from bee stings.”
“No way,” she said.
I folded my arms. “If you’re allergic, you can die.”
Anna leaned over the seat and looked outside with me. Her legs kicked behind her. She tugged at my arm and pointed. “Look, there’s the bee!”
“That isn’t the same one.”
“Wow, look at that one!” she gasped as a fat black bumblebee zoomed up into the sky and plunged back down. “Can you really die?”
A bee landed on the hood. We stared at it through the windshield. It spun around crazily a couple of times, then whizzed past the window.
Anna turned to me suddenly. “What if one gets in?”
“Maybe we should roll up the windows,” I suggested.
“Won’t we be too hot?”
I was already sticky with sweat. “Well, what else can we do?”
She thought for a moment. “How about if we close the back windows, but leave the front windows open halfway?”
“But a bee could still get in,” I said.
“Then you think of something.”
I couldn’t. We tried her idea, but even with the front windows half open, trying to breathe the still, heavy air was like having your face inside a plastic bag.
There were bees everywhere. They tore off into the bushes and shot up into the air. They flew straight at the windshield, then at the last second curved up and over the roof and out of sight.
“I’m sweating,” Anna said. “When are they coming back?”
“How should I know?”
A black and yellow bee tapped against the right front window. It danced and skittered up the glass, climbing closer and closer to the opening.
“Jimmy!” Anna could barely speak. She slapped at my arm. We held our breaths and backed against the doors. The bee flew in.
Anna shrieked and I grabbed my door handle, ready to spring the door open and run. “Go away!” she cried at the bee. The buzzing sounded like high tension wires. My arm hairs bristled. The bee hovered and dipped, then darted back out.
“Close that window!” I screamed. Anna leaped across and rolled it up. I reached over to get the other one.
“I’ll do it!” she yelled, and she bumped past me and closed it up tight.
Silence. My heart pounded. Anna shuddered, wide-eyed and panting, balancing herself between the seat and the dashboard. I checked and rechecked all the windows, then lowered my head against the seat. I blew on my arms to try to cool down but it didn’t help. Nothing helped.
I heard Anna fidgeting so I looked up.
“I’m hot,” she said. Her hair was wet in front and her forehead was all red. “Can I open a window?”
“What about the bees?”
She sank down onto the front seat. I sat back. My hair was wet, too. I felt like I could hardly breathe.
“When are they coming back?” Anna moaned, and then she started to cry. Soon, I was crying, too. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve but I couldn’t stop. Tears dripped off my chin onto my collar. I huddled in the back seat and closed my eyes.
The sun was hot on my face. Anna sobbed quietly in front. I leaned over on my side and fiddled with the metal ashtray on the armrest. It felt cool against my fingertips. I could see bright red light through my eyelids, as if the whole world outside were on fire. I wished I could watch them bury Great-grandma. I wished I could see what she looked like. I thought of everyone outside in the hot sun, and her inside the box, under the ground, lying there alone in the dark.
The dashboard clock ticked. My hand dropped to the seat. Bees struck the windows, sounding almost like raindrops. Hundreds and hundreds of bees…
A car door banged shut. I opened my eyes and gazed dreamily up at the sky. There were noises outside. I pushed myself up and looked around. People were coming back to their cars.
Anna was sleeping. A rectangle of sunlight shone on her face. Her mouth was open and sweat had dried in her hair, straggly across her cheek and forehead. One knee was up, resting against the back of the seat.
A rap on the window made me jump. It was Uncle Henry. He knocked again and I rolled down the window. His voice filled the car:
“Why are all the windows up?”
Anna stirred in front.
Uncle Henry shook his head. “You two must be dying in there.”
Anna sat up and yawned and said with her eyes closed, “There were bees, Daddy.”
“Bees?” Uncle Henry said. “Why, the bees won’t hurt you.” He stood back and lit a cigarette. “Besides,” he said, looking at me, “Jimmy was here to protect you.”
Since completing Naropa University’s Creative Writing Program in Prague, CZ in 2005, Laurence Levey has had short stories published in Cezanne’s Carrot, Art Times, Versal, Ellipsis, and the Barcelona Review, book reviews published in Drunken Boat and Word Riot, and poetry accepted for publication in Fulcrum. He was a semi-finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars-2010 Unified Literary Contest and he writes for The Review Review.
What motivates him to create:
The desire to communicate and to express myself, both of which I often do better in writing than by speaking. The desire to tell the truth, or at least a version of it. The desire to fuse work and play. The desire, mostly unrequited, to make a little cash. The desire to please. The desire to be thought well of. The desire to contribute something of value.