It wasn’t summer for Nat until he heard the buzzing and the clinking. The air would get hot and everything would start feeling sticky, but it didn’t sound like summer until a hornet found its way into his basement and hovered around his work light. Even over the roar of tools and the rolling thunder of laundry, Nat could hear whether or not the hornets had come.
The clinking was more insistent than usual this morning. Contrary to his wife’s panic over finding one, Nat knew from experience that the insects tended to more towards calmness, almost to the point of laziness. When he found one hovering around the light bulb he felt sorry for it. They were often deeply hypnotized by the glow, smacking their armored heads into the glass with a slow, concentrated motion. In those moments Nat would cup his gloved hands around the bugs and toss them out the window.
This morning, it wasn’t one wasp around the light. It was four.
“It stinks down here.” Mattie muttered as she came down with the hamper. The smell was sharp and chemical, but not unpleasant. The varnish he’d layered on the door gave Nat’s work space a clean, scrubbed odor. “You might as well start smoking again.”
“Near’bout finished with the door for the kitchen.” Nat turned on a halogen and twisted it to the drying slab of oak. Mattie looked it over, shrugged, and unloaded the dryer.
“You’re drawing those damn hornets inside with all the shit,” she called back, her voice echoing inside the drum of the dryer. It must sound lovely in there to her.
“They aren’t comin’ after the varnish. Here, look.” Nat picked the varnish up from the bench and wafted it beneath the light. Immediately the hornets dispersed to the far corners of the basement, their flight swerving and unsteady. One bounced against Mattie’s temple and careened into the dryer. Mattie screamed and fell over, throwing hot bed sheets in front of her in case the hornet doubled back and came after her.
“Goddamnit, Nat! Shut that goddamn window! Get some spray and kill these fuckin’ things!” She got to her feet and hurried to the stairs. “And put that door back on its hinges soon! There’s somewhere on the screen door they’re gettin’ through upstairs.”
“What’d you even take the door down for anyway? It wasn’t broken or anything.”
“I just…thought you’d like it if I fixed it up a little.”
A hornet whizzed by Mattie’s face. She ducked back, followed its path with a flailing palm. “Goddamn, Nat,” she muttered, and went back upstairs.
When Nat was done, he leaned the door against a cinder block wall and went up for lunch. Before he hit the lights, he counted two more hornets circling the bulb.
“Don’t swat at ’em! You’ll just rile ’em up!”
Nat ignored her and waved a lazy hand to shoo the hornets outside. Abby’d driven to school, and he scrubbed lazily at the morning dishes, killing time till he figured she’d had enough of a head start.
“Let the suds run off a little before you put ’em in rinse water, Nat. You’ll have ’em drying with a layer of soap on em otherwise.”
Nat was about to pull the drain plug and re-rinse the plates, but a hornet zipped in and out of the window, startling Mattie and backing her away from the sink.
“You’re gonna have to spray this place again pretty soon,” she moaned, but she left him to it. Once the dishes were rinsed and racked, Nat grabbed his keys, went out to his truck, and left for work.
Most of the students had already gone inside, but Nat stayed in this truck long enough to scan the parking lot for Abby and her friends. He couldn’t find them, and when it felt safe he got out and grabbed his lunch pail from the floorboard.
The wasps had spent the summer slowly invading the school, and Nat’s schedule that week consisted almost entirely of hunting down paper nests and drowning their builder’s in poison. When the wasps fell Nat watched their stingers slide in and out of their otherwise still bodies. He said a little prayer over every tiny carcass.
The nests soaked up the poison like sponges, and Nat had to collect them with rubber gloves before shoving them into trash bags. Those found in the crawl spaces took two hands to rip free. Those nests were so extensive the poison didn’t reach every grub. Nat would watch the few that shook loose, squirming blind on ceiling boards, before plucking them up and dropping them into the bag with their sisters.
Nat kept praying as the bags vaporized in the basement incinerator. He was grateful he couldn’t see the writhing grubs in the firelight.
“Aren’t ya hot?”
Nat wiped a rolled sleeve against his soaking eyebrows and looked over. Beyond the shade of the tree was a young woman, pale skin glowing in the sunlight. Her curly black hair billowed in the eddy that blew where the tree’s shadow met the heated noonday air.
She was young but she was dressed like a teacher, sleeveless button-up blouse, skirt with the hem down conservatively past her knees.
“Well, it’s hot work,” he told her, shrugging. “No real way around it.”
The yellowjackets had fallen like dry, brittle snow. Their yellow bodies sprinkled color across the gray dust between the oak tree’s roots.
“I don’t know how you stand it.” She was shielding her eyes with her hand. “Buy ya a Coke or somethin’?”
“Aw, naw, thank ya anyway.” He took out his handkerchief and wiped at his face. “I just got this to finish up and then it’s lunch time for me.” He smiled appreciatively, took of his cap to smooth out his hair. “You’re new, ain’t ya?”
“Yeah. Just started.” She looked over her shoulder to the kids eating in the courtyard. “I feel like I’m some kind of impostor. Most of these kids are almost my age.”
“Well, they give ya too hard a time, you can always hide out in the shed. Provided wasps don’t scare ya to much.”
He winked to let her know he was kidding. She had a big grin, almost bucktoothed. “What’s your name?”
Behind her, Nat could see Abby and her friends. The girl’s were watching him, pointing and laughing. Abby was hiding her face behind her hands.
“I’m Nat,” he told her.
“Hey, Nat.” She held out a small hand. Her nails were the same pale pink tone as her skin. “I’m Mary.”
In his hand, huge, dirty, rough, hers seemed like it would crumple like paper. He shook her hand and her arm moved almost without any effort on his part. He had an image of picking her up by the waist, just to lift her, hoisting her above his head with one hand. He thought he could feel the light fabric of her skirt blow against his face.
“Good to meet ya,” he said. “Don’t burn up out here, now.”
Nat stayed in the workroom even as he heard Abby come in. He’d made himself a sandwich, and every few minutes a gnat would buzz around the half-eaten turkey and mayo. Mattie had complained about the dirty dish, asking him why he couldn’t just use a couple paper towels to eat it off of. He grabbed a beer before heading down, making sure to take a glass with him.
Upstairs Abby and Mattie were talking, but Nat couldn’t make out the words and didn’t care enough to try. He touched up the stainer on the kitchen door with a small brush and waved a hand lazily over his food.
It was an hour later before Mattie finally came down to check on him. She waved a hand in front of her face at the smell of the stainer.
“Goddamn, how can you breathe down here?” Mattie batted her eyes like they would water.
“Got a ventilator if the air gets too thick,” he told her. “Some goggles over there if you wanna wear ’em?”
She sighed. “I ain’t gonna stay down that long. I was just wondering if you were gonna come up for supper.”
“What time is it?”
“Near about five-thirty. I’m gonna have the food ready in about an hour. You need me to fix you a plate?”
Nat thought a moment, waved a hand over his food. “Yeah. You can just stick it in the firdge, though. I still got that sandwich to finish.”
“Just grab it and let me take the plate back then.”
Without saying anything, Nat picked up his food and set the empty plate on the table near Mattie. Mattie scooped it up.
“Wouldn’t kill you to eat with us, would it?”
“Well, I don’t know, Mattie.” He pulled the goggles up over his forehead and blinked away sweat before looking at his wife. “Would it kill you if I did?”
“Oh, don’t start.”
“I wasn’t planning to.”
She took his plate and left. Hornets buzzed by his face until the fumes of the stainer shooed them away. Nat turned and reached for his sandwich, and stopped when he saw a gnat skittering across the bread. It flitted to his hand worked its way between the beads of sweat on his knuckles. When it reached his fingertips he clenched his fist and crushed it, looking at its shredded body when he opened its hand. He would’ve let it be if it only hadn’t come for him.
“So how’d Week One go?”
Mary ate her tasteless chicken sandwich and studied the students in the courtyard. “Not too bad,” she told Nat. “They haven’t figured out I’m practically their age yet.”
Nat grinned while he replaced the bolt on a wobbly picnic table. “Well, just repeat everything your parents ever told ya and you should keep the wool over their eyes.”
He sat the picnic table right-side-up. Mary took a seat while he boxed up his tools. “Join me?”
“Left my lunch back in the workroom, but I guess a sit-down wouldn’t kill me.”
His hips and knees ached, or almost ached, in the good, tired way they did when he’d done what he considered “good work.” It’d been a light day, but a productive one, tightening loose bolts and replacing busted combination locks. He wasn’t grimy or even very sweaty, which he was grateful for as he sat next to Mary. Her forearms were still goose-pimpled from the A.C. inside. She smelled like vanilla, and beneath it cigarette smoke.
Two tables over, Abbie’s friends pointed at them and giggled. Nat made eye contact with his daughter, the look she gave him shooting ice into his spirit. She gave a disgusted sneer, grabbed her books, and stormed off to the tune of her friends’ cackling laughter.
Behind Mary there was whooping, and she and Nat turned to see two boys squaring off, chests and noses touching, fists clenched. “Oh, shit,” Mary grunted, leaping up to cool them down.
That night Nat fell asleep in the easy chair he’d lugged into his workshop a year prior. He dreamed about the hem of Mary’s purple floral dress, the black hem billowing between her ankles as she ran to break up the fight. In his dream, though, she didn’t run so much as she floated. He could see her bone-white flats hover a breath above the asphalt, toes down, the soles paddling gently against the air.
The kitchen door was dry, and Nat was busy re-installing it when Abbie came back home from Jen’s. “Hey, baby girl,” he called over his shoulder.
He didn’t get a reply, but then he wasn’t expecting one. But he could feel her standing in the kitchen, close behind him, and after a minute he looked over to her.
“I can’t believe you did that?”
He sighed. “You don’t like the door either?”
“At school. I can’t believe you flirted with Miss Mary like that.”
“That’s not flirting, Abbie. She just came over to talk.”
“I never see you smile that way around Mom.”
Another, deeper sigh. “Yeah. I guess it’s been awhile since I smiled like that around her.”
“You look like a dirty old man when you’re around Miss Mary.”
“You watch your mouth.” She was startled by the sharpness of his tone. “That woman’s barely any older than you are. I would never do anything like what you’re sayin’ I am. She just needs a talkin’ buddy. You got that?”
Abbie was quiet, her eyes narrowed.
“Your momma an’ me haven’t been okay in awhile, but I would never do what you think I’m doin’.” He turned back to the door. “Now buzz off.”
Abbie was quiet a little longer. “I don’t want you talking to her anymore. It’s embarassing. My friends won’t stop making fun of me.”
“Then I guess you can’t rightly call ’em your friends, huh?”
“If you don’t stop, I’ll tell Mom.”
“Tell her.” He waved he off. “There’s nothing to tell. Unless you’re a liar.” He looked over at her. “Are you a liar, Abbie?”
Abbie was quiet another moment, then stomped her feet and stormed off. Nat turned back to the door.
“How do you think that makes Abbie look? How do you think that makes me look?”
Mattie slapped the work table with each sentence. Loose bolts bounced with each blow.
“All we do is talk, Mattie! Why are so upset about this? It ain’t like I’ve never talked to any of the teachers before!”
“So why haven’t you mentioned her?”
“There’s nothing to mention! I’ve spoken to her three times when she’s on lunch duty. There ain’t nothin’ to it! Good God, she’s young enough to be my daughter!”
“That’s right, Nat! She is young enough to be your daughter! And you call holding hands with her nothing?”
“I told you we’ve never held hands!”
“Why would Abbie lie, Nat?”
“Are you really asking me why a teenager would lie to get what they want?”
“You’re pathetic.” She smacked at a hornet as it bounced against her face. The insect thumped against the cinder block wall and fell to the floor, stunned. “You hide in this hole and you chase the first pretty thing you see when you come out, like you and I haven’t been married twenty years.”
“Right, I’m pathetic.” Nat picked up his claw hammer and slammed it against the work table. “Your fat ass spends all day doing nothing in my house, badgering me over anything you can imagine, and I’m pathetic!” He slammed the hammer into the table again. “Get your ass out of my basement before I drag you out!”
She slammed the door twice to make a point, and once Nat’s heartbeat went down, the basement was quiet again.
Soon he could again hear the humming behind the wall.
Garrison Keillor was speaking softly on the radio as Nat slid the skill saw across the sheet rock. He worked a small sliver of drywall away and peered inside with a pen light.
The hornets were a soft, humming blanket of shining red and yellow. They twitched, cleaning antennae and walking over their sleepier sisters. Occasionally one would buzz by, fluttering across the beam of Nat’s flashlight to another section of the paper nest.
“Thank you, oh God,” Keillor said, “for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
Nat could see Mary’s bone-white flats, grinding the corpses of the yellowjackets into the dirt around the oak tree’s roots. She looked lighter than the air, but her footfalls came like hammer blows.
Nat could see himself sitting alone, sharing this house with the small guests who stayed tucked inside his walls. Out of his way, and he out of theirs.
But even in her kindness, Mary would come for them. Maybe more in fear than hate, but still she would wish them dead. Like Mattie would. Like Abbie. Simply because they were there.
“And it is enough,” Keillor whispered.
The hammer chewed through the drywall and its studs like fanged teeth, so that the basement coughed clouds of plaster into Nat’s face. The noise agitated the hornets.
“It…is enough,” Keillor finished with a sigh.
Nat’s arm burned, and then ached, and finally he could feel nothing at all. He swung again and again and again and…
“Nat!” he heard from upstairs. Mattie was stomping on the floor of the kitchen. The hornets could hear that too. “Nat, what are you doing down there?”
The wall studs shook and cracked against the hammer.
Mattie stomping on the floor again. Abbie asking: “What’s Dad doing?”
The hammer striking the awakening bed of hornets. Dozens flying away, higher up the wall, into the upper floors of the house.
The hammer killing, angering. Hornets finally buzzing out, trying to find the source of this sharp, sudden storm. Hornets pouring out.
Needles on his face and his neck. Needles by his ears. Needles that stuck, and stuck again.
Abbie upstairs: “Jesus, that’s the fifth one! Hasn’t Dad sprayed for these yet?”
Mattie stomping to the door. He hadn’t thought to lock it but the heated tide was too high behind his eyes, and he swung, feeling the hammer scrape against brick.
“Nat?” Mattie’s heavy steps, too fast for her to take proper stock of the cloud that grew in the room. “Nat, what are you-?”
“Mom!” Abbie started yelling. It sounded like she’d begun to stomp around as well. “Momma!”
Mattie was yelling too, now, but Nat could hardly hear her.
The wall was now near totally evacuated. Nat felt the heat in his mind burn through his face. His flesh felt tight and puckered. The room was blurred by fluttering wings. He had to fight his arm to move it.
He thought to wonder if Mattie and Abbie were still screaming. Above his head now, he could only hear the sound of hornets.