On and off, that whole day, I thought about how I would kill the wasps.
She hadn’t paid me. I had worked hard for her. I was behind on my bills. A check written to my therapist would bounce any day. We unloaded the truck at her house. Her husband helped, a man I’d met two years earlier—a bushy goatee, smiling and I didn’t remember him. I shook his hand. I asked how he’d been. He said that he’d been good. Then, he asked me how I’d been. I said that it had been a good couple of years. It wasn’t true. It had been a hard couple of years.
An hour earlier, we were loading up the truck and she told me that she wouldn’t be paid by her bosses until the end of the month. I looked surprised because I was surprised. I expected to be handed cash. She said that if I absolutely needed the money, she could pay me out of her husband’s check the next day. I liked her, liked working with her, felt bad. I said that I could wait. It wasn’t true. I was counting on that money.
Truck all unloaded, she invited me in for a glass of water. I drank it with her and her husband in their kitchen. I complimented them on their new—new to me—house. In their kitchen, I was looking around at the sparse decorations on the walls, thinking of the stories she told me about their relationship and hoping she might just pay me anyway.
Her husband didn’t like her to do anything for him on his birthday. She liked to play Santa on birthdays. That’s a lot like me. I like to play Santa on people’s birthdays. I know what it’s like to do that for someone and not have the enthusiasm returned on your birthday. I know how you feel year later, torn between your own giving nature and the memory of a coal-filled stocking. I imagined her having to explain to him that she would need to pay me out of his check. I didn’t even know what he did, but I imagined that there wouldn’t be much of the check left. So I didn’t press it, even though I wanted to ask her if she could just pay me the next day—still thinking of that check bouncing. I left. As I was leaving, I said again not to worry about paying me until she got paid and everything would be fine. It wasn’t true. Nice guys sink with the ship.
On the drive back across town, stuck in mid-Tuesday morning traffic, I imagined killing them with dry ice. I could just buy a brick and place it at the base of the window sill. The ice-cold air would rise up into that corner where they’d built their little acorn-sized honeycomb. They hate the cold. Can’t stand it. I didn’t know if it would kill them, but it would get their attention. Freeze their asses to death or at least freak them out enough to scare them away. I’m the type of guy that always knows where to find cheap dry ice. (I figure you know what I mean.)
I got to work and management was angry. The popper was broken and we would have to serve the stale popcorn leftover from the day before until the repairman could come. Mrs. Belkin called me out on being three minutes late. She said she would write me up if anything else happened during the remainder of my four-hour shift—the four hour shift I’d agreed to cover for my friend Earl, so he could sleep in with his new girlfriend. I normally don’t work matinee shifts. I’m a night-shift kind of guy. I like the crowds. I like people. I like seeing them out on first dates and date-nights and taking out their kids.
I nodded and ran behind the counter to turn on all the other machines—the pretzel warmer, the nacho warmer, the popcorn warmer, the candy display lights and the soda machine. I grabbed two big, clear plastic bags of day-old popcorn and brought them over to the popper. I turned the machine on for a moment, just to see, and heard a grinding metal-on-metal sound. I flipped it off and noticed the trail of stale popcorn I’d left all over the floor. One of the bags must’ve had a hole. It covered the floor with a stripe of pale yellow. I glanced at the video camera over my shoulder and walked calmly to the back area and grabbed the broom and trash-hopper. I swept it up quickly and calmly. The red phone next to camera didn’t ring, so I guessed she hadn’t seen. Then I scooped the stale popcorn into seven small, five medium and four large bags and placed them at the front of the warmer to make it look full. The stand was set up and I washed my hands until I heard his voice.
A shrill voice was yelling ‘hello’ over and over. I went out and greeted him. He was by himself, seeing Titanic again, and wanted a large combo. I started to grab the large popcorn bag out of the warmer and he stopped me. He wanted ‘fresh’ popcorn out of the popper. I didn’t argue with him, just snapped open a new large bag and filled it with the stale corn from the popper. He shook the bag against the counter and the popcorn settled down into the bag and then he told me he wanted it filled up ‘all the way.’ I put more in there. As I was putting ice into his large cup, he stopped me and told me to take some out. He told me that he didn’t want to pay for ice. I took out some ice and showed him how much ice was in the cup, so that he could nod his approval that there wasn’t still too much ice. He didn’t look in the cup, just waved his hand, looked at his watch and then looked at me, disgusted. He asked for butter. As I had been instructed to by Mrs. Belkin, I told him that we didn’t serve butter, but that artificial topping was available. He nodded impatiently and then looked at me: head tilted, lips pursed, disgusted.
A large combo costs eight dollars and fifty cents. The revelation of this price also disgusted the man. He said he’d talk to the manager, but Titanic was about to begin. He handed me a hundred dollar bill. I marked it with the counterfeit-security-pen and of course it was real. He shook his head at the delay. The till only starts with a total of a hundred dollars in it. I asked if he had anything smaller, and he spouted a firm ‘No.’ I began to count out his change, emptying the register of its ones, fives and tens and then started on the quarters. This bothered him, the quarters. He didn’t want to carry around a ‘mint’s worth of change.’ So he checked his sport coat pocket and found a twenty. I started to make change again. He let me know his movie was starting right at that moment. I told him I would hurry and that hopefully the previews would give him a buffer. He didn’t like that response. My head was bowed over the register, calculating and counting out the new change, when I heard him crunch on some popcorn. It didn’t crunch as much as it whined. I heard him grunt then sip the soda. He asked me what I was trying to pull giving him stale popcorn and flat soda. Somebody, probably Earl, had forgotten to change the CO2 last night on the soda machine. He asked if I did it to try to teach him a lesson. Then he asked for the manager. I explained that the popcorn was stale due to the popper and the soda flat due to an oversight and I would do my best to fix the situation. Then he shook his head, and asked for the manager again. His movie had started, he’d missed the beginning, and he would be ‘goddarned’ if he would pay full price for bad popcorn and soda on top of it.
He told Mrs. Belkin about the food issues, that my slowness caused him to miss his movie and about my bad attitude. Mrs. Belkin has a flair for the dramatic. I always thought that that was why she liked managing a movie theater. It was the thing about her that I felt was romantic and redeeming. Somewhere deep inside, I believed, was a sweet little girl that had dreamed of being an actress.
She fired me on the spot, right in front of him. She ripped my name tag off of my shirt, threw it on the floor, kicked it and told me to go clean out my locker. There aren’t lockers, but I just nodded anyway, not wanting to ruin the effect she was going for, and still hoping to get paid for the hour I had been there on my next check. Six dollars is still six dollars.
As I was leaving, I heard her explaining to the man that the popper was broken and how somebody must’ve forgotten to change the CO2 on Cherry Coke and that she’d comp him the food and his ticket. He said that sounded fair. As I was getting into my car, I saw the repairman entering the theater.
I sat in lunchtime traffic and thought about covering the outside of that window with thick, black plastic. It would trap them in there. The darkness might even trick them into thinking it was still nighttime. Maybe they’d never wake up. Or maybe the heat would cook them alive. Or they might suffocate. It had been so hot that the air in between the covered storm window and the inside window might bake them. Heat makes them hyperactive, but it also makes them mean and aggressive. They might start flying into the inside window over and over hoping they might break through. It’s so tight in there they’d ping pong off the covered plastic and the glass—no escape, just burning to death or bashing their own heads in or both and with no air to sustain them.
I called Earl and got his machine, so I hung up. I couldn’t go home because my wife had someone over, so I was calling him from the bar down the street. The change I’d gotten by inspecting the floors of my car. I had nowhere else to go, so I went over there. I didn’t want to yell at him or to tell him off. I just wanted him to know that I gotten fired covering his shift and that he’d forgotten to change the CO2 and somebody complained. I don’t know what he would’ve done with that information. I was hoping he’d invite me in for a beer, at least.
When I got there, he was sitting out on his front porch swing with a blanket wrapped around him and his new girlfriend.
Earl’s new girlfriend was stunning. She was prettier than any girl I had ever even spoken to. She was a hundred times prettier than my wife. They were swinging on the swing with coffee mugs in hand, huddled together like a couple of giggling love bugs.
As I approached the porch, Earl saw me and his face turned to concern. He asked me if I overslept covering his shift and before I answered, he said that he had been counting on me, and wondered why he couldn’t count on anyone anymore. His girlfriend stroked his back to calm him and I thought about how that must have felt, to be calmed by such a beautiful creature while delivering a self-righteous rant. He must have felt like the king of the world in those moments.
He calmed down immediately, once I told him that I hadn’t overslept and that I had shown up and had been fired. He changed the subject and asked me what my plans were for the afternoon, now that I’d been fired and didn’t have to work. I had none and told him so. He said that he wanted to take his new girlfriend to the beach, but didn’t have a good way of getting there and asked if I could drive him. He said he’d compensate me well for my time and my gas and that it would be fun. I agreed after one second of imagining Earl’s girlfriend all wet in her bathing suit walking back in from the ocean. I figured that even if he gave me twenty dollars, that would’ve been close to what I would’ve made working.
Earl asked me to wait on the porch, gave me his cup of coffee to drink while he and his lady grabbed their beach stuff. The three of us got into the car and got started driving. We stopped at a deli by the beach. Earl bought some beer and some egg sandwiches for all of us and then we walked over there.
I didn’t have clothes to swim in, so I sipped on beer while Earl and his girlfriend frolicked in the waves for awhile. They came in to grab a beer and to smoke cigarettes. I tried not to be too obvious in my ogling of Earl’s beautiful girlfriend. She was every bit as gorgeous as I had imagined, all wet and in her yellow bikini. I sat on the sand so that they could stretch out on the blanket. We didn’t talk much. Earl muttered sweet things to her and she giggled and then they frolicked some more and then came in and said that it was time to go.
On the drive home, Earl’s girlfriend said that the thing she wanted most in the world at that moment was an ice cream cone and how wonderful it would be if we could get some. We all agreed that ice cream sounded perfect, but then Earl told her that he didn’t have enough money to pay for ice cream. He said that the money he had left over, he needed to give to me for my time and gas.
Then, for the first time, she looked at me. So I said that it was alright, not to worry about it, and that we’d stop for ice cream. He asked if I was sure, that he knew my money was tight, and I told him that wanted her to get her wish more than I needed the money. It wasn’t true. I wanted her more than I needed the money and confused the two.
I dropped them off and watched Earl walk with her up the walk to his house, licking ice cream, his arm holding her close.
It was rush hour when I got back onto the highway to head home.
I thought about taking some ground beef or steak and spraying poison all over it and leaving it on the sill, so they’d fly down to check it out. They love the smell and look of raw meat. They wouldn’t be able to resist it. The poison would paralyze them and they’d die right there, choking on the poison and laying in it, or they might tear off a little piece to bring up to the nest for the queen and that would poison her and the others. I could leave the meat there at night. They would wake up in the morning and rejoice at this fortuitous slab of meat suddenly presented to them. The ones that didn’t die right there on the meat might fall to the ground below, having died choking in mid-air, after flying off thinking they’d scored.
When I got home, my wife was upset. She had been expecting me and more importantly the car to be home at three ‘o clock. She asked me why I smelled of beer and ice cream and if I had been on a date.
This isn’t such a funny question for my wife to have asked me. We hadn’t been sleeping in the same bed for a long time and months earlier she had told me that it was okay for me to date and that she had decided to start dating.
I started to tell her where I’d been, that I’d lost my job, that I hadn’t gotten the extra money from the odd job—but she interrupted, said she was late, grabbed the keys and headed out the door.
I was lying on the couch drinking water, when she came back in and told me that the car was almost out of gas and that she’d have to put some in. She said she knew I didn’t have any money, that she had someone who could cover it. She’d be gone for the evening. I’d have to find a ride to work, she said. She told me she was disappointed that I’d been so inconsiderate as to bring the car home with no gas. I could see her side of it. There was half a tank when I’d left. I nodded and told her that I’d be more responsible in the future. It wasn’t true. I would crash every ship into every iceberg from then on out.
She shook her head at my response, I believe in emphasis, and then looked at me the way she used to after we found out that I’m sterile, but before we stopped trying altogether.
The car pulled out of the driveway abruptly and I sipped my water, watching out the window as it did.
I knew that it wasn’t really possible—because it would do too much damage, but I entertained the idea of getting my hammer and ladder from the garage and simply smashing the nest, right through the window. I thought about whether they’d swarm me, whether I’d fall off the ladder after smashing the window, and whether I’d run or not.
I fell asleep there on the couch for a couple of hours and when I woke up it was dark.
At night through the inside window, I’ve watched them sleeping. There were only about seven of them. The honeycomb they’d constructed was so small that they covered it completely at night when they huddled around it to sleep. They are completely still when they sleep. The yellow and black stripes of their bodies create a living shell around the little nest. Sometimes, one of them would still be moving ever so slightly, as if staying awake to watch over the others.
I discovered them first. Before my wife had discovered them, she had come down one hot morning and opened the inside window to let some air in. A little later, I walked into the kitchen to find the window open. I was late for work. One of them—one of the wasps was bouncing against the inside window, lost, trying to get back to the nest. I couldn’t shut the window with him there. I couldn’t leave without shutting it or they’d all get into the house. I muttered curses under my breath, grabbed a stack of mail and swatted him to death. Terrified the swatting would enliven the others, I shut the window and ran to the car.
There were only the seven of them then. On the way to work, I wondered if they would miss the one I had killed. Or if they wouldn’t notice at all.
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Portland Fiction Project
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