suddenly, a bee

I heard the bee for some time before I saw it, assuming the sound was a quirk of radio and wishing, like I usually do, for dials that can be more finely tweaked than a button you press which tells you the thing is on 89.7FM, damn it, no matter what you may think.

Static. Bzz. Have you tried turning it off and back on? I like analog better. Let’s not get into fixed volume.

I’ve become an NPR junkie, allasudden — is that correct? “An NPR?” I think it is because you type it as you’d say it, and while I’m sure they say that several times an hour I cannot remember which way they do it — anyhow, I have become a happy NPR junkie, soothed by world news from the calm gentle voices with a “nowhere accent” like I have by default.

I was told, recently, that I have the NPR accent. Best compliment ever. I did not point out that I also have a face for radio, because I didn’t want to ruin the moment.

So I listen to NPR a lot, and I really enjoy the weekend shows: Wait Wait and Radiolab and Snap Judgments, and the news from Lake Wobegon, all the while wondering whether Keillor’s peculiar sibilant whistle will be bad this week or not, because that’s one of those verbal tics that drives me up the damned wall. I was not a fan of Winnie-the-Pooh’s Gopher, for that same reason. And you know, for years, years I spelled it “judgements” and had to retrain myself to kick that spare E out, it’s one of those things where the neuron got baked with incorrect data, and I had to learn it all over again.

Anyway. The bee. I heard her before I saw her, listening to … something or other… on NPR, and since Josie didn’t alert to anything I assumed it was a radio problem.

(this feels like a Riley story, like it should be Riley who found the bee, the way she found possums and hamsters; Josie may be stepping into that empty space as my guardian that Riley left, which is bittersweet)

I don’t know how I noticed her, but I looked up, and distinctly saw the bee, the plump body with stripes, the black legs, the wings, bouncing between a lampshade and the energy-saving Twirly Bulb lighting the lamp.

Then I got a little scared, because I have never been stung and don’t know if I am allergic to bees, and health care is so expensive these days when you can’t even afford Obamacare, and I didn’t know what to do next. Note that I would not mind finding out the hard way if I am allergic to bee stings, if the fix for it was cheap and easily obtained.

So, of course, I turned to the internet. Turn off all the lights, my friends told me, and open a window: the bee will be attracted to light and make her way out the window. I did this thing and waited under the blankets in my bed, because I decided that the more of me that was hidden, the less could get stung by a potentially allergenic bee.

Leaving was not an option, because I wanted to see when the bee left.

A friend of mine keeps bees in England: he has a few hives, he collects honey, he has the smoker and the biohazard suit, and though he has not yet made himself a bee-beard it’s just a matter of time. It’s amusing to see him talking to his bees online (because you know bees are on Facebook) with those English idioms that never made it to America: fill your boots girls! I don’t know if he catches stray swarms. I think so.

My mother had a hive land on her head, a long time ago: she was walking Sadie the Cowardly Mammoth Dog after a few days of heavy rain, and the whole mess slid out of a tree and went whomp on her head. The bees were so startled that they didn’t even sting her, though she (and Sadie) both succumbed to a mighty panic. A nearby neighbor saw this happen and helped my mother get the bees out of her hair and shirt. The woman then helped her corral Sadie who, of course, had lit out of there at the first buzz of trouble and was trying to work the bees out of her own thick coat just down the road.

When your dog is seventy-five pounds of panic, the worst possible thing to do is add bees.

At one point I told the most hilariously unhelpfully smartassy of my friends. It went like this:

She: “I just got flirted with by a drunk guy on Hillsborough.”

Me: “There’s a bee in my bedroom. Trade you.”

She: “Deal.”

Me: “How the hell did it get IN here?”

She: “Flew.”

Me: “Strangely enough I get that part, captain obvious. From where?”

She: “Is from outside obvious too?”

Me: “Yes, you’re missing the how part.”

She: “New toy for Josie?”

Me: “I don’t know why I ask you things.”

The bee never reappeared, and since it was an unseasonable ninety degrees out I closed the window and went about my business. I assumed I could catch one stray bee easily, with a cup and a piece of paper or something, and then let her back outside.

The bee never showed up. I joked about this: maybe Josie ate the bee, maybe little hamster Myshka ate the bee, maybe there’s a hive in the roof. Maybe I’ll find a dead bee behind a bookcase when I move out of here and fall down laughing because at last the mystery is solved. Maybe I should get my English bee-whisperer friend to come over and coax the bee out of hiding.

I didn’t want the bee to die at any point, because I like bees, they are cute and useful, they pollinate things so we won’t starve, and have never plotted to overthrow humanity although we are always stealing their delicious honey. (And I’m back to Pooh-bear.)

That was almost two weeks ago, so you can imagine my surprise when a sluggish bee appeared out of nowhere on the bed next to me. She wasn’t flying, and she was walking slowly, jittery in a way that didn’t seem natural for a bee.

I moved slowly, because one never knows if a seemingly sluggish bee is really a secret revenge bee waiting to leap up and sting an unsuspecting hominid in the eye: do you know how many of us it takes to make all the honey you put in a cup of tea? And you don’t always finish it! I unrolled a good amount of toilet paper, to cushion the bee from my huge crushing megafauna hands, and then I captured the bee in the paper as carefully as I could.

I brought her outside and tipped her out of the paper onto a chair, where she scuttled, dazed but determined, along the plastic seat. She was still moving slowly, dragging a hind leg. Cold maybe, I thought; it’s cold indoors, for a bee used to living outside.

I took a deep breath, held it for a moment to warm all the air, and then blew gently on the bee. She scuttled a little faster, but that was all.

drwhoairI blew on the bee again and off she flew, into my back yard thick with flowers, and the warm summer sun, and I hope off to her home.


the sins of my father

My father was in town on business; he was an industrial painter. He did the dangerous toxic stuff that, now, is heavily regulated: he painted the insides of the gigantic chemical tanks down by the port, where things like gasoline are deposited by tanker ships before being doled out to trucks that distribute them to gas stations.

He was staying at a flophouse hotel, which had been grand once and now is grand again: the Floridan has a long interesting history. Part of it is mine by chance, I suppose, though he could have stayed somewhere else. Whenever I drove past it, downtown, I’d think of him. Wonder who he was.

I know enough, now, that I don’t want to know more.

He stayed on the move; he had a home base, of sorts, with his family in Indiana, but most of the time drove all over the Southeast for work. He kept moving. Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home — yeah, that’s how my mother explained it to me when I was small. “Listen to this song, your dad was like this.” I listened and, being at the time newly human and strangely literal, proclaimed, “He must have a big hat.”

And when he died, all he left us was alone.

I have two older half-brothers, I know that. I know their names, vaguely. I have photographs of them from the early eighties. I have no idea how many younger half-siblings I have, dear ol’ Dad being compelled by a purely evolutionary urge to wander, procreate, and then get the hell out of town before he was expected to help feed the offspring. So: somewhere I have two brothers. I don’t know them. I don’t think I ever will. I wonder about that, trying to fit theories into this blank space in my life. It doesn’t bother me. It just is: the sky is blue, water’s wet, wild Popes quit in the woods, I have some people out there somewhere that are genetically connected to me that have nothing to do with my life, and never have.

They never will, I’m sure.

I’d thought about contacting him for years. Decades. My whole life, since he left — rather, since I noticed he had failed to reappear, which took several years, because he wasn’t much of a presence in the first place. I don’t know what finally persuaded me to do it, really. My mother had kept the guy’s SSN and other bits of pertinent information; my friend Amber took those and the Lexis-Nexus database she used for work and it spat out an address. He was alive. He was in Ohio. Hilariously. He was in Dayton.

I’d flown into Dayton once. When Amber moved back to Florida she flew me up to Cincy and then we road-tripped it back down — but the funny thing is that my plane landed in Dayton less than a mile from the house the records claimed he’d owned for about thirteen years. When we drove out of Dayton it was a bleak day at the end of January; all I remember is dirty snow, empty houses, rusting snowplows and bulldozers on the side of the highway, and a Tom Waits song, all too appropriate. God said don’t give me your tin-horn prayers.

My parents met at a bus stop, late in the seventies, while he was painting and sleeping at the Floridan. They got to talking. My mother, reeling under the weight of mistreated mental illness that science wouldn’t get a handle on for another twenty years, told him that she was going to be in the hospital for a few days, and would he please feed her cat? My father said, later, that he’d thought she was on drugs. But he stayed at her place anyway, probably because that was cheaper than even a transient week-rates hotel in the decaying downtown of late-seventies Tampa. Nicer, too; she had air conditioning.

I happened a few years later. They never got married; they didn’t want to. When she came up pregnant, my mother considered the situation and found it good. She’d been married once before, and my father was a drinker, and with her mother — my grandmother — around, she was sure that the two of them could raise a child just fine without any paternal interference. The last thing they wanted was him coming home drunk and smashing shit up with a baby in the house. He wasn’t listed on my birth certificate because my mother refused to let an alcoholic have even a chance of custody. Smart move, that.

I didn’t see him often; he was enthusiastic about me as an idea, but once I was breathing on my own I think the reality of a child frightened him. So he kept moving. Came back every once in a while — I met one of my brothers, once — but he was gone more than he was there. That was normal for me. You can’t miss something you don’t feel the lack of. And he wasn’t a lack, wasn’t a hole in my life. He was just a person who appeared and blew back out, now and again.

It was a very long time before any of us realized we hadn’t heard from him and probably should have. The rest of my life he was a question I answered with a shrug: what about your dad? No idea. Oh, I’m sorry. Why be sorry, I don’t need him.

If he was worth it, I figure, he’d have stayed.

I’m not sure what led me to write him, a few months ago: curiosity, I suppose, and a strange lack of feeling. I’d gone through it all. I’d been mad, I’d been sad, I’d been frustrated. I’d coasted through all of those and found myself left with a vague curiosity. Who is this person? Someone I want in my life? The only thing I knew for sure was that a medical history might be nice, because there are some things wrong with me that I cannot figure out.

I wrote a letter, very neutral, slightly distant, more formal than familiar; I explained I’d found his information and decided to write to him. I wrote that if he wanted to reestablish contact, that was all right; I wrote that if he didn’t want to, I would respect that.

I got something back a few weeks later. My name scrawled on the front, no name or address on the back. There was a letter inside, hand-written: pencil on looseleaf lined paper. No signature. No identifying information whatsoever.

The anonymous letter-writer said they were sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but my father had passed away some eight years before, and his wife owned the house, renting it to the person who was writing. Bullshit, all of it; every source I researched confirms he’s alive. Enclosed in the envelope was what I’d sent out: my letter, and the envelope too. The message was clear: leave no evidence that I exist.

It arrived the day after Riley’s death. But, as always, my girl put it in perspective for me: this is love, and this is loss, and that packet of lies scrawled in pencil have nothing to do with me.

I don’t know who wrote it. Don’t much care to find out. A few friends have expressed interest in tracking him down and confronting him. I’ve told them, have at it, but if you do meet him face to face, tell him he’s a pathetic bastard, and then take a photograph of his face as soon as he realizes you’ve insulted him. If any of them ever do, I’m sure it’ll be hilarious.

What you do not realize, father of mine, is that you were never needed, never necessary, never missed. If this is what you are, I’ve been goddamned lucky to only know the lack of you.

There’s a killer and he’s coming through the rye
But maybe he’s the father of that lost little girl
It’s hard to tell in this light

And I want to know the same thing
Everyone wants to know: how’s it going to end?

I hope this is the end of it, that it’s all finished, that he plays dead until he stays dead. There’s enough skeletons rattling ’round already, and I’m not in the business of believing in resurrection.

some things just are

In my jewelry box, next to the silver and gems, is a little grey stone with a hole. I found it on the beach at Anna Maria when I was a kid, what seems like a lifetime ago, when my mother and I would drive down to stay with my grand-uncle at his winter house. Finding a rock on the beach is hardly unusual. But I remember it because he told me: a rock with a hole is good luck, you keep that. Somehow I did, all this time. It’s nothing remarkable, a smooth grey stone with one hole worn all the way through and several others pitted in the surface. But it was lucky. My uncle said so, and I loved him and believed the things he told me. Somehow I managed to keep from misplacing it, all of this time. I never asked why hole-stones were lucky. Some things just are. You don’t have to know why, as long as you know.

One of my grandmother’s books. She had very strong opinions about this sort of thing.

My maternal family, which is all I’ve got, is Estonian. Very Estonian. As Estonian as you can get after naturalizing in America. Depending on which grandparent you count it from, I’m either the second or third generation off the boat. I’m sure there are convoluted grandmother’s-second-cousin-by-marriage names for these relationships, but we’re big on simplicity, so all I knew was that there were a mess of awesome old people, Aunt Her and Uncle Him, with lilting accents and goofy senses of humor, who’d been Born There but Couldn’t Go Back. Superstition, sterling silver, and plenty of dessert. Kurat! There were cousins my own age, and aunts and uncles in my mother’s generation, but somehow I got along best with the old folks. I was shy and small and quiet, and they were gentle with me, drawing me out carefully until I’d let them see who I really was, and welcoming it when I did.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned things in any detail: the red revolution, the brief period of nationalism, the escape from Soviet occupation with little more than the clothes on their backs. I wish I knew the stories better; some were serious, some were funny, some were sad. My aunts and uncles told their stories with a mix of humor and sorrow in that peculiar way which I am learning is just an Estonian thing, this deep drive to find the humor in a situation and burst yourself at it, because it’s better to be laughing than crying. We elbow each other and giggle at funerals; we crack jokes in hospital rooms; we are a combination of wary and amused, because the two constants in life are that things go wrong, and things are funny. There’s about fifteen hundred years of history backing this: when your tribe gets conquered, invaded, overtaken, converted, subverted, silenced, and annexed by every hopped-up tsar or warlord to come down the pike, it learns how to maintain a sense of self. Don’t let the bastards get you down, the jokes remind us, and laugh it off when they try. Laugh at them behind their backs.

They sang themselves free from the Soviets, but I think the real Estonian anthem is a belly laugh.

Lately I have been reading about Estonian mythology, tradition, superstition; I wonder what’s survived all this way, from Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from Neolithic settlements all the way to modern times. As it turns out, quite a bit.

My grandmother was superstitious: no shoes on the table, no open umbrellas in the house, no walking under a ladder. All of those are ordinary enough here, I suppose; if she found a good superstition she’d add it to the collection. Why not? Knock on wood, salt over the shoulder, and a “god willing” tacked onto the end of hopes and plans although she, like me, was about as religious as a doorstop. Why? Who knows. She just was.

I can’t remember her swearing in English more than once or twice, in moments of great distress, but she swore in Estonian almost constantly. Her one Estonian word, guttural, with the full accent she’d lost when she learned English at the age of five. Kurat! As a kid I tried to write it down and I think I came up with ‘Guddaght,’ which is about how I remember it sounding, with the rolled r. I asked her what it meant once, that word you always say, Grandma: she paused a moment then told me, dismissively, “It means” – quick glance away, what to tell the kid – “go run in the woods.” That was that. Don’t ask more about it. It’s just Grandma being funny. Some things just are: that’s another thing I learned.

She took that word’s meaning with her to the grave, but later one of my mob of old-country aunts, my grandmother’s cousin perhaps, finally explained it to me. Kurat means devil, in the most literal sense, although it serves double duty as an all-purpose profanity for any situation from disappointment to catastrophe. Google translates it as “fucking,” which is funny when “Big Devil Rock” becomes “Fucking Hard Thing.”

Kuradisaar, or Devil Island, is another story that aunt gave me, though the name she used was Devil’s Rock; it’s an island just off the Käsmu peninsula where stories say the Devil lost a fight, I think. Though if my family are a standard example it’s just as likely that the island got its name from everyone slipping off the rocks, skinning their knees and swearing, kurat, kurat, kurat! She would walk out into the bay at low tide, picking her way across the glacier-smoothed rocks like gigantic stepping stones, and go to the island. Then the tide came in, and either she was stuck there or she had to swim back. “And you didn’t want to do that in the winter time!” she’d say. Why did you go out to the rock in winter? “Well” – a shrug – “why not?” Because it’s there. It is. Some things just are.

I have a muddy estuary full of tarpon and dolphins and crabs, and while I’ve been in it often enough to be immune to Karenia brevis, I’ve never gone out and found myself trapped on an island where the Devil lost a fight. I have turned up plenty of stingrays though, which I’m sure they would have liked to hear about, laughing as they’d scold me: “You did what? Those can kill you! What is wrong with your mind?” Well, why not?

I asked her about the herring once: that was the other thing I never did figure out. I still don’t know, come to it. When the clock strikes twelve and the new year comes, the first thing you must do is eat a great gob of herring. Pickled in sour cream is what we always get. I asked my great-aunt, my grandmother’s cousin, why it was lucky. She fixed me with a look and said, “It just is!” Why is the sky blue? Why are there rocks in the ocean? Some things just are.

Normal is whatever you’re used to, I suppose. When I was younger and these magnificent lunatics were all alive, I took it for granted. I didn’t know there was anything special about it. But I feel the loss, and I miss them so much, the accents and the stories, the table manners (pizza with a fork, really?), silver and ships and herring.

Nostalgia has got to be another genetic trait.

It makes perfect sense that my grand-uncle had his winter home on Anna Maria Island. Boats were as necessary to his life as cameras are to mine; he’d been a sailor in Estonia, made his way to the US aboard ship, then worked in the Merchant Marines after getting his citizenship. After that he owned a small marina, and when it came time to retire he picked a house on a small wild barrier island (it was at the time, at least) with a canal in the back yard, and a dock on that, and of course, a little motorboat moored to it.

The thing I remember the best is how we’d go fishing in the morning for what we ate at dinner. We set out when the sun was still coming up, motor out around the island into the gulf, then cut the engines and drift. We’d spend the mornings out there, listening to the tall tales he’d spin and waiting for the fish — which were always called trout, I’m not sure why — to bite. There was a wooden scaling post on the little dock, and he’d trim the fish right there with an old kitchen knife before bringing them indoors. I had two jobs: fetch the live shrimp from the bucket so he could bait the hooks, and afterwards, throw the discarded heads and tails to a blue heron that learned it would get treats if it hung around begging.

Yesterday I learned that there’s a wealth of sacred stones in Estonia, thousands of years old. They are glacial boulders with little holes or cups in the surface. Some may have been natural. Some were carved to depict constellations. They were offering stones: you would leave something of value in the hole, for a wish, or for luck, or for health. I don’t know if my uncle knew about that, the details, the historical specifics; he did know a stone with a hole in it was good luck, a talisman to carry in your pocket or put in a drawer. I don’t know how a Neolithic tradition survived long enough to become a modern luck-charm, but it has. Some things just happen.

That amazes me.


All of those people are gone now, and I miss them so much. It’s strange and lonely. I crave the accents and the stories and the food and the laughter. But they gave me valuable things, the herring and the stones. Kurat! Laugh off a calamity. Some things just are. By learning about that place, about the things that made them who they were, they don’t seem quite as far away.

Especially the jokes — remind me to tell you the one about the potholders, sometime.

snippy-snappy lizard earrings

To fill space as this shiny new blog is telling me to write something, and because I figure everyone’s gonna want to know eventually: sagrei is the name of a type of lizard, the Brown or Cuban Anole, which runs rampant in my hereabouts.

As kids we’d catch them, of course, because when there’s tempting little animals that can’t poison or injure you running around, you’re going to want to get your hands on them. We’d try (and inevitably fail) to keep them as pets, constructing uselessly elaborate little habitats inside buckets and boxes. A lizard needs more than that.

The best thing, though, because it was the most ridiculous, was to wear them as earrings. They’re feisty critters, and a few gentle taps to the nose will generally get them to open their mouths, ready to fight back. So we’d do that, and then offer them up some tasty earlobes to clamp down on – which they, of course, would, and then refuse to let go. They’d stay a good ten minutes before boredom or gravity (or both) got the better of them, and then they’d finally let go.

So I learned, outside in back yards and front yards and alleys, how to be, if not an anole whisperer, then at least an anole charmer. How to pick them up safely, how to hypnotize them, the visual determinations of age and sex, how to warm them when they’re cold, why they turn colors and what it means, how to keep them from dropping their tails – and while it’s an old superstition that a lizard will feel pain from its dropped tail until you bury it, I still will bury the things, because autotomy is a respectable evolutionary quirk, and because I like to drop tales around too (har!), and besides, some rituals you just have to keep. Too, speaking of evolution, they caused quite a stir with some lizard-quick natural selection.

I find them inside the house and let them out, which is hardly uncommon here; the Repeating Anole Bogey is most often in the kitchen, though the last one was the bathroom, and one time I got a gecko on the stove instead. I photograph them when I can (the header, assuming it’s still the anole, is one of mine) because they are lovely little things in their own way, with shiny inkdrop eyes and an awareness I respect in an animal so small.

I joke that they’re my spirit animal, and that someday I’ll upgrade to alligator. But they fit, in a way; they’re familiar to me, and I know them, and I love what they are.

That, and I totally still hang them from my ears when I get the chance.