I don’t mind admitting that I’m not a hero, because most people aren’t. But it’s with some shame I confess that I’m rarely ever a gentleman, and generally avoid getting involved with the dilemmas of strangers unless there’s a 95% chance that I won’t embarrass myself or make the situation worse. In college in Illinois, I came out of a bar one night and saw a young plowbilly lying on his back in the middle of the highway, hands peacefully folded across his stomach. Taking into account the possibility that he was owing up to some lost wager, or perhaps performing some delinquent gesture of rebellion, or prospecting a response from some unseen girlfriend, not to mention his potential affront at being looked after by a scrawny college kid who’d never killed a deer, fired a gun, or bucked a bale of hay—taking all this into account I left him there without a query, and whether he got off that road or was ground to a pulp by the wheels of some highway mastodon, I couldn’t say, and have not thought about until now.
I was sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in Seattle when a bee bumbled in through the open jingle door and began to make everyone uncomfortable.
The bee was not happy with its situation. There was no curious perambulation to its flight, no capricious honeysuckle hovering. It had flown into enclosure and its wings were crazed with fright and confusion. Dazed in the dim brown tones of that caffeinated chat-hole, it zipped and zagged and ripped to shreds the slurping idyll, buzzed the head of the pig-tailed barista, circled the shoulders of the geezers playing chess, split the faces of the two high-school girls speaking a gibberish I used to know. It went berserk in mind-blowing flight patterns, turned tricks in the air that would’ve made a Blue Angel blush, and rammed its brains against the big God-light window before losing its little mind and settling hopeless in its torment on the bare white shoulder of the woman sitting next to me.
The woman must’ve been allergic or phobic, or else terribly unequipped to handle life’s little horrors, for as soon as she felt the bee she snapped her head to her shoulder and became clinically paraplegic with terror. She was married, and until then had been sitting with her husband quietly decoding the middle distance. They were the kind of couple that looked long accustomed to coming into public places and finding a hundred other things to think about besides each other. In the ten minutes since they’d taken a seat neither had spoken a word, and only occasionally did they glance at each other. I’d noticed them partly because they were the only ones who’d yet to notice the bee, but mainly because this was a coffee shop and I was a bachelor, a combination that generally involves the latter clandestinely inspecting couples and mentally remarking on them.
About the husband there is nothing much to say. He was a handsome young man who, in the fashion of young suburban husbands, provided only the dullest and most uneventful impressions. He wore a purple Huskies sweatshirt, a pair of pleated Dockers, and sat half-smirking into the steam of his espresso as though each ascending vapor were showing him an episode from Spring Break junior year. The wife, in her turn, had stumbled straight out of an Edward Hopper painting: young, bored, and imbued with a sad-eyed abstraction in which no longing seemed lacking. She wore a low-cut cotton blouse that displayed her shoulders and breast tops, and her hair was gold and streaked with auburn highlights. She was the personification of People in the Sun, and of course I had fallen in love with her and was busy ruminating on what lengths of inattention and insensitivity I had to aspire to to win a woman like her.
She sat stock-still, will paralyzed, as though caught in a dream as the bee staggered across her shoulder in a one-bee rendition of the Bataan death march. With any imagination one could have seen the grandiloquent desperation on its face and heard the sad war-movie soundtrack adding depth to the performance. It had made up its mind that all was lost and dragged itself defeatedly along the strange warm-shoulder wasteland, full of dreams of happier times, locked, perhaps, in some Peyton Farquhar reverie.
At last it reached the chain of her necklace. There it stopped and spread its wings in a motion that could have meant anything but to the woman must’ve meant something like From hell’s heart I stab at thee, for in a twinkling she burst into tears and moaned for her husband.
The husband shook his daydream as slowly as a cow coming out of a concussion. I counted. It took him five Mississippis to scrape his disjointed wits together. Then his eyes narrowed, and he saw the bee. He made no sudden movements. He made no movements, in fact, that were any different from those he would have made if there hadn’t been a bee on the neck of his wife.
He simply shook his head, sipped his espresso, cleaned the froth from his upper lip with the aid of his lower, set the cup down, sighed just hard enough to swirl the steam between their faces, stood up, walked around the table, gripped his wife firmly by the elbow, and said:
“Anne. You’re being fucking stupid.”
This settled the woman impressively. And it calmed everybody else too. The husband took a napkin off the table and pressed it firmly to her neck, then stood there until the bee climbed on like a tuckered little alien boarding his transport home. The shop was rapt with the drama. The geezers, the barista, the twittery girls—nobody moved and everyone stared. Casually, in one fluid feat of downplay, the husband cupped his hand around the napkin, ushered the bee outside, released it into the sunny Seattle day like an injured pigeon he’d nursed to health, and returned properly blasé to his wife, who by now had regained her composure but was quietly seething with mortification.
And that was it; the tame, cold end of it. The tense air of anticipation receded and the little interior regained its form. In time we all returned to our own thoughts and discourses, and after a little more time the couple got up and left. And even for one accustomed to this conclusion, it still stung to watch them walk out together, another him and her together, and to find myself once more counteracting through craft, forming the first lines of this breathy riposte, as if a bit of authorship was any substitute for what he had.