The Common Clay, Salt of the Earth
Anything that should be good can be rotted by worms from the inside out, like Waxworms in a beehive.
Homer and Ev were a couple in their seventies. They lived in Genoa and were the ones who first introduced them to beekeeping. Frank had heard that beekeepers were always looking for property on which to leave a few hives. In return for being allowed to keep their bees on someone’s land, the beekeepers paid “Honey Rent”: After the harvest they’d give the landowner several pounds of honey. Sounded good to him, so shortly after they had bought their rural home, Frank had contacted a local beekeeper; “Homer”.
He stopped over one day and introduced himself to them. A recently retired State Highway Department foreman, he told them he kept forty hives. He took a walking tour of their land, scouting for the best place to put four of them. As he did, he kept up a running account of everyone he knew in the area, which seemed to be everyone. Near the garden he found a location he said was the most suitable: It had a sunny exposure to the south and protection from the north wind, and he could drive his truck in to the site.
That was the first alarm that went off in Frank. He didn’t particularly want someone driving their truck over his lawn and through his apple trees. But, he figured the ten pounds of honey Homer offered as rent was worth a little irritation. He looked the little man up and down. Bald as a billiard ball, he looked for all the world like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Yoda.
Melissa was intrigued from the start with the bees, seeing them as beings of incredible complexity. They fascinated her, and she began spending time whenever Homer came to work the hives, which was once a month or so, trying to learn what she could. Homer, however, was not only a bad teacher, he was absent-minded and a flaming misogynist to boot.
His wife Ev, who looked like someone’s idealized dotty, sweet aunt in a crewcut of white hair, was only drafted to his service when there was no one else to help with the hives. He treated her awfully, like a stupid child; barking orders, snapping at her when she didn’t move fast enough. It was a marvel that she put up with it so seemingly sweetly. He wouldn’t let her drive, saying she was too dangerous on the road.
Yet it was Homer who was the road hazard. He always wanted to show Frank and Mel someone somewhere, and insisted they ride with him rather than take their own vehicle. They rapidly found out they took their lives in their hands if they agreed.
Homer was what some refer to as a “People Person”; he collected acquaintances the way some collect butterflies or stamps. His home territory was about twenty five miles square, and he prided himself on knowing everything about everybody in that area. And he liked to show off that knowledge. That took two forms: he told Frank and Mel all about the people he knew, and he wanted to show them off to all the other people he knew. With Homer one played two roles; that of an audience being shown the collection of people he owned, and being part of the collection to be shown to someone else.
To do that, he used any ploy he could think of to get them in his truck. Once that door closed and the engine was started, they were his prisoners. He never watched the road; he watched the houses he passed, honking his horn in salutation or pulling into the yard if he saw someone out and about. When he passed a place, he craned his head to continue seeing it long after the truck had moved on. Consequently he was always swerving into the oncoming lane, or heading for the ditch. He never wore a seat belt either. If you got in his truck you could demand to be returned, but to no avail; so long as you wished to remain civil you were captive for at least two hours.
He thought nothing of simply pulling into their driveway with some other poor captive soul in tow. He’d lay on the horn and bellow at the top of his lungs till one of them came out.
“I’m gonna show ‘em yer garden.” He’d announce after introducing his latest acquisition, who would smile apologetically, painfully.
He and Ev would then march right past them and start the tour. After it was over, they were expected to stand and chat with him for another hour or more, until either the captive begged to be released, Homer announced they were off on the next stop of his itinerary, or Frank finally made it clear they had work to do that could not be put off any longer.
Mel never liked her picture taken, which almost led to open hostilities the day Homer and Ev arrived unannounced, as always, with a New York City Gynecologist and her amateur photographer boyfriend on a leash. The woman was Frank’s age and a shapeless mass of flesh and upper class arrogance. She quickly pointed out that they only summered here; they lived in Manhattan and wintered in Puerto Rico where she had an estate. Her amour was a tall, stoop shouldered man with a goofy smile and one eye that perused the right side of the scene while his left looked ahead.
“Gaw head. Let em take yer pitcher. I ain’t got a pitcher of ya.” Homer told Mel. Frank could see her stiffen instantly. To her that sounded like being a butterfly pinned on a board to be perused by any and all.
“I don’t like to be photographed.” she told him clearly. Frank noticed the wall-eyed fellow unlimbering his camera.
“Stand over here. Over here. C’mon. Ya can take her pitcher here.”
“Homer, I don’t want my picture taken.” Frank watched her start to bristle. He continued to ignore her, intent on his trophy. The photographer got in position.
“Homer.” Something about Frank’s voice stopped him. “Don’t push. She said she don’t want her picture taken. And she means it. No. You want a picture? Take mine instead.”
That compromise placated him and the photographer took a not very pleasant looking shot of Frank to appease Homer and they hurriedly left. Last they ever saw of the eminent gynecologist and her paramour.
Homer was the type of chauvinist rarely seen in the light of day any more. He refused to not only cook food, but he wouldn’t even serve himself.
“I’ll have Rice Crispies this morning.” he’d announce after seating himself at the table for breakfast. And Ev would set the bowl of cereal down in front of him and pour the milk on for him. He had never even made a sandwich for himself. Once she had asked him to keep an eye on some peas she was simmering in milk, one of his favorites, because she had to do something else for a few minutes. Naturally he didn’t. When she got back the milk had burned and he chastised her for stinking up the house. He claimed he couldn’t stand the smell of any food cooking, never mind burning, so she’d have to air the house out before he came in for a meal.
Whenever he went to the doctor’s, Ev accompanied him in to the exam room. It wasn’t that Homer was nervous; he simply did not want to be bothered understanding and remembering what the doctor told him. Ev did that, and she took care of all his prescriptions too, laying them out every day for him to take. The only time she didn’t accompany him in was when he had a tick fasten itself on the head of his penis. She refused to even look at it. Instead she took him to the emergency room and had them remove it.
Ev had no interests of her own, and read nothing but the Reader’s Digest and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, in whose forecasts she had unshakeable faith despite all the evidence to the contrary. Her life appeared to revolve around house cleaning, mowing their lawn, and waiting on Homer. When they weren’t doing one of those, they sat on their porch and watched the traffic, commenting on who passed by. They not only had separate beds, they had separate bedrooms.
Homer snored, and Ev couldn’t sleep. She complained to Mel that right after dinner dishes, she’d sit down to watch TV and fall asleep instantly. When she woke up it was time for bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Mel suggested she alter her routine and not sit down in front of the TV after dinner. That was like talking to a fencepost.
Melissa gave up trying to talk to her on the phone. Ev never actually listened to what Mel was saying, though she kept repeating “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” over and over as Mel talked. As soon as she paused, Ev would launch into a comparison between Comet and Bon Ami.
“Uh huh. Here’s Homer.” She’d say at other times as soon as she found out who called.
“No. Wait, Ev, don’t bother him!”
“Oh, it’s alright. He don’t mind.” Paying no heed to Mel, she’d reach into the bathroom and hand the phone to him while he was in the tub. Or she’d drop the phone in his lap when he was fast asleep in front of the TV with the volume cranked. Or give it to him while he was running the chainsaw, or on the tractor mowing. Those were no conversations, just brief shouting matches.
Sometimes they just didn’t know what to say to her. Like the time she and Homer had stopped over, and out of the blue she told them that there had been little baby spiders everywhere they went that day.
“What does that mean?” she earnestly enquired with vacant blue eyes.
One day Homer set Mel up. He wheedled her to come over to a Church Rummage sale. When she got there, she was surprised to have him herd her toward the church, then yell loudly out to his friends, who were gathered in a knot outside. When they all turned toward him, he reached up and put his arm over Mel’s shoulder with a smirk, that said to one and all “See the pretty babe I’m with? Not bad, eh?” Mel was furious at him, all the more so because she saw Ev’s head and shoulders slump, drooping from shame and embarrassment. She shook his arm off roughly.
Yet, for all of it, Ev and he were firmly a couple. They liked to go out to eat often, especially where it was cheap. Homer didn’t really like what Ev cooked anyway and Ev was glad to not to have to cook. It made Frank wonder if she cooked like she did on purpose. They both also enjoyed going to stores. And on sunny winter days, they could often be seen at mid day napping in their car parked in their driveway.
Homer hung out with the Breyers brothers most of the day. They owned the largest apiary in the area, having over 2,000 hives at their peak before the Varroa Mites and Hive Collapse decimated their bees. Now they had around 800 to 1,000 hives each year, but by the end of each winter roughly two thirds of them would be dead.
So each spring they’d have to purchase new bees; an expensive proposition, especially when the honey you did get from the surviving hives was down 50 to75 percent. Not a profitable time to be a beekeeper any more. Though the Breyers thought him an idiot, they tolerated him, mainly because he donated his time helping them with their hives in exchange for having them process his honey with their equipment.
Homer himself used to hire people to work his bees with him. Nobody would work with him for long; he was an obnoxious, overbearing boss. He liked to hire someone he felt was beneath him, like a woman or someone whose family was on Welfare. Especially some one on Welfare, because Homer was as far right as Attila the Hun and was forever decrying the “NannyState”.
When he succeeded in driving off such workers, he felt vindicated in calling them worthless parasites who would rather sit on their asses than work for their own bread. Of course, Jesus Christ Himself would probably have quit on Homer after dropping him with a left hook.
Frank grew to hate it when Homer would show up to work the bees. Without a greeting, he’d drive his truck down to the bees and start mowing the beeyard. When he was done, he’d stop at the house, lay on the horn and bellow “Anybody home?!!” as loud as he could, over and over until Frank or Mel appeared. Then he’d want to talk for an hour or two. It never occurred to him that they were working and couldn’t just stop to listen to him forget the story he was telling or the punchline to his jokes, or gossip about anyone and everyone in a caviling, condemning way, or rail against “them liberals!”.
Ev would stand there smiling mindlessly and saying nothing except an occasional “Uh-huh.”, or would prod him if his brain got stuck in a rut and he couldn’t remember a name or a punchline.
Eventually, Melissa became a beekeeper herself, and the little beeyard that Homer had picked out no longer could contain all the hives. So Frank found another plot, further from the house and gardens and poured slabs for hives there. Homer, however did not like this location because there was no room for him to turn his truck around. He’d either have to back all the way in or all the way out. This taxed his skills too much, so he removed his hives in the fall of 2001 and never brought them back. Frank was rather pleased with himself.
Homer and Ev were Congregationalists, and their church adjoined their property. Homer used to cut the church’s lawn and maintained the little cemetery for them free of charge. Both he and Ev had picked out plots there. On one visit, Ev insisted on taking Frank and Mel up to the cemetery and showing them where they’d be buried.
“Isn’t it a pretty view to have after you’re dead?” she asked them, looking over the vista with a vacuous gaze. Frank had stared at her. He felt like mentioning the fact that a.) She’d be dead and hence not likely to be enjoying the view, and b.) She was going to be six feet below this view. He decided that was unkind and said yes, it was.
On the church property was an old run-down farmhouse that Homer wanted to get recognized as a national historical site because the Underground Railroad used it as a stop over. A falling out occurred when a new Pastor arrived and got the congregation to vote to have the old house torn down and a hospice built on the site. Homer was furious not to get his way and shook the dust from his shoes, saying he’d never darken the church door again, “And oh, by the way; find someone else to mow your Goddamn lawn!”
As they knew it would, the word reached Homer and Ev after the proverbial excrement hit the fan for them and they lost their vehicle and couldn’t find work. Their consequent behavior then ruptured what little friendship Mel and Frank may have had left for them.
These good Christians lorded it over them subtly, and not so subtly. At first they tried to pay them a little money for things; like when Homer asked them if they’d set up their equipment and extract two frames of honey for a friend of his who’d just gotten into beekeeping. It was a pain in the ass and a mess at that time of year to drag everything out, but they did it as a favor.
When Homer came by to pick it up, he offered Mel seven dollars. She told him, like Frank had done before, that you don’t charge friends for favors: “No”. He wouldn’t take “No” for an answer though. He kept offering it, even fanning the singles out before Mel’s eyes, and counting them out slowly, like waving food before a starving man.
“See? One. Two. Three…See? All consecutive bills? Four...”
She snatched the bills out of his hands, raised up the top hive in his truck, dropped the bills on the honey smeared bottom hive, and then dropped the top one on top of them.
“There. I said no. I meant no.”
Homer sagged, twisting his mouth sourly, staring at his pretty, consecutive singles stuck in the honey between the hives.
Ev was no better. Neither of them could get it through their heads that to be offered charity was excruciatingly painful to Mel and Frank. She took to trying to slip cash to Mel whenever they came over. When it was clear that Mel did not want any, she’d try to leave it somewhere. When Mel point blank told her they found that painful and wouldn’t accept anything like that, she began to try and give her gift cards instead. When that didn’t work, she gave her stamps.
What was so disturbing about it all was the undertone of smug superiority of both toward those whom they had decided were needy and hence below them; finally. Mel and Frank both decided that if this was Christian charity, they’d gladly do without a beneficence that comes at the price of the loss of your self-esteem.
Which was why when Frank heard what Mel was contemplating doing, he tried to warn her that it was a bad idea. Without a car, there had been no choice but to use a taxi to get groceries, no matter how distasteful it had been. But Melissa had chafed at having to spend forty dollars to make a supermarket run. She suggested to Frank that she take up an offer from Ev.
She had been constantly offering Melissa a ride to town to grocery shop. Mel argued that if she did as they had been doing these past years and bought six months’ worth of groceries, it would only be this once, or maybe two times a year and it would save them the taxi fare. He didn’t like it. He hated being beholden to anyone, no matter how broke they were: Especially when they took such self-righteous glee in it.
Ev was of course only too happy to agree, and set a time to pick Mel up on a Friday, at 9:00a.m. They arrived a little early, both Homer and Ev in their town clothes looking all scrubbed and pink.
They dropped Mel off late in the afternoon. Frank could tell by the frazzled look that she did not have a pleasant day.
“I was kidnapped!”
“I told you that was going to happen with Homer behind the wheel. What happened?”
“You wouldn’t believe it. First, we have to go to the bank they tell me. I think; ‘Okay. They’re doing me a favor, the least I can do is go along with their routine.’ They pull up to the Drive-Up window, and he yells into the mike, asking if somebody named ‘Susie’ or something is working.
He just wanted to say ‘Hi’ and chat. Everybody is staring at him. I wanted to shrink out of sight, I was so embarrassed.
Then, because I made the mistake of telling them I was looking for a CO2 monitor, Homer decides Walmarts is the best place to try, so I get dragged up there, and because I made the other mistake of saying I’d never been in Walmarts before, I get the grand tour of the place! Worse, they didn’t have a monitor, so Homer then decides Home Depot is the place to go, but first we have to stop at a Bakery up there.
We get in there and take a booth, and Homer tells the waitress what they’re having, and then tells her to bring me a ‘Bearpaw’ or something. I told him; ‘Homer, no thank you. I don’t eat those things, they upset me.’, but he insists! Now I’m getting mad: He’s trying to force me to eat something that’ll make me ill. So I tell him again, politely, but firmly. He orders it anyway!...I couldn’t eat it. I took a bite. It was disgusting. I just left it there.
I tried to get them to talk about their parents and grandparents. You know: Asking them where they came from, did their ancestors immigrate here? It was like I was talking to a wall. All Homer kept repeating was how he hates to see people with ‘dirty elbows’. We get up to leave, and he drops a two dollar bill down for a tip. He smirks and says he gets them from the bank just so he can leave them for a tip. No matter how much they order, he leaves that one bill.
At Home Depot, it was the same drill. Instead of going right to the aisle the clerk had told us the monitors were in, they had to go up and down every aisle, looking at everything! I just left them and got the monitor. I figured after we got out of there, that would be it, I’d be able to go home.
Noooooo. On the way, he suddenly pulls into the Saab dealership. I said; ‘Homer. Why are we going in here? I told Frank I’d be home hours ago.’ He said he knew a salesman here; they used to work together long, long ago. I couldn’t believe it. He pulls in near the door, honks the horn until someone comes out, tells them to send this guy out, and then we sit there for a half an hour while he ‘chats’ with this guy, who obviously didn’t want to ‘chat’, until he finally tells Homer he’s got to go, he’s got work to do.”
“I’ll bet you don’t do that again.”
“Not with him I won’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well...I think Ev knew I was upset. She kept asking me if I didn’t want a ride in again to do just some grocery shopping. She said it would only be her and I; Homer doesn’t like to grocery shop. I told her we only shop every six months, but she kept after me, saying she goes to town every Friday and she’d be glad to have some company, why don’t I come? No matter how often I tried to explain that this is the way we shop; every six months, she kept at it. Finally, I agreed. She’s going to pick me up Friday at nine.”
Ev was late. An ill omen. Mel left, telling Frank she’d be home for lunch.
“Don’t bet on it.” He thought as they pulled out of the driveway.
Lunchtime came and went. 1 o’clock came and went. 2 o’clock. Around 3 o’clock he heard a car pull in. One look at Mel was enough. She was steaming. She piled their groceries in a wheelbarrow, tensely and tersely thanked Ev, and headed for the house, pushing the heavy load.
“I’m sorry I’m so late. You would not believe what that was like! I was kidnapped again! It’s not just Homer who kidnaps you, she does it too! I get in the car, and we go to get her hair cut. She does that every month. What there is to cut, I don’t know. You’ve seen her; she has a crewcut! ”
“I believe it. Don’t worry about it. I figured you wouldn’t be home for lunch so I ate already. How about you? Have you eaten?”
“Yeah. That’s another story. She insisted I have lunch with her at a diner. I told her I didn’t want anything, but she insisted, so I just got some toast. She had a routine, like some machine. She orders the same thing each time, pancakes with a side of bacon on a separate plate. She doesn’t eat the bacon there. She pulls a zip-lock baggie and napkin out of her purse, blots the bacon, wraps it up, puts it in the baggie, and puts it in her purse.
And she goes up and down every aisle in the stores, looking at everything, reading every box. I asked her; ‘Ev? Are you looking for something?’ She said ‘No. I just like to look at all the things’! Can you believe it!? I had to go up and down every aisle in Walmarts AGAIN! You know she has a path she follows like a game trail? Even into the bathroom; she uses the same stall each time. Wonder how I know? She made sure I knew.
She goes to pick up her and Homer’s drugs at the pharmacy there. It’s like a Drive-Through. She calls in ahead of time and they’ve got it hung up with all the other prescriptions like clothes at a Dry Cleaner’s.
She grabs this sheet of paper listing all the generic forms of popular drugs that Wal-Mart’s carries and forces it on me, again, like she’s teaching me. I told her neither one of us has any prescription medication, and she looked at me blankly, like that was incomprehensible, or I’d fallen off another planet. Even the mohawked Kid behind the counter handing out the drugs looked at me as if I was taking money out of his mouth.
Every place she stopped, we had to see all of the aisles. Not buying; looking. That’s what they do! Both of them. They go to stores to walk around and look! They don’t buy anything! She was all excited because a new Tractor Supply store was supposed to be built in Genoa where the old Grand Union had been. I asked her if they liked to shop there. She said; ‘No, we just like to look.’! Then it was off to Aldi’s, you know, that super-cheap supermarket; everything no-frills and self-serve? Ev does all her grocery shopping either there or at Wal-Mart’s. If Homer is along, he sits in the car and watches people, then reports on them to Ev when she gets back.
She made me go in with her because I think she wanted to teach me the ropes; like the way everybody passes their shopping cart off to another person because otherwise you have to pay twenty five cents for a cart out of the rack, and how you have to bring your own bags or boxes. She kept showing me how cheap different things were. I kept telling her; ‘We don’t eat that, Ev. It doesn’t matter how cheap it is: We don’t eat that.’ Do you think it stopped her? Noooooo.
Then she drags me into a Dollar General store, and she has to go up and down every aisle there too! ‘Oooh! Look at this!’ and ‘Ooooh, look at that! Why don’t you get one of these?’ I’d tell her ‘Ev. I don’t need it. I don’t need anything here!’, but she never stops. I did see some bags of glass beads I thought might be good for that Go board we wanted to make, but then realized they were too close in color to each other. On a board you’d never be able to tell them apart. She says; ‘Why doncha buy them anyway? You can always return them.’ I told her ‘Ev; why would I buy something I know I don’t need? Just to return it?’
I thought I was finally on my way home after that. But she swung into the parking lot of that little Ice Cream Shop near there, and tried to talk me into getting an ice cream. Everybody I saw there was huge! Finally, she gave up.”
She paused for a minute, looking drained, then looked at him. “You know what music she had on in the car all the time? The whole time we were in that car? All day? Syrupy Christian Pop music! I was ready to sacrifice her to the Devil!”
“Gonna do that again?”
“Hell, no! I’d rather swallow a chair!”