One summer, my uncle Dewey Henderson, a big preacher man out of West Plains, endeavored to save our souls. Three hundred pounds of self-righteousness and twitchy Elvis lip, my mother’s brother arrived in a finned-out Cadillac, made himself to home under our roof, ate large quantities of our food, and devoted his evenings to revival meetings throughout Northern Indiana.
We sat front row and leaned into his sermons. He railed against fornicators, adulterers, and drunks. Bone into flesh, he derided the idea of monkeys becoming men. False idols and golden calves, he scoffed at the Pope on his throne. At evening’s end, his Bible held high, the sweltering tent ripe with the stench of fire and brimstone, he made his Invitation, calling the sinners and backsliders forth, imploring us to believe and be saved.
Despite his pleas, my parents and I sat tight in our uncomfortable metal chairs, as if sin and damnation were beyond our ken.
But earlier that summer, I’d seen my mother kiss another man behind the Top Value Stamp store where she worked, redeeming little yellow stamps for clocks, lamps, and other household items. No friendly peck, this kiss was like a thirsty woman drinking from a mountain spring.
Most nights, after dinner, my father slipped out back with his Seagram’s and Seven, fighting mosquitoes and listening to his St. Louis Cardinals through the KMOX static. When I arrived home late, I’d find him—mouth open, mosquitoes buzzing. I’d nudge a shoulder into his armpit, and walk him inside.
Was the Wenger girl kept me late. While her mom packed vitamins second shift at Miles and her dad roofed RVs at Nomad, we lay naked and damp on their sofa, our legs entwined, our teenage hearts bursting with certainty—we are the only ones.
Believe and be saved, my uncle implored from the pulpit.
My mother fanned with her folded program.
My father ran a wire from his transistor radio up his sleeve.
I lay a songbook across my lap, hiding an erection borne of that Wenger girl.
But the sinners—blackguards, dancers, on-the-sly gamblers, and those greedy in the World—lay down in cool waters. They emerged dripping and clean, gasping and ecstatic. Washed in the Blood and Saved in the Lord.
A lawyer by background, Gary V. Powell currently spends most of his time writing fiction and wrangling a 12-year old son. His stories have appeared at Pithead Chapel, Newport Review, Fiction Southeast, Carvezine, and other online and print publications. In addition, several of his stories have placed or been selected as finalists in national contests. Most recently, his story "Super Nova" received an Honorable Mention in the Press 53 2012 Awards. His first novel, Lucky Bastard, is currently available through Main Street Rag Press.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I’ve long had memories of attending tent revival meetings. Notwithstanding the preachers’ conviction to the contrary, most of the folks were far from evil, troubled being more like it.
In a photograph of my grandfather
he’s flinging his arms wide open,
he’s grinning like there’s never been any moment
better than this,
like he’s been waiting his whole life
for his skin to thin
and his veins to rise
and his strict buzz cut to turn gravel-grey,
for his soldier’s shoulders to narrow
under his smooth golf shirt,
for his wrists to turn fragile
under his gold watch.
He’s grinning like his daughters
were never late for dinner,
like his wife
didn’t vote for Roosevelt,
like he’s her first
and only love,
like his family,
his whole world, is wound
as precisely as his desk clock.
He’s grinning like he’s got only
one war story to tell –
the day he saved the
Roman temple from bombing –
like that’s why he got his silver
star, like he
never stormed a bloody
beach in a slow
boat under fire, like
he never ducked along a low
stone wall while the men beside
him fell, like he never
ran on without
so much as a pause to
glance down or speak
like he never
watched bomber after bomber
crash on the runway,
gas gone, landing
strip clogging with
fire and debris and
like bombs from
the open doors.
like he woke up, this morning,
in this low, flat-roofed house
by a golf course hung with Spanish moss
in a state with no income tax,
strolled out his patio door,
played the game of his life,
hit a hole-in-one,
came home through the sunny morning,
and here we were in the living room,
with his terrier dog, with his avocado sandwich, on time.
He’s grinning like he won’t forget this,
like his lungs won’t close
and his heart won’t skip
and his eyes won’t gum
and his dog won’t die,
like this day will go around and around
like a minute hand
and he’ll keep flinging open his arms
Claire Hermann’s work has been published in journals such as Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Caesura, EarthSpeak, and Southern Women’s Review, and is forthcoming in The Wayfarer. When she isn’t writing poetry on her porch in the woods outside Pittsboro, NC, she coordinates communications at a local nonprofit.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: The gaps between histories—personal, family national—and the stories we choose to tell about them are often places that spark poems for me. I read this one in public for the first time two weeks before my grandfather passed away. The light-damaged, off-center photo that inspired it earned a ticket out of a trash pile and into a frame.
Early this May morning, a hornet buzzed around my head and became tangled in my hair while I sprayed insecticide on a rosebush behind my house. I swatted the hornet away and ran from it. But concerned about the bug holes in my rose leaves, I went back to resume my spraying, my hair now twisted and pinned up in a chignon.
As soon as I aimed the spray nozzle, the hornet reappeared and made a swoop at the nape of my neck. I thought it had flown down my T-shirt. I ran to find my husband, who inspected my back and found nothing, but I couldn't take a chance. I went inside his workshop, ripped off my shirt, and shook it. No hornet flew out.
I am afraid of bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets—all the stinging insects that seem to inundate our area of western North Carolina.
Last September, my husband stood near a hummingbird feeder that hung from a maple tree limb in our front yard. A large hornet was chasing away the hummingbirds that were trying to drink nectar. When my husband stepped too close, the hornet made a beeline for his right arm. I stood on our front porch and saw him swat at his wrist.
This was not good. A couple of years earlier on an August evening, he'd been mowing grass around the perimeter of our vegetable garden when his lawn mower ran over a yellow jackets’ nest. In a few seconds, he'd been stung several times on his arms and chest. He shrugged off the stings, planning to continue mowing. But I noticed that a sting on his chest looked oddly red and more swollen than the others. I told him to come into our house, where I gave him two Benadryl tablets. Soon I saw puffiness under his eyes, swelling in his upper lip, and red blotches on his chest.
“I think we need to take you to the emergency room,” I said.
Surprisingly, he didn't argue, and as we raced the twenty-minute drive to the hospital, his eyes continued swelling almost shut, and he complained that he couldn't breathe.
At the entrance to the emergency room, an orderly came out to my Jeep. I told him our situation, and a wheelchair was rushed to the passenger door.
Once he was rolled inside into an examining room, a nurse started an IV of fluids, injected him with epinephrine, and followed up with a corticosteroid shot. For an hour, she monitored his oxygen level, blood pressure, and pulse. An attending physician checked him periodically until his swelling and hives were gone and his vital signs normal.
“Try not to get stung, even by a honeybee,” the physician warned and prescribed an Epi-Pen, a self-injectable dose of epinephrine to use in the event of a sting.
But we knew we lived in an insect war zone. With thirty acres of mostly untamed property and duties of mowing, brush cutting, and outbuilding maintenance, my husband stood a good chance, indeed, of another bee sting.
I didn't expect it, though, in our front yard at a hummingbird feeder. Last September when I saw him swat at the hornet, I ran and grasped his arm.
“Did it sting you?” I asked, inspecting his wrist. I detected a tiny red pin prick on the edge of his wrist bone.
“I think it just glanced off me,” he said. I didn't see a stinger and hoped, too, we'd dodged the bullet this time.
“Come in the house,” I said, a little uneasy as I remembered the doctor's warning. “Where's your Epi-Pen? Maybe you better use it anyway.”
I found his Epi-Pen in his bathroom and stood at the kitchen table reading the patient directions.
When I went back into the living room, I found him lying on the couch under the spinning overhead fan.
“Why are you lying down?” I asked. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” I noticed a slight puffiness under his eyes. His upper lip didn't seem swollen. “You better use your Epi-Pen,” I said and handed it to him.
He said the medicine looked cloudy and might be expired. He felt okay, he said, just nervous. He didn't seem okay, though, not quite lucid.
He looked pale, and I felt his forehead. His skin was cool and clammy, little beads of sweat forming on his brow.
When I noticed his odd swallowing—little short, quick gulps—I panicked and said, “I'm calling EMS.”
Why had I waited so long? I would never be able to drive him to the hospital in time.
By the time I reached the telephone to dial 9-1-1, I heard him vomiting in the bathroom.
On the line the dispatcher asked, “Are you with him? Is he breathing?”
“He's throwing up. He's having an allergic reaction.”
Soon the ambulance arrived and rushed him to the emergency room, where again he was treated, monitored closely, and released. The next day he refilled his Epi-Pen prescription. I took a can of wasp and hornet killer, doused the hummingbird feeder, and took it down for good. I knew we had flowers to feed the hummingbirds that would come looking for nectar. The hornets, on the other hand, could find their food elsewhere.
Today is just the 26th of May, and the hornets are on the war path again.
Until my husband's recent bouts with sting allergies, I hadn't been paranoid about getting stung myself. Through the years, I have been stung by hornets and yellow jackets whose nests in azalea bushes or in grassy banks I've happened upon. With no reaction beyond pain, swelling, and itching, I've fared well. Our daughter has also been stung a few times in her thirteen years, but she, too, thank God, has handled stings well.
In my childhood, bee stings were a part of summer life, especially the summer of 1964. Late in the afternoon on the 5th of August, when I was eight, I joined the neighborhood kids on my block as we gathered at my friend Becky's house. We had formed a club and were conducting an initiation that required us to stand on our heads in Becky's sloping backyard. Despite the foam rollers my mother had placed in my hair and my general lack of agility, I attempted to balance on my head.
Immediately, I noticed stinging sensations on my head, neck, and arms. I dropped down, hurrying to get to my feet. By that time, yellow jackets were swarming me.
I started running, squealing, and swatting, and my friends trailed behind me. I managed to get through Becky's back door and into her kitchen where her mother, a nurse, dusted me off, inspected me, and picked yellow jackets out of my ears.
She sent me home to my parents. When my father saw my welts, he said we were going to the doctor's office. But before we left, my mother started filling the bathtub.
“She needs to take a bath before we go,” she said.
My father didn't think this was a good idea.
“She's too dirty to go to the doctor,” my mother insisted. “It won't take but a minute.”
And so I took a quick bath, and afterward my mother took out my hair rollers and brushed my waist-length hair, already curly on the ends.
Dr. Allen, our town's youngest and most attractive doctor, amiable and not prone to giving penicillin shots, greeted me with, “Hello, Blue Eyes. What happened to you?”
He didn't seem alarmed when I told him, just curious and a bit amused. He checked my stings and prescribed a salve.
This incident didn't stop me from playing in Becky's yard or from doing anything I'd always done. For the rest of that summer and in the summers to come, I trod barefoot through clover-filled grass, alive with honeybees. Occasionally I stepped on one, its stinger left in my foot. Sometimes my foot swelled so large it wouldn't fit into a shoe, a flip-flop barely sliding on. But immediately after the stinger was pulled out, some woman—family member or neighbor—would stick her forefinger under her bottom lip and scoop out a daub of dark, wet snuff and pack it on the sting site. This poultice lessened the pain and inevitable itch. Such an antidote was readily available in those days, the popularity of snuff being what it was. So we didn't worry about getting stung.
Time changes things, though.
Twenty years ago, my mother telephoned one morning.
“I got bee stung,” she said.
“Where?” I asked, and she knew I meant Where did this happen?
“Up in the ditch behind the house where I was pulling weeds,” she said. “I must've got in a nest of yellow jackets.”
“How many times did you get stung?”
“I don't know.”
I told her I'd be right there. When I arrived at her house eight minutes later, I looked at her arms, neck, and chest, and said, “I'm taking you to the hospital.”
My reaction was influenced by her cousin's recent bee sting—a single one—that landed her in the hospital.
“I'd never had an allergic reaction before,” she'd told my mother and me.
At the emergency room, the attending physician, a large man who resembled Wilford Brimley and wore cowboy boots, concluded that my mother had received thirteen stings. She was given an injection of diphenhydramine and allowed to rest on a bed in a curtain-covered cubicle.
“You were right to bring her in,” the doctor told me. “You never know how somebody might react to a bee sting. A mother's too important to lose.”
Afterward, I took her home with me, where she slept—as the doctor said she might—the rest of the afternoon.
After that day, I began to worry a little more about what might happen after a bee sting. Why I didn't have a strong allergic reaction to my stings in 1964? I don't know any more than why my mother's thirteen stings didn't faze her body very much.
Prior to that August day when my husband ran over the yellow jackets’ nest at our garden, he had experienced a lifetime of bee stings. I witnessed one such time: in the 1980s, he and our collie Laddie trudged into a yellow jackets’ nest on a kudzu-covered bank behind our house. When the yellow jackets started swarming, he and Laddie tumbled off the bank in a tangle of man and dog, Laddie yelping the entire time. But my husband suffered no more than a little discomfort from the fall.
And yet that August evening three years ago changed everything.
Anaphylaxis is a medical term recently added to my vocabulary, a word I'd never heard, a reaction I'd only vaguely feared.
My father, a World War II Merchant Marine, disregarded bees, hornets, or wasps until they imposed upon him. Many times I've seen him clap a pestering wasp between his palms, with no ill effect to his hands, and then wipe the wasp's remains on his pants legs. One summer day when I was a teenager, though, he and I discovered a giant hornet's nest hidden in an apple tree in the side yard. No sooner than we turned to get away from the nest, a hornet dive-bombed into his hand. His hand swelled grotesquely, but he didn't complain. Years before, he had been worried for me, his eight-year-old daughter who was stung by yellow jackets, but he was never concerned for himself.
In those days, none of us worried much about getting stung.
But today, as I work outside pulling weeds from flower beds or, as this morning, spraying my rosebushes, I am vigilant. If I feel the slightest prickly sensation in my pants leg or under my shirt, I run inside and check to see if something has stung me. I even worry about a tiny sweat bee that lights on my arm.
My husband tells me that a new strain of killer bees is making its way through the South. As far as I know, these bees have not yet arrived in western North Carolina.
But I will be watching for them.
Julia Nunnally Duncan is an award-winning poet and fiction writer whose published books include two novels, two short story collections, and two poetry collections. A new poetry collection Barefoot in the Snow is scheduled for a spring 2013 release by World Audience Publishers. Duncan is currently featured in an interview in Southern Literary Review that explores her new poetry book and her life as a poet. She was educated at Warren Wilson College, where she earned a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing. She teaches English and Southern Culture at McDowell Technical Community College in Marion, N.C.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at being reminded how many times bee stings had actually impacted my life and that of my family. I found myself more paranoid about being stung, especially during the composition of this essay.
Her first boyfriend had made a Pikachu sculpture for her out of modeling clay. It was one of his talents. All over the boy’s room were models, the size of children’s action figures, made out of clay. Blank human forms in Crayola “tumbleweed” were laid out like gingerbread men on shelves, on tables, and inside his closet. They wore schoolgirl outfits and tuxedos, sundresses and tunics, and more than a fair share of them were dressed like Alice. He had a dozen Alices in puffy blue dresses and white lace made from clay. Something was wrong with all of them, he said. The first one’s proportions were off. The sixth one’s dress had come out the wrong shade of blue.
She thought he could make money off of them, that he could create figurines of characters and sell them over the Internet to fans. Say you wanted Spiderman or Batman but didn’t want to pay the comic shop’s high prices? The quality was there. But they were too soft, he said. They wouldn’t survive shipping. He didn’t like the sort of clay you bake in the oven. The soft kind could be manipulated again and again. It never dried out, never stuck, never stayed. But that made them unsellable.
The Pikachu he made her was actually a twin. The original was slightly off-color, he told her while she watched. He started over so that he could get it just right. And it was just right. The sunshine yellow body, the cherry cheeks, the lightning bolt tail with a tuft of brown at its base—the whole thing was smooth, devoid of the lumps and fingerprints she couldn’t seem to get rid of whenever she tried it herself. She carried the Pikachu home in a Tupperware container stuffed with Kleenex.
Soon, it collected dust on top of her desk, but she didn’t know what to do with it. So she left it alone, next to her textbooks, and watched over the course of a year as the bright yellow diminished from little grains of grey dust, as the fingerprints of girlfriends—she’d come to learn that she preferred girls—left smudges on the yellow body. But she still found it beautiful the way a good memory stays beautiful even after the person is gone.
One afternoon, cleaning her room, she found that a stack of books had crushed the clay sculpture, smeared Pikachu’s ears and arms all over a biochemistry textbook. She remembered the boyfriend then, remembered the way he’d taken the original sculpture, the one slightly more golden, more orange, than hers—how he’d thrown it against a wall. The toothpick sunk for structure in the tail had snapped and unburrowed itself from the clay. His fingers—soft and small and so much more delicate than hers—when he’d shown her how to do it for the first time, his fingers took on the yellow, red, brown, and black hues until they were smooth, slick as wet mud. He could massage two colors together until they became one, could run his fingers over arms and legs and spine until everything was smooth and electric and yellow. But he’d said he wasn’t done, that this one wasn’t good enough, that he’d start again for her until it was perfect. And it had been perfect. For a month, maybe more, it had been perfect, and then he’d learned about her, about her and her, and the first Pikachu had hit the wall.
Finding the second wrecked, she wanted to cry, but her girlfriend was there, and so she said that it was no big deal, just soft clay. She could always reshape it.
Alison Barone is an undergraduate student of creative writing at the University of Central Florida. She is interested in the fields of fiction and poetry, with a focus on LGBT and gender issues. “Soft Clay” is her first published story.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: The inspiration for this piece actually came from a writing exercise for class. The assignment was to choose something that you care for deeply, and then imagine its destruction. I have these little clay figures sitting on my desk at home, and thinking about them being destroyed made me feel terrible. I knew that writing about them was the only thing that would feel authentic.