The Bees and the Birds and a Snake
I had never paid much attention to Mad magazine, even when I noticed it on the shelves next to the comics in the local variety store, until Ted, a friend who lived across town, showed me an issue earlier in the year. I liked it so much that Ted loaned me a stack of back issues the next time we visited his family. I’d been spending most of the morning in my room, working on that stack, and was now reading the March 1961 issue, which had a horizontally split cover. Just under the year 1961, in the middle, a subtitle read: The First Upside-Down Year since 1881. When you flipped the magazine over, the year 1961 still showed, but with another subtitle just below it: The Last Upside-Down Year Until 6009. On both halves another text block read: No Matter How You Look At It—It’s Gonna Be A MAD Year
I set the magazine down, took a big bite out of a Milky Way bar, and gazed out the window. The summer was going by way too fast. It was already the middle of August, which meant I’d be starting my first year of junior high school soon. Even worse, most of my neighborhood friends were going to a different junior high because I lived on the opposite side of a border street from them. I turned my transistor radio to the top-forty station and listened to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but no matter what I did I still couldn’t shake the feeling that even more changes were going to happen to me soon and there was nothing I could do about it.
Meanwhile, my sister and her giggly friends started making a racket in the next-door bedroom. I reached for a pair of cheap cardboard sunglasses with red and blue plastic lenses from my nightstand. I got them free from a theater the week before when I watched the movie 13 Ghosts. By wearing those glasses everyone could see ghosts on the screen that the actors weren’t able to.
I put them on and stood in front of the mirror. They looked cool so I decided to walk over to Johnny’s house with them on. Plus, I liked the way things appeared through those red-blue lenses. Outside, a mother pushing a baby carriage with a little girl at her side approached me on the sidewalk. The girl pointed to me and laughed. I took the glasses off and put them in my pocket.
About halfway there, I stopped in front of Mary Jo’s house and watched bees going in and out of an opening in the corner of a long rockery. I’d known about that nest for a while, but there seemed to be a lot more of them going in and out this time. Johnny and Davie strolled toward me as I watched
“Hey Bert,” Johnny said. “We were going to the park. Wanna come along?”
“Sure. I was just looking at the bees nest.”
“Oh yeah, that one,” Johnny said. “One of them tried to sting me last week when I walked too close to it.”
“Let’s throw rocks at it!” Davie said
“I don’t know,” Johnny said. “Those look like yellow jackets to me.”
“We can stand behind the chestnut tree and do it,” I said, pointing back with my thumb.
Mary Jo came out of the house as we gathered rocks from the adjacent unpaved alley. She was one of the few girls our age in the neighborhood and often liked to play with us. Most of the time we let her tag along for a while, but usually ended up ditching her. She didn’t seem to mind and kept hanging around us anyway.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked.
“We’re going to throw rocks at the bees nest,” I answered.
“Ooh. Can I join?”
“Alright,” Johnny answered. “Just don’t get too close.”
Johnny stepped out from behind the tree and threw the first rock, which missed by a foot. I threw the next one, which landed closer, so I quickly dashed away. We peeked from behind the tree but no bees came out. Mary Jo tossed a rock and scampered back.
“This is exciting,” she said, as she wrapped her arm around mine.
Davie jumped out next, threw a rock, but missed badly. We each took another turn and missed.
“I’m gonna get closer,” Davie said.
He stepped out from behind the tree and threw a rock, which missed, and then took a few more steps toward it and threw another one.
“Got it!” he shouted. “Right in the mid…”
A blur of bees poured out of the nest and swarmed around him.
Davie screamed as he tried to swat the bees away. He ran madly up the street while flailing his arms. We jogged behind him.
“What do we do?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What can we do?”
Davie’s dad was washing his car in the driveway when his son ran screaming toward him. He knew what to do right away. As soon as Davie arrived, he trained the hose on the swarm, rescuing him from more harm. He guided the soaking wet and sobbing Davie into the house.
“See ya, Bert,” Johnny said. “I gotta see how Davie’s doing.”
“Wow, that was scary,” Mary Jo said. “Think he’ll be alright?”
“Oh yeah. He’ll be hurting for a while though.”
“Have you ever been stung?”
“Sure, lotsa times,” I said, even though it was only twice. “It swells up a little then goes away. No big deal.”
“I’ve never been stung,” she said, a little disappointedly. “The other girls never play that way.”
For a moment we stood there gazing at each other, which made me feel a little funny. She seemed to have grown lately because now she was almost as tall as me. The clasp around her pony-tailed hair looked fancier than the other ones I’d seen on her, and she had nice bracelets around her wrists. I hadn’t noticed her wearing those before. She wore a familiar looking colorful blouse, but now it seemed too small because there were puffy little protrusions underneath it around each side of her chest. I hadn’t noticed those before either.
“What do you want to do now, Bert?”
“I don’t know. We were going to the park.”
“I like it there. I wish the other girls wanted to go more often. Sometimes I just go by myself. Last week I went to this creepy-neat place called Kisser’s Cave and…”
“Huh? How do you know about Kisser’s Cave?”
“I just do,” she said, slyly. “Have you ever been there?”
“I know where it is,” I said, thinking about the time I went there with my friends the month before and saw a blanket inside that big old hollowed-out tree trunk. Steve told us that he once saw a high school boy and girl kissing in the hollowed-out part, “and doing other stuff,” as he watched them from a distance. Ever since then, we called it Kisser’s Cave.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the park?” she asked.
That funny feeling I had before when staring into her eyes now became stronger.
“Might as well,” I said, trying to appear nonchalant.
Once there, we walked along a meadow and stopped in front of a wooded area that dropped down into a ravine.
“Want to go down and see it?” I asked.
Just then, a bunch of noisy crows burst out of a nearby tree. We watched them fly to another tree, and then we headed down a rough trail that cut through some dense undergrowth. About halfway down the slope, we followed another small path that went across the hillside until we came upon the lower trunk of a large tree. The ground below the trunk had partially eroded away on the steep hillside, creating a hollow cave-like area. We crouched behind a bush and stared at it.
“Let’s go inside,” she said.
We stooped down into it and sat together on the blanket. The pungent, earthy aroma of rotting wood permeated the darkened enclosure.
“This is kind of neat,” she whispered,
“It’s like being in a tent,” I whispered back.
She moved a little closer so that our shoulders touched. “I could stay in here forever,” she said. “Or just spend the night. Not alone of course.”
“Not me. But it’s okay for now.”
“Shh, listen!” she said. “Did you hear that?”
A rapid, intermittent tapping in the distance stood out amongst the other sounds.
“That tapping sound,” she said.
“Sounds like a woodpecker.”
“I love listening to birds,” she said. “Can you name some of the others we hear?”
A familiar chatter of chirping and tweeting echoed throughout the area.
“Some of those are robins,” I said. “That’s all I know.”
“Sparrows and finches,” she said. “Let’s see if we can hear more.”
Soon, more cawing came from nearby.
“Crows!” we said in unison, with a laugh.
“Once, I came to the park just before it got dark,” she said, “and heard an owl.”
“Wow, I’ve never heard one of those around here. Sounds like you come here a lot.”
“Not a lot, but just sometimes. By myself.” She pressed closer to me. “It’s nice to be with someone here. Especially… with you.” She settled her head on my shoulder.
I gazed into the woods, unsure of what to say, or do, next, until I felt the peck of a kiss on my cheek. As I turned to her in surprise, she quickly kissed me again and pulled away with a smile
Now all the preconceived notions I had about girls in general, and Mary Jo in particular, had vanished. A new feeling began to stir in me. I leaned over and kissed her back. She embraced my shoulders and we kissed again. I returned her embrace and we slowly laid down on the blanket. Responding to some deep, vague instinct, I began to stroke different parts of her body: her arms and shoulders, and then the soft fleshy areas on her chest.
Voices from below in the park interrupted our frenzied petting. With a start, we sprung up, peered out of the cave and down into the ravine. A girl and boy, who looked to be of high school age, stood along the trail and chatted playfully with each other. They clasped each other’s hands and started climbing toward us. It wasn’t hard to guess where they were heading; in a few minutes they’d be at the cave.
We crawled out, trying to scramble up the slope around the trees and thick growth of shrubs without being seen. After we burst through the underbrush and reached the top, we walked along the meadow, breathless from the rapid climb. We faced each other a moment, torn and confused by all that just happened.
“I’ll see you later, I guess,” I said.
“Okay, and bye.”
We both turned and walked away in different directions toward our homes.
I crouched against the apple tree in my shady backyard sanctuary, with a Mad magazine on the ground next to me, watching a raccoon crawl along the top of a tall fence. I picked up a rock, slowly stood up, and threw it. The rock cracked loudly against the fence and the raccoon scampered up a tree, but stopped and stared back at me before disappearing into the branches.
I usually liked getting away from it all in this private little space, bordered by tall, wild shrubs and a rickety wooden fence, but I was still bummed out that all the fun I had in the summer had ended. I’d just started attending my first year of junior high school and hated it, mostly because I hardly knew anyone there. Moreover, I’d been having confusing feelings about a girl who sat next to me in class.
I stared at the nearby sandbox that I used to spend so much time playing in. Now weeds were growing in it and some of my old toys were half-covered in the sand. I tossed a few pebbles into the box, aiming for the shallow hole in the middle where I’d shoveled up a dead robin the day before. I’d buried it by a rosebush. Finally, I picked up the magazine and browsed through it again.
I chuckled at a spoof of Lassie, a TV series I used to watch on Saturday mornings. Except the magazine titled it Lizzie. Just then, Craig, Steve, Johnny, and Mary Jo bounded out of the house toward me. I wasn’t too surprised to see her with them, since she’d been hanging out with us a lot more lately. Once again I tried not to show my feelings for her, which I’d had since our time together in Kisser’s Cave. She gave me the faintest smile, but reverted to a casual demeanor when everyone stopped in front of me.
“We’re on our way to see Scott’s new pet,” Craig said. “Wanna come along?”
“What kind of pet?”
“A snake,” Steve answered, with a grin.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We all gathered around the snake habitat in Scott’s bedroom.
“Where is it?” Craig asked.
“Right there,” Scott said, “underneath those leaves.”
“Oh yeah,” Craig said. “It blends in real well.”
“This is cool,” I said. “It looks like a real jungle place.”
“What kind is it?” Mary Jo asked.
“It’s called a gopher snake,” Scott answered
“Hey, it’s moving now,” I said.
I watched with fascination as the snake slowly slithered along the sand and between the rocks and leaves while flicking out its tongue. I wondered if those little eyes could see anything so I moved my hand rapidly back and forth against the glass. Startled, the snake skittered into the hollowed-out log.
“Aw, you scared it, Bert,” Steve said.
I peered into the log where the snake was curled up in a circle.
“I’m going to ask my dad if I can get one of those,” Craig said.
“Or we can catch our own,” Steve said.
“Yeah, that would be cool, Craig said. “But where?”
“I saw one a while ago,” I said. “Just on the other side of the bridge over Ravenna Park. You know, the shortcut to the ballfields in that big open area full of dry grass and stuff. Johnny and I chased it a while but it got away.”
“That’s right,” Johnny said. “It was a big one.”
“Let’s go there tomorrow.” Steve said.
“Can I come too?” Mary Jo asked.
“Sure, why not,” I said.
Steve, Johnny, Davie, Craig, Scott, Mary Jo, and I made our way across the bridge over Ravenna Park, each with a glass jar in hand. We chatted about baseball along the way.
“Did you see those two home runs Maris hit against the Senators last Saturday on TV?” Scott said.
“Darn, I missed it.” Steve answered. “Our picture tube blew up.”
“I betcha he breaks Ruth’s record,” Craig said.
“No way,” Scott said. “No one will ever do that.”
“I read he only has ten more to go,” I said.
“He’ll do it,” Craig said. “And the Yanks will win the World Series again.”
“Not if it’s the Giants,” I said.
“Or the Dodgers,” Davie added.
After crossing the bridge, we cut through some woods and emerged into the open grassy area. We walked all around it for about twenty minutes, but saw no signs of a snake. Craig gave up first and sat down against a tree in the shade. Johnny saw a mouse, which picked up our enthusiasm for a while, but after another thirty minutes most of us gave up and headed home, except for Davie, Mary Jo, and me.
“Let’s make a few more sweeps,” I said, “and then go home too.”
We split up to search different parts of the area. A short time later, Mary Jo froze in her tracks.
“Look!” she whispered loudly to me and then pointed to a spot. “I see one!”
We crouched down and stalked it, treading softly with each step until Mary Jo managed to step on its tail. As it thrashed around trying to get away, I grabbed it by the head with one hand and mid-body with the other.
“We got one!” I shouted to Davie
I held up the snake victoriously as Davie ran up to us.
“Wow, let’s see it!” Davie said.
He watched it, transfixed, as we walked toward our jars.
“What are you going to do with it?” Mary Jo asked as I put the snake into a jar.
“Make it into a pet, like Scott did.”
Mary Jo and I sat together under the apple tree in my backyard, chatting about how things were going in our junior high schools. We also talked about the snake we caught the day before, now curled up next to us in a larger jar I transferred it to, thinking it would be a temporary habitat until I got a big one like Scott had; however, that wasn’t going to happen now. My parents wouldn’t let me keep it, and it was all my stupid sister’s fault. She screamed when she saw it and ran to our mom, who told me, disgustedly, that she didn’t want that creature in the house, even after I told her I’d keep it in my room. My dad, as usual, just told me to do what mom said, so that was that.
“Are you going to let it go now?” she asked, as she took a big bite out of a fallen apple.
“Probably,” I said, still staring at the snake. “Unless you want it.”
“I’d like to, but my mom hates those things too. I can ask her though.”
“I guess I’ll keep it for now until you let me know.”
The more I thought about it, the madder I got. Unlike all the other kids in the neighborhood, I’d never had a pet: not a dog, or a cat, or a parakeet, or a hamster, or a frog—nothing! I tore open a pack of Sugar Babies caramel candy bits and poured a bunch directly into my mouth.
“It hasn’t moved much in a while,” she said.
I jiggled the jar, which caused the snake to barely move its head.
“Maybe it needs some water,” she said.
I dragged a hose from the house and trained the water into the jar. The snake moved a little and then a lot more as the jar filled. I munched on more Sugar Babies as I watched it.
I started to withdraw the hose when something happened; it wasn’t a coherent thought or anything, but more of a strange ticklish sensation centered in my gut. I placed the jar back under the hose and now felt a dark thrill as the water trickled in and filled the jar some more.
“It’s full enough now,” she said.
“I just want to see if it can swim.”
The jar was now three-quarters full and the snake had been spinning around on the surface of the water trying to stay afloat.
“That’s enough. Stop!” she exclaimed.
When the snake tried to jump out of the jar, I screwed the lid on.
“What are you doing?” she asked, becoming more alarmed.
There was now just a little pocket of air in the jar. Some part of me knew that I should tip out the water, but that odd sensation grew even stronger.
Suddenly the snake stopped spinning. It turned its head toward me, with its eyes riveted directly into mine, and then, with mouth agape, it sank slowly to the bottom of the jar. At that moment, the little thrill suddenly morphed into something heavy and dull in the pit of my stomach.
I unscrewed the lid and poured the water and the snake onto the ground. The snake was dead of course, as I knew—and felt—it already was.
Mary Jo touched it and then withdrew her hand.
I picked up the snake, walked toward the house with Mary Jo, and stopped in front of the rose bush. I dug a little hole on the other side of the bush from where I buried the robin, covered the snake with dirt, and placed a few rocks on top of it. For some time, we stared silently at the little gravesite. I offered her some candy, which she accepted.
“It probably wouldn’t have lived much longer anyway,” I finally said.
“What do you want to do now?” she asked.
“We could go to the park, I guess.”
“That’s a good idea,” she answered in an upbeat tone.
Suddenly, my glum mood vanished in response to the eagerness in her voice. I now felt a different kind of a thrill, thinking back to when we went to the park and huddled together inside Kisser’s Cave.
We tossed away our apples and headed out of the yard to the alley. Mr. Denman’s dog, Rex, barked at us ferociously from behind a fence as we walked by, which caused us both to laugh. We cut through Scott’s yard and crossed the street to the park. Mary Jo moved closer to me until our shoulders touched as we slowly ambled along the flat meadow to the edge of the woodsy area. There, we stopped and briefly exchanged glances. She extended her hand, which I gripped, and we hiked down the rough trail leading into the ravine of the park.