In 1972, when I was nineteen, I took a job as a counselor at a summer camp run by the Catholic Church. I spent seventy-six days and nights there—I know the exact number, because the Monday morning I arrived and the Saturday I left at noon are among my most memorable days. In some manner, I have never left the place, nor has it ever left me. Due to circumstances of fate, I could have told this story long before now. When I retired, I thought I might write about it as a kind of therapy. I didn’t. My wife knows the story and wants me to tell it.
So why am I choosing to do it now? In my years on the bench I sentenced six men to die. None have been executed, but, for one, the days are dwindling, and the closer it gets, the more it draws me back to that summer place almost fifty years ago.
Fort Ross was a considerable operation—over a thousand acres surrounded by rolling green farmland. About half the property was thickly wooded. The other half was grass upon which sat about sixty buildings for the camp. All buildings were painted white and wood-framed with green-shingled roofs, except for the chapel, which was red brick. About forty of the buildings were cabins big enough for nine kids and a counselor, each containing five bunkbeds. Two massive mess halls accommodated two hundred fifty campers and counselors apiece. There was a boys’ camp and a girls’ camp, so there were two Olympic-sized swimming pools. The stable boasted forty horses.
That first Monday I arrived as part of a crew to get the camp ready and settled in the boys’ shack, where the thirty or so guys who weren’t counselors lived. Just a few of the bunks were occupied; I had taken the next open one down. I was unpacking my stuff temporarily there when I heard a vehicle pull up. Then Dalton Talbott came in. He was three years older than me, starting his last year in college. He was tall and blonde and wearing high-top leather workboots. His eyes were strikingly blue. He had a straight nose, a square jaw, and an air of confidence and ease. His face had a friendliness to which smiles came naturally.
Dalton was wearing a wry smile as he approached me, introduced himself, and asked if I was here for pre-camp maintenance. When I told him I was, he laughed a little. “Put some jeans on, Jake,” he told me. “I know it’s going to be hot as hell today. But put them on anyway to start out. We got a job to do.”
“Under the girls’ mess hall there are storage cellars with sacks of government flour and grain. Rats got into them over the winter.”
“Rats?” My eyes about popped out of my head. “How many rats?”
“I don’t know. About fifty to a hundred. I didn’t count them. They’re crawling all over the place.”
“We’re going to kill them?”
“Well, we’re not going to let them loose. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
That was my introduction to Fort Ross. I should say here that I have a particular aversion to rats. And why absolutely everyone else doesn’t is a profound mystery to me. In a room full of women, I’d be the first one jumping up on a chair, but I couldn’t say that. I started looking for jeans that were still in my duffel bag.
I heard another vehicle pull up. Stevie and Uncle Bob came in. Dalton was head of the maintenance department; Stevie and Uncle Bob filled it out. Maintenance was responsible for cutting grass mostly, but also for fixing screens and pipes and anything else that went wrong with sixty-odd buildings. Stevie and Uncle Bob were both twenty. Stevie was short and strong; Uncle Bob was a little heavy and moved kind of slowly. I never knew, and never asked, why they called him Uncle Bob, but everyone did. He was ‘Uncs’ for short. They both wore green John Deere hats. They lived nearby and worked during the year for Charlie, the ailing caretaker of the camp, while attending college.
The four of us sat on our cots and changed into jeans. We were the only four beds taken in a fairly cavernous place. Dalton had a big corner with a ratty overstuffed chair and a light over it. Everyone else had just a metal locker. Dalton had one of those, and an old dresser, too, with pictures on it.
With his jeans on, Dalton moved to the overstuffed chair to put on his leather boots. A stand-alone ashtray lay beside the chair. He lit a cigarette. “You want one, Jake?”
“Come on. They’re good for you. They’re good for killing rats.”
Stevie and Uncle Bob had brought with them a big roll of white masking tape. We wrapped it around the bottoms of our jeans and joined them to our shoes. I didn’t have leather workboots like the others, but I did have a pair of high-top Converse sneakers—no rat was going to go up my pants. From the shins downward, I looked ready to play a game in the NFL.
Finally, Dalton took the roll of tape from me, for I would never have finished.
“Hey, Dalton,” I said.
“These rats you’re talking about—are they real rats, or pretend rats?”
We all started laughing. It was clear that Stevie and Uncle Bob didn’t want any part of this, either. “Jake, some of them are as big as raccoons,” Dalton said.
We discussed strategy. Stevie favored using flat-headed shovels to cut the rats in two. Uncle Bob suggested a flat-headed gravel rake to grind them into the concrete floor. I wasn’t saying much now, trying to keep from throwing up. Dalton brightened my mood a little when he brought up defense. His idea was to use stiff brooms to control the varmints, to keep them away from and off of us if we needed to.
Dalton stood alone. Stevie and Uncle Bob were still glued to their cots, as I was. “Come on,” Dalton said. “Put your purses down and let’s do this. Come on. It’ll be fun.”
“Hey, Dalton,” I said.
“Give me a cigarette.” We all started laughing again. “Sit down.” I motioned him with my forefinger. “I’m smoking a cigarette first.”
Dalton got a kick out of it. He sat back down, more than happy to grant me my last wish. It was the first cigarette I ever had. I coughed at first, but I liked it. I was definitely experiencing a nicotine high as we strode out of the boys’ shack together.
I rode with Dalton in his blue Ford Pickup truck to the barn. I can’t remember what year the truck was, from the 1930s. It was a beat-up wreck that never left the grounds, no doors, rusting out. Charlie made sure the engine ran, though. It purred. Stevie and Uncle Bob shared a white pickup truck that was slightly newer than Dalton’s but had none of the character of his. Maintenance never walked anywhere. The only time Dalton walked anywhere at Fort Ross was with a girl. And you always knew where he was by where his truck was parked.
The barn was something of an icon. As you entered into the property, and before you saw either camp, you went straight up a steady hill, and at the top was a big barn, glistening white, with ‘FORT ROSS’ in bold black letters. It was a working barn—Charlie baled hay there, among other agricultural pursuits: he had about a ten-acre cornfield, and he raised pigs and grazed cows. Stevie and Uncle Bob did all of it for him now, for Charlie was an old man in poor health. His wife, Rose, had passed two years prior.
At the barn we sharpened three flat-headed shovels until they were razor-like, and we collected two gravel rakes and two stiff brooms. In the shed Stevie pick up a stray golf club, an iron, and stepped outside to give it a trial swing. I didn’t think much of the idea, and neither did Dalton, though he swung it, too, and then looked at the bottom of the club to see what number it was. “Try it if you want,” he said, handing it back to Stevie. “Even God can’t hit a two-iron.”
With Dalton in the lead truck and me riding shotgun, we went down the hill from the barn and approached the girls’ mess hall. Another wave of nausea was roiling through my stomach. Since the truck had no doors, I half-considered rolling out.
Lil, the head cook, came running out the kitchen door before we could turn off our engines. She was a tall, slender woman in her fifties with a black bouffant hairstyle that threatened low-hanging tree limbs. “Get every last one, Dalton,” she said. “Every last one.”
“Consider it done, Lil,” Dalton replied breezily.
“I’ll have a good lunch waiting for you boys.” (I was wondering if I would still be alive when lunch rolled around.)
The storage rooms were accessed by concrete steps leading down about a ten-foot drop to a concrete floor. We lined up with our bellies on the protective rail as we looked down into the stairwell. There were three metal doors. In the middle of the floor was a drain. The whole lower structure appeared to be concrete, I noted. There would be no route for the rats to get away, unless we marched them up the steps. Which meant they were trapped, and so was I.
“We’ll do the middle room first,” Dalton said. “There’s not that many in there.”
We took down all our implements, including the golf club, and two steel garbage cans. No one was doing any talking now. Dalton pulled open the middle door; right away a squeaking noise came from inside. My heart pounded frantically in my chest.
“Do they sound pretend, Jake?” Dalton asked.
We had enough sunlight to see to the back wall. In fact, the morning sun was streaming in. I didn’t allow myself to look down at the floor. I looked in the room only enough to determine its size—about fifteen feet deep and ten feet wide.
The sacks of food rested on two skids. With a gravel rake Dalton snagged the first one and drew it just a couple of feet to the doorway. We unloaded the sacks, which were still mostly full, and then drew the skid out. We repeated it for the second skid.
“All right, guys,” Dalton declared, “it’s show-time.”
Of course, we had no idea what we were doing, but at the barn we had decided to go in with one shovel, one rake and two brooms. I thought that wise—play some defense until we knew what we were dealing with. Dalton wanted the flat-headed shovel, Stevie the rake. Uncle Bob and I would man the brooms. We figured the rats would stay against the walls more than come at us, so we decided the brooms should be on the outside of the brigade.
Dalton went in first; I was last. We stepped into about an inch of flour and grain scattered on the floor. At the base of the back wall, about ten rats were moving around with agitation but staying against the wall. A couple were big and fat with thick brown hair and long tails. Others weren’t that big. As if we were gunfighters at the O.K. Corral, we started to move slowly forward in a line. Dalton was to my right with the razor-sharp shovel. As we proceeded, the squeaking intensified, but we kept our steady pace.
When we were about five feet away from the rats, they massed mostly in one corner on my side. Dalton thrust his shovel into the pack and probably sliced two or three of them into parts with a single blow. Of the six or seven in our corner, two tried to make a run for it before Dalton could land his shovel again. One stayed on the wall. I let that one go momentarily and took care of the one headed at Dalton, swishing him back into the corner where Dalton was making mincemeat. I got the one against the wall, too—a small one—back into the bloody pile.
Stevie must have made quick work on his side, because he started to grind them with his gravel rake on our side. That rake was quite effective, too: we killed eleven rats in under a minute, I would say. Not all were dead, I don’t think, but we shoveled them into the garbage can. Rat blood was all over the place in the corners, especially on my side—I could smell it.
“All right, boys,” Dalton said. “One down. Two to go. This is a day at the beach.”
When Dalton pulled open the second door, the squeaking was about twice as loud, or louder.
“Hey, Dalton,” I said. “Are there any lifeguards at this beach?”
This time it was Stevie who dragged the skids to the doorway with a gravel rake. After unloading the sacks and drawing out the skids, we lined up again the same way. About twenty-five rats were squirming over each other against the back wall. They were of all sizes: big, middling, small. We approached them at the same pace as the first round. This time, when we neared them, they split about evenly into the two back corners. Dalton jammed his shovel into the mass and must have wounded at least five or six. This time four took off from the group at the first hit, and there was no way we could control all of them. I got the one headed at Dalton, and that was it. At least three went out the door, and another shot out of the bloody mess I missed with my swipe against the wall.
The same thing must have happened on the other side, because about ten rats had scampered outside when the carnage inside was finished. They weren’t trying for the steps—just running around on the concrete floor of the well. We worked more as two teams outside, Dalton and me, Stevie and Uncle Bob. With a broom and a good weapon we were able to trap and catch them and shovel them all into the garbage can without counting.
After that we took a short break and sat down on the steps. Dalton lit a cigarette and asked me if I wanted one. “When this thing is over with,” I said.
When Dalton pulled open the third door, the squeaking came forth with an intensity I can still hear today. By now I considered myself an expert on the decibel level of agitated rats. I knew there had to be close to half a hundred in there.
“Are we still at the beach?” I asked.
We dragged the skids to the doorway. Some of these sacks were almost consumed—mostly paper. As we drew out the second skid, a big bull rat charged at us, its white teeth showing. We weren’t expecting it, and it got to within a couple feet of us when Stevie smashed it into the concrete with the gravel rake he was using to drag the skids.
“We need to get them out here,” Dalton said. “Two of us should go inside with the brooms and scare some out.” It sounded like a decent plan, until he turned to me and asked, “You ready, Jake?”
I was. I don’t know how or why I was, but I was. “What the hell,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
As Dalton and I stepped inside with brooms, another rat charged—a particularly fat one. We both got a broom on it and shoved it out the door where Stevie and Uncle Bob were waiting. They both got a piece of it, too, with the shovel and the rake. That was one dead fat bloody rat.
There were no more direct charges, for Dalton and I had kind of figured out how to herd them. Thankfully, they stayed mainly against the walls. Dalton would separate five or ten at a time while I protected him from minor forays. Then we joined Stevie and Uncle Bob outside to take care of them.
It took a while, maybe a half hour, to finish the last room. When about ten rats were left inside, we lined up as we started out and marched toward the back wall with the brooms on the outside. I told Dalton I wanted the shovel and took it from him, giving him my broom. “See, Jake,” he said as we switched places, “didn’t I tell you this was going to be fun?”
When we were finished, we had a full steel garbage can of dead or mostly-dead rats, which Dalton and I carried up the steps. It weighed a ton. We lifted it to the bed of Dalton’s blue Ford Pickup and placed it next to the food sacks we had already carefully carried up. They were still mostly intact. “Charlie’s pigs are going to be eating good,” Dalton said.
Cleaning up took a little while, too. The second garbage can we filled with the flour and grain from the concrete floor—a pretty disgusting combination of food, rat blood and rat crap. Then we hosed the whole place down. Luckily, the floor had a drain, and it didn’t clog, despite all the stuff we were shooting down it.
Dalton and I drove back together to the barn. We stored the food, and then there were the garbage cans to take care of. I sat in the truck looking at the barn while Dalton went back inside to retrieve a gasoline can. The barn truly was an impressive structure, with a concrete block foundation and two sliding doors on the front that were perhaps fifteen feet high. The barn looked as though they painted it every year, because it was bright white. A picture of it was used prominently in any promotion of the camp.
We drove maybe thirty feet from the barn and stopped at the pigpen. The pigs rushed to the trough that was right at the fence, snorting and squealing—maybe forty of them. When Dalton and I got out and unloaded the garbage can, the noise got even louder. Then Dalton raised an arm to the sky, and the pigs shut up immediately. It was instantaneous. Dalton turned to me and smiled. Once they were quiet, we lifted the can half over the fence and dumped its disgusting contents into the trough. Then there were plenty of grunts again. For a moment we watched them munching. “I can’t believe you’re feeding them that,” I said. “And I can’t believe they’re eating it.”
Dalton wasn’t concerned. “Pigs’ll eat doorknobs.”
I just shook my head. “I never want to eat any of these pigs.”
At the dump we poured out a two-to-three-foot-high mound of bloody rats. I didn’t see any still moving. Dalton doused the pile with a liberal amount of gasoline and threw a lit pack of matches onto it. What followed were a bright flash, a loud pop, and the putrid smell of rat hair burning.
“You ready for that cigarette?” Dalton asked me.
At lunch the kitchen staff treated us like conquering heroes. Dalton formally introduced me to Lil. “He’s a good guy,” Dalton said about me. I was surprised by this, and pleased.
We were late for lunch in the boys’ mess hall, so it was just the four of us. Maintenance was allowed to be late. No one else would think of going back in the kitchen to wash their hands before a meal. Maintenance did it routinely.
Sitting across from Dalton at lunch, I studied him. He was a decent-looking guy, but it was his personality that was so attractive. His blue eyes gleamed with a happy boyish optimism.
There was something absolutely positive about him. He acted as if he were sole heir to some vast fortune. Which he was, but in a pleasant sort of way—the way someone with that kind of money should act.
I didn’t know it then, but Dalton was from an extremely wealthy family. It surprised me when I found out that first week. I had seen him fix screens and toilets and lawnmowers. Dalton never said a word about his money. Everybody else did. Just about everyone who worked at Fort Ross was of some money, but Dalton was from real money.
After lunch, we drove back to the boys’ shack to change into gym shorts, for it was now about a hundred degrees outside. Then we headed for the barn to pick up a lawnmower for my use. We lifted it onto the back of Dalton’s Ford Pickup and then proceeded back to the boys’ camp, where I was to start mowing. Dalton would cut the open areas with a tractor and bush-hog. With the lawnmower I was instructed to cut closely around the cabins and trees and anywhere else the tractor couldn’t reach.
As I mentioned, the camp had two huge swimming pools. The boys’ pool was set at the base of a fairly steep valley. The hotter it got, the longer I cut, the more my eyes kept straying to that cool blue rectangle. It wasn’t filled completely, but almost so, mountain-cold water from the pipe still rushing out.
I’m pretty sure I was looking at the pool, when it happened. I was cutting the banks of a small dry creek that ran down the hill toward the pool. The small section the tractor couldn’t get hadn’t been cut all spring, so it was very high and thick. You had to let the blade slowly chew up the grass, or it would clog to a stop, so there was time to look around and not pay attention.
The first sting hit home on my lower left leg. I really felt that one—a sudden white-hot burning sensation. The second was on my other leg—and I felt that, too. After that I didn’t feel any of them individually, just all together. When I looked down I saw my legs mostly covered with yellow/brown bees. Trying to knock them off, I slipped into the creek and briefly hit the ground, which didn’t help any. They were all over me now—my neck, my back, my stomach.
When I bounced back up, I started running with no direction. Does a madman run in a direction? It was the closest thing to insanity I had ever experienced. My entire body was on fire. I didn’t know it was possible to hurt so much all over at once. As I ran I could still feel them on me. I tried to knock them off my arms and stomach. I howled in pain—howled to high heaven.
I suppose it was natural that I should run downhill. The first thing I truly saw after the attack was the pool, and then I had a destination. Over the forty-yard distance I picked up speed, even after hitting the wide apron of the pool.
What I felt immersed in that ice-cold water wasn’t exactly relief, but a whole lot better. I didn’t know if any more bees were on me or not, so to make sure I brushed over the parts of my body I could reach. Already I could feel the welts. After that I put my head on the apron of the pool in exhaustion and just breathed with my eyes closed.
I heard a woman’s voice: “Are you all right?”
When I looked up, I saw the sneakers and legs of two women standing there over me. “Bees,” I said weakly. It was about all I could get out. Had it been a harder consonant to pronounce, I’m not sure I could have managed it. My head dropped back down.
They let me stay there a little while in the water, and then they fished me out, each taking a side under my armpits, first to a seated position on the apron with my legs in the water, and about ten seconds later they helped me to my feet. One of the women said she was a nurse, and they were taking me to the infirmary. I could walk, of course, though not very steadily. I think they each had a hand on my shoulder to start out our walk up the hill.
“What’s your name?” the nurse asked me.
Inside the infirmary the nurse told me to take off my shirt. When I did, I saw five or six welts on my belly. My arms and legs were especially covered with them—big red welts. Not the nurse but the other woman, more a girl, took my shirt, and that was the last I saw of her. She went out the door. I recognized her, though I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know her, but I knew who she was; a guy I was acquainted with had taken her to the prom.
I sat down on a folding chair to remove my shoes and socks. “You want something to drink, don’t you?” the nurse asked. I did, desperately. She gave me a choice between water and “bug juice.” She explained it was Kool-Aid, but that was what they called it at Fort Ross. I opted for the bug juice.
She went to the refrigerator. “I’m Allie.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Allie.”
“You’re very polite,” she said, “under the circumstances.”
She put a red plastic cup on her desk and then poured from a plastic pitcher she had brought out of the refrigerator. I looked around. By the entry was her desk, and behind it was the fridge. I was sitting in an open area, where boxes were on the floor. Farther in were two beds on either side with bare mattresses. Toward the back was a black examination table. The walls were lined with glass cabinets, most empty.
I drained the first cup of bug juice while she was standing there. She brought another. “Why don’t we get you on the examination table?” she said. “I’ve got some ointment somewhere.”
“Let me just sit here for a minute, okay?”
I drank more bug juice. The first box she looked into, she found what she was looking for. She then proceeded farther away from me, out of the room. It was my first understanding that a small bedroom was back there. Music started to play.
When she came back out, she said. “It’s terrible of me, I know. I set up my stereo first. I hope you like Bob Dylan.”
Allie was about the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Even down at the pool, as out of it as I was, I was aware of it. She had thick shoulder-length hair that was pulled back—a snow-white blonde. Her eyes were green, enormous. She had a soft rounded chin with just the slightest of a dimple. But what really made her face was her nose. It had a small upward slant that was nothing short of bewitching—just the most pleasing slope upward. She wasn’t that tall—about five-three—but she curved in all the right places. She was a grown woman. I guessed her to be at least twenty-five.
“Are you ready now?” she asked.
I was. When I reached the examination table, I dropped down a bit harder onto it than I had expected to. The back of my head rested completely flat. “Man, did they get you,” she said.
With a white cloth and some white ointment she started to dab the welts on my legs. The ointment did make them feel a little better. When she finished with my legs, I told her the ones on my neck hurt the most, so she went directly there. Her face was about six inches away from mine. She had the most flawless skin.
Bob Dylan wafted in the background. “The Times, They Are a-Changing” transitioned to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”
“Do you like Dylan?” she asked me.
“He’s okay. He’s kind of hard to listen to.”
“He’s more than okay,” Allie said. “He’s probably the best poet this country has ever had. You want him to be able to sing, too?”
I rolled over on my stomach for the last of it. “I’m counting as we go,” she said. “Do you want to know, or don’t you?”
“I want to know.”
“Forty-three,” she said. As I rolled back over, she added, “It’s a good thing you’re not dead.”
She brought me more bug juice. When she returned, I was sitting up on the examination table, dangling my legs. She handed me the red plastic cup and said, “You’re not going anywhere for a while. Do you want me to make one of the beds?”
I didn’t. I went back to the folding chair near her desk and placed my red plastic cup on it. Allie had one going there as well. She started to unpack boxes a few feet away from me. Seeing the side of her, I couldn’t help but notice the pleasing swell of her bosom. I felt a little funny sitting here with just my gym shorts on. “What about my shirt?” I asked her.
“It’s outside on the bench, drying in the sun,” she responded. “I didn’t want you to put it on yet, anyway. What are you studying in school? You’re in college, right?”
I didn’t get the feeling she was overly interested in me. Her question was akin to bedside manner. “History,” I answered. “I won’t be starting college until the fall. I’m thinking about becoming a lawyer, but I’m considering journalism, too.”
She seemed to be listening but didn’t venture an opinion on the subject. I took the opportunity to ask about her companion, if her name was Martha, and it was. Martha’s father was a big-time attorney in town, almost famous.
“I just met her this morning,” Allie said, taking a sip from her cup. “But I can tell you, she’s a sweetheart.”
Allie asked another generic question: “Do you like sports?”
“I love football,” I said.
She sniffed her cute nose at it in favor of baseball. “Now there’s an interesting game.”
“Baseball’s good,” I said. “But there’s nothing like football. At least for me, football is an intricate part of fall’s seduction.”
I don’t know why I said that. I had never thought it before—it just kind of came out. I was embarrassed I had said it. She stopped unloading her box to look at me. Her head tilted a little to one side, and she studied me for a long second with a quizzical expression. I could feel my face turning red. “You ought to be a writer,” she said finally, and with conviction.
“Maybe,” I answered in a weak voice. I just wanted the moment over with.
“You’re kind of a serious guy, aren’t you? I mean, journalism, the law—that’s serious business.”
“Perhaps,” I answered, and then tried my best to joke it off. “I’d flush them both down the toilet to play in the NFL.”
She went back to her unpacking. “Could I use the restroom?” I asked.
“The bathroom is back off that room,” she said, pointing toward the room where the music was coming from.
Her room was small. A gray suitcase rested on top of the bare mattress. Beside the bed was a night table with a lamp. On the wall opposite her bed was a dresser, upon which the stereo rested. There wasn’t enough open space for even a chair. There was room enough, however, for a Bob Dylan poster, which was already hung at the head of her bed. Dylan’s profile was silhouetted in black, while his flowing hair was a wild riot of color.
“I guess you like Bob Dylan,” I said upon returning.
She laughed. “He’s gone electric. I don’t know about that. It’s the difference in our age. Bob Dylan was as new and fresh to me as the Beatles were to you.”
I sat in the same folding chair and reached for my red plastic cup. I took a sip and immediately spit it back into the cup. “What’s in this?” I looked down at it. It appeared to be the same red bug juice I had been drinking.
“Oh, shit,” she said, turning to me. “There’s Vodka in there…” An awkward silence followed. She was embarrassed, and I was embarrassed for her. “I guess you could say I’m still celebrating,” she said finally.
“About ten days ago, I got back from Vietnam.”
“You were a nurse there?”
Another awkward pause. Of course, it was none of my business what she was doing drinking Kool-Aid and Vodka by herself at three o’clock in the afternoon, but the issue was kind of sitting there. I had the feeling I could have gone the whole summer without knowing she was in Vietnam, if not for a circumstance like this. “I’m still trying to get my land legs,” she said.
“This seems like a good place to do it,” I replied. I wanted to rescue her. “I hope I’m the worst case you have all summer. In a few weeks, you’ll be right as rain.”
“‘Right as rain?’ You say funny things.”
She wasn’t unpacking her boxes anymore. We were talking. The mishap with the cups had opened a small special door between us—or I was feeling that, and I believed maybe she was, too. “Can I ask you something?” I said. “Now that it’s over, are you glad you went, or do you wish you had never gone?”
She didn’t answer right away, but it wasn’t as though she was formulating an answer. “I wish I had never gone over there.”
“Thank you for telling me.” I wasn’t about to ask any more.
“Life is cheap,” she added, and I was happy to listen. “I learned there are parts of this world where life is as cheap as a single dollar.” I stayed still and let her ruminate. “The worst is telling a twenty-year-old kid who’s all shot up that he still has a future. It makes you feel old. Some days I felt as old as the hills. I still do.”
“You’re not old. You’re tired... How old are you?”
“Twenty-six. How old are you?”
It was then that Dalton pulled up to the infirmary on his tractor. I heard it first and then saw him through the window. His timing was pretty poor, as far as I was concerned. Allie and I were just starting to talk, and I wanted more of it.
When he came through the screen door, he had my shirt. I supposed it was how he knew I was in here. He noticed Allie most definitely, but he was diplomatic enough to turn his attention almost immediately to me. “What happened to you?” he asked, laughing.
I started to tell him, and he cut me off. “I know what happened to you. I saw where the lawnmower is.” Again, he just laughed with his blue eyes twinkling.
“It’s not funny,” Allie said.
Dalton didn’t even attempt to appease her. “Yeah, it is. I mean, come on, look at him. It looks like someone used him for a dartboard.”
“Glad you’re enjoying it,” I said. Even I was beginning to appreciate the humor of it.
Allie still didn’t see it that way. “He could have died. He got stung forty-three times.”
When Dalton heard the number, he just about bent over in laughter. He clapped his hands together. I started laughing, too. Allie didn’t like it. I think she muttered, “Morons,” under her breath.
Dalton said I was having a bang-up day. We told Allie how we had spent our morning, with Dalton finding no reason to spare details. Dalton could fill up a room when he wanted to—and he wanted to. It was all for Allie, and I think she knew it. “You about ready for another cigarette, Jake?” Dalton asked.
Allie looked to me. “Do you smoke?”
“No.” I laughed. “Not ’til today.”
Allie turned to Dalton. “Don’t be giving him cigarettes.”
“You’re right,” Dalton said respectfully. ”When you’re right, you’re right.” He tossed me my T-shirt. “We’ll get some gasoline at the barn. Those bees aren’t going to know what hit them.”
Allie objected immediately, as I was pulling on my shirt. “He’s not going anywhere near that nest.”
I liked it that she was protective of me. Not for the first time, I felt a small bond between us, more than simply patient and nurse. I wished I could have continued talking to her in the mood we were in, but Dalton had changed that.
“Can I go now?” I asked her. “I’m feeling better.”
“To go blow up that nest?” she asked.
“Yeah. To go blow up that nest.”
She shook her head with resignation. “All right. You boys go out and play.”
Allie stepped outside with us while I sat on the bench and put on my socks and shoes. Allie asked Dalton if she could have some white paint to spruce up the bench. It was a neat old bench, at least ten feet long with a high back and ornate arms and legs. Dalton said yes, and Allie went inside. I was glad for that. When I finished tying my sneakers, I went back inside the infirmary.
“I just wanted to thank you,” I said to Allie.
She gave me a nice smile. “You’re welcome. You’re my first patient.”
“I hope you have a good summer here. It sounds like you deserve it.”
“Thank you,” she said with a soft voice. As I was turning to leave, she added, “I’m glad you didn’t get any stings on your face. That would have been a shame.”
As I stood behind Dalton on the tractor ride back to the barn, he had one subject on his mind: Allie. Who was she? What did I know about her? I didn’t say from where she had recently returned. I figured it was her business to tell people that. I just said she was really nice. Dalton went on about how attractive she was. I didn’t add to it.
“I want to paint that bench for her,” I said when we reached the barn.
Dalton chuckled. “Jake, she’s out of your league, buddy.” Then he really started laughing. “She’s Mt. Everest, and you’re wearing flip-flops.”
I knew I had no chance with her, but I still wanted to do it. I liked her a lot, and I wanted to do something nice for her.
Dalton and I grabbed a metal bucket and a full gasoline can from the barn. When we pulled up in Dalton’s blue Ford to my abandoned lawnmower, I started to shake a little. It all came back to me in a rush. One welt on my neck was particularly bad and started throbbing more at the sight of the crime.
First Dalton dragged the lawnmower away from the nest. Then, on the bed of the pick-up, he poured five or six inches of gasoline into the bottom of the bucket. It was a lot of gasoline. I had a book of matches. From about twenty yards Dalton ran at the nest first. I struck the book of matches and followed. By the time I reached the hole, Dalton had dumped the gasoline on the nest. Right after I tossed the book of matches toward it. I was on the run, so I didn’t see it, but I felt the explosion. It was very loud.
Dalton and I stood together, watching the white smoke rise. Allie came out of the screen door of the infirmary, looking in our direction.
The next day at about four o’clock I went back to the infirmary with a can of white paint and a brush. As I approached, I could hear Bob Dylan playing. Allie stepped out and asked me how my stings were doing. She looked even more beautiful. All night and day I had thought about her, how pretty she was. My memory couldn’t do her justice. She was twice as pretty today.
She reached for the paint can, and I drew it back from her. “I’m going to do it for you,” I said.
“Jake, I’ll do it. I’ve got time.”
“I want to do it. To thank you.”
“Okay,” she said. “Have at it. Do you want me to help?”
“No. I want to do it for you. I only brought one brush.”
“I guess that settles that. I’ll be inside, if you need anything.”
As she was going back in, I said, “Hey, why don’t you turn up Dylan for me?”
She cranked it.
I was there for about forty-five minutes, and she never came back out. When I was finished, I headed for the barn without letting her know. I really didn’t want her to thank me, and I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself by hanging around. I didn’t want to benefit from it in any way.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~