Bob, find Lew before you leave.
An hour after I got the worrisome email I sat in front of Lew Cook’s neat desk while he informed me that the selection committee recommended Clara North for Regional Sales Coordinator. “They decided she’s better at team building.”
I felt my face turn red as I tried to form a thanks-for-even-considering-me smile.
“I know you feel lousy, Bob, but people skills are acquired. You’ll have other chances.”
He walked me to the door with a hand on my shoulder then dashed back to a humming phone while giving me a thumbs-up send-off and saying, “Hi, Clara. Good news.”
I dreaded the unavoidable, mortifying talk with Laura and wanted to put that off for as long as possible so I left the other commuters on the freeway and took the longer route home.
Somewhere along the old road, there was a farm where my dad took us to buy eggs and honey. That was decades ago, but nothing much had changed. When I heard my tires skid I remembered Billy Lovett, a high school classmate who was killed during a car race on the same sharp turn.
When I breathed in the scent of laurel and live oak along the creekside part of the old road, better memories came to mind. I recalled a warm summer night when the town bid goodbye to the soon-to-be-demolished El Rey movie theater. They cleared a whole block of Main Street and set up a DJ mixer console with a Riley Sound System. One-half hour after sunset the deejay burst the balmy air with Martha and the Vandellas Dancin’ in the Street. As the night wore on it was Laura and me, together in another universe, dancing to an amped-up version of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.
Laura keeps the trophy they gave us on the mantle in our living room, but it had been a long time since we danced, or did much of anything together. I thought the new job and pay raise would help put the spark back. Now I dreaded the disappointment I’d soon see in her expression, and even more, the way she’d try to hide her true feelings, saying “It’s okay.”
Another hairpin turn snapped me back to my driving. This time I hit the brakes too late. I heard screeching tires as I careened over an embankment, plunging through bushes and vines. The car crunched nose-first into the gravelly creek bed. The airbag erupted in my face like a blow from a boxing glove.
The air was dusty. I gasped for breath. I couldn’t see. I recall turning the ignition key hoping the car would start. There were chirping birds and the musty odors of willow trees and wet leaves. My jacket ripped, and my phone fell in the creek as I crawled through the driver's window and scrambled back up to the road, slipping and sliding in the creek bank’s mucky soil.
When I got to the road there were no cars to flag down, so I began walking toward a farmhouse I’d seen just before I crashed. I walked about five minutes before starting up a long gravel driveway with rusty barbed wire fences running along both sides. Beyond the fences, wheat fields stretched toward distant hills. A lone Valley Oak stood in the center of this vast expanse, with its drooping limbs silhouetted in descending sunlight.
The tranquil scenery didn’t change the reality. It would soon be dark and I was on foot, ten miles from home, without a phone. It hit me that I’d have to add wrecking the family car to my looming chat with Laura. I could almost hear her voice, “The main thing is that you’re not hurt”, and me knowing that’s not the main thing, at all. The main thing is neither of us gets the sort of love and support we need from each other.
As I continued up the driveway, I saw pruned almond trees and an impressive country garden. Honeybees buzzed among the blossoms and flowers.
I knew someone lived there when two barking German Shepherds bounded around the side of the house. They skidded to a stop in a gravelly walkway about ten feet away and looked me over. One of them growled and bared his purple gums and yellow canines. The other one looked more friendly than fearsome, but I didn’t dare move until I heard a woman calling, "Here, Buddy. Here Buddy.”
Both dogs raised their ears and turned their heads before loping toward the sound of the voice. I followed them.
Behind the house, a woman, dressed in faded blue overalls and black rubber boots, stood in the middle of a well-tended vegetable garden. Her big straw hat, backlit by the descending sun, formed a circle of light around her gray hair and cheery face. Her smile changed to concern when she became aware of my tattered, muddy clothes.
I told her my car was in the creek, but I’d walked some distance and I was not in pain. I said I hoped I could use her phone to call a tow truck.
She said she’d make the call for me.
I wanted her to feel secure so I said, in my friendliest tone of voice:
"Those are nice watchdogs. Which one's Buddy?”
"They're both named Buddy. When I call one they both come running, so why have two names?”
She laughed, and when I laughed too my jaw hurt. The dogs stood up wagging their tails and leaning their big front paws on her. As she patted their heads and scratched them behind their ears, she said, “I’m Adele Lovett, by the way.”
When I heard her name, I realized that she was the mother of Billy Lovett, my high school classmate who died in the car wreck.
Trying to hide my surprise, I said, “My name’s Bob Abernathy.”
"You're not Bud Abernathy's son, are you?"
"I sure am. Do you know him?"
"Well, I haven't seen Bud for years, but there is a resemblance. He and my husband were friends in school and he used to bring you and your sister to buy eggs and honey. Ours were just little guys too.”
“I remember,” I said, “But, I couldn’t have dreamed I’d be coming here and seeing you. I only took the old road because the freeway traffic was getting on my nerves.”
"Do you remember my son, Billy?”
The abruptness of her question, as well as its implications, made me hesitate.
I said, “He was in my high school class and on the baseball team when we were freshmen. I remember him playing trumpet in the school band.”
She lowered her blue eyes and removed her cloth garden gloves. Then she looked up, “Billy was a lovable boy. He had lots of friends. The phone’s in the kitchen - easy to find. Just go in the back door. I need to finish up here.”
Inside the house, I found the landline phone and using a handy Yellow Page directory I dialed a towing service. I didn’t call Laura because I didn’t want to face up to why I was on the old road, much less the wreck, which had turned an already horrible day into a nightmare.
Back outside, I found Adele and told her the tow truck would be at the crash site in about an hour and a half.
She said she was glad it worked out. Then, she asked if I was up to giving her a hand with something.
“I feel a little goofy from the haymaker I took from the airbag, but other than that I’m fine and ‘all yours’ for the next hour.”
"Perfect. I have a two-man job I’ve had to put off. There’s some lifting, but nothing too heavy.”
As we walked along a garden pathway, she snipped, and pruned, and looked askance at yellowing foliage, a gopher hole, and other matters that would need more attention the next day.
Entering the cool, dusty barn through double doors, I drew a long breath and savored the smell of cut hay. We walked another twenty feet to a side room where I saw electrical equipment and a wooden box with a speaker horn mounted on its top. Faded white lettering on its side read; ALTEC Lansing; the Voice of Theaters. Sitting at the side of this speaker horn there was a new CD player and several hundred feet of electrical extension cord.
"Do you remember the El Rey Theater?" she asked.
I sure did. I spent many of my boyhood Saturdays there and then Friday nights, as a teenager. I didn’t bring up that Laura and I discovered the joys of serious smooching in those dark loges when we were teenagers.
Adele continued, “Well, this is the speaker they put in when they converted to sound way back in the thirties. Why my late husband wanted it I'll never know, but it’s sat right here since they tore down the theater.”
"So, what are you going to do with it?"
"I have a surprise for my workers and you too if you’d like to join us. I guarantee it'll beat standing on the road waiting for the tow truck."
"Yeah, sure. So, you have help here. I wondered how you kept the place looking so neat and lush."
"Let's work while we talk. Grab those extension cords. Plug into that socket and tie it off so it won't pull out when we walk into the field."
I followed her instructions. "OK, all set.”
"All right, let's see if we can get the big speaker into the carryall. The rest of the equipment will fit in the wheelbarrow. We have to be careful not to disconnect the wiring. Ronny Riley spent a whole Sunday morning hooking up the CD player for me. Do you know Ronny? He's about your age and he went to Valley High."
"Yeah, I’ve known Ron forever. I still see him around.”
Ron Riley, at age seventeen, hired out to do set-ups for deejays, school dances, and anyone else who needed a microphone. Now, his company designs and builds sound systems for arenas, theaters, and rock bands.
Working together, we moved the equipment out of the barn and walked into the wheat field. The deepening blue sky and rosy-orange edges on the clouds made me conscious of the time.
"Where are the workers?" I asked.
"The 'workers' I'm talking about are honeybees. We’re quite a team, you know.”
I responded as nonchalantly as possible to this peculiar remark.
"Music for bees? What are you going to play for them?"
"Good question! I decided they couldn't help liking The Flight of the Bumblebee. When I went to the music store to buy the CD, the man reminded me that the Harry James Band recorded their version in 1941. The bees are going to love it.”
“I don't think bees can hear,” I said, regretting the words as they left my mouth.
Adele made it clear by her silence that she did not want to argue the point, and I went along so as not to spoil the moment with any more disheartening logic.
When we got to our destination, I saw thousands of bees buzzing around their hives and sniffed the air now saturated with the syrupy aroma of raw honey. Beyond the hives, across an open patch of meadow grass, small birds flitted among the springy branches of willow trees that lined the winding creek.
"This will be fine," Adele said
We checked for electrical power by plugging in the CD player and pressing the "on" button. The panel lights lit up - Adele addressed the crowd.
"You bees, I know you’re busy but I’d like to say something to each one of you.” I stifled a smile as she continued, "I could go on all afternoon telling you how important your work is and how grateful I am to be working with you, but instead, what do you say we take a break and enjoy some music. I selected this piece because if I were a bee it would make me want to get up and fly. It’s a Harry James swing-time variation on The Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov. Enjoy."
After setting up the lawn chairs we sat facing the dinosaur speaker. Adele removed a remote controller from her pocket, pointed it at the cassette player, and pressed PLAY.
Instantly, a seven-note chanting of symphonic trombones energized the atmosphere. Then, an elation of trumpet notes made the skin on my neck and forearms feel like they were being pelted with sand. The bees blanketed the hives, the fence posts, the barbed wire, and the branches of the trees. Then, as though controlled by a single mind, they left their perches, massed into a swirling swarm, and rose above the meadow − a glittering-gold tornado in the rosy sky. This shimmering, sparkling, dancing, vision, and the heavenly trumpet soaring and weaving through the driving rhythms of the blasting big band was rapturous.
A sublime, long, lofty trumpet note ended the wheat field concert, leaving me suspended within the empty hush that always follows bright sound. The still air had gone chilly, and the cloudy sky was ablaze in bronzy hues. Adele stood facing the bees, now in placid flight around the hive portals.
“That was The Flight of the Bumblebee. I'm so glad you liked it. I’ll see you all at work tomorrow. Good night. Sweet dreams."
Then she said, "They loved it”.
I heard myself answer, "Oh, they did, they loved it. And so did I. I loved it, too. If I were a bee I would have flown.”
Adele laughed. “Now, that would have been something to see. Ha, ha. When we get the equipment back in the barn I have to feed the dogs, then I want to give you something you need to take home with home with you - a big jar of honey.”
~ ~ ~
In the cramped front seat of the tow truck the driver said, “Man, you're lucky. Are you sure you’re okay? Why not let me drop you off at Community Med, so you can get checked out.”
Looking out into the clear, starry sky and the sweetness of night that spread around us, I said, “No. I want to go home. It’s late and I don’t want my wife, Laura, to worry about me. We need to have a long talk about all the things that happened today…and then I’m going to put on some music and ask her to dance.”