James Benton: Flight of Bumblebees
Flight of Bumblebees
Outside, C-130 cargo planes performed “touch and go” maneuvers. The massive planes would lumber in from the east, graze the runway long enough to leave small bits of landing gear behind, and then rise to the west as though weightless. I remember thinking that they looked remarkably slow, seeming to float lazily, cavernous, hollow machines almost hovering. Then a puff of smoke from the tires as they scrubbed the tarmac, then a sudden rumble of engine noise, and then their slow, smooth ascent. I couldn’t reconcile the physics of it. The sight of them airborne baffled me. I thought of bumblebees, how they have been said to defy their own aerodynamic imperfections and fly when flight should be impossible. And yet they do fly, some say because no one told them they couldn’t.
People in scrubs came and went, stopping only long enough for the elevator door to open and take them away.
While I waited in a cramped hallway outside the big doors to the delivery room, my parents stood off quietly. Their occasional muttering between themselves became lost behind the great rumble of the C-130s. I knew what they were saying, even though I could not hear. They did what they always do, what they still do to be the best for their children they know how to be: they wait, they offer their presence, they avoid intruding, and they let us find our way. Particularly my father, although I don’t know how he learned this.
Without the example of his own father, who left during the Great Depression when dad was an infant, my father always seemed to know exactly the right thing to do or to say. In fact he was his best when circumstances were worst. Growing up, we had some neighbors, the Harrisons, who lived across the street and who found the rest of us on the block to be beneath their station. If a ball landed in their yard, Mr. Harrison would pounce upon it, holler at the kids playing, and sequester the offending thing in his garage where it would remain forever. No amount of wheedling ever convinced him to relinquish his prize, and the more the kids pleaded, the more surly and intransigent he grew. This went on for years. Once, there was a knock at our front door, and when my mother answered, Mrs. Harrison stood on our porch and asked my mother what kind of a failed role model she and my father thought they were, questioned how she could look herself in the mirror when her children — nine of us, the worst specimens on the block—ran out of control and unsupervised, and suggested that our father, a Highway Patrolman too for God’s sake, should hang his head in shame for the pitiful example of decency and citizenship he set. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrison stood thirty feet back on the sidewalk, his arms crossed, nodding in agreement whenever the intensity of his wife’s invective seemed to peak. When Mrs. Harrison had expended herself, my mother, dumbstruck, said, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and closed the door. My mother cried.
When dad got home from work, mom was still in tears. “What happened here?” he said, his face purpling. When she told him, he went silent. Still in uniform, he bolted out the door and across the street, and from our kitchen we heard him pounding on the Harrison’s front door. Time may have embellished this part, but I swear dad didn’t wait for them to answer before stomping into their house. For the next forty minutes, those of us who were home to hear it and all the neighbor kids on our block listened as my father excoriated the Harrisons with combinations and variations of “If you ever…” and “How dare you…” and “There will be a day of reckoning if…” We rode our bicycles up and down the block to get a better listen. My brother, the one whose football had sparked this conflagration, alerted the kids three houses down so they would not miss the event of the year: Mr. Benton’s tearing into the Harrisons!
Within the month, the Harrisons sold their house and made preparations to move. At one point they had a garage sale, and the neighborhood kids were allowed, if they wanted, to buy back every baseball, football, Frisbee, or knot of kite string that ever found its way over the fence and into the Harrisons’ yard. Today, if you ask him about the Harrisons, my father will only say, “I shouldn’t have worn my uniform,” but to me, that was the day I learned how a man does a hard thing when it needs doing.
I noticed odd things while waiting in the hospital at Travis Air Force Base for word of our first child. The floor tiles were mismatched, creating by their random arrangement a kind of visual white noise. Some tiles were speckled with blue highlights, others were speckled with tan, some with green, and some had a multicolored marble pattern. I wondered if the installation crews had done this as a matter of conscious design, but finally decided that they were indifferent to the inconsistency of military aesthetics. Indifference explained the way the electric outlets seemed to pop out of the wall at random distances from the floor, or the way the baseboards were either three inches wide, or four inches, or five, depending on their color. Some of the baseboards peeled slightly from the wall, and I could see the smear of yellow adhesive flaking from the backing. Even the light fixtures, dissimilar in color and length, came from mixed batches.
When we were growing up, my brother and I raised pigeons. Not for racing, but just to do it. It started out with one ring-necked dove, which we soon traded for three ordinary pigeons. At first we kept them in a wire cage, but we knew right away that this was a temporary solution, and that we would need to build a coop of some kind. We got a book from the library, found a plan for a small six-foot by six-foot structure, and we scavenged nearby construction sites for the building materials we hammered together. In all, the finished product served us well for a summer as our stock of birds grew. Eventually, though, we needed a larger coop.
Dad decided to help. He was trying to lose weight that year, and his doctor, in a misguided fit, had him on some kind of amphetamine concoction that kept him up for days at a stretch. To fill his time, he drew up elaborate plans for our new enclosure, designing a gravity fed water system, an automatic seed feeder, a tongue-and-groove floor, raised foundation, and a plastic window that could be raised in good weather and lowered in bad. It had two doors, a wall of nesting boxes, perches of varying lengths and heights, and it was tall enough that an adult could stand inside with plenty of headroom. It was four times as large as our first version, and took a couple weeks to construct. Once we got the site leveled and measured out, we set out the foundation and built the floor, framed the walls and the roof, attached the plywood sides, built and mounted doors, wired up the window openings, and hooked up the water lines. Sometimes dad forgot himself and it took the neighbors’ pleading to get him to stop hammering and sawing past 11:00 p.m. He was more proud of the coop than we were, even after he went off the diet pills. That summer I think my brother and I grew about as close and involved with our dad as we ever were.
Why hadn’t anyone thought to put chairs out for family? For all the machinery, accommodations, piping and wiring, the furnaces and laundry systems in the basement, the elevators and their maintenance schedules filed in a cabinet in an office on the fourth floor somewhere behind a locked door barred to any but one civilian crew member unknown to anyone else in the building, or the piles of memos, their edges curling beneath a phone parked on a steel desk with one drawer that hasn’t worked since the before the Korean War, infrastructure, rooms of patient records lined up in neat rows of color-coded file folders shelf after shelf, each one the minutely detailed record of men and women in scrubs annotating in code and scrawl for purposes knowable and unknowable the sound of bowels awakening, the heat of the body fighting itself, the time of day, food consumed, quantities of saline and soap, records of visits, names and opinions in blue and black ink, in service to some mother’s son or daughter and their collective waiting to be healed while the miracle of levitating a C-130 cargo plane goes on outside as if it were no more surprising than the hum and swoop of a bee accidentally spreading pollen among the streak of orange poppies blooming along the fence line, how was it that a chair to relieve the choked impatience of it all failed to make the list?
I regretted not bringing something to read.
Disconnected phrases repeated themselves dumbly while I listened to huge planes performing their “touch and go” exercises: “premature,” “distress,” “emergency surgery.” These words, as they drifted in my head, sounded flat, lacking connective tissue. They blended into the planes’ swirl of noise, the fluorescent lights’ hum, elevators rising and falling, my parents’ compassionate muttering, the swish of scrubs passing, until the patternless hubbub absorbed the passage of time. This is how one waits.
The broad doors to my left swung open. Four or five people in scrubs and facemasks rushed past without speaking and disappeared into an elevator that closed with the ringing of a soft bell. The trailing nurse turned to me from behind her mask and said, “He’s pink,” and then she too disappeared.
In one end of the hospital our new son lay in a plastic bin, taped and stuck, strangers washing his frail frame and monitoring his heartbeat with machines. In another end of the hospital, while his mother slept, surgeons stitched up a long gash in her hollow belly, strangers monitoring her pulse and respiration. This cruel symmetry blended with the thump of dissociated phrases, the hiss of air conditioning fans, aircraft engines straining to lift their impossible payloads, all blending to white noise so that I could wait some more.
As a rookie CHP officer, my father rode motorcycles in East Los Angeles in the late 1950s. He also had other duties as a rookie. Over the years we have tended to live separate lives, crossing paths occasionally, crossing political swords frequently, though we have always understood a deep affection between us. Several years ago, my father and I took a drive from Sacramento to San Francisco to watch a football game. For some reason, we took an unnecessarily long route on this trip, but during the extra time together, I came to know my father and his history as if for the first time. Perhaps he came away from that day with renewed understanding and respect for me too, but if he did he has never said so outright.
We talked of many things: football, Christian Brothers, family history, the Harrisons…. I drove. We crossed the Altamont Pass between Tracy and Livermore where the hills south of the highway remain as green and unspoiled as they did a century ago, at least if you discount the stand of windmills spinning lazily into the distance. Traffic along this stretch of highway is maniacal, so I had to concentrate on the road rather than uphold my end of the conversation. I listened while he talked.
“I got assigned to the Coroner’s office one week,” he explained of his other rookie duties in East Los Angeles. “My job was to take pictures of the bodies.” He turned his head to watch a pair of bikers in leathers pass on our right, the big V-twin engines snarling. He took a heavy breath and continued: “They had this ladder on wheels, about six-feet high, and I stood up there with this big camera. The coroner would wheel out the gurney with the body covered with a sheet, and he would arrange a lettering board with the person’s name and ID number. I would focus the camera on the name, he’d say, ‘ready?’ and then pull back the sheet. Snap.” He let the silence hang for a moment, as I balanced the spacing of our car within the swarm of those whizzing around us.
“It was routine after a while,” he said flatly. “I’d stand up there and wait for the gurney, focus the camera on the board while the coroner arranged the letters. He would pull back the sheet real quick, just long enough to snap the picture, then cover them right back up. There wasn’t much time to think about the person under the sheet.” I was doing my best to maintain roughly equal spacing between our car and the riot of machinery swirling along, but I started to imagine each driver’s face as it would look through the lens of a big camera.
“So here comes the next gurney,” he said, “and the coroner says, ‘ready?’ and he pulls back the sheet, and I damn near fell off the ladder. It’s a boy —maybe six or seven years old, car versus bike—and if I hadn’t read the name on the board first, I would have sworn it was you.”
Someone came into the hall and asked for “Mr. Benton,” and when my father did not answer, it came to me only as a delayed afterthought that the man with papers in his hand was looking for me. I signed the document; I have no idea what I signed. I was aware of the pitiful quality of this vending machine coffee I held in my hand, but while I waited, I drank three of them and made a careful study of the various shades of white paint that patched the irregular wall surfaces.
After running out of odd things to notice about the architecture, I turned to the doctors and nurses and cultivated a kind of sympathy for them, knowing that, like my father, they managed human crisis for a living. I imagined them facing an endless parade of the worried, the pale and gaunt, people perspiring because they hold back crying, people who plead silently with involuntary facial twitches. I imagined women and men in scrubs, driving away from this place at the end of their shifts, exhausted and eager to get to that Salisbury steak they had stashed in the freezer, or the date they had planned with that dreamy guy from the lab, or the beer waiting to help them mute the memory of having to tell a woman bad news about her husband’s kidney failure. Perhaps the people in scrubs had husbands or children of their own, on whom they relied to suture their hollow wounds and to raise their heavy humanity against its own gravity so they could suit up and return the next day. Contemplating the banal lives of these critically important, ordinary people gave me blunt comfort for a time.
From 1976 until the end of 1980 we lived in San Francisco, mostly on Haight Street across from Buena Vista Park, a few blocks from Ashbury Street. Those years stand out in my mind as among the happiest of my life. We were newly married, beginning to create a family. I was in the last two years of my enlistment in the Navy and everything about our lives was potential. I would soon leave the military full to bursting with brash confidence in my ability to succeed at any job I chose to accept. I was studying music and poetry, spending time at City Lights bookstore in North Beach, hoping for a glimpse of the local literati. We listened to stand-up comics at The Other Café, on Sundays and sometimes saw them performing the same routines on The Tonight Show by Wednesday. We could spend the afternoon listening to Jefferson Starship play in Golden Gate Park one day and Andre Watts and the San Francisco Symphony at the Opera House the next. We saw plays by Jules Pfeifer, and attended album release parties for Patricia Hardin and Tom Russell, whose first two recordings, signed by the artists, remain today tucked in a safe place. I once watched Jackie Gleason exit a pink limousine outside the Orpheum Theater, and a few weeks later I stepped on James Coburn’s foot as we waited in a doorway on Market Street for the rain to clear. Our extended families lived more than a hundred miles distant, and everyone we knew at work or in the neighborhood occupied a potential life, just like us. As I said, I remember those years as among the happiest of my life.
I don’t know why.
During those years, we had car trouble almost constantly. My mother-in-law had divorced her husband, who was sinking into bitter alcoholism, and my wife and I took in her seventeen-year old sister who sought refuge from the chaos of their fractured home. My first job after leaving the Navy was a brief disaster as a shipyard electrician where my co-workers made at least three attempts to kill me through their carelessness, and my second job was as a bill collector where I was routinely threatened, once by a mad woman brandishing a knife, and another by a man who informed me he had a gun and an anger problem. My wife endured three Cesarean deliveries, an ectopic pregnancy, and a partial hysterectomy. Four days after our first daughter, Jennifer, was born, the apartment directly above ours caught fire, displacing us for a week while the building underwent restoration. Once, my brother came to The City for a visit and had five-thousand dollars worth of camera gear stolen from the trunk of his car. Six weeks after our second daughter, Michelle, was born, I found Jennifer, who was then only a year old, blue and convulsing in her crib. I could not revive her. Had it not been for our neighbors who came on the run and snatched her from me after hearing my wife’s screaming, she would have died in my arms.
And still, when I think about those years, I first think of the cool air, the shafts of rose-colored light through the curtains warming our living room, the music and literature, and the indomitable sense of potential that informed every day of our lives together. We — my wife and I — might have been a few years late for the infamous Summer of Love by which our old neighborhood still enjoys defining itself, but somehow its legacy persisted through a strange osmosis into the lives of those who, even for a transient moment, chose to call that odd, corrupt and wonderful place home. Somehow we have allowed the romance of the time and setting, along with our youthful ignorance, to absorb those awful difficulties and setbacks.
The mind displaces its great fears with trivia.
Soon enough, a man in scrubs came to the cramped hallway where I waited without a chair and asked for “Mr. Benton.” This time I did not hesitate. We walked into a small, dimly lit room where we sat down across from one another, knee to knee. He told me that our son had died and that while he had tried to breathe, his tiny lungs were underdeveloped, more like raisins than grapes. He explained that while some premature infants of this age can survive, their lives are often — usually — marked by severe mental and physical impairment. Their limitations — his limitations would have been impossible to overcome in the long term. Our son had lived three hours. We named him Michael.
The man was sorry of course, but he had some questions. Did I want to be present when he told the child’s mother after she emerged from anesthesia? What were my wishes with regard to the body? This question staggered me only for a moment, because the man in scrubs continued talking, blandly offering me several possible options. I could take the body and make private arrangements for its disposal. I could leave the body in the care of the hospital and they would either bury it or cremate it as I instructed, though there would be no information about the whereabouts of his interment. In the alternative, he explained, I could donate the body for scientific research, which required only my signature on a form.
I became acutely aware of my wife asleep in another room, unaware and unable to help with this irrevocable decision-making. Much was a matter of logistics, the moral consequences of which we could bear over time and reconcile if need be, so I chose with what I hoped was the same dispassionate practicality I had observed in the man in scrubs, my choices guided by a need to avoid prolonging the pain of saying goodbye. The risk of choosing poorly haunted me.
Then he asked, “Do you want to see him?”
What species of question is this to ask a twenty-two year old? Of course I wanted to see my son. I wanted to hold him. I wanted to take him home and watch him grow into a man. I wanted to burn the image of his face into my memory to remember it for his mother, who would never see it for herself. I wanted to breathe for him and ask his forgiveness for having brought him to these fitful hours of suffering and fear. I listened to the sound of C-130s performing their “touch and go” exercises and thought of bumblebees lifting off against their impossible flaws, wondering whose forgiveness — my son’s or his mother’s — would be harder to endure. I thought of the Harrisons, and our old pigeon coop and told the man, “No.”
About the author:
James Benton lives in Sacramento with his wife of thirty-four years. he received his MA in creative writing from California State University, Sacramento, where he studied poetry with Joshua McKinney, and prose with Peter Grandbois and Doug Rice. He recently has published poetry, fiction, and reviews in “Oregon East,” “Convergence,” ”Raintown Review,” “RATTLE,” and “Word Riot,” with work forthcoming in “New York Quarterly.”