Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
I write in bed, which I felt weird about for years until I learned that both Nabokov
wrote in bed. Now I’m okay with it. What I feel weird about lately is that I do most of my writing on my phone, which wouldn’t be weird at all if I was a teenager. (I’m 47.) Perhaps because of my age and the fact that I didn’t grow up texting, I type with one finger. It’s slow going, obviously, but I haven’t figured out how to incorporate my thumbs or any of my other fingers.
Other than bed, bus stops have also been good writing spots for me, but I always feel strange lying down at bus stops unless I’m on drugs.
There are very few bus stops where I currently live, a couple hours north of NYC. I’m renting a room in my friend’s ancient Dutch farmhouse. It feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually only a one-cigarette drive to town. Built in 1755, the house was uninhabited for over 100 years. (No, it’s not haunted.) My friend lives on the top floor, I rent the ground floor, and the kitchen is in the basement. The only amenities are electricity and running water. My bedroom is technically the living room and is completely uninsulated. I’ve heard this house described as “the Fight Club
house with comfy furniture.” Picture peeling wallpaper. Picture layers upon layers of chipped paint. Picture wide Dutch doors with original hardware — actually, you don’t have to picture it. Here are some pictures.
That’s the bed I mentioned earlier. Notice its size. This is to deter me from shacking up with anyone. Yes, that’s lead paint on the wall behind the bed. Yes, flakes of that lead paint often fall onto my head as I’m sleeping. I recently asked someone if it’s possible I’m suffering from lead poisoning, hence my decreased IQ, but they assured me that the lead would have to be falling directly into my mouth.
One of three windows I stare out of for hours at a time. They are original to the house, i.e., from the 1700s. Can you see the missing panes? They only fell out recently. Perhaps needless to say, it gets a little windy in here now, and, uh, occasionally snowy.
Here is the woodstove, my only source of heat. As I mentioned, my room is uninsulated, and you saw that window, so maintaining the fire is something I take seriously. If the fire goes out while I’m asleep, it destroys a day of writing, because I start talking (to myself and the wood stove), and talking before noon ruins everything. During the cold months, I set my alarm for 1:00 and 3:00 AM to feed the stove. It’s spring now, supposedly, so I’m waiting for the weather to turn, but mostly I’m waiting (and hoping) for the return of the bees.
Directly underneath my room, in the kitchen, was an enormous beehive. Roughly 7 feet long and 16 inches wide, the hive was nestled between two ceiling joists, and the bees came and went via a hole in the brick wall. According to the beekeeper who lives down the road, the hive was over 30 years old.
When I first moved in 18 months ago, there were 50,000 bees living in the hive. Rather than remove it like a normal person, my friend/landlady asked the beekeeper to build an enclosure for it. She liked having bees in the kitchen, which was fine with me — I’ve never been bothered by bees. So the beekeeper built this kind of hatch, a simple screened-in wooden box with a Plexiglas bottom, which he installed in the ceiling. If you stood directly underneath the hatch and looked up, you could plainly see the hive and all its activity. (You could also reach up and unclasp the latch, if you wanted, to expose the hive.) The hatch kept the bees out of our hair, as it were, but when I first moved in, there were always about a dozen flying around my head as I made coffee in the mornings, and I could hear the buzzing from upstairs, as the hive was essentially under my bed.
I’d been living in the house for about a month when the bees started dying. The fireplace in the kitchen was being used for probably the first time since the 19th century, and so it’s possible the hive became overheated. Perhaps the bees were sweating to death. Or perhaps there were simply too many. It was late October by then, and the hive was likely reducing its staff to a skeleton crew for the upcoming winter. Apparently, according to the Internet, only enough bees are needed to keep the queen safe.
But it had been a bad year for bees in New York, so by the end of November, all of the bees were dead, including the queen. The kitchen reeked of honey, but the hive appeared to be completely empty and dried out. We missed the bees, but there was nothing to be done.
I’ve heard this house described as “the Fight Club house with comfy furniture."
Eight months later, on a warm night in July, we were smoking and chatting in the kitchen when we heard what sounded like rain coming from the hive. It was this really weird, wet noise. We thought the bees were back, and we were happy and relieved, but then my friend held a flashlight up to the hatch. "Those aren’t bees," she said and blinked at me. "They’re fucking maggots
I may have screamed — I don’t remember. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s maggots, and these weren’t grain-of-rice-sized — they were large, about an inch long. I’m guessing there were at least a couple hundred of them.
I had trouble sleeping that night. The next morning, in the light of day, it seemed wise and necessary to kill the maggots. We bought some heavy-duty Raid and emptied two cans of it directly into the hive. It was a two-person job: one of us opened the hatch half an inch, the other held the can and sprayed. We watched the maggots die.
Then we left town for a week.
A few days after we returned, I went down to the kitchen to make coffee and screamed. The kitchen was full of bees, and not just a few — thousands. They’d taken over the entire downstairs and were also swarming the hive. The hive we’d covered in Raid. It seemed like as soon as I remembered the Raid, the bees started dropping to the floor and twitching.
We went off in search of the beekeeper, the one who built the hatch, an extremely nice Christian hippie. His yard was filled with broken cars, tractors, strollers, and refrigerators, and about 30 hives, bees everywhere, and he has 11 kids or something, all home-schooled, so there were these feral children running around in weird prairie clothes with wild squirrels on their shoulders. Apparently, the guy supports his entire family by beekeeping — the Lord will provide and so on.
He didn’t seem surprised to see us. We told him about the maggots.
“Wax moths,” he said. “I meant to tell you about that.”
Then we told him we couldn’t see out of the windows because they were covered in bees, and also the bees were dropping dead, because we covered the hive in Raid, because we’re assholes.
“They would’ve died anyway,” he said kindly. “It’s too late in the year for bees to swarm. This isn’t your fault. But I’ll come take a look.”
He met us back at the house and set up his beekeeping smoker, which seemed far too small for the number of bees, but what do I know, and then he opened the hatch and started digging around in the hive with a stick. He was wearing a tank top and shorts. No hat.
“I can’t find the queen,” he said after a few minutes. “This isn’t a swarm. These bees are here to rob this hive.”
“Of what?” we asked.
“Honey,” he said, over his shoulder. “There’s about 80 pounds of honey in here.”
“Which we ruined with Raid, right?” we asked.
He shook his head. “This hive is massive. Your Raid didn’t penetrate very far. I recommend removing the hive.”
We watched him cut it down. It took an hour. By the end, he was covered in honey, and there was honey all over the floor, and several dead bees were stuck to his bare shoulders.
We put the 80 pounds of honey in a very large bowl, which we left outside as an offering to the remaining bees, who ate the honey until it was gone. The beekeeper said the bees might return and build a new hive, but there’s no guarantee. They’re bees, not geese. But lately I hear buzzing in the middle of the night. The buzzing is accompanied by the smell of honey. So I guess I lied when I said this house wasn’t haunted.
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holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, and is a recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award in fiction. Pretend I’m Dead
is her first novel. A former cleaning lady, she lives in Hudson, New York.