It’s ridiculous. Alice rummages in her bag and extracts a Marlboro while she steers with one hand. Well, that’s one word for it. It’s actually humiliating, taking a job. An old benefactor, the Vulture Capitalist, funded the position at Brainard Academy with the provision they offer it to her, and yes, the college seems thrilled—she’s a catch—but doesn’t he get it that this rescue operation implies she’s through?
Alice Whipple is a New York City art star. More precisely, Alice is, or was, one-half a New York City art star. For twenty years, her work has been a collaboration with Gordon Lessing. But even the smashing success of the Central Park piece—the New York Times called it astonishing—could not, for Gordy, outweigh years of watching their colleagues buy summer cottages while they wrangled with permitting and fundraising. Five months ago he’d announced it was time to “bow out.” He said the bureaucratic bickering—which Alice managed—had sucked him dry. He forgot to mention the wealthy Houston socialite.
Since then, Alice has come up with nothing, nada, zero, zilch in the way of new work. Her gallery, and certain friends, have begun avoiding her. She’s exiled herself to California. Alice gropes for a lighter. The ridiculous thing is that the job is three thousand miles from New York. Or maybe that’s just sad; the whole thing is just sad. Alice squints, looking for Bear Creek Road.
What truly is ridiculous is that, in the service of said job, she is now wandering the hills above Oakland, California trying to find the Bee Man. Perfect, she thinks. Lost, trying to find some man.
Matthew herds a dozen art students onto the stubble. Beginning Sculpture has read “Living with Weasel,” constructed wildly interpretive bee boxes, and now it’s time for field work. He drops his duffle, squats, unpacks an elegant white box, looks around, puts it back and stands up. He scratches his head. The teaching assistant, a second year grad student called Shakespeare, is smoking behind the van next to the ‘No Smoking’ sign.
A black CRV zooms in and brakes sharply beside the restroom. A tightly-packed woman hauling an enormous mustard-colored bag hops out, strides to one side of the redwood building, twirls, strides to the other side, and disappears. Matthew figures she must be the new Endowed Chair for Special Projects, one of those bullshit positions the board cooks up so the students—and they—can rub shoulders with Art Stars. This time it’s the female half of Lessing & Whipple. What would she want from Brainard?
Alice has heard of the Bee Man, of course. Matthew Chance has been in all the majors, and the gorgeous footage of his break-out piece, Swarm, is still shown at MoMA—quivering honeybees creeping the head and bare chest of a beautiful barefoot boy. Her best friend, Casey, who she talks to every day, asked if he was still a babe, but Alice didn’t know. He didn’t sound like a babe, he sounded like a robot: Beginning Sculpture in Briones Regional Park—beeep—Join them if she wished—beeep—MapQuest directions—beeep.
Like Alice was a hostile invader. Which, she supposes, she is.
So then Casey asked what “Hunting the Wild Bee” had to do with teaching art and Alice had piffed, Come on, girlie, this is fuzzyland.
East Coast artists casually disparage the other coast: it’s mellow, meaning boring; the people lack edges. Thirty years ago, when Alice and Casey were red-hot art students at U.C.L.A., they’d both loved California, but they’ve forgotten.
Alice thinks, Beelining. Shit. Maybe I should take up Buddhism, too.
The woman reemerges. In black boots, black denims, and a black leather jacket with industrial zippers, she looks like she must be hot. Pale skin, red lips, blowball hair—she also looks like Art. And she looks rattled, clawing in that ridiculous bag.
Matthew gathers the kids. Time for his Artist’s Talk: how he got his first hive when he came to live with his grandmother at age ten, and then, at Berkeley, switched from engineering to art not because he liked art—he does not—but because that way he could pursue what interested him, namely bees. (No explanation for why he didn’t just study entomology.) Did they know that every culture in history kept bees? He adds, inexplicably, that every culture also had a village idiot. Idiot-boy, he repeats, scanning the field.
The students chuckle. They think of Matthew as a throwback, but they admire him. He’s different. He’s Important.
The breeze lifts a strand of Bee Man’s hair and Alice pulls out a small video camera. She carries this camera everywhere. It gives her something to do, and also a place to hide; it staves off panic. Bee Man spreads his arms. Alice zooms in. Remarkably untouched face, excellent skin, straight nose, squinting hazel eyes; blue-plaid shirt and, no kidding, Carhartt overalls; slight paunch, touch of crotch, and then the flaxen-haired arm. She focuses: a tanned hand with long fingers, also glistening with bright tiny hairs. She pans back to the slow-moving mouth.
“One queen and roughly 50,000 workers, every one female. Excellent set-up, because females share. And they give, honey to eat and wax to burn.”
A girl in Doc Martins flashes her homey a look.
“I know,” Matthew says, “but never mind. Femaleness is the crux of the hive’s perfection. I find political correctness repulsive, don’t you?”
The kids shift and shrug. Matthew glances toward the parking lot. Now The Artist is filming him. He turns his back, squares up, and recites more of the hive’s virtues—communication, population control, and division of labor. “Cooperation,” he says, “a lost art.”
“So no idiot bees?” a kid asks, laughing at his own wit.
“Not even the drones.” Matthew coughs, a nervous noise. “Once the mating flight is accomplished, the drones’ work is done and the girls kill them off.” Someone giggles. “No idiots.” Matthew looks around again. “Just bees.”
“So is the Artist the Idiot? I mean, in your work?”
Matthew scrutinizes the kid. Matthew has always preferred not to over-think his stuff, let alone pin words to it. And how many artists would appreciate being called an idiot? Though for some, it would be a step up.
Mr. Bee Man in the flesh—and all he can manage is one quick look? Maybe her calling this a field trip pissed him off. Alice herself has never wanted to teach, not after watching it sap her friends of time, and more importantly, of focus, until their work, if they still made work, became rushed, rote, and self-derivative. She hopes this Special Project thing will not divert her too much—ha ha, that’s a joke. Right now Alice wouldn’t care if her work were rushed, rote and self-derivative, she just wants some.
There was the tough spell after college in 1977, when she couldn’t figure out how to be an artist. But then she’d had an epiphany in the Sonoran desert and taken off to New York with her sweet boyfriend James, where she made a name for herself doing performance—cages, parakeets, and her nude body. After James died in 1983, she stalled again, almost two years. But in 1985 she’d hooked up with Gordy. They started small, guerrilla actions, like sheathing abandoned tenements in black balloons. Their piece about the Amiriya massacre, 408 white shoes in Times Square, like a flock of ghostly doves, brought attention, and attention brought angels, and gradually, their work evolved into vast temporary installations, culminating in risings: miles of tiny pink parachutes drifting like airborne jellies over the paths of Central Park. Now Alice wonders, did Gordy realize there’d be no way to top that piece? She hadn’t been willing to see it, but they—their work and their love—might have run its course.
But how is one supposed to start over in middle age? Late middle age. It’s not like she has wealthy Houston socialite. The Vulture Capitalist is gay.
“An individual bee might live only three weeks, but the hive can live forever. What else do we have that’s forever?”
“Art?” The kids snicker, but they believe it.
Matthew is a good example of forever. A seminal Bay Area Process artist, he achieved instant fame with the 1977 performance, Swarm. He worked only with bees. In one large atrium, as bees filled their honeycomb with nectar, Matthew painted the windows with beeswax until the entire space was a dim, sweet-scented amber chamber. In a later piece, he trudged into the hills with a hive strapped to his back, slowly enough to avoid losing foragers. In 365 days he covered one-half mile. He seemed satisfied. The art world raved.
But after Matthew’s wife, Sally, died in a car crash in 2002, he stopped. He would go into his studio and rearrange cases of butterflies, fly-fishing lures, bricks of beeswax, duck decoys, ancient lead weights, woodworking tools, milled lumber. Nothing.
No one pushes him. Though the board prefers their professors be working artists, no one is going to query Matthew Chance about his next piece.
Matthew turns to beckon The Artist. She’s got her head in that bag again so he gestures to Shakespeare and starts the herd moving.
As Alice pulls out cigarettes, a high-spirited nebbish oozing tobacco, sawdust, and young fresh manhood appears.
“Hi, I’m Shakespeare,” he says in a melodious tenor. He widens his chambray-blue eyes, prettily framed by luxuriant black lashes, and flicks at his nut-brown bob. “The hair. And who might you be, my Lady?”
“Actually, there’s no smoking here. Fire danger.” He spreads his hands apologetically.
“Fine,” Alice says. “Well then, shall we catch up with the others?” and she strides off. Shakespeare trots after her.
“…yarrow, and clover?”
The word “clover” rises, a conversational thing Alice attributes to a duplicitous attempt to disguise one’s natural aggression. A West Coat thing.
Matthew is studying her.
Alice extends her hand. “Hi. Alice Whipple.” She smiles. Matthew doesn’t. His hand is warm.
“Right. Okay.” He releases her hand, his gaze still inquisitive.
“Is there a question?” Alice asks.
Matthew glances away as though embarrassed. “See that?” he says, gesturing toward a fluffy, magenta-tipped floret. “Clover.” He pauses. “They call it something different in New York?”
Someone snickers and Alice blushes, which pisses her off, which makes her blush more. “The streets of Manhattan do not, alas, customarily sprout clover,” she enunciates, “but I did get out to Central Park one time, and they had it there! Clover! That’s exactly what they called it! As for—what did you say? Yarrow? I don’t know yarrow.” As though she had not been raised in Kansas.
Matthew points to a faded coral pad on a two-foot stalk.
“Oh,” Alice says. “Achillea. I see it, yes. It’s all over, actually. Terrific, we’ve established clover and achillea, or yarrow, as you prefer. Excellent.” She spreads her dazzling smile around the circle of spellbound students and reflexively pulls out her camera.
“You mind putting that thing away?”
For a tense moment they stare at each other, a tall, lean hayseed in overalls and a small, pear-shaped hipster in mirrored wraparounds. A crow caws in the distance, three hoarse beats.
“You’re going to need both hands for the bees,” Matthew says in his uninflected tone. “You’re going to want to pet them.” He smiles and turns. “Hey, see that? See?” There’s a bee on a clover blossom. He speeds up, “I’ll just, uh, finish…” and launches into the list of killers, ending with the most deadly, the varroa mite, which showed up in 1986—
The ten-thousand roses piece, Alice thinks.
First Journeys, Matthew thinks.
—and then lambastes monoculture, which he calls a disease-dispersal-system, the end of bees, which means the end of almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries….
Alice wonders when he’s going to associate any of this with art.
She’s lying on her back filming flying black spots. It’s actually great. First she placed honeycomb in the upper chamber of Matthew’s 19th-century bee-box—no, first she shed the leather jacket and the messenger bag—and then she stalked a foraging bee, set the box over it, and removed the trap door. Exactly as predicted, the bee crawled to the upper chamber to gorge on honeycomb. When Alice gingerly lifted off the lid, the bee flew off, came back with reinforcements, and now lots of bees are coming and going.
So pleasant, the smell, the breeze, the happy holler of art students becoming kids again. Even the sticky fingers aren’t awful. Still, despite the fact that it’s so nice—or maybe because of it—Alice’s eyes fill. What will she do here?
Suddenly Matthew is kneeling beside her and Alice scrambles, dropping her camera to reposition the sunglasses. A black disc, the aftereffect of staring toward the sun, hovers where his face should be. “What color would you like?” she hears. “Ochre and cad red have been taken, but you can have aqua or cobalt or—”
“What?” Alice blinks.
“You need to mark your bees.” Matthew is offering an old cigar box with twelve compartments containing twelve jars of powdered pigment. “What?” he says, as if she’s said something but he didn’t quite catch it. “You want purple?” He lays a Lilliputian brush and tiny jar beside her leg. “A dot on the thorax. There. And don’t forget to time the round-trip so we can compute the distance.” When Alice doesn’t respond, he reiterates, “There. On the thorax. They don’t mind. Look.” He leans closer, and she breathes in his woody smell as his finger strokes the bee.
When he rises, Alice feels him touch her head. But it’s the breeze. Surely Matthew Chance wouldn’t pet her.
Alice has stopped by classes, met students, attended board meetings (bored meetings), faculty meetings, and the alumni, faculty, and student shows. Lots of art being generated at Brainard. Not by Alice. She feels as though she has some sort of aphasia, like her artistic language is gone. It would be interesting if it weren’t so terrifying. When people ask what she’s working on—and they do—she waves her little camera and says something indecipherable about video and process. Alice, who is known for carefully-scripted installation, senses skepticism. She imagines them circling for the kill.
On their next phone call, Casey says Alice should return to performance; make use of the Endowed Chair gig. Talk about beginning where you are! Start with one plain wooden chair. Which she could endow with…?
“I think Shakespeare has a crush on me,” Alice says. “He’s stopping by my office every day to tell me how amazing my work is. He seems especially interested in the early stuff.”
“Can you blame him? You were gorgeous. And naked. How old is Shakespeare?”
“Come on, Casey. I’m done with men. Seriously. I don’t even miss sex. Besides, he’s like twenty-eight or something.”
“Perfect! You might not be done with sex if you had a twenty-eight-year-old to do it with, Al.”
“Hey, what’s that sound? Are you outside?”
Alice is on her little lanai overlooking a dry creek bed. “It’s eucalyptus. They murmur.” She’s been filming the thin blue leaves. She likes eucalyptuses, the smell, the sound, those sickle leaves, though apparently she’s not supposed to. They’re invasive, they burn, the Californians scold. But did they transport themselves from Australia? She refrains from responding. “It’s 70 degrees here, Casey.”
“It’s dumping here. So what about going back to your early work? It could be so layered, commenting on yourself commenting on your beginnings.”
“Come on,” Alice snorts. “I can’t go back to that unless I want to change the intention from interrogating the male gaze to erasing the male gaze.”
“Perfect,” Casey says, and laughs her wifty heh-heh-heh..
“No,” Alice says. “So you saw Gordy in last week’s Sunday Style? You think it’s a promotion, from Arts to Style?”
“He just wants her to finance his film.”
“That stupid movie. There’s no way he’ll get it together to make a movie without me to organize him.”
“They say she’s now organizing him.”
“Really? Don’t those rocket-ships on her chest get in the way?”
Alice visits Beginning Sculpture a second time. Bee Man seems to think she will show her slides, but she didn’t bring her slides—had he asked her to bring her slides?—so he queues up a video called The Way Things Go, a gargantuan, comical chain-reaction piece, and disappears. Some crisis with bees. Afterwards, Alice nods politely while the students discuss Process: Begin Where You Are; Trust in Accidents, Trust in Yourself—trust, trust, trust, trust, trust. Like it’s easy. Like every one of them is just a little bag of jewels ready to be spilled onto the rich black velvet of the waiting world.
Okay, she can mock them, but what if these raw beginners actually know something, or have something, that she doesn’t? Like hope. When Alice gets home, she sits outside and films eucalyptus. She doesn’t bother to look at the footage before erasing. She’s still not sleeping.
At November’s cocktail party, Alice gazes at the view of San Francisco Bay and chats with a painter named Michelle, who looks like Anjelica Houston. Everyone at the party looks like Hollywood. Alice wishes she were home on her deck.
Shakespeare ambles up and ogles Alice. “Hi,” he says, his eyes shining.
Michelle hugs him. “Where’s the Boss?” It’s a joke. Apparently Matthew never comes to these things. In fact, it’s been over a week since he’s been on campus.
“Oh, man,” Shakespeare says. “You keeping up with this Colony Collapse thing? Tons of bees just disappearing and no one knows why. They leave behind a bunch of supercedure cells like they’re trying to raise new queens. Like the trouble was the old queen.”
Alice feels affinity with those old queens.
When she gets home, she Googles “Colony Collapse.” Shakespeare wasn’t exaggerating; it’s catastrophic. How can they all just die for no reason? She considers telephoning Matthew, but what would she say?
“So what are you doing for fun?” Casey asks.
“Oh, sitting at Cody’s scribbling endless crap in my journal. And drinking very good coffee.” Alice is writing about her work with Gordy, and about her early work—blah blah, trying to get herself going. The only truth she’s discovered, and this mortifies her, is that she’s always had a man to work with. Is that where her ideas, not to mention confidence, have gone? Well, she’s determined to move forward on her own. She’s a feminist, for crying out loud.
“You’re writing now?”
“It’s nothing. So have you heard about this bee thing? Colony Collapse Disorder?”
“Bees are dying, like in droves. They may all be wiped out. Seriously.”
“Are you hanging out with Bee Man?”
“Shakespeare told me about it at a party. It’s like their immune system has failed, like bee-AIDs. It reminds me of James. He would have loved this guy.”
“The Bee Man.”
“Was it a fun party?”
“Not particularly. The people are polite, and pretty, and thin, and everyone hugs. It’s unsanitary.” Alice laughs. “And no one smokes. So what’s the latest with Gordy?” She lights a cigarette.
“I don’t think he’s having fun. Boob-Job seems to have moved on.”
Alice wonders what she would do if he called.
In the dark, industrial, high-ceilinged space, the Works on Paper instructor gestures toward a six-by-eight-foot abstract drawing called Sunday Afternoon with Chamomile Tea. Matthew, as guest artist, slips in the back and perches on a stool. He looks tired. He nods at Alice. She lays her BlackBerry in her lap.
“I like how sort of huge it is,” a girl says. “Like I could sort of get lost, you know?”
“The line is beautiful,” says another. “One continuous, um…?”
All the heads bob.
“It reminds me of those ghost drawings by Barbara Heston.”
“Okay,” Matthew interjects, “yes, but let’s be careful with comparison. You know, ‘it’s been done?’ I know you weren’t saying that, uh…”
“Solzhenitsyn called it the ‘tyranny of the new,’ this fanatical drive for invention. I really think it’s death to young artists.”
“Wait,” says a student from under the hood of an oversized sweatshirt. “You have to do something new. How else do you get attention?”
Alice is cranky. Still not sleeping. She butts in. “One could say that if it hadn’t been for Duchamp’s Urinal—a very new idea—you yourself wouldn’t even be considered an artist, Matthew. Am I right?”
He shoots her a look she can’t decipher.
“Nor would I,” she adds with false modesty.
Matthew says, “Did you know that ninety-five percent of students are no longer making art five years out of school?” He stands. “Our job is to prepare young artists for a life.” Alice flushes. Her job is to make art.
Matthew strolls to the artwork, bends down, and runs his finger along a torn-off corner. He looks to the student.
“Oh,” she says. “That’s not part of it. I mean, I didn’t want to waste the sheet.”
“How can something—Ms. Whipple? You mind?”
Alice had started filming. “Of course,” she says, and lays the camera next to her BlackBerry.
After a moment, Matthew says, “Excuse me,” and marches toward the massive door. He glances at Alice. “Could I have a word? Please?” Alice doesn’t move. “Outside?”
Alice takes her time stowing the camera and BlackBerry. When she slides off her stool, her sweater catches on a screw. She yanks it loose and follows Matthew through the door.
“Filming me? While I’m teaching?” He’s leaning over her, close.
Alice squints into the sun and says, “I’m not filming you. I mean, I film everything. It’s what I do.”
“It’s what you do? It’s what you do when? It’s what you do when you’re Endowed Chair, or what you do when you’re Alice the Artist?”
Alice’s scalp prickles, every follicle electric. “Alice the Artist” is that horrible character in the Robert Bruch chapbook, a shrewish, cutthroat, promiscuous, and worse, supremely banal person. No one calls her that to her face, of course, and Bob always insisted the character had nothing to do with her, but Alice knows it’s not true—she never got along with Bob—and she knows that everyone knows it’s not true.
She says, “You of all people should appreciate the Art-as-Life, or is it Life-as-Art, practice—”
“NO. I do not. I take my job seriously. I do not use my students as fodder.” Two feet from her nose, he crosses his arms.
“Fodder? Fodder? I’m not their teacher. Anyway, filming actually deepens my engagement.” Alice fishes in her empty pockets. She crosses her arms. She fiddles with the loose loop on her sweater.
Finally, Matthew says in an even tone, “It’s hard to think with that thing following me around, okay? And Janet’s work deserves our full attention.”
Alice wonders if he’s suddenly too tired for a fight or simply bored with her. “Jen,” she says. “The girl’s name is Jen.” When she glances up, he’s got his eyes fixed on her. Her arms tingle, and she blushes, but she doesn’t avert her gaze.
“Fine. Jen.” Matthew turns away.
Back in the studio, he starts again, “Bright white, large-scale, 100% cotton artist’s paper hand-sewn onto galvanized pipe, grey thread…dark rough wall, dirty grey floor…” He nods. “So this bright piece floats in this dark space. Intentional?” He studies the work. “Wandering line, watered-down, sumi…Asian art, and the past—intentional? …artist’s process…gentle puckers—intentional?”
Alice leans forward. She’d forgotten it could be fun to talk about art. Like, when nothing’s at stake.
Matthew holds out his hand. “Now I would argue that once you hang something on this wall in this space, everything must be by intention. So this ragged bottom edge, missing a corner—violent, or careless? How does this,” he bends over to touch it again, “interact with the floor, with the other edges, with the meanderings of the line and the puffs? What does this do to what has come before?”
Matthew backs up a couple of steps, stares, nods, leans forward again and fondles the missing corner, as though to make it whole. “Violent, or careless,” he murmurs. Alice thinks, The Man Who Doesn’t Like Art sure does care. But he’s right, the torn corner is bad, though violent may be a bit extreme.
He faces the class. “Okay then. Um, Janet, is it?”
“Jen,” she whispers, eyes round.
“Okay, nice work. Um, any questions?”
Over coffee in the Lair, Alice asks Shakespeare if Matthew has always been such a fanatic.
Shakespeare says, “Not fanatic. A purist. Matthew thinks intention must precede process. Makes you think. Makes him a great teacher. Not to mention his work is incredible.” Shakespeare pauses, and then says, “Maybe performance uses intention in a different way?”
Who’s doing performance? Alice thinks.
The week of Thanksgiving, Shakespeare shows up at Alice’s with a six-pack of Coronas to celebrate Indians—he claims he’s one-quarter Choctaw—and to tell her there’s a BFD—Big Fucking Development—proposed for the pastureland adjacent to Matthew’s place. He gestures toward the camera on the glass table. “How goes the work?”
“Fine,” Alice says. “Really well.” She films and erases, films and erases. In psychiatric circles, this would be called self-soothing.
“I could load your footage onto your laptop for you. I’d love to see what you’re up to.”
“No thanks. I’m trying to, you know, stay fresh with it?”
After she scoots him out Alice Googles “Oakland, development, permit,” but she can’t find anything. She wonders when—if—Matthew will come back to campus. She thinks again about calling him and again decides it would be stupid. She would look stupid.
Winter break, Alice is not ready to face New York, so she drives herself down to Monastery Beach, south of Monterey. When she hops onto the golden sand, she spies a dark shape at the end of the cove and drifts toward it, filming.
It’s a long-necked grebe tangled in turquoise fishnet, rolling in the surf. Alice stuffs her camera into her jacket. When the bird washes in, she snags it, hikes to higher ground, and sits. She stares at the tangled bird in her lap, preternaturally calm. She will need scissors for the tough filament, or knife, or even a nail clipper, but she’s got nothing. And there’s no one in sight. Finally, she grasps one leg and weaves it through the filament, and then ducks the head. The bird doesn’t resist. It has to hurt, but she makes herself keep going, occasionally swiping at her forehead. When she finally lifts the last line from the bleeding shoulder, the bird just lies there, cold as stone. Alice cradles it to her chest, and cries.
Eventually, she carries the bird back to the water. She’s doesn’t know what else to do. The first wave floats it out; in and out, it floats. Alice brings out her camera. When the bird gets deeper, things go bad. It can’t stay upright. It rolls and bobs, its neck undulating, head dipping under the rough water. But it’s out too far now. She should’ve taken it somewhere, to a shelter or something.
Later, when she talks to Casey, Casey insists that Alice couldn’t have known what to do. Then she says, “Didn’t you have your phone?”
Alice doesn’t admit that she had her phone but no one to call.
When she looks at her footage of the tangled bird, she weeps again. But she doesn’t erase. It stays with her, ways she might use the footage, what kind of piece these images could turn into.
One evening in January, Gordy’s number pops up. Alice doesn’t answer. He doesn’t leave a message. She pours a glass of wine, picks up her cigarettes, and goes to sit with the eucalyptuses.
Shakespeare tracks her down. “It’s supposed to be my final critique, and Mr. Big Deal Guest Artist is all, ‘I don’t know anything about objects’—the fucking guy’s a sculptor. Then some shit about the twigs on the pipes, how they filter light. It’s not even a piece. What an asshole.” And Shakespeare hasn’t heard from Matthew for three weeks, and he hasn’t been on campus for literally months.
“I have an idea,” Alice says. “Let’s go find him. Aren’t I sort of his boss?” She’s not his boss. But she’s still not working, and she’s not sleeping, and the man is at least more interesting than her deck.
“Well, no. You are my Special Projects Chair.” He gazes at her, adoring and high. And pretty.
“In which case I should speak to your mentor about your Senior show. Let’s go.”
As soon as they turn off Canyon Road they spot a roiling white plume.
“Shit.” Alice accelerates. She grabs the Rescue Remedy, a gift from Michelle, and spatters her tongue. “Where do I—?”
“I don’t—wait.” He leans forward. “Slow down. This is it.”
Alice swings onto a rutted road and guns it up the hill. Beyond a stand of live oaks, firemen in black-and-yellow vests shoot geysers from a ladder rig onto a smoldering building. Ten feet beyond that, a white clapboard bungalow sits unscathed, and standing between the bungalow and the burning building are Matthew, George Ginsberg, and Lou Stickley, old art buddies from the ’70’s. They’re swigging homebrew while they watch.
Shakespeare leaps out before the car stops. “Hey, man. You okay?” Matthew, in shirtsleeves, salutes with his 22-ouncer.
Alice steps out, zipping her jacket.
“Ms. Whipple!” Matthew calls. “Now where is that damn camera when you need it?”
“That was my studio. You could have recorded the ending.” He looks relaxed, maybe a little drunk…
George cries, “Welcome to the retirement party of Mr. Matthew Chance, artist, bon vivant, and Bee Man extraordinaire!” They hoist their bottles and holler “Rest in Peace!” clearly not for the first time.
“I’m glad you got the butterflies out,” Lou says, “but I’m going to miss those ducks.”
Matthew says, “I feel bad about the wax. Todd, you want to grab a couple of brews for you and Ms. Whipple?”
After some final questions—no idea how it started—the firemen issue a citation and chug down the dirt road. After some last laughs, George and Lou also take off. When Shakespeare heads into the house for another round, he calls, “Hey, man, show her your hives.”
Matthew looks to Alice, whose cheeks sport two strawberries from the strong ale.
“Oh, yes. Are the hives okay?”
“No,” Matthew says. “It’s just a matter of time.”
She follows him down the hill, slipping on shiny leaves. The stacks of white, green, and gray boxes surrounded by a wire fence remind her of a military installation. A few hardy foragers are flying, golden in the low sun.
“When they go, I go,” Matthew says.
His hair is the color of the bees, of corn tassels, which stirs in Alice a sharp nostalgia for warm nights and fireflies, thunderstorms and supper on the porch. She touches his arm. “Listen,” she says, “we—Shakespeare, Brainard—everyone misses you.”
“I don’t know what I’ve got left in the tank.” He glances at her.
“But you’re such a brilliant teacher. And your work…”
“My work is over. Done. Haven’t got the heart for it.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“No, you don’t.”
Alice’s chest tightens. “Yes, I do.” The sun is tinting the stacks pink, like flesh. She says, “They seem alive.”
“Right. But I mean, the stacks. They’re like actual beings.”
“Okay.” She sets her empty bottle on the dirt. “You know, I do know. I’ve been stalled all year. I mean, ever since Gordy, you know, the work with Gordy was over. No idea what to do. No ideas at all. Like I’ve forgotten how to be an artist.” Alice’s heart thumps—fear? Relief.
“Like it’s something you are rather than something you do. Kiss of death.”
“I thought you were making a video piece.” He stoops to deposit his empty.
“I’m not. Seriously, I’m stuck.”
Matthew wipes his hands on his thighs. “I thought you were filming me. For some kind of New York joke.” He glances at her. “You know, making fun of the West Coast dope.”
“Oh, no. I was just filming so people would think I was working.”
“People?” He chuckles. “It’s a hard world out there, isn’t it?”
“It would be so nice to just start over. But how do you do that when you already have a presence?”
“How do you do it when you can’t remember why?”
Alice doesn’t answer. She’s distracted by a sound, like two dry hands rubbing together. It’s the oak leaves, but the sound still niggles, reminding her or something.
“Ever heard of ‘telling the bees?’” Matthew says.
“Long ago, it was believed that bees would thrive only in harmonious families. ‘Telling the bees’ was essential—good or bad news, even everyday happenings, but especially about the deaths. The bees had to be told about a death before sunrise of the following day or they would die too.” Matthew’s gaze is fixed; his hands dangle like he has no use for them. “But I never told them— about Sally. I should have told the bees.”
“Oh Matthew.” His face is so plain. She looks away.
Matthew startles her by tapping her shoulder. “Yep. That’s it.” He stretches, drops his arms with a humph, and mutters, “Idiot Boy. I bungled it. You have to be as interested in the life as the work.”
Alice stares at him. She laughs, almost a bark. “Ha! That would require the life be as interesting as the work.” Hers certainly wasn’t. And really, it’d been a while. What used to interest her? She says, “So are you going to build a new studio? Start over?”
He squints her way, and then looks at the hives. She hears that subdued rustle again, and now Alice knows what it reminds her of: rattlesnakes moving across sand, the sound she heard thirty years ago in the Sonoran desert, standing naked in the moonlight on a rock in the middle of a rattlesnake migration, a crazy night on a misbegotten road trip during the bad time after graduation. That night had changed everything: she and James had fallen in love, and she’d found her work. But it’s getting late; Alice can’t just wait around for another miracle.
She says, “Let me rephrase that. I am starting over.” Blushing, “I’ve got a bit of footage.” She nods at him. “I’d love someone to talk about it with. Also, I’m interested in the honeybee.”
“So it would be great to, you know…”
“Have a West Coast dope to talk to.”
“Have a West Coast friend, Matthew.”
Patricia Canright Smith’s essays and short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Quiddity, Short Story America (awarded third prize), North Dakota Quarterly (Pushcart nomination), Mason’s Road Literary Journal (2014 Editor’s Prize), and others. Her essay “83 Problems, A-Z” appeared in Jabberwock Review and was a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays, 2014. Patricia brings to writing a lifetime of rich experience: raising kids, practicing psychotherapy, farming, and creating visual art. She is currently completing a collection of linked short stories and a book-length memoir about her mother. She lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington.