Several years ago, my friend Shannon, who’d been taking a weekly writing course taught by Ruth Wilkens through Skagit Valley College, convinced me to sign up. At registration time, current class members (who would register repeatedly, session after session) recruited friends and acquaintances to sign up in hopes of gaining the required number of students. The group was primarily made up of seniors, with an occasional subsenior.
Participating in the class was an eye-opening experience. The quality of my fellow classmates’ writing was downright impressive, putting my own efforts to shame. During each class, the teacher offered several potential topics, which students would free-write about in class. A few volunteers would read aloud the story they were to turn in that day. Whatever we couldn’t get done in class we’d complete at home.
Although I only participated for two sessions, I found that being forced to come up with something each week reinforced authors’ often cited advice: putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) was a crucial part of becoming a better writer. In October of 2011, I came up with the following story in response to one of that week’s prompts: Write about a relic. Ruth Havens has since passed away, but her positive attitude, encouragement, and inspiration live on in all of us who participated in her writing classes.
Johnny’s first memory was of going into anaphylactic shock while at his Grandma Horton’s place when he was five years old. The pain of the insect’s sting was nothing compared to the prickly sensation of heat that followed. It felt as if as if someone had attacked him with a welding torch. This, coupled with the scary sensation of suffocation was seared into his brain, impossible to forget. Fortunately, his grandmother, who had always been handy with pharmaceuticals, fed him Benadryl to ease the symptoms before racing him to the local hospital, a distance of nearly 30 miles that she managed to cover in less than half an hour. The soldier of his misfortune, a bald faced hornet, had come from a seemingly benign container; an old aquamarine-colored bee catcher, from which he had curiously removed the leaf-shaped stopper. Johnny didn’t know what became of the trap afterward. It had been setting in a remote corner of his grandpa’s hay barn encrusted with an oily, dusty grime when he happened upon it that hot July day. By the time he next visited, several years later, his grandfather had passed away, and the contents of the barn had nearly disappeared. He figured that the bee catcher had been sold or donated, probably to benefit the local Methodist church, which he’d been dragged to on several occasions to attend Sunday school.
Misfortune has never followed me, which is why, on that winter day when I brought home a relic; a gorgeous sea green glass container, similar in color to those ancient insulators my parents would occasionally acquire while yardsaling, I didn’t give what happened later a second thought. Its surface was covered with a thin layer of dust, while the trough along the bottom was filled with some sort of gooey substance in which several species of insects had become stuck and died, like minuscule dinosaurs trapped in a tar pit. It had obviously been included in the couple’s items for sale as an afterthought, placed haphazardly on the garage’s cracked concrete slab next to a box of romance novels. I thought it a steal for four bucks, and confirmed it as such when I later found one on eBay for $39.95. Its leaf-shaped lid could be removed and a sugary substance placed inside in order to attract bees. Unable to fly out, they would eventually end up in the sweet viscous liquid and die of starvation if they didn’t drown. Unfortunately, the vintage wasp killer that I acquired with such optimism brought me nothing but bad luck; heading home the day I bought it, my tire went flat. When nobody stopped to help, I spent a perilous hour changing it along the shoulder of a busy highway, ruining my shoes in the wintery slush.
The first time I set the trap out, in the spring of the following year, the bees quickly clamored towards their goal; a sugar-water mixture I’d concocted from an internet recipe. Before I could place it near the highest concentration of wasps nests, I felt a pinch, and noticed a pink bump forming on my wrist. Having always adhered to the adage that bad luck comes in threes, I did my best to get rid of the relic. The next time I hosted book club, I waited for a particularly annoying gal who happened to be a beekeeper to comment on the unlucky trap, which I’d filled with a potpourri of fragrant wildflowers, stems set carefully in its water-filled moat.
“What a neat bee catcher,” she commented, “Where did you get it?”
Of course, I felt obligated to offer it to her. And when she accepted, as I knew she would, I refused the fiver she halfheartedly handed to me. She always was cheap.
“Let me get that for you,” I said, as I walked her out to her car and wedged it carefully between the front seats. She thanked me profusely for the gift. “What are friends for?” I replied. And I meant it.