The Wasp Eater

They talked just normal enough to make him feel crazy, as if he’d dreamed up everything, as if his father was asleep on the couch in front of the television, as if everything was just fine. 

Later, he’d lie in bed as his mother became that constant scrape of slippers across his ceiling again. She was each creak and scuff, back and forth, all hours of the night. If afternoons were his father, then nights would have to be his mother. She was the bedroom and the living room and the L-shape of kitchen, its sink and stove and cans of food. She was every pillow and piece of furniture in the house, every curtain and book and lock and door, but his father, the man would have to be the desk upstairs. And the stairs themselves. He’d be the crawlspace under the porch, as well as the windows, the screens, the electric sockets, the wires in the walls. Bob would be the car in the street, just as he’d be the street itself, the back roads, the towns beyond. If Anna was the world within, then Bob would be the world without. 

And Daniel? Daniel would take the attic and basement. He’d be the sweaty pipes, the fuse box, the blue of pilot lights under the furnace and water heater. He’d be the moldy damp and underdog corners of the house, the slant of roof, the mortar and brick and sharp tips of nails through the shingles, his vents clotted with leaves. He’d be what no one wanted to be—the dust, the dirt, the tindery heat upstairs—a boy watching his whole world, it seemed, in the funhouse mirror of a spoon, everything warped and upside-down. 

She became a widow well before his father died. It was how she managed—the grief made her strong, the man dead before he died, and the boy still just a boy, a little wisp of a kid, ten years old, an only child, end of story. End of story, except she stood in his bedroom doorway that afternoon and told him that his father wasn’t going to be home for dinner that night. 

And Daniel turned to her. “So?” 

“So,” she told him, “I just thought you should know.” She stepped across the room and pushed closed the dresser drawers until they all lay even. The house seemed to hold its breath as she turned with her mouth pinched down and her chin trembling so fast she could not have been controlling it. The boy watched her and felt as if he’d swallowed a bit of metal—a washer or a coin—and someone was bringing it back up along his spine with a magnet. 

She clicked her tongue and walked away, head up, out of the room, the knuckles of her hand along the door as she went. He listened to her run the water in the kitchen sink and imagined her looking out the window at the line of trees in the backyard, the bulbs already up with flowers, it being springtime and rainy and warm again now, the days growing longer. She crossed the hallway to the bathroom, and Daniel waited for the toilet to flush and refill, for her footsteps to pass his doorway and climb the stairs to the bedroom above. Daniel stood still and uneasy and waited below her, with nothing but his own breathing and swallowing. 

The mantel clock in the living room ticked louder, then softer, then louder again. It chimed six and she returned to the kitchen, where he found her staring at the cuckoo clock on the wall. The pendulum—a maple leaf—hurried back and forth, and he caught her chin starting to tremble again. It was awful, and she turned away, and the clock struck and played “Edelweiss” as the pinecone weights inched down the flowered wallpaper. 

For dinner they drove across town to the old train station, a pizza parlor now. At one time this town had been big with factories and mills, textiles and lumber. It was the county seat and its rail yards once ranked third in all New England for volume of freight handled. The trains still pounded through at night, but no passenger cars stopped in Cargill Falls, Connecticut, any longer. 

On the way home, Daniel sat quietly and held the pizza box on his lap and watched the cars and department and grocery stores pass, the drugstore, the post office, the bank. There wasn’t a window he hadn’t helped his father clean, and Daniel caught glimpses of his mother’s Chevelle in the glass of the shop fronts as she drove home. The town looked dusty and grainy in the half-light. On past the church, the cemetery, the brickwork mills along the river, the memorial bridge, his mother saying to smell the water, all chokeweed and carp. 

He didn’t know what to say to this broken edge in her voice. She told him that she hated this place and their lives here and had half a mind to just pick up and leave, never so much as look back. It made the hair on his arms go electric to hear her like this. 

“Hello?” she said. “Am I talking to myself over here?” 

“What do you want me to say, Mom?” 

He kept his eyes on the familiar turns of their neighborhood, everything prim and trim, their house like any of the others on a square of lawn, the trees ripe with birds. Inside the front door, the walls and furniture seemed to hold their breath again. Daniel and his mother sat in front of the television news—gas lines in California, Skylab falling, and then ads for gorillas with suitcases and plop-plop, fizz-fizz—Anna just staring at the picture window, at the curtains hanging with their long folds. She moved a slice of pizza around in the box. 

“Mom,” he said, “aren’t you hungry?” 

She shrugged and shook her head slightly. 

“So where’d you say Dad was so late again?” 

“I don’t remember saying anyplace,” she said. “Did I?”

He couldn’t help but laugh a little—a nervous bubble in his throat—and he looked away at the carpet and the phone and the television and tried to chew the smile from his face. 

She stood to leave. 

“What’s the matter?” he asked. 

“What d’you mean, ‘What’s the matter?’” 

“I don’t know—it’s just you’re acting like a statue.” 

“And what, pray tell, does a statue act like?” 

“You’re just staring, I guess—it’s creepy.” 

He followed the sound of her that night as she paced the floorboards over him. Back and forth and the scuff of slippers was almost endless over his ceiling. Her pacing became, eventually, a kind of patrol, and only the phone stopped her. It rang in the living room and she appeared in his doorway, her shadow bent large and long across the wall. 

“We’re not home tonight,” she told him. 

The phone kept ringing behind her—ten, fifteen, and twenty rings made it eternal. The bells hummed in his ears when they did end. From the hallway she told Daniel to sleep, though he knew he’d never be able to fall asleep now. He lay in bed cold and afraid and still as a stone, his breathing shallow as he listened to her move upstairs. Her voice sank down through the ceiling as she talked or sang to herself. Rain began to blow against the windows like sand against the house, and he must have fallen in and out of sleep, because he’d sit up in bed in the dark and believe the front door had flown open and that his father’s car waited idling in the drive. 

In the morning the rain continued. Half asleep, Daniel rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling and the light fixture. The water stain was a map of the Great Lakes. Or it was the Indian on a nickel. Or a dinosaur fossil. In the ashy light he could either blur his eyes and fall back to sleep or else he could turn and watch the evergreen branches sway against the window. 

He never woke all at once, like his father did. His father could wake up on a dime, or so he said, but the boy woke slowly, layer by layer, like his mother. He would step out of bed and find himself in the bathroom and then at the end of the hall. Now he heard the faint sound of the shower upstairs and went up to their bedroom, where the bed had been stripped, the blankets and sheets piled on the floor, a pair of suitcases on the dressers piled with folded clothes. 

“He’s not here,” she said from behind him. 

She wore a robe and had a towel on her head like a turban, her face scoured and red. “You’re not going to miss your bus,” she said, “are you?” 

Anna called in sick to the department store where she worked, managing both personnel and courtesy. She stayed home all morning, changed the locks and packed her husband’s things into boxes and bags. She took everything out into the rain, hung his pants and shirts on the low branches of the trees out front, dragged trash bags over the grass, cartons of paper and files to the curb. Let the whole town drive by and see, she thought, she didn’t care. 

Had they still lived in the saltbox by the river, she would have dropped everything into that slow brown water. But here she could only put him on the street for the garbage men to remove the next day. This was better, she told herself, a public decision was more real, more decisive. A river would’ve just carried this all away. That was what rivers did, she knew, they forgave. 

Just another day at school for the boy, but the house he came home to seemed like a pocket turned inside out, more like the empty skin of an animal than the place he lived and had left that morning. He felt ashamed by the clothes draped over the bushes, by the shoes in the grass, the boxes at the end of the drive, everything dark and soft with rain. If he could only have kept walking past this house, past this whole display of theirs, but he didn’t know where else he could go. 

Daniel went around to the backyard and saw her through the storm door in the kitchen. She was never home at this time, but there she was lifting the mop into the sink. She seemed undone—her duster half opened, her hair uncurled, her hands pressing the braids of the mop under the running water. He opened the door and stepped slowly inside, his mother wiping her hands on her hips. “Why aren’t you at school?” she asked and didn’t turn to him, just looked up at the ceiling. 

“It’s three-thirty, Mom.” 

“And you should be outside playing,” she said, “shouldn’t you?” 

She took the mop from the sink and faced him, a black smudge across her nose. “Well,” she said, “you usually go play or something, don’t you?” 

“It’s raining,” he told her.

“So? Babe Ruth would’ve played through a little rain.” 

“Babe Ruth?” 

“Whoever,” she said.

He stared at her, and she swiped the mop around his shoes and told him to go. He closed his bedroom door behind him and sat on the edge of the bed and waited and hoped her shadow would come to the stripe of light under his door, but she never came to explain any of this to him. 

Out through his side window he could see his father’s shirts and pants hanging in the trees. Daniel looked at the papers blown over the yard, the other houses on the street, and then back to the shirts and pants like versions of the same man—one hanging out there green, one brown, one blue. Daniel lifted open the window and screen and curled himself over the sill to the grass outside. He tore the clothes from the branches and brought the cold bundles up into his room, where he hung them in the closet to dry.        

Closer to night, Daniel heard the growl of his father’s car on the street in front of the house. She shut off the television and checked the locks and hurried the boy upstairs to the attic. “Pretend no one’s home,” she whispered so close he felt the words like cobwebs across his face. And downstairs, his father began to knock at the door, his car still idling at the curb. 

“C’mon, Anna,” he called, “open up already—it’s me.” 

She stood with the boy behind the gauze curtains of the attic window and listened as the man pounded and yelled himself hoarse. “I could break this fricken door down,” he hollered.

“Goddammit, Anna!” He kicked the door and stepped into the yard and the limp boxes near the street, where he stood visible through the curtains. 

Anna stared down at Bob as though he was some trespasser, his foot on the hydrant as he lit a cigarette and rested, his car exhaust rising faint red around the taillights behind him. Daniel stared too and began to shiver from the damp and the chill and the way his father waited as lean as a ghost through the curtains. The rain paused and the other houses on the street began to darken. His father drew his jacket tight. “Hey, Daniel,” he called and looked up at the house. “I know you’re in there.” 

The boy reached his hand slowly through the curtains, as if under a spell. 

And she hissed to him, “Don’t you dare.” 

Daniel dropped his hand and crouched by the window and gathered the husks of wasps and flies from the floor. When he looked up, he saw his father picking through the piles of letters and magazines outside. He then took the rest of his clothes from the sidewalk and laid them over the front seat of the car. He lifted garbage bags into the trunk, carried luggage and boxes to the back seat—the buckets and window tools, the extension ladder, the paper bag full of things from his medicine cabinet—and between each trip he glanced up to the windows of the house. 

Soon the man and his car disappeared into the long wash of streetlights and rain. Anna and Daniel started downstairs in the dark, his mother holding his hand and telling him to be careful as they went. They felt their way down and Daniel scattered the wasps on the steps behind him.  

The storm picked up that night. At least he could blame the rain and thunder for his sleeplessness. In his mind his father kicked at the front door every time Daniel closed his eyes. He first appeared to the boy like branches scratching at the screen of his bedroom window, but late in the night the man grew more and more insistent for the boy, until he stood under the eaves and tapped at the metal frame of the window, his face close to try to see inside the darkened room. 

Out of bed, the boy lifted open the window to the sound of the rain, his father’s hand to the loose mesh of the screen. The man was soaked and shrunken down as he leaned up toward the boy. 

“Hey there, bud,” he said, his voice sore. “How’s it going?” 

The rain gusted through the screen, and Daniel didn’t move, the cold spray on the tops of his feet like sparks. Lightning flickered in the clouds and the storm groaned over the house, over the town, over the trees and hills beyond. “C’mon,” said the man, “just gimme a hand with the screen.” 

Bob wiped the rain from his face and looked up at Daniel for a moment, and then cocked his arm and hit the screen with the heel of his palm. He pulled back and punched the frame again, harder, jimmied it sideways out of the window and dropped it to the grass. He put his forearms on the sill and started to lift himself into the house, but Daniel pulled the window down on him, leaned his weight on the sash, and then locked it. 

Bob fell back and his face contorted through the wet glass. He stood there and blinked the rain out of his eyes, his head tilting to one side slightly, as if he—Robert S. Cussler, forty-seven years old, this former marine, this self-made, self-commanding, self-everything sort of man—as if he couldn’t believe what was happening either. 

He raised his face to the wind and rain and bent to get the screen from the ground behind him. He tapped the grass cuttings from it and then replaced the frame in the window as best he could, and then he just turned and disappeared into the woods that bordered the yard. 

Daniel never told anyone that his father stood there that night in the rain. He never said how the man came back and kept coming back, how Bob would pull up to the house in broad daylight, how he’d waltz through the rooms when she was at work. 

Mom, he wanted to say, I did like we did. 

I hid. 

I didn’t move, he almost told her. I didn’t dare. I just kept hiding. 

That much of the story had words and Daniel pictured the words crawling from his throat, half sprung from his mouth with clicking wings. But if he never talked about it, if he never opened his mouth, then maybe NONE OF IT had to have happened: his run to the attic, the quiet of the boxes and the dusty heat upstairs, his father’s footsteps in the kitchen, the man’s voice singing into the house for the boy.

“Ding-dong,” he’d call through the rooms. “Avon calling.”

He’d go heavy and hard and deliberate, room to room to room, his legs straight and sharp as scissors until he found the stairway to the attic, finally, and the boy. 

“What’s this,” said Bob, “not even a hello for your old man?” 

The boy sat on a paint can at the window, his back curved, his chin on his knees, a line of broken bugs and beetles at his feet. 

The man shook his head and came over to the window. His dress boots had bronze zippers up the inside ankles and creases in the leather, dust in the creases, and he squatted next to Daniel and reached to open the curtain. It was torn slightly and the light wavered as the cloth moved.

“C’mon now,” he said, “it’s not that bad, is it?” He looked at the side of the boy’s face and put his arm around his shoulder, Daniel hunching his back so that his father’s hand would slip off. Bob touched the floor to catch his balance and went to one knee, waited for his son to say something. But Daniel didn’t say a word.

His father laughed and looked up at the peak of the roof and the dark beams that crossed like the ribs of a ship. At last he stood and brushed the dust from his knee. He turned toward the chimney and kicked the blood back into his legs and tapped the keys in his pocket. At the stairs he said he was hungry and thinking of a little spin for some lunch or something, but Daniel kept his eyes down and didn’t offer anything in return to the man.

“Well,” said Bob, “you’d make a mean card player, that’s for sure.”


Novel Excerpt, 2004, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt