Running From the Wasps
~Big, Shiny-Black Bees~
I am not paranoid when I leap from my patio lounge into a run for the back door. I see through the screen I’m pulling shut between us, the thing has followed me. It hovers, and its black shell reflects sunlight. It darts out of frame with a rumble. From indoors, through aluminum mesh, I watch it, or another, approach and enter its lair behind my lounge’s towel-draped shoulders.
I’ve been mourning Airwolf, a show that died a couple years ago, after leaving CBS for USA Cable; L.A. for Vancouver, B.C.
I’m saying so-long to the ‘80s and watching thirty come up fast.
Running from Airwolf bees, I may resemble Mom on our horse ranch in Montana in the early ‘70s, chased through the yard by a red cock so fierce in protecting his red hens, he beaked at Mom’s ankles, pecked at her heels, flapped at her head—shades of Tippi Hedren—all the way to the house. When Mom got inside the boot shed, the rooster threw himself against the just-slammed door with a clatter.
I live in a North Hollywood guest house next to a main house with a pool wasps frequent in their nest-building efforts, landing on its surface, tanking up, lifting off and, stupid-drunk with water, swerving like slo-mo, cargo-laden helitankers, legs dangling and swaying like landing skids, in the direction of the nests they’re building with plaster made from water blended with plant fibers that dry like layers of swirled paper. The passage between my abode and main-house buildings serves as an unobstructed wasp highway from pool to front-yard constructions. They’re not necessarily coming at me; probably, I’m in their way. Their golden, bloated bodies careen, legs drag in air, my hairs bristle, and I run. My overall strategy is to stay out of their way and don’t get them angry, so they don’t home in on me and force me through my back screen door.
I have two pomegranate trees in my own back yard from which I cannot harvest even one whole fruit without drill holes where hummers have hovered, poked, and sucked the pulp out of individual seeds from the outside. Hummies have the advantage, darting in and out before I can complete my protests. Sometimes the drilled-out skin falls away from the hanging fruit, exposing the interior’s white, fleshy honeycomb, emptied shells of cells—like a building’s outer wall falling away in a quake and exposing the remnants of its rooms.
I have lived in this guest house adjacent to my dad’s since I was fifteen, for almost as many years, give or take a few adventures, some back in Montana, where my little sister and I also grew up, after Mom’s remarriage and before her death from cancer in ‘73.
This North Hollywood compound, I call it, was not our first L.A. place with Dad after Mom died. First there was a coastal apartment highrise with a pool; then a San Fernando Valley rental house shared with another single-parent family, also with a pool; then Dad bought this Morrison Street place, in a part of the Valley that used to be farmland and my guest house an orange-grove caretaker’s cottage, before the main house was built, before there were streets. The guest house is zoned in the contemporary grid as a half-lot attached to the main lot. Both houses bear individual, whole-number addresses fastened to walls above mail boxes and painted on the curb.
In the back yard of the guest house, along the edges of a postage-stamp lawn are freeway plants—Oleanders flowering white, pink, and scarlet along wood-planked fences—and an evil, thorny, inedible-lemon tree with a role in home security. At the eastern edge of the little slab of concrete I painted terra-cotta red, the two ancient pomegranate trees provide the gnarled trunks into which black bees drill holes; they tunnel to their nests. It’s because I sit close to the pomegranate trees that the big, shiny-black bees come at me. So says the wasp man, who tells me that my Airwolf bees are Carpenters, X. californica. The males are particularly protective, territorial, without an arsenal past intimidation. Only their women folk have stingers.
~The Wasp Man~
I am a cliché struggling writer in L.A. with a not-writing day job. Except I am not struggling to pay rent. My dad is an episodic television writer who, even when acting as a story executive attached to a studio lot—like on High Chaparral, Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, Hell Town—does most of his writing at home. He has no desire to rent to strangers for income, held up against how much he values his privacy. Plus, he wants me to save what I make at my talent-agency day job, at least what I’d pay in rent, toward launching myself in some sure direction. I assuage my guilt of luck by managing things around here for him, and the guest house is again, in a sense, a caretaker’s cottage. I am a lucky girl. I know we have a wasp problem because I’m no stranger to Dad’s pool; and the guest house’s back yard makes part of my living space. Dad is willing to pay an exterminator. But since I’m the one complaining, I must call around, request bids, supervise.
I’m glad to talk with the wasp man, walk him on a tour of the yards and structures: Dad’s modest two-bedroom (one his home office), surrounded on three sides by walled-in patios; the ancient gardening shack; the guest cottage; the redwood carport; the converted garage, containing my married sister’s old room, plus laundry room, and storage. I show the wasp man the paper nests around the place. And he points out nests that are news to me.
When he’s ready to blast the wasp communities from their beams and eaves, he suits up. We all—cats, too—have to stay indoors until the dust settles: the devastated, angry swarms, the confused and anguished survivors.
The wasp man tells me if, in future, I want to patrol against redeveloping nests, to knock them down with blasts from water nozzles, to do so at or after sundown, when they’re home for the night. He says to wear protective clothing. I will.
The wasp man says the Carpenter bees might be mistaking my eyes for wood holes, in the proximity of the pomegranate trees, whether sockets or sunglasses; maybe are mistaking my eyes for their aims, their ports of entry. Tiny Jan-Michael Vincent led crews are not strategically piloting these air beasts searching for and protecting their lairs. So much is guesswork and instinct on the path to the right gnarly trunk hole.
After Mom’s rooster chased her, flailing and tripping, into the house, her second husband (the man she left Dad for) fashioned a wooden club he hung for security outside the chicken-coop door. It gave me a sick satisfaction, knocking that rooster over the head, rendering him unconscious and harmless until my feeding and watering and egg-collecting were done and the wood-framed, chicken-wire door latched again between us. I always left him in a just-coming-to state, about to fling himself at the door—at me, safe on the other side of chicken wire.
My friend Elyssa guest-starred in one of Airwolf’s last CBS episodes.
After the series went to cable, no more Jan-Michael Vincent, no more Ernie Borgnine, and for all intents and purposes, no more sexy-black, supersonic Airwolf itself. Why invest myself in new episodes just for recycled shots of Airwolf in flight (a helicopter that the downscaled, first-run cable production couldn’t afford, everything new shot in a grounded mockup)? I was in love with that helicopter, seeing it in action, moving triumphantly to its own glinting score, and feeling that excitement in my heart; super-sexy.
While the menacing black bees buzz me—and hover at eye level—seem to stare me down, my fear is mixed with fondness and admiration, because, honestly, who cannot see the resemblance?
While my sister and I were in school, Mom’s red rooster was killed by a chicken hawk, which in turn was shot by a weapon-wielding neighbor. Saying goodbye to that rooster was fine with me. What did we need him for, anyway, the picturesque? Mom had thought fertilized eggs would be more nutritious.
On that Montana ranch, the rooster died. The white rabbit I brought from California died, obese and triple-chinned. After Mom died, her yellow cat died, broken hearted, wailing herself to death in the garage; then, Mom’s sheltie, who was blind and deaf and had no more reason to live. One of our California cats survived, the daughter of the yellow cat, born here in the Valley in the ‘60s when my parents were still married, and she was brought back to L.A. from Montana by me in ‘73; was buried years later, next door, in a corner of Dad’s front courtyard.
None of us is safe. Not cats, opossum, crows, high-wire squirrels and rats; not my scalp, as I walk across the yard. We are in mockingbird nesting territory. Second-generation shades of Tippi Hedren—me ducking and running, waving my arms above my head, from one back yard to the other.
~Running from the Wasps~
Now that I know what to look for in the way of Paper Wasp homemaking, I sometimes button up from neck to toe and patrol the property at twilight with nozzles on hoses, whenever it appears the new papery nests are re-forming, in the same eaves, same corner of the carport. I cannot stop wasps from landing on Dad’s pool any more than I can stop Carpenters from drilling into trees, but I tell myself I can encourage wasps to move from the pool in other directions, seek new structures, so maybe I can relax for a minute on this terra-cotta pad without rushes of adrenalin, without the forced running from my own back yard.
You would like to see me running from my own back yard?
Pamela Balluck’s creative writing has appeared in, among other publications, the Western Humanities Review, The Southeast Review, Quarter After Eight, Square Lake, Jabberwock Review, [PANK], Barrow Street, Night Train, Freight Stories, Avery Anthology, Prime Mincer, and The Ocean State Review. She has fiction forthcoming in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories and in The Way We Sleep. She teaches writing at the University of Utah.