and Dez were half way to the treehouse when the rope ladder
spun out of control. Dez lost his footing and almost fell—he
would have brought Bee down with him—but caught
himself just in time. He entered the treehouse through
a hole, concealed by ivy, in the plywood and Masonite
floor. Once inside, he set down the bag of provisions
and extended his hand to Bee, pulling her in. Dizzy, a
little drunk, they quickly undressed.
They sat face to face on a dingy bath
mat exploring ankles, feet, and toes.
The elm tree made eerie sounds, high-pitched
hisses and creaks. Although the tree was dead, ivy made
it appear alive. Thick vines with heart-shaped leaves
spiraled from the roots to the crown, to the tip of every
limb, enclosing the treehouse like wax around a hive.
The air smelled and tasted of bitter chlorophyll.
Bee's son, Charlie, had hired Dez through
a service that assists ex-convicts (the price was right),
to build a bomb shelter in the backyard, a specially equipped
biochemical shelter, or protection chamber as he liked
to call it. Bee paid Dez extra to mow the lawn and clip
Bee parted Dez's long black hair so
she could look into his almond-shaped eyes, bloodshot
and milky from a speed binge the night before. "You're
allergic to something. If it's the grass, I don't mind
"It's the ivy smell that bugs me."
"Because I mowed it for thirty
years before you came."
"Shush," he said, dancing
his fingers in her face. "I invite you to think of
something, something you watch carefully like a hawk."
"That's a weird invitation right
out of left field. I don't know, the clock on the oven,
"No, think of between my toes,
where you rubbed the cream."
"Why would I want to think of that
spot? It's your thighs I like best."
"It's between my toes where I took
possession of your soul."
Bee laughed. "You're sure full
of life today."
"Ancient beliefs, Bee, I read at
"Oh, I see. Well, I have to admit,
I did spend some extra time in your toe area applying
that anti-itch lotion; I was checking for pimples, a certain
dark pimple indicating worm—"
"That's when I sucked your spirit
right up between my toes."
"Don't say that, I would have felt
something. You're just making fun of me, but what you
don't understand is that I lived through a lot of floods
growing up on the Patusi River down in Hinshaw City. Not
only floods, but outbreaks, too. My son says those experiences
make me overly concerned about unimportant things like
Dez massaged Bee's inner thigh with
his thumb. "You're so soft there."
"Feels nice....Did I tell you I'm
not nervous around you anymore? I feel very easygoing."
"Good, because that's how I want
you to feel. It's too bad we can't feel this way in your
"Don't bring that up or I'll get
twitchy and nervous."
"Oh no, baby," Dez said gently,
his fingers slithering inside her. "No, baby."
"Did I tell you," Bee shuttered,
"Charlie built this at twelve with his bare hands?
No help at all."
Dez kissed the place Bee referred to
as her quim. After five or six minutes, he said, "Does
Charlie ever come up here now that he's a hotshot?"
"As far as I know, he hasn't for
twenty years—he keeps his lips zipped about what
he does and where he goes. I'm sure he's forgotten all
about it, which could happen since you can't see it from
the ground." Bee cupped Dez's kneecap; he flinched.
"When Charlie showed you where to build the shelter,
I was inside watching you through the window."
Bee lowered her back onto the fuzzy
mat and threw her legs in the air. On her calves she identified
nine new varicose veins.
"I can't see why you've been spying
all this time. We could've started weeks ago, silly girl."
Bee sat up, looked at Dez. His body
was flexible and fluid, his skin a perfectly cooked yellow-brown.
What a beauty, she thought, sipping her screwdriver. The
two of them shared a secret love, in a secret love nest,
and that's how she wanted it to stay.
There was nothing in the treehouse to
distract them, just ivy, bath mats and towels, bugs and
birds and squirrels. There were no pictures, of course,
and no radio to remind them of life on the ground (although
Dez had suggested music, Bee said no). The only furnishing
was a white plastic footstool with aluminum legs. Under
the footstool they kept their drinks; on top of the footstool
a shoe box and rubber hairbrush. Bee pulled the brush
through her wispy gray hair, cut short like a man's and
parted to the left. She liked being called silly girl.
"If Charlie knew what we were doing, he'd boot me
right out on the street. I can't imagine what he'd do
to you...I'm afraid he doesn't care for Chinese. And being
half Canadian, I think that might tick him off even more.
'What's wrong with a cocktail?' I asked him the other
day, 'you drink them all the time.'"
"Well I don't care for assholes.
And since when does the son tell the mother what to do?
You kick him out on the street—this is your house.
And when the shelter's done, and he's all paid up, you
can let me live in it...I'll be your fulltime caretaker."
"You're the silly one, this is
Charlie's house, he bought it from me fair and square
when I went bankrupt. He makes a bundle now as city controller.
It's a big responsibility job, he needs me to look after
him and the house. You know, he's tripled its size, it
used to be smaller than the garage."
"I never would've let you sell
your house—that's stupid business sense. Just think,
if you'd been smart, I'd be moving in tonight and we could
screw in the middle of the lawn or on the kitchen table."
Bee blushed. "Oh I don't care one
way or another whose name's on the deed. As long as Charlie
takes care of the bills and sees to the financial stuff,
I'll cook supper and keep things tidy," Bee said,
crunching on an ice cube.
"Sounds like Charlie's your husband."
"Far from it, my husband could
barely feed us...but at times he was sweet. Charlie's
a good provider, but he's such a bully. It's really a
shame...his life has always been very lonely."
"People think he's a real asshole."
"That's because he has problems
relating to others. When Charlie was a boy, some experts
at the university told me that because he saw his father
die, the trauma could follow him forever."
Dez paused for a minute. "Was your
"Murdered? It was nothing like
that. Charlie and his father went up to the hills one
Christmas to pick mistletoe. Charlie stayed on the ground
to gather what Stan threw down from the treetops. But
then there was an awful turn. Stan's branch snapped off
and he fell to the ground and died—poor Charlie
was just an inch away from being crushed."
With closed eyes, Bee timidly sipped
At that moment Dez thought she looked
like his next-door neighbor, an old lady who sold fly
swatters from her porch. Earlier, Bee resembled a little
girl when she jumped on top of him and tickled him wildly.
In particular, a girl of about ten spotted recently outside
the Laundromat smoking a cigarette. Dez liked this about
Bee, how she looked old one minute and young the next.
Bee's eyes were still shut; her breathing
was heavy. Dez crawled to the edge of the treehouse. Through
an opening in the ivy, he looked down to the yellow lawn
he'd mowed before lunch and over to the muddy pit. Around
the pit were bags of cement and two rosebushes with pale
orange flowers. Eventually he'd place the shelter's steel
lid between the roses. In a day or two, if the mud was
dry, he would pour the foundation.
Dez turned to Bee. "I'm damn lucky
my son has his grandmother to live with."
"You didn't tell me you had a child."
"In Bell County," he said,
snaking around her body.
"Oh, I've been to Bell County.
If I remember correctly, it's very pretty. Charlie and
me went there on a Sunday drive, something we used to
do when he was a college student. He drove my late brother's
station wagon back then. We'd pick a destination from
the guide in the phone book and pack a lunch." Bee
brushed her hair again. "Your mother's taking care
"No, it's her mother that's got
him." He kneaded her left calve. His odor was that
of turpentine and hard grape candy; his tongue and lips
"Is his hair as black as yours?"
"Last I saw, it was blond like
"She's not Chinese?"
"No, I'm not sure what she is.
Typical American mix, I guess."
"What's his name? You know, we
drew Charlie's name, Charles Stanley, from a wool cap.
I forget our other choices, but I know there were over
"His name is Franco Custer Lee."
"Franco, Custer, Lee. Sounds like
an historical figure. Once I read about a man who felt
it was his duty—he was from a radical organization,
like warlocks or socialists, I can't remember—he
felt it was his calling in life to kidnap and kill the
president of his country."
"This country, the States?"
Dez's tongue flicked between Bee's toes.
"No," she answered, slumping
forward, running her brush through Dez's long bangs, "it
was South America, one of those countries down there.
What the kidnapper did was take the president out to the
woods in a little airplane, I think, and torture him for
weeks on end, snipping off toes and fingers, even electrocution
of the privates. One real funny thing the kidnapper did
was roll around in the mud with the president, nude. At
the trial, this man swore that the president had said
he liked rolling in the mud better than being president."
"Did he kill him?"
"Yes, with a knife to the heart.
When they found him, wild pigs were at him."
"Who's this guy again?" Dez
was now kissing and licking the sole of Bee's right foot.
"A kidnapper and assassin whose
name was something like Franco Custer Lee."
"Who knows, maybe his mother read
the same article back when she was pregnant. I sure as
hell didn't pick the name."
Bee felt dreamy. She pointed to a squirrel
scurrying over their heads. "Have you ever rolled
in the mud?"
"Sure, a few times. It feels good
if you take your clothes off; being naked in the mud is
very stimulating. If you have clothes on, though, it feels
like you're wearing bricks."
Bee sighed, "Naked in the mud."
"Did you see the hole, it's all
full of mud. Let's climb down and go for a dip."
"You're nuts, Charlie will be home
in a few minutes. In fact, you should go down there and
get back to work. If he catches us, that's it."
"First thing tomorrow we'll get
naked and take mud baths."
"You know we have to ignore each
other on the ground. Charlie might be spying."
"I'll never posses you completely,
Bee swatted his shoulder. "You
have a son. Devote yourself to him, that's what you should
do. Forget about me," she said, startled by a grasshopper
that hopped onto her arm.
"Don't be stupid, I'll never forget
you. Anyway, I'm not allowed to see my son."
"That's terrible. Fathers and sons
need each other."
"Yeah, but I did time, in the court's
eye I'm a big fuck-up."
"I suppose you're right...sorry,"
Bee said, petting his tan belly. "Did you burglarize
for Franco's sake?"
"Yeah...though I don't know if
I knew that at the time?"
"As long as you learn from your
mistakes, that's all that matters," she said, blowing
the grasshopper into the ivy. It sprung to an outer branch
near three noisy crows. At once, three beaks lunged for
the bug; two got it, ripped it in half, swallowed. The
third crow squawked at the other two. Fascinated, Bee
and Dez looked at each other with wide grins.
Bee laid on her side, took Dez's soft
cock into her mouth. After Dez ejaculated, she washed
down the seed with vodka and orange juice. "How old
is Franco, by the way?"
"Eight." Dez caressed the
top of Bee's breast with his cheek. "Last time we
hung out together we put this fat caterpillar in a plastic
boat and set it down the river."
"I don't know...it was fun to watch
disappear. He asked me what the bug was doing; probably
taking a shit I told him."
"Shame on you, Dez, that's nothing
to teach a little boy."
"Don't scold me when I got your
nipple in my mouth."
"My goodness...oh, I like that."
More crows assembled in the tree, adding
to the noise.
Dez came up for air. "Mind if I
have another screwdriver?"
"Please do. Here, let me fix it."
Bee poured vodka, orange juice and ice into a jar, and
shook. Dez held out his glass.
"Would you like to see something
strange?" Bee asked.
Dez gulped his cocktail. "Is it
on your body?"
"No, it's in this shoe box."
She opened the box and removed a saucer made of pale yellow
glass. On it, a hard brown object, shiny, sinewy, about
the length of her little finger, with a black thread tied
"Shit, what the hell is that?"
Covering her mouth with her right hand,
Bee snickered at Dez's disgust.
"It looks like a little piece of
rope that's been dipped in lacquer or glue or something."
"No, nothing like that. I was hoping
you might guess," she said, refreshing her drink.
"Here's a hint, you told me you like it."
Dez put his ear to her chest and listened.
"It's not a turd is it?"
Bee tugged at the silky black hair under
Dez's arm. "What a filthy mind you have. Keep guessing."
"Damn, Bee, I have no idea."
"It's a piece of steak, silly."
"Very old meat."
"Shouldn't it stink, good God,
and be all covered with maggots?"
"The larvae already ate most of
it, a very big T-bone. I took this last uneaten part and
preserved it in pickling brine for a few months, then
dried it in the sun. It feels good when I make circles
on my hand with it," she said, doing just that.
"What are you saving it for? And
what's that thread on there?"
"You'll think it's silly, but I
read something in a magazine called American Anthropologist—."
"Come on, it's saved from your
wedding, good luck or something."
"The only thing saved from my wedding
is Charlie and me."
"Haven't you heard of ladies who
save a slice of their wedding cake?"
"No lady I know has done that.
And I especially wouldn't have done that because my wedding
was very traumatic for me."
"That's too bad."
"My marriage was a bad one, Dez,
though I'm sure you've figured that out by now."
"Yeah, I didn't really picture
it as good."
"If it had been good, I'd probably
be a sentimental person. Don't you think things always
go right for people who are sentimental?"
"I don't know?...I'm not sure what
"Well, don't you believe that people
who are very emotional, who laugh and cry and yell all
the time, have a better life?"
"No, you've got it backwards. I
do those things all the time and my life hasn't been too
good. I mean, I guess it's good right now because of you,
but most of the time it's shitty."
"Never mind," Bee said, rolling
the meat between her hands. Something about Dez disappointed
her, though she wasn't sure what. "You want to know
what this is, or not?"
The tree made a loud shriek. Dez jerked
his head. To him it sounded as if an electric guitar string
had been cut with a pair of nail clippers. Bee was oblivious.
The crows flew away. "I'm waiting," he said.
"In American Anthropologist
I read about mountain witches in South America who
use meat prepared this way as part of a magic hex. The
rules are you must take the piece of meat off the plate
of the unlucky person; and when it's preserved like this,
you must slip it in their pocket. The thread holds in
"Oh. So why's this person unlucky?"
"Because, dodo, it kills them."
"You've made a death charm?"
"I suppose so. The unexplained
has always been an interest of mine. And I thought, finally
I'm old enough to look into it, as a hobby, of course."
His head burrowed into her belly. "Is
that how you met me, using magic?"
"It must be," she said, outlining
his second vertebra with the meat.
The sliding glass door screeched open.
Charlie was home. Bee gasped. Dez, not sure if something
was wrong or not, glanced at the escape hatch in the floor,
and the rope ladder leading to the ground. He cupped her
rump; using just the right amount of force, he guided
her onto her belly. Beside her he laid in wait for something
to happen. Finally, he parted the ivy and looked out.
Bee snuggled closer to him, nuzzled his shoulder, chewed
on his hair. She had to pee and feared she couldn't hold
it. Dez scanned the backyard for signs of Charlie. He
spotted him standing over the pit wearing a white diaper,
sucking on a pacifier.
"What the hell?" Dez whispered
"Is he all right?" She was
alarmed. "Should I look?"
"He's wearing nothing but a diaper...he's
got a baby toy stuck in his mouth. You want to see that?"
"Oh lord...I've seen it before."
She lodged her head under Dez's sweaty armpit. "He
did this last Christmas. It goes back to the trauma, I
think." She squeezed the preserved meat in her hand.
"Traumas can ruin your life."
Under the weight of Dez, and the painful
pressure on her bladder, Bee felt serene.
From their hidden lair, Dez watched
Charlie traverse the back of the house, arms crossed,
checking the eaves for signs of termites. After a couple
of minutes, Charlie turned his back to the house and opened
his diaper. Facing the elm, his head sinking backward,
he filled the bird bath with pee.
Charlie was tall, around six two, pale
and skinny. Anger strained his mild-mannered face and
collapsed his fragile chest. His thick hair was real,
but looked like a toupee. He wore it in the dapper style
typical of city hall men, neatly parted to the left and
dyed medium blond.
Charlie huffed around the pit kicking
bags of cement like a bratty child. He was sick and tired
of waiting for his protection chamber. Sleep was impossible.
Down at city hall, gory daydreams clouded his mind. His
lower back ached and his kidneys felt strange.
Under the kitchen window he drank warm
water from the hose. It was his mother, always two steps
behind, he was fed up with. But without her, where would
he be? No, what he was really fed up with, utterly disgusted
by, was the ongoing invasion of Flogger Heights by sly,
greedy Chinese immigrants.
Charlie strolled back to the pit,
sat in the grass between the rosebushes, and dangled his
legs over the edge. At the count of three he jumped in.
Lying in the mud, staring at big white clouds, he tried
to imagine the cement and steel that would soon cover