The Sting

When my cousin Donnie and I were children, he was daring, adventurous, the kind of boy who climbed high trees and spoke to strangers, fearless, foolish. Once at our Mama Jan's house he got stung by a bee he was trying to swat out of the air with a dead branch. The bee dodged the boy for as long as it could tolerate, then went for his arm. Donnie screamed, cried, it was the whole nine-year-old waterworks. I was six, more scared than he, and though Donnie admonished me not to tell Mama Jan, I was already through the screen door and shouting for help. Mama Jan salved and bandaged Donnie's sting, then we all three sat on the stooped porch just outside the living room, watching the bee beside us, on its back, buzzing and squirming, unable to rise. I moved to kill it, but Mama Jan said to leave it alone. "Once a bee loses its stinger, it loses its will to live."

Another time, Mama Jan, Donnie, and I went to visit Mama Jan's mother, Mama Greene. Mama Jan and Mama Greene talked inside. Donnie and I pretended to be Ninja Turtles in the backyard. In pursuit of an imaginary Shredder, Donnie decided to climb Mama Greene's white picket fence. I said I wasn't going. He had already started his ascent. His foot slipped and he fell. From the ground, he twisted around, clutching his stomach, a patch of blood on the front of his shirt. "Just go," he said dramatically. I ran inside and told. Mama Jan drove him to the hospital while I stayed with Mama Greene. There had been a nail sticking out from the fence. Donnie's stomach had scraped along it. The wound was not deep but long, leaving behind what resembled a red zipper.

Donnie never ceased to be the boy who rushed headlong into things. When he entered high school, he joined with skater kids who wore black and listened to Marilyn Manson. Everyone was afraid of them. He wanted everyone to be afraid of him. But then one night outside our town's movie theater, his new friends beat him up and stole his money. Senior year, he got it into his head that he wanted to be a parent. He married, he and his wife had a daughter, they made Mama Jan a great-grandmother. Mama Jan, who said she wanted us to make her a great-grandmother one day, was in truth too exhausted by life by the time Hattie was born, too old to enjoy spoiling her great-granddaughter. As she confessed to my mother before my mother's passing, she failed to love Hattie as she would have liked, as Donnie would like. This, no doubt, came as a blow to him. Mama Jan had practically raised him. Donnie's father had been in and out of jail for drug charges most of Donnie's life.

The last time I saw Donnie's father, my uncle, both my parents had died in quick succession from cancer and I had gone home to visit my younger brother. Uncle Rick was crouched down in the kitchen, trying to attach a cable to the stove that would plug into the wall. Talking to him from the living room, I could hear him try to screw in a bracket, but every few minutes, he would drop his screwdriver. He must have done this twenty-seven times. When he finished—it had taken upward of an hour—he raised up, his eyes were bloodshot, he looked drunk. He took a hit off his weed pipe before he left. I checked on Uncle Rick's work in the kitchen. It should have been a simple task to attach brackets to the back of the stove, should have taken one minute. When I went to use the bathroom, I noticed that all the sheetrock had been knocked out behind the showerhead above the bathtub, and the showerhead itself was missing. I asked my brother what all this was. He said that Uncle Rick had started something he hadn't finished. That was just like him to do.

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