Bees Don't Tire
He was sitting on his bed with a .38 in his hand.
“I don’t know how to do this,” John said.
He was going to commit suicide with a gun because his multiple sclerosis had become unmanageable and he could not wipe himself anymore. I had been his caregiver for five months and been wiping him for a week.
I was sitting beside him on his bed where he contemplated the act. I touched my finger to a spot below and behind his left ear. “Right there,” I said.
He asked, “Where should I do it?”
“If it were me, I would lie down on the bathroom floor and wrap my head in a towel so it wouldn’t make a mess.”
“That sounds right. I don’t know if I can do this, Mike.”
“I don’t know if I could either.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“But I can’t live like this anymore.”
He knew he wouldn’t be able to pull a trigger soon and that no one would or could do it legally for him. I sure wouldn’t.
He had done everything right. When the draft notice arrived in 1964, he was leading a do-wop band and was signed with Phil Spector. His group played Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey and other places on the way up the musical ladder. A recording date had been set. He’d shown me an 8 millimeter film of them and they’d looked good. He had broken up the band and reported to the Army within a month and less than a year later he was getting shin splints from walking the stinking jungles of Vietnam near Pleiku. He had seen the planes poisoning the forests with Agent Orange from Operation Ranchhand.
“When we saw those planes we dropped our gear and ran like hell,” he told me. “But we always got some of it anyway.”
Now he was as ready as a human could be to die. He didn’t want to do it of course. He wanted to live. But he didn’t want to live like this. Every day it worsened. He had the worst form of MS, the regressive kind that gets nothing but worse without a day of remission or relief. Each day it was harder to walk with his walker from the bedroom to the living room, where he spent most of the day lying on his stomach watching television. It was his most-comfortable position. He had pains all over all of the time.
I had knocked on his door five months previously after a former in-law had asked me to look in on him. I’d met him in New Jersey a year or so before, when he was in better shape.
“I was going to commit suicide today,” he told me a few hours after I knocked.
No one had ever told me that when it was the truth. I saw it was true because he looked down, ashamed of his weakness for having told.
“Well I might do that too, if I were in this condition. You have every right. But have you tried every therapy?”
I knew a little about multiple sclerosis because it ran in my former wife’s family.
“I haven’t tried bee sting therapy,” he said.
“They sting you with bees and it’s supposed to make you stronger.”
Nothing sounds weird to me anymore.
“Have you researched it?”
“A little. There’s stuff about it on the internet.”
“Well, let me read up on it, and maybe I can help you with it,” I said. I didn’t want to think about him pulling the trigger after I left. I’d just been released from the VA hospital in L.A. after five months of having my head reduced to a manageable size.
“Where are you headed for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you stay here for awhile? I can use some help. Shopping and things. Taking me to the doctor.”
“I can pay you some.”
“You don’t have to. Just buy my gas and I’ll eat what you eat.”
I read about it on his ancient Gateway computer until I got the idea. I printed things out for him and we read them together. He was ready to believe it and so was I. It was a simple matter of access to honey bees, and having the right equipment: a hive, protective gear; a jar; reverse forceps, and, we learned the hard way, ice.
I called around Redlands, CA, until I found a beekeeper. I told him what I wanted and why and he said he’d heard of that, and he would be glad to sell me a hive and the clothing and a smoker.
As soon as I met the beekeeper I knew that he was a pervert of some kind. He lived in a big old neglected house in a rural area and every window was boarded up or somehow blocked. No way to see inside anywhere, not even into the kitchen in the back where I knocked, because he had a stack of cardboard boxes blocking the view; he could have had anything inside from an arsenal to a dozen children chained to walls. His backyard was strewn with junk, mostly broken down equipment and car parts. There was a small orchard of apples and about 10 hives stark white in the sun.
“These hives are too big for me,” I said. “I don’t need that many bees.”
“I can’t make you a half of a hive.”
“Okay. Just sell me the smoker and some clothes.”
“I’ve got just what you need.”
He produced a smoker, the gloves, heavy pants and shirt, and the face mask and a Vietnamese peasant’s conical hat.
“Pretty good,” I said, paying him more than I expected.
“I got that from a gook I shot.”
“Sure. Maybe if you’d asked he would have just given it to you.”
He looked at me a minute and then he turned away.
“Maybe I can make you a smaller hive.” He started looking around for lumber but it was mostly mildewed and rotting.
“That’ll work.” I gave him a number and left. He was a creep and I felt the creepiness of the place as I walked past the boarded-up windows.
I talked to another beekeeper on the phone who told me he’d read up on it. Bee sting therapy came from China, he said. He told me that the Chinese had discovered acupuncture by observing the effects of beestings on different parts of the body. He said that some beekeepers bottled bee venom in hypodermic vials. He said beekeepers never get arthritis in their hands from being stung so much.
I took his word for it and asked if he would sell me a small hive.
“I don’t want the honey,” I said. “You can collect that.”
He made a deal. I didn’t like the other guy and though he called I never went back.
“Ants will kill a hive if they discover it,” he told me when he showed me the half-sized hive. “Bees have no defense against ants because they’re too small to sting. You have to find a place they won’t find easily.”
“Where is that?”
“Hang it in a tree and coat the wire with ant poison. I scatter it around my hives to keep them away."
“How do I collect the bees?”
“You’ll have to figure that out. You can use a net.”
“I don’t want to use a net.”
“You’ll figure something.”
We wrapped the half-hive in an old blanket and put it in the back of the crummy little compact Dodge I was driving then. A few got out and buzzed my head as I drove the 25 miles back to Redlands. It was dark when I got home. I put the hive on the back patio on a chair and removed the blanket.
I thought about it overnight and figured it out.
I found a medical supply house and bought reverse forceps, which open when you pinch, and close when you release. Then I bought a hole saw for my drill.
I donned the gear and smoked the hive with newspaper and dried leaves. When you smoke them, bees think the hive is afire, and start eating the honey in preparation for emergency evacuation. They don’t have time to sting anybody, unless you mess with them. It does not make them drowsy. Bees don’t get drowsy.
I screwed a mayonnaise jar lid to the back of the hive with two small screws, and then I drilled a hole through it into the hive. As the bees swarmed out, I screwed the jar onto the lid and watched it fill with alarmed bees.
When a hive is compromised, the bees start repairing the intrusion with wax. It doesn’t take them long. While they were repairing the hole I screwed a large eyehook squarely in the middle of the top. I carried the hive to a large pine on the edge of his eighth-acre that was shielded from neighbors by flowering bushes and trees. The nearest limb was 10 feet high. I threw a rope over it and taped it to the number 18-guage wire I had bought. I hauled it up until the hive was head-high, and then climbed a stepladder to wrap the wire around itself like a coat hanger. On the way down I coated it with liquid ant poison. I secured it to the tree with another wire so it wouldn’t spin. It hung perfectly and the bees didn’t seem to mind.
We began the next day after studying charts and figuring where to sting him. He wanted it on his hands and fingers to see if he could get strength in them. Some days it was hard for him to hold a fork.
I approached the hive with an extra jar and lid. Removing the one, I poked a hole through the wax and then screwed it back. It quickly filled with investigating bees. I removed it, put on the lid, and replaced it with the other jar. Nothing could be easier.
He asked me to sting the back of his hand. I retrieved a bee with the forceps, grasping it by the thorax, and then I applied it to his hand.
The pain was nearly unbearable. His eyes teared-up. The closer to the bone, the worse a bee sting hurts.
“I don’t think I can do this Mike.”
“What if we numb the area with ice first?”
“Let’s try that.”
We did, and it worked. He hardly felt it at all.
I stung both hands at the base of the fingers and thumb and once on the back of each wrist. John said it hardly hurt at all. I watched the stingers through a magnifying glass while they pumped venom for five minutes after. It looks like two testicles on a sword. When they stopped pumping I plucked them out with tweezers. The stinger-less bees flew off with their guts hanging out and died, usually near a window. I gathered them up later and threw them away.
The next day he said his hands felt stronger.
So we did it every day in the afternoon after he had done with watching The Price is Right and another famous show which name I cannot remember. John was always close with the price of the giveaway items. Some days I watched them with him, but mostly I explored the internet on his old computer.
The bees scoured the neighborhood for flowers and after a month or so the whole street was awash in hybrids. Neighbors never suspected the hive. There was a large orange grove nearby and I suppose they went there too. Some days I watched the bees trying to figure them out but I never did. After awhile I dropped the face net and worked without it. Only once did a just-born bee fly out and get me between the eyes, but his venom was so weak that it hardly hurt at all.
I shopped for him, cleaned his house every day, mowed the lawn, and prepared our meals. At night we often watched a movie I would rent. I told him some stories and kept him laughing. He appreciated my cynical outlook, which I admitted was an insincere pose to keep people away from me. He liked my honesty. He said he had never met anyone like me.
"You've got a lot of guts to live like you do," he said. I re-assured him that I was as cowardly as the next guy.
He wasn’t a physical person. He was a gentle man who loved music and tried to do the right thing all the time. He screwed up of course. We all do. He had married and had two kids and had started an electrician’s business back east in New Jersey and paid his taxes religiously. Then his wife started fucking around and he divorced her. She took him to the cleaners but didn’t get the boys. His business was ruined
financially by the alimony and lawyer-fees.
He started another one and built it better than the last. His boys were teenagers when the second wife did the same thing. She had put her money in cocaine and he had put his in a big sailboat that she didn’t know about. But he wasn’t a sailor. One day in a stiff wind on Long Island Sound had convinced him of that. But he kept the boat and kept it secret. When he developed the disease she tried to shoot him first, then started divorce proceedings and almost got it all, but failed. He managed to pay her and the lawyers off and send both kids to college. He sold the boat and used the money to open a comfortable little bar in Bergen County, and hung out there; but he wasn’t a drinker.
Finally, he told me about Vietnam. He had never told anyone.
“The first time I mentioned I’d been in Vietnam, people put me through hell about it. One guy called me every name in the book. That cured me. I never mentioned it again until I met you,” he explained.
He told me a lot of things about it. I told him what I knew, and we left it at that. He saw I hated the war and it enabled him to finally hate it too.
There wasn’t any explaining the multiple sclerosis. He had no family history of it or of any central nervous system disease. One day at age 49 he had slipped on the ice and hit the back of his head hard and flat on the sidewalk. The next day it had begun.
When he saw he was going to die of it he had sold the bar and moved to Redlands to be near an old buddy who helped and comforted him. He had fallen in love with my former sister-in-law, who had it too. She had hers pretty much under control with proper diet and exercise and little stress other than an obnoxious, selfish daughter.
But it only got worse for John.
I suspected Agent Orange and convinced him to let me take him to the VA hospital. They examined him and enrolled him in the Agent Orange program and sent him to neurosurgeons and they performed their tests. I took him to a Korean acupuncturist, and after each session his pain subsided for days at a time.
But it was a losing game and he knew it. We figured he'd taken about a thousand stings in five months, and though it helped some it wasn't doing the trick.
One day he said he was going to kill himself with the .38 he kept in a bedside table.
“There’s probably a better way,” I said. There was no use trying to talk him out of it.
“How about a heroin overdose? It just stops your heart.”
“I don’t know how to shoot drugs.”
“Can you get heroin?”
“Probably.” I had met addicts in the hospital who had been kicked out but returned every day for methadone treatment.
I made three trips to L.A. looking for the stuff. Each one was a 90-mile traffic jam. I found the addicts in line one day and inquired.
“You’re not a junkie,” one said.
“No I’m not. It’s for a friend who wants to kill himself.”
They wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I kept looking and on the third trip a junkie burned me for $100 and I gave it up.
“I’m a pothead,” I told John. “I don’t know how to score this shit. They look at me and see a cop.”
“I’ll use the gun Mike.”
“Ah shit John.”
“It’s all right. I’ve seen guys shot in the head. It’s quick.”
“Nothing is fair.”
“What about your sons? What will I tell them?”
“They’ll get along all right. Tell them I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s the truth.”
That morning he had fallen walking slowly from his bedroom. He hated me wiping his ass.
“You’re a good guy Mike. I’m going to give you two thousand dollars for helping me out.”
“Okay.” He sent me to his bank with his card and PIN number. I withdrew the money and started packing to leave. My writing was laid all over the dining room table he never used anymore. I cleaned his house real good. He gave me a lot of stuff to throw out that he didn’t want anyone to see. He laboriously wrote a suicide note and showed it to me.
“It doesn’t exonerate me. You have to do that or they will say I helped.”
He re-wrote it and thanked me profusely for helping him get along.
“That’ll work,” I said.
That night I sat waiting in the living room with the television on. Once I went in the bedroom and sat with him on the bed while he held the gun. That’s when I told him how I would do it if it were I. He thanked me again and I gave him his last hug.
He was too weak to respond.
I went back to the television. Later I called my son in New Jersey and told him what was happening.
“I don’t want to hear this,” he said indignantly, and hung up.
About 11 o’clock the pistol shot sounded like the crack of a whip. I was there in a second. He had lain on the tiled bathroom floor and wrapped his head in a heavy towel. Blood seeped through the towel. The gun lay on the floor. His left leg was jerking. I held the portable phone in one hand and called the cops while I rubbed the leg; I don't know why. After five minutes his body stiffened and died. I kept saying “Oh John, oh John.”
It was the saddest thing I ever saw. He had left the note on the walker at the bathroom door.
The operator told me to stay on the line and I still had the phone to my ear when two cop cars arrived. My face was twisted in pain. I led them to him while the coroner was telling me to slow down.
“Who wrapped his head up like this?” he demanded.
“He did,” I said, leaving the room.
I sat in the adjoining bedroom and cried. They could hear me. I cried a long time until I heard the coroner say, “Forget the ambulance.”
I went into the kitchen and sat at the counter and cried. I couldn’t stop. They posted a cop in the hall to watch me in case I was a murderer.
I called his son in San Francisco and told him. He had been drinking and refused to believe it. I gave the phone to the cop and he confirmed it. He handed me back the phone and the son said he was on his way.
After three hours I was all cried out, and they came out carrying John on a stretcher in a black plastic bag that was taped all around.
The coroner stood a few feet away and made inquiries. I explained about the regressive MS.
“What were you doing when he shot himself?”
I couldn’t remember.
“Watching television?” The TV had been on when they had entered.
“Did you know he was going to do it?”
“Did you know he was going to do it tonight?”
I looked him steadily in the eyes.
“He left a note that had some good things to say about you. Did you read it?”
“Do you have another place to go?”
“You can’t stay here.”
“His son is on the way. He expects to find me here.”
He left after telling me they had gotten up all the blood except for a small amount on the carpet.
“Bleach and soapy water will remove it,” he explained. After they had gone I cleaned it up. There wasn’t a shred of evidence that a man had died there.
I loaded my car with the boxes I had stacked in the garage and went to bed. About 7 a.m. his good friend called but I was so groggy I couldn’t talk to him. I awoke about nine and called his girlfriend in New Jersey. She broke down. She said she would come to the funeral.
Her meddling mother called a half-hour later.
“Don’t you leave, Mike. Stay for the funeral.”
“Okay,” I said to get rid of her. I had no intention to stay for a funeral. I never listen to that bitch anymore.
I called the beekeeper and told him what happened and to come for his hive.
John’s son arrived a short time later. I told him the truth about it.
“I would have pulled the trigger myself if he had asked me to,” he said. But I knew it was bullshit. That’s murder according to the state.
I showed him what I knew about the place and where the spare key was hidden in a magnetic box by the air conditioner. I gave him the large envelope John had sealed with tape before asking me to give it to him and to keep it away from the cops. I lit some sage and walked around the house through every room with it because the Utes had taught me to do that in case of a death.
“It calms the departed spirit who stays around awhile,” one had said.
His son gave me a strong hug and a thank you for helping his father for so long.
I drove to Las Vegas to see my old friend Dave. I told him John was the 45th guy I knew who had died because of Vietnam, and the third suicide. Our whole amtrack unit had been destroyed in the Mekong four years after we got out in 1962.
Dave died a few months later of pancreatic cancer and I eulogized him. I left Vegas and went to Tahoe. A few months later I left there and went to San Francisco. Then I went to Seattle to see my old friend Pat Clary. I gave him the Vietnamese hat which fit him better than me. He laughed and said he would never wear it but kept it anyway. Things went sour when Pat died, and I went to Colorado to stay with Wild Bill Norman, who had become a terrible drunk. So I went to Albuquerque. When nine-eleven happened I sold everything and took a bus to New Orleans. Then my son became ill and I closed my place and went back to Jersey. After that was over 11 months later I tried to go to Canada but they wouldn’t let me in. I rented a place in Presque Isle, Maine, for 14 months until the VA told me I had esophageal cancer. I went through that bullshit for six months and moved to Mexico. I developed a post-surgical blood clot in my left femoral region and went to the VA in El Paso to have it fixed. Then I went to my sister’s place in Louisiana to recuperate. When that was over I went to Florida and ran a military museum for 14 months. Then I went back to New Orleans and lived in my van for three years. Recently I returned to New York City.
Now I’m driving a taxi again after 22 years. I can hardly wait to get out of this hell hole too.