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The Sound of the Absence of Wasps

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The cicadas come early this year. They settle in quick, peeling themselves out of their sticky brown skins and leaving them to clump on the torn screen door and the slats between the porch and the railing. With them come the ants and the horseflies. Mosquitos too, and fat, bristling caterpillars. Wasps start chewing the rafters and spitting them up again, making thin, filmy paper nests that grow thicker as they pack layer after layer of wood into misshapen, grayish lumps of hive. They do this all over town- in attics, over doorways, and under Leonard Pine’s porch.

Hap Collins nearly breaks his neck backing down the porch steps. He squints at the slats from a healthy distance. He can hear the buzzing from here. He can imagine the sticky gray paper, all full of eggs and knotholes and bug piss.

“Fuck’s sake, Leonard,” he mutters to himself, shifting his grocery bags onto one arm. “Ain’t you had anyone take a look at that?”

Leonard is allergic to wasps. The kind of allergic that could kill him if he weren’t careful. When they were kids he slapped a wasp off Hap’s arm and his hand swelled up like anything. He’d been pissed at Hap for a whole hour after that, and it ain’t like Hap asked him to slap the wasp.

Hap has a live and let-live relationship with bugs. They don’t go bothering him or Leonard, he won’t go bothering them. That’s why he takes the porch steps slowly, and sidles around the spot where the buzzing is loudest. He wiggles the screen door open with his elbow and shimmies through it quick, slamming it behind him. Revulsion shivers through him. Leonard had better get that taken care of.

He won’t come back till evening though so Hap’s got the house to himself. He takes the time to put the groceries away- may as well, Leonard’ll give him hell for it if he doesn’t- before settling in on the couch for another afternoon of daytime television.

It ain’t like it’s his fault he’s living in Leonard’s house. It’s Bill Porter’s fault for betting his ’62 Camaro in the first place, when he had to have known Hap was counting the cards. And it sure as hell is Bill Porter’s fault for choosing to deliver the damn thing by driving it through Hap’s living room.

Sore loser, that Bill Porter.

So Hap’s with Leonard for the time being, and it’s not a bad arrangement. Leonard keeps him sane. Sometimes Hap doesn’t bother keeping track of the days, they go by so slow. He feels half-empty and hungry. He keeps looking at the sun.

It’s grief. Hap knows it is. Grieving Florida, grieving last Christmas. Grieving whatever nameless thing Grovetown killed in him and Leonard.

It’s not good for a man to be alone after that. Thank god for Bill Porter and his pair of threes.

 

Hap slides in and out of a fugue state for a few hours while Tommy and Cassandra fight over who gets the baby, and long about eight o’clock Leonard comes back and walks through the front door cool as you please, never mind the wasps.

“You out of your mind, Leonard?” Hap slurs, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. “That ain’t safe.

“Whole neighborhood ain’t safe,” says Leonard dully, throwing his coat over the kitchen counter and opening the fridge. “You got milk?”

“Yeah, I got milk.”

“I didn’t say nothing ‘bout the wasp nest under your porch.”

Hap twists in his seat to better look at him. “Yeah, but I ain’t ‘lergic. And anyway Bill Porter fucked ‘em up bad already so ain’t any use worryin’ about ‘em now.”

“Bill Porter,” Leonard mutters. He flips open the carton of milk and tips it up, drinking it straight. Hap grimaces. “Oughta bust his head.”

There’s no conviction in it though, and there’s no real malice in the way Leonard shuffles from the kitchen directly into the bedroom and shuts the door. Leonard hasn’t been much up to picking fights, not lately.

Hap almost wishes he were. It’d be better than what he’s really out doing.

It’s not like Hap ain’t familiar with loneliness. It’s not like he doesn’t know what might drive a man to pay for a little comfort. Problem is, whatever personal attention Leonard’s been getting from gas station rent boys ain’t exactly been improving his mood.

He goes two towns over so he won’t be recognized, and he goes more nights than not. He comes back late, looking bitter and drained, and it doesn’t do Hap any good to see him like that. Makes his stomach clench in a nasty way. Almost like the way it clenches when he thinks about wasps.

Leonard really oughta take a look at that nest.

But there’s nothing for it. Leonard’s lonely and Hap ain’t enough for him. He knows that. And it ain’t good for a man to be lonely.

Leonard needs the kind of attention he won’t ever ask Hap for. There’s a mile-long list of reasons why and Hap has rolled every reason round and round his head for so long that they’re all worn smooth. Most nights it doesn’t bother him. Some nights it does. It doesn’t sit right with him that Leonard would rather pay for a dirty blowjob in a truck stop bathroom than ask his own best friend for . . . for something. Anything.

Hap gets real mad when he thinks about that. The stomach-curdling, gut-clenching, heart-pounding kind of mad that makes him wanna shrivel up inside himself.

Daytime television has long since transitioned into the evening news but Hap stays up, not talking. He can’t hear anything from Leonard’s room and that’s a good thing- means he’s gone straight to sleep. First sign of trouble and Hap’d be forcing the door down.

It’s been a few months on from Grovetown now and they still sleep in shifts. Leonard sleeps first, Hap sleeps second. Never at the same time. It’s the only way Hap can sleep anymore, knowing that Leonard’s out in the living room, always within arm’s reach of a shotgun.

 

They stay in the next morning and watch the flies crawl across the ceiling. Lot of days look like that now. Leonard hates it even more than Hap does but neither of them do a goddamn thing about it. It’s easier to stay in, and day drink, and watch shitty TV about people they don’t care about. Staying in means they don’t have to walk past the wasps.

Goes on like that for a couple days.

Hap scrubs his clothes in the sink and Leonard doesn’t say anything about it. Leonard comes back late and kicks a hole through the screen door when it won’t open right and Hap doesn’t say anything about it. Summer bleeds in under the porch.

At least Hap ain’t living alone.

He tells himself that in the sickly daze after he’s rubbed one out in the shower. Used to be it felt good doing that. Not so much nowadays. Feels like his head’s full of static, the same white noise that rattles around in his skull after closing the magazines he’d rather not admit he got off to.

And Leonard ain’t bad to get off to. Not compared to some other shit Hap’s seen. Still, Hap doesn’t know many people who’d agree with him on that. There’s plenty of folks who think the worst kind of low-down, degrading shit in the world is better than being sweet on a friend. A black friend, at that. A male friend.

The wasps are getting worse.

Hap can’t think how to get rid of them. He sags, back sticking to the shower wall as he catches his breath. He looks down at his hand. Still sticky, lathered up with soap and worse. Doesn’t soap kill wasps? Soap and vinegar.

Smoke, too. He could smoke them out, if Leonard would let him.

 

“The hell’s your problem?”

It’s three days later and Leonard’s putting his boots on. Hap watches from the couch. His eye does that little twitching thing it does when he’s feeling put out. “I don’t . . . have a problem,” he says slowly, like he’s convincing somebody.

Leonard looks up at him, then back down. He runs his tongue along his teeth with a grimace. “Look,” he says. "It ain’t my fault Bill Porter drove his car through yo damn livin' room.”

“My car. And that ain’t what I-”

“If you gon’ be sleepin’ over like this you best get used to me comin’ and goin’ every night.”

“Comin’ and goin’,” Hap mutters under his breath.

Leonard catches it and gives him a flinty, side-eyed look, but he says nothing. He never does, neither. Time was, Hap would’ve been just fine with that. Now he just feels tired.

“Wish you wouldn’t go out, is all,” he says. He leans across the couch and fishes the remote out from between the cushions.

“C’mon, Hap.”

“It ain’t right,” says Hap. “It ain’t healthy. And it ain’t like you’re havin’ a good time neither.”

“I’m havin’ a damn good time, Hap. Don’t act like you ain’t ever been lonely before.”

His boots don’t lace up the right way and he swears at them, starts unlacing. Hap just watches. That’s all he’s good for nowadays. “Oh, I been lonely,” he says, in a flat voice.

Only we ain’t made of the same material, Leonard, he thinks, but doesn’t say. Can’t just go out, get a ten dollar handjob. It don’t roll off me the way it rolls off you.

“Yeah, right,” says Leonard, with a bitterness that surprises even Hap. “Hap Collins. Lonely.”

“What, you don’t believe me?”

A moment of silence as Leonard ties off his laces. “Man, I don’t know,” he says after a moment, eyes on his boots. “But it ain’t the same for you. You know it ain’t. You ain’t got anyone, but you ain’t spendin’ every day lookin’ at shit you can’t have neither.”

“Shit you can’t have,” Hap says under his breath, in an unkind imitation of Leonard’s voice. “Whatever it is you think you can’t have, you ain’t gonna find it at the truck stop,” He shakes his head. Turns on the television with a staticky pop. “Just . . . y’know. Put yourself out there. S’how I did it with Trudy. And Florida,” he adds, with a thin little laugh that ain’t like him at all.

Leonard’s lip curls. He looks away. “You love too easy, Hap. Love too many people.”

“How many you love?”

“How many you think, dumbass?” Leonard says, his voice all sharp and nasty like he doesn’t want to talk about this anymore.

Hap lets the silence hang there a little too long, till the wasps seem to buzz loud as the sirens down the road. He ain’t exactly a master conversationalist- Leonard ain’t either- but Hap likes to think he knows just how long a silence oughta last before he breaks it.

He doesn’t break it. He sits and stares, feeling more the dumbass by the second, as Leonard shrugs into his jacket and tugs his jeans up to settle higher. He opens the door by hooking one foot into the hole in the screen.

“You ain’t gonna find comfort that way,” Hap mutters. He sounds sullen, petulant. He finds he doesn’t care. “You ain’t gonna sleep the night that way either.”

Leonard stops in the doorway. The wasps hiss like they can smell him. Hap thinks of their shiny black bodies wriggling in their paper cradles. Leonard looks back at him and Hap can’t see him right, the sun’s behind the set of his shoulders and makes him near featureless.

“Take out the wasps, Hap,” he says. He’s using that voice again. The voice Hap can’t read. The voice that means he’s talking, but his mind is a million miles away. “I’m ‘lergic.”

He shuts the screen door hard behind him when he goes. The wasps hiss like a spitting flame, but they don’t come out just yet, not even when Leonard creaks across the porch and slouches down the front steps.

Hap watches him go, his mouth set. His eyes sting like he hasn’t slept.

So that’s how it is. How it's always been. Take out the wasps, Hap. I’m ‘lergic. Make the first move, Hap. I’ll get stung.

Hap wonders why he didn’t see it before.

Dumbass.

 

Wasps don’t sleep- not the way people do- but they ain’t out and about at night. They keep to themselves, chewing and spitting in their hives. When Hap can’t sleep, he listens to them, and feels halfway ready to chew holes in the walls himself.

He hated going to bed as a kid. Waste of time. Why sleep the night away when there was so much to do, so many damn things in the world. Back then Hap could’ve been happy with a stick and a pile of dirt. A lot you could do with that kind of material.

Not these days. These days he’s eating a bowl of cereal at a quarter past one and the night drags on and on and on. He can hear the wasps buzzing sleepily outside. The sound of a car. The sound of Leonard Pine stomping up the steps, mad as hell- disappointed, then, as Hap knew he would be. Unsatisfied. Chewing at the walls.

“Not good?” Hap says mildly as the screen door bangs open, making the wasps sputter and fizz.

“Couldn’t even get it up,” Leonard snarls. He tries to make it sound rough, but Hap knows better. He sounds like a dog in pain. “Ten-goddamn-dollars an’ he couldn’t even get it up.”

Hap drops his spoon on the table and wipes his mouth with the back of his wrist. His chair shrieks on the kitchen floor when he scoots it back. “Right,” he says. “Okay.”

He stands and realizes his palms are sweating. He wipes them on his jeans as he walks up to where Leonard is shedding his jacket. Shit, he thinks, as his stomach flutters. Come on, Hap. Let’s go. We’re in it now.

“Leonard,” he says, too loudly. Leonard looks up just in time to be kissed.

It has to be rough, Hap knows. Rougher than Hap would prefer to treat him. So he goes at it hard enough that he won’t pussy out, one hand clasped to the back of Leonard’s neck, the other firmly on his chest, steering him back till he can press him hard up against the wall by the open screen door. Outside, the wasps hiss in agitation, but they won’t leave their nests. They too want to be together at night.

Leonard tenses up tight as a wire. Hap pulls away, still holding Leonard still, his whole body goosebumped and trembling. Tell me I did it right, he thinks frantically, when he sees the wild-eyed look Leonard gives him. Tell me I ain’t fucked us down the river with this one.

“Shit, goddamn,” Leonard stammers, with an almost panicked look, but he gives Hap’s shoulder a rough shove that lets him know he ain’t mad before he hooks one arm around Hap’s neck and crushes him in for another kiss.

Hap groans. It’s good, despite everything. Feels like Leonard’s taking something he needs, finally, and hell it feels good to give it to him. Hap gets his arm around Leonard’s neck too and gets right to unbuttoning his jeans, figuring Leonard would appreciate a kind of directness, and sure enough the moment he gets his hand down there Leonard makes a sound like he’s been punched.

Hap breathes heavily, excited. Sure he ain’t touched a dick that ain’t his, and if it ain’t Leonard’s, he ain't interested. But he’s eager- throws himself heart and soul into everything he does, that’s Hap- and Leonard’s already got his heart and soul so Hap wastes no time in throwing himself into rubbing him off.

Leonard bares his teeth, eyes shut tight. Lost in that coarse pleasure that Hap knows he chases. “Fuck . . .” he groans, his hand fisting tighter in the back of Hap’s shirt. “Don’t . . . don’t think you’re doin’ me any favors, now . . .”

“I know I ain’t,” Hap says shakily. Feeling Leonard breathing rough against his neck makes something twitch in Hap’s belly that he doesn’t feel like analyzing.

He leans in as his strokes get slicker, putting his mouth right up to Leonard’s ear, and it reminds him powerfully of being kids, hiding in a toilet stall with Leonard and whispering so Bill Porter- goddamn Bill Porter- wouldn’t find them.

“Now, if you ever get to feelin’ this way again,” he says in a hoarse whisper, gripping Leonard’s cock a little tighter, “you come to me, and I’ll treat you right. You got that?”

“Shit, Hap,” Leonard grunts. “Don’t fuckin’ coddle me neither.”

Hap’s arm is starting to go numb but he doesn’t take it back, keeping it looped tight around Leonard’s neck as he bumps their forehead roughly together. This close, he can almost see him- somewhere behind that thick skin there’s a little kid that only Hap knows about.

“This ain’t coddlin’,” Hap’s face must be burning red now, he can feel it, but he presses in closer and nibbles awkwardly at Leonard’s neck the way he thinks Leonard likes and feels something clench low in his gut when Leonard’s cock twitches in his hand.

He looks down and keeps stroking, momentarily fascinated. It’s just like his, but it ain’t. He figured, when he started, that he wouldn’t get anything out of it, but there’s pleasure warming his dick to full hardness even though he ain’t been touched.

Hap’s so intent on watching the slow, slick movement of drawing Leonard’s foreskin forward and back over the head that he almost misses Leonard’s groan. Only it sounds pained, not pleasured, and he looks up quickly, feeling a nasty needle of concern working into him.

Leonard’s giving him that look again, but different and somehow worse. This time his mouth has dropped open and he’s breathing heavily, trembling. Hap can see his hand twitch against the wall. He looks almost on the verge of whining from how good it feels but there’s a look in his eyes like he’s been caught in something ugly. If Hap didn’t know better, he’d call it shame.

“Don’t care if it ain’t coddlin’,” Leonard mutters with a surprising amount of venom. “I ain’t gonna be a woman for you, Hap.”

Something in Hap flinches violently at that tone of voice, and that wicked look. “With your ugly ass I ain’t about to mistake you for one,” he shoots back.

“Shut up,” Leonard snaps, and he’s himself again, just for a moment. “I’m damn handsome.”

“Makes one of us,” Hap mutters, and Leonard makes a pained noise and squeezes Hap closer, almost too close for him to keep stroking him off. Hap can feel Leonard getting his hand down into Hap’s pants, and it feels good, even though Leonard’s hands are too big and too rough and too . . . shit, that’s good.

They sway on the spot, in danger of losing balance if it weren’t for the wall. They cling to each other tight, breathing each other’s air. “Ain’t lonely now,” Hap grunts, and he’s already close, hell, he never got so close so quick, and Leonard gives a hysterical little laugh that’s so shockingly unguarded that it sees Hap right to the edge and over it.

He clutches Leonard hard, his jaw going slack, his legs shaking. He hadn’t expected to get off from this- or at least that hadn’t exactly been his primary goal- but Leonard must see something in his face that he likes because he lets out a small noise, strangled before it can become a cry, and shudders violently in Hap's arms.

They slide down the wall, all but collapsed into each other. Dead weight on dead weight.

Hap offers him a shaky smile and Leonard looks away, still breathing heavily, but with a smile behind his eyes that his face can’t quite conceal. He looks down at his hand and grimaces. “Shit, Hap, y’got yo goddamn jizz all over my hand.”

“Thought you queers liked that, Len.”

“Man, shut up,” Leonard mutters, wiping his hand off on Hap’s shirt. He does smile then, all hopeful-like, and Hap feels his heart swell. “You gonna fuck with that wasp nest or what?”

 

Hap cleans it out the next day.

He wants to drown them- wants to watch all their little insect bodies flush away in a mudslide- but he poisons them instead. He ain’t sure why.

After they’re dead he scrapes the paper out from under the porch like so much discarded Christmas wrapping. Leonard drags a couple rocking chairs out onto the porch and they spend an evening listening to the crickets. If the occasional police siren wakes up the neighborhood, Hap and Leonard don’t notice it.

This is the best Hap's felt since Grovetown. Just sitting, drinking his second beer of the night, looking out over the street with that dopey, blissed-out smile on his face he knows Leonard pretends to distrust.

It ain’t nothing to how Leonard looks. Can’t stop smiling. He’s into his third beer now and he keeps scuffing his boot on the porch, listening to the silence. The sound of the absence of wasps. The neighbors two doors down are having a party and Hap catches a look in Leonard’s eye like he wants to shut them up. Like he wouldn’t mind spending the night in a holding cell, waiting for Hap to bring him cookies.

But for now, they sit on the porch. Rocking back and forth like Chester used to do. Like the old men they’ll be before long. They’ll make it to being old men, Hap muses, as he rolls an empty bottle between his hands. If they watch each other’s backs. They won’t be lonely.

Might not ever be lonely again.