I have tried to make some typo and spelling corrections, and do a bit of trimming also. thanks -crutch
Alvin navigated across town by staring at shoes, his own and the passersby on the street, looking up only to get his bearings. In this manner, he found his way to the front door of the shop whose address he had gotten from a classmate. Because it was not much out of the way, he had decided to go by on his way home from school. Standing outside, he noticed the dirty smears on the glass door and the black grime in the bottom of the frame. As he entered, he saw, stenciled in flaking gold on the glass, “Coffer’s Bites and Stings – Venom Therapeutics since 1997.” Above the words was a black silhouette of a spreading tree and above the tree a crescent moon. Not wanting to lose his determination, Alvin lurched forward, adding his hand print to the others on the glass and pushed open the door. A small bell at the top of the door jingled his arrival.
He waited just inside until his sight made the transition from bright sunlight to fluorescent. A long glass case stood directly in front of him, and behind the case stood a gangly man with matted, black hair. Alvin noticed one side of his face and neck was covered with what appeared to be a black stain. Then he realized it was a tattoo. Smoke from a cigarette dangling in his lips, crept up across his face and partially camouflaged his eyes. The glass display case in front of him glowed in places with pale blue and yellow light. Alvin sensed, more than saw, things moving in the case. Alvin lowered his eyes to the badly stained tile and took a series of short steps toward the counter. When closer, he saw various bottles and cages sitting at random on shelves inside the case.
“What can I do for you,” asked the man behind the counter.
“I’m just looking,” said Alvin. He began to glance back and forth as though he were examining the contents of the case, but in reality he couldn’t see inside because of the grim on the glass.
“Looking, looking for what?” asked the man.
“I’m not sure,” said Alvin.
“Well, whatever you want, I’ve got it. I’ve got bites and stings for everything… arthritis, sore muscles, hair loss, weight loss, psoriasis, pimples, stuttering, warts, moles, cold sores, bad teeth, bad eyesight, bad breath…you name it, I’ve got the treatment. But, if you’re looking for something to get you out of school, forget it; I can’t help you. The truant officer would close me up in a big hurry.”
“No, it’s none of that,” said Alvin, “it’s just that this kid at school had a bite on his arm and everybody was making a big fuss over it, and I thought...”
“Oh, I get it, looking to impress somebody. Is that it?”
“Yea, I guess so.”
“Well, are you looking for something long lasting or just an hour or two?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have much money, and I don’t want it to hurt to bad.” Alvin looked at the man’s crooked grin and cracked lips. Alvin noticed the way the cigarette smoke curled up around the man’s eyes and interlaced with his tangled hair, and Alvin was sorry he had bothered to look up.
“Look Kid, I’ve got all kinds, but you got to understand; you get what you pay for. Little money equals little results. A sting from a large fire ant is three bucks. It swells a bit, turns red, last about two to three hours. A large scorpion is fifteen bucks. It swells, turns black around the bite; the whole arm throbs; you run a fever for three days. It’s the same basic scenario with spiders; except with spiders, you get red runners up the arm. I’ve got bites from Argentine fire ants and stings from killer bees. I’ve got European wasp, Saddleback caterpillars, cone shells, blister beetles, yellow jackets, and stone fish. I can give you a simple rash or put you in a coma for three days. It’s up to you.”
“Well, like I said, this kid, Robert, at school yesterday had a big welt on his arm. It was real red and there were little marks where he had been bit and he had this funny lookin’ bug in a jar. He said he caught it in his grandpa’s wood shed. Everybody was looking at it and saying how bad the bite was and the girls were all talking real nice to him and Phyllis said that she thought he was real brave to be at school with such a bad bite.” Alvin felt his face flush and knew he had said too much. “Never mind,” he said, “it doesn’t matter.” He started to back away from the counter and turn toward the door.
“Hey, Kid, wait a minute. It’s all right; don’t be upset. Just let me show you something, okay? Just a minute…look here.”
Alvin stopped and turned back. The man’s smile was gentler than before. It made him seem friendlier and it made Alvin relax a bit. He saw the man slide open the case, reach inside, and pick up a large glass bottle. He sat it on the counter, reached over and pulled a small goose neck lamp closer, and turned it on. He pointed the bulb toward the bottle. Inside the bottle, something moved.
The man leaned on the counter, and looking at the bottle, grinned and turned it slowly around and around in the lamp light. He reached down the counter and snubbed his cigarette in an astray. Smoke trailed back up his arm, flowed across the counter, swirled around the bottle, rose up in the heat of the lamp, and faded away. Reflected light from the lamp danced off the bottle, the glass counter, and the man’s dark smiling eyes.
“Take a look,” said the man.
Alvin stepped closer and bent toward the bottle, to see inside. In the bottle was a large bug like a grasshopper or mantis. It had a fat body, a small skinny head with long antenna, and a jagged fin on its back. It was moving slowly around inside the bottle. It stopped and stretched toward the top of the bottle, and Alvin could see its bright green belly. Then it started another trip around the inside of the bottle.
“What is it?” Alvin asked not taking his eyes off the bug.
“It’s called a wheel bug.”
“What’ll it do?”
“Well, you see that beak tucked up under its head? If you mess with this bug or lay your arm down on it, it will jab you with that beak and squirt poison in you.”
“Does it hurt? Will it make you really sick? How long does it last?” Suddenly embarrassed, Alvin stopped asking questions.
“No, not real sick, but your arm will swell up, and it will cause some serious pain for a few hours. It’s a pretty mean bug, Kid.”
“I’ll take it; I’ll take the bug. How much?”
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I sell bites and stings, but not my livestock. If I sell him, how do I know when I can get another one? I’ll sell you a sting from this guy for seven bucks. But I can’t really sell you the bug. You know what I mean? Not good business.”
“Yah, I guess so, it’s just that I thought if I had that bug and could sneak it into the locker room at gym time, well, when I changed for PE maybe I could pretend to find the bug, pick it up, and make it sting me. Then I could show the coach and tell him it was an accident. The other kids would be there, and Phyllis too, and they would see how bad it was, and if Phyllis saw it maybe she would pay attention to …”
- - -
Alvin continued to explain his plan, but as he did so his voice drifted away. In its place, the name Phyllis began to lash around inside the man’s mind and loose memories that had been bound for years. Memories of himself as a teenager and a girl named Phyllis.
It was mid-evening, late May. He and Phyllis sat on the side porch of the massive Cramer house, which set atop a hill under large sycamore trees. He sat close to Phyllis on the porch swing holding her hand. He felt the moisture between their palms but didn’t want to let go. Neither of them was talking; they were listening, listening to the sound that flowed around them in the night. It was the sound of hundreds, maybe thousands of rasping, undulating voices, the voices of cicadas in the sycamores. His dad had explained why the cicadas sang in spring. He knew it was their love song. Sitting here with Phyllis, the song washed over them like the rushing water of the swimming spot in the creek beyond the lower pastures. One minute ebbing, the next racing, swirling, washing over them, and pulling them under until you feared you’d lose your breath. Then the sound died away and released your mind to bob back to the surface again. And no sooner than you got your breath, it started all over again.
“I’ve never heard so many,” whispered Phyllis. “Don’t you think their beautiful?”
He wanted to say, I think you’re beautiful, but all that came was a quiet, “Yes.”
“I’ve heard locust before,” said Phyllis, “but never like this.”
He wanted to say I’ve heard of angels talking to men but never like this before, but all that came out was, “Pop says these locusts are special. He calls them resurrection locust. They only come out every seventeen years.”
“I wish I could hold one.”
This thought was too much for his mind to translate, so he just sat and held Phyllis’s hand and looked down across the acres and acres of land that belonged to the Cramers.
He could see his family’s stunted home at the bottom of the hill near the dirt road that swaged around the barn. A rectangle of light from the kitchen, spilled into the dirt yard, telling him his mom was doing dinner dishes. The light in the barn told him his dad was cleaning the singletree and the traces used earlier in the day’s plowing.
Suddenly, at its peak, locusts’ song stopped abruptly; and for a moment they both stopped breathing. Before either of them could speak and question what had happened, Mr. Cramer erupted out of the house and onto the porch. With large, menacing steps, he hulked across the porch, grabbed Alvin by the shoulder, yanked him to his feet, and slung him toward the steps.
“Get off my porch and get away from my daughter,” he raged. “No dirt poor farmer’s son has any business on my porch. Tell you father to keep you home from now on, especially after dark.” Grasping his daughter’s arm, Mr. Cramer turned and led her, crying, into the house. The door slammed, the light went out.
The boy stood for a minute, then left the porch and walked away from the Cramer house. Behind him in one of the sycamores a lone cicada began to sing, but the boy didn’t hear it. He walked down the hill beneath a sliver crescent moon never to return again.
- - -
“…so it seemed to work for Robert, and this bug is better than his was.” Alvin waited for the man to say something; but when he didn’t, Alvin hesitantly looked up at his face.
But the man was not looking at Alvin, nor was he looking at the wheel bug. The smile was gone from his face, his eyes were closed, and the corners of his mouth were turned down. From the closeness of the man’s face, in the light of the lamp, Alvin could clearly see the tattoo on the side of his face. It was a tree with large spanning branches spread out across his cheek. On the branches of the tree were small winged creatures. Some were vibrating their wings and one was flying away across a hill beyond the tree. There was a small cresent moon at the corner of the man's eye, and beneath his eye and running down across his cheek a small track of moisture followed the course of a tattooed creek.
Staring at the tattoo, Alvin held his breath as long as he could. When his chest began to ache and he could hold it no longer, he gasped, “Wow, that’s amazing.”
The man’s eyes open abruptly and he hurriedly stood up. “What? What happened? Did the bug get loose? Did it bite you?” After several quick wipes at his cheek, he looked at his fingers with a puzzled expression.
“No, no, I’m fine," said Alvin. "I was telling you why I needed that bug, but I don’t think you were listening, and anyway I’m not so sure it’s a good idea anymore. I think I’ll just forget about it. I’ve got to go now.” Alvin hurriedly turned and the bell announced his departure as he went out the door. Alvin was outside for only a moment when the man followed him to the street.
“Hey Kid, just a minute. I got something for you. It’s not much, but maybe it will help. Here.” The man reached out with a closed hand and as Alvin held out his hand something filmy and crusty and crawling was placed in it. The man closed Alvin’s fingers around the living thing. “Hold it loosely, don’t crush it,” he said.
"What is it” Does it sting? Does it bite?
“No Kid, better than that. It sings.” The man stepped back inside and closed the door.
Alvin stood for a moment and then turned to walk off down the street. As he did so, the creature began to crawl in his hand and then began to vibrate. He held it up to his ear and heard a muffled rasping noise. Alvin smiled, it did sound like singing. As he walked down the street, he noticed for the first time the same sound around him in the air. It seemed to be coming from the trees along the street. Alvin didn’t know why, but it sounded like a song. Somehow, he knew it was a love song. Alvin’s smile got bigger and bigger as he headed off down the street. If he hurried, he would have time to stop and see Phyllis.