The Wasp & the Bugler
Ryan Everett Felton
Duncan pressed a Ziploc full of ice against the crook where his neck and shoulder met. The potential hazards of being a pallbearer hadn’t occurred to him – his primary concern, there at his father’s procession, was that he’d slip, drop his corner and set off a chain reaction that ended with Dad, stiff as a board and in full uniform, tumbling down into some sludge-ridden ditch.
But Dad was safely six feet under now, and Duncan, having played Atlas with the astonishing weight of one-sixth of a casket, sported his first ever war wound: what he thought to be a torn ligament or ruptured disc or, if WebMD was to be believed, shoulder cancer.
Only he had managed to leave the service with an injury, of course. During the procession Duncan had felt like the only faulty cog in an otherwise finely-tuned machine. It had been a military funeral – in fact Duncan was the only pallbearer not in a uniform – and the formality of it, the choreography and the timing, the business-like quality of the whole event made him feel less his father’s son than he ever had.
Peeling the freezing baggie away from his numbed skin, he winced and sat, wedging a pillow between the couch and his more tender ligaments. He dragged the television remote toward him with his bare foot and hovered a fingertip over the power button just as he heard an unnerving buzz, this faint yet hateful drone, and a repetitive tapping against the window to his left.
A wasp had found its way in – and not the first, for as it banged its head against the glass it also hovered above a graveyard of its fallen brethren there on the windowsill. Duncan breathed out, glanced to his left where a bottle of bug-killer lay propped against the coffee table, wound up in its own thin, plastic hose. One of the hundred tasks he’d set aside since news of his father’s death reached him had been to handle the network of mud-daubers’ nests lining the walls of his porch. He hadn’t dared go out on that porch in weeks. It belonged to them now.
He dropped the ice bag, wincing at an unwitting jerk of the neck, and made a delicate grab for the bug spray. This time in the evening, the colony at large would be dormant, helpless. He slid open the glass door that opened onto the porch and stood beneath the largest of several gray, lumpy nests. Pumping the plastic apparatus with one hand, gripping the hose with the other, he muttered to the sleeping insects above: “All right, you bastards. Party’s over.”
A young man’s voice came from the right, just off the concrete path that led to the door. There stood a stranger dressed in full military garb, a small leather case of odd shape and size hanging from his hands.
Duncan froze, lowered the spray can. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Oh,” the man said, “sorry.” He took a few strides closer. “You probably don’t— I was at the funeral this afternoon.” Cleared his throat, stuck out his hand. “Officer Brian Glasgow. I knew your dad. He was my commanding officer.”
Duncan was aware of his scanning the officer from head to toe even as he did it, but he did nothing to play it off or hide it. He said, “Were you stationed with him over there?”
Glasgow nodded. “There,” of course, was Afghanistan. “There” was also the site of his father’s passing.
Duncan mimicked him with a curt nod of his own. “What can I do for you, Brian?” he said.
Glasgow cradled the strange case in his arms and seemed to address it rather than Duncan. A nervous smile crossed his downcast face. “This might sound weird, Duncan – you are Duncan, aren’t you? This might sound weird, and I’m sure you don’t remember, but it was me who played the bugle at the service today.” He patted the case. “You know, ‘Taps?'”
Duncan eyed the case and pictured the instrument within. “I thought that was a recording,” he said.
“Usually is.” Glasgow squinted at imaginary sunlight. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t know if you noticed or not – I’d bet not – but I kind of botched the song. Hit a wrong note near the end.”
“You botched ‘Taps?'” Duncan repeated.
“Yeah,” the officer said. “Embarrassing, I know.” He stood military-style, as if addressing a superior. “I’d like to put it right. I’d like to go back to your father’s gravesite and play it again. No screw-ups this time. And I’d like you to be there.”
Duncan said nothing. The two men faced one another, mirrored each other’s stance – straight-spined, either a bugle case or a bug-killer jug clasped in both hands. His shoulder throbbed, reminding him that the day’s grievances were far from done with him.
Glasgow waited about thirty seconds before saying, “What do you think?”
A moment passed before Duncan gave a slow nod. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He pointed above, at first with his injured limb and with a soft yelp, then with the other arm. “But first I’m going to ask a favor of you. See these wasps’ nests? I’ve got to blast them with this Deet, but reaching ’em won’t be easy with this bum shoulder.”
The army officer took one step closer. “What happened?” he said, nodding at Duncan’s neck.
“Pallbearing hazards,” said Duncan. He attempted to spin his arm like a vertical propeller, got stuck and whimpered. The bottle, gripped in the other hand, went up in offering to Glasgow.
The officer put down the bugle case and accepted the bottle. “You got it,” he said, and found Duncan’s ladder with no questions, scaling it without pause.
He began pumping away, blasting forth a stream of chemical fluid with military efficiency. Each squirt hit its mark with impressive accuracy. In the dim evening light Duncan could see the gray clods go black with moisture. Here and there a curdled insect would fall from one of the nests.
As he worked, Glasgow made commentary. “You know what?” he said. “Until today I didn’t even know the Colonel had a son? And here you are.” He pressed the pump again, nailed one of the more distant targets. “You must’ve known a completely different man than I did. Weird, huh?”
Though perhaps no longer necessary, he continued to spray, to wipe out any semblance of these miniscule invaders. Not to simply thin their ranks, but to eradicate them in entirety.
“That’s enough,” Duncan said. A spasm in his jaw somehow triggered the pain in his neck and shoulder. He bit his cheek and let it hit him. “Come on down, Brian. That’s enough.”
Glasgow shrugged, descaled the ladder. He put the bottle down and locked eyes with Duncan. “I thought of your dad as a father of my own,” he said. “A lot of us did. I think you should know that.”
Duncan put his hand to his shoulder and squeezed. “Maybe you should go,” he said.
Glasgow’s forehead bunched up.
“I think I’m in for the night,” Duncan said. “This shoulder. I just need to ice it, take it easy. You understand.”
The officer lifted a foot. “But what about…?” he said, and tapped the bugle case with his booted toe.
The Colonel’s son – his real son – shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Brian Glasgow sprang into that formal stance again, that straight-legged, arched-back posture engrained into his DNA by drill sergeants and training camps. “What’d I say?” he asked. He repeated the question only one time, and still receiving no answer from Duncan, bent over to pick up his bugle case and apologized before rounding the corner of the house and disappearing from view.
Duncan remained still, nursing his shoulder and staring at the spot where Officer Glasgow had been. The thought of going back inside had just occurred to him when sharp, sudden and blinding pain shot up through the palm on his shoulder, rode his nerves up to the side of his neck that, until a millisecond before, hadn’t been throbbing.
The inside of his hand felt on fire. He lifted it from the crook of his neck and looked – a red, circular mark pulsated on his palm. Something small and black propelled to the left of his cheek, went zig-zagging out of sight. A wasp, one he’d evidently cupped with his hand onto his clavicle that had decided enough was enough.
He blew on his hand, for all the good it did. Went back inside and found his ice pack. Now it served a dual purpose, soothed his palm while numbing his shoulder. After a while, he wrapped his hand in Ace bandages and rubbed Icy Hot all over the upper left quadrant of his torso and left the house.
On the way, he’d pretended he had no idea where he was going, lied to himself that he’d wind up wherever the night took him. But when he pulled into the cemetery parking lot, just to the side of the funeral parlor where he’d spent the day, he was not surprised.
By putting the strain more or less on his legs, he lifted himself to the hood of his car and leaned back, closed his eyes.
A few minutes of this, then the wind carried the sound to him. Somewhere out there – and the idea that he didn’t know exactly where was another lie he told himself for God-knew-what reason – a bugle played ‘Taps.’ Hit every note with perfection, as far as his untrained ears could tell.
His hand had swollen to twice its size. It looked like a pear dipped in ketchup.
Anyway, he put that hand up to his head, gave a salute to the sky.