The Wasp in the Punch

[A group of us are taking the advice of Ray Bradbury, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” This story (which had to involve a police officer, a garden, and a trophy) is part of that endeavor. It was also inspired by my cousin, who watched a wasp do to his glass of beer what it does to my cop’s glass of punch.]

 

“We’re not giving her this award because she’s my daughter.” My mother tittered into the microphone.

Tittered was the perfect word to describe the tweety giggle she gave. Could she have had too much of the spiked punch already?

“We’re giving her this award because she displayed such a cool head under pressure at last year’s garden party fundraiser. Because of her leadership during the fire, most of us didn’t even realize what was happening until we were all safe.”

The applause was a mix of ladies-who-lunch-fingertips-only and the heartier clapping of people who were not embarrassed to have emotions.

“She put out the fire so quickly our dresses didn’t even smell like smoke and then called in all those delicious firefighters to secure the scene.”

Delicious? While Mother simpered at the Fire Department’s table, I froze the smile on my face and leaned over to my best friend. “Who spiked the punch?”

She could also talk while barely moving her lips. “Funny story. I did. And then Duke did. He just returned from Vermont.”

“That 190 proof stuff?”

“Don’t arrest him. Everyone’s having fun.”

Everyone but me. My tulip-petal chiffon sleeves floated in the breeze, brushing against my skin, reminding me how ridiculous I looked.

My mother was wrapping up. “From her youth as a Junior Ranger, through her years as a wetland guide and her countless hours maintaining paths and buildings, until now, she has always been a friend of the Lexington Conservation Commission. I am so pleased to present the Conservation Steward of the Year Award to my daughter, Officer (she made me say that) Blair Emerson.”

Maybe this ridiculous dress was worth hearing my mother use my title in public. Maybe.

I accepted the crystal cup and put it on the podium right away, since, and I quote, It’s rather heavy and holding it will make your arm muscles pop out. Sigh. Plenty of the tennis-and-Pilates ladies had great arms, but mine were an embarrassment, presumably because I used them in the line of duty.

“Thank you so much.” I looked around and, as irritated as I was, I couldn’t help but smile. “Most of you have watched me grow up. I’ve worked with some of you on the trails and in the wetlands, and watched others work the donors in the garden while I spied from my bedroom window, back when I wasn’t allowed to come to this party. I’ve loved the Lexington Conservation Committee since I went on my first guided walk when I was 5. Loved it even more when I started leading walks and nature programs and swinging a hammer. The work we do is so important, not just to preserve the land for future generations, but for us, now.” I ran my thumb down the side of the trophy. “I feel a little like I’ve cheated, because I’m getting this award for following my training as a Lexington Police Officer, but my mother always taught me to be gracious when accepting thanks. I’m so proud to accept this award from you. Thank you.”

I picked up the award and should’ve gone straight to my seat. Instead, I leaned into the mic. “Since I am a safety officer, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out that the punch has been accidentally double spiked. Use that information as you will.” And then, because I’d been decorous and charming and had worn the frothy monstrosity for over an hour, I walked to the punch bowl and dipped in my trophy, filling the cup to the brim and holding it up to everyone in a toast. There were a few hoots of laughter as I took a good swig.

Which turned out to be ill-advised. Nobody hurled into the hostas, but they drank enough, without realizing it, to do something much more risky: tell the truth.

One woman latched onto me while I was talking to the mayor, leaning too heavily into my shoulder and, in a loud, drunken “whisper,” thanking me for something I’d thought she wanted to keep quiet. Since she wasn’t in her right mind, I lead her away before she revealed to the group that I’d come to her house on a domestic call. If she wanted to be open about it while sober, I’d cheer her on, but she was in no state to make a rational decision.

That was tricky enough, but it happened twice more with other people, including one couple who were very happy to be led off by me so they could tell me all about the positive changes in their relationship since out last meeting. In nauseating detail.

Add to that the usual suspects asking me when I was going to give up police work, as if it were a hobby, and I reached my limit of politeness.

So I plunked down my trophy and sat with the “delicious” firefighters in hopes of having an interaction in which I didn’t have to guard myself or fight with myself to not say what I wanted to.

One of the younger guys, who’d I’d worked some accident scenes with, nudged my arm. “Seriously, now, seriously. I’m not joking. I’m being serious.”

I gave him my deadest dead-eye cop stare. “Anything you say to me now will be a mistake.”

“No, no, no. I really want to know.” He looked over to where my parents and older brother were standing, and then back to me, although he had to blink a few times before his eyes focused properly. “Are you adopted?”

The other guys at the table exploded in a chorus of, “Oh, man’s,” and “you’re going to get it now’s.”

I crooked my finger to make sure he came close.

“Don’t do it,” his friends warned him. “She’s going to lay you out.”

“My mother’s great grandmother was a famous baker in Poland, hauling heavy bowls of dough and trays of bread and cakes. She needed arms like this.” I shoved my finger an inch from his face. “So do I. I love those skinny people, but that baker is my true ancestor. You got anything more to say about it?”

He put up his hands and slouched back. “I’m shtupid, but not that shtupid.”

We all laughed and I felt at home for the first time all day. I was about to lift my trophy to take a drink when a wasp flew into it. The cup was about half-full, with the liquid below the etching, so I had a good view. As the insect tried to get free, it stung the cup. I watched, mesmerized, as it shot venom over and over into the punch.

That wasp was me. Yeah, in the stupid way of me being a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But I’d also been doing what that wasp was doing: I felt stuck so I was impotently lashing out, spewing poison. The fact that I’d kept most of my poison to myself didn’t mean it wasn’t hurting someone.

I needed a transfer out of the city I’d grown up in. If this kept going, I’d wind up hating everyone, including myself.

Of course, my mother chose that moment of realization to come over. “Stand up, stand up, dear. Let me see that beautiful dress again.”

How many itty-bitty glasses of punch had she had? I dutifully stood and let her take my hands in hers, but I glared at the firefighters to keep their comments to themselves.

“You look like a vision of summertime.”

“I look like a linebacker in drag.”

“No you don—” Her hands flew to her mouth and she giggled. “I’m so sorry. But you do. You really do.” She sighed. “I apologize. I thought if you looked like the rest of your friends from LCA you’d remember that you’re one of us and you’d get a nice, safe job and date—”

“Nice, safe men. I know, Mother.” I pulled her in for a hug. “We almost had a moment, there.”

She patted my back, too soaked in alcohol to hear what I was saying.

I foisted her onto a passing friend and sat back down. The wasp seemed dead, so I fished it out with a spoon and put it under an overturned glass. “So which of you guys is driving the truck?”

Al and Rich raised their hands.

“I’m assuming you didn’t drink?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you be willing to drive some of these people home in the truck? If we offer an incentive, we’re more likely to get them to cooperate with not driving themselves. I’d have to arrest two-thirds of them if they so much as looked at their cars.”

“Why not call the paddy wagon?”

“Same reason I’d rather use pepper spray than my taser: paddy wagon means paperwork.”

They laughed as I stood and lifted my award to them. “Here’s to the fun we’re going to have in the next hour.” I took one last sip.

It wasn’t until I’d swallowed and then dumped the rest of my punch on the ground that I remembered about the wasp venom. I went still.

My throat didn’t swell; my stomach didn’t hurt.

The Everclear probably killed the poison, just like it killed the inhibitions of the Lexington Conservation Committee.

I took a deep breath and put my arm around the nearest drunk person. “How would you like to ride the ladder truck home?”

 

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