Adventure’s Eatery was my first job, but it wasn’t the first time I tried to make some money. When I was a child of about five, living outside of Atlanta, Georgia, I tried to be the curator for a bug museum. The idea was my nine-year-old sister’s.
“We’ll get bugs from around the world,” Jess said. “We can build Lego pedestals to display each species; red blocks for ants, purple walls for flies, maybe even a yellow-green for spiders. We can make an entire exhibit for the common gnat. The possibilities are infinite. For only $20 dollars, anyone can spend the day in our museum, and I can teach anything they want to know.”
“What do you know?” I asked with the Georgian drawl I used to own.
“Nothing right now,” my sister answered. “But I can make it up as I go.”
“Ok,” I said in my honeysuckle sweet dialect. “What am I s’posed to do?”
“Find all the bugs you can,” Jess commanded. “Try to find one of each. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care if you have to go to Africa to find them. I don’t care if they don’t exist. Find ‘em, and bring ‘em to me.”
I spent three hours in woods behind our house trying to coax ants into my outstretched hands. They finally gave in and climbed aboard my palm arks. Less than half a minute later I threw them to the ground in sheer animosity. The bastards had bit me, and their bile burned like a thanksgiving stove. I ran in circles for a few minutes flailing my arms as if they were covered with invisible fire.
I tried bees next, assuming a bumble would make for a fun feature. Three wasps stung me instead, twice on the right ankle, and one on my left cheek. Both areas swelled to match my hands. The ant bites had caused quite a reaction. My hands were blood red and bulbous like a poorly stuffed hot dog, cooked. Tears streaked over the swollen hump of my left cheek, leaving dirty rivers in the delta of my hiccupping mouth.
When the pain had subsided, and my tears stopped crying, I decided to keep trying. Determined, I went after a less dangerous breed of bug. I hunted daddy long legs.
There was a web underneath the wooden staircase of my house’s back porch. I assumed a long leg or eight would reside nearby. Thirty minutes went by before I spotted a possible exhibit. It saw me too. I decided to try a new technique and began asking the long legs if he was happy with being where he was in life. I asked Mr. Long Legs if there was anything he dreamed of having. Fly’s for life, seemed to be his answer, as far as I cold figure. Well, I told him, I can can promise you fly’s for life, and a cool place to spin a web. The long legs walked away.
The second spider was not as frightened as the first. It scurried back and forth across the fourth stair from the bottom. I snuck behind it, beneath the wooden deck stairs. A grill lid clanked closed above my head. I heard moccasin shuffles, and knew it was mom cooking. The spider scuttled across the step, and I focused. There was no way I was letting another potential showcase escape. As quiet as the wind with similar intention, my welted hands stretched over the body of my eight legged victim. The soft thump of Mom’s footsteps on the porch above my head subsided. The bee sting throbs faded. Everything disappeared in concentration. I started to close my hand.
Mom stepped on my hand as she walked down the porch stairs. “Jimmy,” she called. I screamed from underneath her feet in response. My right hand throbbed with a fresh pain, crushing defeat.
“Shit,” Mom exclaimed. She tripped, but caught herself a step down. “Jimmy!” she yelled. I held up enflamed hand and began to cry. “Shit,” she exclaimed again. Mom helped me up the back porch steps and into the family room. I sat on the couch and tried my best not to think of the pain I was in. Mom did what I assumed all moms did. She pulled out a variety of bottles from the medicine cabinet and began to systematically open them and rub them on my enflamed hands, leg, and cheek.
Two hours later, Jess found me sitting on the sofa eating chips and watching my favorite Chip and Dale video. They outwitted a farmer in the most cunning of ways. Jess was not amused. “Where’re the bugs for my museum?!” she demanded in a child’s rage.
I held my hands up in defense. “I tried really hard,” I said. “It just didn’t go my way.”
“Get off your butt!” She stomped her feet to emphasize the intensity. “Get off your butt and catch some bugs!”
I knew I had lost. She had seniority. I respected that. “Ok,” I said getting off my butt. “Ok.”
The next hour was spent fearfully staring at bugs from a distance. There was no way in heck I was attempting to pick up another live bug, but a dead one wouldn’t be so bad. I figured they had to be dead to be on display, so I was saving myself a step.
I didn’t find any dead bug carcasses. I started to wonder if ants were the janitors of the world when I stepped on a daddy long leg. Poor little guy never saw it coming. I waited until he stopped twitching before I picked him up. I wondered if he was the same long leg from before. I reported back to Jess with our first exhibit, a stomped, daddy long legs with its legs forming fractured fractals.
Jess looked at the exhibit in my enflamed hands. Her eyebrows lifted as a thought struck her. “You’re more decorative than a stupid lego pedestal,” she said. “You can be the display. I’ll go get some customers. Wait here.”
She rushed off. I stayed put, a tear sliding down my face from time to time. After two hours, she returned with a handful of the neighborhood kids. “Where is it? Where is it?” they excitedly repeated again and again.
I stayed quiet with the shadows of my fingers obscuring the dead daddy in my palm.
“Gather round, gather round,” my sister demanded as she walked to my side. “Just twenty dollars to view the only…” -she paused and I stared questioningly at her –“Japanese War Dragon Destructo Fly. The only one in existence.”
“Japanese what?” I asked Jess.
“War Dragon Destructo Fly,” she answered with a sly wink. “only twenty dollars to view the most feared insect of all of Asia. Some believe this very bug was the cause of every world war since Jesus was born.”
“Wow,” said the neighborhood children.
“Wow, is right,” Jess said with a nod. “Others believe this very insect holds the cure for cancer, if not immortality within it tiny body.”
“My gosh,” said Tommy Basilton, a cry baby from five doors down.
“And ancient buddhist culture hailed this very bug as god, if not the entire universe.”
“What’s a Buddhist?” Donald Basilton, Tommy’s older brother, asked.
Jess ignored the question. The other four kids in the crowd clambered close to my open palm. My sister deftly stepped between her customers and her product. She put her hand over my welted fingers, hiding the daddy long leg from sight.
“Twenty dollars,” Jess said. “The fee is twenty dollars.”
“I don’t have twenty dollars,” Tommy said. “Can I give you a lollipop instead?”
“Sorry, Tommy,” Jess replied shaking her head. “Lollipop payment is against our policy.”
“What about pieces of gum?” Donald asked.
“No candy currency,” my sister declared. “We have a cash only policy.” She took a deep breath before flashing a ringmaster’s smile. “Come on people, this is the Japanese Destructo War Dragon Fly.”
“I thought it was the Japanese War Dragon Destructo Fly?” Carrie Doogen questioned.
“I think you misheard,” Jess said. “It is definitely the Japanese Destructo War Dragon Fly.”
“That’s not what you said,” Clayton Dubois argued.
“Is to,” Jess rebutted.
“I bet it didn’t start all the world wars,” Carrie said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“How could it be the entire universe?” Clayton asked. “It’s impossible.”
“Show us the bug,” Tommy shouted.
“Yeah,” Donald agreed.
The neighborhood kids advanced on me.
“Stop!” Jess shouted.
“No,” Geoffrey Vizer said. “No one has twenty dollars.” He stood behind the other four children, but he towered over them. He was easily the tallest kid in the neighborhood with stick thin limbs to support his lithe frame. “Show us the bug, Jess.” One other fact about Geoff was the fact he was insane, violently insane. On one occasion he had chased my brother and I down the street swinging an aluminum baseball bat at our heads. We pulled Swiss army knives on him to keep him back, and it barely worked. Another time he pinned my sister against the side of our house and threw baseballs at her chest. She was quick to avoid. Right now, those stories flooded my head. The way Geoff said my sister’s name scared me. I am pretty sure it scared Jess too.
“Show us the Japanese whatever the hell it is,” Geoff said. He crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Jess’s eyes opened wide and she glared at Geoff. “Twenty dollars,” she said through clenched teeth. She pulled her hand away from mine. “Jimmy, cover up our exhibit,” she said to me. Her attention returned to her belligerent customers, “and no one sees it until they have paid the twenty dollars.”
“That’s it,” Geoff huffed. He pushed Clayton to the left, and Carrie to the right. The Basilton boys dodged to either side before he could shove them. “Show me the damn bug!”
“Jimmy, RUN!” Jess screamed.
My hands cupped in front of me like a priest offering the body of Christ, I watched Geoff stride toward me with his hands in fists. I bolted like a rabbit in the presence of a lion. Geoff roared in anger then I heard his feet slapping the ground as he chased after me.
I headed for the woods behind my house. They weren’t especially thick but there was no way I was going to win a straight race. I dodged between trees, whacking my shoulders from time to time. Keeping my balance was a problem with my hands clasped together, and my feet unsure where to land next. I heard shouts in the background, but I doubted they were from Geoff, they sounded like the other kids. I skidded between two trees that were only two feet apart. It was a mistake.
In addition to a fort my brother and I were building in the woods, we had decided to build protection. The protection consisted of holes a foot deep we dug in the ground, filled with thorn branches, and placed directly behind twine trip wires we tied to trees. My shins caught a trip wire. My body lost balance, and I dove headfirst towards a poorly disguised thorny hole. My hands instinctively shot out in front of me, and I screamed when they punched the thorns. Geoff caught up.
Without asking to see the bug clasped in my hands, he grabbed the back collar of my shirt and flipped me over. Once I was on my back, he began punching me. I tried to avoid the blows, but one after another connected with my arms, neck, face, stomach, groin, legs-
“GET OFF HIM!” Jess screamed. I vaguely wondered where she was. All I could see was Geoff’s smiling face as he beat me. He reared his arm back and aimed it towards my left eye. I blinked as he let his fist fly. It never hit. His forearm grazed my cheek as the punch passed inches to the left of my face. I heard him scream and he fell off of me. “GET OFF HIM!” was screamed again, this time it was much louder and closer.
Geoff screamed a second time. He jumped off of me, stumbling as he did. He tripped on his own feet and feel to the ground.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” My sister screamed, and now I could see her. She stood as fierce as a Japanese War Dragon Destructo Fly with a large branch in her hands. She swung it like an axe trying to split Geoff in two. The branch hit his left shoulder and the top half splintered from the bottom before flipping onto the ground. Geoff gave a cry of horror. He fell onto his backside bringing his hands up to protect his face. I gave a weak smile as I noticed his left fist was coated in thorns. Jess swung the remains of the branch at his hands, leaving red slices where the splintered end connected. Geoff jumped to his feet and ran. He sobbed as his long legs sprawled uncertainly underneath him. I thought of the daddy long leg in my hand.
“Are you ok?” Jess asked me. She threw the club of a branch at the retreating figure as it screamed its way home.
I nodded, but didn’t know why. Jess picked me up from the ground by pulling on my forearms. My enflamed hands were still clasped together. The sores burned from the dirt and thorns, and my face ached. Jess let go of my arms and I fell back to the ground. I rolled onto my side and began coughing, long hacking rips erupted from my lungs. Jess slapped my back in support. My eyes burned and I realized they were filled with dirty tears streaking down my face.
“Jimmy?” I heard Carrie’s questioning voice.
“Are you hurt?” Clayton asked.
I tried to shake my head, but only managed to push my nose into the dirt. I blinked as a pine needle poked at my eye lid, and that’s when I saw it. Lying on the ground where Geoff had fallen, was a beat up and nearly ripped twenty dollar bill.
“Jess,” I croaked when a fit of coughing had passed. “Jess, look.”
Her eyes followed mine and a smile formed on her lips. She reached down and picked up the bill. She pocketed the money and pulled me up enough to lean me against a tree. Her audience had lessened, the Basilton boys were no where to be seen, and Geoff’s shouts were no longer heard in the distance, but Jess was the curator and she lost no time in reminding Carrie and Clay of that.
“I’ll tell ya what,” she said to them. “Since Geoff paid admission but decided not see the exhibit, I’ll cut you guys a deal. Two for the price of one, with Geoff’s money as the ticket.”
Carrie looked confused, but Clayton excitedly nodded his head. “I wanna see,” he said. The two of them walked up to me. I didn’t try to stand up. I let my body rest against the trunk of the tree with my clasped hands in my lap.
“Alright, Jimmy,” Jess said. “Open up.”
My hands parted and the only patrons to ever visit our museum stared in awe. The Clayton blinked. “It’s a daddy long leg,” he said.
“It’s a daddy long legs,” he said again. “This is stupid,” he followed before he turned and walked away. Carrie watched him stomp his feet. Her eyes fell back on the massacred bug in my hands.
“Its legs look pretty,” she said. “They remind me of rock candy.” Then she followed Clayton as they both walked away.
I looked at my sister standing tall above me. She watched as the patrons left the woods behind our house before turning to look down at me.
“All in all,” she said, “I think things went pretty well.”
Jess helped me home, got me into the bathroom off the living room, and washed the dead daddy long leg off my hands. The fractured, fractal legs washed down the drain like tears off a chin. When my hands were cleaned, she grabbed a paper towel, wet it, and started cleaning off my face. It took fifteen minutes before we were done and she helped me to the couch. She turned on the Chip and Dale video, starting it from the beginning. I laid back and she brought me a rice cake from the kitchen. “We’re outta cookies,” she said before leaving.
Mom found me halfway through the video and demanded to know what had happened. She stopped the video as I told her about the bug museum. When I finished, she stood up and grabbed the phone. The rest of the afternoon was spent arguing with Geoff’s mom about who the villain was. Geoff’s mom was intent on it being Jess.
Mom called Jess in after she hung up. The two headed into the dining room where I heard Jess telling the story of what happened. Mom agreed Jess did the right thing, but ended it with the fact that violence is never a solution. Jess apologized. Mom told Jess to give her the twenty dollar bill. I stopped paying attention after that. I concerned myself with my favorite chipmunks.
When the video ended I put it on again. I don’t know how many times I watched it that day, but Dad came home from work before I got off the couch. Mom pulled him into the master bedroom and they excitedly talked for half an hour before he came downstairs, still in his suit. He took a look at my bruised face and tortured hands. He gave me a reassuring smile and sat down to watch the remainder of the video with me. When Chip and Dale had outsmarted the farmer for the last time that day, he flipped off the television and turned towards me.
“There’s a parable here,” My dad said with a loving pat on my head. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the twenty dollar bill and placed it in my hand. “Rewards come to those who persevere.”
“Oh,” I said with a stingingly sweet drawl. I closed my hand around the beaten up bill. I thought it was something different.