Every B in Chilliwack
This story is set on a warm, bright Sunday afternoon in Chillwack, British Columbia, sometime in the not too distant future. Probably in May. And oh let's say Monday at 2 o'clock. An old man is seated at a kitchen table with a small golden-haired boy, his grandson. A blueberry pie is the oven and the room is filled with a thick, sweet heat. The old man and the boy are drawing together; the grandfather with long, fine pencils, the grandson with simple wax crayons. They draw together on Sunday afternoons, usually while a pie is baking, a ritual they have shared since the old man's wife passed away not that long ago.
I have something to show you, the grandfather announces. This, and he holds up a glass jar. The jar is small and golden, and he feeds it to the boy's damp and waxy fingers. What is it? The boy spins it around in his hands, holds it up to the window light, trying to read what is inside. What are these things in here? What is this? These jars belonged my grandfather, the old man says. He was an artist, and this was his art. What is inside the jars? It is honey. Like the honey we have at home? It looks different, says the boy. Yes and no. This honey comes from an insect and not a factory. From a small animal called a bee. Like the letter B? Yes and no. B-E-E. It made a bzzz noise and it would sting people and it would hurt, and the old man rubs the side of his thumb in memory of a childhood sting. I think the honey came out of its bum or something and there was honeycombs and wax (I'll have to look it up later). I'm not entirely sure how it all worked but it had to do with flowers, that much I do know. But you don't have to worry, we certainly don't have bees around any more and we make honey in factories now so you won't get stung. I would not want to get stung by a bee eating my toast and honey, the boy thinks.
The boy draws out what he is thinking. Imagined worlds, imagined bees. The old man draws too, perhaps with more certainty, at least with a truer hand, doodling, dreaming, and modelling from from an admittedly imperfect mind. Their drawing collaborations tend to swirl round each other, an unspoken process. Layers and streaks of smudged colours, greasy marks of wax and pencil, marks warm and friendly, yet with mild hints of competition, of losses and gains within the loose, perhaps even chaotic structure of the pictures. The messy, aimless, sticky hands of youth mingling with the experienced, trained and furrowed lines of age.
What is in the jar with the honey? They are pieces of a phone book, the grandfather replies. A phonebook is a device made from paper where you could look up numbers to call other people and you would enter a number like the ones you see here. When I was your age, the phone was attached to a wall by a long cord and I would spin around on the linoleum floor with the phone in my hand and on my shoulder and the cord would get tangled around my legs and waist and my mother would pretend not to listen to my conversations while making pork chops with canned mushroom soup. What are the numbers written on? Tiny screens? No, it is paper, like the paper we are drawing on now, except this paper is made from trees and not from a factory. A factory? Like where the honey is made? Exactly where the honey is made. Like the paper we used to use for our bums? Exactly like the paper we used to use for our bums, except a little thicker. We used to have entire books made out of trees too, out of paper, and you could hold them in your hands and all the letters would appear at the same time, all at once. Wasn't that confusing? questioned the boy. Not really, you would read them in order, one page after another, one page at a time. Reading a phone book, a list of names and numbers one page after another doesn't sound very fun, the boy thinks to himself. Part of him thinks his grandfather is making up stories just to entertain him. Another part of him thinks his grandfather is not remembering his own life correctly. His memory is fading, the boy has noticed. Poor old man.
Why did your grandfather do this? Was he crazy? says the boy. No, he was an artist. This was his art, the old man repeated to the boy, the boy having forgotten already. Poor child, the grandfather thinks. No memory, no attention span. They made art like this back then, with words in it, and maybe a little joke. See here, the box reads Every resident listed in the 2013-2014 Chilliwack phonebook with a last name beginning with B preserved in Chilliwack clover honey'. See. It's a joke. A verbal pun about the letter B and the insect bee, on how phone books and bees were disappearing and it is meant to be funny and a little sad and sweet and sentimental. This is the kind of work artists made back then, I think. I'm not entirely sure I like the look of it actually. It looks...well, not like art at all. Well, I like to look at it, and the boy peers into the jar and continues on doodling on the paper, making buzzing sounds, and drawing out flights of imagined bees. I want to poop honey too and make art out of my poop, and fly around and sting people when they make pork chops.
And so the old man and the boy continue to draw together, waiting for the blueberry pie to be ready, moving their pencils and crayons round and round on the factory-made paper, scribbling like bees with honey in their bums, scrawling lines like tangled phone cords, and buzzing together like crazy old art.