How Bentley Bottleneck Kept His Striped Skin
“I don’t get why they all stay in one place. Why don’t they just fly off to, like China?” Stone D. asked.
Stone D. was seventeen and wore a belt that was six sizes too big, so the belt flapped when he walked; he wore a green beanie, even though it was hot, and his long curly hair bunched up around his collar.
“That’s their life,” said the Beekeeper Man. “They live for the hive. They go get food from cherry tree flowers and snapdragons and stuff and they bring it home. Or they spend all day building honeycombs. Or feeding the queen bee. They just don’t think about China.”
Stone D. spoke over the hedge to the Beekeeper Man.
“One day,” said Stone D., “all the bees in the world are just gonna fly off and do their own thing. You’ll see.”
“Then I’ll be out of work,” said the Beekeeper Man. “No bees, no honey for the Farmer’s Market on weekends. No bees, no wax for my candles. No candles, no rent,” said the Beekeeper Man. “And no cherry tree,” he added.
“Where do you make the candles?” asked Stone D., scratching his ear.
The Beekeeper Man wore a hat and spoke through netting that he tucked into a scarf; he wore gloves despite the heat.
“In my apartment. In the kitchen,” said the Beekeeper Man. “I’ve got a lot of wax and a lot of string. I sell scented ones. I sell plain ones. You’d be surprised how easy they sell. I double the price just to put the candle in ten cents’ worth of glass. But, to be real about it, the bees are the ones who do all the work.”
Stone D. scratched his ear.
“I gotta go,” Stone D. said. “My mother’s coming home soon and she told me to clean off the piles of old cherries on the storage shed, but I didn’t do it. I had to watch my brother. And I had to listen to music on my phone. I like spacey stuff. So, all I did all day was get the ladder. When she gets here, I wanna look like I was at least workin’ on it.”
“Well, where’s Bentley Bottleneck now?” asked the Beekeeper Man. “You’ve got to make sure that he doesn’t crawl off into the street.”
“Nah. He’s asleep,” said Stone D. “Between you and me, I slip him a potion I made of valerian root and chamomile mixed with the honey you gave my mother. He takes long naps. Gives me time for my music. Music is my life.”
The window facing the backyard opened quickly on Stone D’s side of the fence.
“Did you finish the roof?” asked Rosetta Bottleneck through the window screen.
“I’m in the middle of it,” lied Stone D.
“How long has Bentley been asleep?”
“Only about an hour,” lied Stone D.
“Then I’ll let him sleep some more. I’m coming back there to check on that roof,” said Rosetta Bottleneck.
Rosetta Bottleneck, still wearing her blue jumper that said “Rosy” on the patch, even though no one called her that, walked out the front door, across the small porch that she shared with the Beekeeper Man, down the brick steps, into the alley between her apartment and the brick apartments next door, and into the backyard. Stone D. stood by the short ladder; the ladder leaned against the metal storage shed. Rosetta Bottleneck climbed up the ladder in her white sneakers.
“You are so full of beans!” she yelled. “You didn’t sweep a thing! You want rats around your little brother?”
“I’m sorry Mom,” said Stone D., with feeling.
“My aching back!” cried Rosetta Bottleneck as she climbed down the ladder and grabbed a broom. “You go in the house and don’t take your eyes off of Bentley. And give me your cell phone! I’m keeping it for a week! I’ll sweep up these cherries myself!”
Rosetta Bottleneck climbed back up the ladder with the broom. Stone D. was walking through the alley when he heard his mother scream.
“Oh my God!” she cried. “A rat!”
In the corner of the roof of the metal storage shed sat a fat, brown rat with long, white whiskers; the pointy nails on his tiny toes were filled with cherry slime and he nibbled on a cherry that he held between miniature fists. Rosetta Bottleneck held the top of the broomstick handle and swung the broom over her head and flat down on the rat. She missed. The metal roof of the storage shed boomed.
“This is so disgusting!” cried Rosetta Bottleneck. “Die! Die!”
The broom again missed the rat, who jumped up onto the edge of the roof.
The noise from each miss of the broom was loud and echoed in the alley.
The rat jumped onto a branch of the cherry tree; then jumped onto a higher branch, then a higher one. The rat looked down from a branch and spoke to Rosetta Bottleneck.
“You think you’re gonna kill me?” he yelled, with an angry and surprisingly loud voice. “My name is Furious, and I control this whole neighborhood! I run this town! I have powers and you are nothing! And you think that I can’t eat the cherries whenever I wish? Are you crazy? I should kill you now!”
The rat shook with anger. Rosetta Bottleneck, from the roof, waved the broom at the branches of the tree, but the rat was too high up for the broom to reach. Stone D. watched in amazement from the alley. The rat spat over the side of the metal storage shed onto the snapdragons: the snapdragons wilted and died in an instant.
“I should kill you,” said the rat through his tiny teeth. “But I have a better idea. It seems that you truly love that tiny boy of yours, that sleeping baby boy. When you next see his face, you’re in for a surprise.”
Rosetta Bottleneck swung and missed.
“Here’s the deal,” said the rat. “Your little boy’s skin is now striped. A striped baby boy! And he will be striped for life! But, I’m a reasonable mammal. So, he can lose his stripes if someday someone loves him enough to change places with him. The rules are: You can’t change places with him, and neither can his good-for-nothing older brother!”
The rat scampered along the branch of the cherry tree and was gone.
Rosetta Bottleneck ran down the alley; Stone D. followed behind. She ran up the brick steps and across the porch and through the door and into her bedroom. Bentley Bottleneck slept quietly on the bed, with pillows stacked on either side of him; he wore a white onesie. Rosetta Bottleneck picked him up and held him close.
“Thank God you’re all right, my beautiful son! Furious freaked me out! Let me take a closer look at you,” said Rosetta Bottleneck.
Rosetta Bottleneck held the boy up with two work-worn hands; the boy smiled at his mother’s face, but he was covered with stripes, black and white stripes, from his head to his toes, lengthwise.
“Oh no!” cried Rosetta Bottleneck. “Furious placed a curse on you! You’ll be like this forever! You were once so beautiful, and now . . .”
A tear rolled down Rosetta Bottleneck’s face.
“Who will ever love you enough to remove this curse, my baby boy?” cried Rosetta Bottleneck. Her cries echoed in the alley.
“This is all so weird,” said Stone D.
Except for the striped skin, Bentley Bottleneck was a healthy little boy. But whenever his mother walked to the A&P for a pound of ground round and a half pound of yellow American cheese and a loaf of white bread and a half- gallon of milk, women would peek at the stroller and make a face, then scamper down the aisle. Curious children were tugged away. Men, fearing contagion, held their breath.
Yet Bentley Bottleneck smiled a lot, learned his manners, and won a spelling bee in first grade. In second grade, his mother signed him up for soccer, but the coach called at the last minute and said that the team already had too many players. In third grade, his mother signed him up for baseball, but whenever the boy stood at the plate to hit, the pitchers threw the ball at this head. He was always taunted when he walked past the schoolyard on his way home from school.
“There goes the striped kid!” screamed the mean boys. “You stink!”
But Rosetta Bottleneck doted on her striped son and secretly hoped that one day a person would love him enough to take over his stripes and return Bentley Bottleneck to a purer state.
And Stone D. loved his little brother; he taught him how to download music without paying for it and bought him a pair of two-toned shoes. Stone D. got a job as a clerk at the all-night store, and bought Bentley Bottleneck a new baseball glove for his birthday. One winter, when Bentley Bottleneck was in fourth grade, Stone D. bought Bentley Bottleneck a green beanie of his own.
“Now we really look like brothers,” said Stone D. “Except for the stripes.”
That same winter, Stone D., when his mother was at work, tried to remove Bentley Bottleneck’s stripes with all sorts of homemade creams and unguents. One of them, a lotion made of camphor and pepper resins, cleared up Stone D’s sniffles, but also left a rash on his younger brother.
“Just don’t tell Mom,” said Stone D. “She’ll kill me.”
“I won’t,” replied Bentley Bottleneck.
Soon after that Stone D. made a cordial of the oil of cloves, the balsam of rosemary, and the choicest syrup of figs.
“This cordial is the ultimate foe of stripes,” said Stone D. as Bentley Bottleneck drank the brew. But the only result was that, for two nights in a row, Bentley Bottleneck dreamt of mocha.
That winter was cold and the branches of the cherry tree were pointy. Bentley Bottleneck had to spend a lot of time at home. He sat by the radiator to stay warm as the radiator hissed with steam. He took out a box of colored crayons and melted them against the radiator; he scooped the melted wax into bottle caps. After the bottle caps cooled, Bentley Bottleneck and Stone D. put on their green beanies and played a game in the alley with the bottle caps by tossing them against the neighbor’s brick wall to see who could get a bottlecap closest to the wall.
“I’m glad you’re expanding away from just black and white with all these wax colors,” said Stone D. “There’s nothin’ like true beauty,” he said.
Time passed. In middle school, Bentley Bottleneck’s brown hair flapped gently over his eyes, he wore cuffs on his jeans and his mother bought him an excellent jacket. Bentley Bottleneck put up posters of zebras in his room and rode his skateboard alone all around the block. His mother felt that he was old enough to go alone to the A&P, and he did so, but sometimes the scanner at the checkout counter would beep when he walked by. His mother saved up money for piano lessons, which Bentley Bottleneck enjoyed, though he showed an usual talent for a youngster for playing a slow blues in the key of E; the black and white keys were his true friends. Once, he played the piano in a school play; the parents whispered to each other with serious faces and clapped nervously.
One very warm Spring night on a weekend when he was in eighth grade, Bentley Bottleneck had no homework so he took a walk to visit his brother at the all-night store. Stone D. was behind the counter by the cash register; Bentley Bottleneck walked up to the counter and spoke.
“How’s work?” asked Bentley Bottleneck.
“I’ve been here for two hours so it doesn’t hurt anymore,” said Stone D.
Bentley Bottleneck laughed.
“And I’ve got news for you,” said Stone D. with a smile and a wink. “A girl your age just moved in across the street from our place.”
It was true.
Johanna was an only child and had to transfer into eighth grade from another school even though the summer break began in only a month. She was plump, and had zits on her forehead; she wore a cloth bracelet on one wrist and a watch against the other. In school, she definitely did not fit in. Her parents had a piano and, at night, she played a soulful slow blues in the key of E. She waved brightly to Bentley Bottleneck whenever he walked by. One afternoon, after school, she sailed on her skateboard across the street towards Bentley Bottleneck and stopped and snapped up her skateboard into her hand.
“What do you say we sneak onto the school grounds and take pictures on my phone of us skateboarding under the ‘No Skateboarding’ sign?” she said.
“Sure!” said Bentley Bottleneck.
That night Bentley Bottleneck combed his hair in front of the mirror for an hour and a half.
Summer came. The Beekeeper Man’s backyard hummed and he was as busy as ever, but he made time to leave a jar of honey and two scented candles on the porch with a note for Rosetta Bottleneck. Soon, the Beekeeper Man and Rosetta Bottleneck could be seen sitting on the top step together during the long summer evenings.
Johanna and Bentley Bottleneck played the bottle cap game in the alley every afternoon and their laughs echoed. One afternoon, Johanna came over wearing a t-shirt that said “You Do You.”
“You don’t hate me because of my stripes?” asked Bentley Bottleneck.
The non-black parts on his face blushed all rosy; the black parts blushed all bronzy.
“What stripes?” laughed Johanna. She paused and bit her lip. “You know what we need?” she said.
“What?” asked Bentley Bottleneck.
“We need our first tattoos,” said Johanna.
“Real ones?” asked Bentley Bottleneck. “Even my older brother doesn’t have one yet.”
“Not real ones, silly,” said Johanna. “Fake ones. I know how to make them. It’s henna and food coloring and magic markers and stuff. Let’s do this.”
And so it was that on a lazy afternoon when no one was home, Bentley Bottleneck, in Johanna’s kitchen, drew a pretty good rose on Johanna’s shoulder with a magic marker, and colored it in with red food coloring. Johanna made an excellent rainbow Bentley Bottleneck’s left arm.
“You can always be a rainbow when you grow up,” said Johanna. “A rainbow is all stripes.”
One hot night, Johanna walked across the street to find Bentley Bottleneck, but he had gone to visit his brother at the all-night store. Johanna looked in the alley and then walked into the backyard. Furious was sitting on the edge of the roof of the storage shed pointing his nose in the air and sniffing; he had dark red cherry juice all over his pointy face and his white whiskers were longer than ever.
“You think you’re the one who’s gonna take over the boy’s stripes?” growled Furious. “You’re so in love with him that you’re willing to be a striped person for the rest of your life?”
“Excuse me,” said Johanna, “but I don’t know you, and anyway, I’m in like, not in love. And what’s all this talk about changing stripes?”
“If you consent,” said Furious through clenched tiny teeth, “then he can look like snow and you will be the one with stripes on your skin forever.”
“That’s silly,” said Johanna, “and anyway, who ever heard of snow in the summertime?”
With that, Johanna grabbed the broom and struck Furious with such strength that the rat died instantly, with one last, loud squeal that echoed in the alley.
Rosetta Bottleneck and the Beekeeper Man came running down the alley.
“What happened?” cried Rosetta Bottleneck.
“Seems a Bentley never changes his stripes,” said Johanna with a smile. “And there’s nothin’ like true beauty.”
Jerry Cunningham has been writing full-time for two years. Prior to that he practiced law (in Los Angeles) for many years and then taught at a local college in Oregon. He was born and raised in the Bronx. He lives in Oregon. http://www.fictionmagazines.com/shop/efiction-issues/efiction-vol-06-no-12/