by Anna Ingwersen
A cumulus of ladybugs moved steadily across the pastel-streaked sky. Everyone had virtually ignored reports in The Galveston Daily News predicting their arrival over the island’s grasslands, the result of an unusually warm spring. As the speckled mass advanced across the horizon, children abandoned their elaborate sandcastles, throwing down warm plastic shovels, running toward parents just as excited by the approaching monstrous swarm. Nervous families gathered towels, bottles of sun lotion and ice chests into hatchbacks and minivans to watch the phenomenon from the air-conditioned safety of their cars while munching from bags of chips and pretzels.
Chris Gatoni was lying on his beach towel, squinting towards the approaching insect cloud that widened and contracted, lungs inhaling and exhaling thick salty air for a final exertive push to the shore. He was enjoying his self-imposed day off from critiquing first year students at the architecture school on the north end of the island. As he lifted his head over his hairy belly to see the dark shifting mass making its way toward land, he was reminded of a student’s recent project, a scale model of a library with möbius-strip motifs. The student, sweating and sleep-deprived, had stood before the critique group of professors from the school, local designers, and visiting lecturer Peter Moot, an award-winning architect from Vancouver. Moot had been intrigued with the student’s relating the möbius-strip to the continuum of learning associated with libraries.
The student had nodded, looking for clues in Moot’s face as to whether the response was positive or negative. As others chimed in approvingly, agreeing with Moot’s assessment, the student relaxed, blearily looking at the model that had taken him all night to complete.
“From this,” Moot had said, “we see a kind of architecture beginning. A kind of permanence in transitional space that takes shape in a fixing of rootedness to flux.”
Chris thought it was nonsense: both the student’s work and Moot’s criticism. Moot was part of the reason Chris found himself on the beach that afternoon, hoping to clear his head of the man who made him clench his jaw and grind his teeth in the night.
After fifteen years at the school, Chris had managed to attain an associate professorship and had two books under his now 42-inch belt, one, a coffee table book about transitional thresholds in civic spaces, the other a retrospective look at East German public architecture during the Cold War. During desk critiques, students would cringe silently as Chris deconstructed, sometimes completely destroying models that had taken them hours to assemble. They all feared one of his famous rants. The worst of these happened during a final review three years ago when he huffed on about a student’s prolific use of the brise-soleil for a prison project, roaring, “Why are you even here?” The student dropped out shortly after, and his shy parents had to come to the studio with open boxes to collect their son’s things and to destroy his drawings in their hope that his recovery would be as smooth as possible.
The beach had mostly emptied when Chris spotted a slightly hunched, silver-haired man striding toward him wearing impossibly long swim trunks in a neon Hawaiian pattern. A pair of binoculars swung from his thin neck. His deeply tanned chest looked like it had once been muscular, with a thin layer of loose skin holding on less firmly than it used to. The man walked with great puffed-up confidence, despite the slight hunch. His gait suggested a youthfulness that made Chris feel much older than his years. He could tell the man was one of the snowbirds; a Yankee retiree down to enjoy the nine months of decent weather on the island, flying back north to avoid its unbearably hot summers. Chris hated the snowbirds; their garish taste in clothing, their perpetual tans so layered and dark that he imagined their flesh to be thick and hard as jerky. He hated their lightness, how they lived such rootless lives following the sun and good weather. Chris resented this kind of freedom. He was offended by the easy rejection of discomfort.
“Hey there!” the man yelled at Chris. “Now you got the right idea!” He stepped to the side as though talking somehow forced him away from the person he spoke to.
Chris hoped the man had mistaken him for someone else, but he looked straight at Chris, laying his beach towel out with one great movement, grains of sand hitting Chris on his lips and eyes.
“Yeah, this is going to be some spectacle, let me tell ya. I heard about this kinda thing happening, but I never seen it before,” the man said in that irritating clipped northern accent.
He thrust his binoculars at Chris, but Chris was silent, stunned by the man’s lack of respect for his personal space.
“Hi,” he said sticking his hand firmly out toward Chris, “name’s Len Hirschman.”
Chris reached out hesitantly and took the man’s hand, surprised that his skin was soft and smooth, nothing like the jerky he imagined. Len radiated a warm smell of coconut, like the amber-colored suntan oil Chris had always wanted to buy that evoked the smell of summer. He slightly resented this smell because he was obliged to buy the white cream lotion with high SPF that reminded him of his sunburns and impossible freckling.
“Look at it, just look at it. It’s a living cloud. A whole bunch of insects making a monster,” he said, thrusting his binoculars again at Chris. This time Chris took the binoculars and looked toward the ladybugs in the sky.
“They are comin’, man, they are comin.’ It’s the heat and all them aphids this year. Ladybugs love eating those guys. It’s also a sign though. It could mean something big is about to happen, only we don’t know what yet,” Len said, arranging and then rearranging his towel on the sand, his fingers smoothing the corners in anticipation. “The best part is we got them all to ourselves. Everyone else is too scared to really appreciate it. But, we can just lie here and take it all in. And when they land on you … boy, I can’t wait. Some people say that when you got too much of one harmless thing, even a harmless thing like a ladybug, well, they can bite, that they just bite collectively, on mass or something. All those little tiny insects become a giant new sort of thing. Like I said, a monster.”
“Absolute nonsense,” Chris said, handing the binoculars back to Len. He, too, would have sought shelter if he’d known the ladybugs had intended to land on him. “A ladybug is a ladybug no matter how many other ladybugs it does or does not hang out with. And they don’t bite.”
“Oh yeah? They don’t bite on their own, but they sure as heck do bite when they’re all together like that,” Len said pointing to the sky, “Think about fireflies.”
“Fireflies? What about them? They certainly don’t come together and bite people,” Chris sneered.
“No, I don’t mean that,” Len shook his head, “but if you ever seen a bunch of them together, then you’d see they create something bigger than what they are. I mean they can make you think they’re more than little insects. You see one here, then over there, then right in front of you, and in the dark you start imagining they’re something more than what they are. I had that same experience last night watching them from my screened porch.”
“I’ve never watched fireflies,” Chris said, “When they start coming out, I’m usually working.”
“That’s a shame,” Len said, with disappointment in his voice. Genuine, Chris thought, nothing worse than a genuine snowbird.
“There’s a ton of fireflies on this island,” Len continued. “There’s nothing better than watching them spark up when the sun goes down. I mix myself a nice Bloody Mary every evening and settle down to watch the fireflies spark up. Really nothing better.”
“You from the island then?” Chris asked. He had guessed the man was from Wisconsin or Michigan by the way he flattened his vowels.
“Who, me? Hell, no. No, I’m a snowbird. Down here from Michigan October through May every year. Since my wife died I’ve been thinking about moving down here for good. But the kids and the grandkids are all up there, you know, and hell’s bells, the summers here are damned awful. No, I go home for summers. Nothing more perfect than a Michigan summer. Course we always spent ours at our lake house, but I sold that after Winnie died.”
The ladybug crowd advanced and retreated across the sky. Chris didn’t respond, but Len seemed perfectly at ease with this silence established between complete strangers.
“You must have come to see the spectacle today,” Len finally said.
“I’m here to clear my mind, that’s all,” Chris said coldly.
“Problems at work or with ladies?” Len chirped. Chris thought this probably summed up the totality of all the problems Len had ever had.
“There are other things in life,” Chris said sarcastically. “And I’m sorry, but I have a feeling you wouldn’t understand anyway.’
“Oh come on now! Sometimes it’s easier talking to a stranger,” Len said, undeterred by Chris’s aloofness. “Try me.”
“You really wouldn’t understand the world of academia,” Chris sighed.
“Oh, I get it. You’ve got a problem with a coworker,” Len interrupted, crossing his arms and looking at Chris for confirmation.
Chris grimaced, annoyed that Len had gotten to the root of what he considered a more complex problem than one that could be summed up by Len the snowbird.
Chris thought about the students who laughed and joked with Moot during desk crits, but who during Chris’s crits would cross their arms defensively, looking down at their sketches, carefully nodding their heads in agreement with his every word. Moot used the word “fuck” to flatter the students. To Chris, this was the lowest form of ingratiation. “That is a fucking original threshold,” Moot would say. Chris also hated the way others on the faculty so willingly accepted Moot’s presence. He had objected to Dean Upton for inviting Moot as guest lecturer when there were other architects far more deserving of the honor.
“I’d really prefer not to talk about it,” Chris snapped at Len.
Len sat unmovable in his silence.
“Yes, okay, it is a problem with a coworker, as you say,” Chris said. “Just this new coworker. He’s a fraud and nobody can see it but me. I always knew he was a fraud. I went to school with him back in the day. I lost touch with him and he became some big deal and now he’s becoming a big deal right where I work. Can’t stand the guy. Anyway, I really don’t want to talk about it, I don’t even want to think about it.”
Chris hadn’t thought about Moot in years until last fall when, flipping through the pages of Architectural Record, he came across a feature on Moot’s work in Vancouver, all undulating edges and jutting glass facades with abundant nods to regionalism both in form and material. Moot had stayed slim and he’d kept his hair, Chris had not, and Moot had a new look on his face, one that seemed to suggest that he had steadily worked toward a successful career with very little struggle or setback. His gaze was stoically self-assured and, to Chris, slightly smug.
The Dean had seen the same article and called Chris to ask if he knew Moot. “Not really,” Chris had said into the musty receiver. Knowing the Dean’s deep fondness for Le Corbusier, Chris mentioned an article Moot had written years before in The New York Times lambasting architects for ignoring Le Corbusier’s collaboration with Vichy France. “And of course,” Chris said, “you do know about the whole roof debacle on the library in Fairbanks.” The Dean had not heard of the incident. “We’ll do lunch,” the Dean said distractedly before hanging up. But the Dean never scheduled lunch and Chris was relieved because he had made up the story about the faulty roof on the Fairbanks library.
Days later it was announced that Moot had accepted the position of guest lecturer.
Len was staring at Chris, waiting for more. But Chris lay looking at the giant speckled cumulus making its collective way toward them. Were those insects making a low clicking sound? Chris could almost hear their wings clacking together. “So, it’s one of those,” Len finally said.
“One of those? What is one of those?” Chris asked, pulling a small bag of potato chips from his backpack, hugging the bag until it opened at the top. He took a chip that had popped out and landed on his chest and gingerly placed it on his tongue.
“Oh, I know all about those,” Len said.
“What ‘those’ do you know about?” Chris asked, spewing chip shards over his chin and chest hairs.
“Sticky ones,” Len said undeterred. “Those people that are like gum, you walk on them somewhere in your life and they stick to the bottom of your shoe forever. No matter how hard you try, they’re just there on the bottom of your shoe, and whenever you walk, you can feel a tiny part of the sole of your shoe sticking to the ground.”
“Very poetic,” Chris laughed. “You should write that down. You know, you could publish it in one of those little gift books or something.” Chris shook his head. “Yeah, Len, you could say he’s a ‘sticky one’ all right. I can’t seem to shake the guy. We both attended Harvard at the same time and this guy, Moot’s his name, Peter Moot, was on the verge of failing out his first two years. He was a joke. I was the star student and I never noticed him until third year when everyone said he was really improving. I saw his stuff and it was so obvious. The guy was copying me! It was so brazen, so in my face. By our final thesis, we were both in the running for the graduate award; a paid internship at one of Boston’s leading design firms. Before the final critique, I felt certain I would win, but I didn’t.”
Len said nothing and stared into the waves in the Gulf, which seemed to mimic the lumbering movement of the ladybug cloud above.
Chris exhaled, strangely relieved at having confessed his history with Moot to the silent funny little Len.
“Well, so what happened then?” Len finally asked, still staring ahead.
“I froze up and I failed and that Moot, he won the award. I think he spooked me the way he copied me. It’s like he became a version of me and I became him. We traded places. And here he is trying to take my place again. They’re letting people go at the school and I think I’m next. I think I’m next, and I think Moot will take my place there. It seems to be what he was put on earth to do.” Chris poured the rest of the chip crumbs into his mouth, making a funnel with the bag.
“Come on, let me show you something,” Len said. “Follow me.” Len sprang up, his lithe old body suddenly youthful and excited.
Chris fought to gain his footing in the sand, quicksand, he imagined, by the heat and consistency of it.
Len was several yards ahead, occasionally making an upward swing of his arm without looking back, a theatrical gesture to hurry Chris along.
They were approaching the new boardwalk at the top of the beach with its newly finished covered pavilion at its end, designed, Chris knew, by an unimaginative local firm. Len ran to the large entrance and disappeared inside.
Chris was struggling for breath when he made it to the entrance and grasped the wall inside. There was Len in front of a giant shallow pool of stingrays, petting the back of each one as they seemed to take turns coming to him. Chris had read about this stingray pool, but the Daily News made it sound so kitsch and silly that he’d never bothered seeing it for himself.
“How can they just leave this place open like this? Someone gets in this pool, they’d be dead!” Chris huffed, still trying to catch his breath.
“Oh, they’re harmless,” Len said, “they’ve had their stingers removed. They can’t hurt a fly. They’re all different and I’ve named them all. This one’s Marta. I named her after Winnie’s aunt. They’re both pushy and have flared nostrils,” Len laughed.
Chris recovered his breath and walked over to stand next to Len. The stingrays flapped and slapped the water in what seemed to be excitement.
“It’s like they know who you are,” Chris said.
“Oh, yeah, for sure they know who I am. Poor things, though. If they ever got put back in the Gulf, they wouldn’t stand a chance, not without their stingers.”
“Yeah, but why would anyone put them back? This is sort of it for them, this little shallow pool. I don’t know, it’s kind of pathetic,” Chris said.
“Depends on how you look at it,” Len said. Chris already knew enough about Len to know that his take on the stingrays would be altogether more positive.
“I mean, they have each other all in close quarters, not like out in the Gulf where they spread out. It’s like one big happy family. Nothing to worry about. They get fed well, and children come to see them and pet them. No predators. If you ask me, they got it pretty darned easy.”
Chris stared at Len’s strange marine pets. As they splashed Len with water from the pool, the waves from outside seemed to grow louder, crashing on the sandy shore. Chris felt awkward, as though he had intruded on an intimate moment between old friends.
“Well, don’t want to miss the big hurrah!” Len said, turning suddenly toward Chris, with the same readiness that he displayed on his walk to the pavilion from the beach. He whisked around and headed outside.
Chris didn’t follow Len to the beach, but stood at the pavilion entrance watching him stride confidently to where they had both sat before. Len, taking his position lying flat on his beach towel, waved at Chris to come join him. Chris waved back, but stayed where he was.
The ladybug cloud was dispersing now. Spotted groups trickled little by little from the black cloud, breaking up into specks that settled on the sand, the parking lot and the cars with people inside, still munching on chips and guzzling cans of soda. And there was Len lying still as a corpse on his towel, letting the ladybugs land all over him. Chris watched as Len became almost completely covered with them, no part of his body visible through their spotted shells. He was soon indistinguishable except for the shoots of gray hair sticking out from his head.
Chris watched until the bugs began to land in great numbers on him, too. He swatted the air and left the pavilion, heading farther up the beach where they had yet to land. He crossed the four-lane road behind the sea wall and made his way home to his wooden bungalow. Only when he opened his front door did he realize he’d left his towel and belongings on the sand, where they now lay, next to Len, the giant ladybug man. Chris imagined everything left on the sand was completely covered by the ladybugs, and the idea repulsed him. He would leave his things on the beach until enough time had passed to ensure the insects had dispersed.
When he opened his front door, the answering machine flashed one big red blink. He knew there was one big fat message waiting for him. Chris went to the kitchen and got a can of beer from the refrigerator. He passed the answering machine in the hall several times, but never pushed the play button.
That night hurricane Georges veered off its projected course toward the Yucatan and headed north over the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston Island. Chris, drunk from too much sun and beer on an empty stomach, slept through the entire storm, which had brought down all the trees in his front yard, one crashing through his living room window. He woke up and in a daze stepped over the tree trunk on the floor, turned on the news and was shocked that the island had been decimated and that the university buildings had been hit the hardest. He shuffled to the answering machine and played the message, still waiting and flashing for him.
“Chris, it’s Dean Upton calling. As you know the school is having to make some tough decisions about faculty. You and I have already discussed some potential changes to your schedule. The Board of Regents is very excited to have Moot on board as a guest lecturer and they want to ask him to take a more permanent position next year, which means the school will have to tighten its belt in other ways. Anyway, you and I have talked about this before, but come on in tomorrow and we can go over some details. Thanks, Chris. Oh, have a nice weekend.”
Chris didn’t listen to the message again and he didn’t erase it. The red light continued to flash at him. All he could think about was Len the snowbird lying on his towel slowly being covered by ladybugs. He wondered if Len had been swept out into the water wearing his insect armor, if he was swimming with all those sting-less stingrays that had been reclaimed, into the Gulf, by giant waves.
Anna Ingwersen has been writing stories her entire life, including a fifth grade sequel to “Gone With the Wind” illustrated with crayons. Born in San Antonio, she spent her adulthood in Austin, Texas, before moving with her husband to Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lives with her two children. Her historical novel, “The Moon Garden,” about the Texas Veterans’ Land Board Scandal, is currently being edited for submissions. She is also working on a collection of short stories and a historical novel about Billy The Kid. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaIngwersen.