We knew him only as “Bumblebee.” Like his namesake, he flitted from place to place, never lighting for long. Even his build suggested the insect, a soft furze of hair above a narrow face with round black eyes, a rotund middle and short, stubby legs. Unable to communicate except by gestures or a low humming from deep in his chest, his origins and even his name remained a mystery.
Rumor – never quite verified – had it that he was the offspring of a wealthy family which had found him an embarrassment and encouraged his absence from their vicinity. Others claimed that he had once been an inmate of a nearby state mental hospital but had made so many ingenious escapes that the authorities, deeming him harmless and despairing of keeping him incarcerated, allowed him to come and go as he chose. Still others swore he was the illegitimate son of a man “whose name you’d know in a minute if I was to mention it,” and that his father had arranged to have him raised secretly on a remote farm. No names or corroborating data accompanied those stories, but, as anyone familiar with country towns is well aware, no juicy sliver of gossip ever dies for want of proof.
Bumblebee made our town his home base – his hive, as it were — but at any time he might buzz off southward to Baltimore or north toward Frederick, traveling “on his thumb,” as the saying goes. Motorists on Route 140 would spot Bumblebee standing alongside the highway, hopping about gaily as he flagged down passing cars, giving a jaunty thumb of his nose to drivers who passed without stopping.
The moment a car braked for him, and many did, he hauled himself aboard, along with two bulging shopping bags. One bag contained his clothing and other earthly possessions. The other held his means of livelihood – sheets of construction paper in a variety of colors and a pair of small but very sharp scissors.
Bumblebee was an artist with an inordinate skill for cutting designs out of paper. Not just ordinary things like the snowflakes or Valentine hearts kids make in school – to equate Bumblebee’s creations with those would be like comparing a Picasso to a first-grader’s stick drawings.
When Bumblebee reached into his shopping bag to extract a sheet of colored paper and his shiny little scissors, onlookers held their breath in anticipation. What marvels would emerge this time? A few deft folds of the paper…a few snick, snick, snicks of the scissors…a few more folds…a few more snicks…and behold! — there would unfold a neat little cottage with smoke coming out the chimney…an automobile complete with driver silhouetted in the front seat…a tree with children swinging from its lower branches…a dog chasing a rabbit.
Even more awe-inspiring, Bumblebee never looked at what he was doing. Humming furiously, he could cut behind his back or between his legs or holding paper and scissors over his head, always with the same spectacular results.
Bumblebee never missed a fireman’s carnival where, surrounded by a crowd of children and adults, he was as much an attraction as the bingo stand or the wheel-of-fortune. For the kids, he cut out animals and boats and ferris wheels and circus clowns. For courting couples he would do pictures with lots of hearts and flowers and crescent moons in them. (When a local lady died recently at eighty-seven, one of Bumblebee’s cutouts – a couple kissing beneath a willow tree – was found tucked among her old love letters.) The local farmers were big on cows and chickens and John Deere tractors. Young marrieds often got a baby in a cradle, while for the older folks he did churches and ladies in fancy hoop-skirts. The kids’ pictures were free, but the grownups usually gave him a few pennies or a nickel with which he would later buy hot-dogs and soda-pop and take a turn on each of the carnival rides.
Folks generally told Bumblebee what designs they would like him to cut for them. Sometimes he would oblige, sometimes not. Occasionally he would just squint at the person, hum a bit, snip a bit, and when the paper was unfolded something entirely unexpected would appear. At one carnival a local woman, notorious for her gossiping tongue, requested a butterfly sitting on a rosebush. To her great chagrin and even greater embarrassment, when the paper was unfolded it revealed two crows sitting on a tree branch, beaks agape as they scolded back and forth. The town bully asked for a fire-engine one time and got a jackass kicking up his heels instead.
Whoever he was and wherever he came from, Bumblebee managed to live with less concern for the means and manner of his existence than the insect for which he was named. With an unerring instinct for where he would be welcome, he simply walked into someone’s house, and, if it was dinner-time. hummed his way to the table, or, if it were bedtime, located a convenient spot behind the kitchen stove, in the cellar, or perhaps in the barnloft. In those simpler, safer days, rural doors were seldom locked. Thus, a family might return home to find Bumblebee already bedded down for the night on their sofa, his dishes stacked neatly in the sink.
Streams and springs provided his bathing facilities or occasionally a farmer’s watering trough. When a local man died who was short in the leg and stout in the waist, some of the deceased’s clothing always went to Bumblebee. An old sweater or coat was never thrown out until it was known whether or not it would “fit Bumblebee.”
If it seems incredible that anyone could live in this fashion without being viewed as a parasite, his unique Bumblebee’s gift for paper-cutting assured his welcome wherever he went.
Years passed and Bumblebee was so taken for granted as a part of our lives that we were as unaware of the changes in him as we were of changes in ourselves. World War II and prosperity brought an influx of newcomers that overnight transformed our once rural community into a sprawling bedroom suburb. Newcomers were too suspicious of strangers to stop and give Bumblebee a lift, and all of us were in more of a hurry than we used to be, so we, too, often passed him by.
In his later years, Bumblebee’s temper grew short. He began to stand squarely in the lane of traffic, hopping about angrily and making obscene gestures at the cars that zipped by almost without noticing him. Those who did offer him a ride reported that where he had once hummed merrily as he rode along, that carefree buzzing had taken on a different, more menacing pitch. As people became less trusting of one another, doors began to be locked. Housewives, having heard of Bumblebee’s altered temperment, were no longer comfortable offering him a meal or lodging. “After all,” they would say, “with people like that, you just can’t ever tell….” Several times he was reported to the local police who began to view him as a community nuisance.
Bumblebee’s art suffered, too. Now he ignored requests and cut out ugly gargoyle-like creatures and twisted trees and horrifying animals. Not that it made much difference – television had become our entertainment. We had Milton Berle – we no longer needed Bumblebee. Even the carnivals were no longer a gathering place for old friends. The teenagers who patronized them wanted rock-and-roll bands, not paper cut-outs.
No one knows exactly when Bumblebee disappeared. It had always been his yearly custom to vanish between Christmas and mid-April. (Again, if local legend could be believed, his wealthy family arranged for him to live in the basement of one of the hotels in Baltimore during the cold months). But sometime in the late fifties there came a Spring when Bumblebee did not return. Rumor was he had died during the previous winter. There was no way of finding out for sure since no one knew his real name. So, in death as in life, he remained a mystery.
In time, Bumblebee was forgotten. Only occasionally does someone come across a tattered cutout tucked away in a drawer or between the leaves of a book. Or, when old-timers gather, someone will breathe, “Bumblebee—now there was a character for you!”