Larry was a big guy, perhaps some Seminole Nation in him, flowing along with the blood of the oppressive Scots clan that overran his swamp generations back. Large tall cheekbones, lantern jaw, long brown arms. Serious green eyes that didn’t meet yours but looked squarely at your chin or your shoulder. He kept his arms at his sides, turned his body just slightly angled away from you. Not defensive, but not open, either.
He was mostly silent, not quick to smile or laugh. A highly competent foreman of his landscaping crew, when he did speak it was always to the point. When he did smile it was because he had plenty of dirt under his fingernails, and when he laughed, it was because he had plenty of Red Dog Ale in his belly.
Larry woke by dawn, and was at his truck and loaded for delivery by the time the sun was halfway between the horizon and the tops of the live oaks. He drank a gigantic 32 oz. insulated plastic mug of coffee and ate a fast food breakfast sandwich and deep-fried hash browns on his way to the jobsite every morning of the world. If he spoke to you, it was only to tell you to check the clipboard for the jobsite address and driving directions, or to make sure that the first aid kit was uppermost in the glove compartment.
His woman, Deanna was technically a common-law wife, since they had lived together for so many years. She was a large lady, bluff and loud, and generally sweet-natured when in good spirits. She had chestnut hair bleached the color of sunflowers in contrast to her almost black eyebrows. She worked on the crew sometimes, but mostly stuck around the design shack to answer the phone and water the trees and shrubs. Unlike Larry, Deanna never stopped talking. Incessant, and always at one and half times the volume she needed to be heard, she would hold forth on every topic, regardless of whether she knew a single fact on the subject or not.
Larry both adored and barely tolerated Deanna. “Shut UP woman!” was a regular refrain in the gloaming after a hard day’s digging and planting as we stood donating blood to the mosquitoes and drank icy, dripping brown bottles of beer in a circle. Deanna would just laugh and say “YOU shut up ….” , and continue as if he’d never spoken at all. He’d squeeze her and kiss her cheek angrily, smack her behind and swig his beer. She’d lean hard into him, one arm tight around his back, the other dangling a beer bottle, but otherwise she ignored him as she would a doorframe leaned into.
Larry was our leader and we loved him. We loved him for his silence, his rare smiles and his rarer laughter. We loved him for getting us to the jobsite on time and making sure we had orange coolers of ice water on the hottest of days. We loved him because he worked harder than any of us, cussed us out quietly if we hit a main waterline with our shovel, or a hornet’s nest, or knocked a bird’s nest full of eggs out of a tree, or something equally careless. We loved him for hating pickles. We loved him for being married to a crazy woman completely his opposite whom he worshiped and couldn’t stand, all in the same breath.
Once upon a time, Oleander shrubs were all the rage in commercial landscape plantings. Large, fast-growing, blooming bright white or colored flowers almost year-round, they were an ideal planting for wide open spaces that needed filling. They are also highly, deeply and perniciously poisonous, root, branch, twig and leaf. Flowers too.
Oleanders can still be spotted in the Florida landscape along interstates, at hotels, theme parks, and other large commercial properties, but rarely in the home garden, for good reason. Aside from being poisonous themselves, they host their very own, dark orange and black whiskered caterpillar, named for them. These admirably ambitious insects can defoliate an entire shrub in a matter of hours and turn into striking polka-dotted moths as adults. These caterpillars are themselves toxic, so don’t bite them. Also, you do not want to be bitten by an Oleander caterpillar.
Larry, our big, silent, strong foreman, following his routine one fine, windy late March morning, was up by dawn, had his truck loaded full of white and pink Oleander 3-gallon shrubs, ready for planting at the day’s jobsite. He stood at the back of the truck, drinking his coffee, awaiting the signal from his crew that they had their respective acts together and were ready to roll. It was the crucial moment of checking off the inventory list before setting off for the jobsite.
As the last of the crew slammed their truck doors, Larry lifted the truck hatch halfway, placing his big gulp coffee on the truck’s bumper. As he slammed the hatch up to meet its latch, he reached in with his left hand and shoved an errant Oleander shrub in. At that moment, a slinky orange and black-wired caterpillar dropped on Larry’s arm. He didn’t see it. He slammed the hatch shut, lifted his coffee in his right hand, and slugged it back as he headed to the open driver’s door.
As he finished gulping the coffee, he felt the sting as the caterpillar injected its toxin. He flung his left arm outward with a small grunt, brushing his right hand, coffee-mug bound, across the inside of his left elbow, sweeping the caterpillar onto the ground. Coffee spilled out, and Larry stood there looking at his left arm in hurt surprise- the most animated we’d ever seen his face.
As we piled out of our trucks and gathered around to witness and determine what the fuck to do, the bite on Larry’s arm started to swell in angry reddish purple. He started wheezing, his breath coming in and out in scary shallow wisps. His eyes were swelled shut, his lips turned a frightening shade of pinkish purple. He dropped his mug and it tipped over on the ground. He held on tight to the side of the truck.
Deanna came shrieking out of the design shack, hauling her big legs in pink cutoff sweats across the drive to Larry, yelling “the epi pen, the epi pen, the epi pin, it’s in the first aid kit, the first aid kit…” Which was in the glove compartment of the truck. Someone dashed for it, yanked it out, dumped the contents on the front seat of the truck, then stabbed Larry with it.
We all stood around in a panicky circle waiting to see what would happen. Moments passed with no visible result, Larry panting shallowly like a woman in labor, his poor flat Seminole Scots face swollen fat and shut in anaphalactic shock. Someone had the presence of mind to call 911.
By the time the ambulance was pulling in to the drive, he was starting to look like a person again, but still swollen and wheezy. He could open his eyes a bit, and the fear was clear in them. So was the anger. He’d tossed poisonous snakes out into lakes, sprayed hundreds of thousands of furious hornets from their nests, dodged falling trees, pissed-off clients, and live electrical wires out to get him. And yet, this less-than-an-inch-long caterpillar had undone him and an entire day’s work in one little sting. He attempted to refuse the ride, but the paramedics brooked no argument. They were both as large as Larry, and just as expert at their jobs as he was at his, so off he went.
The landscape company owner stood in as foreman while Larry was sent to the hospital for further treatment and observations. We planted a stand of graceful, shiny-leaved Ligustrum trees, and large ribbons of brightly colored annuals that day, along with dozens of Oleanders. No one else suffered a sting. It was a hot windy March day, and while Tim made sure we had water, and there was a cooler of Red Dog Ale at the end of the day, he didn’t stand in silence with us in the gloaming circle feeding the mosquitoes.
Deanna came out from the trailer that evening to tell us Larry would be fine, he’d been sent home from the hospital with antihistamines and his own epi pen and was sleeping off the day’s horror in the trailer. Our leader had been felled by an insect so insidious, that we stood in utter silence – even Deanna- drinking our beers, grateful and subdued.
He returned to work the next day, grim and tight-lipped as ever, and we loved him all the more for never mentioning the incident afterwards. And if anyone brought it up, he maintained stony silence while Deanna advised all and sundry on the virtues of antihistamines and the dangers of anaphalactic shock. But if you were lucky and got to ride shotgun in the truck with him, he might ask you to check that the epi pen was uppermost in the first aid kit.