It's four days since the rented Penske truck pulled out of the driveway. It's the second and final load. There is now space in the attic. We have one less mattress in the basement. Some great books will be permanently checked out of our library. Most of those budget Italian ceramics my wife has been buying at Home Goods, for pasta or fruit or flowers, for anything wanting some easy elegance, are packed up and gone.
When my kids learned to drive, when they drove away those first few weeks I stood in the driveway with my heart pounding in my chest, praying they would come home in one piece. Then I got used to it. "See ya later," they'd say. And I'd say, "Yeah." This is like that. The first time the Penske truck leaves, I feel the pounding sensation. The second time I'm sort of used to it. But this time is also different. To get to where my daughter and her husband are going takes nine hours. "See ya soon," she says.
Four days later, early one Thursday morning, and I'm lugging trash out to the road. This one bag I pick up and drop, there's something in it that goes pop! When I hoist the bag, liquid dribbles from a bottom corner. It's been hot, in the nineties for a few weeks. Garbage will deliquesce. I walk down to the road with the bag, dreading the cleanup ahead of me. By the time I'm back, the smell of peppermint pervades the garage. What broke, I'm guessing, is a bottle of mouthwash. Who throws away mouthwash? I daub at the spilled liquid with wet paper towel, which amounts to massaging it into the floor. I toss a bucket of water across the cement floor and rough up the sticky spots with a broom. The garage now smells like a candy shop. So does the mudroom just inside in the house.
It's almost August. This outbreak of sweetness worries me.
Some time ago, two years in a row we got an influx of flies in the garage, both times in early August. We've had influxes-chipmunks in the attic, finches on a window ledge, starlings in the apple tree. One time I came home to find a grackle in the house. Those invasions come and go. But flies, creatures of manure and death, pests that make a person shrivel, flies come to stay. They move in. They're shitty company. You can't murder them fast enough.
The idea that we can create an impermeable barrier between human space and the natural world, when you examine it, seems like the highest order of folly. We do a pretty good job of keeping the rain out, the cold and heat out, but every so often there are reminders of our limits. I move a dish in the sink and an earwig goes looking for cover. I open a cupboard door and see an ant going about his business. The other day I was working on the back porch, screened in to keep the bugs out. I looked up from my work to see a hornet buzzing around, like a drone waiting for attack coordinates to be radioed from central command.
Around ten years ago we noticed a couple fleas in an upstairs bathroom, then we noticed more; in a couple days there were clouds of them. An exterminator came. He guessed there was a dead animal in the wall, probably one of those chipmunks. We were invited to leave the house for five or six hours. When we came home, along the floor and the edges of the window frame was a white powdery substance, which we were instructed to leave for a few days. The stuff worked. No more fleas. No flea carcasses. No dead, flea-eating fleas. Our inviolable space, now slightly poisonous, was restored.
The housefly (musca domestica) is a sleazy little beast. It's hairy. It has awful "compound eyes" that, through no fault of its own, are huge, red, and, for want of a better term, buggy. That thing protruding downward from its head, a complex apparatus consisting of maxilary palps, labium, labellum, pseudotracheae, and (ugh) tip, is used to import shit, rot, putrescence, and other delectibles into its body. Thirty-six hours after emerging from its pupa (a word I do not like and hope never to write again), it is ready for sex. A fly will live two weeks to a month in the wild. Do the math. They are prodigiously randy, just babies when they start having sex, and each female is loaded with 500 eggs. Humans evolved some 200,000 years ago and have been full-blown homo sapiens for around 50,000 years. Flies have been around for some 65 million years. When they buzz, they buzz with a kind of confidence we can only imagine.
Pulling into my garage one day in August some years ago, I noticed a buzz. On closer inspection, I saw them, a few dozen flies looking out the garage windows. They seemed unworthy of much concern. A few days later, the buzz was louder, more varied, a pestilent philharmonic. There were enough flies on the window that I could swat at them with the New York Times and dispatch a half a dozen at a time. The others, listless, and probably post-coitally lethargic, didn't fly away. In five minutes or so, the floor was dotted with dead flies, which I swept up and tossed into the yard.
The next day they were back. I used the sports section for fly slaughter.
The day after that they were all over the windows and dotted the door from the garage into the house.
"Bleach," my wife said. That's her solution to everything.
The next morning I sprayed the windows with bleach, wiped them down, hopeful if not satisfied that I'd outsmarted the flies. I put the garbage cans outside.
Next day, windows, door: flies. And, to my horror, on the window just inside the house, flies.
I looked for home remedies online. They were quaint.
Basil plants by the door will rid u of the flies.
Good to know, thanks.
I always use apple cidar vinager [sic]. Put some in a bowl with a drop of dawn dishsoap and place it where the flies are. They love it and it also helps with bad odors.
Great, I'll get right on that.
Fill sandwich baggie half full of water, hang over any door which leads from outside to inside (hang bag over outside of door). The fly sees its reflection in the water & is scared off. Know it sounds crazy, but it works. Try it!!
So flies gross themselves out, too. I would need a sandwich baggy the size of an Olympic pool.
I'm sure these people meant well. I'm also sure they did not know that visitations of flies can far exceed the scope of their solutions. Within a few days, we had flies in the garage, in the mud room, in the house. It was starting to feel Biblical.
Those nights, I lay in bed listening. They were still too fat, too sluggish to fly upstairs. That gave me hope. We would at least have a haven. For a while. I thought about friends who had gone into their attic and found a colony of bats hanging from the rafters. (The actual collective noun is "cloud." Whatever the term, horrible. ) I imagined, in a week's time, above our heads, the hum of a zillion flies in the attic. I knew it was foolish. Flies are not attic creatures. But at night, in the dark, unable to sleep, your mind wanders and comes to rest on the most elemental fears.
There were queen bees. I wondered if there was a king fly, a boss, a diabolical leader directing the invasion of our house.
At the hardware store I bought those strips of tape you unroll and hang to attract flies. I bought a couple miles of the stuff, and found it sticky and difficult to work with, and subject to breezes, and simply revolting to look at. When my wife pulled in the garage, home from work, she took one look at those hanging fly strips, like unfurled rolls of film, dotted with only a few flies, and said, simply and definitively, "No."
Back at the hardware store, when the guy saw me coming, he straightened his apron and pointed me toward the hard stuff.
"Eggs," he said. "Flies lay eggs. You probably have eggs all over those garage windows."
So I hosed the windows down with poison. I would have gladly tossed buckets of the stuff. It took 2-3 applications and a week or so before we felt fly-free again.
The smell of peppermint is still fresh in my nose, it's probably on my flipflops, when I drive up to Midland to see my mother. She's been slipping into dementia for years now, retreating from the present into early memory. Lately the slip has become a lurch. The last time I saw her, my dad asked her if she knew who I was.
"Sure," she said. "This is Walter."
She grew up in Missaukee County, in the sticks. They had no screens, she once told me, so they hung cheese cloth in the windows during summer to let some breeze in and keep the flies out. It didn't work. Sometimes when wind agitated the cloth, she said a curtain of flies would rise. Whenever she told me this, she gagged. Just thinking of flies made her gag.
She's sitting on the davenport with my dad when I get to the assisted living facility. They hold hands and try to talk a little.
"How are you?" I ask.
"I'm fane," she says. "Just fane."
My dad smiles. Odd word. But her tone is right. It's her.
These are their last days. They are sweet together. We try to chat, about August, about the kids moving away and the open spaces their moves create, about the nine hour drive. My mother nods. She's far away. I suspect she's back on the farm, enjoying the fresh air. Not a fly in sight. I can only hope.
Rick Bailey's work has appeared recently in Toasted Cheese, Bartelby Snopes, and Boston Literary Magazine.