The Flies

by Dave Housley

The first time was at the coffee maker. He was hungover, thankful
he’d managed to prepare the coffee the night before—a vague memory,
water and scooping and wiping the counter—when he noticed
a few small flies drifting around the area. Tiny little flies. Fruit flies.

Typical, he thought, Karen had left something out that had attracted
fruit flies. Two weeks. The timing seemed right, long enough
for a pineapple slice or a disregarded salad or an overflowing garbage
can to have that kind of effect. He was probably better off now.

He punched the brew button, swiped at a fly moving lazily over his
head. The coffee was brewing. It was 8:25 and he was supposed to be
at work by 9:00, but he knew Paul was out with a client. Everything
was fine. He returned to bed.

***

When he got home from work, they seemed to have multiplied.
They were there by the coffee maker, same as before, but also flitting
around the kitchen window. A lot of them. A squall of them. He
swatted, clapped his hands, looked at his palms and saw that he’d
come up empty. How was that possible? They were flying all around
the kitchen in waves, little loose clouds of them forming along the
window and the cabinets, the refrigerator and the entryway and the
metal “Love” sign Karen had hung along the back of the kitchen.

All along the windowsill, little black spots. On the walls. The cabinets.
He poured a bourbon and sat down. Jesus, he thought, what did
she do? He looked at the refrigerator, the cabinets. Could she have
left something in there that would have drawn these flies? Would
she have?

He took a sip of bourbon. And then another. He watched the flies
circle around the sink area. There was a beauty about it, all those
little bodies ranging in and around one another, drifting in constant
motion, every now and then alighting on the windowsill or refrigerator
or cabinets.

He reached into the freezer for ice and they scattered, swam up,
around, over his head. He swatted and clapped and looked at his
hands. Nothing.

Fuck it, he thought. If she was here it would be one thing, but gone
two weeks and not so much as a text message was a very different
thing.

It was typical. She had never been very good at her side of the relationship,
the part where the refrigerator is organized, where the cabinets
are always full, where there’s never a rotten banana or a pineapple
slice hiding somewhere drawing flies. Drawing so many flies.

He finished the bourbon and poured another. Mr. Robot was on the
DVR. He was four episodes behind and maybe it was finally time to
catch up without her, to stop waiting and just move on.

He walked into the kitchen and wondered at the cloud of flies that
seemed to sprout up around his head like a corona, spinning off in
every direction. He swatted at the mass but knew they would remain
out of his grip. He filled his drink and sat down, queued up Mr. Robot.
He sipped the bourbon. Mr. Robot was kind of a complicated show. He
exited out of the DVR and clicked onto ESPN. Sports reporters were
debating something about a cornerback’s character. He turned up the
volume and sat back on the sofa.

***

He woke up and wondered about the fruit flies. It was possible the
entire kitchen would be covered with them. It was possible they
would be gone entirely. He was sitting in his bed alone and hungover
with Karen’s books still on her nightstand. Anything was possible.
He wondered again what she had done wrong to attract so many fruit
flies. A garbage can somewhere that he didn’t know about? A strategically
placed fuck you slice of pineapple in a remote drawer?

He thought about her things still in the drawers, the clothes and
hair supplies and skin creams she had not even bothered to take with
her or throw away. The lingerie, all of it, the babydolls and camis and
thongs and stockings, still waiting in the bottom drawer of her vanity.
He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved that she hadn’t packed the
Very Sexy Halter Babydoll he’d bought only two months ago. $39.99
plus shipping and he’d never even seen it out of the packaging.

The coffee maker seemed normal at first, but when he opened it up
a swarm of fruit flies immediately circled his head. He paused, slowed
down. If he calmed down, he noticed, they calmed down.

There was one on the windowsill. It was tiny, wings and head
smaller than a pencil tip. He brought his hand up slowly and brought
it down hard. He looked at his palm – a tiny brown smear. He regarded
the cabinets. A small brown spot. Thwack. With each concussion
there was a flurry of movement, other flies scurrying off to
safety. But if he waited, watched, he could follow one of them to the
place where it alighted and then bam, another smear on his hand. He
stalked the room, palms open like a kung fu master. He sought out
the places where they gathered, the high places on the cabinets, the
top of the refrigerator, the kitchen windowsill.

The coffee percolated and he thought to himself, that coffee is
mine. That coffee is not yours. Thwack. Bam. He took them out one
by one and he looked at his palms and he knew that he was making
progress—he was doing it, one small, brown smear at a time.

***

He put his key in the door and imagined what he was going to find—a
spotless kitchen, Karen sitting at the table with a glass of wine and
an apology on her face.

At first everything was the same, even the kitchen. No hovering
cloud of little flies. The cabinets were still dark brown, the countertops
lighter brown, the table lighter still. Maybe his morning offensive
had actually worked.

But as he got closer, he saw them: tiny little dots on the cabinets,
the coffee maker, the windowsill above the sink. A casual movement
here and there as one buzzed from one place to another. They were
ringed all along the top of the bourbon glass, a pool of them swimming
in the finger of liquid at the bottom. He picked up the glass and
they flew up into his face. He closed his eyes and the glass shattered.
He had had a few drinks in the afternoon and he felt suddenly drunk,
swaying and disconnected. There was glass on the floor, flies on every
surface. He was not winning this battle.

This is exactly what she would have wanted, he thought. It was
probably the reason she planted the pineapple slices in the first place.

It had been a bad day. Awful meetings, including a one-on-one
with Paul for which he was unprepared and couldn’t even muster the
energy to bullshit. Finally Paul had just checked his email, or pretended
to, and expressed his disappointment, his expectation that
he “would have something to bring to the table” next week.

He found the bourbon and a new glass, poured a few fingers, and
sat down in front of the television. A reporter who looked too young
to be out of high school was standing in front of the hospital, the
words “Flu Epidemic?” written on the bottom of the screen.

He wondered what it was that had changed. Was it Karen? The
flies? When did his one-on-ones with Paul turn from a chance to
show off to an embarrassment, an hour that he had to worry about
his glasses fogging up, his face turning red, the scent of his breath?

A fruit fly roamed past his head and landed right in the bourbon. It
was Four Roses, not the expensive one, but even the middle one was
more than twenty-five bucks. He looked at the fly. It was still alive,
swimming desperately in the golden whiskey. That is a much better
death, he thought, than however I am going out. He held the glass up
toward the clouds of insects in the kitchen and downed it in one gulp.

***

He awoke in the middle of the night and had to use the bathroom. His
mind registered several items: fruit flies, he had gotten too drunk,
things were seriously bad at work, Karen had not come home. There
was a way to deal with the fruit flies that he was not thinking of yet.
There had to be.

He walked into the kitchen and to the sink, waved his hands
around near the windowsill, and they flurried, roaming up around
his head, behind it, above it, every direction. One of them alit on the
white windowsill and he waited until it was still. He swung his hand
down and smack. He regarded the brown smear. All around him, they
flew lazy parabolas from one of their places to another, the cabinet to
the top of the refrigerator, the top of the entryway to the windowsill.
It was all the same, again and again.

They tended to group, to fly upward when disturbed. They liked to
sit on the windows, and he was worried that eventually he was going
to put a hand through the glass, wind up in urgent care explaining
the situation. Could he explain the situation?

He needed to be gentler than the thwacks against the cabinets and
the windows. He needed his attempts to count. No more slamming
a hand against the corner of the doorway only to come away with a
bruise and a fruit fly drifting steadily off toward the top of the cabinet.

He went into the garage. It had not been cleaned since Karen’s
exit—how could he worry about something like the garage when his
wife had left him, when the coffee maker was covered in tiny little
flies? The garage was full, the snowblower pushing up against the
mountain bikes, everywhere boxes waiting to be broken down for
recycling. They expected them to be separated, the glossy not-really-
cardboard from the actual cardboard, and who could even tell, really?
He pushed past a stack of newspapers and grimaced when they
fell. Karen never did figure out a schedule for the recycling.

When he walked back into the kitchen, fruit flies taunted him, flying
this way and that, seemingly unaware of his presence. He wrapped
a length of duct tape around his left fist, did the same with his right.
He flexed both hands. This might work. He advanced to the windowsill,
the easiest option. There were three little brown dots sitting side
by side, an inch apart. He held up both hands, moved them slowly,
then slammed down on the windowsill. He held it against the plastic
for a moment, and then checked the results. There, on the duct tape,
three little brown dots, an inch apart.

***

He woke up and checked his phone. He had been up late last night,
but there had been a real breakthrough in the fruit fly situation. He
remembered opening another bottle of bourbon, wrapping himself
in duct tape like a boxer heading into a fight, all those little dots on
the tape.

It was late. He was supposed to be at work right now. Could he
call in sick after that meeting with Paul? Maybe that was the move,
actually: encroaching flu was a perfect explanation for what had been
happening at work lately. He remembered the headline on the television:
Flu Epidemic. The timing was perfect.

He wrapped himself in the duct tape and took stock of the situation.
The same flies? The same places? Was that possible? It seemed
like there was the same number of them, more maybe, fluttering up
around his head.

Soon they would be doing the scrum at work, talking about the
day’s projects, the week, the obstacles and opportunities. It never
ended.

***

The lighter was not the most efficient solution, but when it worked it
was glorious: a flame, a fly moving in the wrong direction, a quick zap
and no more fly. There were dark marks on the windows and his right
hand was wrapped in a bandage of napkins, but every time he hit one
just right—sizzle zip—it was amazing.

The phone had been ringing. The work number and then Paul’s cell.
Not answering was actually smarter than answering. He was sick, in
bed, too sick and too in bed to answer the phone. What was he missing?
Client calls? Scrums? It was all going to be there whenever he
decided to come back. He had always pushed for a two-week vacation,
long enough to forget about work, long enough for the two of
them to find whatever it was that had gone missing, but Karen would
never do it.

The television was on with the sound turned down. More people
standing in front hospitals, the words “Georgia Flu Epidemic” at the
bottom of the screen.

It was three in the afternoon and he probably should have had
something to eat. One hundred thirty-six fruit flies had been
burned—zip flash.

He checked his phone: work, work, work, Paul, Paul.

There were lumps on his arms and his fingertips were burned. He
poured more bourbon. Outside, people drove cars and rode their
bikes and he couldn’t imagine how they went about acting like everything
was normal. A fly floated over his head. Then another. They
were moving, migrating, colonizing the territory beyond the kitchen.

He opened the garage door and scanned the piles of newspaper,
the stacks of junk mail, the bikes and the tools and bags filled with
forgotten things, and then there it was: the Weed Dragon. Karen had
bought it years ago in an uncharacteristic fit of concern about the
yard. It was a torch attached to a propane tank and she’d bought the
thing with the intention of burning the weeds out of the patio brick.
It hadn’t worked very well, and she forgot all about it and the yard
soon enough, but there had been something very sexy, in a comic
book kind of way, about watching his wife walk around the backyard
in her work shorts, shooting flames.

The text alert buzzed on his phone. Then again, and again. He put
the phone back into his pocket and brought the Weed Dragon into
the house.

***

The Weed Dragon was spectacular. Before, he had been limited to
one-on-one fruit fly killing; now he could eliminate an entire region
of them. He could zap them straight out of thin air. Into thin air. It
was beautiful.

He paused and realized he was sweating, breathing heavily. His
arms felt purposefully exhausted. It felt good.

The smoke alarms had been going off for the past fifteen minutes.
Or maybe an hour. It was getting dark outside. Maybe two hours. He
had almost gotten used to the constant sharp beeping.

The places where they gathered, the cabinets and the windowsills
and the top of the refrigerator, were scorched with burn marks,
black, brown, and gray.

A fly drifted over his head and without even thinking he triggered
the propane and shot a plume of flame upwards. Zap. The only evidence
of the fly’s existence was a black scorch mark the size of a
basketball on the ceiling. It was amazing.

He sat down and drank from the Makers bottle. He was going to
need to go to the liquor store soon but he couldn’t imagine going
outside.

He thought he heard the doorbell and wondered whether it was
more likely to be Karen or firemen or police. He wondered if John
and Mary could hear him next door, if they would call the police, if
John was going to come over and tell him more bullshit stories about
taking pictures in Afghanistan. He looked outside but didn’t see anybody
there. He wondered when he had eaten last. You could make it a
week without eating, but water was another thing. There was maybe
one shot left in the bourbon bottle, a few bottles of wine out in the
garage, a six-pack of Corona. He would be fine. He just needed to get
rid of these fruit flies and everything could go back to normal. It was
so obvious, a series of steps that had to be taken in the right order:
take care of the flies, Karen comes home, everything goes back to
normal.

He checked the propane, put some newspaper on the counters, the
top of the refrigerator, filled the tops of the cabinets full of last Sunday’s
Times. Take care of the fruit flies, Karen comes home, everything
goes back to normal. He was really looking forward to a decent
sleep, a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, SportsCenter chattering
from the living room while the Today Show prattled on from the bedroom.

He lit the newspaper and backed up into the living room. The paper
smoldered and then bloomed into flame and then the smoke was
everywhere. He waved the Weed Dragon around in circles, from top
to bottom, looking for stragglers coming out of the flames.

The smoke was getting thicker, a physical presence pushing him
down to the floor and finally out onto the lawn. The rest of the house
was starting to glow—the living room, the bedroom. The entire
house was smoking.

He imagined all those tiny little bodies fizzling in the flames. The
fire would find them in the places he couldn’t, the backs of the cabinets,
under the sink, wherever Karen had put the goddamn pineapple
slice that had started the whole thing. She would be surprised,
he thought, that he’d taken care of things so thoroughly. Even she
would have to admit that the flies were not coming back. Soon, everything
would return to normal.