I’m trying to get some work done here. Really I am. And this damn fly just won’t leave me alone. There’s a whole huge screened-in back porch here, and he just won’t stop flying next to me, literally, right in my face.
I don’t want to or have to kill him. I mean, I could. It’s a skill that I learned from my father, how to kill flies by clapping your hands just above where they are going to fly, unsuspecting, upwards. I can get them almost every time.
They get a little too friendly, these flies, late in the season. Their flight slows down, they get too close, a bit sluggish. This one is just a small one, not too old, but geez louise, couldya find another place to land other than on the rim of my drink?
I realize, sitting here on the back porch of my lovely country house, how tolerant I used to be of these flies. On the farm I grew up on there were thousands of them. We’d buy those sticky tapes up from the feed store, and then pull them slowly out of their casing, pristine in their stickiness in that moment, as they swirled out in completeness, a morbid imitation of curling ribbon. The trick was to hang them without getting them close to your hands or clothing, where they would invariably grab on and suspend long, gross, hard-to-clean strings of stickiness between your fingers and the plastic coated ribbon. We’d hang them up in the barn and flies would gravitate toward them, alighting into the syrupy ooze, buzzing and buzzing their wings in complete futility, stuck in place, until they became black dots of death.
One time we put one up in the kitchen, hung it from the chain that suspended the chandelier. There there weren’t as many flies in the house as in the barn but they were still an annoyance, landing on food we were preparing or plates we had put out for supper. That curling mass of black dots stayed through the whole winter, no one willing or interested or noticing enough to climb up on the kitchen table or get the ladder to take it down. After a while the traps lost their effectiveness, the stickiness drying to a solid clear caramel that flies or other insects could land on with indifference. In our eyes it had blended with the brass color of the chandelier chain and the wire that snaked through it. When it was finally removed, it left small dots of never-to-be-cleaned tacky dirt where it had touched the chain.
My Italian grandmother Rose (Nana to us) was a fastidious person who came often to visit us. She must have felt slightly out of place in that huge house that was never-completely-clean-nor-could-it-be. She focused her presence and energy in the kitchen, where she would cook feasts that would be eaten around our round wooden table by my mother, sisters and myself, and anyone else – cousin, farm hand, friend, neighbor, father – who showed up. I’m sure she went outside and maybe even to the barn but I never remember her anywhere else but in that kitchen, one hand on the counter next to the stove as she oversaw what was happening there.
The rest of us passed in and out of the kitchen in a flow of banging screen doors, coming in for reasons as varied as needing to use the one bathroom in the house, to getting a screwdriver, to yelling at someone to “come outside because we need you in the barn” to help with fill-in-the-blank. I often saw a fly swatter in Nana’s other hand, readied for a battle she could never completely win. Bam! The swatter would come down decisively on the countertop, as certain and precise as the swat she would give you if you stepped out of line, no mercy, just this-is-the-way-it-is. The dead fly would lie motionless and she would scoop it up with the swatter and dump it into the open lidded trash that stood next to the refrigerator, under the wall phone. And then bam! again, then perhaps a soft under tone of irritation if she missed. The supply of flies was never ending, of course. Every swing of the screen door would invite more in, and draw forth words of admonition from her if you left it open too long.
At dinner one night I remember she particularly elicited notice from us for the job she’d done in reducing the number of flies in the kitchen. I experienced it as a moment of glory for her – she had conquered the unsurmountable challenge, and made our summer dinner into a magical moment of pest-free dining. At least for one night she had brought our living experience into one which more closely matched what she wished for us.
It wasn’t just a fly-free life that she wished for us, of course. The flies just represented one aspect of the chaos that we faced on a daily basis. It was just the one part she could impact in this moment, right now. Sometimes it’s the small things in life that make the biggest difference to us.
Sitting here, in my screened-in back porch, remembering her, and my mother, and the farm, and those moments from the past never to be reclaimed, the fly buzzes around my head and irritates me. Finally it lands again on my drink and I slowly carry it to the door I have left open so that it could find freedom for itself. I have to shake it off to get to moving, but move it does, flying away and then back again, stirring me to jump back inside and slam the screen door shut. “Out, stay out!” I shout at it, as if that would make a difference. Luckily I have kept it at bay. Relieved, I sit down to begin my work again, just as another fly buzzes into the room.
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