Listen (12:49) The War of the Flies
ne summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags. “They’re a danger. Think of the disease,” Mom said.
It was our once a year visit to Grandma. The flies arrived one at a time at first.
“I didn’t invite them,” said Grandma.
“They’re here for some reason. Flies are attracted to something,” Mom said.
“Well, it’s not that I’m dirty.”
Grandma went into her workroom at the back of the house to weave throw rugs on her antique loom–whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Mom stayed in the kitchen scrubbing sinks and floors with Lysol. “Your grandmother is mean and stubborn,” she said.
I thought it was Mom who was mean and stubborn, not letting me spend my summer time with Dad in Alaska, but I didn’t say so.
Grandma lived in Calliope, NY, a four-hour train ride from New York through farming country. Grandma’s house was just out of town near the river at the edge of a bog. From my bedroom window I looked out on the two-thousand-acre farm owned by Obadiah Waddle whose wife had died. He had a few dairy cows, lots of laying chickens, and grew mostly cash crops like soybeans. He never said much but he let me ride with him on his tractor and taught me to milk a cow. Grandma frequently took him tuna fish casseroles covered with crushed Ritz crackers in a Pyrex bowl to heat up in the oven. Sometimes she stayed to share dinner with Mr. Waddle almost until bedtime, while Mom and me ate alone.
Grandma thought we were only as good as the food we put in our stomachs. She fed me meats and sweets to make me grow and keep me pleasant. For Mom, Grandma cooked brussels sprouts, beans, acorn squash and fried baloney with pickle relish.
“Baloney is a good source of protein,” Grandma said when Mom complained.
“It’s the floor scraps they sweep up at the meat factory,” Mom said.
“You’ll never live long enough to enjoy your social security,” Grandma said.
Mom said fried baloney was the reason she could never stay for more than two weeks.
Grandpa had been a Methodist preacher before he had his stroke two years ago and ever since then he had been in the second floor bedroom. The stroke had made him loud and mean. “Took the good side of his brain,” Grandma said. Now Grandpa thought the heathen had attacked Calliope and he feared evil. He called Mom–his only child–the “witch of the antichrist.” And he frequently confused me with David and complimented me on my bravery with Goliath.
Grandpa’s bowels didn’t stop-up too good and that set Grandma and Mom to clean him two or three times a day. That left bad smells in the house and foul moods in Mom and Grandma.
“Father’s mess attracts flies,” Mom said.
“Nothing of the sort. I keep him clean as a whistle,” said Grandma.
Grandma didn’t talk to Mom much after that.
We’d been there two days when I killed the first fly after three swats with one of the flyswatters–the old fashioned, metal-screen-mesh kind, with cloth binding around the edge and a wire handle–that hung on nails near the doors. About sunset I was using one swat per fly. Still I wasn’t keeping up so Grandma borrowed strips of sticky paper from Mr. Waddle next door that we hung from the light fixtures in the kitchen and pantry. Then Grandma called Mrs. Rather in the next house down the road. Mrs. Rather had flies too. Grandma felt better knowing she wasn’t dirtier than her neighbor, and grandpa, as family, wasn’t the only fly attraction.
The next morning stuck-flies blackened the papers.
“Mercy be,” said Grandma. We hung up more fly paper and by early afternoon they were black again with flies. I was getting good with my swats now, killing two and three flies with one swing.
“I wish Dad was here,” I said to Grandma when Mom was upstairs, “he’d know what to do.”
“Yep. He’d get ‘em,” said Grandma. Mom and Dad were in a custody fight over me and Dad hadn’t been allowed to visit in over a year.
Dad sent me a post card from Nome, Alaska. I saw it in the mailbox at home before Mom could take it out and save it for me until I was older. On the front was a picture of a man in a winter coat with fur-trim around the hood. Of course that wasn’t Dad. He worked on a pipeline. They had moose, caribou, and bear, he wrote.
The flies were getting worse.
“Each filthy little bastard carries hoards of diseases,” Mom said.
“Can you see the diseases?” I asked. Mom was a sixth grade science teacher at a private school. Her job made her know everything about the mysteries of disease.
“Of course not. They’re microscopic.” She gave me that look that she used with Dad sometimes. Like we were too slow to understand.
Grandma kept a five-inch magnifying glass to read the phone book. Under the lens flies were as large as jellybeans: their heads round circles, their legs fuzzy, their wings transparent as Saran wrap. I wondered where the bugs hid.
On the fifth day dead flies layered the porch and we swept them up to shovel into bags. Mom drove forty miles to get surgical masks: mine half covered my eyes, and Grandpa tore his off again and again and we gave up on his disease prevention. We lined all doors we didn’t use with tape but the flies crept through the heating ducts.
Mom called PestKill the Surefire Exterminator.
“He’s useless,” Grandma said about PestKill. “His garage went bankrupt.”
The pest killer came with a tank strapped to his back and a wand with a nozzle. He sprayed in the basement and attic. Mom followed to be sure he didn’t miss a spot.
With my magnifying glass I noticed that flies never died on their backs, at least that I could tell. They seemed to just fall over on their sides, their legs pulled up, their bodies often arched. I showed one to Grandma.
“Do flies hurt?” I asked.
“But they’re all stiff and twisted.”
“Rig-a-tortoise. Happens when we die.”
The same morning a health department guy parked his green pick-up truck in the driveway.
“The bog and farm next door are thick with larvae,” he said.
“We ain’t never had larvae before,” Grandma said.
“From chicken manure for fertilizer. Cows too. Maybe you should move out for a week or so.”
“We got an invalid upstairs,” Grandma said.
The health guy said he was sorry and they would hire a crop duster to spray.
“It’ll poison the river,” Mom said. She was an environmentalist and belonged to the Sierra Club and bought Ranger Rick magazine for me.
“We’ve got to do something,” said the health man.
That afternoon a red and white crop duster plane swooped down to level out across the bog and Mr. Waddle’s fields then pulled up and did a roll to come back the other way. That was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Mom shook her fist. “Polluter,” she yelled.
“Could we go flying sometime?” I asked Mom.
“That’s stupid. You’re sounding like your father.”
I turned away but Mom grabbed me and squeezed me from behind. She said she was sorry and she loved me and I wasn’t like Dad at all.
The next day it wasn’t much better but it wasn’t any worse. Mom wanted the sheriff to jail Mr. Waddle for causing an apocalypse with his chicken shit. She looked in the phone book for the number.
“There’s no proof,” Grandma said
“You’re so irritating,” Mom said but she closed the phone book without calling.
In the evening Grandpa soiled himself and the flies descended. Grandma screamed. Mom sprayed insect kill and grandma and I washed grandpa off with towels and water from a bucket. It took a long time.
Mom refused to surrender to flies. It wasn’t in Mom’s blood to give up when she had a cause. That was what Dad used to say to me after they’d had a fight.
Two days later the live flies were gone. We still found lots of dead ones behind the sofa and in the curtains. Flyswatters hung idle on their nails and we took down the strips. No more crop dusters or health men in pick-up trucks.
“That’s weird,” Mom said.
“Praise the Lord,” Grandma said.
“Cool,” I added.
“I’m baked,” Grandpa yelled from above, loud enough for us to hear downstairs. I was sent up to open two windows as wide as I could.
“Don’t ever let a snake roam in your garden, Judas.”
“I won’t ever let a snake into my garden, Grandpa. Never!”
“That’s a good Christian boy. Wish my kin was like you,” he said.
Mom turned silent and kept to herself in her bedroom. I think she was mad, not the insane kind. Well, maybe a little. She had found purpose in her war with the flies but now the enemy refused to fly around anymore. She felt defeated at the surrender; there was no glory, no purpose, no lesson learned to be taught to the multitudes.
Grandma started cooking again, singing to herself, beating eggs and opening and closing the oven door. For meals, we’d had microwaved packaged food for days. Now grandma chopped raw vegetables and plucked a fresh-killed chicken. She made a special dinner for me to take next door to Mr. Waddle. I might get a tractor ride.
“What’s that?” Mom said.
“Tuna fish casserole for Mr. Waddle.”
Mom grabbed my shoulders and the dish fell out of my hands to the floor; the glass shattered. I wiggled away.
“Don’t feed that criminal,” Mom said.
Grandma came in from the other room. “Wasn’t Mr. Waddle’s fault.”
“That’s your trouble, Mother. You never stand up for what is right.”
The bag was getting dark brown spots from the casserole soaking into the paper but Grandma kept quiet.
“He can’t eat that,” I said.
“I’ll get him something else.” Grandma said.
“It’s your mess, “ Mom said to me.
“We’ll clean it up when we get back,” Grandma whispered to me.
Mr. Waddle and Grandma hugged when we took him chicken.
“How you doing, Bobby?” Mr. Waddle asked.
“Doesn’t sound so okay.”
“He misses his father, don’t you Bobby?”
“Why is Evelyn so mad?” Mr. Waddle asked.
“Bobby wants to see his Dad.”
Mr. Waddle put his food down and said we ought to pray. We all kneeled next to his sofa.
“Dear Lord, in thy mercy, let this young man see his father again, a father he loves…” And when he finished Grandma said “Amen,” and kissed me on the top of the head. Ick!
“Could I talk to my Dad?” I asked Grandma.
“You don’t talk to your Dad?” Mr. Waddle asked.
“His mother won’t let him, “ Grandma said.
Mr. Waddle looked and Grandma. “I don’t see why I couldn’t give him a call.”
“I know the number,” Grandma said. She looked to the palm of her hand where she’d jotted it down with a ballpoint pen.
Dad told me how big moose were dangerous but independent. He wanted me to come and after we finished talking, Dad talked to Grandma a long time about legal stuff.
In Grandma’s house, I hugged Mom.
“You look happy, my little man,” she said.
And I was but I didn’t tell her until the next day that Grandma and I had planned a trip while we were at Mr. Waddle’s. To Alaska!