FLIES – Gregory Yelnish
March 23, 2020
The Southern sun sat high in the noon mid-air. There were no clouds. The heat direct, raising the warmth of the moisture in the air to sauna like levels, dulling and suffocating all senses except the sensation of hot on skin. James was sweating, but in that limbo where the humidity did not allow one to sweat fully and so the heat stayed trapped inside of you and on you. Yet somehow James felt cold, as he often did, not the cold of temperature but the cold of … what is it? The soul, maybe, he thought.
There before him, across the street from the bus stop, was a corpse. A common sight, roadkill, the once startled now blank eyes of a possum or armadillo unable to have comprehended the end hurtling toward them at sixty miles per hour and then the splat, the thump, the driver moving on with a curse under his breath and the possum or armadillo or cat or dog there left to become an unrecognizable red blotch in the baking sun. James could smell it from where he was. Staring at the mass of insides squinting his eyes, he noticed three flies leaving the corpse, swimming their way through the heat toward him. He shifted on the bus stop bench, convinced he was seeing things, these flies seemed to have purpose, and he knew no fly to abandon their meal mid-feast, yet here they were coming at him. In an instant one had landed on his head, another on his left arm, and the final one hopping back and forth between his legs. It had to have been the heat when he heard them speak, in voices barely audible carrying a stench on small breaths.
“Hey, James. You look lonely,” said the one on his head.
“Ha! Lonely James, Lonely James, ain’t got no friends, got no dames,” the other two half-sang.
“Oh shut up,” the one on his head commanded, “don’t mind them, buddy. What’s got you so down?”
At first James stayed silent. The three flies crawled along his body as if they owned it, unafraid of if he would attempt to swat at them, seemingly knowing he would not. He looked down the street for the bus only to be met with emptiness, then back across the street at the ever-more-disintegrating carcass, then his eyes darted around at nothing in particular almost in a panic. “James, buddy? I asked you a question,” the fly on his head spoke again. Finally, accepting this as some divine intervention, some meaningful moment that defies all natural law but happens upon a man’s life that turns him, gets him going in the right direction and teaches him: “I guess you said it best,” James said. “I’m lonely.” That’s the cold, maybe. Maybe it isn’t so much the soul itself as the lonely wreaking havoc on the soul, like a tempest on a mountain top, he thought.
“Maybe. Well, it’s gotta be somethin’. Feelin’ all frozen in heat like this ain’t normal,” the fly said.
“Got no friends, ain’t got no dames!” the others laughed and sang.
“Don’t pay them no mind. You remember when it started?” the fly asked.
“When what started?” James asked back.
“C’mon, man. I ain’t here to get played dumb with. The permafrost feelin’ you got on you. In you, maybe more like it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, my God, think for me would ya?” the fly asked.
“Askin’ this one to think. Ha! Lonely James,” another fly taunted.
The taunt worked, or maybe the request, and so James thought. He thought hard backwards until he saw in his mind’s eye a dress, starched jeans, collared shirt. Black shoes holding feet connected to strong calves and thighs and small toes in sandals a size too slight. The toenails painted a pinkish color almost unnoticeable against the skin, but there enough to catch your eye, enough to make him fall in love. Screaming alone and crying, the old temptations that come between people and have always come between people since ancient times and will always come between people into however long the future decides to carry human beings in its uncertain arms. He saw her smile, lips like rose petals, words like thorns. He saw him staring straight with his no-nonsense look on his face.
“It’s not important,” she had said.
“It is to me.”
“Leave it alone,” the man said.
“James, it’s not important.”
“It is to me. It is to me.”
“James, I’m telling you to leave it alone,” he said again.
“Please, don’t make it something bigger than it is,” she said with tears welling.
“Those aren’t real. If they were you wouldn’t be doing this,” James replied.
“Come off it, for fucks sake. Don’t be accusing her. That’s life. Leave it alone.”
It was many years ago, I think. I don’t know how many. George and Feyona. I remember them like phantoms. Fey telling me she fell for George, George saying they were both sorry, but that’s life. That’s what he said I think, that’s life, just like that. Me flustered at that. Him chillingly nonchalant. That’s life. We were best friends, and Fey was mine. She had said so over and over with those words, the same words she undoubtedly told him, the same words we all told each other. Friends until we weren’t. And it was true. Feyona with her auburn hair and skin like smooth baked clay, George muscular and blue eyed fierce. They had all been friends, the three of them together, and they had been more than friends when James and Feyona took that step, and they had become less than friends and outright enemies when Feyona and George took the same step just to a different tune.
“Just like that? Sheesh. Didn’t say nothin’ else?” the fly asked.
“No,” James responded, “she put on tears like makeup and he offered ‘that’s life’ and that was it. I guess that was enough.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t seem to know mucha shit,” the other two flies jeered.
He did know something deeply now. He recognized that that moment was the first time he had felt the ice dig down deep and pierce whatever smothering heat there was to lay there like a lump, cancerous, in his gut. The stories of betrayal heartbreak and pain, of that frost that penetrates, just stories until then, flashing movie scenes or lines of text in a book. Then all the sudden it was real. James had not thought about this occurrence in a long time, now mid-twenties, and he recognized it as the last time he had ever tried to make a friend or court a girl or even really speak to anyone in a platonic or romantic way. But he did not know the most important detail. “I don’t know if it was me or them,” he said.
“Hell, man. That’s the pits,” the fly on his head said, moving to his cheek.
“Sounds like it was you,” another noted, with the third adding, “One bad turn and you give up on folks? Last week a ugly bastard, I’ll keep the bastard nameless, ran me off a pile of…”
“Man, you two shut the hell up,” the head fly snapped.
I don’t know if it was me or them, he thought. That makes the cold worse. If it was me, what needs fixing in me? If it was them what do I avoid in others? I can’t identify it, so not taking the chance is just easier. More convenient. There’s only so much I can process, in my mind and heart and soul, and I can’t wrap none of those things around Feyona or George. All I can do is shut them out, shut the whole thing out and the whole thing that spawns the thing or could spawn the thing, that’s it.
“Nurgle hurt too huh? It ain’t just humans,” the fly on his cheek asked.
“How’d you know about him?” James replied.
“This ain’t about me, buddy. So go on.”
Again the thinking backwards. Reaching into a place he did not want to go, like ice fishing nude, diving into the hole; he compelled by some force, could not stop himself now if he tried. It was a short while after George and Feyona, a short while after James’s decision to wall off humanity, a short while after that insidious cold that beat out whatever Southern heat it could find burrowed into his middle. Nurgle was his dog, a small thing, Shih Tzu maybe, James could never tell and the shelter owner never told. He was tiny, with a smushed face and hair overgrown and rosy little pads under his feet. One eye was brown, one was missing. The result of a fight with a cat, the shelter owner said. James picked him because the tiny thing was shivering in its cage when he saw him, shivering like it was arctic cold out when it was really blazing hot, and James sensed somehow that this little animal could feel the same cold he could, had it there inside him like that malignant lump swelling and freezing his core. He brought him home and named him Nurgle, bought him a doghouse, food and water bowls embroidered with his name, chewy toys squeaky toys chewing bones and all. Still Nurgle shivered, inside, outside, no matter where the dog was it shook like a leaf in tundra gusts of wind. He walked him around the small pond next to his house, bathed him, played with him. Fed him well and let him out timely to relieve himself. The permafrost thawing a bit in him and he hoped in Nurgle too. Sleeping in the bed together, cuddled on the couch, it was warm, it was warmer than the deep South sun but not oppressive like it, comforting. But Nurgle shook and shook. He was not warming like James, or at least that was what James had to suspect. I should’ve noticed. It was obvious. But it was working for me. It was working for me and I thought it would work for him with enough time. That isn’t my fault I just needed more time and then it would work. It isn’t my fault is it? And then one day hardly more than a week into his new life he let the shivering one-eyed dog out to use the bathroom or just sniff around on the grass and feel some heat on his fur to try to stop the shuddering but this time it did not come back. And James ran outside searching. He shouted and shouted each cry more frantic, each cry more driven by the prospect of another blow like George and Feyona, another betrayal, one he might have perpetrated on himself or one Nurgle had levied upon him, he did not know.
James found the smushed-face dog smushed-face down in the pond. He was there, floating in the water green with a layer of algae but he was gone, floating too in the nothingness and everything of unbecoming. His tiny body, the fur mottled and growing heavier with water weight, almost serene. At peace. At the approximation of peace, though the living cannot be sure, can only guess. The living hope the floating find peace for lack of it on the ground. That is how he felt now, looking at Nurgle’s body becoming heavier and heavier with water weight yet still appearing featherlike, drifting in slow small circles with the algae darkening his white-gray fur.
That was the second time he had felt the full crushing meteor like impact of alone. Another repressed memory, another reason to cut off the rest of the world along with every living creature in it. “I blamed myself,” he told the flies, “I guess I still do.” I could’ve been a better owner, I don’t know how, but I could’ve found a way, I wasn’t given any time, wasn’t given any chance to try and find a way, I could’ve been better, Nurgle, I hope you know I wanted to, I wanted to be a better friend, I thought about how but you didn’t give me any time to try.
“Man, you ‘bout to cry now?” one of the flies asked.
“Yeaaaah man – what? Pull it together,” another spoke.
“You two shut up,” the leader said from atop James’s left ear, “sorry about your dog, man.”
Maybe he was running from the cold, maybe I didn’t have any chance to be a better owner or friend to him, maybe that was his way of doing it, just flat out doing it, he saw the river when we went walking and one day he couldn’t take the frozen feeling and hoped there was warmth on the other side and that was that, he did what he did. But why did he leave me? Why couldn’t he have tried to stay? Nurgle and George and Fey, why couldn’t they have tried? Is it me or them, he thought.
“Everybody’s gotta try, everyone involved. Suppose you ain’t tried your best, maybe they didn’t either. Hell, James, maybe no one can try their best when its on the line like that. When those decisions come to smack you in your face and it’s this or that. It’s too quick to get your best out. They chose, you can too,” the fly said, almost in his ear now, its voice buzzing like struck tin.
“Horseshit. I’m always on my best man. Plenty other folks too,” the second fly said.
“Me too, me too. Sounds like you want pity, pity party James,” the third chimed in.
James let his body slump back against the bench, his neck rolling over the backside of it, and closed his still watering eyes. He could feel the flies shifting around on his skin, could smell the pile of entrails across the street, the heat oppressive on his brow, the chill a dagger bleeding him like a stuck pig. He saw himself alone in a void somewhere above the earth though not in space, not in or on or at anywhere, a cocoon where only he remained. The words repeated in his head. Over and over and louder with each repetition, like the swell of a symphony reaching its crescendo. Musical, rhythmically beating him down only to stand him up again and then beat him down. ME or THEM. YOU or THEM. YOU. YOU. ME.
“Well, decide,” the fly said, “bus is here.”
James sat straight rocket-like and twice as fast and heard the rumble of the old bus heading down the road toward him. He blinked hard to clear his eyes looking one last time at the corpse. He saw Nurgle and Feyona and George, all corpses now lying beside the roadkill, all decomposing and disappearing into that compartmentalized shut off area of the brain that keeps a store of those types of things. The bus was almost on him. “Do you want to come along?” he asked the flies.
“Ha! You serious? Hell naw, man,” one said.
“Sorry James, can’t. This ain’t our thing. Nice meetin’ you. Take it easy on yourself, and the rest of the world, huh buddy?” the fly on his ear remarked with what seemed liked sadness on its breath.
With that they were gone, flying off into the distance, back to the corpse or to some dung pile or some other person who would doubtless see them as no more than a pest to be swatted away and certainly not some miraculous divination or attempt at divination. The bus pulled up beside him crawling to a halt, its doors opening slow, James standing and mounting the steps. He was not sure if he spoke it in his head or spoke it aloud but the bus driver did give him a strange look as he dropped his money in the basin with a weak laugh and salt water stains on his cheeks mixing with the sweat, the words floating sing-song, “Lonely James, Lonely James, ain’t got no friends, got no dames.”