There was a congenial, respectable old man at a church I once attended, who seemed to all intents and purposes (back then I had purpose and intentions) a paragon of decorum. Like all adults, he never wrestled at potlucks, picked his nose, or wore dirty jeans with holes in them. He was always friendly and dignified, and he loved to tell stories. I loved to hear stories, so I hung around when he talked with my dad. One day I discovered that not only was he a model adult; he had been a model boy as well. He had captured a fly.
On a particularly boring(!) Sunday morning, this man had spotted one of the obnoxious insects buzzing around him. Having nothing better to do with his ingenious brain, he devised a way to pilfer a particularly long strand of hair from a woman in front of him. With his plunder he fashioned a noose, and then caught the fly in his hand, shook the creature into disoriented obsequy, and slipped the noose around its neck. All that was left after that was to fasten the hair to his button, and watch his new pet bumble around like a frantic chihuahua on a long leash.
His dad, it seemed, had not been as amused at the feat as I was at the story of it, but the man relished his anecdote nonetheless. And I resolved then and there to be a valiant Fly-Bane. I never quite succeeded in catching one for long enough to pull its wings off, but I prowled my house with a fly-swatter and marked every kill with a notch. It was heaven.
I was dreaming of that heaven one fine afternoon this summer when a fat, lazy, insolent fly complacently settled on my dinner plate and tranquilly rubbed its hands together, as insolent flies are accustomed to do. I fancied it chuckled a little too, as it eyed me and prepared to devour my meal. Alas! Our fly-swatter was lost. Man is a weak creature, dependent on his petty tools and inventions. Without a swatter, I was helpless. My only recourse was bare hands, and since I didn’t want to upset my plate with a quick snatch, I had to content myself with a gentle flick and wave.
Gentle flicks, in case you haven’t noticed, do not bother the determined fly. Homer noticed, some 2,800 years ago:
“Therefore she put strength into his knees and shoulders, and made him as bold as a fly, which, though driven off will yet come again and bite if it can.”In fact, I believe that flies like a challenge sometimes, and they instinctively know when they can get away with it. They will land on your sausage, take a sniff or two, and then buzz away to get their friends. When you chase them they nimbly escape your reach, often waiting until the last possible moment before flying off—for the thrills, no doubt. And then, when they discover that you are too lazy to buy a fly-swatter, their confidence grows and they eat themselves into slow, obese, noisy insects and lord it over you and your barbecue. To be lorded over by a fly is perhaps the most infuriating emotion imaginable. Almost infuriating enough to make me buy a fly-swatter.
There was one summer when even a fly-swatter was not enough though. That was back in rural Nebraska, where houseflies swarm like locusts and darken the skies with their mass. You can kill as many as you want there, and they will laugh at the casualties. It is all-out trench warfare. One morning the whole ceiling of a van was coated with black flies—sluggish in the frost. Remember that, for it is their Achilles heel. We scraped them off the ceiling onto a sheet and deposited them in an unpleasantly wet location, where they doubtless slumbered peacefully for eternity, without a single frightened buzz. Cooling a fly off is like putting salt on a bird's tail: it signals the end.
Regrettably, mornings are rather warm where I live. So my only option is to grit my teeth, wave my weary hand, and eat my polluted sausage. Until my brother drives to the store for a fly-swatter. Because I’m not going.