||O. Henry once advised a
group of admiring reporters that stories are everywhere.
Asked to prove it, he looked about him, grabbed a restaurant
menu and began outlining “Springtime à la Carte.” I recalled
the story as I sat sipping my first cup of coffee in a
little bakery, one of those chain-store operations that
bakes its bread and pastries fresh every day and finds its
market in shopping centers.
About to open my morning newspaper, a fly interrupted me. I
waved it away and watched it join another fly. As if they
agreed that they didn’t belong with people, they walked up
and down, back and forth as flies do on a window.
Blindly searching for a way out of glass came to mind.
Nodding to the master story-teller, I reached for my
notebook and expanded the idea: “caught by a force as
transparent as glass—suppose you were caught. What would you
think, and what would you do?”
One of the flies buzzed me. “. . . a unique kind of force,
as easy to see through as glass is transparent, as difficult
to deal with as a window to a fly.
“Of all of the species with wings, why name a parasite their
genus? It’s the most common. But outside, a humming bird
removes nectar from a flower . . . delicate, balanced, full
of purpose, while inside this maniacal fly. You can’t
contain a fly, nor wish one away; like some people, they are
what they are and when two entities irritate each other no
end, the end is predictable. From the fly’s point of view
this place is fly heaven: the warmth, the aroma, the crumbs
on the tables. From my point of view: man the invincible is
unable to defend himself.”
About to get a coffee refill and move to another table, I
hesitated, knew why and sat back. The fly and the bakery
manager had something in common. Both were new and, as with
the flies, I’d made a mental note to stay away from him.
That explained my hesitation. Well, partly. If the subject
is unique I write what I see. It’s good practice and
occasionally leads to the unexpected.
By his imperious attitude he was the boss, and someone’s
mistake—he was efficient but abruptly so, snootily positive,
ostensibly polite but lacking in cordiality, as if he had
organized himself to be impersonal. When he smiled, he
grimaced. He tolerated his customers, didn’t like his work
and it showed. He had reduced himself to annoyance and
discord; in fact he tended to cause it. He acted
business-like but he was out of that order; he acknowledged
my money but never my presence. That was only part of it.
Some people you simply don’t trust to represent you.
Something about their demeanor tells you. So who in a
customer-satisfying profit-oriented world had hired this
Certainly it wasn’t the designer of the chain of “Little
Bakeries.” That architect understood the cozy roundness of
tables, the brightness of a red-orange décor that
complemented the warmth of early morning coffee, and the
muted background of Mozart and Strauss allowing quiet
conversation. The place was harmony designed to become a
habit. And the product! I was a regular, hooked on freshly
baked bread rising as I watched the loaves go round on a
unique baking carousel, rotating behind a heavy window that
emanated warmth. On chilly mornings I sat close and watched
pastries and bread in the process of becoming, all in the
midst of aroma. This was my place, to read, to write, brood
Creative minds understand the need for such a place.
So why this contrast, this manager who didn’t belong? What
disruption in labor classification allowed his existence?
After months of enjoyment, why this destroyer of brightness?
Why a dark cloud against a warm sky, the chilling effect of
a misplaced alien? At best he belonged in the back room
kneading dough. Out here he offered indigestion.
“Do you have a flyswatter?” I asked him as I held out my
His flat “No” tied to more than simple disinterest. He
looked not at me but through me and past me. I’d noted his
attitude before, but now I was getting a taste of it. How
curious. Even a mediocre businessman hears a cry for help.
Perhaps courtesy deserved another opportunity. I explained,
“Two flies are driving me nuts.”
“Feed them,” he laughed, refilling my cup too full for a
comfortable walk back to my table. His laugh was brittle,
appreciating its own short brilliance. I’d disliked him
before, but now I wondered: was he ignorant or on purpose?
“I’m serious.” I insisted.
“So are they,” he sneered: “Where do they come from?” His
look behind me said: move on, you’re in the way, and when he
ignored me with, “Next!” his voice offered the fingered
salute by intonation. In response to a reasonable request? I
stared, frozen, insulted, an urge to retaliate building. It
came out of me in a rush:
“Have you been taught to act like this?”
His shocked eyes darted back to mine and it struck me that
his intimidation was seldom refused. I said, “I’ve seen your
counterparts before, but you are unique.”
“Next!” He repeated the order, intent on blowing me away.
In back of me, a man’s voice said, “That’s all right, I’ll
wait,” and my opponent was left dead in calm water. In the
mirror I saw the reflection of a tall man wearing a camel’s
hair coat and an expression of weariness; yet he seemed to
be enjoying my fury.
Intent on one last swat, I returned the insult: “It’s
interesting how far thoughtlessness allows your kind to
“How far?” The voice behind me asked.
“They ignore their customers,” I answered in disgust, “so
they can run their business.”
“All right,” he barked at my mocking contradiction, “what do
“To get rid of insects.” I looked my answer into him, took a
sip of coffee to reduce its level, another to even the
score, then turned and moved back to my table, carefully
balancing the overfilled cup.
The man behind me brought his order to an adjacent table and
inclined his head, “Nice shooting.”
With a grim smile, I nodded. “In a place like this . . .
“Yes, it is pleasant here,” he said rather proudly, with my
own sense of propriety.
“Was,” I said, pointing to the window flies, “So far I’ve
met two insects who can’t think and one who won’t.”
“I’m curious,” he pondered, “where do such people come
I thought about that, adding cream to my coffee. “Do you
remember the missing link,” I asked, “the semi-rational
creature between men and animals? They say they never found
him. But I think he’s all around us. An invasion of aliens.
Like flies. These creatures know each other. Intimately.”
He smiled. “Indeed?” But his voice trailed off as if making
“Fantastic or not,” I added, “a flyswatter ought to be
hanging on a peg, easily accessible to any patron who needs
After a moment’s thought, he asked, ”Can you suggest an
“A fan, above the door, facing straight down, a transparent
barrier. People walk through, flies get blown away, survival
of the fittest.”
He inclined his head. “Interesting idea.”
“But I don’t own this place, so I’ll be right back!”
Laying my newspaper over my food, I marched out.
The supermarket next door provided my flyswatter.
Returning, I strode along swinging my weapon. I thought: no
trumpets to announce my arrival. I was feeling pretty good.
Seated again, I took aim and sent the first fly to heaven.
Another swish. Two down.
“Having fun?” asked camel’s hair.
“While it’s still legal.”
“Legal?” He played straight like a pro.
“They’ve removed the barbs from fish hooks, next they will
demand holes in flyswatters.” I held up mine. “How large
should these holes be, to be fair?”
“Large enough to allow some through, we don’t want to
eradicate a species! Mind if I borrow it?”
The manager watched us, his countenance most unpleasant.
“Better hurry, he may ban it.”
“Why?” He accepted the flyswatter.
“Because it works. Don’t you understand his place in our
“Fill me in.”
“He’s a nihilist.”
“From annihilate, to enjoy destruction for its own sake.”
“I know the word, but are you serious?”
“What’s more important to him, flies, customers or himself?
The destruction of the fittest levels every playing field.
We think, flies can’t, he won’t. You saw it.”
“So what is required?”
“How would you apply it?”
“Ideally. So that he would annihilate himself.”
He worked on his window then returned my device. “I hope I
got the one you wanted.”
I settled back to extend my notes, but quickly I was buzzed:
“No flyswatters in here!”
I turned to my ally. “You see what I mean?”
He looked at the manager. “You’re not serious!”
“You bet I am.”
I slammed down my newspaper and blew up, “Are you bucking
for bastard’s rights, or is this invite-a-fly-to-lunch-week?
“No one brings a flyswatter into a restaurant.”
“Because no one thinks of it my cretin friend?”
“Because it’s close to food,” he sneered.
“So are your flies.”
He had no answer. He just stood there with his hand out.
“You want me to swat it?” I asked him. I had a moment’s
consideration. Keeping people off balance, unsure, ignoring
them, were all part of his intimidating style—he hated what
he couldn’t control. I unloaded: “All the way down to my
toes I am controlling the impulse to swat another insect,
and you are closer than arms reach!” I couldn’t stop balling
my fist. “Now, bug off!”
“I said: it’s too close to food.” His face matched his
voice—disdain, like he’d heard nothing, like I was the
insect. I tried again, “You allow flies, but not
flyswatters? What do you think with?”
He opened his mouth to retaliate but nothing occurred. He
intoned, “I’ll take the flyswatter.”
“Take it?” I said, “Of course you won’t take it. Leave me
alone.” I turned in my chair putting my back to him.
“Give me one reason.”
He was petulance personified, empty-handed and peeved. He
circled my table to get back in my line of sight. I turned
away from him. I visualized the two of us moving
merry-go-round fashion, he running on the outer periphery,
demanding I look at him. I mimicked him, “Look here. It’s my
flyswatter. I just bought it.” I wished the words hadn’t
sounded like kindergarten, but that’s where we were.
“I don’t care whose it is!”
“That figures! Next you’ll try appeasement.”
“I’ll give it back when you leave.”
Camel’s hair broke up, roaring with laughter.
I kept a straight face. “Listen to me,” I said with great
deliberation. “The last weapon I checked with teacher was my
sling shot in the fifth grade. Even then I was allowed to
defend myself against the house-fly. I don’t intend to use
this on people.”
By now we had an audience. He reddened. I felt it too but I
wouldn’t budge. “Imagine this.” I mocked both of us in a
plaintive tone: “I’m ready to leave now, please sir, may I
have my flyswatter back?” I paused, “No? Good! I can’t
imagine it either, so keep your hands off it.”
I slammed my hand across the handle of the flyswatter. “Do
you want a broken wrist?” I spit it out.
Equally incredulous, he stood gaping. “How . . . dare you?”
“How dare you touch what’s mine!”
He glared. I stared. Impasse waited on the edge of a
precipice. If I stood
up . . .
“Intermission . . . gentlemen.” The words floated
melodiously out of an eerie quiet. I looked around.
Customers sat in various positions of frozen motion, all
focused on us.
“Recess, kiddies?” I answered the waitress who grinned and
walked on by. She, too, was new, but unlike him she was
harmony in action, her single sentence arresting us.
“Clear those tables,” he snapped. She continued on, ignoring
him, his excuse to leave the precipice: “Can’t you hear!”
I watched her, curious about the manner in which she
presented herself; absolute certainty in the way she
sauntered into the back room, daring him to follow. He
busied himself mopping up empty tables, his eyes furtive
like a shoplifter with something to hide. Was he afraid of
her? Of course he was. They were fighting their own war, a
cold war, an absurd idea that matched our situation in some
way of its own.
Discretion would allow us to cool off. I moved to the men’s
room, my flyswatter under my arm. A look in the mirror
confirmed: Could I look sillier? I washed my face, enjoyed
the cold water and nodded to my reflection. I would leave
this pointless nonsense. Too bad. Well, I’d find another
place. The door opened. The man in the camel’s hair coat
walked in. I expected him to say something but he only
washed his hands. I had to say it, “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“No.” He shook his head. “It’s not ridiculous at all. But
what am I talking about?”
“You mean, who is ridiculous?”
“I know, don’t you?” He offered, “Hang in there,” for the
moment he needed to dry his hands on a paper towel. Then he
turned and made a jump shot without leaving his feet, the
wet paper ball curving high across the room. He banked it
against the wall onto the teetering edge of balance—the
trash container’s cover hesitated, the ball insisted, and
the cover gave way; accepting the gravity of the situation,
I thought as I turned and found him watching me. I was
tempted to say, “Nice shot.” But the look on his face
refused me. I remember once hearing that everything is
connected to everything else, in some way. Find the way. The
way is the manner in which you discover the connection, how
you find it is the method. The shot had been made under
adverse conditions. The ceiling was too low, the placement
of the trash container less than ideal, but the shot had
been made. Forget that the tall man might have been a
basketball star, the common denominator was what was
possible. I had an ally of sorts. What sort? I wondered as
we walked out together.
The place was too quiet. Discretion had been wasted. Enemies
remain enemies, war is war, and men prove themselves by
their consistency. I looked around and saw Act Two about to
begin. The curtain had parted and the scene was taking its
moment to materialize, but there it was, and now I realized
what, “Hang in there,” meant. My table had been cleared!
Kennedy and Kruschev didn’t go to the mat for one reason:
they left each other options. Mine had been taken. We were
escalating again. There was always the door.
The patrons were watching, the waitress too. Where would it
end? I stood, center stage, telling myself to react
carefully. The manager was behind the order counter, busy
with waiting. Recess had advanced to something more serious;
this guy didn’t mean business, he meant trouble. He was
begging for it.
Everyone waited. Again I thought about shrugging and walking
out, but my thinking was merely methodical, to confirm that
I wouldn’t. Camel’s hair was right. This thing wasn’t
absurd. It was important. Too many allies watched, I could
see it in their faces. Too bad they were quiet, too bad they
wouldn’t join me. I’ve always wondered why villains so
seldom get faced down by a crowd. Here was my answer: one
must speak first, stand alone and maybe end up that way; the
price of speaking out, that’s the worry, and why so many
stay lost in crowds.
It was important. It was also a piece of cake if I
remembered what I’d almost lost track of—how I got here. It
had been fun until I joined his game. How ridiculous.
Camel’s hair knew that “Hang in there” meant hang onto
something, like a sense of humor allows time to find the
humor. Or the method. I’d said to camel’s hair, I would
apply justice ideally so that he would annihilate himself.
In spite of adverse conditions that jump shot was a matter
of style. Banking it. He’d figured it out in seconds. That
was basketball, practiced from a thousand angles . . . “off
the wall” . . . curious phrase. I took my time. I stood
there, obvious, thinking about alternatives, finally
chuckling, because once I’d even written the answer:
Alternatives so often are merely an extension of the thought
that requires them so extend it.
What did he do that was so wrong? What was the nature of his
act? What do missing links miss? What would he do if . . .?
I walked straight up to him and ordered, “A cup of coffee
and a cheese croissant.”
Surprise! For a few slow ticks of a grandfather’s clock I
was in charge while he tried to think. I was tempted to ask,
“Is it difficult?” But I waited while he measured something.
It was the wrong thing. He snapped his fingers at the
waitress. “Do it!”
Her face was impassive, but an intriguing smile tugged at
the corners of her mouth; she had more than a job to keep.
She brought the croissant, he poured the coffee. Figuring he
was back in contention, he punched “coffee” and “croissant”
on his electronic cash register. It translated into “$1.89,”
whirred, and waited for its money.
To distract him, I said, “That machine reduces the need to
compute . . .”
He eyed me, waiting, watchful.
“. . . which reduces the need to think.”
I laid a five on the counter. He snatched it up and slapped
it down on the cash register ledge, punched in “5.00” and
the machine computed my change. I reached over, picked up my
five, and he was short a dollar eighty-nine.
I said, “I’m not going to pay for this twice.”
His eyes widened with realization. “If you refuse to pay
I’ll call the police!” The perfect missing-link response:
don’t think, order up force. His other alternative was
physical force, but not here.
“Do it.” I walked away with my order.
He stormed into the back room of the bakery, obviously
heading for a telephone.
I stirred cream into my coffee, took a bite of croissant,
and thought, how simple. The good feeling of a nutty problem
solved ran through me. I relaxed, sipped coffee and wondered
how long it would take.
Not long. A black and white drove up. He wouldn’t? Of course
he would. He even rushed out to meet it. Ridiculous, because
his missing link didn’t allow him to project consequences.
Insects can’t do it and criminals refuse to. He would prefer
charges, then have to explain my “not guilty” to the
corporation. They would find themselves in court wasting
time for pennies. I watched him talk. Explain it, pal, do a
good job. Oh, he was busy.
The bakery crackled with anticipation. I looked around. It
mattered. Some faces projected indignation, but most beamed
with fascination. We were the best show in town. The
waitress’ smirk turned into a soft smile. She understood.
I couldn’t defuse what the police would hear, he had that
edge, and the proverbial sign, “We reserve the right to
refuse service to anyone.” I had to go, but I’d go my way.
I slowed my feelings down. More than he and I were
involved—now a cop who didn’t know the contest or the
contestants. Okay, think it through.
Whoops, another black and white rolled up. Complexity
If I walked out there and argued, I would not be allowed to
return, so I’d wait. The police would come inside and
suggest I leave. To keep the peace, they would say. That was
their job. I would refuse, they could damn well arrest me.
For what? For resisting arrest. For swatting a fly? For a
dollar eighty-nine? I had him. Did I? On one hand he had to
prefer charges and then, one day, soon, he would be gone.
That’s all I wanted. But wait, more was involved. For a
dollar eighty-nine? Not enough for an arrest. What would I
have to do, resist, force the issue into something bigger?
“Warm-up?” The waitress stood looking down at me, holding
back her amusement, granting anything I wished. She loved
it. She filled my cup, left her lingering touch on my
shoulder. What a soft contrast to her red-faced manager,
fuming outside. I watched her walk away, so intrigued that I
lost track of the police until I heard, “Sir, you’ve been
asked to leave.”
Still focused on the waitress, I smiled pleasantly. “I like
He looked me over, made his appraisal, and said it quietly.
“If you don’t move, I’ll have to move you.” He pointed to
the sign on the wall and repeated, “You’ve been asked to
I felt my explanation begging to explain: He cleared my
table, I cleared his. He took what was mine, I took it back.
It’s that simple, officer. But, all in good time, that would
come later. I shook my head carefully, deliberately creating
the immovable object.
The policeman turned to the manager and sighed. “Okay. Point
to him. And don’t you dare tell me later in court that this
is the wrong man. You’ll not waste my time, not with this
roomful of witnesses.”
What a perceptive cop. Of course! This would evolve into a
civil matter and he knew it. I would have to be wronged in
some way, an object of discrimination or . . .
“But he is the wrong man!”
The policeman turned. Camel’s hair had spoken and was
pointing to the manager, saying, “I want him removed, here
is my card.”
The policeman looked at it, held it for a moment digesting
the situation and then held it for the manager to see, not
take. Next he handed it to me, summing up the situation in a
single word, “Interesting.” It was his tone I enjoyed, as if
he’d said, well, well, isn’t life interesting!
“I’ll sue you!” The manager was livid.
It hit me then that’s what camel’s hair was about. Of
course! It all came into jig- sawed place, a puzzle I hadn’t
“Not now, you won’t,” said camel’s hair, “that’s why I’m
here with a restaurant full of witnesses.” His voice rose.
“You accept a salary and then you treat my customers like
the insect you are! You are fired for cause.”
The manager stood licking his lips, working his mouth in
angry desperation but nothing came out. The policeman said,
“Let’s go.” The manager handed over his apron, ducked
outside, entered the police car and it departed. Someone
began clapping and the bakery resounded with applause. One
wag said, “Some flyswatter.” Everyone laughed in a spirit of
celebration. Camel’s hair took off his coat, donned the
apron, spoke to the waitress, worked the cash register,
smiled at customers and began making friends.
To me he explained, “No jury will redistribute corporate
earnings in that insect’s favor, no matter how much they
enjoy taking from the best and giving to the least.”
I showed his business card to a woman who’d asked, “Who is
“Pass it around, but I want it back.”
His card read, “Little Bakeries. President, Justin J.
Braddock.” No wonder he’d chuckled. I shook my head in
amusement, retrieved the card, walked out, and for a moment
stood watching the humming bird.
Next morning, I thought about returning but the scene would
be different now. I’d ended up a hero and that was fun, but
could I ever again disappear into that warm corner and just
I went back early to get it over with, and there was
“Harmony’” alone and smiling. “I’m Jeanine. What would you
I couldn’t resist. “A cup of coffee and a cheese croissant.”
She laughed and said, “It’s on the house. J J said as often
as you like, too.”
“Thank you! I appreciate it. Do all of you call him ‘J J’?”
“Just me. I’m his daughter.”
“Ah, ha. The plot thickens after the story is over.”
“The story isn’t over . . . necessarily.” The look on her
face was provocative. “You might say that I’m in charge of
pest control. I go from bakery to bakery, getting rid of
insects. You made it easier than usual.”
“You didn’t need me then? Yesterday?”
“Not then.” She smiled openly. “But I’ve been thinking about
you, the way you hung in there and handled him. I’ve never
seen it done better. There’s another bakery, another problem
. . . my next job . . . I could call you, we could drop in
there, I mean for a bite to eat, and to look the situation
“That’s not exactly what you mean.”
“Not exactly.” She waited just a moment, then, “So what do
“. . . like yesterday’s cop—isn’t life interesting?”
“Isn’t it though? You never know who’s going to walk through
I wasn’t that openly honest. I said, “I want to talk with J
J. I have a theory to write about—missing links hiring each
“So I’ve heard.”
“You did?” I wanted her to talk, to identify something about
She said, “J J heard you clearly and you’re right. The link
you referred to may come up missing. He’s our vice-president
in charge of personnel, introduced to us by a member of our
board of directors. They do tend to stick together.”
“Is that why you need a flyswatter?”
She looked directly at me. “I don’t need one as much as I
Springtime, and she was à la Carte. All by herself, like the
humming bird, perfectly balanced, alone.
“You’re fearless,” I whispered.
She inclined her head. “So what do you think I saw in you?”
Fran Lavin is working
on a novel about an ancient thinker. His story ”The Greek
Explosion” shows how the Greeks were smart enough to explore
and advance what the rest of the world kept losing: great
Fran Levin, all rights reserved