The Flyswatter
by Fran Lavin

 

  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 guy?

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 or celebrate.

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 coffee cup.

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 drift.”

“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 you want!”

“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 . . . that!”

“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 from?”

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 a connection.

“Fantastic or not,” I added, “a flyswatter ought to be hanging on a peg, easily accessible to any patron who needs it.”

After a moment’s thought, he asked, ”Can you suggest an option?”

“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 society?”

“Fill me in.”

“He’s a nihilist.”

“Curious idea.”

“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?”

“Justice.”

“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.”

“You didn’t.”

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? Go away!”

“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.

“Look here!”

“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.”

He reached.

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?” he blurted.

“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 mounted.

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 it here.”

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 leave.”

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 known existed.

“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 he?”

“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 enjoy it?

I went back early to get it over with, and there was “Harmony’” alone and smiling. “I’m Jeanine. What would you like?”

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 over.”

“That’s not exactly what you mean.”

“Not exactly.” She waited just a moment, then, “So what do you think?”

“. . . like yesterday’s cop—isn’t life interesting?”

“Isn’t it though? You never know who’s going to walk through a door.”

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 other.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“You did?” I wanted her to talk, to identify something about her.

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?”

“Not exactly.”

“Why? Exactly.”

She looked directly at me. “I don’t need one as much as I want one.”

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 ideas

Copyright © Fran Levin, all rights reserved