Northwest at Raven
Middle of the Room Flies
by Kevin Jones
Helen, the landlady, didn't tell me she was a Christian, she just hung it on her walls in framed psalms stitched in every needlepoint typeface invented. A refrigerator magnet told me she had voted for McGovern, though its higher purpose seemed to be keeping that month's church newsletter flush to the refrigerator door. It was not a good room to tell a lie in. God was there, and He knew I had broken the lease in my last apartment and had a history of credit card cancellations.
Do you have a rug for the apartment? she asked right off.
I wondered if it was a control question like they ask at the beginning of a lie detector test. Helen noticed my confusion and explained: the building had hardwood floors that were loud when walked upon, and the tenant in the apartment below mine was particularly sensitive to this. He had complained numerous times about the couple above him, claiming they sounded like cattle when they came home late at night and clumsy from partying. When he asked them if they could be a little quieter in their activities, he said they snarled at him and became even louder and more deliberate with their steps after that. He said they even began putting on their military boots in the middle of the night just to walk to the bathroom. He also accused them of faking loud, raucous sex at 2 and 3 in the morning just to get his goatmoaning and bouncing the bed, and giggling. No one really had sex like that, he said.
All this conspiratorial noise-making had caused him much stress. He told Helen on numerous occasions that he was this close to a nervous breakdown. Helen told me that the couple seemed nice enough to her, but admitted she was relieved when they gave their notice.
After the couple moved out, the downstairs neighbor made Helen promise that she would screen the next tenant thoroughly. He pleaded that it be someone who wouldn't aggravate his conditionhis nerves could not take another situation like the one he'd just endured. He would surely go insane, he'd said, and Helen told me she believed he was telling the truth about this.
That is why Helen wondered if I had a rug.
I didn't have a rug although I did have a vacuum cleaner. When Helen asked if I planned on getting one, I told her I would definitely consider it. I might get a rug just to make sense of the vacuum, I thought.
It seemed to be enough for her, and I was in on the 1st.
The apartment had a large, eastern-exposed window that not only let in morning sun, it seduced it and threw it around the apartment at more angles than seemed physically possible, giving the apartment more light than it probably deserved. Just outside the window there was a blossoming tree that did not block views, but rather hung on the periphery and, when in bloom, framed the outdoors perfectly.
The living room and bedroom floors were dark, unpolished wood, and in the kitchen and bathroom the floors were tile. There was a little cabinet-like thing near the front door that opened to a foot-wide by 3-feet-tall shelf space. At the back of the shelf was another cabinet door that would have opened out to the apartment building hallway had it not been glued, nailed and painted shut. This, my landlady explained, used to be where the milk was delivered to tenants in the 1940's. I liked the cabinet and its history, but felt very much a loser when I could think of nothing better to put in it than a phone book.
I put the couch in the living room, the bed in the bedroom, the table and chair in the kitchen. My clothes and vacuum went into the appropriate closets. I plugged the phone into the phone socket in the kitchen, (the only phone socket in the place), and I bear-hugged my taller-than-wide dresser with the drawers still in it, and placed it in the bedroom. Arranging my furniture was one fluid motion until I got to the television. It was the last thing I brought in, and the only thing I had to set down before giving it a place.
Here's the dilemma: Should I put the television in the bedroom, where a single person living alone would probably use it the most? Or should I put it in the living room, in hopes of having company one day? I fantasized about a spontaneous shared movie rental that might someday occur. It began with me sitting in a coffee shop engrossed in a book and sipping coffee the way mysterious, interesting people often do. A beautiful woman would enter, she is smart and funny too. She would find herself strangely attracted to this man sipping coffee, reading his book, and nonchalantly being me. She has recently made a pledge, to herself and to her therapist, to stop letting fate make the rules. She would take matters into her own hands for a change, and bravely walk up to someone she was attracted to and start a conversation.
In the daydream, she approaches me and the conversation winds its way through topics I am heroically well-versed in. I find myself in a conversation zone, discussing films, my topic of choice. She pauses for a moment, remembering her pledge to do something spontaneous.
Would you like to rent a movie? she says, and stands there smiling, marveling at her bravery and newfound freedom.
We go off to the video store just moments after meeting, my nervousness and excitement do not show outwardly, but keep me in the moment. We go through the New Releases section backwards from Z-A, like carefree new lovers, impressing each other with things we've seen and liked and hated.
Yeah, I loved that.
Did you see that one?
Yes, but I could see it again.
No, let's get something neither of us have seen.
We come across an agreeable option, rent it on my card and head off to my apartment. Still nervous, I chat away until we arrive at my apartment door. Then, just as I insert the key, and it makes a click-click sound and does its magic, I remember where months ago I'd decided to put the television.
It goes smoothly up until that point, but the television in the bedroom is my eventual undoing. I try to explain why it is there but my words are incoherent. I decide to pull it out and set up a makeshift entertainment center in the living room. The operation is awkwardmessy with cable wires everywhereand I get flustered by the situation. Sweat begins to bead on my forehead and I see her notice this. The look on her face tells me she is regretting her spontaneous actions, and even though we watch the entire movie sitting next to each other on my couch, I can tell that she can't wait for it to end so she can get the hell out of there.
When the movie ends, we hug goodbye and she turns down my offer to walk her home. I try not to be hurt by this and leave messages on her machinein a strong, confident voicethat I had fun and that we should do it again sometime, but she doesn't return my calls and I become more depressed than I was before.
The daydream convinces me to set up the TV in the living room, but near the bedroom door. That way, with a slight shift in position, the TV could be swiveled around and seen from the bed. I would leave the television pointing towards the living room couch when I was out of the apartment. Then, if company showed up, the television would be facing the couch and ready to present a movie to my potential guest and I.
On the third day in my new apartment, I discovered my roommates, who did not take up much space on account of them being flies. They were not ordinary flies though. Had they been, I would have considered them pests and swatted them dead at my earliest conveniencein the time it took to locate a periodical and roll it tight into a deadly weapon. No, these flies weren't ordinary at all. They did not fly haphazardly around the apartment looking for food like regular flies. What they did was actually beautiful, even artistic.
When I discovered them, they were flying in three-foot orbits in the exact center of the living room with such precision and dedication that it gave me goose bumps. They flew feverishly in one direction as if they were in a huge hurry. Then, when they reached the outer limit of their three-foot orbit, they would turn on the dime and head in the complete opposite direction, as if an imaginary leash had yanked them back.
Watching them filled me with questions. How did they know where the middle of the room was? Where did the boundaries of their orbits begin? Where did they end? Did they calculate where the middle of the room was when they began their orbits and stick to a predetermined course? Or were they constantly calculating and recalculating the middle of the room, adjusting and readjusting their flight patterns accordingly? I decided their behavior needed further study.
First, I had to name the species. I thought what better name than an exact description of what they were. That's where a true man of science would go for a name, either that, or they'd name it after themselves. Since John's Flies didn't have a good ring to it, and made me feel both vain and degraded at the same time, I named them Middle of the Room Flies.
My mind was reeling with experiment ideas. To find out how the flies came and went, I decided to set up a video camera on my living room shelf and let it run while I was out or sleeping. I figured I could get a used video camera from a pawnshop, one of those big ones that accommodate the actual VHS videotape. People didn't go for those much since the invention of the handy-cam, so I figured I could get one cheap.
There are a number of pawnshops on Capitol Hill so I was able to comparison shop. I found one for $35 and talked the guy down to $25. I walked home in good spirits, having saved ten dollars.
Halfway home, I was struck with another idea, one that would thankfully require no purchase. I wondered what would happen if a wall were to be constructed while the flies were already in flight. Would they adjust to the new wall, or would they continue on the path they had set at the beginning of their flight?
When I got home, I went to the closet and got out an old white sheet. I cut a hole in the middle and put my head through it. Holding my arms out parallel to the floor like a holy man about to anoint, I let the sheet hang from my outstretched arms, causing it to drape down thereby creating a false wall.
I walked over to the mirror and smiled at what I thought a fly could easily mistake for an apartment wall. Unfortunately, the flies were not out, so I lifted the sheet over my head, folded it neatly, and put it in the closet until they returned.
When I woke up the next morning, I found four of them, feverishly orbiting, dead center in the middle of the room. I was supposed to be at work in a half-hour, but the flies seemed to be in the mood so I called in sick. I quietly got the sheet out of my closet, slipped it over my head and eased my way along the wall into the living room. I began by standing against the west wall, facing the flies that were orbiting between my window and me.
I inched my way toward the flies, slowly, taking baby steps, one every minute or so, as to not give away my disguise. For the experiment to work, I knew I would have to fool them into believing I was a bona fide wall. I was going to have to move very slowly to be convincing, and I dedicated myself to patience. Taking barely perceptible steps, I moved at a pace that I hoped would go unnoticed.
After what seemed like an extremely long time, my arms began to tire and I hadn't noticed any change in the flies' flight pattern, which was discouraging. I knew scientists were supposed to approach things without bias, but I was secretly pulling for the little flies, hoping my experiment would prove they were some sort of Wonderkind, in a constant state of monitoring the walls around them and adjusting accordingly. I kept thinking how amazing that would be. I wanted my flies to be amazing. Who doesn't want to discover that their pets are amazing?
After a very long time, I decided to take a chance. I turned my head and looked behind me to check my bearings. When I turned back around and faced the flies, I realized that they had responded to my imitation wall, and were flying in what appeared to be the exact halfway point between the window and me, instead of halfway be- tween the window and the west wall. They had bought my false wallhook, line and sinker.
I was shaking with excitement, but quickly calmed myself, realizing flies as smart as mine would know that real walls don't shake, unless there was an earthquake. In which case, all four walls would be shaking, including the ceiling and the floor. If the flies noticed only one wall shaking, they'd surely be suspicious. I had much more planned for that day's False Wall experiment, so I concentrated and brought myself back to near-wall stillness.
Once calmed, I began closing in on them again. I shrunk the room to half its size, moving the flies to within a few feet of the windowwhich I started to feel bad about, closing them in so tightly. I decided to back off. I wanted to manipulate them for study, not traumatize them.
I slowly backed up and then approached them from a new angle, followed by another new angle, and then another. I made it through mid-afternoon, false-walling flies around the apartment. It was satisfying but exhausting work. The concentration required to implement such precise movements eventually caught up with me. Still wearing the sheet, I lay down on my bed and fell asleep.
I woke up Wednesday morning to clouds and gray. Eager to roll some video on my mysterious creatures, I found it easy to get out of bed despite the weather. But the flies were nowhere to be seen. I decided to set up the camera anyway and see if I couldn't catch them beginning their orbits while I was at work.
When I got home that evening, I played what I'd recorded that day in fast-forward mode, which allowed me to see two hours of morning in twenty minutes. There was nothing on the entire tape, absolutely no movement at all. It depressed me how much nothing went on in my apartment while I was gone. It didn't surprise me, but having it documented made me feel like technology was rubbing it in my face. I'd spent the whole day looking forward to capturing, at least, the entrance of the Middle of the Room Flies, but there was nothing. I was inconsolably depressed.
I decided to go to Ernie Steele's and get drunk. I walked in the door and immediately got carded, which was both pleasing and annoying at the same time. I went straight to the bar without even glancing at its human contents.
I had downed two Jagers and twice as many beers when I noticed a woman reflected in the mirror behind the bar. She was sitting next to me, drinking the same thing I was, staring straight ahead. She may have been there the whole time, but when the bartender removed the Jagermeister bottle we had jointly polished off, it made her decent-enough-looking face suddenly visible to me. We turned to face each other at the same time. I noticed she was better looking in the mirror than up close, but still in the ballpark.
She was further along on her drinking mission than I, which made conversation easy. Within an hour, we were pretty smashed and facing each other non-stop instead of just between sips. Our knees were interlocked and I was sensing sex to the point of slight erection. I ordered two more shots to cinch the deal, then asked her to come home with me.
Do you have TV? she asked, not even kind of politely.
Yes. I assured her my television was Hooked into the Man.
Alright, she said.
My erection pointed us toward the door.
Once inside my apartment, she walked right past the television and into the bedroom. The TV in the bedroom would've been just fine with this woman, I observed. I had to pee, so I went into the bathroom, closed the door, and peed out a night's worth of beer. I had a half-erection, so it took a while to empty my bladder. Finally, I'd pushed out the last few drops of urine and buckled my pants, fairly sure they'd be undone again within minutes.
When I opened the door, she was on my bed, completely naked. It scared me so bad I almost jumped back into the bathroom and slammed the door. This only happens in movies and lies, I thought. The girl never undresses herself and waits for you in bed in real life. It always seemed sexy on the movie screen, but this sudden assault of pure white nakedness was too close and too sudden.
She was much less attractive, naked in my bed, than clothed and in a smoky bar. I wondered how that could be, but decided beggars can't be choosers, took a deep breath, and made my way toward her.
When I got to the edge of the bed, I discovered she was snoring loudly. Feeling obligated, I made an attempt to wake her for some nooky. Hey, I said. Hey, are you awake? I put my hand on her shoulder and shook her. Hey, wake up. Let's fool around. To my relief, she snored straight through my advances. I climbed under the covers next to her, keeping my clothes on to make sure she didn't wake up thinking we were now dating or possibly with child. I didn't want to deal with any morning panic.
That night, I dreamt Steve McQueen was chasing me on his motorcycle through the alley behind my boyhood home. I had tortured a frog, and Steve had found out about it and was pissed. He was threatening to do to me what I had done to the frog something involving a firecracker. The roar of the motorcycle kept getting louder and more invasive. Finally, I woke up and realized Steve McQueen, the frog and the motorcycle were all just a dream. The noise, however, was real.
My heart was pounding against my rib cage and the images I saw made no sense. There was a naked woman in my living room holding a vacuum cleaner. At first, I was pleased by this sight, my apartment did need cleaning. Then I remembered I had no rug. A broom would've made much more sense, especially in the middle of the night.
The logic of the scenario only got worse from there. The naked woman was not pushing the vacuum back and forth on the floor the way my mother had taught me. She was holding it perpendicular to the floor with the bag flattened against her chubby, white hip. She was pointing the head of the thing at my window and jabbing forward with what appeared to be malicious intent. I wondered if my first dream had been interrupted by another weirder dream.
I got out of bed and walked towards her. As I got closer, I recognized her as the woman I'd brought home from the bar. Her eyes were opened, but glazed like a zombie, and her face was scrunched up in anger. She was aiming the vacuum like a bazooka and jabbing mid-air at an invisible adversary. I took another step closer and my eyes focused just in time to see a Middle of the Room Fly, the last Middle of the Room Fly, get sucked out of its orbit by the ugly, mechanical underside of the vacuum cleaner.
I was still in shock when she flicked the switch and wrapped up the cord and put the vacuum neatly back in the closet. She walked past me and climbed into my bed without saying a word; I figured she was sleepwalking, or possibly possessed. I was scared to share my bed with her, so I lay down on the couch and tried to get a grip.
The next day I woke up hard when the harsh sunlight found its way through my big eastern window. I was confused about waking up on the couch, and then remembered the woman. I crept toward the bedroom, half-ready to run if she ambushed me with another of my household appliances. As I peeked in, I found my bed empty and made up better than it had ever been made up; the only proof that she wasn't just a dream.
I went to the closet and got out the vacuum. I opened the bag and dumped its contents on the floor. I picked through the small pile of dust searching for casualties. I found five in all, like little raisins at the bottom of a cereal box. I carefully separated them from the dust pile, and blamed myself for bringing that murderer into my apartment.
My head ached and I was thinking about fast food when I heard someone at the door. It took me a minute to acknowledge the knock and another minute for my body to react. When I finally opened the door, no one was there. I poked my head out but the hallway was empty, both ways. I was about to close the door when I noticed a plastic grocery bag hanging on the doorknob. Inside the bag, there was some kind of dense food mass wrapped in tinfoil with a note attached. I wondered if the naked, Middle-of-the-Room-Fly-killing woman had gotten up early and baked me a little peace offering. How sweet, I thought, perhaps there is hope for a relationship after all. The note read:
I walked into the kitchen with the plastic bag and opened the foil mound. The banana bread looked pretty good. My hung-over stomach received the news and shifted in anticipation. I had already opened up the silverware drawer and was pulling out a knife to cut myself a slice when I had a vision of the downstairs neighbor sitting below me, listening intently, waiting for me to fall dead to the floor from the old poison-banana-bread trick.
I immediately tossed the bread in the garbage. On my way back into the bedroom for a change of clothes, I walked past the bookcase and noticed that the video camera record light was on. At first, I thought I'd forgotten to turn it off from the other day, but then remembered I had already watched that tape. It had been the cause of all this trouble in the first place.
I put the tape in the VCR and pressed play. At first, it looked like it was just more boring tape of my empty living room, only this time at night. It was creepy, like a ghost cameraman had shot it. Then I noticed the flies, barely perceptible but definitely there, flying in tight little orbits. I could hear movement outside of the picture, like someone was consciously watching or maneuvering just beyond the camera's frame.
After a few minutes watching flies and listening to noises of someone shuffling just beyond the camera's periphery, I heard a roar, the same one that had haunted me in my dream. Then I saw the bottom of the vacuum cleaner slowly enter the frame from the left and head directly towards the flies, with the naked woman and all her fleshy whiteness close behind.
It was creepier watching it on television than it had been in real life. She was jabbing at the flies like a lion tamer, as if they were mean-spirited and capable of fighting back, which seemed unnecessarily harsh. Then I saw myself on tape, emerging out of the bedroom just in time to witness the last fly getting sucked to its death.
I rewound the tape, ejected it, and put it in the bag the downstairs neighbor had left the banana bread in. I got some paper and a pen and scribbled a note.
I put the letter in the bag, went downstairs, and hung the bag on the downstairs neighbor's doorknob. Then I walked back up to my apartment, swept the dust and the flies into a dustpan without discerning between the two, and emptied it into the trash. I called in sick, then walked back into the bedroom and grabbed a pair of work boots from the closet. I sat on my bed and laced them up. Then I walked to the center of the living room and butchered a rudimentary tap routine that I had learned when I was six. When I was finished, I drank a full glass of water, took off my boots, climbed into my well-made bed, and slept like a newborn.
Kevin Jones splits his time between San Francisco and Seattle. His day job is writing advertising. His story "Fishing from a Boat" was published in Explorations magazine. He is currently working on a novel about junior high school.