Michael Fontana is a retired activist, teacher and fundraiser who lives in beautiful Bella Vista, Arkansas. Recent fiction credits include Midnight Chem, Hare's Paw Literary Journal, The Write Launch, The Bookends Review, and Nebo. "Flies" is excerpted from a novel in progress. Follow on X/Twitter: @mfontanawriter
That morning the flies were everywhere, blackening windows with their bodies, filling the air with their buzzes, flitting about my head, even landing in my ears and nostrils. I shooed them away with my hand and when that didn’t work, I chased them around the cart barn with a swatter, striking but missing constantly, each empty thwack a judgment on my abilities as would-be exterminator.
Outdoors lay a heavy scent of eggs and sausage from the restaurant inside the clubhouse, more a diner than anything nice but still well-trafficked each day, golfers lining up behind its doors for a carryout breakfast to eat while waiting for us to start assigning carts at seven. I arrayed the carts on the concrete pad and jotted down the numbers on the login sheet, matching them up with golfers once we opened. The golfers were mainly middle-aged and older white men in shorts and polo shirts, golf shoes with plastic cleats, visors or ball caps on their heads, coolers in their hands, clubs on their backs. Some were already drunk, sipping from flasks or small bottles tucked away in compartments of their bags.
I was unfamiliar with the golfers at that hour because I normally didn’t come in until three in the afternoon and closed late at night. But this early shift was mine because Neil’s wife had died and he needed to rush home to tend to things: her funeral arrangements, his grief. I knew grief. My mother had died when I was only eight and it still stung these ten years later. So I wished him nothing but peace as I filled in for him at the course.
Max sat inside the cart barn behind me as I opened the registration window to sign golfers in. He supervised but didn’t help, preoccupied with a laptop filled with schedules in need of rearranging to accommodate Neil’s situation. I ignored him and he ignored me, occupied with our separate duties. It was better than normal, when he stood over my shoulder and handed me miniscule tasks to keep me busy.
Flies attacked his head while he tapped away at his laptop keys. He swatted at them but they were agile enough to dodge his hand and then swoop back down, dive-bombing his head.
“What’s with these fucking bugs?” he asked.
“It’s the dumpster,” I said. “It’s full of wasted food.”
“You ever eat there?” he said. “I’d throw that shit out too. Greasy as a crankcase.”
In time, Charley came in as well, heading over to the PC to clock in and slipping her polo over the thermal shirt she already had on, sensitive to the cold.
“How’s Neil holding up?” she asked.
“How would I know?” Max said.
“Because you’re his boss and you care about your workers,” she said.
“He’s stoic,” Max said. “He’ll get over it.”
But he wasn’t so stoic. I’d been there when his son called with news of the death and watched his face collapse, though it wasn’t unexpected. She had lain in a hospital bed in Neil’s living room for months. He refused to turn her over to a nursing home or hospice. Instead, his son Josh took on the role of nursemaid, tending to his mother’s needs until Neil returned home from work. Then both of them, like hens around a sick chick, clucked about her.
Charley and I went outside on the pad to wait for the first golfers to return. “At least Max was too busy to leer at you,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said. “But I’m worried about Neil. How long were they together? Where does he go once this is done? I don’t see him and Josh doing well as bachelors.”
“Like forty-five, forty-six years.”
“She must have been like a fifth limb,” she said.
The first golfers came rolling back from the course. We took their carts, which we sprayed with the hose to wash off dirt and debris. By nine, there were empty beer cans inside the consoles that came clattering out onto the pad. Charley washed while I parked the carts inside the barn, backing them into the proper spaces, plugging each into a charger.
I came out after parking a cart and saw her assailed by flies there, swatting at them with her free hand, the motion causing the hand that held the hose to move as well, sending a fountain of spray into the air and down on her head, soaking her cap and hair.
“Where are all these flies coming from?” She shouted.
“The dumpster,” I offered.
“Maybe they should empty it once in a while.”
Caught up with cleaning carts, we sat on the low brick wall outside the barn. She took off her cap and dried her hair with a towel for wiping balls and clubs.
“Did you see how many flies?” she asked.
“I know,” I said. “They’re a nuisance.”
“No, I mean how many types. Black flies, snipe flies, horse flies, lots more. It’s amazing their diversity out here.”
“I forgot—you’re the entomology major.”
“They’re not just pests. They have a role to play in nature.”
“Then let them play it without bothering me,” I said.
“No, really, they help rid us of rotten food for one thing. And they’re food for other creatures too.”
“I still don’t want them around.”
“Bet that translates to people too,” she said.
“You think certain people are annoying, and you just want them gone, without figuring out their usefulness. Everyone and everything has a purpose.”
“That’s very optimistic of you,” I said.
I sat with this a while. “What about Neil’s wife? What was her purpose these last days? No disrespect, but she was basically inert in her bed, being tended to by her husband and son.” I felt angry as I said it, though I didn’t know why.
“She gave Neil and her son someone to love. Isn’t that a fantastic purpose?”
I thought of my own mother, how in her final hours Dad and I kept vigil over her, waiting for small responses like a twitching of eyelids or curling of fingers, anything to give us hope for her survival, though we both knew it was beyond all hope. Those hours were love, yes, but also fierce suffering that I wouldn’t have wished on anyone else. “I suppose,” I said.
More golfers arrived on the pad, including a twosome returning a set of rented clubs. Charley tended to them while I washed the carts. The flies continued to circle. They seemed averse to water so I sprayed it everywhere, soaking myself more than usual but remaining relatively fly-free for a while.
Max soon emerged from the office to supervise, smoking a cigarette, tossing the spent butt on the pad for me to clean up.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I said.
“I’m in charge here,” he said. “I’ll do what I damn well please.”
I changed the subject. “Hear from Neil?”
“No. I’m sure he’s headfirst in all the shit that comes with someone dying. Maybe the Eskimos are right in sending them out on floes to disappear.”
“I’m not sure how often that really happens,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, striking a match on the palm of his hand to light another smoke. “But it’s still more humane.”
“It’s not humane,” I said. “It’s really cruel.”
“Life’s cruel. Deal with it.” Then he wandered off to wait outside the restrooms for Charley, poised to harass her though we’d both tried to dissuade him.
Meanwhile the flies continued descending on us like a veil, leaving me to wonder whether they already sensed some rot in us, the stench of death always present even as we worked and seemed alive.