Still Life with Fly

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
Short story dealing with how we tailor our beliefs to fit rapidly changing circumstances

Submitted: July 13, 2015

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 13, 2015












Mark Jansen




One day Dave was in a luncheonette minding his own business. On his plate was a half eaten B.L.T. As he looked down at it, suddenly he noticed a fly walking on the rim of the plate. It stopped. Its legs bent at a peculiar angle and it was now using them to stroke and preen its wings, sort of like playing a violin. As Dave stared down at the fly, he became aware of the shadow of a hand hovering over it, and when he turned his sore eyes to confront the face belonging to the hand, saw that the face was that of a man in a clerical collar, a priest, who was about to swat the fly on the plate, to squash it. The priest had on a half baked smile that curled in some of the upper lip, so that his teeth became prominent, and his eyes had an amused twinkle, although they were bloodshot, and held also a trace of malevolence—or at least it seemed that way to David. At the same time he realized that the priest’s collar was threadbare, the white insert pulled out a little. It looked like he had filched his outfit from the trash somewhere. This idea was supported by the fact that one pants pocket was turned inside out, a fact David became aware of when his gaze dropped below the lunch counter in an effort to avoid looking too directly into the priest’s eyes, as well as the top of his head from where two tufts of hair sprouted like horns.

Dave realized that if the priest brought his hand down with any force the plate would catapult his sandwich onto the counter, probably in pieces.

Dave’s sight lifted back to the fly. It was still preening itself.

“I’ll hit it, I really will,” giggled the priest. His hand remained poised in mid air. When Dave tried to lift his eyes this time, his sight swam and a pang came to his temple. He was about to argue with the man that, unless the fly was drunk the way they sometimes are in the winter, it would be impossible to stop the fly because they had hundreds of eyes and could see the hand descend in slow motion with plenty of time to move. It certainly wasn’t winter. It was fly season. They were now all feisty and ready to go anywhere. Really, anywhere. All but this one. Why the fly was acting like it would in the winter, not moving the way it was, was a curiosity but Dave was too tired just then to make an issue out of it in his mind. He had lately been suffering from a bout of insomnia. He tried to focus his eyes because the face of the priest was a blur. The fly hadn’t moved significantly. Maybe it was just too involved with its grooming. Dave felt a yawn begin to stretch around his mouth but he suppressed it; still his eyes watered. The priest’s hand was poised in mid air, but it was now starting to shake and Dave realized that the man was drunk. He could smell the booze on his breath. Dave thought: “The guys a bum. He probably filched the priest’s outfit from the garbage in back of someone’s house. But maybe he really is a priest on a bender, a man defrocked or something along those lines—or maybe he’s insane. Why would anyone discard a priest’s outfit, anyway? Well, maybe it’s a Halloween outfit. Did they have those for some reason? Maybe he found it in a cardboard box in back of a church.”

Another yawn dilated his nostrils. Again he suppressed it. This time his eyes watered enough for the moisture to run down his cheeks. His eyes had an uncomfortable, briny feeling. They stung from the salt of his tears; and he had that familiar taste in his nasal cavities that accompanies a bout of crying.

Slowly Dave pulled the plate away from the priest, with the fly still on it, still going about its business.

A sudden fury contorted the priests face and with a wallop the hand came down to slap the counter. Incredibly, even though the plate jumped, the fly refused to move and went right on preening its wings. Dave then happened to glance over at a newspaper held by a pair of elderly hands. A caption read: “What are you waiting f…” The rest of the sentence continued on a folded over section of the paper. The room seemed to rock around him as though a tremor ran under the floor. What was happening to him? He clenched his eyelids tightly and put his hands on the counter to steady his body.

Then everything started happening at once. Dave felt a flurry of movement. In his mind as he tried to clarify what was going on, as the head waitress, suddenly materializing, started to scream at the priest, a battle was being waged among these various contestants in a game to win Dave’s involvement: the fly with its mindless determination to obey its instincts, the arguable man of the cloth with a personal vendetta against the fly to prove some unknown point, and the waitress whose sole purpose was to keep the luncheonette going without any major distractions to the other patrons. Of course Dave could have made an exit and it would probably have resolved naturally, with the priest being forced to leave and the fly facing extermination at the hands of the waitress, but Dave sensed something more at stake going on—something requiring his intervention. For what reason…he had no idea just then but his reasoning pulled at him the more he thought about how arbitrary it all seemed. It frankly offended him, the idea that things just happen without any significance, and made him aware of his potential greatness. He suddenly felt awake, more than he had in a while and he wiped his sleeve across his eyes and swallowed hard. That fly was a type of catalyst; it was drawing the three of them together, that was it, to combine in a way that would lead to something wonderful, perhaps to illustrate a beautiful lesson about life, but only if he acted--only if he, Dave O’Reilly, took it upon himself to intervene and put in his two cents!


The waitress took a wild look at him and pulled her hand back. She had been about to grasp the front of the priest’s shirt and pull his face up to hers so that she might make her intentions irresistible. The priest tossed a laugh into the air and looked almost amorously at the waitress, his eyes bright with expectancy. For a moment it seemed to Dave that they might kiss, that is if their faces succeeded in moving closer together; but then the priest squirmed his body around, as if the waitress had succeeded in detaining him, and lunged away from the counter. He might have made it away successfully if Dave hadn’t inadvertently put his foot out as he made an effort to adjust his underwear, one side having decided to bunch up-- thus causing the priest to fall forward, his arms thrust out to arrest his contact with the floor while his legs scrambled uselessly. When he landed, the waitress cursed in a loud whoop, almost in triumph, and Dave felt a wave of guilt, especially after he saw how the priest’s arms had not been able to prevent his face from smashing into the floor. The priest got up, his face white. A trickle of blood ran into the stubble under his nose. The waitress turned her face around for a second then turned back. Her gaze softened. She pulled out some napkins from a silver dispenser and handed them to the priest. In a quiet voice he said, “Thank you,” and departed toward the bathroom. Dave looked into the waitress’s eyes and, startled to find out how deep she allowed him to go in, felt aroused. She turned to walk back into the kitchen and Dave smelled the enticing aroma of French fries and old cooking oil, laced with something sweet like icing. It was all over too fast, but he retained his alertness and found himself looking forward to the rest of the day. Something miraculous had happened, even if there wasn’t much chance of a follow up.

Then Dave looked over to see that the fly was finally gone. He looked up to observe the curling ribbon of a pest strip hanging from the ceiling above the counter. All of the flies stuck to it were immobile save one that struggled to free itself from the yellow glue. As cruel as it seemed, the sight fit into his mind with a kind of welcome, of his essential oneness with the natural scheme of things the same way anyone can enjoy a hamburger without thinking about the living creature it came from, or the way we can buy meat wrapped in plastic without any sense of consequence, as though it were produced on a tree that is continually replenished. He felt something gave him permission to allow suffering to not require his intervention after all. Events of that day had worked to sanction a certain amount of insouciance in the interest of self-preservation. Dave’s appetite came back and he once again examined his sandwich, observing that the two halves had toothpicks thrust into them to hold them together. Red juice from the tomato slices leaked to form a pool underneath the pickle. And the seeds spilled out in a string of mucilage.

© Copyright 2019 Mark Jansen. All rights reserved.

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