An old man considers whether or not to kill a fly
The fly had been bothering him for several days. Or several flies had been. He was sitting at his desk, the old, worn, paint- and ink-smudged door on trestles that had been his desk for decades, in various rooms, apartments, a house now. He was old now. The fly buzzed around him, then was still, resting on his bald head, he thought, though he could not really feel a tickle. He waited, then waggled his head, to hear the buzzing again. Then silence, and he looked at the fly sitting on the table and saw the creases in the wood and the play of dark dirt coating and scratches, some showing a yellower, more virgin wood color. Then the buzzing again and a thought. He could kill the fly.
Somewhere, he would remember, that would take a while, or his body would know if he got up, it would go; and now he remembered: in the little passage between the kitchen and his bedroom that had been a garage once—it had a concrete floor covered with cheap carpeting, a very low ceiling, no closet—in the passage to its door and where also the washer and dryer were, there was a small, low-standing bureau with a two-door storing space and a drawer, in the drawer or more likely the cupboard below was some insect killer, a spray can from the old days, very old days, because he couldn’t remember when last he killed anything, even an insect.
Couldn’t remember now, for a moment—what? Anything.
Then he was looking out the window facing him, because the neighbor’s cat—the blonde one, he was labeling her now as she was light tan and white, and the other cat of that neighbor was grey and white—the cat had moved, or his mind had moved, and the pretty cat caught his eye.
He liked animals and was frustrated that neither of these two cats, who spent most of their time in his back or front yard—catching mice, the neighbor said, seeming to apologize that her animals, a dog too, trespassed so much onto his property—neither cat would let him approach or pet them. And they were so very pretty. The dog was small, kind of ugly, shy too, but relished attention. He would caress the dog under his chin, the dog angled for that part to be touched, almost daily, sometimes several times. If the owner, the neighbor lady, called him, a weird name he couldn’t catch, the dog didn’t even flinch, still didn’t move even when he stopped petting, not until he waved his hand and said, Go home, and then the dog did.
Was it really several days the same one fly? He thought so and wondered about his thought to kill it. A long time ago he might have done that without a thought. He remembered, a child, bored always and most of the time sad but not really aware of that, not feeling it, he’d discovered accidentally that the radio antenna, the bit of naked wire at the end of the insulated two or three feet, if touched to an ant, would kill it. This made no sense, since he already knew about electricity and that there wasn’t any in an antenna wire. And now, remembering, it also didn’t make sense that the radio was out in the front stone-paved terrace, but he did recall killing ant after ant there, just touching the copper or copper-colored braided stem of tiny wires lightly to an ants body. Perplexed, wishing it were not so, would stop working, because it didn’t make sense, defeated his feeble grasp of how things work or are supposed to work. His precocious understanding, he who understood so little and was frightened he never would of life. but he thought he knew about electricity.
Actually today, remembering this episode, he yet wouldn’t know how the antenna could kill; but what he does recall—not directly, but recalling having previously remembered this a few times, so now it’s a memory of a memory, not a live experience—with the shock still fresh of realizing it, that as a child maybe five or six years old, he didn’t really know that ants were living creatures. Perhaps he didn’t know that he himself was—does he now? does he really?—the thought is quickly terrifying. And then another: is that why he wants, partly, as he also doesn’t, to kill the fly. It would be the same surprise and perplexity, wouldn’t it?—to shoot a spray from the Raid can, he remembers the name now too, and see a dead fly, as when the antenna wire killed the ants, turned their movement into stillness and curled their bodies into smaller, scrunched up balls. He remembers that now vividly, a real memory, a live, present flash of knowing.
So, some days later, it seems, because every time in the little back room where he sometimes paints or reads at the desk. or in the living room watching TV or thinking or dozing or all three, every time the fly, it is the same one always he’s decided, buzzes him, and he remembers or sees he’s already gotten out the insecticide can and sometimes moved it with him from the one place to the other to have it handy, he can’t recall how many are the days of the fly, the moment of being annoyed or distracted or sometimes only bemused by the fly’s quite puzzling, he feels, insistent attention to him—each moment is really, oddly, just the same, there’s no accumulation of feeling or experience. He looks now on the desk at the fly who’s stopped there quite still. He looks and he sees, and he wonders, his wonder filled for an instant with enormous grief, too whole to connect with a memory or even a thought—he wonders if ever before he has actually seen, really seen at all, a fly.
Were he expert in language, which of course he isn’t, quite the opposite, he could describe each detail he sees of this one particular fly, and there are, have been and will be surely an astronomical number of them, all indistinguishable to the human eye, his eye anyway. This one fly in his vision—that, being old as he is and not having for several years, how many he doesn’t know, thought it worthwhile to get new glasses—is not so good, but anyway in his vision, right now.
Right now, the thought of killing and the thought of not killing have both left him, leaving his mind much as it was long ago, a sad child toying with ants. The only difference is his vision.
Or not vision. Thought. No, speech. Thoughtless speech. As much for as to the fly, who not unlike himself once, as surely will be again, too soon it always is, can only make the simplest sound, not even knowing the sound makes a word, “buzzing,” or keep silent, silent and still: “I see you, fly.”