Cluster

J. M. Jones



            The story keeps changing and yet remains the same. It’s my first Monday working from home, and the pests are circling. I’m trying to make sure my one-year-old son doesn’t fall downthe stairs while also swatting bugs and attending to my job. I looked up the insects online after killing five: cluster flies, a phenomenon common in autumn. After pupating inside earthworms, the flies eat through their epidermis and seek a warm spot in the house to winter and lay eggs. My son watches from the floor, crawling about, looking up in wonder. An hour has passed, andthe body count’s somewhere in the late-teens/early-twenties, a cluster of corpses, the remnants ayellow smear. In addition to the flyswatter, I carry paper towels and Windex, but I’m killingfaster than I can clean, and a funky residue remains on the windows.

            Working from home isn’t officially sanctioned at our office. I’d negotiated for it because they can’t afford to give me a raise and I can’t afford to put Miles in daycare fulltime, but the setup feels tenuous. I’m worried they’ll take it away if I can’t perform, and so far, the day is awash. I couldn’t connect to the wireless internet for the first hour, and the only place I can plug in is a coffee table in front of the TV that forces me to sit lotus position and allows my son to bang on the keys. Then there’s the flies...

            In essence, this is the story of a man with three jobs—father, editor, exterminator—who’s only paid for one. Though mostly it’s about a father, who’s forced to be an exterminator, while trying to be an editor. It’s also about the shit that happens when you have other plans, other work. It’s about rage, too. The rage of being divided, of trying to work while caring for my son,and at the same time, dealing with a fly infestation. Though the house, too, is a cause for rage. There are times I feel my wife and I were tricked into buying it. Which is not to say we dislikeliving here. We just weren’t prepared for certain eventualities.

            First, we’d had to buy flood insurance: a condition of the mortgage. There was one priceadvertised, then another for the contract, jacked up because of a creek flowing past. And the creek gives rise to insects. We have mosquitoes, and I blame the waters for them—standing pockets in the stream, a thimbleful that remains in the cups of bamboo after rain. And thenthere’s spiders too. The spiders aren’t a problem of water but of trees and bushes. They’reattracted by the insects. And stink bugs live in our walls, though the stinks bugs come in spring—trapezoidal, dime-sized, hideous.

            Before we moved in, my wife and I assembled a futon in the attic. We were painting the house, and we slept up there at night. There must have been a hundred stink bugs crawling acrossthe exposed brick. I could hear wings beating, bodies hitting screens. But you can’t kill thatmany with rolled-up magazines. So I went to the store and bought poison. We had facemasks already, and I pointed the nozzle of the can of poison at the brick and unleashed. Their bodiesfell in droves, and since we hadn’t yet bought a vacuum, I let them lay there, the floor littered with shells, husks in the crevices, the space between the brick and beige carpeting a grave in the wall. But that was years ago, and they haven’t returned in force. The cluster flies are current, and force is their métier. They don’t carry disease, but they’re abundant and slow, which makes me good at killing, but even with the killing, they keep coming, dive bombers buzzing past in the early-September heat.

            So this is also about stressors. About entropy and renewal, ephemerality and the eternal, for what are bugs, if not eternal? Our concerns, if not ephemeral? There’s the ding of alerts asanother email hits my inbox. There’s the sound of my son whining, hungry, starved for myattention, and there’s an omnipresent buzz of flies fanning out, hitting the windows, testing my resolve. They’re looking to reproduce, to bequeath another generation upon our home. A frayed tension courses through my muscles and joints, cracks emanating from the center. My reserves are ready to dissolve and unleash a flood of adrenaline. Which means that I’m trying to hold myself together, to keep from shouting, descending into savagery. But I’m committed to notsnapping at my son, to doing my job as well from home as I would from the office, to not dumping this stress on my wife when she gets home. If only this would end.

            So the story switches to trying to get through a trying day. Which is what the story always was. The hurdles are small but cumulative. I call my wife, but she has access to the same information, same choices: call an exterminator or wait them out. Given our finances, I’d rather wait. They’ll die soon enough, I’ve read. And that’s without swatting. But swatting provescathartic. Even the shadow of action feels like action. I can do it, perform these tasks—father, editor, exterminator. I turn and swat and hit one and pound on my chest and grunt. My son laughs, and I laugh, too, and it’s good, that sound. I’ll never win, but still, I’ll fight. There’s nothing else to do. I’m only one man, and the flies are legion.


J. M. Jones is a writer and editor from Philadelphia whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Barrelhouse, Phoebe, The Portland ReviewThe Northern Virginia Review, and The Normal School. For more, please visit jasonmjones.net