Story Published in Sting.
With his foot pressed hard on the accelerator Jason sped to get on the 134 heading west. He kept his gaze on the lane ahead, ignoring the jumpy drivers who glanced over their shoulders nervously when he overtook them. But the thrill of passing cars was taken from him, because as soon as he merged onto the onramp, a grid of brake lights taunted him to a standstill. Game over.
Nothing out of the ordinary, it was what his morning commute consisted of: frustrating five mile an hour driving spurts, as many cigarettes as it took to get there, and radio. This had been his routine, everyday for three years running, without a single day off. A day off meant jumping off the hamster wheel, pausing mid-marathon. Doing that meant halting his blind forward momentum, and there was no telling how he’d get back on if he abandoned the ritual.
He pulled a cigarette from the pack, grabbed the lighter from the dashboard and lit it. Smoke before radio, always. With a childlike impatience, he flicked on the radio and pressed the arrow until the far off, otherworldly voice of Frank Sound breaking to a commercial came through.
The Frank Sound Show had a weak transmission, but even when the signal faltered and grew staticky it was better than regular radio with news, chatter and well, reality. Besides that, Frank was funny.
The nicotine did its work, quieting the yappy synapses that hollered for a fix while Jason waited through the cheesy commercial. The ad, a low-budget production for a local dentist’s office, had an annoying jingle that included the repetitive mantra of the dentist’s phone number mixed in with clangy music. Mercifully, Frank’s deep Darth Vader voice interrupted, and his show resumed. More like Vader with a badass sense of humor, thought Jason.
“We’re back with Chuck from Gardena who - for those of you just joining us- was a civilian employee involved in covert operations in the military, is that right?”
Jason exhaled from his cigarette while he listened. He lowered his window, and took in the cars surrounding his. He noticed the guy on his right straight away - a balding dude in a Porsche most likely headed to one of the studios. The guy was talking into a speakerphone with flamboyant hand gestures; sweeping and dramatic movements wasted on his unseen caller.
Unfortunately, the SUV with blacked out windows directly in front of Jason, offered no view or visual escapement.
“Well yeah Frank, it was a little known subset of the military, but hell, it required I get security clearance. Our mission was solely communication based and my work was secretarial.” Chuck, like most of Frank’s callers, seemed perfectly lucid, but that wouldn’t last long. Frank’s show was known for the UFO-ghost-macabre-hallucinatory-conspiratorial- or otherwise completely unconventional subjects he favored.
Several of the cars in front of Jason moved, prompting to him stick his cigarette into his mouth and inch up in line to tailgate the SUV. His need to tailgate the car in front while stopped in traffic was automatic, involuntary, and based on a Pac-Man-like delusion that every inch of freeway space mattered. There was no sense in it, except to satisfy the illusion of forward progress.
“Tell our listeners about your operations Chuck.” Frank sounded eager to get to the meat of the story, to cut to the chase.
Jason looked to his left where a small span of grass with dried brown spots was surrounded by weeds the size of trees. He figured the grass was dying because the trees blocked so much of the sun. As he studied the grass, a sudden machine-gun rapid burst of water began to shoot from an unseen sprinkler. That too wasn’t helping the grass, because from where he sat, it was clear the spray didn’t quite reach the strip of lawn. It seemed that each shaky arc of water was stopped short at the solid barrier created by the same offending trees.
“Because I was a civilian, I wasn’t in the loop, but I still saw what was going on. I wouldn’t have noticed anything funky had I not gone into one of the sub-basement labs.”
“Sometimes exploring out of the way spaces reveals the mysteries of an organization.” Frank egged on.
A tiny movement from the clearing caught Jason’s attention, but as soon as he turned his head to look, all he saw was the near dead grass and the ineffective water arc.
“Yeah well, in my case it was the peculiar enclosures that got me. I’m talking about row after row of clear plastic cages with breathing holes drilled through, all lined up with little black things in them…”
“My, my, my,” Frank added in encouragement.
Jason dragged from his half cigarette and smiled at the face of his radio. Frank’s show was not going to disappoint. Again he noticed a movement coming from the clearing, but again, he assumed it was the shifting spray of water playing off the light of the morning sun.
“Except the little black things were all squirming inside their plastic cages.”
“Alive?” Frank whispered the question, managing to add intrigue.
“Houseflies, Frank. Regular houseflies, and all of ‘em were alive, held down by braces strapped around their torsos to keep them pressed against a whiteboard. All they could do was try to buzz their wings, you know…. to struggle.”
Jason let out a laugh imagining the cages containing houseflies, each squirming, and each improbably held down by tiny braces. He flicked the small butt of his cigarette expertly out the window, watching as it landed a few feet from the grass, just missing the sprinkler’s reach.
“Chuck, you’re saying the military kept houseflies captive? Why?”
Without having to look to his left, Jason noticed the sprinklers had shut off. This time when he glanced toward the grass, a prescient and oddly familiar feeling overcame him. It was then that he saw the white plastic trash bag. The memory of seeing this same plastic bag was instantly prompted and retrieved from wherever trivial memories were stored. He recalled having seen it for days, sitting on the side of the road and on that same lawn. Always from the corner of his eye, always registering as a flash of white that he passed on his rushed morning commute.
“Communication Frank. But this is where the most fascinating part of it comes out, it seems houseflies have a language, and communicate with humans by using head gestures. The Army must have figured out what every single head gesture meant. I saw the charts, lots of them pinned all over the walls, but I couldn’t make out what they meant… I bet that’s why they were being held down, because how else can you get one to hold still, you know, to figure out the message?”
Jason was sure he saw the bag shift, but when the leaves on the nearby trees shook, he assumed it had been the breeze. He’d almost turned his attention away to see what the bald entertainment exec guy was up to, when he got a look at something black inside the bag. The wind although slight, had puffed up the bag just enough to expose a dark mass inside. All he could make out was something black, maybe it was fur or hair, but it was wet and might still be alive.
A loud horn shook Jason from his daze and when he looked up he saw that traffic had cleared ahead of him. Bald guy and even the SUV were long gone. Without giving it much thought, he shut off his radio and headed for the next exit off the freeway.
The spot of grass was somewhere off the San Rafael Avenue onramp in Pasadena, that much he knew. Finding it was another matter. After he considered all the things that might be in the bag -a litter of pups, kittens or even a baby in need of care- he hurried. The thought of death, of being too late to save whatever was in the bag urged him on.
He pulled his car over to the curb, texted Mitch, his boss to let him know he would be late, before backtracking down residential streets he’d never seen. It would be his last communication with his employer, but he didn’t know that yet.
With his window rolled down, he could sense the cool and cleaner residential climate. The sky was blue and bright. The crispness in the morning air carried a note of remorse, a fleeting sense of days just like this he’d missed, days spent in his office, in his car, everywhere but outside. He dismissed the habitual yank at his sleeve that was nicotine, ignoring the strong desire to quell the irritation with a smoke.
He stopped the car to take in an especially huge estate that looked more like a hotel than a residence. To the north of the property, the street ended at a coppice of weeds. The weeds marked what must be one of the entrances into the clearing he’d seen from the freeway.
Jason parked and got out of his car. Here, the street was remote, the entrance to the big house far off in the distance. He crossed the street and neared the weeds until he could look inside. Although it was dark in the thicket, his eyes adjusted quickly to take in the overgrown foliage, the thick brush littered with tossed out plastic bottles, crumbled fast food wrappers, and down by his foot, a used condom.
Pushing through the branches he stepped inside. He nearly lost his balance when his foot sunk into the leaf-stacked flooring. The lack of sound and the much cooler temperature excited him for no reason he could name. But the deeper he walked into the urban forest, the louder and more frenetic was the rush of speeding cars on the nearby freeway.
At one point, the brush grew wilder and he was forced to squeeze through trees that had grown too close together. The ground, now more heavily covered in dry leaves, cackled loudly, drowning out everything but the swoosh of traffic.
He passed a homeless encampment, empty of any people, but clearly lived in. He slowed when he heard the deep growl of a dog. The large black dog was female; the skin on her swollen teats was dry, chapped and looked unused. Her stare was fixed at a point above Jason’s eyes, all while baring her teeth and pulling at the rope that held her to a tree.
Carefully ambling around her, he avoided the dog’s lunges until he found the clearing. To get to the small span of lawn, he’d have to climb over and through the bay leaf weeds and tall eucalyptus trees that fronted it. The smell of eucalyptus was strong here, where more of the leaves had piled up and dried under foot. His every step sent up a nostalgic whiff of Vick’s Vapor rub. Images of sick days spent at home with his mom, days of chicken soup, daytime television, followed by bedtimes when she’d rubbed the thick, potent salve on his small, little-boy chest. Days long lost.
Jason paused when he saw the plastic bag on the strip of grass in the distance. From here, there was no movement. The breeze he’d noticed earlier, had stopped and the plastic appeared to lay motionless. He was still too far away to know for sure, so he walked on.
Part of him wanted to turn back and head to work. That part of him felt comfortable with leaving the bag in the clearing, forgetting it altogether. That part of Jason was comfortable with the loll of nicotine, hamster wheels, excuses, and leaving mysteries to go unsolved.
The other part of Jason, a part he’d quieted with persistent routine, urged him forward toward the bag. Although it was a part of himself he’d missed, he recognized it immediately, like an old friend’s voice over the phone. This newfound flush of excitement, nudged Jason forward and toward the bag.
The closer he got, the more the slight but regular movement inside the thin white plastic bag became noticeable. Unsure of what caused the undulating motion of the lightweight plastic, he reached down to lift its edge.
Even before he bent down, he knew he’d come too late; the four black pups lying inside were dead. Their small stiff bodies were well into an advanced stage of decomposition. The small movement he’d seen from the side of the road had come from a difference source of life altogether, he noticed. It had come from a swarm of flies that had discovered the castoff pups before he had.
The flies, once a source of disgust for Jason, now intrigued him. He remembered the delusional claims made by Chuck on the radio just minutes before. The flies he’d described, Jason knew, where nothing more than a schizophrenic’s limited rendering of reality, but nonetheless telling. They’d been live things held back from instinct.
The bounds that kept Chuck’s flies from their deeply rooted propensities were no different than Jason’s cigarettes, his odd radio show, or the multitude of activities he employed to disguise instinct, nature and biological drive.
Although the pups were long dead, life continued in what some might call a distasteful manner, with the flies doing what they were supposed to do.
On his way back, he heard a voice coming from the encampment and slowed. When he neared the small area, he paused when the black dog shot out warning barks, alerting a guy who sat with his back against a tree.
“I saw the bag, the white one from the road and I…..” Jason raised his voice to be heard over the dog’s piercing barks. “Sorry about the pups.”
The homeless guy petted the dog’s head managing to quiet her. His hair was uncombed, long and blonde. His beard though, was red and frizzy and aged him. He looked up at Jason with wide brown eyes and nodded solemnly, “They didn’t stand much of a chance out here anyways.”
Unsure of what else to say, Jason nodded at the guy, whose attention was on feeding his dog. He watched on with interest as the guy broke the edge off a sugared donut, tossed it in the air and smiled when his dog caught it with a snap. Jason left them like that, in what was most likely a daily ritual of foraging and feeding, or an urban rendition of one.
When he stepped out of the clearing, it took his eyes time to adjust to the new day’s brightness. He paused to take in his car, the hood glaring with sunlight making the dull paint look new. The car, his old cohort in escapism and distraction, now looked different parked in the sun.
That his life had been unremarkable struck him very suddenly with a hard and sharp pang. A swell of fatalism overcame him without warning. It wasn’t a feeling or sensation he’d ever had before, but he figured it came when one made changes that required abandoning the familiar.
He’d followed all the rules, or most of them, and yet, the accumulated effect wasn’t happiness, or fulfillment, but a life lived with externally set parameters. He’d been pressing a firm hand over his own mouth for so long, he didn't recognized his own voice.
So, how the fuck, how do I begin to figure out what it is I want? The thought alone caused apprehension. It wasn’t a naked fear he felt, but an excited type of fear, much like the one at the very top of a wave, when the possibilities of the currents and the swells lay before him, all ready for the taking.
He got in his car and drove through the residential streets without aim, until he saw signs for the 134 Freeway. He sped to get on, but instead of heading west, towards work and the things he’d known, he headed east toward things he didn’t.