He was going to throw it in the trash. I asked if I could have it.
James V. Lee
A whirlwind of horseflies buzzed loudly below the light fixture in my bedroom. Their static hum was mesmerizing. Mary leaned in the doorway, observing my hypnotic state, a slight grin on her face. She wore rolled-up jeans and tennis sneakers. She was quite the tomboy at times, her appearance softened only by her dimples.
She said, “You need to close your windows.”
I said, “It’s too warm and there’s no air.”
“Maybe get some flypaper...”
After living together for two years, we knew each other pretty well. We lived on the second floor of a three-flat house off Folsom Street in the Haight area of San Francisco, California. Mary was a domesticated free spirit from the Midwest. She liked her independence and her weed, and she owned things that I never thought to acquire, like silverware and dishes. She lived in the front living room, and I had the rear bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. We rented the middle room to a third roommate named Kirsten.
A few weeks prior, Mary came home and told me, “I brought you something. Come with me to the back. I’ll show you.”
We went down the feeble staircase leading to the backyard. A second set of stairs led up to the third floor apartment inhabited by a group of dead head hippies. From my bedroom window, if I looked up, I could see numerous bikes precariously piled on their landing, just waiting to topple at the slightest tremor. If I looked down from my window, I could observe the entirety of our backyard, an abandoned oasis. I was very aware of the lack of activity happening back there. The other tenants never set foot in the yard. For the most part, we all kept to ourselves.
As Mary and I descended the stairs, I could see a gray blob sitting on top of a dilapidated picnic table that was partially covered in vines and brush.
Mary said, “I found it at the beach this morning and thought you should have it. I carried it back on my bike.”
I could tell she was high. I liked being around people that smoked pot. They were always so happy. I looked down and saw a three-foot land shark lying there dead on the table.
I'd been mounting various small tropical fish for months. I was inspired to explore fish taxidermy one afternoon when I noticed my boss at the Silver Cloud Restaurant skimming a dead fish from the bottom of the large aquarium. The tank, which sat in the center of the dining room, was full of all kinds of fancy, vibrant tropical fish, and my boss labored over them daily. He showed me the dead fish. It was a vivid cobalt blue with a striking yellow stripe that sliced a curve down the side of its fin.
I said to my boss, “It’s beautiful.”
He responded, “That was a three hundred dollar fish.”
He was going to throw it in the trash. I asked if I could have it. He handed it to me in a ziplock bag, a ritual he then repeated whenever a fish died in the tank.
The Silver Cloud was an Italian restaurant in the Marina, frequented mainly by visiting Europeans and locals over sixty. A Vietnamese couple, Jon and Mae, co-owned it with an older crazed Spanish woman named Gloria. The closest to a real Italian they had in the place was me, but this was only by birthright -- lacking any Italian culinary abilities, and having absolutely no Italian language knowledge, I was as geographically-challenged as the rest of them.
I worked the dinner shift, which meant I usually didn’t get home until after eleven. Sometimes I would catch Kirsten leaving to go out to see live music as I made my way down the hall to my bedroom. Kirsten was gaunt, with thin blond hair and a broad straight nose that overpowered her face. Occasionally, she would awkwardly ask me to join her, but I always declined, dragging my tired body to my bedroom. Most nights I couldn’t wait to get out of my stockings and skirt. My clothing always smelled like garlic bread and booze. I wasn’t physically exhausted, but felt drained and empty, burned out from having to be nice to people all night at work. I'd undress and collapse, naked, onto my foam mattress that lay on the hardwood floor. Sometimes I would watch a rerun of the Mary Tyler Moore Show on my 12” black and white TV before dozing off to sleep.
In the backyard, Mary and I stared in silence at the land shark. Its glazed-over lifeless stare was clearly challenging me to give it new life, but I hadn't dealt with mounting anything anywhere near as massive as a shark. I traced my fingers along its back. Its skin felt dry and smooth. The next day, I cut off its head. I was the monarch of the backyard.
In the months before Mary brought me the land shark, I had almost no contact with the downstairs neighbors. I'd heard they were all in a band, but I never crossed paths with them. Once I caught a glimpse of long black hair as it quickly vanished into their flat, but that was it. This abruptly changed one night when, just as I was falling asleep, they came home from a long night of drinking. I could hear their cowboys boots stomping around, vibrating up through the floor of my bedroom. I became fully awake when they plugged in an amp at full volume. When they continued to behave this way for several nights in a row, I realized it had to end. I planned a run-in with the guy with the black hair.
I succeeded with my plan one night when we both entered the building at the same time. I was surprised when he initiated the conversation.
“Hey,” he said, “You moved in upstairs. I’m Jake.”
“I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.”
After an awkward pause while he fiddled with his keys, he said, “Sometimes we like to party after working nights. If it’s ever too loud, feel free to call. We can tone it down.”
Jake slipped me a card with his number scribbled across the back and then he went into his flat. I sneaked a glimpse of his life through the opened door and locked eyes for a moment with his scary hair twin who was drinking beer on the sofa. The scene was heavy and depressing, and I was mad at myself for feeling attracted to him. I should have been more assertive about the noise. I stuck the card in my pocket and quickly made my way upstairs.
After sitting in the hot sun for a couple of days, the land shark’s severed head became fairly well dried out. Its lifeless corpse lay concealed, fermenting in a garbage bag at the other end of the table, which I did my best to ignore.
I started by sealing the head. I poured a thick layer of resin over the snout, and repeated the process with the mouth and eyes, eventually covered the entire head. Its skin glistened in the sun’s rays, seemingly fully alive again. I left it to dry for a few hours.
When I came back, the head was oozing with maggots frantically trying to escape suffocation from the hard coating. I clearly needed to improve my process. I took the head and carefully discarded it in a nearby dumpster down the street.
When Mary had suggested I hang up flypaper, I thought she was crazy. Who used such a thing? I was surprised to find it, though, at the corner market down the street. It came in a three pack and was about the size of a film roll. When I returned home, I unraveled the long yellowed film and hung it off the bottom of the light fixture, exposing its sticky surface to the nexus of the swarm. Lying down, I watched the sun set outside my bedroom window. The continuous hum of the horseflies hovering above slowly put me to sleep.
Laughter intercepted my dreams as footsteps pounded down the hall below me. At three o’clock in the morning, I felt justified with my annoyance when they again plugged in the amp. I forced my tired body out of bed and made my way across the room in the dark, getting slightly tangled in the flypaper before reaching for Jake’s card sitting by the phone. I dialed. The music stopped and I could hear the faint ring resonating up through the floor. Their answering machine picked up.
I said, “Hi, this is Jennifer from upstairs. I wanted to see if you could unplug the amp. I was trying to sleep. I would really appreciate it. Thanks.” I hung up.
Feeling confident, I went back to bed. It stayed quiet for a few minutes, until they started to play back my phone message on the highest volume.
“Hi, this is Jennifer from upstairs, I wanted to see if you could unplug the amp. I was trying to sleep. I would really appreciate it. Thanks.”
They played it over and over. My voice was grating and repetitive and it made me angrier than any amped-up jam session. They were patronizing, laughing at my expense. When it finally stopped, I drifted off, annoyed and agitated.
When I woke up it was quiet. The buzzing sounds of the horseflies had ceased. I stared up at the strip of flypaper suspended above me, darkened with dead insects. I got up and searched the kitchen for Mary’s lime-green rubber dish gloves. I’d seen her wearing them when she scrubbed pots and pans after cooking herself dinner. I found them stuffed behind some cleaners under the sink. I put them on and ran my hands under the running water, curious to see what it felt like to wear them.
Out back, the bag holding the shark corpse still sat at the end of the dilapidated picnic table. Wearing the rubber gloves, I carefully opened the bag to remove the contents; surprisingly, there were no maggots. I took the corpse and carefully nailed it to the side of the house adjacent to their living room window, just out of sight.
That night I was again roused from my sleep by the clunking strides of my downstairs neighbors, their drunken laughter slowly creeping towards me. As they entered the room below, the mood suddenly shifted.
“Fuck! What the hell is that smell?”
They continued cursing, confused and drunk. They finally decided to leave and party elsewhere. They staggered back down the hall and out the front door, slamming it loudly.
Everything was quiet. I fell back to sleep.
They never confronted me about the land shark or the smell. After a few days though, the loud intrusive partying began again with a vengeance. Like a disease, it spread to my upstairs neighbors, who started to play the Grateful Dead at volumes beyond tolerance. My roommates and I were sandwiched in the middle of a battle of sounds, a cacophony of noise gaining and losing territory each night. After multiple attempts to contact the landlord, we were finally rescued only after we called the police. I hated the police, and felt defeated that we had to resort to such an overt extreme.
The flies did not return. I never stepped foot in the backyard again. Not long after we called the police, everyone was evicted from the building, including us.
Evidence of Your Resilience
Video length: 9 minutes, 21 seconds
Art by K. Hartmetz.
Footage contributors: J. Gentile, C. Hudak, E. Hudak, and M. Miller.
Shot on location in California and Washington.
A senior cat drinks water from her familiar's glass.
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