An odd memory just came to me.
I was in the middle of a conversation and described something as ‘Like watching moss grow” and the person I was IMing with said “or watching flies fucking”
Now, I laughed for a while at that. The idea was so deeply odd and it’s not a phrase I can say I’d ever heard before. But somehow it brought back vivid recall of a moment.
My aunt Penny- well, she’s not really my aunt but we called her aunt, it’s one of those deals, (and I still think of her daughters as my cousins, which didn’t of course stop me for a minute from wanting to fuck the older one silly). So my aunt Penny was what you might call a free spirit. She’s the sort of person you could write a book about (note to self – write a book about her). She was always on the periphery of my life, but always seemed to be elsewhere at the moment, showing up unexpectedly sometimes, and then gone again. I don’t recall how she and my mother met; they might have been neighbors somewhere. But they wound up pregnant at the same time, and both wound up in Iowa City, Iowa, where I was born, at about the same time.
Penny was married several times – once to each of her two daughter’s fathers, and then later one or more times. When I was a pre-teen, she was living with a biker in Oregon. before that she lived in one of the more bohemian southern California beach towns, I’ve forgotten which one. At one point she sent us a postcard saying “We’re going to the Oktoberfest”. We didn’t understand until we got another postcard from the Oktoberfest in fucking Germany, where she and her kids lived for several years after the guy she went over with got deported and sent home.
On the way home, she was packing some sort of German speed – legal or easily available there, evidently – into empty schnapps bottles so she could bring it home to biker friends. She licked off each cap as she unscrewed it, and then got so wired she vibrated through the flight home and 36 hours afterward. She told this to us teenagers when she got home to much eye-rolling from her kids.
I could go on. Penny was a character. My mother’s life-long best friend. Sometimes my beloved auntie, sometimes that annoying drunk bitch. The woman who started the infamous submarine sandwich argument (and that’s another entry right there). She could out-drink many a grown man and would never back away from an argument, to the extent that she more than once got beaten up in a bar. I wish she’d been a writer, she was like someone out of a Bukowski story.
So this memory was when I was about fourteen. She and the man she was dating at the time, a big, odd, hippy guy named Dennis, who was bald on top, long long hair back ‘n sides, had a long flowing bears. He had odd social skills and seemed to make almost everyone uncomfortable.
Dennis would later go on to marry her one April Fools’ Day, much to the distress of – well, pretty much everyone, particularly the elder daughter (Though I took that opportunity to cop several feels while comforting said daughter – hey, we were fifteen, what are ya gonna do).
So Penny and Dennis, who were visiting from Oregon, had brought with them what seemed to be an enormous quantity of a cheap beer that I’d never seen before and have not seen since, called “Buffalo Beer”.
Now, my parents were pretty free and easy. They were stoners, drinkers, liberals a little too old to be hippies and a little too young to be beatniks. So they’d let me taste a little beer before. But this night, Penny and Dennis decided I need to learn about drinking games.
I don’t recall all the games they taught me. Fizz-buzz was one, but there were many. They just explained them all, and we tried them but didn’t really play. But then they started one called “Cardinal” and that one caught me up.
“Are you a cardinal?” said Dennis.
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, we must ordain you!” he boomed, in his loud, deep voice, a twinkle in his eye.
I don’t recall the exact rules we played. A quick googling will get you many variations. But in short, there was a ritual
“Cardinal, may I begin?”
“I cardinal puff do hereby take the first drink.”
And then there were a set of gestures you’d have to go through, and if you fucked up you had to drink and start again. Each round, there were more.
They were drinking cans — they had me drinking from a little glass. But it didn’t take very many for me to have a buzz on.
Eventually, when you completed enough rounds without error, you’d be ordained a cardinal, and you could then make other cardinals. This seemed a great and serious honor to me at the time, much more impressive than the Universal Life Church ordainment I already had by that time, even though that entitled me to perform marriages (And I still am ordained, so if anyone needs marrying, let me know, but — well, there’s a fee).
But that’s not, as Arlo said, what I came to tell you about.
I’m here to talk about they fly.
So that’s the other of the evening’s projects. Other than teaching the geeky fourteen year old boy with hair down to his belt how to drink beer. The project was to take a fly — an ordinary housefly — and attach to it a banner, like the planes that fly over stadiums advertising various businesses.
And that banner had to be small. And it had to be light. So it was made of the finest tissue paper we had. And it had to be tied with something just as fine, just as light. And that had to be as fine and thin and light as a human hair. And in fact, it was a human hair.
There was a problem though. Flies, we had. It was summer and the screens didn’t fit that well. But how to get the fly? Various schemes were tried, most resulting in dead flies. Eventually though, someone hit on some method, and a fly was procured. But then we had a new problem. How to get the damned thing to hold still.
So if you’ve ever tried to groom a pet, you have some idea of the problem. If you have a hyperactive kid, you’re closer. But imagine your kid/pet is closer to the size of a rat turd. No, that doesn’t really get it, you have to have seen it. Big, drunken adult hands trying to restrain a fly and tie a hair to it.
After a while – and more beers – someone hit on the idea of using cold to paralyze the fly. So they put it in the freezer. And then forgot it while we played another round of cardinal.
The first one froze solid. A couple more we checked too soon and they just flew out, albeit sluggishly.
Eventually though, we got it to work. The fly was rendered sluggish enough that we could get it to hold still, but it wasn’t dead.
Eureka, we thought.
But it’s harder than you’d think, even if it’s still, to tie a human hair to a fly. My mother, who had the best dexterity in the room, wanted nothing to do which the whole project. So the first couple of victims escaped when the hair wasn’t correctly secured.
I say we. But mostly by this time, I was drunk and just watching, possibly egging them on.
Somewhere in all this, I was ordained a cardinal. Somewhere after, I wandered drunkenly off to bed. I’d had maybe two full beers and I wasn’t a small boy for my age, so it wasn’t what I’d call a drunk today. There was no hangover. But I was very, very happy at the time.
But between these events, a fly was finally correctly lassoed. And it was turned loose, to much triumphant leaping about, with a tiny banner that said “Eat at Joe’s.” I’ll never forget the image.
This wasn’t the last time I got drunk with Penny. Though to be honest, there were not enough nights. She died too young, of lung cancer, and the last few years of her life she’d mostly grown estranged from me and my own young family. She never really understood who I was once I was a young man, and the relationships I had with both my parents and brother, and my in-laws would never quite co-exist in her mind. She saw me, having gone to work for ‘the man’ (ie corporate America), and married into a family she saw as conservative and upper-class, as some sort of counter-culture traitor.
She never reconciled that, and even though there was a period where her apartment was my refuge from everything, the place where an under-aged kid could always get a beer and bring a girlfriend for a place to mess around, somehow in her last years she never could connect with me. It’s a shame, because what she never understood was that I was the least conservative of the gang of us, the one most likely to do what my family only talked about. But the image she formed of me as a young teen was, somehow, the one that went to her grave. I don’t know why, to this day. But when I think of her, it’s always with a beer and a cigarette, and she’s always doing something odd, like tying that damned hair to that damned fly.