the museum of americana

a literary review

Infestation – Nonfiction by Chelsey Clammer

We have an infestation of flies. Black dots bumping into the large, glass windows. They are trying to get at the mountains. We slide open the door and encourage them out, but they stay, acting stoned. They are buzz-less, their sound silenced as they crawl around the glass, staring out at what they want. We do not know how they came here or through which crevice they scurried in, but I have a sudden fondness for the moth party that invades the lights at night. For some reason, these insects do not bother me in the same way the flies do. Perhaps because they are cuter or simply ugly in a more tolerable way.

In the early morning, around 5 a.m., the moths are awake and littering the sky with their vaguely humming wings. They flap near my head, fluttering for a reason to exist. They move towards light, towards heat, for reasons I do not know. Perhaps their purpose in life is to find something to move towards or a reason to continue their movement. I have always been curious about moths, if their life cycles are like butterflies, if they, too, begin as crawling creatures, born with the desire to be something more.

They waver about with a presumably aimless sense of direction. But I have assigned these moths the task of cleaning up the dead flies we kill with a fly swatter duct-taped together. From too many swats, the plastic weave is starting to pull away from the metal handle. This eating of dead flies might not be something the moths can do, but we have claimed them as allies in this war against flies. We no longer mind the moths’ brown bodies floating around in the light. They are drunk on the feeling of running into their shadows on the ceiling. Though I do worry they’ll get caught in my hair this morning, the dreadlocks like tree branches they come to in order to rest, to nest. But the moths are a calm insect, one I’ve known well since I was a child.

They were always in the garage, always waiting. I used to see them up against the garage windows in the beams of my mother’s headlights. On summer nights, after swim practice, my sister and I took turns lifting the garage door and shirking away as the soft insects surged our skin. They hid in our towels, in the bathroom, too, and some even got into the cookie jar. They seemed to be everywhere. And now I want them to take out this unwanted fly population, to land on top of the stoned flies and swallow them up in one large gulp. I am no longer irritated by the humless moths’ wings or how they graze against my skin. But the flies, their annoying buzzing, and the way they lick themselves dirties up my home. The flies I want gone, but the moths can stay.

My boyfriend, Spencer, and I are living in Cripple Creek, Colorado. We have come here to get away from civilization, from the droves of people that seem to always infest what could be a beautiful town.

I have lived in cities before, big ones like Chicago. Along the man-made shoreline of Lake Michigan, buildings have been erected too close to the water, and the billowing and breezy lakefronts replaced with imported sand for beaches. This is unsustainable. Spencer is from Austin, which struggles to protect its local wildlife, to keep its streams and springs alive. Spencer and I tire of cities encroaching on nature, of ruined resources, of importing necessities in order to live. In these mountains, we seek to live a different kind of life. Spencer wants to gather rain and find a way to harness the constant wind into energy. We are preparing for something, perhaps for the fall of civilization. He thinks this will happen soon, I’m not so sure, but we both agree preparations are a good thing.

We shy away from the humans, migrate up the mountains and stay here until—we don’t know when. I guess until we feel we need civilization again, which most likely won’t be any time soon. In our cabin, we stare past the flies at the Sangre de Christo Range, the green aspen trees with their leaves that tinkle, and the granite rocks that bath in the constant sun. When we feel the need to go into town to get espresso or to buy groceries, we hop inside the old El Camino (1982 edition) and soar down the gravel roads towards civilization. This town used to be a big deal, used to be a place where thousands of people lived, came in droves from all over the state in hopes of a better life.

In 1890, Bob Womack found gold. He made his first strike in the land his father had owned. After that, people started to swarm the area. By 1892, the town was officially called Cripple Creek, named after a small creek that ran through the mountains where once a rancher had apparently seen a cow stumble and cripple herself. Within two years, the local population increased from 500 to 2,500.

A small tragedy struck in 1896. A fire ripped through town. All of the wooden buildings were consumed, but the people started re-building before the ashes cooled, small brick structures built up amid smoke-filled skies. Determined little dots of people against the vast mountain landscape fighting to keep their town alive. The mining continued, and more people migrated to the mountain town.

~

In the past few days, fires have burst out west of Lake George. They are wild fires, as of now uncontained. I hear news reports about how the fires could move towards my location, and I twist my hands at the idea of evacuating. But the fires are still relatively far away, and my boyfriend and I do not want to leave this house that has become our solace from civilization.

Lake George is about twenty-five miles from here, and my grandmother thinks that is where the flies are coming from. They’re being smoked out! she exclaims. I can see her reasoning, but I cannot conceive of flies travelling twenty-five miles to get away from the smoke. If they did, if they survived that long journey, if their wings had the strength to bring them here, then they have rebuilt their generations quickly. Now, along with the tired adults, there are baby flies that do not stay quiet on the glass. The flies are determined to keep their species alive, and so their germ-spreading continues. Each day, more flies enter into our cabin.

The moths, however, have become a quiet bunch. They get caught between the screen and the glass, like the flies that have crawled in from somewhere, perhaps a crack. It is the middle of June, and this is when the moths start to emerge from their pupa stage. Now that we have the internet, I research moths online. They come out of sacks they spin when they are caterpillars, the nests, I call them. They are made of white strings and found in the branches of ashy aspen trees. I learn that female gypsy moths are white and cannot fly. I do not know if the moths here are gypsies or not, though they are a splendid mixture of gray and brown, with wings sprinkled white. They float lazily along with the windy air.

I investigate further into what the moths eat, and unfortunately find out that they will not assist in the fly infestation problem. They do not actually eat, but instead get all of their nutrients from liquid elements, sucking the nutrition into their bodies. I wonder at the moths that crawl along the glass doors. Do they think the panes are a shiny lake, that if they just suck hard enough onto the glass, then they will hit water, the liquid coming up their proboscis? I am disappointed that the moths will not be able to eliminate the infestation, though they continue to entertain us at night with drunken dives into the ceiling.

~

By 1950, the mines in Cripple Creek were tapped out. What used to be five hundred area mines dwindled to four. With nothing left to scrape for, the miners dispersed to other parts of the state. As the mines closed, the city started to name streets after them. Vindicator, Molly Kathleen, Golden Cycle Circle, Gold King Drive. I live near these roads and wonder if the mines were anywhere around here. We cut down trees and name the streets after them. I’ve seen this phrase on a bumper sticker, and I’ve always known it to be true. In Texas, I lived on Cedar Cycle Circle, where the only cedar around sat in a pile across the street from our house as it was built.

I have acquired a waitressing job in town. I work at The Creek, a tavern with a menu full of stupid names, as the cook says. “The Detonator,” “The Load,” “The Colliery,” “Old Miner’s Pick,” “Gold Pan,” “Gold Dust,” and “The Ripper.” All the names are from mining, the town’s once thriving industry. The actual mines have closed, and in their absence, the casinos have moved in. The Brass Ass, Bronco Billy’s, Midnight Rose, Womack’s and Century. In the casinos, the lights shine dutifully through the glass into crisp, thin night air, the window fronts like flies looking out at the mountains. The blings and bloops of modern-day gold-strikes still ring in my head after I have retreated back into my nest of a cabin.

Spencer has been taping up the windows. He hopes this will keep the flies away. His long, skinny fingers pull apart pieces of duct tape; his stick-like legs hold him up patiently as he slowly tapes up the windows. In between tapings, he scratches his rust-colored beard and wonders if this tape will solve the problem. But the flies inside, the ones breeding and kicking out smaller flies, still swarm. Their buzzing rings in my head long after they have quieted down, or died from the fly swatter. I go to sleep and dream of them.

Yesterday, Spencer looked online to see how to get rid of flies without using harsh chemicals. We do not want our house sprayed with toxins. We do not want to breathe them in. What he finds is a simple mixture—soap and water. This, we can handle. This is easier than swatting each fly individually. Though I did hit two flies at once yesterday as they were trying to procreate. Sorry, little flies, that I took the excitement away from your mating.

With the soap and water mixture in hand, Spencer stalks around the house, pulling the trigger and sending a stream of soapy water onto each fly, and subsequently the window. His eyes dart around like a lizard. I actually made the suggestion yesterday that we should get a lizard to help with the flies. He said the reptile would get too full before it could kill them all. When we lived together during college, we had a rat problem in our falling-down house. Instead of going the trap-killing route, we got a cat. This did not work. Instead, the cat got fleas, and we had to smoke bomb the house four times before they were finally exterminated.

Fleas mate even quicker than flies. They can have an entire life cycle in as little as two weeks. They have the urge to grow quickly, to procreate and keep going. Flies also have a quick life cycle and can fully emerge into themselves in the span of three of weeks. They get going. They do not give up.

And I think of how all of these insects are just trying to survive. Like us in the mountains, trying to create our own civilization, our own way to get through life. There can be a sense of tranquility in the mountains, or boredom. Perhaps the flies are here to keep us busy, to keep us doing something in the lazy afternoons. How else to entertain ourselves in this town with less than 500 people?

~

When the town of Cripple Creek was booming, there was a red light district. There will be a hot time in the old town tonight was a phrase often heard on Myers Avenue. The red light district consisted of theatres, dance halls, saloons, gambling halls, parlor houses, and clubs. The miners with money did all that they could to keep entertained.

The women decided to cash in on the boredom, too. Aside from the clubs and parlors, there were also many “houses” on Myers Avenue. Brothels, in other words. There was the Old Homestead at 353, and many women made their own one-girl cribs. These were tiny two-room shacks, each with the name of the woman who lived inside posted on the door. These elements of the red light district kept everyone distracted from the hard work in the mines, from the fact that there was not much else to do in this town. While there was a park and many parades during holidays, something had to keep the money flowing, something had to keep everyone boisterous and surviving. Every civilization, whether human or insect, needs sex.

Eventually, the town started to fizzle away. As the gold decreased, the people wanted to move onto to other mining possibilities. They used up the resources and packed up without a goodbye. The town eventually shut down the red light district, too. They drove all of the “indecent” places and women out, and renamed the street Julian.

~

The soap seems to be working. The flies are either dying out or driving out. Flies lie dead on the floor. Flies lie dead on the window sills. Flies’ dead bodies are smeared against the windows, the after-effect of when the fly swatter was our only weapon. The fires at Lake George have decreased, and I expect the fly population to decrease, as well. I want them to return to where  they came from, to go back to their homes and leave our peaceful cabin. But they do not, and so we continue with the killing. I could feel bad about this violence, could feel sorry for wiping out a civilization from this house. I do not kill other insects in the house. For instance, I do not kill the bees that have trapped themselves inside. Nor the spiders, either. I catch them in a cup, slide a piece of paper underneath, and release them back into the wild. But the flies have a different feeling, one that annoys me.

I vacuumed up the carcasses this morning. The flies are almost all gone, and I’m starting to see some dead moths as well. I wonder if the soap got to them, too. If when they stuck out their proboscis for water, they took up the soap instead. Greedy in their search for what will keep them alive, they died.

Information about the history of Cripple Creek gathered from Leland Feitz’s book, “Cripple Creek! A Quick History.” Little London Press, 2003.

 
~ ~ ~

Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in THIS, Stone Highway, Atticus Review, Sleet and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt for her essays “BodyHome” and “I Have Been Thinking About,” respectively. She is currently finishing up a collection of essays about finding the concept of home in the body. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.wordpress.com

Read Chelsey’s contributor’s notes on “Infestation.”