The mayflies can be seen / mating in flight . . . It is a kind of love / in the sulfate mist. — from “The Prisoner,” by Jennifer Jean
I meet men online now. Not in bars anymore. That became too desperate and I got tired of the men looking at the women with the lightest blond hair and the shortest skirts. Can’t do short anymore.
This one I met recently, he found me first. Emails, Skype, and now I’m in a town along the Mississippi River, in a rental, trying to find his house in the dark. It’s raining, and the GPS keeps redirecting me when I make wrong turns. Till I realize it’s not rain, but bugs slapping the windshield. Soon, it’s a storm of black bugs. The wipers smear them on the glass so I can almost not see. The voice on the GPS is telling me to take another right and as I do, I keep turning, sliding, almost going off the road. But I bring the car back out of the roadside weeds.
I pass two cars with hazards on. I figure they know something I don’t. I pull over and call Joe, the guy I’m driving toward, on my cell.
“It’s the Hatch,” he says. “Sorry it’s happening now. Can’t be predicted. It’s mayflies. Harmless, but bad for driving. Causes lots of accidents when they hit at night. Stay on course and go slowly with your brights on.”
Stay on course, stay on course, I chant to myself, leaning forward into the steering wheel. Don’t worry about what you may have gotten yourself into.
The Hatch is everywhere, falling, rising, flying around the golden streetlights. I pass a gas station. Empty. The pumps under the island light look furry with the bugs. At one point I have to pull over and grab a Wash ’n Dri out of my purse to clean off a spot for me to see through on my windshield. I just make things a hazy mess. I scream in frustration where no one will hear. When I get back in the car in defeat, they come with me. On my arms, my shoulders, my hair.
Why brush them away? I continue on, because it’s easier to move forward than backward. The bugs’ wings flutter from the updraft of the defrost. It’s like I suddenly have hundreds of my own little wings, carrying me to this new man.
If you’ve never done this, it can be really awkward meeting someone in person who you’ve only seen online. But this is not like any meeting I’ve had before. How do you meet a guy, covered in bugs?
The GPS tells me I have arrived. I keep going. I stop at the end of the lane. I back up. I sit quietly outside the dark house that only has on one dim light, all the way to the right. He’s an electrician.
I have to get through the swarm. I call again.
“I’m here, can you open the door so I can run in?”
“Sure, can’t put the light on or they’ll come in. Just aim for the door and it’ll be open when you get to the top step.”
Deep breath so I don’t inhale them, then I push out with my purse and head for the screen door that opens just in time. I tumble in.
Not the way a woman wants to meet a man. Joe brushes a few hatchlings from my hair, and when I think he is leaning in for a kiss, he turns on a vacuum with his foot and runs the nozzle over me. It keeps getting stuck on my clothing, gets quieter, then pops free. He does this—sucking and popping—till they look all gone. I’m a scarecrow in a field, covered in tiny black birds. He makes them all disappear.
I’ve ignored all the red lights before—the locked cell phones, the post nasal drips, the collections of newspapers piled halfway to the ceiling. But this was biblical, what I’d slipped and slid into. This was like God saying not only your world, but the whole world will end if you stay with this guy.
The Hatch, as he called it, lasted through the night. “They’re attracted to the light,” he said again, to fill the quiet space. He was explaining why all the lights were off once I got there. Then he put me to bed, where I could smell his piney laundry liquid all night, into the morning. At least he’d washed the sheets for me. When the sun rose, I was so grateful to see it. I padded out in my socks to his couch.
Joe opened just one eye. “We’re alive,” I said, poking him with a finger. He smiled, and that unknown light I had seen on the computer screen that made me want to travel all this way came forth. His hair stood on end. I’d never seen it that way, and I liked it. Like the Heat Miser. It made him look vulnerable and for the first time since I got there, I relaxed a bit.
“You can help me shovel today.”
“The mayflies. They die and then pile up in drifts, like snow. Didn’t you hear the plows last night?”
“Is it all over?”
“Yeah, mostly in a day. They’re done mating and they fall from the skies.”
“One lousy day to mate?”
“Yeah.” He grins up at me, reaches for my hand. I let him pull me down. Our breath keeps us from getting too close. “Glad I ain’t a mayfly,” he whispers against my ear, sending shivers down me.
But I’m not ready yet. I still don’t get it all. You have to be comfortable in a place as well as with a person.
After an onion omelet, which I admit was pretty tasty, he washes the dishes with big green rubber gloves. I’ve never seen a man use rubber gloves for dishes before. Things like this, you have to notice.
We go out. The front steps are covered. He kicks the bugs away. They’re piled as high as two feet near the garage. They crunch when we walk. I feel guilty, even though I know they are dead. Somewhere down the street, I hear a leaf blower.
He gets some old metal garbage cans from his garage, the kind only older people have nowadays, and a wheelbarrow.
He whistles while he scoops. His song is birdlike, like he’s singing several bird songs at once. Doesn’t seem to care his truck and property are coated with millions of dead bodies. A few survivors flit up and down on drafts, land in our hair and on our clothes and shovel handles.
I keep watching. Waiting. The sun reaches a certain point. He turns to me, the glow from the afternoon rays lighting up the wings that dart all around him.
“I know what you’re thinking. What kind of place is this?”
I say nothing.
“This happens every year. We go inside, we don’t drive, we leave the lights off, we leave the world to them. It’s only for a day or two. Then we clean them up. They feed the fish. There’s something beautiful about doing the same thing. It’s like a ritual. It gives the rest of the time that comes before or after more meaning. Do you understand? If this is going to work, you need to understand that.”
He is close to me now, grabs my forearm. He is pleading through the mist of floating wings.
I lean back down. Scoop, toss. Scoop, toss. Joe watches, then goes back to doing the same.
He’s got his answer.
He whistles his bird song again.
I think I’ve got mine.
Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle (both ForeWord Books of the Year), author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows, and series editor of the annual Best Small Fictions anthology. Her flash has been anthologized in Word of Mouth, Brevity & Echo, BITE, Flash Fiction Funny, and Stripped, and was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month. “In a Sulfate Mist” received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest.