the Fly Trap
a short story
Our explanation would be the August heat. It stewed Delaware’s East coast in all kinds of ways after an unusually cold and stormy spring that extended into July. Thousands suddenly fled to the ocean for some relief in its breezes and waters. Their pale bodies laid out on towels that carpeted the beach at Cape Henlopen State Park. A full parking area showed the incentive through hazy convection – how visitors hot-hopped quickly beyond the sand-dusted boardwalk and restrooms to the water. Cool ocean breezes reached the expansive campgrounds, and there were isolated areas to explore. Still, no one paid interest in the sandy marsh trails that cut into the protected wetlands. Swim-suited vacationers focused on the shore. Signs about marsh history and its protective role to the ecology posted, but no one paid them notice but as useful places to hang wet things. Park rangers offered walking tours, but those events canceled – they became too busy policing crowds.
The shore’s pristine beaches came from the state’s good stewardship and millions in annual restoration and maintenance projects. In wintry weather when shore-casters were the only witness, ocean storms eroded the coastline. The frigid, salty waters spilled over high, grassy dunes and flowed into the frozen wetlands where their nutrients fed an ecosystem. The campsites closed, but a short drive away, weekenders crowded the area’s tax-free shopping outlets and souvenir shops to stretch holiday budgets.
When late summer of ’98 arrived, I traveled south from Saratoga, N.Y., during a week-long visit to see my stepfather, Arthur Merritt, in southern Delaware. He bought a house near it all some years before, and my stay felt well overdue. The drive would take seven hours.
Art embraced retirement since leaving his job in Schenectady building steam-turbines for General Electric at a youngish 55. His middle age began to show through a suddenly greyer mustache. His stocky posture remained straight, but his handsome face turned less elastic and gained some wrinkles that made one wonder about him. I knew Art spent considerable time refurbishing the one-level ranch. He also explored the area, visiting shops, museums, parks, and such. My mother, not retired, stayed in upstate New York and seemed comfortable with their separations. When I visited her, she would tell me how Art bought this thing for the new house, refurbished a room, or seen some attraction. I enjoyed her stories. She traveled south when she could and seemed ready to end her remaining years of work and join him. I held no interest in purchasing the country home I grew up in – they hinted to that. It measured small and sat on the bank of a creek where, as a child, I felt it might wash away. They paid a fixer-upper’s price for it in ’72 and made it an excellent place to live on a budget, but after 30 years of refurbishments, its limitations remained. My mother kept it tidy, gained compliments on her flower and vegetable gardens, and cut the grass, but for the first time, I saw the place as a burden rather than an old friend. I considered the inevitable day when my older brother and I would sort their possessions. So, when it took so long to see their newer home, I figured in my meditation on all that.
I left on a bright morning and navigated the highways using directions penciled down on scrap mail. I opened a McCrandall Road Atlas with the pages dog-eared for New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, and I carried a schedule for the Lewes Ferry that, they said, would cut an hour’s drive by crossing the Delaware River from the New Jersey border at Cape May. I liked the ferry ride very much. The trip through Jersey brought good memories of my first military enlistment when I lived at Philadelphia Navy Yard. Those few months stationed there were the earliest times being on my own, so thoughts of joining straight out of high school made me smile. When I knocked on Art’s screen door, I felt content rather than tired from my drive. Instead of opening, he appeared from a corner of the house.
“Hey, Michael. It’s good to see ya,” he said, shifting his concentration from an overturned rider lawnmower in a drainage ditch. Sweat dripped from his glasses and the green bandana tied to his head. I hugged him anyway.
The house offered three-bedrooms, with a one-bedroom apartment added onto the side closest to the driveway. He provided the tour by pointing out how he fixed or refurbished areas, or planned to. I complimented him; although, the main house smelled a little musty. I recognized some of the furniture and items from the other house. I also noticed a real-looking treasure map lying in a pile of corner-clutter. “Ooh, a treasure map,” I said, picking it up to reveal the state park system flyer released for kids “At the Beach.” The previous owner left some junk behind, he said. He explained how he renovated the apartment at that point. He lived there while making steady progress on the rest. After the tour, I helped to pull the mower from the ditch. He took a tow chain from the detached garage to drag it out using his Isuzu Trooper.
That night, we sat outside, drinking spiced rum and caffeine-free diet soda. He liked listening to public radio, but on this occasion, he played a mix-tape of Doctor John, starting with the song, “Just the same.” We talked carefully and listened to the Doctor’s raspy voice and laid-back style. Recalling the treasure map that I ribbed him for, he suggested that we visit the shipwreck museum at Fenwick Island the next day. It sounded interesting, and I added that we might take the bicycles if time permitted, remembering the state park he mentioned when I last saw him. He went on about the pirates that sailed the nearby coast – that there were many shipwrecks out there, and how he walked the beaches with a metal detector. I looked across the flat, expansive field of soy that surrounded the property. I pictured him on the beach, swinging his detector back and forth, looking for treasure. He handled aloneness well. He had no need of a job on his pension, nor did he want one. He had escaped. His curiosity was economical, too, but not intentional. What he enjoyed required little more than a walking stick, some tools, something to fix, a radio, or a good book. I realized that he would never travel or sail the world as I had done in the Navy. There was more than enough for him to experience down his road while everything else ebbed and flowed. Doctor John now sang a funky song, “I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.” And Art got up from his chair to make another round. I felt happy to sleep on the enclosed porch that ran the length of the back. He crank-opened the windows, so the fresh air carried the ocean’s scent from a 20-minute drive away. Later in the night, I woke up with a plugged nose and dry throat. I walked outside, off the porch, and across the back yard to where the moon shone brightest. The bordering soy grew knee-high, and despite my stuffed up nose, I could smell the damp, turned earth. I breathed in as deep as I could; the fresh air clearing my head. There were sounds of insects, frogs, and distant traffic. Things kept on. It felt peaceful. I felt happy that my parents found a lifestyle and place that suited them. I walked back to my cot and slept soundly.
We drank coffee and ate scrambled eggs cooked in an iron skillet. Then we loaded the bikes and a cooler into Art’s boxy vehicle. It was apparent that Art followed a familiar routine when preparing to explore, but this time with some company. He drove and acted as our guide. The southern part of the state included mostly agricultural areas beyond the beaches. Costal rains drained quickly from the sandy soil at sea level. It supported vast corn and soy. The crops fed chickens for corporate farmers. Processing plants dotted the countryside. Not until within a few miles of the coastline did housing developments and multi-level condos, recreation, shopping, restaurants, and hotels overtake the open spaces. It sprawled inland as more farmland sold, he said.
Within the museum, of course, were relics accessioned from ocean divers and fortunate beachcombers. It seemed hard to believe the enormous sum of wealth on display in a place that, on the first impression, looked like any other boardwalk souvenir shop. But their exhibits included gold bars and coins, gems, and priceless jewelry found lying at the bottom of the ocean by licensed salvagers. It’s important to note that state authorities forbid an average person from picking up objects more than 100 years old. In this way, tourists still have a metal-detecting hobby, and the state protects its archeological resources.
Art’s tales of a treasure beach would prove strange. A weathered-looking man came up to us and began talking about ships that sailed the eastern coastline during the 17th century, including the Gallant – a 40-gun slaver, stolen by Adarsh Rimpoposhe during the summer of 1636. Rimpoposhe sailed on the run over a horde of 90 barrels of stolen gold coin wanted by the East India Trading Company. When Rimpoposhe’s notorious but charming reputation won over a 100-man crew in Bali, they left the captain and a few loyal men marooned with 330 salves on an island off of Portugal. They renamed the pirated ship Lhasa, which is where Rimpoposhe once lived in Tibet as a Buddhist oracle before officials severed his left hand as punishment for casting spells. The ex-monk and his followers sought to start a new life on the other side of the world. Starving and near death, they eventually landed ashore at Fenwick Island but were no sooner attacked by an indigenous tribe and fled back to the Lhasa. With only some 20 survivors aboard, they put back to sea in a gale. No one saw them again. A colony north recorded hanging two men for stealing in 1638 who claimed themselves survivors of the Gallant.
Our storyteller grew animated as he described how Rimpoposhe created a tulpa, or a thought-formed spirit using a Tibetan spell to protect the buried treasure. Native Americans also tell stories of a cursed place in the marsh. “It takes physical form,” he said. “The shore casters see a floating-orb and hear humming noises out there,” now talking secretively. “They find nothing. [chuckle] It’ll make ya think twice about wanderin’ around alone.”
We assumed that the museum hired storytellers to entertain visitors – the man looked the part. But it got spookier: no one knew who we meant when we thanked the manager at the gift shop register. They could not recall the Gallant or the Lhasa. Whatever happened, we laughed in the parking lot and mocked our hokey encounter with pirate impersonations.
We ate burgers on our way north, which followed the coast. Art stopped on the back road to buy a melon from a lone vendor. The afternoon’s heat corralled the dark-skinned woman to a lawn chair under a large umbrella. He dropped some of his change during the transaction. “Oh … be carfull wha’ you pick up ‘round here,” she said in broken English. “Is bugs bad. No good.” We smiled and nodded politely but not understanding. I could feel the temperature radiating through the door’s glass as we drove on. Large cardboard boxes full of the day’s harvested melons littered the opened land. The pickers likely finished before noon. We continued, nearly out of eyesight, where the park began.
There wasn’t any question that we would explore the marsh with our similar style cross-bikes suitable for off-road riding. We heard the same ghost story. Neither of us suffered crowds too, so the area felt secluded from the main beach.
Testing my brakes and double-checking for my water bottle as I peddled. I followed Art from the pullover to the trailhead between the grassy dunes. Art wore his usual bandana over his head, cotton shorts, and a sleeveless shirt. I dressed a bit technical, wearing a lightweight poly sun-visor, running tank, and shorts.
The dune trail looped quickly through the marsh and back in on itself, but a trailhead map showed us a connection to the paved path that ran behind a pavilion, and further on to the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk. Getting to that connector was our plan. We started on crushed stone, through some dunes, and toward an area with over-the-head pine scrub. Thinking back, I should have let air from my tires for more traction, but the immediate conditions did not warrant it.
The trail smells like pine needles and the ocean. The needles are thick and packed atop the sand and gravel, and they keep the ride smooth. The heat remains, and I feel my sweat starting. Up ahead, Art weaves around pine cones and rocks. The air is dead back here, which increases the discomfort. It will improve when we break out to the coast, I think. There are no other tracks, so no one ventured back here for some time. The trail widens abruptly to a small clearing of thick sand. Our tires dig in and stay. It’s too loose and too deep to peddle through. And Art dismounts. He looks back at me. I’m thinking; we’ll need to walk through this part. I’m looking at him – his glasses are moving, or fuzzy. “What’s wrong with your glasses?”
Two masses of deer flies crawl on the lenses as he examines them – we are swatting. I am slapping everywhere. They land in our hair, on our arms, hands, and legs. They are biting. I am off my bike, running in circles trying to brush the swarm off. And I see Art scoop handfuls out of his eyes and shake them off. I think, “beekeepers get attacked less.”
There’s no other choice but to push our bikes. “We gotta get out of here,” I say as we clear the sand, and the trail returns to the packed needles.
“Go on,” Art says through his shirt pulled over his nose and ears, worn out. He has resolved himself to being bitten and covered, no longer trying to swat the flies away.
“I can’t take it, okay?” I peddle hard and get some speed while leaving Art behind. The flies chase me but clear up as the loop leads me back to the parking area.
Long back in my memory, when Art first spent time with us. We took a hike in the woods behind our house. My brother and I had explored pretty far into those woods on our own, but Art took us further, back into a property where an old junk pile and ‘50s automobile were dumped and forgotten. In an exposed area were rusted food cans and wire. I pulled out a chipped object of bright green glass that Art described as an old insulator for power lines. How did it all get back there? I kept it but lost it eventually – I always lost such things. Without warning, Art suddenly tried to run off on us to see if we could find our way back, but we were too fast to escape and had stayed on his heels. He later explained how his older brother did the same trick to him, but successfully, and that it took him some time to find his way. His brother watched him the entire time, wanting him to appreciate surviving on his own.
I see Art emerge from the trailhead as if someone I’ve never met before, and it feels very odd. I’m feeling guilty that I left him behind but glad that he did not have a heart attack. He is still calm, but he looks pale and tired.
“What in the heck was that?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Never seen anything like it. Wow. I just …”
We kickstand or bikes at a picnic table and sit in silence.
Something has changed between us. I can feel it. “I’m sorry I took off, I had to get out of there …” He holds up his hand.
“No, no, Michael. That was crazy; I’d have run if I could. I’m glad you did.” We sit some more.
Art then retrieved the melon from the car. “Heh,” he said while he starts cutting thick slices. “Ever read that story about a lost Roman jewel found in a gardener’s cabbage?”
“Amazing … … a vegetable grew around it.”
(Written by Mike R. Smith)