Mr. Vukovich was troubled by a fly. That was the rumour, anyway. I'm not sure what kind of fly. I'm not even sure it was always the same fly. I never saw it, of course. No one did but Mr. Vukovich. You could watch him, though, doing whatever it was he was doing at the time, and you wouldn’t have to wait long before he started waving his hands in the air to shoo it away.
We were out shovelling the driveway one morning and there was Mr. Vukovich. Even bundled up in a trench coat and his old fur hat he was swiping at that tiny poltergeist. Dad hardly stopped to watch anymore: he'd seen it all a million times already. But it gave Petey an excuse to start buzzing around like a giant wasp, and dad had to threaten an ass-kicking to get him to cut the racket out.
When I asked my mom about it, she said the old guy was shell-shocked from the war. Dad twirled a finger by his ear and pronounced him crazy as a loon. But Petey decided that he was being haunted, too – by a giant spider that climbed down from the ceiling in the middle of the night and tossed golden coins onto his bed. Mom said it was the stress from school that did it. Dad just wanted to know where he kept the loot. Petey made like he had it stashed away somewhere safe. Dad said that was a relief because his rent was overdue. Even mom had to laugh at that one.
I didn't know if Mr. Vukovich was crazy. Sometimes I saw things from the corner of my eye, too. Mom said they were floaters – bits of junk swimming around my eyeballs. People got them all the time, she said. I wondered why no one ever told that to Mr. Vukovich. Or maybe they did, and he just wouldn't listen.
He sure didn’t listen when they told him he had too many cats. That was another thing about him. He was always bringing them home, and leaving bowls of food and water out in the neighbourhood for the ones he couldn’t catch. You want to talk about crazy. He didn’t even like cats. Not that much.
Dad thought the old man was a nut, but he wouldn’t fault him over the strays. He had a soft spot for animals, too. He'd even bring bags of food over sometimes, in support of the cause (not that Mr. Vukovich seemed especially grateful). All he did was moan about how his days were spent in endless cleaning.
And when he wasn't cleaning and griping, he was hustling the sorry creatures in and out of a cage he had set up in his backyard, one by one, so they might get a bit of fresh air each day. What choice did he have? They were an even bigger curse than that – he waved his hands in the air and we knew what he meant – but he couldn’t live with himself, he said, if he were to leave them on the street to starve or freeze to death. He didn't have the strength.
Kids can be cruel, if only out of ignorance (and not a more deeply-rooted malice). Like the brat who insists on touching the stove in spite of being warned that he’ll get burned if he does, people sometimes need to suffer before the power to empathize takes hold.
Petey thought it was a hoot to watch the old man tottering after his cats. He moved with a limp from the shrapnel he took in the war, and when he hurried he would waddle from side to side like a duck. Sometimes, when dad wasn't around to give him hell, Petey would sneak into the yard and unhook the cage so the cat could get loose. And then he’d hide behind a bush and quack quack quack as the old man waddled furiously after it.
Petey was out there quacking like that one morning when the tabby took fright and scampered up the old maple. I ran inside to let mom know what Petey had done, and the next thing I see, Mr. Vukovich is dragging a stepladder from the garage. Mom screamed at Petey to stop it with the quacking and get in the house, but he pretended not to hear. Then she screamed at Mr. Vukovich to get down from the ladder because he was going to fall and break his neck, but he wasn’t listening either. He worked his way up while mom screamed and Petey quacked, and he actually had the cat in his grasp and was on his way back down – when he pulled his hand away from the tree and started waving it in front of his face.
Petey was right there when the old man hit the ground. He could practically reach through the fence and touch him. There wasn’t a lot of blood, really, and the way the cat took off, it didn’t look any worse for wear. But you could see from how the old man was twisted up that he was in bad shape. Petey said he couldn’t turn away: Mr. Vukovich was glaring at him through the chain links, and the anger somehow stayed in his eyes even after the spark went out. I felt bad for Petey. That face was going to be with him for the rest of his life.
It didn’t take long after that for word to spread that Mr. Vukovich’s cats had all been gassed by the city. That's a hell of a thing for a kid to hear, and Petey didn’t want to believe it. He told me they had gotten away, and that he saw them around the neighbourhood all the time. He whispered that one had even gotten into the house – but he was afraid to tell mom in case she called the city to remove it. That’s when I broke the news.
Mr. Vukovich had been sweeping the sidewalk and swiping at that fly he always saw buzzing around his head. So I went over and asked him if he knew anything about floaters and whether he thought his fly might really be a bit of junk swimming around his eyeballs like my mom had said. He didn’t know about floaters, but he insisted the fly was real. I told him everyone thought he was nuts because they couldn’t see anything: he was probably shell-shocked from the war. He said they ought to be on their damned knees praying they never had to see what he saw.
He kept shaking his head and waving his hands as I followed him up and down the sidewalk, pleading for him to tell me what he saw. And just before he got to the front steps he whirled around with his hand raised, like he was going to box me in the ear for pestering him. But he stopped short, and his head sank, and the story came out.
People were starving, he said. But his family was able to get by, and every week they would head into town with a sack of dry bread to share among the less fortunate. He was young and didn’t understand how his folks could give away food when they didn't have the money even to buy him shoes. He said it felt like a theft.
There was one little tramp, in particular, a boy who waited, as though in ambush, along the route they took and followed him everywhere he went in the city. He never spoke, not even to say thank you for the grub he shovelled into his mouth. His rags were practically falling off his body, but even he had shoes on his feet. Where was the justice in that?
Mr. Vukovich said he jumped from the wagon as they were heading into town one morning, telling his folks he could make his own way there. And so he did – stopping only to feed the little vagabond the heel of a brown loaf laced with powder from the barn. His regret was immediate. The boy smiled as though he'd made a friend and followed merrily along even as the foam began to run from his lips. And then his eyes rolled back and he fell into terrible convulsions at the edge of the road. Still, the panic didn’t grip his heart, the old man confided, till he saw, wide-eyed and without understanding, that the boy’s shoes hadn’t any soles, just a pair of ragged uppers tied to his scabby ankles.
That’s when he ran, the trail of urine leaving a dark stain down his leg. And he hid, in a fever, at the back of the wagon till his worried parents came looking for him. There was a cluster of people milling at the edge of town when they turned back toward the farm, but they didn’t stop to investigate. They had a sick child to care for. Mr. Vukovich said he could see the boy curled up in a puddle of bloody vomit, the flies already buzzing around the body. He had been cursed from that moment.
I told all this to Petey because I thought he should know: he was likely the only one who could see Mr. Vukovich’s cats. And if he didn’t want people to think he was crazy maybe he should act like they weren’t there. I could see his eyes darting around the room even as he bobbed his head in agreement. He looked crazy. How many were there, I asked. And he shrugged. One? Two? A dozen? He could just see them flitting by from the corner of his eye. But when they rubbed up against him, he said, it made the hair on his legs stand on end. He gave me a crazy smile and said a guy could do worse than have a stray cat or two following him around. I nodded and said it had to be better than that blasted fly, and he laughed a little. But he was awfully pale.
I figured Petey had enough to worry about, so I never told him the rest of Mr. Vukovich’s story. But when I asked the old man why he was haunted by a fly, of all things, he looked at me like I was stupid. It’s not just a fly, he explained: it’s one fly after another – the stray edge of a buzzing swarm – and he wasn't sure it even realized he was there. It was circling that little boy he once fed at the side of the road.