Fruit Flies like Parrots
BY GEORGE LUBITZ
Skidmore College, ’17
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors’ List
Mom likes to compost so we have to keep a small plastic container under the sink where we’re supposed to put eggshells and coffee grinds and banana peels. I usually just throw stuff in the garbage or put it down the sink if mom’s not around, though. But because we have this smelly thing with a bunch of garbage in it, our kitchen is filled with fruit flies. And I mean filled. If you go to turn on the kitchen sink, you can see a bunch of them fly away all at once without even knowing they were sitting in there. It used to be a lot worse, though. Quinn got so annoyed that he eventually made a bunch of traps out of empty bottles. He showed me how to make one last spring.
“All you need,” he said, “is a roll of printer paper, tape, some old fruit, and a bit of vinegar.” He put all the ingredients on the dining table and started rolling the paper into a really long cone. “You have to make sure the hole at the bottom is super small and the opening at the top is really big.”
I watched closely as he rolled the paper up. He told me to be ready with a piece of tape so I sliced off a piece from the dispenser that dad brought back from the office. It had a hole in the bottom so sand would spill out if you moved it too much. “Okay.” He held the tight cone out to me and I taped the edge in place. “Nice!” Quinn looked really proud of how small the hole was at the bottom. Next we cut up some pears that had been sitting in the back of the fridge forever and dropped them into an empty wine bottle. We washed our hands and Quinn poured in some vinegar. I asked him why we needed it and he said it made the fruit taste even better. I stuck my tongue out and scrunched my face because the last thing I’d want on my fruit would be vinegar. Quinn taped the cone onto the bottle and gave me a high five. “Now we wait,” he said and shooed a fruit fly away from his face.
“How long do we have to wait for?” I expected the flies to fly into the bottle right away.
“Just a few hours. But it’ll work better if no one is around.” Quinn washed his hands again and walked into the living room.
I thought that if I was really still and quiet, the flies wouldn’t notice me and could go into the trap so I pulled up a stool and put my head in my hands. I gave the bottle a shake so that the smell would go into the air and went back to being still.
“Elliot, if you are just sitting around, the flies aren’t gonna go near the trap. A watched pot never boils.” Quinn came back into the kitchen to get some soda and was now looking deep into the fridge.
“But I’m being really still!”
Quinn closed the fridge and walked over to the trap. He kneeled down next to me and looked through the bottle. “But the flies can smell you more than they can smell the trap. They’re gonna look for fruit somewhere else.”
“Ugh, fine.” I followed Quinn back into the living room.
“If you don’t look at the thing for the whole night, it’ll be filled to the brim by tomorrow morning for sure.”
Quinn was playing videogames on the couch. Call of Duty. Mom didn’t let me play because it had too much violence in it, but Quinn let me play when she wasn’t home. He handed me the controller and showed me the best places to use the sniper rifle. I kept getting killed, though. I wasn’t very good because I couldn’t get enough practice with mom being around all the time. A fruit fly was buzzing around my head so I kept trying to swipe it away which made it hard to focus on the game. I was getting frustrated.
“Ugh! Stupid flies!” I yelled.
“Don’t worry, bud. They’ll be all outta here soon.” Quinn took the controller from me.
“I’d even like it better if they were regular flies. At least then you can see them.”
“Good point,” Quinn said. He was staring into the game super focused.
“And it’s not annoying when regular flies buzz in your ear.”
“And why’s that?” Quinn turned to me after being exploded by a grenade.
“Because you can see them coming, and they don’t sound really high pitched like mosquitoes. And once I hear the fruit flies, I get scared that they went into my ear because I can’t see them!” I grabbed the controller from Quinn and switched to a machine gun, but that didn’t help much.
“You know,” Quinn began, “fruit flies are a lot like parrots.”
I stopped in the middle of a minefield and blew up. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“Scientists say that fruit flies repeat words humans say just like parrots do, but we just can’t hear them.” He took the controller from me and switched back to the sniper.
“That’s not true. There’s no way that’s true, Quinn.”
“Swear to God, E.” He killed two guys in a row and smiled.
“I dunno.” The screen went white from a flashbang. “I think it has something to do with mating calls. The same reason parrots do it.”
“But we can’t hear them?”
“Of course not. I mean, have you ever heard a fruit fly speak?”
“All that buzzing in your ear could probably be one of them saying, ‘shoo fly! Shoo!’ because you just said it.”
“Then how have scientists heard it?”
Quinn was still looking straight at the screen. He was using a machine gun now. “I think they used really sensitive microphones. Probably something like that.”
“That’s crazy…” I just sat there. I looked over the couch into the kitchen. I couldn’t see the trap and I remembered what Quinn said: a watched pot never boils. Mom would be home soon to make dinner so I went another way to my room to do some homework.
When we ate dinner, I didn’t want to jinx the trap, so I sat in the chair that faced away from it. I had to fight Quinn for it but eventually he let me have it. I wanted to ask mom or dad about what Quinn told me but I thought maybe he was just trying to make me look stupid by asking them. There weren’t that many flies fluttering around the food that night.
The next morning I rushed downstairs to see the trap. It sorta felt like Christmas but not really. There were at least fifty little bugs sitting on the sides of the bottle. I peered into the funnel and wondered how the flies were smart enough to repeat words but not smart enough to fly back out of a little hole. Some of them were floating in the gross vinegar and I felt kinda bad for a second. I decided to tape an old microphone from one of my radio sets to the inside of the bottle. It was too big for the hole so I just put it around the top of the cone. I plugged the wire into one of my dad’s tape recorders and turned it on. Then I rushed off to catch the bus to school.
I told all my friends about what Quinn told me and wondered if their older brothers ever told them the same thing. Alex C. said that Quinn was lying to me just to look smart, but Kai said he heard something like that on a TV show he watched once. I was unsure but luckily I would have evidence soon. I couldn’t really focus in any of my classes because I was so excited to hear the recording. At lunch, Sarah told me that Alex C. told her about what Quinn said and asked if it was true.
“I’m not sure. I hope so. It sounds possible.”
“Is there any way to tell? Can you try listening really carefully?”
I told her about the recording device and she asked if she could come to my house after school and listen. I told her sure. Her mom was a scientist and Sarah thought that if she could show her that the flies were speaking her mom would be super proud.
After school we didn’t get on the bus because it made a bunch of stops before getting to my house. Running would be faster. Once we got to my house I told Sarah to be quiet because I didn’t want to scare any of the flies—just in case us being there would make them stop talking. She thought the trap was yucky and had to hold her nose when I took the microphone out of the bottle. She had her headphone splitter in her backpack so we both could listen to the recording. I rewinded it all the way back and finally we could listen.
It just sounded like a bunch of static. We listened for like thirty minutes and heard the same rainy sound nonstop. I skipped through the whole thing and at one point we thought we heard voices but it was just my mom talking on the phone. After that Sarah said she had to go home. I felt pretty sad. I took the microphone out of the bottle and put my dad’s recorder back in his desk. When Quinn got home I watched him play videogames but didn’t feel like having a turn. I felt pretty stupid even without having to ask mom or one of my teachers. I watched the bugs circle around the trap when I ate dinner.
After I helped clean the dishes I went up to my room and made a trap myself because I had some flies in my bathroom. I used an apple and an empty root beer bottle. I spilled a little of the vinegar and it made a cut on my hand sting. I cleaned up the mess and put the trap on my bookshelf. It stayed there for a while but eventually started to stink. I was throwing the thing away when I stopped to watch Quinn play one of his new videogames. I put the trap carefully on the floor and sat on the couch near him.
“You throwing that thing out?” he asked me, face locked on the screen.
“Yeah,” I said, “It’s making my room stink.”
“Yeah…they’ll do that.”
I watched him shoot at some aliens and zombies for a little while and said, “I couldn’t hear any of them say anything.”
He turned to me after getting killed by an ugly monster. “Huh? What are you talking about, E?”
“I even put a little microphone up to it and couldn’t hear anything.”
“What are you…?” He looked at me funny and then his eyes got wide. “Wait, you actually believed me?”
“Huh?” I scrunched my face up real tight. “The flies, they didn’t sound like parrots at all.”
“Elliot, you are so dumb.” He laughed really loud and turned back to his game, still chuckling. “Fruit flies like parrots? Who would believe that?”
I looked over at Quinn for a little while, waiting for him to say more. He just kept playing his stupid game. I folded my arms and stared at the TV screen, wishing that Quinn would get killed a bunch. But he didn’t; he shot everyone else and got powerups. I got up and went to throw the stupid bottle out. I didn’t wanna cry, but my face was getting really hot. I slammed the back door on my way out.
Sarah ended up telling all the kids in my grade that we didn’t hear anything on the tape recorder and Alex C. came up to me at lunch the next day to say he told me so. When I asked Sarah why she told people she said they all asked her and she didn’t wanna lie. Then she shrugged and started talking to her friends. I felt so embarrassed that I didn’t finish my lunch and went to the library for the rest of the period—even though it’s supposed to be closed during lunchtime. Back in homeroom, I kept my head down and didn’t talk to anybody unless they asked about the fruit flies, but even then I didn’t really answer. I felt worse than when I accidently called Ms. Simms “Mom.”
I got to the garbage can and lifted the top off. I took one last look at the smelly trap and pressed my ear up against the bottle. I listened but only heard the vinegar sloshing around. As I was letting it drop into the can it smashed into a million pieces at the bottom. Everything happened in slow motion; the ringing sound of the bottle breaking jingled like a flashbang, like the ones in Call of Duty. I coulda sworn I heard something say, “Polly wanna cracker.”
George Lubitz was born and raised in Manhattan, New York. He is an English major at Skidmore College. He enjoys writing short fiction and stage plays. When not reading or writing he is probably performing standup comedy. His work has been featured in Gravel Magazine.