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#50

Gnatswatter



           Within two months of his arrival, Mr. Gomez was the most famous man in town. As Frowlett’s foremost gnatswatter, his services were in constant demand, and in the small, sheltered community, he made more money than he could hope to spend.

            Mr. Gomez’s gnatswatting technique was simple. Or rather, he had no technique. He didn’t need one. He had been born with a gift that allowed him to approach gnats without alarming them. In fact, his mere presence often seemed to soothe a gnat, and as Mr Gomez approached, it would cease its mad flitting about, find a convenient place to land, and Mr. Gomez would swat it with a rolled up menu from whichever restaurant was sponsoring him at the time. Did the gnats simply trust Mr. Gomez? Did they not perceive him as a threat? Was he invisible to them? No one knew, not even Mr. Gomez.

            One day, while Mr. Gomez was lounging shirtless on a deck built around his above ground swimming pool, reclining on the single most expensive deck chair in town, two members of the Frowlett Events Committee came through the gate into his back yard uninvited.

            The men marched up onto Mr. Gomez’s deck. “I’m Mr. Gritter,” said one. He didn’t look like much of a man. “And this is Mr. Cuvann.” Mr. Cuvann, overdressed for the weather in long sleeves and pants, looked at the pool with longing.      

“Good afternoon,” said Mr. Gomez, trying his best to sound insincere.

            “As you know,” said Mr. Gritter, “In one week we will begin our 50th Celebration Festival.”

            “I didn’t know that,” said Mr. Gomez. “What’s the town celebrating?”

            “It’s the 50th Festival celebrating 50 years of celebrating every year,” said Mr. Gritter.

            “So nothing happened 50 years ago on the date?”

            “On the contrary,” said Mr. Gritter. “50 years ago on the date the town of Frowlett decided to celebrate for the first time.”

            “But what were they celebrating?” asked Mr. Gomez.

            “They were celebrating the decision to celebrate,” said Mr. Gritter. He and Mr. Cuvann exchanged a look that Mr. Gomez found personally insulting.

            “What does this have to do with me?” asked Mr. Gomez. The scent of the coconut oil on his chest was strong in his nostrils and perhaps the only thing keeping him from becoming hostile.

            “In honor of the 50th Celebration Festival, many local personalities and businessmen, men who are active and respected in the community, are doing 50 of something.”

            “How come Mr. Cuvann doesn’t talk?” asked Mr. Gomez.

            Mr. Gritter ignore the question. He said, “I’ll give you some examples to explain to you what we’re talking about. Mr. Elkrit is planting 50 trees in the park free of charge. Dr. Burnfurth is checking the eyes of 50 underprivileged kids free of charge. Sheriff Grayling is letting 50 people roll through the stop sign on 18th and Grove free of charge.”

            “Listen,” said Mr. Gomez. “I don’t even know if there are 50 gnats left in Frowlett. I might put myself out of business.”

            “You’re the most famous man in town,” said Mr. Gritter. “If you don’t participate, everyone will be so disappointed.”

            “It will adversely affect your fame,” said Mr. Cuvann.

            This struck home. “I’m in,” said Mr. Gomez. “I’m very reluctantly in.”

            “We probably won’t phrase it that way at the announcement,” said Mr. Gritter.

           

The Frowlett Events Committee organized a press conference for all the wealthy and powerful men in the community to announce the 50 things they were going to do free of charge during the week of the 50th Celebration Festival. When it was Mr. Gomez’s turn to talk, he tried to force a little jolly enthusiasm. “The first 50 people to call me with a gnat to swat will receive my services free of charge!”

            A reporter from the Frowlett Examiner raised his pen in the air and said, “Day or night?”

            “Normal business hours,” said Mr. Gomez.

            “How will we know you’ve gotten all 50?” asked the reporter.

            Mr. Gritter stepped up to the podium and said, “The Frowlett Events committee will assign a photographer to accompany Mr. Gomez and document all 50 free gnatswats.”

            Mr. Gomez glanced around at the local television station cameras pointed at him. “Document?” he said. “Document how?”

            “Also,” said Mr. Gritter. “At Sunday evening’s closing ceremonies, all 50 swatted gnats will be on display under one of the 50 hand-crafted glass cases donated to the city by Mr. Berthlow.”

            Mr. Gomez said, “There’s not usually much left to display after a gnat gets swatted.”

            But Mr. Berthlow was already elbowing him aside for his turn at the podium.

 

            The photographer assigned to Mr. Gomez was Mr. Cuvann. He showed up at Mr. Gomez’s house on the first morning of the 50th Celebration Festival and just hung around, waiting with Mr. Gomez for the calls to come in.

            When they did, he rode along in Mr. Gomez’s work van to the sites, never seeming interested in any sort of conversation. Once Mr. Gomez had swatted the offending gnat, Mr. Cuvann would have him pose with the smiling client, snap a picture, and then scrape whatever was left of the gnat into a tiny plastic bag which he then numbered for the eventual display.

            At the end of the second day, Mr. Gomez had received only eleven calls, and at two of them, when he’d shown up at the site, the gnats were gone, which was a common occurrence in his line of work.  

            “At this rate I’m not gonna make 50 by the end of the week,” he said to Mr. Cuvann, who was still hanging around on his patio with him even though business hours were over. Mr. Cuvann said nothing. He wasn’t dressed for the unseasonably chilly evening air and he kept shooting glances at the patio door.

             “It’s bad enough I’m not making any money,” said Mr. Gomez. “But now I’ve got this extra deadline stress. You’ve taken away the two things I love most about gnatswatting. Good money, no stress.”

            Mr. Cuvann may not have been listening.

            Mr. Gomez sat down on the most expensive free-standing porch swing in town and said, “I thought I’d be getting more calls. Eleven in two days is pretty much the same as always. There just aren’t enough gnats pestering people in town. I guess I’m not going to meet my goal. Thirty free gnatswats should be fine, right?”

            Mr. Cuvann frowned.

            “What,” said Mr. Gomez. “I’m going to be the only prominent citizen who doesn’t meet his goal? Big deal. I made myself available. Not enough calls are coming in. How is that my fault?”

            “It will adversely affect your fame,” said Mr. Cuvann.

             “All right,” said Mr. Gomez. “Maybe I could go around after business hours and swat gnats on public property as a general service to the community and we could count those towards the total.”

            Mr. Cuvann nodded.

“Fine,” said Mr. Gomez. “Let’s go down to the park. We might be able to scare up a gnat or two there.”

            Mr. Cuvann looked like he wanted to borrow a sweatshirt, but Mr. Gomez didn’t offer.

 

            Searching for gnats after business hours picked up the pace. So did an increasingly liberal approach to counting. For example, after swatting gnat number twelve, there was enough left to cause Mr. Gomez to wonder if it could possibly be the remains of two gnats. He decided to count it as such and Mr. Cuvann scraped the remains into two separate bags and numbered them twelve and thirteen.

            Mr. Gomez didn’t even swat number seventeen. Mr. Cuvann swatted it off of his own forehead while he was lining up a shot of Mr. Gomez with the grinning client who had called in number sixteen.

            “What did you just swat?” asked Mr. Gomez. “Was it a gnat?”

            Mr. Cuvann looked at the smear on his hand and shrugged.

            “In my expert opinion,” said Mr. Gomez, examining Mr. Cuvann’s palm, “these could very well be the remains of a gnat. Put it in a bag and label it, Mr. Cuvann.”

            Mr. Cuvann looked skeptical.

            “You wouldn’t have been here to swat it if not for me,” said Mr. Gomez. “We’re counting it.”

            At the end of the fourth day of the Frowlett 50th Celebration Festival, Mr. Gomez had swatted thirty-four gnats. He had a little over two and half days to swat just sixteen more gnats, which should have been encouraging, but Mr. Gomez was worried. Something was happening to either him or the gnats or both. As the number of swatted gnats climbed towards 50, Mr. Gomez had begun to notice a decline in the power of his gift. The gnats seemed more aware of him. They had begun to behave as if they knew he wanted to swat them. They edged away from him as he approached. Some of them buzzed in his ears and around his eyelashes just like they would have with anybody else. For the first time in his life, Mr. Gomez started missing on the occasional swat. With each successive call he answered, with each foray into the park or along the river after business hours, Mr. Gomez felt less like someone with a special gift for gnatswatting and more like just another average guy trying to swat agitated gnats with a rolled up restaurant menu. His fear of failing to meet his goal of 50 gnatswats by Sunday night gave way to a fear that he had lost his gift forever, fear that his career as a gnatswatter was over.

            Since Mr. Cuvann wasn’t forthcoming with his opinions, Mr. Gomez called Mr. Gritter to express his concerns.

            “Just swat the last sixteen gnats and come to the closing ceremony,” said Mr. Gritter. “Then take a hiatus, a little vacation, and you’ll be back to your old self, as good as new.”

            Swatting the last sixteen gnats was a nightmare. Every time Mr. Gomez got close, the gnats flew into a frenzy, zipping and buzzing in every direction, erratic beyond all reason. Mr. Gomez chased the gnats around clients’ back yards, around nature trails, and around the stock room at Mr. Elkrit’s hardware store, cursing and flailing his menu while Mr. Cuvann looked on with a wrinkled, skeptical brow.

            “What am I doing wrong?” asked Mr. Gomez, resting his forehead on the steering wheel of his work van. “What changed?”

            Mr. Cuvann said nothing. He might have said nothing even if he’d known.

            Mr. Gomez didn’t swat gnat number fifty until two hours before the 50th Celebration Festival closing ceremonies were scheduled to begin. It was an intense battle. The gnat flew at incredible speeds, zipping and darting with such unpredictability as to seem almost strategic. It even survived two direct blows from the menu before a third, desperate, despair-fueled lunge from Mr. Gomez finally finished it. Mr. Gomez stood panting over its remains squashed on a rotten picnic table and tried to feel relieved. He could not. Mr. Cuvann scraped the final gnat’s remains into the final bag and wrote the number 50 on it with an exclamation point. Then, with time running out on them, the men jumped into Mr. Gomez’s work van and raced off to change clothes and arrange the swatted gnats in the glass display case at the fairgrounds.

 

            Attendance was sparse at the 50th Celebration Festival closing ceremonies. Everyone was all celebrated out. Frowlett’s prominent men sat on uncomfortable folding chairs on a large, outdoor stage while Mayor Blugret officially recognized them one by one and detailed their charitable donations of 50 of this good or 50 of that service. Since Mr. Gomez was the most famous of the prominent men, he was to be recognized last. He felt sick, like his guts were all twisted and tangled. He sat in his chair and stared at his feet. Mayor Blugret droned on, defending several unpopular policies that had nothing to do with the 50th Celebration Festival. Mr. Gomez looked over at the display case containing the 50 swatted gnats where it sat on a stand at the edge of the stage, concealed under a green cloth that looked like it might be somebody’s curtain. Mr. Cuvann stood next to it, ready to pull the cloth away on cue. After a few remarks from Mr. Gomez, the spectators would be permitted to come up on stage and file past the case to gaze upon the remains of the 50 gnats Mr. Gomez had swatted free of charge in honor of the 50th Celebration Festival. Mr. Gomez wondered if they would be the last 50 gnats he’d ever swat as a professional. He wondered if he’d be able to swat another 50 gnats in his life. His connection with the gnats, or whatever it was, had vanished, replaced with something else, something that drove them wild, something that seemed to infuse them with a desire for self-preservation that made swatting them nearly impossible. Swatting gnats had been Mr. Gomez’s livelihood, his identity. Now he couldn’t think of anyone less qualified for the job.

            The mayor stopped speaking in mid-sentence, his voice strangling off into nothing. The assembled crowd turned and followed the mayor’s stare toward the red and blue sunset behind them. Mr. Gomez looked up. A swirling, shifting cloud was surging towards them, fraying along its edges, blotting out a huge chunk of the sky as it swelled and expanded, emitting a sustained whine that penetrated the hearts of every citizen present, the prominent and the not prominent alike.

            The mayor, the spectators, and the other prominent men succumbed to panic and fled, shouting and waving their hands around their faces as if the gnats were already upon them. In their haste, some of the prominent men of Frowlett knocked the 50 swatted gnats display case off the edge of the stage. The glass shattered and the 50 tiny bags of swatted gnat remains scattered across the grass. Mr. Gomez got to his feet and walked to the edge of the stage.

            Mr. Cuvann was the only other person who hadn’t yet run away, although he appeared to be on the verge. “This will adversely affect your fame,” he said, his hands shaking, sweat pouring down his face.

            “My fame could use a little adversity,” said Mr. Gomez, and he took a laminated restaurant menu out of his suit coat and rolled it up.




Discussion Questions

  • What constitutes a “gift?”



  • Why doesn’t Mr. Gomez flee the swarm of gnats at the end of the story?



  • If something has been done for 50 consecutive years, is that inherently impressive?



  • Some people say that fame isn’t worth the drawbacks. Do you vehemently disagree, disagree, or pretend to agree?



  • How would your interpretation of this story change if gnats were an endangered species?



  • Assuming we aren’t talking about a life or death situation, which would you prefer: imminent doom or abiding uncertainty? Explain your answer.