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Everybody sees the ants, p.11
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.11

           A. S. King
 
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  “Good,” she says.

  After a few seconds of silence, I say, “Can I ask you something?”

  She nods.

  “Why didn’t Dad pick up Granddad’s case when Granny Janice died? Doesn’t he care what happened? Doesn’t he want to find out?”

  Mom sighs. “You don’t know what it did to him, watching his mother beat her head against a wall for thirty years. He just burned out,” she says.

  “I don’t get it. He burned out not doing anything?”

  “Just watching was exhausting. Broke his heart,” she says. “And when she died, she still didn’t have any answers. He just couldn’t bring that with him.”

  I make a halfhearted nod, as though I understand. I guess I do. But I still don’t understand why, if he left all that behind, he’s still so messed up.

  The conversation in the living room is getting louder. I think I hear Jodi say, “I am not a drug addict!” and it breaks our serious mood. It’s like Jodi threw her own intervention. Mom and I snicker a little.

  “So, seriously—did you really fall asleep at the playground last night?”

  “Uh—yeah.” This means no. She knows this.

  She looks into my eyes. “Just be careful, okay?” Then she strokes my cheek—the healing one—and she says, “Damn. You’re bleeding a little,” and hands me a tissue.

  The ants say: Aren’t we all bleeding a little?

  THE NINTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL

  We leave for the Grand Canyon at five in the morning. Dave drives while Aunt Jodi stays particularly quiet in the passenger seat, aside from yelling at other drivers.

  “Jesus! Take it easy!”

  “Why are you in such a hurry?”

  “How about a turn signal? It’s the thing that happens when you use that stick on your steering column!”

  Mom and I are in the backseat, and though I brought my music and my book, I’m not plugged in to either. I’m just looking out the windows, taking in the terrain. For a while it looks a lot like driving through Pennsylvania. I expected deserts and cacti, but it’s fir trees and tall grass, only the grass is browner.

  My mind wanders to Ginny. Last night I leafed through a few of Jodi’s magazines and found one of Ginny’s shampoo ads. She does the Favors from Nature line. She looks even more amazing in the pictures, where the motto, IT’S ONLY NATURAL, floats in bold type above her beautiful head. If you look at that picture, it’s hard to imagine she’s hanging out with a bunch of crew-cut feminists who chant “vagina.” But maybe that’s just a weird thing for anyone to imagine, no matter who’s in the picture. I wonder what they’re doing today.

  “I didn’t expect so many trees,” Mom says after we pass through Flagstaff and continue northwest. Only ten minutes after she says it, everything flattens, and we hit a desert-looking place with mountains in the distance. “Maybe I spoke too soon,” she says.

  Finally, after four hours in the car making occasional small talk, we pass a sign that reads GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK.

  We have to drive another ten minutes to see the canyon for real. It really is the most mind-blowing thing I’ve ever seen. Mom even cries a little, it’s so amazing. All we can say is “wow.”

  Mom says, “Wow.”

  I say, “Wow, wow, wow.”

  The first look is overwhelming—an audible gasp sort of overwhelming. I can’t really process what I’m seeing. It’s almost like being underwater—at one of those underwater paradises, like the Great Barrier Reef, that you see on TV documentaries. Everything’s enormous and a blur, a beautiful blur, and I feel weightless, unattached, or floating or something. As if the Grand Canyon is making me drunk.

  The ants say: What did you expect? It’s the Grand-freaking-Canyon!

  Dave stands on Mom’s right, and Jodi stands on my left. They don’t say anything, but when I look at Jodi, she smiles at me and nods back toward the view and pats me on the shoulder.

  We turn back on the road we came in on and follow it to a small village where our hotel is. It’s the oldest hotel around, and it has a view of the canyon, which seems to be rare or something, because Dave says it was hard to get a room here on short notice, but he has connections. He checks us in, and we make our way to our rooms.

  Only outside the two doors is there an awkward moment when we suddenly don’t know who’s rooming with whom. Dave gravitates toward me and says, “I think we should room together, Lucky,” but then Jodi pulls him back and makes him open their door, and Mom and I do the same.

  I realize now that maybe this whole Arizona trip was so I could bond with a man. Maybe one of the school “experts” told Mom this was a good idea. Or maybe Mom thought it up herself, or maybe Dave doesn’t really think I’m cool but is just saying it because he’s been given a job. The job is to make Lucky Linderman normal. Or make sure he’s not going to really kill himself. Or get him to smile. By the time I get into the bathroom for a pee and a glimpse at my scab, I’m paranoid as hell that they’ve brought me to the Grand Canyon for some weird manhood ritual.

  An hour after lunch, Dave and I walk into the canyon on Bright Angel Trail. The path is steep but not too bad. The brochure says this hike should take four hours. I’ve decided to forget about my paranoia for the afternoon.

  Until Dave starts talking while we’re resting on a rock halfway down.

  “Wanna tell me where you were the other night?” Dave asks.

  “Huh?”

  “When you disappeared.”

  I don’t say anything.

  “I know you didn’t fall asleep in the park, man.”

  “I did,” I say. “Seriously.”

  “Dude. Come on.”

  I sigh. How the hell am I going to explain the vagina thing to Uncle Dave?

  “I met this girl and we went for a long walk,” I say. “Don’t tell them, though.”

  He slaps me on the back so hard I think I might go flying over the edge of the rock we’re sitting on. “A girl!” he says.

  “Not—uh—a girlfriend or anything. Just a friend girl. And her friends.”

  “And her friends?”

  “Yeah.”

  He laughs and shakes his head. “Give a kid some weights, and next thing, the girls are crawling on him.”

  “It’s not like that,” I say.

  “You just don’t understand girls yet.”

  “No, seriously. It’s nothing like that.”

  He nods and says, “It’s not that I don’t believe you. I just know women.”

  I stand up and decide I’d rather walk more than talk about this. I don’t appreciate that he’s turned my secret into a big bragging point. It wasn’t one. I’m at the Grand Canyon. I want to see it, not sit here and talk about stupid stuff with yet another person over thirty who doesn’t get it.

  We get to the mile-and-a-half rest area in about two hours. There’s a bunch of tourists packed inside a small open-sided shelter, enjoying the shade. After we get a drink, we turn around and start back toward the trail, and some guy says, “You going back already?” He then explains that if we keep walking, in just a few short minutes we’ll get the best view we ever saw, so we take him up on it.

  And the view really is worth it. The sky is a deep blue and the canyon is endless. Really endless. I feel swallowed, but it feels good. I feel I’m as small as I should be. Smallness feels right somehow. Because if Nader McMillan was here, he’d be small, too.

  Dave says, “Did I piss you off?”

  “Nah.”

  “I did, didn’t I?”

  “Just don’t tell them where I was,” I say.

  “Trust me. I won’t.”

  “Good.”

  “Can I ask you a dumb question?” he says.

  I nod.

  “I keep hearing you came out here to see us because you were thinking about killing yourself. That true?”

  I don’t like the way he worded that. I didn’t come out to see anyone. If I had it my way, I’d be playing gin with Lara J
ones right now.

  We sit on a shady spot of dirt, and he passes me the canteen we’re sharing. “I don’t mean to pry. I just want to know what’s going on, you know?” he adds.

  “I wasn’t thinking about killing myself. I was joking about it. I got caught, and they’re acting like I’m fucking crazy now.”

  “Joking?”

  I tell him the whole questionnaire story and how the school overreacted and how I got questionnaires all the way up to the end of school in my locker. I told him about how no one gave a shit about what was really going on at the school—just about stupid made-up shit like this.

  “So school hasn’t changed much since I was there, I guess.”

  “Still sucks.”

  “Yeah,” he says. “Well, it’s good to know you weren’t really considering it. I mean, that’s a pretty final answer to any problem.”

  “Yeah, right?”

  “You know you can call me if you need to talk about that other thing, too, right?” he says. “Or if you want to ask anything about your secret girlfriends.” He laughs and I do, too, just to make him feel okay about having to say all that crap.

  As we make our final ascent, I suddenly love Arizona. I love that Mom thought it was a good idea to just pick up and leave. I love Dave, who is turning out to be the father I never had, and I even love Jodi, although she’s kinda crazy. I don’t miss the Freddy pool or Lara or my own bed. I do not miss my father, which is a sad side effect of his being a small, fleshy creature who hides in a shell, thinking about menus all the time.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN IS STILL TRYING TO DESCRIBE THE GRAND CANYON

  We check out of the hotel, and then we drive around the rim for picture taking. Mom and I take turns trying to find words to describe how completely awesome the Grand Canyon is. In the end we both fail, and we go back to watching the sky.

  “I can’t get over how it changes color,” she says.

  It’s true. One minute the sky is orange and red. The next minute it’s purple and blue, and the next minute it’s just like regular Pennsylvania sky, but bigger. All depends how and when you look at it.

  We get to a popular parking area, and there is a bunch of college kids with their college T-shirts on. We stay to the right of them, and Mom and Jodi take pictures of the views, but then the group of kids gets loud.

  “Go ahead! Don’t be a pussy!”

  Two guys are standing at the edge, eyeing a skinny walkway of rock that leads to a small rock platform about three feet away from the edge. It’s like one of those cartoon images—a stalagmite of rock that supports a platform where the Road Runner would stand to taunt Wile E. Coyote. The skinny path is a little rock tightrope. You can see it’s been walked on, and the platform shows signs of wear, too, as if people were really dumb or suicidal enough to go there.

  “Do it!” a girl shouts from the crowd.

  So the bravest/dumbest/suicidal-est kid takes the shaky walk and a little leap at the end and lands on the platform, only just stopping his momentum without falling over the edge. Aunt Jodi watches this and just about has a heart attack on the spot. She can’t stop herself from putting her hand to her heart and saying, “Jesus!”

  The guy stands there and makes several goofy poses for his picture-taking friends. Now I get it. It’s a photo-op spot. As if every freaking inch here isn’t.

  “Dude! Who’s next?” the guy says, still copping poses for pictures.

  He takes a good look at the run back before he does it. Measures it with his eyes and his feet. Finally, without warning, he takes three giant steps and then leaps toward his friends and barely makes it. He lands right at the edge, and one foot slips a little into the canyon. Dave jogs over and offers a hand in case he needs help. His friends are frozen, staring. The guy gets his footing, stands up and brushes the red dirt off his hands.

  “You okay?” Dave asks.

  “Never been better,” the guy answers.

  Macho jerk. He reminds me of Nader. Impressing his friends. Being cool.

  The minute he’s safe one of his friends does the same thing—and nearly loses his balance on the skinny walkway. He does that arm-circling thing that tightrope walkers do to stay balanced. When he gets back, his other friend goes.

  Jodi looks at me watching them and has a worried look in her eyes, as if I might be thinking of doing it, too, but those guys look like idiots to me. I was never someone who deserved one of Aunt Jodi’s worried looks, really.

  The ants say: Until the banana.

  I look down. I think about how one little second could change my whole life. How one false step could end everything I have. I ask myself if there was ever a time in my life that I’d do it—just jump. I think back to when I was seven, when Nader peed on my feet, and back to the time he punched me all year. Maybe then. Maybe if I was standing on the edge of the beautiful, enormous, amazing Grand Canyon right then, I’d have done it. I was little. It might have seemed a good solution. A way out. But something is different now. The world is bigger or something. My life is bigger.

  The students leave in their rented Jeeps, and we’re alone by the edge of the canyon. I’m leaning into the cool fencing over this one area, looking down. Mom stands next to me and looks down, too. She says, “Can I get a picture of you?”

  “Sure.”

  She backs up and centers me in the viewfinder and says, “Smile.”

  But I don’t.

  On our drive back to Tempe, I make Mom and Dave talk a little about their mother. Mom tells a story about when Dave got suspended for hitting some guy named Alfred, and how their mom beat him out of the house with a broom and told him to sit on the porch until he grew up.

  “She kept coming out to see if I’d grown up,” Dave says. “Each time she’d go back inside and tell me I needed more time. She made me sleep there, too.”

  “I remember that,” Mom says.

  “If you ask me, Dave still needs more time,” Jodi says, but while the others laugh, she doesn’t laugh.

  We stop for dinner in Flagstaff, and by the time we get home, I’m too tired to go looking for Ginny at the playground. As I fall asleep, I imagine Uncle Dave as my father again, and I try to figure out what the opposite of a turtle is.

  RESCUE MISSION #108—JUNGLE PRISON COOK SING-ALONG

  On the wooden chopping board are five ingredients. All high protein—a hawksbill turtle, a leatherback, a green turtle, a Vietnamese pond turtle and a Cantor’s giant soft-shelled turtle. We are in Jodi’s kitchen, at the breakfast bar, and Granddad sits on one of two stools, with his napkin on his lap. Limb report: all present.

  I begin to separate the turtles from their shells and gut them while Granddad sings turtle facts to me, to the tunes of patriotic marches. First, Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”:

  “THAT POND TURTLE IS PRETTY MUCH EXTINCT.

  YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T HAVE HIM OR EAT HIM.

  THE HAWKSBILL IS EQUALLY ENDANGERED,

  THANKS TO FISHERMEN WHO DON’T GIVE A SHIT.

  “THE LEATHERBACK IS THE NEXT-BIGGEST REPTILE

  AFTER CROCODILES AND DOESN’T HAVE A HARD SHELL.

  THE GREEN SEA TURTLE SEEMS TO BE ABUNDANT,

  BUT IT’S NOT, AND IT NEEDS THE SAME PROTECTION.”

  Then to Sousa’s “US Field Artillery” (also known as “The Army Song”):

  “THE MOST INTERESTING TURTLE

  YOU’VE GOT HERE ON YOUR PLATE

  IS THE CANTOR’S GIANT SOFT-SHELLED TURTLE.

  WHAT OTHER CREATURE

  CAN SIT COMPLETELY STILL

  FOR NINETY-FIVE PERCENT OF ITS LIFE?

  “HE’S MASTER OF THE AMBUSH,

  CARNIVOROUS AND FAST—

  NOT TO MENTION THAT HE’S SIX FEET LONG.

  HE COMES TO THE SURFACE

  ONLY TWICE A DAY TO BREATHE,

  AND NEVER ADMITS WHEN HE’S WRONG.”

  “Sounds like Dad,” I say, chopping the meat into long slices.

  Granddad doesn’t say anything.


  “Don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault,” I add. I begin to fry the meat with garlic and chopped onion and some olive oil, and open the fridge to see what else I have. When I open it, all I see are flour tortillas. Hundreds of packages of flour tortillas. “I hope enchiladas are good with you.”

  “How can I not feel bad? I cheated you out of a good life with a good father,” he says.

  “Bullshit,” I say. “You didn’t cheat me out of anything. You’re a hero. And Dad’s old enough to know he can control his own destiny. If he wanted to be there for me, he would be.”

  “Looks like you’re meeting him halfway.”

  I look at him—a salivating, wrinkled old man with eyes as big as the moon because the rest of his body has shrunk. “What?”

  “This cooking you’re doing. You’ve found the one way to reach him.”

  I turn my frying turtle strips over, noting the sour color of the meat—and the toughness. No matter what I add to these enchiladas, they will probably taste pretty bad.

  “But Dad’s a turtle, Granddad. Technically, we’re about to eat him.”

  “Oh,” he says. “I see.”

  The ants say: Nom nom nom nom nom.

  When the meat is done frying and I’ve covered it in enough chili powder to block out the brine, I throw it into flour tortillas and smother it in Monterey Jack cheese, and I serve it with a sauce I make out of the pan juices. It is probably one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever eaten. Granddad smiles and says, “Mind over matter, son. Smile and swallow. That’s what I do.”

  • • •

  I wake up with a horrible briny taste in my mouth. Not just the turtle enchiladas, either. I wake up tasting the reality enchilada, which I am not ready to taste, but I can’t stop it from happening.

 
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