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Everybody sees the ants, p.17
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.17

           A. S. King
 
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  “Over your hair?” Mom says in the most judgmental voice she’s got.

  Ginny nods and sobs a little. Her lower lip curls down, and she brings her hands up to cover her face again.

  Mom wraps her towel around her midriff and sits down on the love seat across from us. “If you don’t mind my saying so, hitting your kid is against the law. I don’t care how upset she was. What she did is wrong. Completely wrong.”

  Ginny cry-nods. She’s in shock. I recognize the symptoms. (I almost see her dancing ants myself.) She can’t even consider fighting something as big as her mother.

  That’s when Dave walks in.

  The door slams accidentally because of the breeze, and we all stop what we’re doing to look at him.

  “What’s going on here?” he asks.

  Jodi and Mom stand up and move into place as shields. Dave wants to see who’s on the love seat with me, and Ginny hides her face in my chest, so all that’s showing is her crew cut. I don’t know what Mom and Jodi do to keep him over by the garage door, but whatever it is, it distracts them all for just long enough.

  Next thing I know, Ginny is pulling my sleeve and we’re out the door and running full speed through her ninja tunnels, passing all the familiar walls and fences and family dogs, but in the daylight. And yet we’re invisible. No one yells, “Hey, you pesky kids! Get off my lawn!” No dogs chase us—or even bark. We are flying.

  We get to the playground, and Ginny takes me to the maintenance shed, where she reaches into the eaves and produces a pack of cigarettes with a book of matches shoved into the cellophane. She lights one and sits on the corner of the concrete pad of the shed. Her hands are shaking. I sit next to her, silently.

  It’s all happened so fast it’s hard to process. I don’t even know what time it is. I just know I feel better off than Ginny. I mean, yeah, her family has a big house and money, and she does all this cool stuff, and her face is plastered on billboards. Billboards. But even with her cool friends and her Vagina Monologues, she still has to go home to that house at night and be controlled by those people who want her to be something she’s not. Makes having a conveniently absent turtle-father look appealing right about now. Makes me wish she had a squid for a mother, too.

  I don’t say any of this. I just scratch at the dirt with a small twig. Ginny doesn’t say anything, either. While she smokes, she reaches up to her eye and feels around. I get the urge to feel it, too, so when she takes her hand away, I turn her toward me and I feel the edges of New Jersey. I kiss Hoboken and Atlantic City. I kiss Newark and Trenton. I kiss Camden, and then I follow the road west, over the Walt Whitman Bridge into Pennsylvania. And I kiss home.

  “I’m going to fucking kill her!” Karen yells, driving like a nutcase in the middle suicide lane to get past two old people in a Cadillac. Maya is crying. Annie is silent.

  “I think you should get her ass arrested,” Shannon says. “Teach her a lesson!”

  I’m holding Ginny’s hand, stroking her thumb with my thumb. I’m out of the shock bubble now and thinking straight. “We need ice,” I say. “And Advil. Do we have time to stop at a drugstore?”

  Ten minutes later, I’m jogging through the CVS parking lot, Ginny has a bag full of McDonald’s ice on her eye, and we’re on our way to the next town. Apparently, that’s where the theater is. I realize Mom is going to freak until she knows I’m okay and we’re still going to make our flight, so I call her on Karen’s cell phone.

  “What show?” she asks when I tell her I am going to one.

  My brain stutters until I remember that Mom has a vagina, so she shouldn’t mind my using the word. “The Vagina Monologues,” I say.

  After a few seconds she answers, “Where is it?”

  “Where are we going?” I ask Ginny.

  “Is that your mom?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Can’t say.”

  I cover the phone to say something, but I don’t know what to say. It’s their show. They’ve worked for months. Even though I trust Mom, I know adults can’t be trusted right now. I can’t just barge in and ruin it now because I’m a mama’s boy.

  “Sorry. Can’t say.”

  She tells me to be home before nine, and hangs up.

  By the time the doors open at six thirty, Ginny’s New Jersey is less swollen. Karen has taken a few pictures with her iPhone, “for evidence,” she says. Ginny has her binder in front of her and goes over lines marked in pink highlighter, jotting notes in the margins. Jane is talking to the girl running the spotlight, and is making sure the chairs onstage are on the tape strips that mark where they should be. People start to wander in, and a low murmur takes over the room.

  I wander to the balcony to people-watch. Some stop at the clothesline Jane put up this morning—a collection of pieces of clothing with messages written on them by past and present participants in the show. After ten minutes I wander down and read them, too. A shirt says WOMAN POWER! Another, BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN IS A GREAT WOMAN WHO PUSHED HIM OUT OF HER VAGINA. A child’s bathing suit says, in Sharpie marker, I WANTED TO BE AN OLYMPIC SWIMMER. INSTEAD, I BECAME A DRUG ADDICT. Along the crotch of the suit, it says HE STILL COACHES. MAYBE YOUR DAUGHTER. My stomach twists.

  I concentrate on the more uplifting lingerie. There are three pieces. One says WILL YOU PLEASE ME? Another, I DON’T NEED A REASON TO WEAR THIS. And the last, as wide as it is long, so it would fit Aunt Jodi, says I AM PERFECT.

  The crowd grows, and I feel a little weird about being male right now, so I tiptoe back up the stairs to the balcony. At the edge of the staircase, I see one last item hanging from the clothesline. It’s a hairbrush. On the back it says I DESERVE MORE.

  The house is packed. The lights go down, and the girls make their way onto the stage. There are no costumes or props or anything. Just chairs. The spotlight and the dark stage make everything look professionally done, and the girls don’t miss a line. They chant the funny vagina chants, and they talk the harsh vagina realities, and I am sitting on the top step, knees to my face, occasionally wiping my tears on the stretched sleeve of my POW/MIA T-shirt. It’s a little like the Grand Canyon—I don’t think I could come up with words to describe it if I had to.

  When it’s over, I join the standing audience and applaud until my hands are sore. Each of the girls bows a little. Karen reaches up to Ginny’s crew-cut head and rubs it while Ginny reaches up to inspect her shiner with her fingers. The ants throw tiny roses at the girls’ feet.

  I walk down the steps and the aisle and am about to sneak backstage when I feel a hand on my shoulder and I hear Mom’s voice behind me. “You ready to go?”

  I jump a little. “Yeah,” I say. Before I can ask how she knew where I was, the ants show up, each of them reading tiny weekend entertainment sections of the newspaper.

  “I’m parked out back,” she says, and points to the door behind the stage.

  “Oh.”

  “You have time to say good-bye, but make it quick.” She points to her watch. I remember we’re flying back home now. I try not to feel as devastated by this as I am.

  We find Ginny and the girls, and I hug them all and tell them that I loved their show. I tell them that I’ll miss them.

  Karen says, “Don’t be a dick, okay?”

  Maya: “Stay virginal, Lucky. Your time will come.”

  Shannon: “Love your vagina, man.”

  Annie: “Bye, Lucky.”

  Ginny grabs my hand, which makes Mom excuse herself and slip out the back door.

  “I’ll miss you, Lucky. I mean, even though I don’t really know you.”

  How do I say it? How do you tell a person that she’s changed you forever?

  “I want you to stand up to that asshole, okay? Call the cops if you have to. You deserve to be treated with respect,” she says. Instinctively, I touch the scab, which makes her touch her eye. It occurs to me that if we kissed now, we’d be like a folded map of America. My Pennsylvania scab next to her New Jersey black eye. I wonder, then, how man
y other kids could join in. Where are the Montanas and the Colorados? Where is Vermont? Florida? How many maps could we make?

  I say, “I love you. I mean, in a big-sister kind of way.”

  She hugs me. “I know.”

  I kiss her on Cape May. “See ya.”

  “Remember,” she says. “Friends act like friends.”

  I look to the other girls and know they will take care of Ginny. Then I go out the back door to the parking lot, where Mom is waiting for me in Jodi’s SUV.

  Once we get onto the highway back to Tempe, Mom says, “I’m proud of you.”

  I don’t think she’s ever said it that way before. Before now, she’d say it like I was a kid. When I did something cute or aced a test.

  This time she said it like she was talking to a man.

  It’s a quiet ride home.

  Dave was supposed to drive us to the airport, but he got called into “work” for an “emergency,” so we call a taxi and say good-bye to Aunt Jodi.

  She hugs Mom for a too-long amount of time and pats her on the shoulder a lot. “You two take care of yourselves. If you need us, call us, okay?”

  Mom nods. Jodi turns to me, “Stay out of trouble, Lucky.”

  I smile and say, “Tell Dave thanks for teaching me how to lift weights.”

  “I will.”

  “Tell him he should bring you out to see us soon,” Mom adds.

  “Will do,” Jodi says.

  The ants say: Lay off the pills, man.

  The taxi arrives, and as I pack our things into the trunk, I tell Jodi that I’ll e-mail her a recipe once a week to try, and that I’ll make sure they’re easy. I can see in her eyes that she plans on gorging herself with processed popcorn shrimp the minute I leave, and the entire sending-recipes idea will be a waste of my time. I decide to do it anyway.

  Mom and I wave from the backseat, and I feel a collective weight lift into the clear Arizona sky. Three weeks ago the trip sounded like a great idea. Two weeks ago it was the worst idea in the world. Today I know it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Probably for more reasons than I can see yet.

  As we take off, I watch Arizona’s lights disappear underneath the plane. Before the seat belt sign goes off, Mom is snoring lightly, head leaned slightly to the right. I can only think of Nader. A bead of sweat slides down the middle of my back. I think of all those stories you hear about people who have hard childhoods who leave home the minute they can and never go back. I do the math in my head. Three years to graduation. A long time before I can go anywhere.

  I take a deep breath and remember that I am different now. Maybe if I try hard enough, I won’t have to be one of those runaway people.

  I bring my hand to my face and pull away tiny pieces of the jagged scab. My face reflects in the rounded airplane window, and I see it is now a tiny Massachusetts, with Cape Cod curling toward my ear. In only a few more days it will be gone. I feel the fresh, smooth parts and marvel at how soft they are. New skin amazes me. New skin is a miracle. It is proof that we can heal.

  RESCUE MISSION #112—EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS

  Granddad is being held captive by ants in party hats. They are playing Twister. Granddad is calling the colors. He cannot play because Twister requires limbs, and he is missing two of his—one arm and one leg this time.

  “Left hand green!” he calls.

  The ants twist around to make the play.

  “Granddad!” I say.

  He waves me in, and a chair appears to his right.

  “Right foot red!” he says.

  “You know the ants?” I ask.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean—aren’t the ants in my head? Don’t they mean I’m crazy?”

  “Hell no. The ants are in everyone’s head. Been in mine since I was a kid,” he says. Then, “Right hand yellow!”

  I can’t wrap my brain around this.

  “Everybody sees the ants?”

  He looks at me and says, “Well, how many people do you think live perfect lives, son? Aren’t we all victims of something at some time or another?”

  “I don’t follow.”

  “Left hand red!” he says. Two ants fall on this turn, and the ant laughter gets louder. “Well, think about it. How many bad things can be done to a person? You got murder and assault, rape and robbery for starters. Just with those, you’re looking at some big numbers of how many people see the ants.” He calls, “Left foot blue!”

  I say, “Huh,” because I’m not sure how many people he means.

  “There’s battery, conspiracy, extortion, slander, defamation and harassment, child abuse, stalking—the list is long, isn’t it? Don’t forget that every crime has hundreds of victims—everyone who knew and loved the victim and the criminal. That shit can trickle down.”

  “All those people see the ants?”

  “Yep. Right hand green!”

  “Wow.”

  “Yeah,” he says. “If there are people who don’t see ’em, I’d say we outnumber them a million to one.”

  PART THREE

  Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.

  —Robert F. Kennedy

  LUCKY LINDERMAN LOOKS SMALLER HERE

  Dad picks us up and drives us away from the Philadelphia airport. He and Mom make small talk while I stare out the window. It’s so humid here, I’m chilly. I have goosebumps.

  About ten minutes after we start driving, Mom says, “So did you do it?”

  Dad keeps his eyes on the road. “Do what?”

  “The thing you said you’d do?”

  “I don’t recall saying I’d do anything.”

  Mom stares at the side of his head. The ants hand her an auger so she can drill right into his skull. It takes a hundred of them to carry it over the seat back.

  “Did you talk to the McMillans?” she says.

  “No.”

  Mom’s face puckers into a cinched bag of disappointment.

  “What could I say to them?” he says. “I mean, obviously the kid learns it somewhere.”

  “That’s not my point.”

  “So what is your point?” he asks.

  “You were supposed to do something.”

  Mom sighs and looks out the window as suburban Philadelphia sleeper towns race by. She doesn’t say another word. I sit in the backseat and watch Dad as he drives. The ants say: You are not a turtle, Lucky Linderman.

  Dad parks in the driveway and says, “Welcome home!” Like a tour guide. As if we were just passengers riding on his shell.

  I get the suitcase out of the trunk, and I deposit it in the laundry room and go to my room. After I lie there for a while, I realize that Dad isn’t ever going to do anything but be there to drive us home from the airport. And cook. And if I want something bigger to change, it’s up to me. I’m scared shitless, yes. I’m doubtful, yes. But I’m angry. Angry that I am doing this because Dad can’t. But then I sniff breakfast, and I know that Dad is doing what he can.

  Once he’s placed plates of steaming-hot pancakes in front of us, he arrives at the table. He looks at each of us for a long minute and smiles.

  I want to tell him about Ginny and kissing and how I can bench-press sixty pounds. I want to tell him about how Arizona changed my life, but instead, because these are the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten, I say, “How did you make these pancakes taste so good?”

  “Chef’s secret,” he says, and then tells me that the secret is lemon zest.

  Mom says, “Did you know Lucky is a great cook?”

  Dad raises his eyebrows.

  “He even taught Jodi a few things.”

  Dad laughs. “Your aunt Jodi is a lost cause.”

  I sit up proudly. “I got her to eat brie.”

  Dad smiles at me. I suddenly feel so stupid for giving up eating when I was thirteen. The ants say: Forget about it. We’re all larvae once.

  He says, “Well, if you could teach Jodi about cooking, you must have magical p
owers.”

  “I think he does,” Mom says, and winks at him.

  “So, what’d you think of Dave?” Dad asks.

  “He’s cool,” I say. “He taught me how to lift weights, which was really good. But he works too much.” Do they notice my smirk when I say this?

  “True,” Mom says.

  “And Aunt Jodi is nice, but she’s nuts. I mean that in a nice way. But she’s nuts.”

  “No doubt,” Dad answers. Mom nods.

  “Lucky met some nice friends out there, didn’t you?” Mom says.

  “It was good.”

  “Glad to hear that,” Dad says. “Good to see you smiling.”

  Good to see me smiling? Can this conversation be more weird? I want to give Dad a chance, but if the changes that are about to happen in our family are going to be credited to my smiling, I will be irked. So I decide now is the time to say something.

  “I’d really like to get some weights. I like working out.” I say. They don’t look up from their plates or say anything. I add, “It makes me feel better about being a Linderman.”

  “What the hell does that mean?” Dad asks. He stops eating his pancakes and glares at me.

  “It means I’m tired of being me.”

  They stare at me.

  “It means I’m taking control of my life,” I say.

  They stare at me and then look at each other.

  “I think I know where I can get a weight set,” Dad says. “I think a guy at work is selling one.”

  Mom’s eyes are glassy. “That would be great, Vic.”

  Dad leans toward me and frowns with his eyebrows. “And there’s nothing wrong with being a Linderman,” he says. “We should be proud to be Lindermans.”

  I want to point out that he said “we” and not “you.” I reach up and touch my Massachusetts scab, and I can’t help but rub it a little. For all my talking, I’m still nervous. For all my lifting, I’m still weak. Right now, Dad is the least of my worries.

 
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