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Everybody sees the ants, p.4
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.4

           A. S. King
 
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  I’m too tired and cranky to deal with this. So, I decide if Dad wants to talk about real reasons, then I will. I put the box of Cheerios on the table and look him square in the eye.

  “I don’t want to talk about food anymore. It’s all you ever talk about. I don’t want to cook with you, and I don’t want to watch the stupid Food Channel with you, either,” I say.

  He stands there and just stares at me.

  Mom says, “Your father talks about more than food.” Defector.

  He mutters under his breath like we can’t hear it. He says something about how nothing he does is ever good enough.

  “No, because if you tried, then it would be good enough,” I say. “But you don’t.”

  He looks at Mom and she shrugs. She lowers her head as though she might agree with me. She’s a crazy double agent.

  “I guess I’m not needed here,” he says, and goes to get his keys off the counter.

  “Actually, Dad, that’s the problem. You are needed here. I do need a father, you know?”

  He slams the keys onto the counter. “Goddamn it! You don’t have any idea what it’s like not having a father! You don’t know how good you have it!”

  He walks straight through the front door and to his car, gets in, backs down the driveway and takes off.

  My mother sighs. A big one. Then she sits down at the kitchen table and sighs again. Another big one. She rubs her forehead with her fingertips until she can figure out what to say.

  Then she gets up, puts the whisk back in the drawer and says, “Why couldn’t you just have fun and cook some eggs? He needs that.”

  “Well, I needed stuff, too, but when I needed it, he wasn’t here, was he?” I say. “I gave up trying after my thirteenth birthday. Remember that?”

  The week I turned thirteen, I was so sick of Dad only caring about food that I swore off eating until my mother took me to the doctor. I think I lasted six days. The doctor examined me and asked me a bunch of gastronomical questions—mostly about poop and any pains I might have.

  “You seem fine,” he said.

  “I am fine.”

  He looked at Mom, who was sitting on the chair next to the exam table. “Lori, do you mind giving us a minute?”

  She left, and he turned back to me. “Do you want to tell me what’s really going on?”

  “I hate my father,” I said.

  “Why?”

  “He works all the time and doesn’t care about us.” I added, “He hardly talks to us.”

  “My father rarely talked to me, either,” he said. “But I didn’t stop eating because of it.”

  “What did you do?”

  His tone changed. “I grew up and realized how silly I was being.”

  On the way home I asked Mom, “Do you ever think that if you were a pork chop or a leg of lamb, Dad would pay more attention to you?”

  She laughed. “Yes, Lucky. I have felt that way.”

  “What did you do about it?”

  “I don’t know,” she answered. But I knew. She swam more laps.

  THE FOURTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—THE ANTS

  The Freddy pool is looking especially inviting today. Mom comments to Kim the manager about her stellar water quality. Kim mentions something about calcium levels. It’s very exciting stuff here on a sunny Tuesday in July. Seriously. Could we all be more boring?

  I head into the bathroom to change and am happy to find that the new swim shorts Mom gave me aren’t those annoying extra-large puffy things. These are a little gay, but at least they won’t hang down and almost show my butt crack when I climb up the ladder, and I’m pretty sure they’ll make for better cannonballs.

  When I walk out of the men’s room, Nader ambushes me.

  He pulls and twists my arm so hard I think he’s going to dislocate my shoulder. He pushes me onto the concrete and puts his knee in the middle of my back, the way the cops on TV do. He turns my face to the side and presses my cheek into the baking cement. I can feel it burn my skin.

  Up close, I see the sparkling bits. I can see the tiny world ants see. Hills and valleys of concrete—crumbs from the snack bar, and the trail of water that leaks from the pipe under the water fountain between the bathrooms.

  Nader begins to move my face across it—slowly scraping me against sandpaper. He says, “See what happens when you fuck with me, Linderman?”

  I don’t say anything. My face stings and I tense it. He drags it more, pressing it so hard I swear my cheekbone is going to shatter. I can feel the skin melting off it. I feel oddly happy. Peaceful. Like I’m going crazy.

  Ants appear on the concrete in front of me. Dancing ants. Smiling ants. Ants having a party. One tells me to hang on. Don’t worry, kid! he says, holding up a martini glass. It’ll be over in a minute!

  “Answer me!” Nader says.

  Time has slowed to a complete head-fuck. I can’t say anything. I don’t think he knows how hard he’s pressing my face into the concrete. And yet the smell of the concrete is pleasant. The ants continue dancing.

  Danny pokes his head around the wall.

  Nader says, “See what happens when you fuck with me, dude?”

  Danny says, “Come on, man. He’s all right.”

  “Answer me!” Nader says again.

  I don’t know what to say, so I say, “What did I do?”

  He laughs. “You fucked with me. Remember? Helping that little slut? See what happens? Karma, dude! Say it! Bad shit happens!” He jerks my face with every enunciation.

  I concentrate on the feeling of my skin peeling off my cheek. I wonder will the ants eat it after this is over. Do ants eat skin?

  “Say it, Linderman! Bad. Shit. Happens.”

  I say, “Bad shit happens.”

  “Now keep your fucking mouth shut,” he says into my ear. He’s so close I can smell the toothpaste he used this morning.

  He gets up and struts behind the bathhouse to his bike and rides off.

  While I lie there for a second or two, I have one of my old Transformers daydreams from when I was seven. I am Optimus Prime, and I grow to the size of the entire swimming pool. I stomp Nader into dust. I regrow him like dehydrated potatoes, and then I stick him in my prison camp. There are a lot of bamboo spikes. I make him eat rat shit. The ants all laugh.

  I’m sitting up, propped against the men’s room doorjamb, and Kim the pool manager is squinting at my face.

  “Jesus, Lucky!”

  I blink.

  “You okay?”

  I nod feebly. At the same time I hold back maniacal laughter, suppressing my inner crazy person who is still watching ants dance. One of them is popping the cork on a bottle of champagne. Another is setting up a limbo stick.

  “Who did it?” she asks, looking around. I glance at Danny, who’s now in place behind the snack-bar counter with his head through the window, craning his neck so he can see us.

  She says, “Who did this to him?”

  He shrugs. Asshole.

  “Come on. I have to clean that,” she says, and helps me up. She signals to the guard on duty to get Mom’s attention. I reach up and touch my right cheek. It’s sticky and bloody, and it hurts like the road rash I got when I crashed my bike when I was eight.

  “Brace yourself. It’s just water, okay?” She holds a bottle of distilled water the way I hold mustard when I’m about to squirt it onto a hot dog, and she cleanses the wound—which is my entire cheek. Mom arrives at the door of the office with a towel wrapped around her.

  “Lucky? What happened?”

  “I—uh—got—uh—” I can’t finish the sentence, because she wraps her arm around my shoulder and looks closely at the damage. Her expression is a mix of intense concern and anger. Even though she’s being soft to me, I can see her inner squid inking all over the place.

  “He won’t tell me who did it,” Kim the manager says.

  “We’re going home.” Mom turns and storms toward our stuff.

  Kim the manager squats and looks at me as she ap
plies Neosporin. “It’s gonna heal better if I don’t cover it.” A nod at this, and she puts her hand on my arm. I’ve known her my whole life. She’s put Band-Aids on my stubbed toes and treated the bee stings on the soles of my feet. She says, “You have to tell me who did this so I can boot ’em from the pool, buddy.”

  All I can think about is how they held that poor kid down in the locker room. How they all laughed.

  I stare into her eyes as seriously as I can. “Nader,” I whisper.

  She looks at me skeptically. “McMillan? He’s not even here yet,” she says. She pokes her head out to inspect the empty bike rack where Nader usually parks his bike.

  “Danny saw the whole thing,” I say. “Ask him.”

  “Why would he do this?”

  “He said it was karma,” I say.

  “That little jerk wouldn’t know karma if it bit him on the nose,” she says, trying to get me to laugh, but I don’t.

  She explains that she’s stuck in the middle. She knows she should fire Nader, but if she does, she’ll lose a guard, and guards are hard to come by in July.

  The ants say: Blah blah blah blah blah.

  I see Mom gesturing to herself in the distance. She mutters all the way to the blanket, gathers up our stuff and then aims herself back toward the office. When she gets back to where I’m sitting, watching the ants limbo, Kim is writing up a report on the clipboard. She and Mom have a talk about what happened, and they decide to let the pool board of directors deal with it because Kim promises “disciplinary action.”

  When we’re leaving, Mom throws the bags into the trunk so roughly, all the stuff comes out of them. She puts a towel on the driver’s seat and actually burns rubber when she pulls out of the parking lot.

  I’ve never seen her like this before.

  At the intersection where she should take a left, she takes a right. She drives all the way to the big mall twenty minutes away and parks in the parking lot, leaves the car on for the AC and turns to me, in the backseat.

  “Stay here. I’ll be back in a minute.”

  She pops the trunk and finds her sundress and slips it on over her swimsuit. Then she gets her cell phone from her purse, leans against the bumper and dials a number. I hear her, and I know she’s talking to Dad. I can’t catch every word, but I hear her say, “Well, you were wrong!” She looks in at me, and I avoid eye contact.

  The last thing I hear as she walks toward the double doors to the mall is “I can’t take it anymore!”

  All I want to do is run away. I just want to start over. I do not want to explain this to Dad. I feel like a failure. A loser. Another Linderman casualty. All I want to do is go to sleep and find Granddad Harry and stay there with him forever.

  RESCUE MISSION #102—BOOBY-TRAP THE POOL

  I am in the pit again, but it is not raining frogs. It is not raining anything at all. It is nighttime, and there is no moon. The pit is dry, and the air is hot and dry. I have my stakes and a bowie knife. I have a pair of latex gloves. I have a plastic Tupperware container with the easy-pop lid in place. Inside the container is something brown.

  I set each stake into the dirt, and hammer the points to get them in solid. I then resharpen the points with the knife, one by one, until all twenty of my stakes are there, pointing up—a bed of nails for a giant.

  I stop and look around for Granddad Harry, and I see that I’m not in the jungle. I am at the Freddy pool, next to the bathroom doors at the edge of the chain-link fence. I’m in the secret smoking spot where Ronald and the other nicotine addicts go to get their fix. The ants are there. They are smoking cigarettes and have pointed party hats on their heads. I don’t want to be here. I want to be with Granddad. In the jungle.

  “Granddad!” I whisper-yell. “Psst!”

  No one answers. The ants ignore me, too.

  I adjust my eyes to the dark night and see familiar pool things: the diving board, the slide and the big oak tree. I look down at my body. I am the muscular dream-me, which is a relief. If I can’t escape the Freddy pool, at least I can escape the real me at the Freddy pool. I decide to take a night swim. I decide to start with a perfect front flip, which I have never achieved in real life. I go to the board and bounce several times and do a perfect one-and-a-half.

  In the pool, under the water, I feel I belong here. Like this is my pool. I do a lap of freestyle and a few laps of breaststroke. I figure since I’m in a dream and I just did a one-and-a-half, I might as well try the butterfly, too. I do a butterfly lap that would make Mom proud.

  When I get into the shallow end and I stop to catch my breath, there is applause. It’s Granddad. He’s missing his left leg this time. This makes me remember that I am at war. I reach up to my cheek and I feel my own wound, sticky and fresh, and hop out of the pool, dry myself and make my way back to the pit. This booby trap is definitely not part of the primary objective, but this is guerilla shit now. Fuck the rules. Fuck the strategy. Fuck the rescue. Nader must die.

  Granddad points to the pit. “You planning to trap someone?”

  I nod.

  “You know that probably won’t go down well around here, right?” When he says that, he’s wrestling with a rotten tooth, and he rips it right out of his gums and tosses it over the fence and into the road.

  I say, “I’m just doing my job.” Then I walk over to the roll of thin sod I’ve prepared to cover the hole and I drag it into place.

  At this, Granddad disappears. I face the Tupperware container and the pit. As I slip into it for the last time, I think of Granddad’s reasoning. This is a dream, right? I’m not really at the pool making a booby trap for Nader to fall into and die, am I? Did Granddad disappear because he’s ashamed of me?

  I put on the gloves and grab the Tupperware container. I pop the lid off, and the smell is awful. I retch. I smear a little bit onto every spike and then toss the container and the gloves to the bottom of the pit. I get out and roll the sod over the top, carefully smoothing it over the hole. I tell the ants in the grass to run or else they’ll drown. They go back to smoking on the concrete. I take the hose that they use to fill the baby pool and spray down the sod so it doesn’t dry out and look wrong.

  As I walk home in the dark, I can see Granddad hopping on his remaining leg about a hundred yards in front of me, but I can’t reach him no matter how fast I run.

  • • •

  “Lucky?”

  It’s Mom. She’s waking me up. We’re home.

  “It’s too hot to sleep in the car. Come on. Come inside.”

  When she gets out, I stay in the backseat for a minute. My hair is still wet from my dream swim. My hands smell of latex. I sit up and look at my face in the rearview mirror, and I wince when I see it.

  When I get inside, Dad doesn’t say anything about it. He doesn’t look at me, either, when Mom waves a packet of paper at him. Airplane tickets. “We’re going to Tempe for a few weeks. We’re going to get Lucky away from this kid, and while we’re gone you’re going to do something about it.”

  I say, “Tempe? Arizona? In July? Can’t we just stay here?”

  “I didn’t just pick the idea out of thin air,” Mom says. “I want to see my brother and get out of here for a while. Plus, I think it’ll do you some good.” She means that we don’t know any other people who have a pool in their backyard for her squid to swim in.

  “I think it’ll do you both some good,” Dad says.

  She shoots him a look that makes him focus on the floor and shut up. This isn’t just about me. Or Nader. Or her wanting to see her brother. This is about them… only I’m getting blamed for it.

  “I know it’s a little last minute, but it’s happening, so let’s pack,” she says to me.

  Dad sighs.

  I sigh.

  She sighs.

  The ants sigh.

  I offer the most positive thing I can say, even though I frown while I say it. “This could be good, I guess. I’ve always wanted to get to know Uncle Dave.”

  PART TW
O

  An agreeable companion on a journey is as good as a carriage.

  —Publilius Syrus

  THE FIFTH THING YOU NEED TO KNOW—THIS IS GOING TO SUCK

  Mom and I arrive at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, and she won’t let me on the moving sidewalks. “No point in rushing. Our bag won’t be ready yet, anyway,” she says. We brought one case of clothing because we only have one suitcase and didn’t have time to buy another one before we left. Mom put a big X on it in yellow tape so we’d know it was ours when we got here.

  Once we find our luggage-collection point, Mom puts me in prime grabbing territory and keeps an eagle eye on the rotating luggage. We watch as suitcase after suitcase arrives, and don’t say anything. Mom looks tired.

  “Lori! Lori! Lori!”

  The voice sounds like a bird that got hit by a truck. Squawking. Insufferable. Mom winces a little.

  “Jodi! Hey!”

  They hug. Aunt Jodi nods at me. Her double chin multiplies when she does this. I nod back. I’m frowning, as usual—plus it’s pretty hard to move your face when you’re building a scab the size of a pancake on your cheek. Aunt Jodi scowls at my scab as though I brought it to annoy her. She doesn’t say, “Nice to meet you,” the way most people would when meeting someone—like a nephew they never met before.

  “That’s it,” Mom says, squinting and pointing to a suitcase with a yellow X. (The yellow X which is completely unnecessary, considering our suitcase is from 1985 and luggage has come a long way since then.)

  “You only brought one bag?” Jodi asks as I lug it off the conveyor. “God, when Dave and I went to Mexico last year, I took one bag just for my shoes!”

  “I’m not a shoe person,” Mom answers, monotone.

  “Well, yeah. That’s obvious.”

  Mom is wearing the only pair of sandals she owns. A pair of black Birkenstocks with rusty buckles. I’m suddenly especially proud of her for not being a shoe person.

 
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