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Everybody sees the ants, p.8
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.8

           A. S. King
 
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  “I was just thinking that,” Dave answers.

  We tell her to walk around to the front. We tell her to act like a lost American tourist. She sees no problem with this and comments, “Maybe they’ll have a soda machine in there. I’d kill for a Diet Coke.”

  Mom is nowhere to be seen. She has perfected ninja.

  Dave and I watch as Jodi waddles around to the front of the camp, and just as she’s about to get to the gate, she is eaten by a hole in the ground and begins screaming a wild, high-pitched sound that is pure animal. Dave flinches. I hold his arm, a command to stay still, and we watch as all of the camp guards arrive outside the gate to see what they’ve caught in their trap.

  The novelty of a fat, middle-class American woman is too much for them. As she screams, they point and laugh. One of them reaches in and steals her backpack and starts rifling through it.

  Dave and I sneak in the back entrance.

  “Lucky!” Granddad says. “You brought a friend!”

  “Let’s get out of here, Granddad,” I say. “Come on!”

  He points to his feet, which are gone from the ankles down. He says, “Did you know that in Vietnam, the number of soldiers who suffered complete crippling or amputation of the lower limbs was three hundred percent higher than in World War Two?”

  • • •

  I wake up to singing and clapping. There is a mosquito on my forearm, and I quickly cover it and squash it.

  The youth choir is up onstage now, in flowing white gowns, and they’re singing something in the key of goosebumps. To look normal, and less like a kid who was just in the jungle twelve thousand miles away, I stand up, like everyone else, and I start to sway and clap, too, even though I feel like a complete spaz and I have to look at other people to see when to clap. The ants say: Dude. You have to copy off people to clap? What’s wrong with you, kid?

  That’s when I see the hair. The long, straight, perfect, swaying hair. The girl from the shadows—my real-life ninja. She sings in the church choir.

  When the service is over, Aunt Jodi schmoozes. She’s unbearably upbeat and alert. Feisty, even. She makes it her business to tell each singer that the performance was wonderful. She tells parents that their children were “so well behaved!” even if they fidgeted through the whole service. Dave, Mom and I stay sitting in the pew, and Mom and Dave say a few small-talky things to each other.

  Then Jodi approaches the parents of my ninja girl.

  The family forms a small defensive circle, and Jodi touches the shoulder of the husband and says, “Virginia just keeps getting better! You must be so proud!” While she says this, she reaches out for Uncle Dave’s hand and yanks him to standing.

  Ninja Mom says, “Oh, hello, Jodi. How nice to see you.”

  Ninja Girl has these huge green eyes. So green I can see them from here. And her hair is even more amazing this close up. She’s like a girl from a commercial.

  She notices me looking at her and I try to make a half smile so she doesn’t think I’m a perv. She looks back at me. I can’t read the look on her face. She seems amused by something, but she’s not smiling at me. The ants say: She’s so out of your league that she’s playing a completely different sport.

  Jodi continues to squeeze Dave’s hand, even though he’s awkwardly squished between her and the back of the closest pew and staring to his left, at the pulpit. “Wasn’t she just amazing, Dave?”

  “Sure,” he says. “She’s just amazing.” I think I’m nodding at this.

  The ninja family starts to walk down the center aisle, and Jodi follows them. She lets go of Dave’s hand and continues to talk to them, even though they’re using every single form of negative body language to make her go away.

  I don’t even pretend not to watch Ninja Girl walk by me and up the aisle. She glides by in her choir gown—easily five foot ten, which makes me a dwarf, but who cares? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so mysteriously awesome in my whole life.

  I’m not sure what Jodi says that makes them all look back at me and Mom, but when they do I lock eyes with Ninja Girl again, and she gives me a strange look. I can’t describe it. It’s pity or something. She looks at my pants and how they’re rolled up at the bottom. She notes my sneakers. Then she looks at my scab and makes a face like she’s amused again.

  “Come here, you two. I want you to meet these folks!” Jodi says.

  I have no idea what pill makes her use the word folks, but I want to make sure I never take one of those.

  Mom is pissed now. She has the same look on her face that she had during the stupid school “expert” meetings. The same look she gets when Dad says all those things he says. Don’t keep asking him if he’s okay. You’ll only make him feel worse about it.

  “Hi,” I say. The family is polite, and they ask me if I’m enjoying my vacation. “Yes,” I say. Then Ninja Dad says, “We have to get Virginia to her next appointment. Excuse us,” and they walk over to the pastor at the front door and start talking to him. Rather than wait in line behind them, Jodi turns and tells us to follow her out the side door, where we came in. I look back at Ninja Girl, and she’s still looking at me.

  When Mom asks Jodi why she didn’t go out the front door, Jodi answers, “Closer to the car.” But I saw she didn’t put any offering in the plate. And I saw she didn’t sing the hymns. She’s using the side door because she doesn’t want to see the pastor.

  She’s not here for God. She’s here for some other reason.

  For Sunday dinner, I decide if I’m going to be stuck here for two more weeks, then I’m going to eat better, even if I have to cook it myself. I teach Jodi and Dave how to make and grill basic homemade hamburgers out of some ground beef she’d been saving for a from-a-packet casserole. I show Jodi how to chop an onion correctly. I explain the acceptable ratio of meat to bread crumbs. It’s as if all those years watching the Food Channel actually taught me something. I mean, something other than the fact that the Food Channel is not a magical tool to bond sons and fathers.

  Dave perfects the toasting of buns on the top rack of the grill. I show him how to burn off the extra crud before he turns off the flames, and just as he’s about to put the finished burgers on the plate the raw ones were on, I save the day and get a new plate and explain the basics of raw meat and cooked meat, and how the two should never be in the same place at the same time.

  During dinner Jodi says, “In my family, boys weren’t allowed near the kitchen.”

  Mom grunts, “Shame.”

  “You know, it is a shame.” She looks at Dave and says, “No offense.”

  “I wish I’d have learned this stuff, too,” Dave says. “I’m happy to be the provider, but if anything ever happened to Jodi, I’d be living on frozen meals.”

  Jodi laughs. “Dave—you already are living on frozen meals.”

  Wow. Self-awareness. I wonder what pill she took for that.

  He laughs. “I guess I am.”

  Jodi chews a bit of her burger and says, “You know, maybe God sent us Lori and Lucky because he knew we had to learn to take care of ourselves better.”

  Oh. I get it now. God had Nader beat my ass and my mom leave my dad just so Jodi could learn how to chop onions and use a propane grill. Great. Awesome. The ants hold a protest on Dave and Jodi’s side of the table, complete with picket signs that read: AUNT AND UNCLE FAIL. THESE PEOPLE SUCK. I’M WITH STUPID.

  While Jodi and Mom clean up, Dave and I lift and listen to the radio. Every burning muscle in my body wants to ask him about the ninja girl, but I don’t. And just when I work up the guts to say something, he says, “I have a big meeting tomorrow, and I think I need to hit the office tonight, just to make sure everything’s set.” Then, still sweaty, he jumps into his car and drives off.

  I can’t figure him out. One minute he’s the only sane man in my family; the next minute he’s gone, just like Dad.

  It’s long past dark, and I don’t see anyone walking tonight. Maybe Sundays are off-limits. Maybe my ninja
girl even goes to bed early and gives her swaying, beautiful hair a break. I wonder where she sneaks off to. I wonder, does she have a secret boyfriend or a favorite place? The ants say: What the hell are you doing to yourself? You’ll never see her again. She lives two thousand miles away!

  Then I think of Granddad and wonder why I dream about a man who is twelve thousand miles away. It makes me ask: Why do I care so much about people who are so far away from me?

  OPERATION DON’T SMILE EVER—FRESHMAN YEAR

  My draft lottery graphs worked out great. Thirty-six percent of responders had birthdays that yielded eligible draft numbers in the 1970 lottery. This helped me prove my point, which was: A lot of people got drafted only a few decades ago. I planned to say this in my speech. “Look around the room. Imagine over a third of us gone.”

  The two extra-credit graphs I made proved that my generation doesn’t understand the draft lottery at all. Only 16 percent of responders answered yes, claiming they knew what the draft lottery was. Sadly, 70 percent of that 16 percent didn’t actually know. Most thought the draft lottery “had something to do with winning money.”

  The only thing left to do was make my presentation. Most of the kids in my class had already presented their original projects. Every Friday since the new semester, we’d listened to people telling us results of their random surveys and I learned interesting facts about my classmates. I learned that 87 percent of them didn’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Fifty-four percent didn’t wear seat belts when they didn’t have to. Seventy-six percent felt they should lose some weight. Sixty-seven percent didn’t like math. Fifty-two percent hadn’t read Romeo and Juliet, our freshman English assignment. (Of them, 78 percent watched the movie.) Only 24 percent had ever gone camping. And only 21 percent felt they had a good relationship with their parents.

  Count me among the 79 percent who felt they didn’t.

  I tried to keep Dad updated on my social studies stuff because he seemed so into the idea when we had the meeting with my teachers. Since then he’d tossed out a bunch of suggestions and stats, like, “Don’t forget to tell ’em that the total number of drafted in Vietnam was about 1.8 million” or “Make sure you tell ’em that sixty percent of soldiers killed were under twenty-one.”

  His numbers were accurate for the most part, but the more I researched, the more I learned that Dad’s belief that the whole country disrespected Vietnam vets was largely in his head. Left over, I guess, from what Granny Janice had seen all that time she fought for the lives of MIA soldiers. Or maybe left over from what he felt himself.

  “How’s the draft lottery thing coming along?” he said during the second week of February.

  “Good,” I said. “Speech on Friday.”

  “Did you do the graphs on the computer?” Dad asked.

  “Yep.”

  “I’d love to see them,” he said. But of course he wasn’t around before Friday for me to show him the graphs before my speech.

  On Friday, I did my presentation quickly, flashing my three graphs up on the screen and concluding that kids should really know about the history of the draft, and what it would mean for them, because they are the ones who’d be drafted if it ever happened here again. At the very end, I mentioned a little bit about our modern-day selective service program and put up a link to the website in case anyone wanted to research that themselves. There was barely a clap in the room when I finished.

  After my next class I went to my locker and found another suicide questionnaire inside. It said: If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose? The answer read—in all block capitals and black Sharpie marker: I’D DRAFT MYSELF AND GET MYSELF BLOWN UP BY A TERRORIST BOMB. MAYBE THEN MY FATHER WOULD NOTICE ME.

  I admit, I thought it was a clever answer.

  When I was finally able to show the graphs to Dad that weekend, he didn’t have much to say except, “Nice graphs, Luck.” I pointed out that I’d used the 1970 lottery as my example and showed him the table with the numbers and the birth dates. All he did was nod. I guess it was hard for him to look at the logic behind the draft lotteries, because that same logic had taken away his father. And, anyway, what’s so logical about the day you were born deciding when you might die? That’s just a cruel joke, as I see it.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN IS IN AISLE SEVEN

  I want to make dinner tonight,” I say at breakfast while Mom crunches some granola cereal and Aunt Jodi fiddles with her hair and browses through a People magazine. It’s not even eight yet. My body is still on Eastern time or something.

  “For who?” she asks.

  “For us,” I say.

  “All of us? A whole dinner?” Jodi asks, amazed, as if I’ve just turned into a llama or a giant hot-air balloon. As if I didn’t just teach them how to make hamburgers yesterday.

  “Yeah. Something homemade.”

  Mom grunts in assent while reading about trans fat on the back of her cereal box, and Jodi works herself into a huff.

  “I’ve never been so insulted!” she says, and storms from the dining area and out toward the pool.

  Mom walks out to the patio, where Jodi is sitting. I didn’t mean to insult her. It’s not like I told her to her face that she can’t cook. But she can’t, so I can’t see the big deal.

  At about nine, the doorbell rings, and I open the front door to see the UPS man holding a package a little larger than a toaster. He asks me to sign for it.

  “No problem,” I say. He’s staring at my scab. I wonder if he can see West Virginia. I sign and hand the little machine back and smile at him, and the scab cracks a little and I can feel it seeping either blood or that oozy scab stuff as the pizza-oven air hits my face.

  “Who was that?” Jodi asks as she and Mom come in from their long talk on the patio.

  “UPS.”

  “For me?”

  “For us. From Dad.”

  Jodi inhales as if she’s about to say something moody, but instead she says, “How sweet!”

  I open the box and hand a wrapped present to Mom, who winces a bit because she knows Dad well enough to know that whatever is inside the package will embarrass her, be of no interest to her or be the wrong size. This isn’t a put-down. It’s a family joke. Well, if you can find it funny. But I think since she refused to “take it anymore,” this is not a funny joke at all. It’s just another reason to be in Arizona while he’s in Pennsylvania.

  Dad included a POW/MIA T-shirt for Jodi and one for Dave. Jodi holds it as if I just gave her a dead man. Away from her body. Like it smells. In a way, I guess I did just give her the body of a dead man. Welcome to the life of a Linderman, Aunt Jodi, where every day is a funeral we never had. The ants say: And shh! Make sure you don’t talk about it!

  “I’m sorry I got so mad before. It’s that time of the month,” she starts, and I can hear Mom groan quietly from across the room because she’d never say that. “I’d love for you to make dinner tonight. Your mom has volunteered to take you to the store for ingredients.”

  I say, “Great. Makes me feel like I can pay you back for letting us stay here.”

  This sentence somehow brings us all back to reality. My mother and I look at each other like refugees and then look at Aunt Jodi. She pities us and we can feel it.

  Mom unwraps her present. It’s a box of melted chocolates. After a morning in the back of a UPS truck during the Arizona summer, I’d call them liquid chocolates. She goes to throw them away, but Jodi insists on putting the box in the fridge, claiming, “It’ll still taste like chocolate even if it isn’t pretty!”

  The ants climb into the shipping box full of packing paper and search around. One returns. Linderman, the gift accounting command has confirmed negative gifts for you. Sorry, son. Your father sucks.

  The grocery store is freezing cold. Mom is shivering. The ants are shivering. One of them is handing out tiny scarves to the others.

  I decide to make yogurt-and-red-pepper-marinated chicken, cherry tomatoes and pineapple s
hish kebabs. Mom seems impressed. This is the first moment I realize that I have never actually cooked a whole meal by myself. Sure, I mixed a lot of banana muffin batter when I was seven, but this will be a bit more than pouring a bunch of premeasured ingredients into a bowl and stirring. Still, I’m confident. I’ve watched enough FMC to know how to make marinade, cut chicken and cook rice. It’s not rocket science.

  The first thing Aunt Jodi says when she sees our groceries is, “Rice? We don’t eat rice!” I think of what Granddad Harry would say about rice after thirty-eight years of eating rice.

  An hour later she eyes the bowl of chicken marinating in the fridge.

  “Wow. What is that?”

  “Marinade.”

  “Why’s it look like yogurt?”

  “It is yogurt.”

  “Huh,” she says, and shakes her head. “Yogurt on chicken. This will be an interesting night.”

  At dinner Aunt Jodi is eating so fast she doesn’t stop to speak. Dad says a quiet meal is the best indication that you cooked well. I think this is probably the quietest meal my aunt Jodi has ever participated in. I allow Dave to take partial credit because he turned the meat when I told him to, and brushed on more marinade. He even changed plates from raw meat to cooked meat, so he’s learning.

  After dinner we meet in the garage, and he spots me as I do ten reps of fifty-five twice, the most I’ve ever done. I tell him that he’s the coolest guy I ever met.

  “Thanks, Luck,” he says. “And you’re the coolest kid I ever met.”

  “Yeah, right,” I say, chuckling.

  He puts the bar up and says, “What? You think you aren’t cool because some asshole tells you you’re not?”

  I want to tell him that he really doesn’t know me. That I’m not very social. That mostly I read books and keep to myself. Instead, I point to my cheek. “Did you notice it’s West Virginia now?”

 
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