Thursday, March 15, 2018

#260: "Ant Farm" by Laura Oliver

 ~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor for Fiction

--This story was first published in Glimmer Train Stories (1999).

       After Brian moved out I bought our daughter Erica an ant farm. I thought it would distract her. A flat plastic skyline sat on a slice of sand wedged between two clear plastic panes to form an underground window. Toys R Us couldn’t stock live insects however, so after buying the kit, we sent the enclosed coupon to Uncle Willy’s Ants and waited for our tenants to arrive in the mail. We were not to be alarmed if they arrived “sleepy” the literature stated, which meant, barely thawed.
       We set up the display in preparation of their arrival and read the instructions. “ANTS DON’T LIKE LANDSLIDES!” That meant don’t shake the farm. “ANTS DON’T LIKE LEFTOVERS!” A piece of fruit the size of an asterisk can feed a whole colony for a week, we discovered.
        I think of that now as ants scurry in erratic patterns to nowhere across the family room floor--but these are garden-variety ants that have somehow found a way into the house. Uncle Willy’s ants must have been derailed somewhere, because it has been three weeks and they have not arrived.
       “Don’t step on them Mom,” Erica says. “We can put them in the farm.”
       I am not actually stepping on them. I have bought a few ant traps and am encouraging one to venture inside with the toe of my shoe. He veers off again and again. Finally I pick him up and drop him on it. He scrambles away.
       Things have been like this since Brian left. The house painter I hired turned out to be an evangelist. My son Adam, a freshman at St. Luke’s, announced to Sister Francesca that he’s a practicing Hindu, pierced his ear and got a tattoo.
       “At least it’s not a skull and cross bones,” my son points out. “At least it doesn’t spell anything.”
       “It could have said, ‘Mom,’” I say.

       I meet Brian for lunch and he asks me how the kids are holding up. He is living on my parents’ boat down at the marina, for now.
       “They’re so self-involved that they don’t seem to pay much attention to anything except their allowances and what’s for dinner,” I report.
       He smiles and I hope what I’ve said is true.
       “How about Adam?” he asks. “He giving you any trouble?”
       “He drove the car around the yard one night while I was at class. Erica told me, so I had to restrict him.”
       “He’s 14,” Brian says. “He doesn’t even know how to drive!”
       “He’s having sex with his girlfriend too,” I add. “Some things are just easy to figure out.”
       I wonder if I am to blame for all this. I was the one who was unhappy and, in a way, I am the one being punished now. I get books from the library on raising teenagers then try not to quote them.
       “He offered to transplant the lilac at the end of the driveway.”
       “Offered?” Brian repeats.
       “And ten minutes later he wanted to know who the jerk-off was that had left the goddamn shovel behind the goddamn bikes so he couldn’t find it.”
       Brian signals the waiter for the check. He looks grim. Sometimes, I think, it is as if adolescence is a carnival ride Adam wants to get off but can’t, and I watch his angry, desperate face fly past me again and again, belted in for the duration.
       “Get out of here!” Adam yelled when I confronted him in his room about stealing the car and having sex. “You make me sick! You’re a freak! I didn’t do anything!  God, you make me want to throw up!” He threw several notebooks from his desk to the floor, careful not to hit me, then yanked his guitar off his bed, flipped on the speakers and began strumming furiously.
       Sometimes, when being a parent is really bad, it’s as if I detach and float above the scene, watching it all from a numb and objective vantage point near the ceiling.
       “Sorry, Adam,” I said. “You’re restricted to the house for two weeks. No dates, no phone. You have got to be held accountable and I guess I’m the only one to do it.” I turned and walked out of his room as he yelled, “What about you, Mom? Who holds you accountable?”

       The morning after my lunch with Brian, I pull the mail from the brass box by the front door and a brown mailing bag falls out. I glance at the return address: Uncle Willy’s Ants. Our guests have arrived. I think about not telling Erica and just chucking the thing but can’t bring myself to do it. She is ecstatic.
         The package contains the Uncle Willy’s fact book, instructions, and a test tube full of ants. I pull out the cork without reading the directions and try to tap them into the narrow opening at the top of the farm. They react as if they are being tapped into fire, racing up the test tube, down the outside of the plastic framing--one drops on the floor where Erica squeals and a couple make a run up my hand. We jam the top on the farm and scoop up the runaways, then lift the lid again, poking the strays in quickly. Upstairs, Adam is playing his guitar with the amplifier turned up full blast. He has written a new song. It is about a prisoner on death row, unjustly convicted.
       While Erica watches the ants exploring their new environment I read little-known ant facts from the booklet that came with the farm.
       Fact: Every worker has a full time job to help everyone else in the colony.
       Fact: All the workers are female.
       Fact: A new colony begins with the marriage flight. Females and males mate in the air and then land. Afterward, the female scrapes off her wings and enters the nest forever.
       Adam has stopped flailing on his guitar and comes downstairs. “Hey, Mom, what’s up?” he asks, as if we haven’t seen each other in a while. He rummages through the kitchen cabinets, his tee shirt hanging out of his pants, sporting a gold hoop the size of my wedding band in his pierced ear. He obviously feels better and offers me some chips from the bag he is carrying to the sofa with a companionable smile, but I know the calm will not last. He is like a colt circling the paddock, looking for a loose railing, an unlatched gate, deciding where to make the next bolt for freedom.

       I had a lover and Adam knows it. What he doesn’t know is why it happened and telling him would mean trying to explain things about my marriage that even I don’t understand.  Gerald was the admissions director at St. Luke’s.  He was going through a divorce and had custody of his three kids. I liked that about him even without knowing the circumstances. The school was crowded with parish children and, as a non-Catholic applicant, Adam was wait-listed.  I met with Gerald to see if I could persuade St. Luke’s to admit one more.
       Gerald had been a Jesuit priest and his office still contained artifacts from that previous life. A wooden cross on the wall, a few photographs of Gerald with other clergy. He left the priesthood when he met his wife, a young social worker with problems of her own. I was intrigued by the thought of undeniable passion and wondered about a woman who could turn a man from God. I looked around in case he still had a picture of her, left inadvertently perhaps, in a group photo of the children.
       The office Gerald was using was lined with books and had the musty smell of a sanctuary. His jacket hung on a worn coat rack near the window and steam rose from a cup of coffee on his desk. I sat in a leather chair as soft as raw silk and watched dust float like unspoken thoughts in the sunlight as we talked beyond noon and into his next appointment. Brian and I had known each other all our lives. Neither of us had ever been crazy in love.
       After I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about the priest turned man. I could smell the faint scent of him on my palm from where we shook hands and I imagined him nearby as I walked to my car, made dinner that evening, and later, turned down the sheets for bed.
       Brian found out. I was too happy, too talkative. Devastated that I had caused someone else so much pain, I told Gerald I couldn’t see him anymore but felt sadder than if I had ended my marriage. That’s why Brian moved to the marina. So we could figure out what made us the saddest. So far, it seemed that what might have been between us was a greater loss than what had been, and the best thing between us was the children.

       Brian stops by to see the children after work and before he is in the door, Erica is dragging him off to see the ants. She is wearing on everyone’s patience.
       “Dad! You won’t believe what they’ve done!” she claims. Brian appears interested but I doubt that he is listening. It is as if he’s absorbing her essence, his eyes never leaving her face.
       “Hey! How’re you doing?” he asks Adam who has just slumped into the kitchen.
       “Ask Mom,” he says. “I’m grounded. Forever. For nothing.”
       They walk out onto the porch together. Adam is nearly as tall as Brian and has his lean frame, slender wrists and hands. They both bear the look of philosopher-poets, not athletes, but unlike Brian, Adam is so fair it is as if he casts light. Erica stalks them out the door, carrying the ant farm in two careful hands.
       I open a bottle of merlot and decide to make a plate of cheese and crackers to go with it. While I push aside half empty cereal boxes in search of unopened crackers, Adam comes bursting back in through the French doors. “You always say what she says!” he calls back to his father. He glares at me briefly as he stomps through the kitchen with Erica right on his heels, still carrying the ants.
       “Keep that little freak away from me,” he orders over his shoulder, heading towards the stairs, Erica trailing.  He whirls, bending down to yell in her face, “Shut UP about the stupid ants!  I… don’t… care!”
       I finish wiping off the counters as Brian comes back into the kitchen. He looks good.
       “You must be getting some sun down on the boat,” I observe. As I hand him a wineglass there is a shout from upstairs and a door slams, hard. The dull reverberation comes right through the kitchen ceiling.
       “Jesus Christ!” Brian says, flinching. It is something Gerald would never say.
       “Just wait. In two seconds you’ll hear someone’s head hitting wallboard,” I predict.
       Instead there is an eerie silence and then, a slow and accelerating, high-pitched keening, which within seconds, becomes a pulsing scream that is neither male nor female. We look at each other momentarily frozen, trying to interpret the strangeness of the sound. “Nobody’s arguing,” I say slowly, as if this contradicts some rule of physics. We move for the stairs simultaneously.
       I get to the landing first and look up. Adam is standing above me, his eyes huge and empty. He is the source of the pulsating scream yet his face is oddly expressionless, a two-dimensional portrait framed by his hands which are clasped over his ears. It is as if he is shielding himself from his own sound. I grab him but he ducks and fends me off with his elbows, fighting to keep his ears covered.
       “Adam! What happened?”
       Rocking slightly, he lifts his eyes to my face but does not focus, as if he is blind. I consider slapping him to break the spell as he continues to scream.
       Erica is nowhere to be seen. I start down the hallway, Brian behind me, and suddenly the door to Adam’s room creaks open. Erica stumbles out, her face contorted without sound. It is as if the scream that begins in her is given voice by Adam. She is holding one hand cradled in the other. Blood drops to the white carpet like spent azalea petals.
       “My God, look at the door,” Brian says softly.
       Again, I feel myself detach from the scene even as it comes into focus. Erica running upstairs after Adam. Adam throwing himself on his bed. Erica slipping her hand between the door hinges just as he kicks it shut in frustration. The door frame is smudged with blood. One of her fingers is all but severed. From the knuckle to tip it is split-- the tip itself, like a grape someone carelessly stepped upon.
       “Use this,” Brian says and shoves a wash cloth at me. Erica has finally found her voice and her piercing scream hurts my ears this close.   I wrap her hand in the cloth and Brian scoops her up in his arms. I know we have to get to the hospital. Brian carries her to the car and I drive.
       “Run it!” he says as we come to the first red light.
       “I can’t! Are you sure?”
       Run the damn light!” he says again, and then, “Look out!” as I hesitate too long and pull in front of another car.
       I stop in front of the emergency room entrance leaving the car at the same haphazard angle Brian left it the night Erica was born. We rush in through the glass doors and a nurse approaches Erica and begins to unwrap the washcloth. “No, No, No,” Erica screams, desperately trying to keep her finger wrapped tight. She searches the faces around her, scanning wildly until her eyes meet mine. “It will fall off!” she pleads.
       “Wow,” says the nurse, finally getting a peak under the cloth. “I’m not touching this. Get Stevens down here,” she calls out.
       Erica is put on a stretcher as if she is a small gift in an oversized box. “Calm down, honey,” the nurse says, through the screaming. It appears she is just mouthing the words. An elevator door opens and Dr. Stevens appears. He is the surgeon on-call tonight and has been at the symphony. Beneath his white coat, he is wearing a tuxedo.
       With Erica flat on her back, he extends her hand onto a small sterile work table and examines her injury out of her line of sight. I watch him prepare a large needle to anesthetize the wound. Unfortunately Erica sees the syringe as well, so Brian blows up a surgical glove like a balloon, grabs a pen and draws a face on it.
       “Look, Erica,” he says, desperate to distract her. “Who’s this?” We all turn to see that the face he has drawn looks remarkably like Dr. Stevens, the inflated fingers like hair standing on end, giving him a look of perpetual surprise. The resemblance is uncanny, and for a moment I am uncomfortable but the doctor uses the distraction to inject the lidocaine and after an initial shriek, she is quiet.
       Now, in the sudden absence of pain and terror, Erica becomes giddy with affection. She chats non-stop as the tedious stitches are placed in her hand. Eventually she is wheeled away to x-ray on a gurney to see if any bones were broken.
       “I have an ant farm,” I hear her tell the attendant as they disappear down the hall. “My brother plays the guitar and he almost cut my finger off,” she says cheerfully. Twenty minutes later she is rolled out looking much like a small bright package that has been labeled and shrink-wrapped, coming off the assembly line. She is still talking, her blood-smeared tee shirt covered with colorful stickers that say, “I had an x-ray!”
       There is a phone on the wall and I turn to call Adam. Brian is with Erica. I call Gerald instead. I haven’t talked to him in weeks but haven’t lost the instinct to tell him when something important has happened to me.
       “I’m at the hospital,” I say when he finally answers.
       “My God, what happened?” he asks.
       “I got hurt,” I say, and then stop and close my eyes. “No, not me-- Erica. Erica has been hurt.” I open my eyes. She’ll be okay. I have to go.”
       “Is Brian there?” he asks.
       “Yes.” Yes, of course Brian is here. He is a wonderful father.
       “I’ll talk to you later, sweetheart,” he says. The connection and intimacy are immediate. Then I hear a woman’s voice. “Gerald?” she says softly. “Is that for me?”
       I hang up and dial again. This time Adam answers. “It’s Mommy,” I say as if he is younger than he is. “She’s fine. They think it will be fine.” There is no sound from the other end.
       “We’ll be home in half an hour,” I tell him.

       When we get back to the house Brian takes Erica up to her room to help her get ready for bed. He adds an extra pillow for her to rest her hand on, the bandages making it look like a small white paw. Adam is nowhere to be seen so I go up to his room and tap on the door. He has tried to clean up the blood on the floor but the rug will have to be thrown out.
       “Adam?” I say into the gloom.
       He is lying in bed, his back to me. Hidden under the peaks and valleys of the rumpled covers, the glint of his blond hair is the only clue that an outlaw hides in these hills. I sit down on the edge of the bed, my weight causing him to roll slightly, involuntarily, toward me. I am in shock at what he has almost cost his sister tonight but I know he didn’t mean to hurt her. Looking at him, I think the truth is that we never set out to hurt each other.
       I can hear Erica reliving her experiences to Brian in the adjacent room, needing to examine it all, to learn her own immediate history now that she is safe.  “What did you think when you saw my blood?” she asks. “How much did the hospital cost?”
       I don’t know what to say or do. I put a hand on Adam’s shoulder but he doesn’t turn. We sit in silence, the early spring moon rising like a life in its ascendancy, just outside his window. Usually I make speeches about responsibility and consequence. But I have no words tonight. All I have ever had were good intentions.
       I lean down then, and awkwardly scoop the upper half of my son’s body into my arms. He is dense—far heavier, I think, than a girl of similar age. He does not resist, but remains motionless, as if to say, “This is my mother. I tolerate these displays of affection, but I do not participate in them.”  I begin to rock him in the half light as I did in his infancy and we both watch the moon that appeared so near, rising higher through the trees. It becomes smaller, brighter, more intense as it gains distance.
       Suddenly, he sags, as if whatever was holding him together, and us apart, has given way. He is now even heavier in my arms, and I imagine carrying him through blizzards or war zones. I pull him closer and do not speak.
Having begun my writing career in essay, learning to write short stories was a struggle for me. All my stories were built around a real event to which I then applied the craft of fiction, adding characters, new twists, making up dialogue. But the autobiographical components made me feel as if I were not writing ‘real’ fiction. “Ant Farm” was the first story I ever published where the blending of life experience and the craft of fiction felt seamless. Yes, my daughter had an ant farm. Yes, her brother nearly cut her finger off. Yes, we do not set out to hurt each other, and yes, when we do, we can only offer our abiding love.
       Laura Oliver is the author of The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers (Penguin Random House,) named by "The Writer Magazine" as one of the best writing books of the year.  Already in its seventh printing, “Story” was additionally selected by "Poets and Writers Magazine" as one of the 80 best writing books ever published.  Oliver has taught fiction and essay writing at the University of Maryland, The Writer’s Center and St. John's College and mentors individual writers.
       Oliver's fiction and essays are published in national newspapers, magazines and literary reviews. Among other distinctions, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, the Anne Arundel County Arts Council Annie Award for Literary Achievement, two Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist awards, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. For ore information:

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