Formication – Contest Winner

By Patricia Canright Smith

Outside the yellow bungalow at the end of Wagon Wheel Road a woman lounges on the small concrete patio with her son. Their aluminum chairs face the arroyo, where, in the raking light of early evening, boulders like the backs of elephants—august, copious, renowned—cast cartoonishly large shadows. A beat up card table bears the remains of the woman’s supper and a dozen scarlet roses. She has come hoping her lover can join her. Instead, the son has shown up. But of course he is always welcome.

“Okay. The roses,” Carl says.

Mary takes a swallow of tangerine Diet-Rite and vodka. She holds the turquoise tumbler against her forehead and waves her hand as though shooing a fly. She says, “You cut your hair.” God-awful, shaved sides with a wiry top like a flattened copper scrubber. Still a pretty boy, but it does make him look stern.

Carl raises his beer. “Right you are. Seriously, who sent you the flowers?”

“I can get flowers for myself, can’t I? Anyway, Joan might be coming out tomorrow.” Joan is Mary’s big sister, co-owner of the bungalow. But what a stupid thing to say. Mary would never buy roses for Joan. They can’t even be at the cabin at the same time because they don’t get along, worse than ever since Joan is being such a pill about Hal, whom Mary should not have told her about, the love of her life, the man she’s been waiting for, the man who sends a dozen red roses every week and all Joan can say is he’s married.

“You and Joan?” Carl laughs. “Really, a Stinson-sisters’ detente? I missed it in the Examiner.”

A raven lands on the patio’s split-redwood rail with a thump.

“Hi honey,” Mary says. She slings a hunk of bread. “My name isn’t Stinson, sweetie. If it were, you would be illegitimate.”

The raven swoops down, snags the bread, and flaps to the top of the house. Mary sips. She can’t really expect Hal, but she did give him directions. Six months since they met at the little neighborhood market where Mary works and they still haven’t had a whole night.

“You know, Ma, you shouldn’t feed the ravens. They eat desert tortoises. Baby desert tortoises.” Carl upends his beer and sets it on the table. “They don’t belong in the desert. They’re only here because of us.”

“Well I suppose we don’t belong in the desert either, Carlie. But things change. Call it progress.” Mary gives a slurry chuckle.

“Ooooookay.”

“Want another Millers?”

“Sure.”

She holds up her palms. “No, no, you relax.”

Carl grins and shrugs.

Mary scoots back her chair with a curdling skreeek. She collects plates, grabs her tumbler, and steps around Carl’s extended legs. As she leans into the screen door she says, “Sure you wouldn’t like something stronger?”

“No thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” Her rubber flipflop catches on the sill and she lurches, slamming the wooden doorframe against the refrigerator with a sharp crack. She laughs, yells “Safe!” and goes inside. Baseball is something they shared when Carl was little, taking the bus down to Gilmore Field with Rosebud, Carl’s grandmother, who moved in after Carl’s dad, Frank, was sent to Korea. Mary thinks Carl still likes it.

Carl runs his hand over his buzzed head. He stands up and walks to the edge of the patio, where he pinches off a tip of creosote to sniff. Then he riffles his fingers and rubs them on his thigh. On the ground below, an ant carrying a breadcrumb encounters another ant. After some ceremonious antenna tapping, the first ant continues on its way while the second veers toward the crumbs. A third ant encounters the crumb-carrying ant, tapity-tap, and then it also veers. Carl sweeps crumbs from the table into his palm and bends over the rail to sow them, like rows of vegetable seeds, perpendicular to the ants’ path in three straight lines.

“You’re feeding ants?” Mary pauses to watch. “Better ravens than ants.” She sets down the beer and her drink, which she has refreshed, and sinks into her chair.

Carl joins her. “I’m not feeding them, I’m leading them.” He transfers his empty to the ground and positions the new bottle in the moist circle.

“I see. I guess that’s preferable to, oh, let’s see…raising maggots in the garage?” They both laugh.

“I wasn’t raising maggots, I was raising flies. You chucked them before they could hatch.”

“Same difference.” Mary sips. She fiddles with the clip confining her long auburn hair, once compared to Rita Hayworth’s. “Anyway, I did leave most of it, sweetie. Not many mothers would save a black widow hotel, a stink bug—”

“Every single day I thank my lucky stars you were not June Cleaver.”

“Well I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.” Cupping the Zippo with both hands, Mary lights a cigarette. She offers the pack to her son, who extracts one. She lights his. She still can’t get over that he smokes. It makes him look so manly.

“So I went to a Happening last week,” he says.

“A what?”

“It’s Art. A bunch of naked blue girls on bicycles riding in circles on a stage while guys jerked around like marionettes with Jesus cards taped to their ears and, you know, elsewhere. Then they tied another naked girl to the top of a thirty-foot stepladder like she was being crucified, totally naked except for a string around her head, I think that was supposed to be the crown of thorns. She just hung there and stared at us.” He shakes his head.

Mary shakes her head. “Oh my. Well. Was this, I mean, did the college…?”

“It was supposed to be this free deal, you know, anything goes, so a bunch of us went up on stage. For which we got kicked out. Kaprow is so full of it.”

Two ravens hit the rail, thump thump, and drop to the sand. Mary is a little confused. Who is Kaprow? She slings another half crust. Sometimes she wonders if Carl looks down his nose at her since he went to college, especially since he met that painter Terri. The ravens waddle to the bread. One clamps a claw over it and gives it a jab. Mary’s tumbler makes a pleasant sound, ice against plastic.

Carl says, “They make actual right turns.”

“What?”

“The ants. They’re making right turns. To follow the crumb trail.”

They both watch ants streaming from holes beneath a saltbush. Carl raises his fingers to his nose again.

“Now when is your thing again?” Mary asks.

“My Sophomore exhibition?” He starts scraping furrows in his bottle’s damp label. “It comes down Wednesday.” He is intent on making crisscrosses. “It was basically my application. I think it went okay. Millie, the ceramic artist, remember? She said ‘asymmetric minimalism’ could be the next big thing.” He looks up with a self-mocking smirk.

“Asymmetric minimalism? That’s what they’re called? In the pictures they looked like boats.” Mary tilts her head, eyebrows arched. “Think I should cut my hair?” He doesn’t respond. “Anyway. I love them.”

“It is what it is.”

“What is?” Mary shreds bread.

“Well, I mean who cares? No one comes to these student shows.” He rakes the label with all four fingers.

Mary stops shredding. “I’m coming. I’m planning on it. I wish Rosebud was still with us, she would come. She would have been so proud.” Not Frank. Frank thought art was for fairies. Well, she needn’t bring Carl’s dad into it, does she, not since Carl said he was sick of her trying to “keep dad alive.” Which she only did because she thought it was important. Goodness sakes, he was only five when Frank went to Korea, six when he died. Frank was no hero, but he did die in battle. More or less. She tosses bread over the rail and both ravens leap.

“Okay. But it comes down Wednesday.”

“You said that.” She gestures at the table and gives him a sugary smile: “Here, you can have my crumbs.” She thinks about what Hal could tell his wife. Weren’t medical conventions ever on weekends?

“My advisor thinks I am on the brink of a breakthrough. She says I should push to see what’s beyond the objects.”

“What’s beyond the objects?”

“Now that is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.” He studies the glossy corvids. “I guess ravens don’t eat ants.”

“Hey, maybe they’ll eat my flies. Holy moly, I found two on the windowsill and one in my shoe this morning. That’s usually a fall thing.”

“Maybe it’s progress.”

She points at him and says, “Ha-ha-ha.”

“On the other hand, my professor, who actually likes sculpture, says that we ‘need objects to restore silence.’ But he’s a traditionalist, and frankly, he’s sort of—well.”

“Watch it, you almost called him old.”

He licks his finger and points it at her. “I was actually going to say obsolete.” For some reason he finds this very funny. “You know, I bet my ants would eat your flies.” He looks at her straight-faced from under his eyebrows. “Still got ’em in your shoe?”

“Oh, for crying in the soup, they’re in the garbage.” She chuckles. She yanks off the hair clip and combs her wavy, metallic hair with her fingers.

“I applied for a residency at Idyllwild.”

“Residency?”

“You get a studio and room and board. A little stipend. So you can make more asymmetric minimalist objects that nobody will want. Anyway, I didn’t get it.”

“Somebody will want them.”

“Right.”

“I love them,” she says again. “They remind me of boats. Except they don’t have any use.” She sniggers and then shakes her head. “Sorry.”

“Exactly. Art is useless.” He crosses his arms, caressing his biceps.

“Well, that’s not what I meant.” Mary tilts her tumbler until the ice bumps her teeth. “Anyway, so’s sand and sky and sunsets, useless. And all those great big rocks. I love those big rocks. And what use are they?”

He surveys the landscape, still fondling his muscles. “They look soft.”

She gazes out. “Soft rocks.”

Carl looks at her. “You really like it out here, don’t you.”

“Well, yeah.” She is embarrassed. She loves it out here. Her heart can spread out. Not that she thinks the desert will “save” her or anything, she’s not one of those. She wonders what Carl will think about Hal. When the time comes. Her sister Joan has spent her life telling Mary that Carl needs a father, and Mary has always felt guilty. It wasn’t fair. Could she help it if she never found the right guy? She thinks about getting another drink.

“So what are you and Terri up to this weekend?” she says.

“Terri’s moving to Bakersfield.”

“What? This weekend?” Mary is bewildered. “You’re moving?”

“Not to Bakersfield.”

“But I thought you two—”

“It’s okay.”

She gives him a long look.

“It’s okay.”

“Carl.”

“Mother.”

“Carl.”

“Mother.”

“Well all right.” She picks up her empty glass, then sets it back down. “It’s a shame, though.” She searches his face, which is turned toward the sunset.

“I might crash here if you don’t mind.”

For the weekend? Does he need her? She hates being put in this position.

Carl gets up. He leans over the rail to distribute more crumbs.

“Now what’re you doing? It looks like an Indian drawing.”

“I want to see if they take short-cuts—you know, go across the sand to the food source—or if they follow the diagonal. Make forty-five degree turns. Then we can cut that in half, make twenty-two-point-five degree turns. Or maybe I should try one-eighties.” He whisks his hands together. “Let’s see, how would that work? I lay down a trail and as they follow my crumbs one way, you can lay down a parallel trail going the other way, and then I can do the next, and so on. Perpetual motion.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m training them, Mom. My own little ant happening. Hey, maybe we can get on Ed Sullivan!” Another burst of whisking hands, hard this time.

Mary pats the table next to his beer bottle. “No offense, but you always were an odd duck.”

He plunks down in the flimsy chair. “Did I tell you some jackass did a complete ‘reenactment’ of Kennedy’s assassination in the quad last week? Jeez, barely six months—like it was a joke. What the hell. And of course, with all that attention he’s probably headed straight to New York.”

Mary stares at her son. He looks so angry, sitting straight, shoulders back as if presenting his chest for a medal. She has never ever thought he was like Frank. He is not like Frank. He has her coloring.

“I am sick of it,” he says. “I really am. Sick of the whole scene. I don’t belong there.”

Gooseflesh needles Mary’s arms. “Of course you belong there. The way you draw—you have a talent. I wish I had a talent.” She jabs the smoldering cigarette against the ashtray’s smooth side.

“Talent is worth exactly nada. Anyway, I doubt it’s my purpose in life.”

“Carl.”

He stares at her. She raises her eyebrows. He turns away. She leans back.

“I’m just saying—well, why wouldn’t art be your purpose in life?”

Carl rises abruptly and strolls to the fence rail.

She says, “You shouldn’t quit. You know what they say in A.A., sweetie, fake it ’til you make it.”

“They do say that, don’t they, Ma. In A.A.” He flashes a look over his shoulder.

She looks away. “I’m working on it. You can’t do it for someone else.”

“You bet. As dad used to say, you’re free, white, and 21.”

“He did not say that. You don’t remember your dad.”

“I do remember my dad.” He leans on the fence and hunches his shoulders. Once more, Mary is confused. Does Carl know about Hal, then?

“In fact, speaking of Dad, guess what? I think I have joined the Army.”

Her mind seems to fill with snow. What is he talking about?

“You don’t want to join the Army.”

“Okay, Ma. But I think it’s a done deal. Might even be the right thing, you know? Something useful.” He won’t look at her.

“You mean you?”

He ambles back to slouch in his chair and stare at the sky. “Serve my country,” he says lightly.

Mary makes a face. “Right. Like your father served his country.”

“There’s not going to be another Korea, Mom. We’re in a cold war, it’s a stalemate.”

“A cold war. Like Korea was a cold war? One of the stupid dominos, remember?—just prop it up so they don’t all go, nothing to it, just take a jiffy. God damn Truman, and God damn MacArthur.” She is spitting a little, a little sloppy, she has to slow down. And hold on so she won’t cry. She thinks again about another drink. Painstakingly, she says, “What good did it do? Ike said beware the military-industrial complex and I believe him. As long as someone can make money out of it the United States will make war.” She shouldn’t. She always cries when she drinks too much.

“Oh brother. Ike. What did he say about Cuba? We have to revitalize our military and stand ready to contain their—”

“Anyway, you’re too young.”

“Come on. I’m two years older than you were when you had me.”

But that was an accident, she almost says. Calm down, sister.

She lights another cigarette and takes a long pull. She gazes at the boulders, single behemoths and smaller ones in piles, rosy from the setting sun. They seem alive. She slips the Zippo into the plastic cigarette case and lays it beside the tumbler.

“‘An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.’”

He jerks his head with exaggerated astonishment, as though Mary has suddenly started declaiming in Latin. “Where did you get that?”

“You told it to me. When you first started, remember? I wrote it down. You were so excited, like you’d found God.” Her smile is wan. “Which would have made Rosebud so happy.” Rosebud took him to church until he refused. Maybe she should have gone. She swallows and says, “You can’t just quit, Carl. You have to try. It’s about faith.”

“Why the sudden fixation on my so-called talent?” His voice sounds clogged. “Mother.” He slaps his palm on the table.

Mary startles. When did this happen? Like father, like son. Of course she had to work, she had to have a life. But didn’t she raise him? Hold down a job, put food on the table and a roof over his head?

As though he can read her thoughts he says, “Let’s face it, Rosebud was the real mother. To both of us. Look, I’m not saying I blame you—you were too young, and then Dad died…but don’t suddenly…I mean, that’s not the kind of mother you are. And I’m not a kid anymore. Anyway, it’s too late. Christ.”

“That is not fair, Carl.” She can’t stand his stiff face.

Was it a seed planted in him at conception? An accident, a terrible, terrible thing, she’d resisted and Frank had hurt her; said he couldn’t help it, a man couldn’t stop himself. Her fault. Did that violent act implant itself in Carl? The boy came out crying, perpetually dissatisfied. Well, maybe she should have taken Joan’s advice and gone to old Grandma Bentley, there were things you could take, pennyroyal and something else. But she wouldn’t do it. Did that not count for anything?

Finally Carl rises. He saunters to the fence. “The ants are sticking to the paths,” he says pleasantly. “They must lay down a scent. It’s pretty. I would say I’ve succeeded.”

She wants to lay her head on the table.

“Fancy ants,” he says, and in one graceful motion he pivots, seizes the cut-glass vase, and casts it onto the sand.“Blam! Pow! Boom! It’s raining roses, you lucky bastards!” The ravens leap and flap off. The ants scurry every which way like a fast-action sequence.

“Carl! What is wrong with you?”

“What is wrong with me? I don’t like roses. What is wrong with me?” His face is all pink planes. “Oh, did I forget to mention that Terri is pregnant? Oh, and apparently I am not the father! Or maybe I am, we don’t really know, but she did the math and most likely it’s my heretofore best friend Walter. Isn’t that sweet?”

Mary can’t quite—is this supposed to be her fault too? “But…are you getting married?” He doesn’t answer. “So I am going to be a grandmother.” She is thirty-eight years old.

“Marriage is not in the cards, Ma. I told you, it’s not mine.”

“But you’re not sure?”

He leans on the fence, staring down. Mary sits, motionless. Another accidental baby, around it goes. She gazes at her son’s back. Head, neck, shoulders. She thinks about his baby hair, soft copper curls. Don’t go.

“Carl? …if you go in the Army, who’s going to feed my ants?” She tries to laugh.

She surveys the humped horizon. She sighs, crosses her arms, sighs again, smooths out the fabric of her light skirt, brushes off her lap. She has that queasy feeling, like something has been broken. Finally, she picks up her cigarette case and says “Okay,” very quietly, as though someone is sleeping.

“It’s okay, Mom. It will be okay.”

Mary doesn’t answer. She pushes out of the chair. Picks up the tumbler. Then she puts it down, lays down the cigarettes, and navigates around the rail to the desert, where she stoops and collects the roses. “You shouldn’t quit.” she says. She can no longer make out the giant rocks. The light is gone, and with it, the shadows.


 


Fiction_Smith_PhotoPatricia Canright Smith
writes fiction and personal essays from her home in Seattle, Washington. “Fancy Ants” is from a collection of linked stories with human/animal intersections—condors, spiders, pythons, wallabies, rats, a feral cat, gnats—in which natural elements provide necessary distraction, or assistance, or solace. Or not. She also creates visual art in various mediums, sometimes in conjunction with written work. Until recently, she practiced psychotherapy as well.

Her work has appeared in anthologies and journals, including Short Story America (third prize), Jabberwock Review and North Dakota Quarterly.  More at www.patriciacanrightsmith.com.

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