By Paul A. Toth
"Our house," the queen ant said.
A chorus of carpenter ants chanted, "Our house, our house, our house."
Sally awakened Joe.
"Not coming? Then don't eat the pie."
After she left, he walked outside in his pajamas. He had stripped the patio walls to insulation the night before; he hadn't been ready to go the next step.
He was ready. He snatched pink bales of fuzz, revealing battalions, regiments, whole divisions of ants massed in the underlying framework.
He splashed gasoline on the walls. He struck a match and watched the house catch fire. The neighbors came outside. None approached. The building bloomed, wasps and bumblebees tail-spinning into the lawn.
Clouds, grass, driveways. The neighborhood rectangled away, cubes revolving like dice through the ambulance windows.
The doctors listened. "My wife, she left sugar out. She baked pies without regard. Traitor. The queen. She never even let me eat the pies. The pies disappeared. Where? Acts of infamy. I burned them out. I burned them alive. War. They sell their supplies in supermarkets, the sugar. She dropped it everywhere."
He ate the pills happily; he liked pills, insecticides, chemicals of any and all designs. He enjoyed the varying effects.
They reached an effective combination one year later. He was released to a halfway home in a neighborhood not unlike his old one, except the lawns were rarely mowed. He saw no jungle, no B-movie ants. He had been as defined as a cloud could be. Sometimes thoughts seemed to seep through his skin like fog, but usually there was no steam, no heat at all. He had cooled, his war fever subsided. When he saw ants on the sidewalk, he walked around or over them but still scoffed despite his intentions.
"Another religion, a different way of life, that's all," he told himself. "Live and let live. Be the vegetation. Plants can live without insects and animals, but insects and animals can't live without plants."
How tranquil he felt when he went for these walks, calm as a lawn. Yet he worried that with the aid of a microscope his seeming peace would be revealed as a lie.
He had his own small room with inspirational posters and a view into the house next door. He avoided looking at the woman when she appeared in the window across the way; she reminded him of Sally. Sometimes, she was Sally. He could not understand how this arrangement worked. According to the doctors and lawyers, things had been settled between the couple. Sally was supposed to have moved far away, to California. What militant ants her sugar trails must have attracted all those many miles west. Perhaps they had anointed her a goddess, and now she could appear at will, anywhere.
"Easy does it," the poster reminded him. He looked away. Sally left his mind.
Things were fine for a while, a luxurious life, in its way. He had a stipend and was allowed to go for walks, though he suspected his movements were monitored. He would go to the library, stop and have coffee, watch the clouds morph into prominent historical figures. Lincoln emerged from cumulus, Hitler from cirrus, Jesus from stratus. As they floated above, he waved hello and went on his way. Better, he felt, to remain a small man or even a vegetable; "Grandiose," he had witnessed a doctor scribble.
One day a woman from social services appeared in his doorway, for he was not allowed a door that closed. She explained certain rules had changed, that he needed to work in order to sustain his halfway home status. It was that or the institution. Besides, she noted, work would be good for him, and it was time he found his way back to the world.
The case worker picked him up the next Monday in her Chrysler, explaining that he would work as a 7-11 cashier. They had tested him at the institute and knew he could handle numbers. They had decided he posed no danger so long as armies of ants did not invade his personal space, measured at three feet before flinching occurred.
She stood out of the way as he was trained by Rosario, a patient woman who seemed permanently about to lose her patience, with a smile that seemed ever-prepared for downward motion, and a tone that always rose with optimism but might at any moment take a fall. She corrected his mistakes, finishing transactions he had interrupted through errant keystrokes. Slowly, he improved. Halfway through the day, he could handle coupons. But when Rosario changed his cash drawer, he noticed she had only six fingers, three on each hand, no thumbs.
"How do you get along?"
"Get along with what?"
"Six digits?" She twiddled her fingers. "I got ten, see?"
"I count six."
The frown finally found Rosario's mouth, and the arc of her words plunged with pessimism. "Then you need glasses, 'cause there's ten fingers: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten."
"That's right, ten."
A young girl entered the store, filled a cup with slush and slid it toward him. He was thinking about the number six as if watching Sesame Street. He entered sixty-six cents' worth of product.
Rosario tapped the keys. "Not sixty-six. Ninety-nine. What's with you and sixes?"
He shrugged as she corrected the transaction. "Sugar attracts the carpenters."
"There's two kinds, good and bad."
"Carpenters?" Rosario said, handing the girl a penny back.
"They eat the wood."
"Carpenters work with wood."
"Some do, some don't."
"They all do, all carpenters."
"Not the ones..."
He realized she might have read about the fire in the paper. She might recognize him. He saw then it wasn't the right job for him. "I better go."
"But your case worker's coming back to get you."
"Tell her I'm home."
"How you gonna pay for home if you don't work?"
Joe gave himself a last chance to change his mind, but everywhere he looked he saw products loaded with sugar, as well as a grocery cart of returnable bottles and cans leaking in the hallway to the stockroom. Soon, the army would arrive.
"I just can't do it."
On the walk home, an odd cast of characters passed him.
A man in a trenchcoat tugged Joe's sleeve. "Ants for sale -- sayah, Mistuh, ya wanna buy some ants? Do ya, mistuh?"
A girl held out her palm and licked ants from it.
A boy held a newspaper high. "Ants attack New York City and Washington, D.C. Read all about it! Ants attack!"
He thought the world must be kidding him, but they kept coming, one after the next.
"Interested in world peace? Then you must be interested in ants. And if you're interested in ants and peace, then the Jehovah's Witnesses know the way. Can we come inside your home for a moment? No? Accept this pamphlet, then."
"World conspiracy behind ant invasions. Jews, Communists, World Bank, United Nations. Let me tell ya 'bout it."
Along the way, he found a broken television antenna, sure he recognized it from the old house. He un-telescoped it and slipped it in his pocket. Perhaps a fireman had found it after the fire, slipped it in his own pocket and dropped it from the truck on the way back to the station.
Once home, he saw a woman in his doorway. Sally turned and said, "Joe?"
"I feel bad about all this. I just came to see how you're doing."
"You can see through the window over there. Why'd you have to come inside?"
"Window? Joe, I live in Los Angeles. I flew home to straighten out some business. I just thought while I'm here…"
"How come you baked so many pies but none for me? How come I never got one slice? Somebody else got the pies, that's why. Those pies were for somebody else."
"Pies? I baked those pies on Sundays. I kept thinking somebody would come over after church, but you—well, you scare people, Joe. I got so mad, I threw them out. A woman needs some company once in a while, somebody besides her husband. She can't live alone with him forever. You saw the pies with your own eyes. They never left the house, just like you."
He began his next sentence as if a tape recorder button had been pushed. "Eyes, nothing. Chlorpyrifos, diazinon, that does the trick. Shred swarms of 'em. I eliminate eggs. Winged, I am. 'The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.'"
"Then why'd you burn it, Joe? Why burn down a shrine?"
He remembered his tranquilizers. "Hand me that bottle of pills, the middle bottle with the little pills." He took two as Sally gripped the doorway. She looked like Rosario riding storm clouds of sinking hope. She seemed unable to move, but the pills were moving fast.
"What was I saying? Sally, it's good to see you."
"You're better already?"
"The pills, they slow me down. I forgot to take them with me. Why the look on your face?"
"That's all it is, pills? It's all just chemical?"
Sally jumped when the case worker touched her shoulder.
"Why'd you leave the store before I got there?" the case worker said. "I had to drive a long way to pick you up. Now they don't want you back."
"I forgot the pills."
"Is this your wife?"
"Queen of the Ants."
Sally pulled away from the case worker's hand. "I thought you said the pills…"
"They make me feel better, but I remember. Go home and bake some pies. Don't forget to drizzle sugar on the floor. Make a mountain of sugar. Call your armies home. Oh, and here." He handed her the antenna. "You're missing one. No wonder you're confused."
Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan. His novel Fizz is available from Bleak House Books. Fishnet, his second novel, will be published in July 2005 and can be pre-ordered through . His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories. See www.tothworld.com for more information.
Ant photos courtesy of Maik Lagodzki.
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