Sometime during the stickiest part of summer the ants came back. Maybe they’d never left, but at least for a while we’d managed to forget about them. None of us could remember the last time we’d eaten anything without checking it first, turning our food over in the light to make sure it wasn’t glittering with ants. At first it seemed they only came out at night, in a slow trickle, hefting crumbs wherever they could find them before disappearing back into the cracks. Their grey little bodies flattened like sesame seeds under our thumbs.
Clay’s truck sputters and settles into a harsh purr. I reach over and turn the key in the ignition. The purring stops.
The sunlight is starting to fade, and we’ve been driving since about four. I wrench open the passenger side door.
After a minute or two Clay joins me on the hood.
Up the road about sixty yards is a small brush fire. It’s been so dry lately, Clay tells me, that they’ll just pop up sometimes without warning. We will wait for the fire to jump the roadand move on.
Summers were when Dad visited us most often. We always did the same things with him, played the same games, our rituals. Our favorite was based around these prize dolls we had seen at a carnival that passed through town. The dolls were seated upright, and no matter how many times you pushed them backward, they would sit back up again. My brothers and I would sit on the carpet around our father, and he would push us over again and again, pinning us down and then feigning anger and surprise, as we giggled and rocked ourselves back up.
Other times Dad was a grizzly bear, snoring comically in hibernation, and we would prod him, shove against his body as hard as we could, pull at his bushy hair, clamp his nose trying to wake him. After a few moments of resolute snoring, he would snort and startle, rise up, his hands forming great swiping paws, roaring and tickling us, and we all laughed until we hurt.
The funeral is long.
My whole body aches, all those moments that had bitten into my bones years ago, now grab hold of me, shake me back to them.
I remember the time in fourth grade when a bird flew into the window and died in a smash of feathers. I had been sitting in my chair reading, reading so long that I stopped turning the pages but the words kept changing. And then, in the one instant I looked up from my book and out the window at the smooth blue sky, a bird hurtled right into the glass next to me. I felt the hard flatness of the cement under my feet seep up into the rest of my body until it froze. I felt like if I moved I would crack and crumble.
I woke up on the floor.
After the service we all drive out to the house and rifle through stacks of junk, looking for traces of ourselves.
I follow Clay to the old elementary school.
If the school building surpassed a temperature of ninety-five degrees, state law said they had to let us free. There had been a lot of those days at the end, those last few days of school. Clay and I would sit in the scratchy brown grass at the edge of the teacher’s parking lot, watching the heat wrinkle the air. We dragged sticks through the melting tar that creeped thickly down the wooden telephone poles, stuck our homework papers to the hot black glue.
We lay on our stomachs in the tall grass along the tracks, soaking in the roar and thrum of the train that leveled all other noise to silence, watched the gravel skitter and pop like frying oil. Afterward, we would lie there in the deep quiet until the six o’clock siren sounded at the firehouse, calling us home for supper. We traipsed home through the sticky heat, dragging our feet along the shadows of the powerlines.
We would practice telling each other the most horrible things we could come up with, forecasting terrible accidents to our loved ones, untimely deaths and disease, disfigurements, loss in all forms and colors, in an ongoing effort to soften the blows of the inevitable future calamities. We were almost reverent about it, our scorched earth policy about pain—the world might end in fire and we were ready, burning anything we could find. We were together so often it was a different kind of loneliness. We needed each other around to have somebody to talk to, and once we knew each other’s secrets, we couldn’t be let out of each other’s sight for long.
At bedtime, those nights after Dad had gone away again, my brothers and I would implore Mom to tell stories about him, and she always had the same ones.Your father loved storms. When it would get real quiet outside, it was like he could smell the rains coming. He would drive out to the woods and get out of the car, wander deep into the trees. He loved the crashing lights, the burning smell of split-open pines. Didn’t matter if it was a hailstorm or a hurricane and everyone was buying candles and boarding up their windows, he’d go right up to it.
But what did he always say? she waited for us to ask her, though we knew.Mom would smile, the light from the hallway cutting out her face from the dark of our bedroom.
And she would say in a muted, booming voice, I want to see shrapnel and limbs torn from bodies. Then she would kiss us good night and flicker the switch in the hallway, making the dark house shiver with light. We listened to her footsteps creaking away from us and we accepted the darkness and slept.
The last time I had seen Clay, the last time I remember really being there, I had gone early to his house. I remember the kitchen wallpaper in yellow curls like dead skin on the linoleum. His house was a dying thing, a dead thing, bled through with melting snow. The ceiling had rotted to mush and fallen away in places. There was a stepladder always in the living room, almost a piece of furniture, next to a wall striped with paint samples. Clay climbed to the top and grabbed soggy fistfuls of plaster, let them rain down like cake. His body disappeared halfway into the attic. Once the hole was big enough for us both I climbed up to join him. Through the gable vents of the attic we watched the treetops sparkling December in the early dawn.
They didn’t taste like anything, I remember he said. The tabs. The sun struck all of a sudden, drenching everything. We followed our shadows, wet inks slipping stainlessly across the bright ground.
On our way to the lake we stopped and watched with the cows. We could see their thoughts, slow jellyfish billowing undersea. Somewhere farther along we found two children, a boy and a girl next to a row of plastic mailboxes. The boy sat in a green wagon and the girl stood holding the handle. They stared through us, their eyes hungry fields. We pulled them along behind us for a while.
Clay kicks off his boots and we lift away our clothes and slide into the glowing water of the hot spring.
The sky in Idaho. Sky and sky and sky and sky. The mountains are like paperweights pinning down its edges. When I was little, I used to cry and cry every time I went to the doctor. My mom thought it was because I was afraid of the doctor, or of getting a shot, or of taking medicine. She never knew that I cried because there was a fish tank in the waiting room, and I hated how the fish never blinked. They stared and stared and their gleaming bodies slid through the water aimlessly.
Being in Idaho under the unblinking stars made me feel like I had millions of fish eyes on me, like I was painfully giant and invisible.
“How long will you be out here for this time?” Clay still spoke so softly sometimes, the fog of his breath streaming from his lips.
I sink down and lay my head sideways, dipping the right plane of my face into the surface of the water.
We watch the steam waft up around us and disappear into the deep black sky. I feel the goosebumps begin to prickle up between our skins, but I wrap his arms tighter around me.
“I used to want to live in one of those little houses on stilts, you know, like the ones in Indonesia. Where it floods all the time but you’re ready for it, you’re part of it.” I close my eyes and try to imagine myself on an airplane, suspended somewhere above the clouds, hurtling home.
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