by Jeffrey Ford
Tonight, on the drive home from work, it was raining like mad. Torrential rain, so that the wipers were on high and everything in the dark world beyond the windshield was severely warped. I’d hit these giant puddles I couldn’t see on the side of my lane.They’d throw a momentary curtain of water up in front of me and push the car toward the oncoming traffic. Along Route 537, passing through the farm country, I drove blindly into a puddle so huge, I almost stalled. At the last second, I saw that there were two cars abandoned in it, and I performed a snaky maneuver of the wheel around them I’dnever have been able to do if I’d had time to think about it. Somehow my car kept running, and as I climbed the hill beyond that sump, Elvis came on the radio, singing, "Love Me Tender." It was right at the top of that hill that I started thinking about ants.Why? I don’t know. It started with a memory of the fat ants that climbed on the peach trees in the backyard where I grew up, and before I knew it there was an infestation of ants between my ears.
My grandparents lived in the garage, which had been renovated into an apartment. Out back, next to the shed, my grandfather had this huge green barrel that was for testing boat motors. We didn’t have any outboard motors, so the thing just sat there year in and year out, collecting rain water.My brother, Jim, discovered one summer morning that the water in the barrel was filled with what he called "skeleton fish." He showed me, and, yes, these little tiny white creatures made all of white bones no thicker than thread with miniscule death’s heads were swimming in the dark waters of the barrel."Watch this," he said. He walked over to the nearest peach tree and soon returned. Into the barrel, on the calm water, he placed a peach tree leaf, and then on top of that he put a big black ant. The ant, upon landing on the leaf, started scrabbling frantically all around the sides of it. While we watched,Jim sang, "Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Main." Then the leaf started to take on water under the weight of the ant. A puddle formed in the middle of the shiny green boat and slowly grew. Eventually the leaf sank, and the ant was in the water, swimming crazy with all its many legs, its antennae twitching this way and that."Here they come," said Jim. The skeleton fish rose from the depths. In seconds, the ant was surrounded by them. They swarmed so thick, and then slowly, with the speed of a fat flat snowflake falling, they dragged the ant down and down, out of sight, where the rotted leaves of last summer lay. "Davey Jones’ Locker," he said and was headingtoward the tree for another when David Kelty came into the backyard and told us the bug spray guy was coming. We got on our bikes and followed the big yellow truck, traveling for blocks in the mysterious fog of its wake.
Once I read a book about ants written by an ant expert. It had great photos of ants doing just about anything you could imagine — ants of all colors and sizes and constructions. It said that there are ants who are like farmers, planting and growing crops of fungi in underground fields. It said there are ants who make slaves of other ants. One type of ant herds smaller insects likecattle and keeps them penned up and fattened for the kill. Ants make war. Ants represent some outlandish percentage of the earth’s biomass. It said their burrows were "marvels of engineering."
When my sons were younger, we used to take a walk to this place, The Pit. It was a huge hole in the ground, amid the woods, at the edge of town where the Pine Barrens started. How it got there, I don’t know, but it looked like a meteor crater. It was the choice spot in the winter for sleigh riding — everybody launching off the sides and streaking down toward the center.There were plenty of collisions. Once I saw this woman from town, who eventually committed suicide, get struck by a kid on a speeding sleigh. Man, she flew up in the air just like in the Little Rascals’ show where Spanky and Alfalfa and Darla and Buckwheat go sliding across a golf course on a door or something, hitting golfers. To that point I’d thought the way the golfers flewinto the air was funny, overblown comedy, but when I saw it happen to this poor woman that old memory of humor came mixed with nausea. Anyway, The Pit, yeah, it was remote. Lynn and I went for a walk there with the dog and we found a place where someone had had a fire, and in the charred remains there were animal bones. I picked one up and Lynn looked at it and said it was probablythe leg bone of a goat (she’d taken a lot of anatomy classes in school). "A fuckin goat?" I said, all the time thinking — weird, suburban religious cult, practicing black magic. Once I found a stone arrow head there. There was a spot at the rim of The Pit where part of it jutted out over the downward slope. The kids and I would go there, and they would jump offthe overhanging ledge of dirt and strike poses in the air before falling onto the slope, after which they’d roll down to the bottom. My job was to sit somewhere nearby, where I had a good view, and judge their jumps. It was nice work if you could get it, because when they were younger any chance to sit was a good thing. All I had to do was make sure that no matter what else happened,their scores added up to be exactly even at the end. The bonus was that in their running up to the top of The Pit for the next jump, they tired themselves out and they’d fall asleep pretty quickly on whatever nights of the days we went there.
So one day, I was sitting there judging, and I looked down, and I saw on the ground a beautiful, completely clear stone, like a big round pebble made of water.I picked it up and inspected it. It was a perfect piece of quartz crystal — no apparent flaws. From then on, instead of going to The Pit to do the jumping game, we’d go treasure prospecting. In the following months, we found a lot of really nice specimens of clear, quartz stones. I used to like to look at the sun through them. Then, on a hot summer afternoon, we were there, pokingaround in these mounds at the rim where the tree line started, and I noticed these really big ants crawling in and out of holes in the dirt of the hill. They were regular big black ants, but get this, on their back section, they each had a patch of bright red — I mean like fire truck red — hair. The color was striking, and when I got down right near them, I could make out thelittle individual strands of hair, and the patch was like a red crew cut on their asses. I was amazed. I showed the kids. We went home and I tried to look it up on the internet: "red haired ants" "hairy ants" "hairy ass ants." No luck. I looked through my ant book. Nothing. I asked a guy who was a Biology professor about them at work. He’d never heard of them.After a while, I just gave up on them and when I went back to The Pit I never saw them again. The Pit was filled in this year. I really miss that hole in the ground.
For Christmas one year, when we were kids, my sister, Mary, got an ant farm. The box it came in had the coolest illustration on the cover of ants in tunnels with miners’ helmets on, and they were wielding pick axes and shovels. One ant was in the foreground, winking out at you from the picture and beneath him was the statement in red, block letters — SEE ANTS LIVE AND WORK. The ant farm was a clear rectangle aboutthree inches thick that sat on a stand and you had to fill it with dirt. Of course, it didn’t come with ants. You had to send away for them to the company. So Mary set up the ant farm, filled it with dirt, and sent away for her ants. Well, a couple of months passed and the ants never showed up. The ant farm was relegated to the cellar, the place where all old, broken, and useless toys ended up — like a toy graveyard.We were playing down in the cellar one rainy day, and somehow the ant farm got smashed. OK, nobody gave a damn. It was swept up and thrown out. About a year and a half went by when one day in the mail there came a little brown mailer envelope addressed to Mary, no return address. I was the only one home with her when it arrived. We were curious to see what was in it, because, back then, getting mail when you were a kid was exotic.Inside the envelope, she found a plastic tube with a screw off cap at one end. We had no idea what it was. She unscrewed the cap, tilted the tube, and out onto the marble top of the coffee table in the living room spilled about 99 dead ants and one that was barely alive. The living one turned in circles three times as if one of its back legs was nailed down and then it stopped moving. We sat there and just stared at the pile of dead ants.Then Mary said, with no emotion, "That present was worse than Sea Monkeys." We’d thought that box top ant’s conspiratorial wink had meant, "Kids, you’re in for something really special here," when all along, he was telling us, "Hey, you do know this ant farm thing’s really just a pile of crap."
On Saturday nights, my brother and I used to stay up late and watch science fiction and horror movies on the late night black and white. Attack of the Mushroom People, The Fifty Foot Woman, X — The Man With X–Ray Eyes (Milland was the coolest), The Giant Behemoth. We’d eat cheap chocolate chip cookies, a quarter for a box, and drink store brand root beer. It didn’t get much better than that; we were farting in silk.One of our favorite movies was Them!, a story about a giant ant with a bad attitude and an appetite for human flesh. It grew giantic because it got too close to an atom bomb explosion. You could shoot this thing with a fucking bazooka and it didn’t care. And back then, anything that could withstand the mighty blast of a bazooka was worthy of our admiration. The movie starred James Whitmore. You know who I mean?He’s still around — the Miracle–Gro guy, whose eyebrows at some point got too close to an atom bomb explosion. You know the commercials I’m talking about, the ones where there’s some goofy looking woman standing in a garden and beneath her is the statement World’s Largest Tomato. Shatner made a giant ant movie years after Them!, but even though it’s hard to beat Shatner’s 100% corn pone emoting, Them! is still our favorite.Whitmore plays a highway cop and his portrayal almost rivals the acting job the ant turns in. But there’s one spot in the movie where Whitmore’s deputy says something to him, as the ant is approaching, along the lines of "Where did it come from?" and Whitmore’s response is, "I don’t care if it’s from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey." Kind of a strange locale to refer to, no? Especially considering the film is set in the southwestnear where they’d test atom bombs in the 50s. But more than a decade after those late nights watching Them!, I would meet and marry a girl from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. There are more things in heaven and earth. . .my friend.
At night, when he’d come in late from work, my father often brought me a carton, like for Chinese take–out, filled with tapioca pudding. He told me it was frog eyes, and I was young enough to believe it. I’d sit with him at the dining room table while he ate his heated up leftovers. We’d sit in the dark in the dining room, and he’d say nothing. I’d eat the pudding slowly because as soon as I was done I was supposed to go to bed.One night, after he finished eating, he pushed back his plate, lit a cigarette, and told me, "I heard a radio show on the way home from work about ants." I nodded. He said, "It was about these scientists who were studying a special kind of ant down in the Amazon jungle. They were interested in finding a queen ant to study, so they’d dig down into the ant burrows and find the queen’s nest. The queen is bigger than all the other ants,so she was easy to find. They then took the queen from this one nest and put it in their field box to take back to the lab they’d set up, which was a half mile away. But when they got back to the lab, they found the ant was not in the box. It had vanished. This happened to them three days in a row and they couldn’t figure out how the ant was escaping since it was a plastic container with a snap on lid that was always snapped shut when they’d go to open it.When they would go back to the ant hive the next day, they always found a new queen ant there in the nest. Then one of the scientists got this crazy idea into his head that the queen ant they found every day was the same exact ant. Nobody believed him, so, when they collected the next queen, he marked it with a dot of blue dye. On the walk back to the lab, they checked the specimen box a couple times and the ant was in there, but when they reached the lab, they opened the box and it was gone.The next day, back at the nest, they found a queen ant and it was marked with the blue dye. The only explanation they could come up with was that it had somehow teleported itself out of the box, passing through the plastic and across space and time, and appeared in the nest again. Eventually the local natives corroborated the fact that the queen of this type of ant had the power to disappear and appear wherever and whenever it wanted to."My father looked at me and I nodded. "What do you think of that?" he asked. "How?" I asked. "Well, the guy on the show said he thought it had developed this ability through evolution over millions of years as a defense mechanism." "Oh." I said. I finished my pudding and went to bed. This is a very vivid recollection for me, and in later years I wondered what the hell this radio show was he’d been listening to.I remember that one other time when he came home and I waited up for him, he told me about a show he’d listened to where they spoke about the fact that Catholicism was actually based on a mushroom cult and that all the stuff in the bible was a secret code for information and stories about sacred mushrooms.