The Ants

December 9, 2011
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The shower whishes as he turns the handle. Cool water rains down on his balding head, only twenty four and the roots are already beginning to show through. The droplets cleave to the hair he has left, to his hunched shoulders, sinewed and burdened with his day’s work. They cling to every part of his worn body, a body both young and old. He lets out a heavy sigh as the water washes away the grime and the worries of the day. The relief will not last long, he knows, but it is relief nonetheless.

He lathers himself with the generic soap from down at Reed’s Hardware. He can’t afford to be choosy on a millworker’s salary. It is rough; it turns his skin red and leaves raw patches on the places he rubs too hard. He should be used to it by now, but it still hurts every time. He washes every day, like this, giving himself red skin and raw patches. If he scrubbed more gently he could still be clean but the distraction of this acute pain takes the edge off the more chronic hurt. And so he continues to rake away at his skin.

When he finishes with the soap, he reaches over to the shelf in the corner for the shampoo. He wonders why he buys such a thing. He has no need for it. His hair is declining by the day. There is no one left to tell him to be clean, to smell good, to look presentable. Yet he still massages the weak stuff into his scalp, trying to rub out the memories he can never forget.

Today as he reaches for the blue bottle, something falls out into the bottom of the shower. It is rotund and black, and his immediate reaction is to stomp on it, to stomp hard. There is a hitch in his throat and a beat in his ears as he watches a big, dead carpenter ant wash down the drain. He shudders, quickly reaching for the water nozzle to turn the shower off. He has not shampooed his hair but today he does not care. He grabs a towel and hops out quickly, not looking back towards the drain.

* * * * *

Another long day over, he heads for the shower. He pulls off his thin cotton shirt, his khaki pants, now grey and threadbare at the knees. Everything is grey. He cannot escape the dust of the mill no matter how hard he tries. He tosses his clothing carelessly aside. He will have to find them in the dark tomorrow morning but he does not care.

Now he stands in front of the bathroom mirror under the weak light of the single bulb, naked, gaunt, cold. Alone. Rarely if ever does he look at himself in the mirror, afraid that he will not be able to tolerate the man that stares back at him. Somehow, today is different. He stares unflinchingly at himself, and his reflection looks him right back in the eye.

He holds his own gaze for an indefinite amount of time. Possibly a minute, maybe more, he does not notice. His concentration is broken only by movement on the wall behind him. In the reflection he can see a rotund, black thing, directly above his head. Again his heart begins to echo in his ears. I will not turn around, he tells himself, but still he slowly rotates, breath caught in his throat, until he is facing the wall. He stares and stares. He cannot stop staring.

Suddenly with a gross grunt he brings his hand up over his head and then swiftly across himself, fully extended, palm out, to smash the creature on the wall. His hit makes a dull thud. When he lifts his hand, the ant oozes in his palm, its guts smeared a brilliant deep purple across his cinereal skin. He looks at the wall. It has given easily to his slap; a deep dent smeared in deep purple now appears where he palm was only moments before.

He shudders involuntarily. He runs water over his hand quickly and then shuts off the light in the bathroom. He will wait until tomorrow to shower. Tonight he has lost all appetite for cleanliness.

* * * * *

It is three days before he ventures back to the shower. His skin is the color of soot. If he does not clean up today, the other men at the mill will begin to notice. That is what he tells himself, anyways.

When his clothes come off today, he cannot look in the mirror. He knows that his ribs protrude at disgusting angles and his skin hangs limply from his bones like the shredded flag suspended over the front of the mill. It was decades ago that some workers destroyed that flag in defiance of a doomed government. It still stands, but the men who pass under it each day are far beyond giving a s*** about the government. When they make enough money to put food on the table, they will start worrying about petty things like a government.

The tile floor bites his bare feet. It was white, or could have been, some many years ago. Now it is the color of dishwater, bland and dirty. He steps from the dirty tiles into the equally dirty bathtub. The water comes on, wetting him and extracting the grime from his body. He lathers with soap, rubs shampoo into his scalp, rinses. In less than two minutes he is done. He moves out of the shower quickly, wrapping himself in a threadbare towel. Despite the steam that rises around him, he is frigid.

While dressing himself, he does not look up to notice the rotund, black thing on the ceiling. He does not notice as it looks down at him. Perhaps it is thinking something, while watching this pathetic man dress himself, but one would never know because it is only an ant.

* * * * *

The ants fade from his mind as time passes. Nothing changes, and yet things seem to be looking up, even if just slightly. It must be the weather: the sky is bluer than blue day after day; the breeze is warm and kind. He walks home with a skip in his long, gaunt steps. This warmer climate does mean dirtier work, however, and now when he comes home to shower he is darker than ever with the dust of the mill. The crevices between his fingers, the wrinkles in his fatigued face, the deep holes which hold his eyes, are all filled with fine, black powder. Now he appreciates his daily shower even more.

In the bathroom, he grinds the shower handle until the water begins to pour. He stands under the stream as he lets his mind wander. He does not usually allow the water to run for any longer than it has to, but today he simply enjoys the feel of it on his back. The diversion does not last long. With a garummpphh the shower stalls and the water ceases to pour.

He looks at the handle for a moment. Although it is still turned to On, not a drop comes out. He reaches for it, slightly confused and mostly perturbed that his pleasure was short lived. Easily, without sticking, he is able to turn it Off. That is unusual, he thinks. It is an old shower; it always sticks. He considers for a moment if it is worthwhile to try and get the shower running again or if he should just dry himself off and head to bed.

He steps out of the shower and reaches for his towel, then pauses. He looks back at the shower, at the handle. He recalls the feeling of the water on his skin, the only thing he is really able to feel anymore. He wants to feel again. Gingerly, he steps back into the basin. It takes both of his hands and all of his strength to turn the handle to the On position. The water once again rains down.

After just a few moments, however, the shower stalls again with an even more violent garrrrrumph! He looks up at the nozzle, unsure of what to think. From the showerhead falls a single rotund, black carpenter ant. He cannot move. Another falls from the shower. Then another. He is paralyzed where he stands. All he can do is stare and stare and stare.

Several more fall into the dirty tub, and then they begin to fall in a steady stream down upon him. They cover his balding head, his hunched shoulders, every inch of his body. He lets out a monstrous moan of a scream. He lashes out around him to no avail. The ants continue to pour onto him. He jumps out of the shower, ripping at himself and waving his arms. He tries to smash them, tries to tear them from his skin, but they hold tight, biting into him. He pinches and pulls at them, smashing them between his fingers.

He grabs at his head, pulling out knots of fine hair as he attempts to rid himself of this plague. His body contorts as it tries uselessly to defend itself. He loses his footing and goes smashing down onto the cold, ceramic floor. He hits his head on the edge of the sink as he goes down, and inside his head, everything goes black.

* * * * *

Above, from the ceiling, a black, rotund thing surveys the scene below. It says nothing. It thinks nothing. It is only an ant. After a moment, it turns and crawls towards the dent in the wall, still smeared with purple. It climbs through the hole and disappears.

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