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Red Ant House The first time I saw this girl she was standing at the bottom of the coal pile. I thought she was a little wrinkled dwarf woman, with her sucked-in cheeks and pointed chin. She had narrow legs and yellow eyes. They had just moved into the old Perino house on West 2nd. This was the red ant house.
“I’m having a birthday,” the girl said.
She was going around the neighborhood gathering up children she didn’t know for her birthday party. She told us they had a donkey on the wall and beans in a jar.
“What kind of beans?” I asked her.
“Hey, you guys,” I said to my brothers.
“This bean wants us to go to her birthday party.” “My name’s not Bean.” “What is it, then?” “Theresa Mooney.” “You don’t look like a Theresa Mooney.” She shrugged.
“Hey, you guys. This girl named Bean wants us to go to her birthday party.” She didn’t say anything then. She turned around and started down the street toward her house. We followed her.
In her yard was a grease monkey. Her yard was a junker yard with car parts and cars all over the place, and a grease monkey was standing up against one car, smoking a cigarette.
“Joe,” the little dwarf girl said, “what do you think of a name like Bean?” He considered it. The man was handsome, with slick black hair and blue eyes, and he gave the dwarf a sweet look. I couldn’t think of how such a funny-looking child belonged to such a handsome man. “It’s an odd one,” he said. The girl looked at me, her eyes slant. “One thing about a name like that,” he said, “it’s unusual.
Everybody would remember it.” That idea she liked. She looked at me with a little grin. She said, “My name is Bean.” Just as if the whole thing was her idea.
Rosie Mooney was this Theresa’s mother.
When she moved in she had not known there would be ants in the house.
These were the ants that had invaded the Perinos’ chickens two summers before. Nobody wanted to eat chicken after that.
The ants came through the cracks in the walls. Rosie Mooney had papered those walls with velveteen flowered wallpaper. She had a red room and a gold room. She had wicked eyes to her, Rosie Mooney—could look you through and through.
These were trashy people, I knew. They had Christmas lights over the sink. They had hodgepodge dishes, and garlic on a string, and a book of matches under one table leg to make it sit straight. When the grease monkey came in, he kissed Rosie Mooney on the lips, a long wormy kiss, and then he picked the birthday girl up and swung her in a circle.
For us, he took off his thumbs.
“It is an optical illusion,” the girl told us.
He could also bend his thumbs all the way back, tie his legs in a knot, and roll his eyes back and look at his brain.
“Your dad should be in the circus,” I told the girl.
“He’s not my dad.” “What is he?” She shrugged.
The grease monkey laughed. It was a shamefaced laugh.
There were two prizes for the bean jar event: one for a boy, one for a girl. The boy’s prize was a gumball bank. Put a penny in, get a ball of gum. When the gum was gone you’d have a bank full of pennies. Either way, you’d have something.
The girl’s prize was a music box. I had never seen such a music box. It was black with a white ivory top made to look like a frozen pond, and when you wound it up, a white ivory girl skated over the top. It was nice.
We were all over that jar, counting the beans. It was me, my brothers, the Stillwell boys, the Murpheys, and the Frietags. As I was counting, I thought of something. I thought, This jar is an optical illusion. That was because there would be beans behind the beans. It occurred to me that there would be more beans than could be seen, thousands more.
The grease monkey was the official counter. He had written the exact number on a piece of tape and stuck it to the bottom of the jar. We all had to write our numbers down and sign our names. I wrote five thousand. When Joe read that, everybody laughed.
“There are beans behind the beans,” I informed them.
“This one’s a shrewd one,” the grease monkey said. “She’s thinking.” But when he turned the jar over, the number on the tape said 730. This Joe winked at me. “Don’t want to be thinking too hard, though.” I just eyeballed him.
“You want to count them? You can count them if you want,” he said.
“I don’t care to.” He grinned. “Suit yourself.” And he awarded the music box to the birthday girl, who had written 600. Then I knew the whole thing had been rigged.
The birthday girl’s mother said, “Theresa, I bet you’d like some other little girl to hhave the music box since you have birthday presents. Wouldn’t you?” She didn’t want to.
“That would be the polite thing,” she said. “Maybe you’d like to give it to Leigh.” “I don’t want it,” I said.
This Theresa looked at me. She looked at the grease monkey. He nodded, then she held the box out to me.
But I didn’t want it.
My mother was down sick all that summer.
The doctor had prescribed complete bed rest so the baby would stay in. For the last three years, she had gone to bed again and again with babies that didn’t take.
Up until that point, there were six of us children.
There was Zip, named for my grandmother, Ziphorah. Zippy loved me until I could talk. “You used to be such a sweet child,” she would say. “We used to dress you up and take you on buggy rides and everybody said what a sweet child you were.
Whatever happened to that sweet child?” There was Wanda, named for my other grandmother. Wanda was bald until she was five, and my father used to take every opportunity to bounce a ball on her head.
There was me, Leigh Rachel, named by the doctor because my parents drew a blank. I’m the lucky one.
Once when I was a baby I jumped out a window—this was the second-story window over the rock cliff. My mother, who was down sick at the time, had a vision about it. I was already gone. By the time she got herself out of her bed and up the stairs, I was in flight, but she leaped across the room, stuck her arm out, and caught me by the diaper, just as she’d seen it in the vision.
Another time, I survived a tumble down Bondad Hill in my grandpa’s Pontiac. We both rolled like the drunk he was. Drunks I know about. My dad’s dad was one, and my mom’s dad was another. I never knew my dad’s mom. She weighed three hundred pounds and died of toxic goiter. My mom’s mom weighed seventy-five at the time of her death. Turned her face to the sky and said, “I despise you all.” Irish like the rest of us.
There were the boys, Ronald Patrick, Raymond Patrick, Carl Patrick.
Then there were the ones who didn’t take. One of these I saw, a little blue baby on a bloody sheet. My mother said, “Help me with these sheets,” to Wanda, but Wanda couldn’t stop crying, so I helped pull the sheet away from the mattress, and my mother wadded the sheet up.
I said, “We should bury that sheet.” She said, “It’s a perfectly good sheet.
We’ll wash it.” Then she took a blanket and went into the living room and wrapped herself up in it. When my father came home he found her half bled to death.
My mother has Jewish blood in her. When they took her to the hospital, a Jewish man, Mr. Goldman, gave blood. He was the only Jew in town.
That summer my mother had cat visions.
She would begin yelling in the middle of the night. She would come into our dreams: “The cats have chewed their paws off. They are under the bed.” “Mother, there are no cats.” “Look under the bed. See for yourself.” But we didn’t want to.
Each day that summer I had to rub my mother’s ankles and legs before I could go out to see the shadow, Theresa Mooney, who had started living in my backyard. When I woke up in the morning, there she was on the swing or digging in the ground with a spoon.
Once out of the house, I didn’t like to go back. If I sneaked back in for any little thing, I had to rub the legs again. This was my job. Zip’s job was to clean the house.
Wanda cooked. Grilled cheese on Mondays, frozen potpie on Tuesdays, Chef Boyardee ravioli on Wednesdays, frozen potpie on Thursdays, and fish sticks on Fish Fridays. Saturdays were hamburger and pork-and-bean days, and Sundays, Sick Slim brought trout that he caught in the river. Sick Slim had a movable Adam’s apple and finicky ways. He used to exchange the fish for loaves of my mom’s homemade bread until he found out that she put her hands in the dough. After that, he didn’t care for bread, though he still brought the fish.
“I never thought she would have put her hands in it,” I heard him tell my father.
Slim was my dad’s army buddy. He built his house on West 1st, way back from the street, right up against Smelter Mountain. Slim didn’t want anybody at his back: that’s what my dad said.
We knew a secret on him. My brother Ronnie saw this with his own eyes. A woman drove to West 1st where Sick Slim lived. She had a little blond girl with her, and when the girl got out of the car, Ronnie saw that she was naked. The mother didn’t get out of the car. The little girl walked up that long sidewalk to the porch and up the steps to Slim’s house and knocked on the door, and Slim opened the door, and he gave the girl money.
Slim was a bachelor and didn’t have anything to spend his money on except naked children and worms for fish.
We all thought it would be a good idea to try and get some of Slim’s money. My brothers thought I should take my clothes off and go up to his door, though I didn’t care to.
But I thought Theresa might like to make a little money, so I told her that there was a rich man on West 1st who would give us twenty dollars if she took her clothes off and walked up the sidewalk and knocked on his door. She didn’t know about that. She was not accustomed to taking off her clothes outside.
I said, “Do you know how much twenty dollars is?” She didn’t know. She was as poor as a rat.
“You go first, then I’ll go,” she said.
“It’s my idea.” I figured if it was her idea—but she never had any— then she could say who went first.
“Mama says not to get chilled,” she said. She was prone to sore throats and earaches and whispering bones. Without notice, she would go glassy-eyed and stiff, and would lose her breath. When she caught it again, she’d say, “My bones are whispering.” “What are they saying?” I’d ask.
“They don’t talk,” she said. “They don’t have words. Just wind.” “You are a delicate flower,” I said to butter her up.
She liked that.
“I bet we could get thirty dollars for you. You’re better-looking than me.” She looked at me slant.
“It’s easy,” I said. “Don’t think about it. You just think, I am running through the sprinklers. You don’t think, I am naked. If you don’t think about it, it’s easy.” She told me she’d get beat if she took her clothes off outside.
“Maybe even forty dollars,” I said, “because this particular gentleman likes itty-bitty things.
Twenty for you, twenty for me. That’s a lot of money. We could go places on that much money.” She thought about that. “I don’t think we could go far on forty dollars.” “You got to look on the bright side.
You’re always looking on the dark side.” “No, I’m not.” “You are doom and gloom and whispering bones. Just ask your whispering bones. They’ll say you’re doom and gloom.” “You go first,” she said. “Then I’ll go.” “Maybe I will.” “Okay,” she said.
My mother was curious about Theresa and her mother. “Where does little Terry go when her mama’s working?” my mother asked me. “If we had any room at all, I’d have that child here.
If we weren’t doubled up already.” “Hang her on a hook,” I said.
“Don’t smart-mouth. Do you think she would like to come here?” Mother thought all children should like to come to our house because it was so pleasant to have a big family. To have children to do the cooking, and cleaning, and leg rubbing.
Her legs were yellow logs. I didn’t like to touch them, and so I would think of them as yellow logs at Cherry Creek—the dried logs split by lightning, with worm silk inside. I would close my eyes and rub the cold legs.
Sometimes, if my mother didn’t talk to me, if she only closed her eyes and breathed, I would forget I was in her room. I would put myself someplace else, Cherry Creek or Jesus Rock, and I would think of running my hands through soft things, the sand below Jesus Rock, or worm silk.
But, mostly, she talked. She wanted to know about Mooney and Joe. She wanted to know about Theresa.
When she talked she would sit propped up on pillows, her belly a world under the sheet. Her eyes were all glitter.
“She doesn’t stay with that man, does she?” “Joe Martin is his name.” “I don’t care to know his name.” “I don’t know where she stays.” My mother sighed. Except for the belly, she couldn’t put weight on. She had trouble keeping food down, and she didn’t have the strength to wash her hair so she kept it in a bandanna, one that bore the grease of her head.
“He has a wife and children, you know.
Over in Dolores. I understand he has two little children.
You mustn’t say anything to the little girl, though. I’m sure she doesn’t know.
I understand,” my mother said, “that he abandoned his family. I don’t know how they make do.
“Now just look.” She laughed and held her hands out to me. Her fingers were thick. The one ring finger was especially plumped out, and her wedding ring had sunk to the bone. “I have no circulation,” she said, and she laughed again. They were cold, the fingers. “I’ll be glad when this is over, Leigh. I guess we’ll all be glad, won’t we. Let’s get some soap and get this ring off,” she said.
I went for the soap and water. We soaped her hands good, and I started working the ring. She leaned back and closed her eyes. “Don’t you love the sound?” she said.
“What sound?” “Of the children playing. Listen to them.” My brothers were kicking the can in the street. “You should be out, Leigh. Your poor old mom is all laid up, but you should be out. Why don’t you go on out, now?” “Shall I tell Mr. Richter he has to come and cut this ring off your finger?” “Go on out,” she said, “and tell little Terry what I told you.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “I know you want to.” An ugly smile.
“I’m not going to say anything.” She shook her head. “I was wrong to tell you. I don’t know why I told you. It was very, very wrong of me.
I would not have told you if I were myself. You understand that?” “Yes.” She frowned and shook her head. “It’s only natural that you should go tell her now. A child cannot keep such a secret.” “You want me to tell her?” “Of course I don’t want you to tell her. But you will.” “No, I won’t.” “Yes, you will. You cannot keep a secret.” I didn’t say anything. Just soaped the fingers.
“Leigh?” “What?” “Can you keep it a secret?” “Yes.” “Look at me.” I looked at her.
We looked at each other for a long time. She took my chin. She pinched it. She was pinching it. “You are the one,” she said, “who cannot keep a secret. Am I right?” “I can,” I said, but she was pinching it. She shook my head back and forth.
“Here,” she said. She pulled the sheet back. She put my face against her belly. The baby was kicking.
“Feel that?” she said. “That’s your blood, too.” She put her hand on my cheek and held my face there. The baby stopped kicking, and my mother laughed. “Well,” she said, “it probably doesn’t matter.” She let me go. “It’s just as well that little girl knows what kind of man is living under her roof.” “I can keep a secret.” She closed her eyes again and leaned her head against the wall behind her. She tried to twist the ring on her finger, but it wouldn’t move. “I believe,” she said, “we’re going to have to cut this ring off. I cannot feel this finger anymore.”
This was the summer they announced they were closing the mill. They were opening a new mill in New Mexico on an Indian reservation. Some workers got their walking papers. Some got transfers.
“What shall I do?” my father asked Wanda and me one night when we were walking down to the train depot. “Shall I take the transfer? Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” We had to keep it secret because it was just the sort of news that would send my mother into a tizzy.
“It would mean a smaller house. You girls would all have to share one room, and the boys would have to share the other. But we’d eat good.” “What else could you do?” Wanda wanted to know.
He shrugged. “Collect the garbage?” “You could do a lot of things,” she said. She was against moving. Wanda was fourteen. She and Zippy had limbo parties for their friends in our living room. My brother Ronnie and I could out-limbo everybody because we were bendable beyond belief.
“You could work for the post office,” Wanda said.
“I guess I could.” “Or the lumber mill.” “Mmm-hmm. Hate to let old Mike Reed down, though.” Mike Reed was my father’s boss. “That gentleman’s done a lot for me. But I want to be fair to you kids, too. What do you think, Leigh?” “Let’s go.” “You’d have to leave all of your friends.” “That’s okay.” “She doesn’t have any friends,” Wanda said.
“I do too.” “It’s different if you’re a little kid,” she told my father.
“I think somebody’s only thinking of herself,” I said. He winked and took my hand. Wanda gave me a look.
“Good jobs are not that easy to come by,” I said. My father squeezed my hand.
“We should put our fate in the hands of the Lord,” I said.
He laughed. “Not bad advice,” he said.
Wanda crossed her arms and just stared at the sidewalk in front of her.
On our way home we saw Joe at Lucky’s Grill. We always stopped at Lucky’s for ice cream on our way home. Joe was in a booth with a blond woman and two little boys. When he saw me a queer look came over him.
“That’s the man who sniffs around Rosie Mooney,” I said, “and I bet that’s his wife and kids.” My father looked at Joe. “Wouldn’t be the first time for old Joe Martin,” he said quietly. He nodded and Joe nodded back.
“Mr. Martin, how you doing?” I called.
“I’m okay, Leigh. You?” The blond woman smiled. She was wearing red lipstick that made her look like she was all lips. That’s how blond this woman was.
“Can’t complain,” I said. “I haven’t seen Rosie and Theresa Mooney in a while, though.” The blond woman kept smiling. She was smiling at her french fries.
“That old boy,” I told my father when we got outside, “probably has a wife in every state. Don’t you think?” My father put his hands in his pockets.
“You shamed him, Leigh.” “Joe?” I hooted.
He looked at me. “You shamed me,” he said.
Wanda dug her elbow into me. “You shamed that man’s wife,” she said.
I dug her back.
“She shamed them, didn’t she, Dad.” My father didn’t say anything. He watched the air in front of him.
“God wouldn’t spit you from his mouth,” Wanda hissed.
Wanda’s no saint. She’ll knuckleball you in the back, and who are you going to scream to? The cats under the bed? The bloody cats?
Wanda’s no saint, and Zip is no saint—You used to be such a sweet child, we used to dress you up and take you in the buggy and everybody said what a sweet child you were, whatever happened to the sweet child?
I’ll tell you who’s the saint. My father is the bloody saint.
He’ll say, “When I was over there in Guam? When I was fighting the Japansies? I walked to holy mass every day. I’d walk five miles if I had to. If it kilt me, I was going to holy mass.” So give the saint a hand.
The Bean was lying on our lawn, winding the music box. The skater skated. The Bean was keeping her finger on the skater’s head, and the music was chugalugging because she was pressing the head too hard.
“My dad’d never leave my mom,” I was telling her. “He’s a good Catholic.” The Bean sucked her cheeks.
“This is why you want the holy sacrament of matrimony in the house. To keep ’em from leaving.” She wound up that music box. Everywhere she went, the music box went. Terry was addicted to the skater on the pond.
“Joe’ll be back, though,” I told her to give her comfort. That morning, we had sat in the peach tree and watched Joe throw his clothes in the back of his truck while Rosie sat on the front porch and just smoked. “Don’t you think?” The Bean lay on her back and let the skater skate on her stomach. She closed her eyes.
“I mean, what’d he say? Did he say, ‘I’m leaving you forever,’ or did he say, ‘I need time to think,’ or did he say . . .” She was holding the skater, letting her go, holding her, letting her go, and the music was revving up just to stop, and I said, “Am I invisible?” Because she hadn’t said a word all morning. “Are you a mute?” I said.
She looked at me for a minute, and then she screamed and laughed and the music box tumbled to the grass. “We’re invisible!” she shouted. She flung her arms and legs out like an angel. “I’m a mute!” she yelled.
Then she started bawling. She said, “Don’t look at me.” She put her hands over her face and was bawling, a pitiful thing.
Me, I lay down next to her, and I didn’t look at her, just lay there. The sky was blue-white. After a while she stopped bawling and started hiccupping. I said, “Got the chuck-a-lucks?” She sort of laughed and hiccupped. “You know the difference between chuck-a-lucks and hiccups?” I felt something scratchy on my hand, and it was her withered little paw. She whispered, “Leigh, you are my best friend.” I thought of how skinny she was, and how she’d probably never find anybody to marry her. I held her dry hand and we started to sweat.
I said, “I know what’ll cheer us up.” She said, “What?” I let go her hand, rolled over on my side, and propped my head on my hand. I said, “That rich gentleman’s money.”
We both peed ourselves. I tried to hold it in but the Bean hotfooted down the sidewalk, did a little sidewinder dance, trying to keep her knees together, her pointy bottom shining, and the pee ran down, and I don’t know if she was laughing or crying, but I was laughing so hard my stomach hurt. I peed his porch. Cars were honking. The Bean turned around and did a little dance for them, then scatted off around the house before we got the money. I pounded that door, and rang the bell. He was in there. The shades were open and then they closed. He was in there shaking in his boots.
After a while we went for our clothes, but then this car stopped at the curb, and this lady got out, yelled, “Hey!” We started running. I looked back, and the lady’s my mom’s friend, Mrs. Malburg, who made oily donuts and ate them, fat Mrs. Malburg: “Hey, Leigh!” She was standing on the curb looking at the bush where our clothes were. She shaded her eyes. She looked straight at us.
We hid in the little cave under Jesus Rock up there on Smelter Mountain. Theresa Mooney moaned, “I’m dead.” She scrunched in the dirt, shivering up against the rock, and I didn’t tell her there were ants there in the shadows. The year before I had buried a box of Cracker Jack there for a rainy day, but when the rainy day came and I dug them out, they were crawling with ants. I couldn’t see Theresa Mooney’s dirty feet where she was dug in. I didn’t know if the ants were awake.
The Bean moaned, “I am dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.” She said, “Will she tell?” I started digging in the dirt with a stick. “Once,” I told her, “there was an Indian maiden who got stole by the calvary, and when she ran away back to her tribe, they buried her naked in an ant pile and the ants ate her. Her own people did that.” “That’s not true,” Theresa Mooney said.
“First of all,” she said, “ants can’t eat people.” “You don’t know about all the species,” I told her. “Sugar ants, no. But these were not sugar ants.” She didn’t say anything to that.
A train whistle was blowing—the Leadville train coming in. It was five o’clock. By now, my dad would be home. He’d be sitting at the kitchen table with his boots unlaced, stirring his coffee. Wanda’d be taking the potpies out of their boxes.
“Will she tell?” the Bean whispered.
Mrs. Malburg, muddy-eyed Mrs. Malburg, would be sitting across the table from my dad, giving him trouble. They would be talking in whispers so my mother wouldn’t hear. “It is,” I said, “against human nature to keep a secret.” The Leadville train whistled again. It was probably pulling into the depot.
I closed my eyes and listened hard.
“I’m cold,” the Bean whispered.
“You can wrap yourself around me like a spider monkey,” I told her. “I don’t mind.” She crawled from the back of the cave and wrapped her ice-cube self around me. She said, “You smell like yellow urine.” “So lick me,” I said, and the Bean laughed.
I was listening for my brothers, who would be coming after us. Wanda would send them. She would say, Jesus wouldn’t spit you from his mouth. They would all say it. “The calvary is coming,” I told the Bean. “Mark my word.” “We’re dead,” the Bean said.
“We are dead under Jesus Rock,” I yelled so they’d know where to look.
“Shh!” the Bean hissed.
“This is Lazarus’s cave!” She unwrapped herself and scowled at me. She crawled to the edge of the hole, knelt there looking out, her little bottom tucked under her filthy heels. She stood up and stepped out into the sun. She stretched on her tiptoes and looked down the mountain. She turned around, her face twitching to go.
I crawled out, too. The evening breeze had a sting, and the sun was sitting on the mountain. Scrub oak leaves were crackling all around.
“Nobody’s coming,” she whispered. She squinted down the path.
“That,” I said, “is an optical illusion.” At the bottom of the hill in the back of Sick Slim’s house, a light went on, and then Sick Slim was standing at the window, looking up Smelter Mountain. We scatted back into the hole. Terry started giggling and whimpering. “He saw us,” she said.
“We’re trapped.” “Him?” I hooted. “He’s blind.” Then I remembered what my dad had said, how ever since he got back from playing soldier, Sick Slim didn’t like anybody at his back. But we were at his back. Two naked children. I laughed.
“What?” the Bean said.
I crawled back out into the sun. I stood up and walked to the edge where he could see me good. I put my hands on my hips like King of the Mountain. I couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see him looking, but I knew he was.
I said, “Next time, we’ll make him give us money.” “How?” the Bean said.
I didn’t know exactly how. It was coming to me. It was a dream in the distance.
Copyright © 2003 by Ann Marie Cummins.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.