|Mouse Guts, Scratch Tickets, and Ants
||[Aug. 10th, 2009|12:27 pm]
The Amazing Capt. of Wonders
My final story for my fiction writing class.|
Mouse Guts, Scratch Tickets, and Ants
I brought seven dollars in nickels with me. Nickels are fucking worthless. To afford anything worth buying you have to have a lot of them. There was a labeled bag full of them stuffed in the back of a junk drawer in the laundry room. I figured I’d take one last thing before I left forever.
I was saving those seven dollars for something goddamn important. Not something like food, or hotel rooms, or gas. I had a card for all that useless shit. I was saving those coins for something that would really change my life.
I couldn’t call myself a runaway. People who run away usually have something that they’re running from. They have abusive fathers or secret pregnancies, drug problems or fights with their parents. I was just heading somewhere south in my beat up blue Chevy.
I was looking for anywhere that wasn’t the same as the place I had come from. You’d think that’d be easy, but you have no idea how exactly alike everything really is.
Every little interstate town has three diners, four gas stations, two grocery chains, a souvenir shop, and nobody looks like they actually live there. Every city has a new school and an auto shop and a Chinese restaurant and a movie theatre. Even when I was traveling forward it felt like I’d been everywhere already.
The highway was a hot pad of rippling waves above the asphalt.
My AC used to work until a mouse crawled into my engine and made itself a home. When I turned on the ignition there was a short squeal before bits of fur blasted through the vents. Ever since the whole system’s smelt like a mix between wet dog and barbeque.
I passed Greenley and Pueblo, Springer and Santa Fe. None were quite south enough.
I had a feeling that my gas tank was getting empty. I couldn’t tell for sure because last year for graduation we’d used my Chevy in our senior prank. We drove a bunch of cars through the loading dock and into the cafeteria so that when the underclassmen came down for lunch everything would be halted by engines revving and music blasting through stereos. One asshole freshmen thought it’d be funny to smash in my control panel with a lunch tray.
But no one runs away because of one asshole freshmen. No one drives aimlessly south with one extra change of clothes and seven dollars in nickels because mouse guts are singed onto every inside part of their car. Or because a skirt they bought last month doesn’t fit anymore. Because they’re always five minutes late to everything. Or because everyone else is always exactly on time.
There’s just something about the desert that helps you forget all the shit clogging up your life: the busted odometers and gas gauges, the sleazy boyfriends, the broken heels and runny mascara. In the desert everything is just gold and orange and purple. Everything is sewn together with dry heat and dust.
My tank had been full when I left home, but I’d been driving for hundreds of miles and I knew that soon I’d either run out of gas or hit the border. It was like a game to see which came first.
As I passed Los Lunas and Escondido I realized that the town names were starting to sound more and more like Mexico.
I didn’t want to have to go home. I didn’t want to have to admit that I was the one keeping myself back. It wasn’t all the little piles of shit back home that wouldn’t let me run as far as I could, it was me and my stupid seven dollars.
But you know how it is. How right when you think everything you’ve ever accumulated in your life is gathering in this random pile of useless puzzle pieces and just to get away from it all you’re ready to be the first person to actually try to sneak in to Mexico, some benevolent force reaches down from the clouds and hands you an answer on a silver platter.
A fluorescent green road sign told me that in three quarters of a mile I’d reach a town called Truth or Consequences. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I’m not fucking kidding you.
In an overheated daze I managed to pull off of the freeway. The off-ramp was short and it spit me out right in the middle of some prehistoric town. There were only a few filthy buildings, dirt piled up by the wind on the north side of each.
Most of my body was numb from lack of water and breathable air.
I parked at the first and only gas station. There weren’t any actual parking lines so I just swung my Chevy into the lot. As I pushed my car door open I sucked in a stale breath through my teeth. The air was the same outside as it was within the sticky leather of the cab. Heat and the flatness of the desert wrought watery mirages in the distance.
As I opened a heavy glass door peppered with missing person signs and ads for English lessons I was faced with a brick wall of rancid warmth, worse than the desert because inside the air was moist like the creases of your palm when you get nervous.
Everything inside looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. I recognized a stack of those visors with fans on the tips that had been sort of popular in the 90’s. The candy was covered in dust. Next to the sodas were pool toys and around the corner dog leashes hung on the same rack as canned beans. The prices were written on index cards in front of each item and attached to the shelving with yellow scotch tape. The hum of a low fan in the back circulated air that smelled a hell of a lot like a mouse had died in their system too. Yellow fluorescent bulbs illuminated a permanent haze of dust that hung about waist level across the store.
“We don’t have beer here,” a male voice, clear of any southern dialect, sounded from behind the counter. I walked forward because I couldn’t see anyone and I wanted to know who the hell was talking to me.
“Across the freeway and down a mile or two, they have beer over there if that’s what you’re looking for.”
The guy was slumped behind the counter in one of those swivel chairs, fully compressed so that he was as low to the ground as he could be. His hair was dark and stringy from not being washed and he kept it swept back from his face at an awkward angle like it was held there by the strength of the grease that plated it.
“I’m not,” I told him, taking another step forward. Something about this careless jumble of a man drew me closer. His shirt was a plaid mess stained with odd colors and textures. Cheeto fingerprints stripped his loose brown pants.
“The pumps don’t work either,” his bulbous lips spoke the words down at the black and white tiled floor. “And don’t ask for change.”
“What’re you here for then?” He was the worst salesperson I’d ever met.
I didn’t answer him right away because I didn’t want him to know that I was drawn to the town simply for its ironic namesake. Maybe they got a lot of soul searchers in Truth or Consequence and he’s used to confused people like me wandering the streets for some sort of answer. Maybe I wasn’t the first to come into his store and find myself imagining what life would be like if I stayed where I landed.
I stood at the counter and emptied my deep jean pockets of one hundred and forty goddamn nickels.
“What can I buy with seven dollars?”
He was completely unsurprised at my display. Instead he leaned into the back of his chair, his almond shaped, droopy lids closed. I couldn’t tell if he’d just nodded off or if he was actually thinking.
“Depends,” he finally lifted his posture back up and placed his ruddy elbows on the low counter.
“On how long you’re planning to stay here.”
I found my gaze perusing the Mars Bars, the dated maps of New Mexico, the lucky penny keychains.
“Dunno,” I said, absently running a hand across the counter.
“You could get three and a half scratch tickets.”
“You’ll sell me half a lottery ticket?”
“No,” he slipped farther back into his swivel chair, “But they cost two dollars each. I guess you could buy half of one but then you’ll never know if you’ve won.”
“I’d just have to find someone to buy the other half,” by then I was grinning.
The guy behind the counter just looked at me blankly.
“I’ll take three,” I pushed the mound of coins a few inches towards his side of the register. He gave them no more than a glance before standing up to unroll three cards from a dispenser to his right. He tore roughly at the perforated edges.
“You 18?” he split the row of three tickets up individually.
“Here,” he handed me the tickets.
Apparently he didn’t need to see I.D.
“You can keep the change,” I said, “except for one.”
I grabbed a nickel and began scratching off the sticky black gunk that covered the prizes. This card was a slot machine, each window obscured until you took an edge to it.
I caught that he was watching me as I stood there, his eyes focused on the motion of my hands.
“You know,” he mentioned, sitting back down in the low chair, “You have more of a chance of dying on your way to pick up a lottery ticket than you do of winning.”
Under the first space was a cherry.
“Well,” I continued to scratch, “Since I’m already here I don’t have much to lose.”
Behind the second there was also a cherry.
I heard the squeak of his chair swiveling back and forth absently.
As the top layer was scratched away a final cherry was revealed.
I set the nickel back on the counter next to the others as I held the scratch card in one hand.
“I won,” I let him know, laying the card face up on the counter. He didn’t even look at it.
“Congratulations,” his muted tone was animatronic.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d won something. My head was a little light and there was a tingling sensation in my fingers like I got once when I accidentally touched the prongs plugging in a lamp. I sort of liked the feeling.
Under another little bit that I scratched away it told me that my prize was one hundred bucks. That could be a couple tanks of gas. That could be Vegas, or LA, or home. But the glamour of each destination faded as I looked out the tinted station window at my rusty car swung sideways into a parking spot.
“We can’t refund customer prize money through this store,” he sounded like he was reciting some company policy. “We can supply an envelope and stamp so that you can mail your card to the lottery headquarters of New Mexico who will send you an authorized check for your winnings.”
After finishing his memorized speech he reached below the counter and drew out a preaddressed envelope, the type that didn’t need any postage. I noticed that his nails were grimy little stubs.
“I can mail it if you want,” he held an expecting palm out towards me. I had no idea how the hell any of this would work, but I knew that if I gave him that ticket then I’d have to wait around a bit until the money came back to the station.
“There a hotel around here?”
“A Super 8 on the other side of the free way.”
There was nothing telling behind his heavily lidded eyes. Rough patches of stubble ran along the underside of his chin and outlined the arch of his lips. His body was doughy and yet his fingers were thin and lithe. Pronounced veins wrapped across his hairless arms. For someone who lived in the desert he was certainly pale. I imagined his breath smelled absolutely terrible. I wondered why I was imagining myself close enough to tell.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, handing him the card.
Sliding the ticket into the envelope he held it for a moment in his outstretched hand, contemplating its weight before unfolding the top and running an artificially orange tongue across the length of the paper to seal it shut.
And then, without any control, an inundation of images polluted my mind. I envisioned his fingers climbing carefully up the naked skin of my back, his swollen lips brushing my shoulder as I undid each button of his plaid shirt.
“Thank you,” I said, setting my hands palm down against the cool counter surface to keep them from trembling.
“Are you going to scratch the other ones?” He tucked the envelope in his back pocket.
I shook my head. There’s just something about luck that you don’t want to fuck with. I abandoned the other two scratch cards on the counter next to the large pile of nickels. I hadn’t been looking for money. I’d been looking for a sign.
I gazed out of the store window at the empty landscape, devoid of any possible customers. It couldn’t be too hard for him to close up.
“D’you know this town then?” I asked him, pressing my palms down harder against the counter. I was stuck there for a while, in Truth or Consequences.
“Yeah,” he scratched what looked like a bug bite on the top of his left forearm.
“Well then,” I shifted my weight so that I would be a few more inches closer to him, “I wouldn’t mind a tour.”
His name was Anderson and he’d worked at the gas station for the last eight years. I figured that put him in his early 20’s, but I’d always been bad at guessing ages. Anderson’s father had owned the station and their family home, one of the blurry looking buildings I’d spotted when I first entered town. When Anderson’s father died the old man left all of his worldly possessions to his wife. Anderson didn’t get a dime.
The walking tour didn’t take very long and most of it consisted of him pointing and explaining in mumbles the various broken down heaps of buildings that lined the way to his house. Nothing gained a distinct description besides his house and the station. It was like all the places in-between were mirages that he chose not to look at.
His home was on a plot of desert dirt surrounded by broken thistle bushes about a mile from the station. It was a ranch style house, something that’d probably been built in the seventies. It looked out of place only because in the middle of the desert everything looks out of place.
Once inside I was met with the unexpected view of a model showroom. The wooden floors were polished to reflect the pink light that shown behind wall sconces attached onto the red paint above white bead board. Everything was dusted, shined, waxed, and looked completely uninhabitable.
“My mom left when I was four,” Anderson said as we skirted around the clean floors to a door on the other end of the immaculate kitchen. I didn’t understand why that was relevant until he opened it and led me down a narrow stairway into a one-roomed basement.
It was quickly apparent that Anderson hadn’t lived upstairs in years. Cleaned, perhaps, scrubbed and buffed, but not lived.
Across the cement floor was a mess of hapless items, things that had once come from a place that they belonged in, but by some chance ended up stuck in his room.
On a dresser along one wall sat a bronze bust of his great great grandfather. I knew it was his great great grandfather because he told me. Albert Sinclair. He must have done something illustrious to be made into a bust, but I didn’t ask. Next to the statue was a neat pile of unread “Home and Country” magazines. In the farthest left hand corner a calendar of New Mexico sunsets had each day marked off with a heavy handed sharpie ‘X’. In the adjacent corner he kept a large pile of orange packets of tang and top ramen in a laundry basket.
“I like noodles,” he explained absently as I passed his stock, careful to step around the dirty laundry scattered across the ground, “and tang.”
In the very middle of the room was a big mattress set on the floor, wound in off-white sheets. The surrounding carpet was yellow shag. One bulb dipped from a socket to emit a buzzing dim light.
Also Anderson liked ants.
Not even liked. Loved. I think it’d be safe to say that Anderson really loved ants.
The rest of the basement was filled with tanks, terrariums, farms, all plastic, glass, wood and metal. Inside were contrived ecosystems of water, dirt, and grass. And if you looked closely, stuck your nose up against the temperate glass, you could see little antennae staring back at you.
There must have been thousands of them in that one room, the damn crawling insects, so many that collectively they made noise, sounds of scurrying and the clicking of millions of little jaws. He had every kind: black, red, carpenter, fire, some with wings, some with extra jaws. Each farm had a queen as well, one big fat female ant, bursting with the goo of harvested green, popping out babies to increase the count of Anderson’s collection.
I didn’t know whether I was really impressed or going to be completely sick.
“Where’d you get them all?” I stepped forward to peer into one brightly lit tank. Little fire ants the size of my fingernail swarmed dry branches and rocks in tightly formatted lines.
“I only started with a few of each kind,” Anderson seemed unimpressed with my curiosity. I held my stomach with one hand as I peered beyond the glass at a case filled with ants with frail looking wings. There was a thin wire mesh covering the tank but none were in flight.
“What do they eat?” I turned towards him, wondering for a moment if he’d only brought me down there so he could chop me up into little pieces and feed me to his minions.
“Anything really,” he answered, tapping on the particularly thick glass siding of one farm. At the moment he seemed more interested in me than in his collection.
“So this is what you do?” I circled his lone mattress, staring into the terrariums that surrounded the bed.
“When I’m not at the station,” he continued to tap, tap, tap on the glass. It echoed through the tank then across the concrete walls and ceiling.
“What else is there to do here?” I gave up looking at the little creatures and decided to sit on the edge of the low mattress.
He chose to sit down next to me. I heard the crumple of my envelope still in his back pocket.
“Nothing really.” He started to pick the dirt from under the nail of his left thumb.
“I didn’t really mean to come here.” It was too hot for our bodies to be so close, even in the temperate confines of an underground basement. Sweat outlined the place where his hair turned into his forehead. His face was now close enough to mine to see little blackheads speckled over his nose and cheeks, dirty pores fighting with a random growth of stubble against his damp, pale skin. His breath smelled like processed orange flavoring.
“Why did you?” His irises were so dark that they blended into his black pupils creating one continuous circle.
I didn’t want to say it out loud. Millions of little eyes were watching us from within the tanks. Antennae bobbed up and down along the edges of the fake landscapes. They bumped against the glass with little ‘tink’ sounds in order to get a better view. Who stops in a town just because of its name?
“I just don’t get it,” I kicked carelessly at the shag carpet with one sandal, “You only get one or the other? You can only get the truth or the consequences?”
I heard a noise escape Anderson’s nose, like compressed air being released from a bicycle tire.
“What?” I didn’t understand if he was just realizing something or sighing at me. Probably a little of both.
“In the 50’s,” he continued to clean the nails of one hand with the nails of the other, “there was this radio show called Truth or Consequences. There was a contest where the first town that named itself after the game would have the show aired there. Truth or Consequences. Doesn’t make much sense does it.”
I gritted my teeth at his explanation. It made some divine happenstance of mine seem like a tacky trivia card. I still just couldn’t get it through my brain. Usually with truth came consequences. I couldn’t see them being mutually exclusive.
“Don’t worry too much about it,” he told me, and I smelled the synthetic orange grove on his tongue. For a second it looked like he was going to say something more but then decided not to.
I just couldn’t get around the fucking purposelessness of it all. There was nothing to try to make sense of anymore. No truth. No consequences. Just a lonely boy in a concrete basement with thousands upon thousands of ants.
He leaned in, his left hand sinking more into the mattress, and chanced to meet his lips with mine. It was a mismatched movement and he only managed an awkward, grazing kiss. Then again, even to think about it as a kiss seemed wrong. It was a careless move, one I was too oblivious to reciprocate.
We sat there and for a moment the only sound was our humid breathing and the clicking of the little voyeur’s jaws.
He looked ahead, maybe at the marked off calendar against the wall. I heard a rustle of cheap sheets and then clammy fingers trying to slide between my own. I loosened my tense grip and let them.
I woke up the next morning in complete darkness. Anderson was breathing heavily in sleep behind me. We were both fully clothed and he was under the sheets while I was sprawled on top.
Ants never sleep so all through the night I could hear their scurrying and clicking.
I yawned and turned over onto my stomach. It was easy to fall back asleep again.
The next time I awoke the buzzing light bulb was on and Anderson was sitting on the edge of the mattress, something clasped between his fingers.
“I have a gallon or two of gas in some containers behind the station. You really should go.”
I crawled forwards across a tangle of bed sheets. My winning scratch ticket was being folded down the center, open and closed in twitchy little motions. I kept on blinking away whatever sleep was in my eyes but it didn’t help anything become clearer.
“These tickets are old,” he told me, suddenly ripping mine in half.
I wondered why he was telling me now in front of his audience of ants. I wondered why it mattered until I realized that I wouldn’t get the money.
“There’s a date on the back. Can’t claim prizes after 1989.”
That was before I was even born.
“You knew this then, yesterday?” I got up from my knees, feeling my joints crack as I stood and stretched away a bit of the sleepiness. I tried to keep my voice from trembling. What was it about him that made everything converge and then disperse so quickly?
I noticed that on the ground next to the mattress the envelope had been torn into many different sized pieces the way someone nervous would handle it. As I stepped forward they scattered slightly. I could see a piece of the return address scribbled with large loopy letters. I was surprised his handwriting was even legible. Legible enough to tell that the address held no traces of the town Truth or Consequences.
Anderson kicked the pieces out of the way with a yellowish sock before I could read anymore.
“Where am I exactly?”
His face was still for a moment besides the thoughtful grinding of his teeth.
“People get off at the wrong exit all the time,” he slumped his shoulders in some sort of explanatory shrug.
“What’s this place called?” I had to know. Meaning and significance drained from everything that I’d been trying to hold on to.
“Nothing. It’s not called anything,” he pushed his sweaty palms into the pockets of the same stained brown pants he probably wore every day. “We’re not even on the map.”
I felt a sick feeling twist my stomach again, the same as when I was looking at all of those damn ants. It was like a collapsing sensation at the walls of my stomach. A black hole sucking all my guts into one final destination. I imagined it was a lot like how that mouse felt the exact moment before being blown up inside my car.
“Yeah,” my voice sounded full of breathiness because I was trying to keep from letting any sort of emotion show. Mostly because I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling. All I could think about was the mouse guts and the ants and his orangey bad breath. “I’ll take that gas.”
Behind the station he poured a gallon or two into my tank. It wouldn’t get me to Las Vegas or LA or anywhere else interesting. It wouldn’t even get me to Santa Fe. Either way it’d let me loose from this stupid place I’d ended up in.
“You could come with me, I guess,” I mentioned bitterly as he screwed the gas cap back on. I don’t even know why I said it. I didn’t mean it and I wasn’t trying to be polite.
His greasy hair swung across his eyes as he shook his head.
I pretended to sympathize with his reasoning, but he didn’t have to keep the place open. His gas station didn’t even sell gas anymore. I didn’t particularly want him to come but his reasons were like sharp pieces of gravel stuck inside the sole of my shoe; I had to remove them.
“And the ants,” he added.
Those fucking ants.
Everything was just an excuse to stay behind in the ruts he made for himself, that his parents, his great great grandfather had created. Dust his mother’s showroom, feed his horde of disgusting little ants, sell nonexistent gas to nonexistent customers in a fucking nonexistent town.
But I just nodded and Anderson set the can of gas aside before heading back into his store. I could see him through the glass just sitting back down on his chair, swiveling listlessly back and forth like I’d never even happened.
My hand was clenched tightly around my keys. Why wouldn’t he come with me? If he did then maybe I would’ve just kept going south across the border. We could’ve sold the car and started a business growing chilies or selling sombreros, or whatever you do in Mexico. We could’ve been happy.
Swelling with defeat I found myself being pulled back by my restraints, back to the place I had started from. Even here in the most remote desert shit hole you can think of I was chained.
I was about to pull back onto the freeway before I caught sight of Anderson’s home.
Pulling up along a road constructed of nothing more than dust I parked a couple feet from the door. It was unlocked and I made my way inside directly across the reflective wooden floor and down into the basement.
The house, those ants, were the leash that held him the way that every little crappy piece of my puzzle had kept me in one place for so long.
I pushed my nose up against the warm glass of one of the tanks, looking in at the insects toiling in their fake little ecosystem. They were headed back and forth between a branch in the corner and a hole in the sand, carrying heavy leaves on their back.
I imagined them, the little bugs, using their jaws to collectively tear at the silk cushions up above. They would crawl onto every surface, into every crack and crease, repopulating the world up above with grime and nature until they grew bored and scattered off into the heated desert sand.
The tank was heavier than I expected it to be, but anything’s easy enough to disrupt if you try. I got behind it and pushed. The table it sat on fell over as the tank upended right onto Anderson’s mattress. A mess of bed sheets, sand, and ants occupied the center of the room.
I tore off the top off the tanks that I couldn’t lift, but the ones I could I threw down to the cold concrete floor, shattering the thick glass.
His ants swarmed the ground, crawling across my sandals and around each other with the frenzy of settlers in a brand new colony. A couple pinched the exposed skin on my feet but I couldn’t think of the feeling as pain.
I saved the last few small farms, the childhood plastic kind, to empty along the stairs in hope that the little bug army would find their way up and into the showroom.
I left the jungle below completely satisfied. Wings fluttered as a few bugs caught themselves in my hair. I shook them out as I walked across the polished showroom floor, the prints of squished ants from the underneath of my sandals sullying the shine.
I had brushed off all the ants I could find before getting back in my car but the itchy ghost of their many feet still clung to my skin. I breathed in and out heavily because I had just discovered the magic trick to creation through destruction.
The old gas made my car whine but it was good enough to get me out of the nameless town and back onto the freeway. This time I was driving north.
I imagined him coming home to his mother’s showroom and seeing it covered in his precious collection. I imagined him being released, freed. I never told him where I lived or where I was going, but I still imagined him trying to find me. I never even told him my name.
The heat began to get to me again because as I passed car after car, SUV after pick up truck after Mustang, I began to get that pulling feeling in my stomach like I’d gotten when he ripped up my ticket. Like what I was doing was so incredibly wrong I should turn back and undo it.
For a little bit I pictured every car I passed covered completely in a dark mass of ants. There were so many of them scratching the paint jobs and destroying the leather, crawling through the insides of the cars and consuming the people within. After a while I couldn’t tell the difference between my imagination and what might have been a hallucination.
I began to think about every other person on the road with me. The family taking a road trip in the Ford Explorer, the lonely trucker in his heavy rig. I felt this welling sadness from that same spot in my stomach, this immense dark substance that was growing because I couldn’t know them. Each car that I passed was someone, some person with their infinite life that I would never meet. Some person with their great great grandfather’s bust, or with their calendar marking down the days till some absent event, or with their tanks full of thousands and thousands of ants.
The next exit I saw I took, turning around at a cross street to merge back on to the southbound freeway.
I knew, then, that I wanted to be there to see the look on Anderson’s face as he opened the door.