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DAVID ROLLED THE ANTS DEAD UNDER HIS THUMB. He rocked his thumb like a pestle, made sure none were still wriggling, then flicked off the crunchy residue with the nail of his pointing finger.

His parents would be home soon. He had started his punishment, condemned himself to the back porch. Now he wished he could join all those loose, faraway voices that were free to play as they pleased. It wore at him the way things walked in and out of sense. It seemed that the entire world babbled just out of earshot.

The yard still steamed from the morning's storm. The corners of the lawn were damp pockets shaded by the sticky-sweet honeysuckle that hemmed the yard. The lawn itself was nothing more than a few patches of stiff, sharp-tongued grass here and there among battalions of grey cottonseedy dandelions.

The concrete slab was already bone-dry as chalk and near as hot as an iron. The porch caught the full attention of the Alabama sun, threatened to scald him right through his jeans if he sat for too long in any one spot. So he scuttled back and forth like some spider, crushing red ants. Fire ants everybody called them. They were red like dried chili peppers and they burned like hell when they bit you.

The laundry line ran around a wheel hung from the eave overhead. It was strung just out of harm's way, in this case his mother's unkempt hedge with its wicked dogfights of rose and thistle.

He set about to pass sentence on every living thing he could reach. Death to every fire ant, death to every pincher bug, pill bug or beetle. Thumbs down for daddy-long legs and even for other spiders. He was merciless.

The back yard ran uphill to where the red clay bank. It was overrun by fantastical ant factories. Even the dogs weren't fool enough to play there. The boys never did either, on account of the ants, 'cept to use the bank for target practice. One caved-down area, black as soot, had suffered a series of systematic assaults at the hands of the boys. Their Fourth-of-July M-80's and cherry bombs had been lobbed like grenades.

The top of the bank rolled over and away up the hillside. It was actually a huge pecan orchard that for the most part was fenced in by tall chain link nettled with barbed wire strung all around the top. A gang of trustees from the prison were filling gunny bags and cardboard boxes with pecans that had been blown or knocked down during the storm. They had been put to gathering them before the bugs or rot could get at them.

Suddenly someone shouted and everyone fell down like they'd all been shot at once. He heard the single blast and the quick double-pump of a shotgun recocking. A guard laughed as his hound trotted back with a bloodied trophy between his teeth and dropped the prize at his master's boots. A rabbit most likely. The gang soon got back to picking up pecans.

He wanted to sneak out closer to the fence, to hide and listen in on all their secrets. He would lie sometimes in the bushes where the orchard ran down to the river. It was dirty and dangerous and intoxicating business for a young boy of eleven. He knew all of the best places to crawl under the fence, though he never dared it when he thought the gangs might be coming. What if one of them saw him and caught him or followed him out and got away?

The ants were beserk. They fled in jerky circles on the porch, looking to escape to some safe, ant-scented trail into the coolness of the lawn.

Had Jill gone and picked up his bike for him? His hands. The palms still smarted where the skin had been scraped away from the fall. How they had stung from his tears.

Brushing the sweat from his face, he dragged his arm over the top of his head. His hair was shaved down to a burr, thanks to his father's barber.

He could see himself back in the huge chair, his angry, swollen eyes reflected in the infinite nowhere-land of the barbershop mirrors. Taking off his new glasses, tucking them under the blue apron for safekeeping, looking up again into the blur. The yellowed paper shade on the window kept out the glare of the sun but the muggy heat was another matter. It made you feel every bit of tired. And there wasn't even a fan!

His father was joking and cussing with the barber like the two of them were buddies. His father squints, peeking out around the shade, swears once more at the heat. He takes off his own black plastic frames, wipes at them with his handkerchief. Sips again on his beer, one of the long-necked brown bottles the barber sold out of his cooler.

Now David's memory flickers, and although he can still see himself sitting in the chair, he feels as if he is at the same time standing over by the shop door, watching the barber snap on his loud electric clippers. Then once again from the barber chair he watched his free self step outside onto the sidewalk where his friend Windy would be waiting with their bike.

The bike was nothing more than spare and swapped parts on a castoff frame, but it served the boys. Windy ran alongside for a while, then David took his turn. They ran everywhere barefoot, rode their bike barefoot through the quarries and mostly laughed at suggestions that they wear "something" on their feet.

They stopped at the top of the bluff. Here they would split up as Windy was bound home to do chores. They agreed on the matinee downtown, but the afternoon was still several hot hours away. The Royale had air conditioning in iceblue letters. He watched his friend heave himself over the stone wall of the country club. It was their usual shortcut across the golfcourse. As he slipped through the brush, Windy's blond hair disappeared last. It flashed through the cattails like spokes of sunlight, only to wink out in the moss-laden trees, a shiny coin lost in a dark, green-spangled pool.

Windy lived in The Heights. Wendell was his real name but you almost never heard it.

David picked up his feet and let the bike start to roll by itself down the hill. He was still high enough on the bluff to see as far as the State Fairgrounds. The ironwork of the Screamer jutted up above the other Midway rides, though still dwarfed by the vaulted concrete roof of the Coliseum. It shone from every railing and fixture, its massive arches and beams painted bright eggshell white.

The day grows darker and in the distance the horizon grows thicker, banks of coal-black thunderheads roil furiously, as thick as smoke from a stack. The Coliseum races above the treetops like a clipper ship running full out before the face of the onrushing storm, itıs roof a billowing sail of canvas stretched out before the lowering sky.

He pedals a few times to increase his speed. Kings and queens are clothes-pinned to the fork. They whirr against the spokes like the flippers on the Big Money Wheel at the Fair. He glides down the smooth seductive slope, singing above the slapping of the cards.

Overhead the sky snaps shut. Rain smacks the street as the storm enfolds him in its damp curtains, heavy and smothering. The rain thumps the field and spots the asphalt a deeper glistening black. The Coliseum finally drops from his sight behind the trees.

Then he remembers. The laundry! His mother had told him to gather it in before she'd left for Selma. And it was still on the line! She had warned him to look after it should the radio's chance of showers arrive. Her very words. "I don't know what all your plans are for the rest of the day, young man, but they had better include some effort around here." The rest of the chores could always wait. But the laundry would be ruined!

The street gives out at the bottom of the hill and turns to gravel. The bike slides out from under him as he tries to avoid the deep ruts, the wet gravel catching in the chain, running it off the sprocket. He throws his hands in front of his face.

Now he is sitting up in the road, his hands bleeding, caked with clots of gravel and mud. The bike lies beside him, wheels still spinning. The cards that hadn't flown off in the crash still chatter and snicker. Told you so told you so told you so! Here are the remains of his glasses. One lens is scratched and the frame falls apart in his hands. He shoves them in his pocket, picks up his bike and starts to push it home. But he can only limp painfully along as his ankle swells and stiffens. His jeans flap at the knee where they had torn. There are shouts as windows and doors bang shut. A thundering garage door rolls down with a final boom.

He drops the bike. He will have to leave it. In his dimmed vision he half-imagines the laundry waving at him frantically from the line, whipped by the wind into a flat-out panic. He stumbles through the back gate and over to the line. He gathers up what all he can find on the lawn, grabs at the bouncing line and snatches down the survivors. He hobbles up the porch and inside into the dark kitchen with the sheets bundled into a clumsy package. The screen door smashes shut behind him and just as sharply the world falls quiet. His heart bangs away in his chest, pounding over the muffled roar of the storm. He shudders at the squeal of the spinning laundry wheel.

After a while he seems to waken. His hands still burn and bleed. Blood has smeared the sheets. At least one cuff is torn on his father's dress shirt. He sits without thinking again until the storm blows off. He knows what will happen when his parents come home. His mother will cry as she slaps him, his father will unfasten his webbed belt. And David could expect to sit in the sun for a few hours.

This page last edited 12/5/2009. This fiction Copyright İ 1989, 2009 David Donaldson.