Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Sugar Ants, November 1956

by Donna D. Vitucci

Russ, the boy who never slept, roused them at dawn. As Jeter rolled off his side of the mattress, Lydia squeezed shut her eyes, then listened to his stumbling footfall and the water as it hit the bathroom basin. Russ tested her eyelids with his amazingly dexterous little fingers, tentatively at first, which felt like a creepy-crawly wanting in between her eyelashes. Then he flat-out tried prying her eye open, gouging her. Lydia slapped what she couldn’t see– the boy, left predictably to her. With his whole small body he tried bulldozing her from the bed.

Complain, and Jeter’d say, “Who has work to go off to?”

She imagined justifying. “And who remains here?”

Talk which would not satisfy Jeter or Lydia, and least of all Russ.

“Toast, Mommy.” Her boy head-butted her hip. He beat on her like a metronome. “Toast toast toes toast oast oats.”

She smelled pee in his pajamas and cookies in his hair. A laundry list started scrolling on the movie screen in her head where dreams looped nonsense all night long, but she turned away and burrowed into pretend sleep until Jeter stood at the bedside. She smelled him in his fragrant after-shave, an aroma of clean-cut wood at odds with something industrial.

“Jeez, Lid, don’t you think this little guy needs a changing?”

He lifted the boy and flipped him so his feet were pedaling air and his head screamed giggles underneath. Russ got stripped and changed. Pajamas and bedding were flung into the washer. Breakfast got cooked and eaten. Jeter went off to work.

Alone and in charge, Lydia deposited Russ with his bowl of cereal on the living room floor in front of The Skipper Ryle Show.

“Sit here,” she said. “And I mean it, Russ. Leave me be for just ten minutes.”

Free from his grabby hands, she stood and gazed out the kitchen window through the smoke of her Tareyton. She watched a black ant crawl up the white painted sash, saw how determined it was to test where the window glaze didn’t quite meet the wood frame, and the crevice into which it disappeared.

The Fernald plant in the far-off coughed out plumes that swelled and lifted, spreading with the higher clouds, then blending into streaks the airplanes left behind. Lydia hadn’t yet tossed crusts from the breakfast plates, but pigeons strutted across the backyard patio, pecking at the cement, in anticipation. The birds maybe sensed her cigarette burning down and her slight movement in bringing it to her lips because they rose, wheeling as one the way birds do.

Lydia flicked the silver cigarette lighter, the one that matched the silver tray on the cocktail table in by Russ, who prattled to himself, or Skipper Ryle, in the garglely, language of a two-year old. She tapped out the next Tareyton and sucked to keep it lit, then set the lighter on the windowsill above the sink. She couldn’t leave the lighter around for the boy to grab.

More birds leaned across the sky. Lydia tilted her head as if she flew with them, though she’d never been on an airplane; airplanes scared her silly. The birds perched and set up a racket in the bare tree branches. In the absence of leaves they were the quivering leaves. Then they lifted and fell into another formation, flying as one in the direction of smoke that belched from Fernald’s tallest stack.

The plant had assigned Jeter first shift this week and that left Lydia in charge of Russ from daybreak on to supper — a babysitting marathon. Jeter’s usual second shift allowed him to shoulder mornings with the boy, which granted Lydia two or three more hours of sprawling sleep—a luxury she now sorely missed.

Her mother always said, “You sleep like the dead” — a kind of deep unconsciousness she must have inherited because her parents had snored open-mouthed, overcome with similar exhaustion, while a younger Lydia crept back inside their house pre-dawn after spending half the night with Jeter. Her mother and daddy had pronounced that Jeter Burns, who dated their only lovely Lydia, was a decent young man. Her mother quoted it to her renters, Daddy said it to his Crosley Motors foreman. But mention of marriage curdled their good will.

“You are not wedding that boy. He’s army bound,” her daddy said.

Her mother said, “I won’t have you widowed, and you with your heart broke.”

Lydia cringed at this phony romanticism. Her mother most times dammed up any heart-felt thing. Some said she was stoic, others called her callous. The truth of it: she didn’t care a whit about Lydia’s heart, whole or otherwise.

Lydia had stomped her small foot in its new sling-back stack heel, good American-made footwear sewn tight and sure at U.S. Shoe over in Harrison. Her daddy owned a piece of that, too.

“What about love?” Lydia cried.

They looked at her, dull-eyed. She stomped again, but her fury budged no one. The three of them had never hid emotions, always wailing and flailing and hurling objects across the room to make a point. A Lydia-tantrum was old news.

Her daddy peeked at her from the top of the Post & Times Star. “You’ll get over him.”

Lydia dared to suppose Jeter had impressed them with his cool talk and manners, but she soon realized her parents’ tolerance of their duet was part of a waiting game. Once she overheard Mother and Daddy discussing her in the kitchen.

“She’ll tire of him soon enough. When has Lydia ever seen a thing through to its end?”—her mother’s complaint.

And her daddy remembered: “She chucked that typing class after three sessions.”

“Don’t even ask me to number the boys she’s traipsed in front us.”

“Distractable,” her daddy said.

Her mother sniffed. “And wanting too much.”

Which served to sharpen Lydia’s resolve.

“The boy’s getting shipped off to Korea,” her daddy said.

She would detour around the roadblocks they set. Daddy should have known forbidding would send her directly opposite. She endured Jeter’s weeks of basic at Ft. Riley, but then they stationed him in Alaska with just that tiny Bering Strait between him and Russia. Japan and Korea, too, so close. Over the long distance she and Jeter plotted permanent reunion; they’d drive during Jeter’s next leave to the J.P. in Lawrenceburg. For a full week during that furlough Jeter returned Lydia to her doorstep, as if each outing was any of their ordinary dates. And the last night then, with Lydia wearing her favorite pink boucle suit, they drove across the state line.

“You look sweet as icing,” Jeter said. He scooped her to him and kissed her so recklessly the car jerked over the yellow lane divider and back. With a second kiss, he tasted her neck.

When he had to rejoin his unit in Anchorage, what could she do but follow? Her parents thought it was a party “the kids” had gone to. They were expecting her home. She’d slipped out, with her new husband’s help, hefting two suitcases and a train case, her makeup spilling over inside.

Russ came running to the kitchen, his Red Ball Jets squeaking on the linoleum. Lucky he wore rubber on his feet or he’d be shocking Lydia every time he raced from the living room carpet and pummeled into her calves with his short, compact body. He was like a dwarf or a stout magical elf. Lydia’s passion for her boy could not be contained inside the walls of this house, but she had no idea what to do with him.

“I love you, Mommy.”

“I love you, too, baby.”

Russ burrowed his head into her with his face to the floor. His shoes squeaked as he squirmed. His fine hair, in the all-purpose bowl cut Jeter gave him, swished against Lydia’s thigh. She still wore her housecoat, though the gold filigreed wristwatch with the springy black band that had been Jeter’s surprise for her twenty-third birthday read half past morning. Russ’s wiggling had opened the halves of her robe and exposed her. She stood barefoot. He was worshipping her leg, dribbling his face down her ankle.

Lydia double-knotted the robe’s belt to keep herself covered. She took a drag from her cigarette and set it on the edge of the sink. Then she bent to Russ and yanked him from his worming around. Her hands grabbed him up by his armpits. She stood him on his own two feet.

“Do you have to go potty?” She shoved her face into his to make him look at her.

“No.” He couldn’t stand still.

“Do you, Russ?”

Jeter insisted that a mother had to set rules, but any little battle defeated her. She longed to turn her back on this problem, wanted to be liked by everyone, most of all her boy. She’d once had a determined will; because of Russ, it melted.

“I don’t have to,” Russ said. He pouted.

Okay, she wanted to sigh, leaving him to his toddler peculiarities.

Since she’d lowered herself to his level he burrowed into her stomach.

She shook his shoulder, his sweet substantial shoulder. How had this boy made it out of her in the first place? “Russ, tell me true,” she said.

He hung his head. He plunged into that bottom rib right above where Lydia had folded her belly as she squatted next to him. They both collapsed on the floor. Her robe, as a cover-up, hardly mattered.

She saw sugar had been spilled under the kitchen table. Black ants were marching away with it toward the base boards, one grain per ant. They were orderly, efficient. Each little beast knew the routine.

Lydia could smell her boy’s odor escaping even as he tried to hold it in. Russ struggled against giving up anything, especially his own shit. He was a rock, a mule, a headache. He had a problem with the potty.

He leaned into her, squirmed half in her lap.

“Look at the ants, Russ.” She pointed them out and envisioned a day-long project of watching their progress, their getaway.

Oh, to remain on the cool linoleum and let it soothe every part of her it touched. They would see something accomplished no matter how long the job took. She stood suddenly, heaving Russ up, and in that moment he forgot to struggle. She slung him over her shoulder so far he hung halfway down her back.

“I’ve got an old sack of potatoes,” she called out like a grocer at Findlay Market. It was all kidding, part of their mother-baby game, but Russ wouldn’t play.
His fists pounded an echo she could feel in her lungs.

They both screamed, “No!”

Lydia stood him on the half moon rug in front of the bathroom sink. She scooted Russ closer to the toilet so she could steal his place and clench her toes into the deep pile of the carpet. He slapped his sweaty hands on her cheeks and her ears. He pulled her short hair that she’d not yet washed today. She tugged his pants down, outers and inners, and plopped him on the seat. There she held his thighs tight under her hands. In this she found her best strength of the day. She pinned her boy, directed her whole one hundred and nine pounds through her two shaky arms so her elbows trembled in their locked positions. The bangles she wore, three silver and three gold, clanked against the porcelain when they slid down her right wrist. Her struggle with Russ had flipped over her birthday watch so the shiny back side was all Lydia knew of the time.

Russ cried hot tears as he strained. He was straining to get up, straining to push, straining away from her, straining to burrow against her body.

“Oh no you don’t.” Lydia almost sang it, rejoicing in the fact she’d maneuvered Russ onto “the big people’s potty.” “I am very proud of you, Russ.” She gagged at the smell as she praised him.

Russ clonked his skull on hers. Each of his hands clenched around each of her ears so the pliable bones at the edges were bending and sore. She and Russ locked limbs, sweaty and brimming with their opposite intents, both of them as inanimate as tub or sink or wash machine. In overpowering Russ, Lydia felt more resolute than she’d ever thought possible. Not since she’d eloped had she known such victory. Blood, or something just below skin level, traveled throughout her scalp, a chemical rush that blared emergency, as if she’d veered into oncoming traffic.

“All done, honey?” She used her cheeriest voice to congratulate him.

He clonked her head with his, a “yes” nod.

She wiped and released Russ, then grabbed him back before he could tumble away.

“One minute, buddy.” She pulled up his pants and tapped his behind. “Okay. Go play.”

She watched him motor off on his strong little legs—ham bones, Jeter teasingly called the boy’s fat thighs– the hem of his outer pants hanging far enough to conceal the mark of her hold on him.

When Jeter came home, Lydia turned from the stove where she had chops sizzling in the fry pan so she could collect a kiss.

She announced, “Guess what Russ did today!” She imagined herself through Jeter’s eyes, seeing her pretty and teasing and triumphant. She felt that way. She’d washed and set her hair so it gleamed black and sleek. She dressed in red because Jeter remarked the color set against her dark hair was “alluring.” The red halter blouse with its peplum looked great, she thought, paired with these black pedal pushers from her pre-pregnancy wardrobe she’d starved herself to return to. A Tareyton, lipstick-kissed around its filter, sat poised on the edge of the sink. Its long ash would soon fall into the stacked breakfast plates with their cloudy morning water still shallow and dripping against the plugged drain.

Lydia’s eyes glittered. She might have just finished crying. Russ sat under the kitchen table watching the ants devise a detour around his Red Ball Jets. He licked his finger and then touched the sugar so he could eat it.

Jeter grabbed Russ up from his hidey-place and tickled his boy’s belly. “You big boy. Did you use our potty? Is that what you did? That’s super. That’s super duper.” He delivered to Russ’s gut what they called “tickle bombs.”

Wait a minute. Had he even kissed her?

Lydia’s razzle dazzle voice failed to impress Jeter so she swallowed it.

“And we’ve got ants.” She pointed out the sugar supply line trimming the baseboard.

“I’ll spray,” Jeter said.

He released the boy, who tucked and rolled and promptly unwound. Before Jeter could rise, Russ jumped on his daddy’s back the way he did when the two of them played along with television’s Big Time Wrestling, mimicking the dangerous and the fake. “Whooaaa.” Jeter bucked and bronco-ed with Russ giggling on top of him.
Lydia shut down the stove burner. “The ants can wait,” she said. “Let’s eat.”

Russ sang, “Ants, ants, ants, ants.” He leapt out of a squat and then made himself into a small box of a boy, then erupted again, racing around to slap his palm on every kitchen surface like he was taking inventory.

Jeter scooped him up when Russ finished the circuit, while Lydia set plates on the table.

“Those ants in your pants driving you crazy? Huh?” He settled Russ in his high chair.

“He’s just naturally buggy,” Lydia said. She ruffled Russ’s hair and he pushed her hands off as Jeter used a piece of torn bed sheet to tie the boy to his seat. Otherwise he’d slide right down behind his tray, squirming and wriggling until he broke free.

Even this might only guarantee them five minutes to gulp dinner before Russ began bellowing. Her mother had suggested the tactic, and for once she’d contributed something applicable to Lydia’s real life. With Russ, you had to be a warrior with ambush and a whole arsenal of tricks and coercion.

After supper Jeter pushed back his chair and hung his head so he could see the enemy below table-level. “I guess I’m off to the garage,” he said.

“Me, too,” Russ called, running in from the living room and crashing into Jeter’s legs.

“For the poison,” Lydia said.

“You know another way to stop them?”

She shrugged, but she had reservations. The ants followed instinct, so who was she to interfere?

“Come on, Russ. Us boys got work to do. We got to save the little lady from the varmints.”

“Varnt, varnt, varnt,” Russ chanted, stomping and marching in Jeter’s footsteps.

Lydia, nearest the kitchen exit, got to her feet and held the screen door for both of them, then called after, “Don’t let Russ touch anything.”

Jeter turned to face her and the house while approaching the garage backwards. He saluted. She waved from behind the screen, thinking of his soldier days. She whispered, “At ease.”

They disappeared inside where Jeter parked the Plymouth and the lawn mower, which left Lydia in the very same place she’d been that morning, staring out at the yard, greeted by birds that dipped close in one formation and then rolled away like they were peeling back the sky.

Jeter and Russ returned to the kitchen with a spray tank and Jeter let the boy hold the nozzle.

“Aim low,” Jeter told him.

She looked away from Russ, whose eyes had the gleam of an executioner.

The canister hissed as Jeter pumped it, and the nozzle hissed as Russ drowned the ants with more than his usual excitement. Lydia held her inhale. The ants lay inert and scattered, like spilled jimmies off a cupcake.

“I have to get out of here,” she said.

Jeter, in his bent, administering, pal-to-Russ position, looked up at her. “I thought this was what you wanted.”

“Me, too. I thought so, too.”

The patio held its reservoir of fresh air. Her bare toes gripped the pocked surface of the cement. How hard and lovely and lasting it was, as manmade and modern as the products they churned out at Fernald, she guessed. She didn’t really know. People who worked there nimbly changed the subject when you asked. Jeter did. And she didn’t have the guts to push him on it.

She traveled the sidewalk around the house and down the driveway to the edge of the road where a cardinal lay flattened on its own bent wing, an origami bird among flame-colored leaves. All false beauty to distract from the ugly underneath, she thought. The underneath, where ants met in a frenzy, feasting and undiscovered. Lydia worked the hinge of her elbow, brought her hand to her breast, swung her arm open like a gate and then back to her heart, as if she was revving up and preparing to give Russ a good spanking, or maybe practicing to lift her chin, shoulders, feet, and fly.

Later, on the back step, she tapped out a cigarette. One left in the pack. Tomorrow, then, there’d be a trip to the store, and that thought cheered her up. She blew smoke into the deeper dusk. Beside her Jeter sat, his long gorgeous arms dangling the beer bottle between his legs.

He said, “Look at our boy tear around after those lightning bugs.”

Lydia squinted to try and locate Russ, but the dark both reduced and expanded the space around his body.

She said, “He’s been beating up on me all day.”

Jeter took a long drink and swallowed. “And vice versa, from the looks of it.”

“Are you blaming me?”

“Should I?”

He hadn’t been there. He didn’t know how tough it could be.

She shrugged. “I’m doing all I can.”

“Lid, are you, really?”

She could feel his eyes directed on her. He drank his beer.

The insecticide smell hung in the air. It seeped through the screen door as they sat observing Russ ricochet around the yard. Lydia imagined poison dusting her clean hair and her eyelashes and her lips. It married what she was sucking through the cigarette. She drew it all in more heavily and her lungs held it longer.
“I’m not the guilty party,” she said.

He stood and stalked off until she could no longer see him, then he accused her from the distance: “You’re as bull-headed as the boy.”

“Come on, Russ,” his voice called out in the dark. “Time to pack it in for tonight.”

“So what if we’re both obstinate?” she said, probably not loud enough.

Then Jeter materialized so fast out of the dark he spooked her.

“If you’re aware, then shouldn’t that give you some kind of edge? You’re his mother, for God’s sake.”

“Yes, I am,” she said, sick to death of everything they worked at keeping veiled. She wished he’d just blow up at her. The night spread too silent and the darkness too dark. The little bit of wind died to nothing.

She heard the wet and breathy running around of her boy in the yard. She said, “If we don’t bring him in soon he’s going to get chilled, all sweaty as he’s gotten.”

“Russ,” Jeter called.

“Wait,” the boy panted as he ran past them.

Jeter collapsed beside Lydia on the step. “He won’t be still a minute, will he?” He sounded like the reality of Russ’s limitless energy was just now dawning on him.

“Always yo-yo-ing off somewhere,” she said. Affection coasted in her blood — beyond passion, beyond care. “And then you know what?” she said. “He’ll suddenly pop into my lap like a cork from under water.”

Jeter said, “You might as well be talking about your own unpredictability.”

Apology fused with affection in his work-weary voice, one of his make-up tactics she’d come to recognize, but she didn’t fault him for it. When he pulled Lydia on to his knees, she felt if he could give an inch then she could give two. She snuggled her face near his ear, and he linked his arms around her, shoulders to thighs. They made a knot of perfume and soap, smoke and sweat, and insecticide kisses.

“Now who’s the baby?” Lydia said. There lurked the possibility of romance, but then Jeter called out, past her cheek and her short curls tucked behind her ear: “Russ.”

Miracle that the boy skidded to a stop at their feet.

Jeter said, “Hey there, Speedy.”

Lydia imagined a huge cloud of dust obscured by the night. Russ delivered to them the aroma of mulched leaves and the lovely sweat smell that rose from his scalp.

“We both liked the ants, didn’t we, Russ?” she said. She tried to sound nonchalant, even cheery, while she brimmed with wishes and wistfulness and a little regret. She turned all her charm on her boy.

“Oh, there’ll be more ants,” Jeter said, reeling her into his chest, luring her away from Russ. “Bet on it. This season or next, they’ll swarm.”

Hardly the first time Lydia felt divided. Perhaps she let Russ push her to her limits precisely so she could pinch him, since pinching him was a little like pinching herself. If her mother had been visiting and witnessing, she would have stood with crossed arms, impatient as she observed Lydia’s give and take with Jeter, and with Russ wiggling to make a space for himself between them, as if she were waiting for a late rent check to warm her palm, nodding and congratulating herself on another prediction come true.

“Lousy renter, spirited daughter,” she might say, “both hip deep in trouble of their own making.”

Lydia, of course, would quibble. “Nothing murky here,” she’d say, but she might be lying. She’d lied plenty to her parents. She routinely packaged little anecdotes about Russ to tell her mother, half-truth half-invention, to keep her off her back.

“The little savage,” she might say into the telephone while Russ played with trucks in a world of his own making. “The boy will not nap.”

Her mother’s advice: “Eradicate before those bad habits become ingrained.”

Like the ants, Lydia, thought. They had to go. Nothing personal.

Above her boy’s tousled hair, her gaze roamed the backyard, skimmed the dark figures which were probably just leafless trees. All this shadow upon shadow inspired the rippling she’d felt earlier all along her scalp, an alertness, an itch.

Russ leaned in, trying to separate her from Jeter. His elbows dug into their soft parts as he leaned in with his body and expelled his sweet candy breath. “Swarm, warm, worm, warm,” he chanted.

“His voice is hoarse,” she said. “See? He’s caught cold just like I predicted.”

“No one knows Russ like his mommy,” Jeter said. “Ain’t that right?”

He swooped a tickle bomb into Russ’s belly so the boy collapsed on his giggles, fighting off his daddy and squirming to Lydia, begging her, “Save me save me,” which was as it should be. Because I’m his mother, she thought. The declaration spilled over with all the extravagance and collusion and subterfuge that motherhood implied. She felt her heart might burst.

Heat from his little furnace of a body and the damp, spent smell of autumn grass rolled off Russ and wove in between their hugging arms and legs. The sweet Russ smell threaded itself among the leftover ant poison. It paired up with Jeter’s weakened aftershave and the beer on his breath, knit with her own sweat-diluted perfume. What Russ brought them wove into a net, a safety net. Lydia sucked on her own tongue to calm herself. She held the taste of nicotine in her mouth while she counted down the seconds, then she said, “What did you use?”

Jeter unwound from Russ’s limbs and wordlessly acknowledged that she meant the ant concoction. “Little bit of this, little bit of that.” He snapped his fingers. “And, voila.” As if he was King of Chemistry.

“Time to go inside, Russ,” Jeter said.

“Pooh,” their boy said through a wet pout. He pried Lydia’s hands from her knees finger by finger. He tried launching her up from behind with his knees in her kidneys.

“Take him,” she said, and Jeter lifted Russ to his chest. “In,” she said.

“Are you coming?”

“In a minute.”

Russ called to her with outstretched arms: “Mommy!” His head hung horizontal. Jeter’d trapped the boy’s thighs at his own hips, otherwise he was perpendicular.

“I promise she’ll be in right after us.” Jeter pivoted Russ to the house while Russ leaned mightily opposite.

Lydia fled down the driveway to the garage.

“Vroom, vroom,” Jeter’s make-believe truck growled from the back step.

“Vroom, vroom,” Russ squealed.

The screen door slapped its divide, their voices and bodies receding, receding where all was dark until Jeter hit the light switch in each room they traversed, probably flying Russ now like an airplane, his arms held out stiff from his chubby sides, maybe Russ slapping the lights on himself, deep into a game she didn’t initiate.

Lydia had a husband and a father who’d provide whatever she cared for, but she wanted to verify, and in verification sabotage her peace of mind. Shouldn’t be stepping in this garage barefoot, she thought. The concrete was warm and gritty, smelled of motor oil and sand.

The back shelves stocked all kinds of stuff Jeter worked with– for car and lawnmower, for plugged drains and shorted-out switches, for house patch and paint, for garden and basement, all the foggy things that took place in the dim coal room downstairs. Things for making a mess and solvent for cleaning up. Lighter fluid, turpentine, mouse traps, and paint sticks. Dozens of metal tools and small drawers full of sorted smaller things which required those tools. Pesticide containers lined the top-most garage shelf in the way her canisters of flour, sugar and salt sat in the pantry. Skulls and crossbones posted the same warnings printed on the backs of Drano and Borax and Comet cleanser Lydia had inside her house beneath the sink or in the laundry cabinet.

Chlor-Kil was an amber liquid in an amber bottle, like medicine Harry Rudemiller would hand you across his counter at the Family Pharmacy. She hoped the “little bit” Jeter’d mixed in was mostly water. Even Lydia knew you shouldn’t stir different chemicals together. Dilution for in-the-house spraying only made sense. And all for the sake of some ants. She could imagine her mother’s blame: Well, you started it. In lifting one foot, then the other, Lydia misplaced the floor grit. Some of it stuck to the sweat between her toes. She bounced in place in the garage, no closer to exit but entering no deeper, jigging her weight right and left as if the floor held hot coals she’d sworn to walk across on a dare.

Read Donna D. Vitucci’s bio »