He said he wanted to build a wall he couldn’t see over, with mechanical ants on the other side. I thought you couldn’t see over, I said. I can’t see over, he said, but there are ants, I know there are, mechanical ones giving birth to each other. Giant ones, terrible, black, red, demented, writhing in ecstasy, giving birth, I can hear them.
His son was in a gang. Nothing unexpected, he said, nothing that couldn’t have been predicted by studying economic spreadsheets or reading the editorials. Of course, the boy’s lifestyle had sent his older sister into the hospital twice, both times a nervous wreck, and once with a broken collarbone. So there was trouble in that, my friend confided, there was trouble in that, certainly, these were troubling times.
But he said the ants had to be having babies. All of them, even the babies had to be having babies, and even the ones that were hermaphroditic, and the ones without reproductive organs. He said it like he’d never been wrong in his life, like he was truly sold on the archetype of the mad scientist.
Well, I don’t know. The world’s ridiculous. Some asshole murdered his wife and then he didn’t make it through his corporation’s next round of layoffs. Well. He still had the wall, and the ants giving birth on the other side of the wall, and lately, near the end, as if to thicken the plot of his nightmare just before the telltale sign of a terrible cliffhanger came written across the marquee, he started appearing in a suit of armor with wings.
I guess the phone rang a lot. A lot of wrong numbers, a lot of sales calls. A few people who wanted him to enter contests. Someone who said he was from the public library’s collection service, inquiring about a number of suspicious overdue fines. It wasn’t that the fines were strange, the collector said, just that it was strange for a grown man to be sulking like a stupid little boy. Or that’s what he thought he heard, I guess. It didn’t make very much sense when he explained it to me.
He knew I had a friend who owned a gallery, and he wanted to know if I could get one of his paintings into a show. I don’t know, I said. We’ll see. I told him to show me the painting. It was in his studio, the backroom of the house, what had once been the TV room, or the stereo room. The room didn’t smell bad, or, it didn’t smell terrible. It smelled like some mice had maybe made their home in a corner of the room, but it didn’t smell like any of them were dead. The painting made me want to have a seizure. There was a volcano, or the shadow of a volcano, with this ludicrous blue bird carrying pale skeletons in its claws, flying either towards the surface of the image, or away from the surface of the image. It was hard to tell exactly, it was very disorientating, but I don’t think he’d painted it to intentionally trigger an experience of disorientation, I think he probably painted it to reflect his own experience of disorientation. Anyway, it was horrible. I told him something like my friend’s gallery preferred works slanted closer to the avant-bohemian edges of the mainstream cultural currents, at least at this time. He seemed to accept this, or he didn’t say anything to try and change my mind.
Anyway, I married his daughter a year or so later. She’s a beautiful girl, she’s barely even afraid of her father. It’s a beautiful thing, love. His son, her brother, my brother-in-law—the prodigal—hasn’t been home for two months, and I don’t bring up his name. Sometimes at the table I suggest we join hands and say grace. They look at me to say the prayer, but I just close my eyes and sigh.
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