Photo Credit: Mikhail Vasilyev
God damn it was hot. That’s how I remember it. Heat and dirt and a white sky. Our shirts were off and the sun’s rays, thousands of razors, nicked away at our flesh. My backyard was all dust and anthills, the only yard on the block without grass or a fence. A patch of yellow-heavy sunflowers swayed with the breeze, this choir of color, a natural delineator between the yard and the rest of the high plains.
Ryan and I, we were digging just to dig. Little boys in Wyoming learn early on to get our hands dirty. It’s in our blood. Soil feeds us. Moving earth from one spot to another, whether by tractor or spoon, is a form of meditation. We may be water now, eventually we’ll crumble back into dirt. Dust to dust and all that, but on this day we were just trying to go deep, stepping back every now and then to look at our progress, feeling like we were getting something and nothing done at the same time.
I raised the shovel above my head and brought it down hard into the pebble and stick dome of an ant hill. They trickled to the surface, ants the color of blood immediately digging themselves out of the cave in, shaking the debris from their bodies, hurried and panicked, in a world tossed upside down. I imagined underground air raid sirens and BREAKING NEWS banners streaming across tiny ant TVs in tiny ant homes. I imagined secret service ants rushing the queen to an undisclosed pod deeper than the rest. I imagined insects wailing and other insects looking for loved insects in the rubble and some insects doing both. I wondered if they knew what man was, or if they saw us as more than animal, a part of the weather, a natural disaster perhaps. Looking down at the carnage I felt powerful. It’s good to be God, I thought. Once more I tamped the rusty blade into it, dug out another shovelful, overturned it and watched the refugees flee from their collapsing colony.
It gave me an idea. “Let’s dig a bunker where nobody can find us. And tunnels. We could dig different rooms. Just disappear. Think of all the cool shit we could do down there with no one telling us to do,” I said.
Ryan tossed a shovel full of dirt onto a pile of other dirt. “It could take all week but I think we could do it.” Sweat collected in the divot of his chest.
My dad had two Doberman pinschers back there—a red male and a black female—Dobie and Dandy. That morning before he headed to work in the train yard, I saw him out there in his overalls clipping a long chrome chain to the male’s collar and wrapping the other end to one of the posts holding up the deck. He kept the female in the dog run. She was in heat and it was impossible to pull them apart once Dobie decided to mount her. It happened in the past and we had to spray them with a high-pressure hose to get them apart.
We were digging and the birds were chirping and the grasshoppers buzzed like wind-up toys when Larry Hinker with his hair all feathered and a big red comb sticking out of the back pocket of his shorts came riding through the sunflowers up out of the field. The black mag wheels of his Mongoose screamed when he jumped off and let the bike ghost ride into the yard. He stumbled towards us, regained his balance and flicked his head back to separate the bangs hanging over his eyes, “What’s up Hardon? What are you fags doing?” The first signs of a mustache sprouted under his nose and a wad of chew puffed out his bottom lip. He was wearing a mesh half-shirt with an iron-on of two vans, one on top of the other, in glittery letters it read, Do It In A Van. He was one of the cool kids, one that seemed to have so much more life experience than the average ten-year-old. One that didn’t talk to me at school when other cool kids were around.
I knew he’d think the bunker was stupid, so I lied, “Just digging a flower bed for my dad.”
“What a prick,” he said. “I’d make him dig it himself.” He spit tobacco juice into the dirt. “Besides, your dad ain’t gonna plant no flowers. What he should do is plant some god-damned grass first. He can’t even finish painting the god damned house.”
Larry was right. The summer before, my dad got a wild hair up his ass and decided to paint the house a totally different color than what it was. He ran out of paint halfway through and with him having sole custody of me and my brother, which meant feeding us, buying us clothes and mom never paying child support like she was supposed to, he said he couldn’t afford to buy anymore paint. So now it stood half green, half yellow, an eyesore, a gaping wound on our neighbor’s Reaganesque dreams.
Dandy’s long tongue hung low from the sharp angles of her snout. She panted. She whined. She trotted back and forth in the pen. The sunflower congregation hunched over, heads down, praying for rain. The ants went from panic, to organizing now, forming lines, carrying pebbles twice their size in their steely jaws. I watched about twenty of them push and pull a decapitated grasshopper from the rubble. A couple strays crawled up my leg. I bent over and swatted them away.
When I looked back up, Larry was waving his hand in the dog’s face.
“Be careful. My dad says Dobie’s in a bad mood because he can’t fuck,” I said.
“Shit, I get in a bad mood when I can’t fuck too,” Larry said, pulling the comb from his pocket, tossing his head back, three quick swipes on each side of his head and his hair was perfectly feathered. Before he put it back in his pocket he made sure to pretend it was an airplane, dive-bombing the dog’s stare. Jealous Dandy jumped on the fence of the dog run. The pads of her front paws wrapped through the wire mesh. She whimpered. A ground squirrel whistled and dove into a hole under the transformer box, an airplane left a smoky trail in the sky.
Ryan goes, “Larry, you must be in a bad mood all the time then. You know you haven’t even seen a real pussy before.”
Larry goes, “Shit, I’ve seen all kinds of pussy.”
Then Ryan goes, “Just the one you came out of. Your momma’s big fat pussy.”
“That’s funny, because I was in your momma’s pussy last night,” Larry said. Then he pointed at the dog, “What the hell is that? Look guys there’s a red thing coming out of his dick.”
The dog sat stoic on its muscular haunches. Sun-flair sheened his red coat. The chain rested down his front and behind him along the dirt, certain links reflected light like lost earrings. And yes, a red thing was coming out of his dick.
The air seemed to gain weight. Like there was a tension to it, maybe sexual between the two dogs, maybe not. I didn’t want to boss Larry around, I wanted him to think I was cool, but the dog did bite my brother when he was like three-years-old, bad enough that he needed stitches on the top of his head. “Larry, be careful. Don’t touch the dog’s dick.” My hand blocked the sun from my eyes. “I know it’s hard with how much you like dicks though. Just don’t. You’ll get me in trouble.”
Larry flipped me the bird. “You like dicks Hardon. Hardon! Ha!” He bent down and cocked his head, “But really, what’s that red thing though? Is that a different part of it or is that the dick itself? Shit, if it is, my dick is bigger than that.”
“You wish,” Ryan said.
Then Larry, he pulled his shorts down to his knees, then his underwear came down. “Face your case,” Larry said and twirled the tiny thing around. We all laughed. Ryan dropped the shovel then dropped his shorts and was now running in circles whipping his dick side to side, up then down. I pulled mine out and starting pissing like a sprinkler—tic tic tic tic, ttttttttttttt, tic tic tic tic—onto the obliterated ant pile. Ryan stepped towards Larry, a golden arc of piss landing on Larry’s Pro Wings. Larry pissed back but missed. In the dog run Dandy yipped, ran, wore a figure 8 into the baked earth. She wanted in on the action. Dobie still sat still, statuesque in our kicked-up dust.
I picked up the splintered shovel handle and went back to the hole, my pants still at my knees. The pitiful breeze felt good on my dick and balls. “Let’s get back to work,” I said. Ryan, his pants also still down, kneeled and grabbed his shovel. Larry pulled up his shorts, walked over to Dobie. I scanned the ground and found those ants still struggling with the grasshopper, they hadn’t made it very far, but they hadn’t given up either. I thought of smashing them all just because I could, that’s when I heard it. That howl though, it came from a pitch-black corner of the soul, one I was too young to discover before then, a scream, a pain, a fear, so animalistic: an impala calf locked in the jaws of a cheetah, its neck broken and its last breath whistling from its severed throat, a sad clown stretching the mouth of a balloon as it deflated. That’s when I saw Larry. A slab of white meat dangled from his chin, hanging there like his face was sausaging out of itself. His eyes were globular and pale. There was no blood at first. Larry just stood there shivering. I didn’t understand. Then it came all at once, cascading thick and syrupy from poor Larry’s face, down his neck, the front of his shirt onto the soil where it was absorbed into the earth. He raised his hand to the wound, nearly touching it but stopping in fear of what he’d find. Ryan’s expression was whiter than the meat hanging from Larry’s expression. I’m sure mine was too. My dog just bit a kid in the face and I guess I was in charge. I let it happen. I didn’t know what to do. I kept my distance. Then I realized the whole street heard the deathly yell. “Larry shut up! We’re going to get in trouble,” is all I said. But by then, moms were flocking to my backyard. Larry’s howl triggered some primal motherly instinct across the land, a distress call. One of them held a baby in her arms, bouncing up and down to calm the child or maybe herself. A lady, square glasses on the end of her nose, acid-washed jeans up to her tits and bangs curled into a tidal wave said, “Where is your father?” Another one said, “He’s never home. These kids are always running wild. They deserve to be taken away. And why in the lord’s name are your pants down Ryan?” She turned to me, “What kind of sick things go on here?” I pulled my pants up. I couldn’t speak. Every ounce of blood in my body freight-trained towards my head. And then the tears came.
“Ryan, your mom is going to hear about this,” the lady with a baby said. “You’re coming with me.”
Larry shrieked, small-stepping in tight circles. “Larry calm down honey,” The lady with glasses said. “Let me see your face. Calm down honey. It will be okay.” Hysterical Larry froze on the anthill. The lady put her palms flat on each side of Larry’s temples tilting his head back, stunned by the grave recognition of how fucked this really was. His face was falling off in that sun. Larry yelped again, his salty tears and snot and blood dripped from his chin to the ants below. The ants were marching now, well-oiled, up his legs, a trail of mandibles tearing at the soft flesh of Larry’s thighs. Pain on top of pain. Whimpers on top of wails. The lady tried picking them off of Larry with her long nails, then they were all over her. There were too many. She grabbed Larry by the shoulders and dashed him away, not before looking over her shoulder, “Tell your dad that because of him being irresponsible that your dog is going to have to die now.”
“Where the hell is your mother?” one lady asked.
“Their mother left them a few years ago,” another answered.
“I can see why,” said the one who was walking Larry away.
Dobie had retreated under the deck, cowering in the dark under the stairs.
I took off running as fast as I could. I just ran. Hyperventilating. Hypersensitive. I couldn’t form a thought, my mind doing wind sprints from one side of my skull to the other, back and forth, Dandy doing the same in her pen. So I ran, hoping to outrun the embarrassment, hoping to outrun the words they spoke of my dad, hoping to outrun Larry’s blood—mostly to outrun myself until I wasn’t there anymore. Running, crying, the heat, I couldn’t breathe, I kept going. I deserved to hurt. I punished myself, even though I knew I’d get more whenever my dad got home.
After a couple hours, my adrenaline depleted and exhaustion set in, I turned around and headed back. When I got back home my dad still wasn’t there and I didn’t know when he’d be back. Sometimes he was gone for a few days. There was no way to get a hold of him.
That evening Ryan called and said Larry had kneeled down to study the dog’s erection. He told me Larry was trying to touch it and the dog just snapped. He told me that Larry had gotten twenty stitches. I got off the phone, found a flashlight in the kitchen drawer and climbed down the deck stairs back to the spot of the tragedy. The earth was moving, at least a small part of it, moving precisely like an assembly line. Pebble by pebble the ants were rebuilding their home. My desire to destroy them was gone. I was a god who gained a conscience. A god who wondered if it was possible to be a god with a conscience. I didn’t want to be a god of anything anymore. Gods let bad things happen. In any case, I walked softly so as not to step on any of them. The shovels still lying where we left them, I picked one up and began digging. The night air was almost refreshing. The sunflowers seemed to stand taller. The wind rustled their leaves. The dirt was stained black where Larry’s blood fell. I slammed the shovel blade in up to the handle. The soil was softer at night. I dug furiously. Now, more than ever I wanted to be underground, away from people. Away from the mother who I felt betrayed me. Away from the neighbors who looked down on us. Away from the father who was never home.
The ants crawled slowly now, but still they crawled, into the cool Wyoming night.
Jason Hardung’s work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including: 3AM, Monkey Bicycle, Evergreen Review, Metazen, Entropy, The Common, Thought Catalog, Word Riot, Heavy Feather Review and The New York Quarterly. He has two books of poetry out on Epic Rites Press and Lummox Press. He has been an editor for Wolverine Farm Publishing and the Front Range Review in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2013 he was named Poet Laureate of Fort Collins.