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Excerpt: 'Red Ant House: Stories'

Cover image from <i>Red Ant House: Stories</i>
Cover image from Red Ant House: Stories

Some might call these short stories quirky, but they are much more than that, says Lucia Silva of Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif. Set in the Mohabi desert, the stories revolve around the quiet hopefulness of children. The characters are organic and gritty; the stories are beautifully constructed and emotionally and atmospherically strong.

Excerpt: Chapter One

The first time I saw this girl she was standing at the bottom of the coal pile. I thought she was a little wrinkled dwarf woman, with her sucked-in cheeks and pointed chin. She had narrow legs and yellow eyes. They had just moved into the old Perino house on West 2nd. This was the red ant house.

"I'm having a birthday," the girl said. She was going around the neighborhood gathering up children she didn't know for her birthday party. She told us they had a donkey on the wall and beans in a jar.

"What kind of beans?" I asked her.

She shrugged.

"Hey, you guys," I said to my brothers. "This bean wants us to go to her birthday party."

"My name's not Bean."

"What is it, then?"

"Theresa Mooney."

"You don't look like a Theresa Mooney."

She shrugged.

"Hey, you guys. This girl named Bean wants us to go to her birthday party."

She didn't say anything then. She turned around and started down the street toward her house. We followed her.

In her yard was a grease monkey. Her yard was a junker yard with car parts and cars all over the place, and a grease monkey was standing up against one car, smoking a cigarette.

"Joe," the little dwarf girl said, "what do you think of a name like Bean?"

He considered it. The man was handsome, with slick black hair and blue eyes, and he gave the dwarf a sweet look. I couldn't think of how such a funny-looking child belonged to such a handsome man. “It's an odd one,” he said. The girl looked at me, her eyes slant. "One thing about a name like that," he said, "it's unusual. Everybody would remember it."

That idea she liked. She looked at me with a little grin. She said, "My name is Bean."

Just as if the whole thing was her idea.

Rosie Mooney was this Theresa's mother. When she moved in she had not known there would be ants in the house. These were the ants that had invaded the Perinos' chickens two summers before. Nobody wanted to eat chicken after that.

The ants came through the cracks in the walls. Rosie Mooney had papered those walls with velveteen flowered wallpaper. She had a red room and a gold room. She had wicked eyes to her, Rosie Mooney—could look you through and through.

These were trashy people, I knew. They had Christmas lights over the sink. They had hodgepodge dishes, and garlic on a string, and a book of matches under one table leg to make it sit straight. When the grease monkey came in, he kissed Rosie Mooney on the lips, a long wormy kiss, and then he picked the birthday girl up and swung her in a circle.

For us, he took off his thumbs.

"It is an optical illusion," the girl told us.

He could also bend his thumbs all the way back, tie his legs in a knot, and roll his eyes back and look at his brain.

"Your dad should be in the circus," I told the girl.

"He's not my dad."

"What is he?"

She shrugged.

The grease monkey laughed. It was a shamefaced laugh.

There were two prizes for the bean jar event: one for a boy, one for a girl. The boy's prize was a gumball bank. Put a penny in, get a ball of gum. When the gum was gone you'd have a bank full of pennies. Either way, you'd have something.

The girl's prize was a music box. I had never seen such a music box. It was black with a white ivory top made to look like a frozen pond, and when you wound it up, a white ivory girl skated over the top. It was nice.

We were all over that jar, counting the beans. It was me, my brothers, the Stillwell boys, the Murpheys, and the Frietags. As I was counting, I thought of something. I thought, This jar is an optical illusion. That was because there would be beans behind the beans. It occurred to me that there would be more beans than could be seen, thousands more.

The grease monkey was the official counter. He had written the exact number on a piece of tape and stuck it to the bottom of the jar. We all had to write our numbers down and sign our names. I wrote five thousand. When Joe read that, everybody laughed.

"There are beans behind the beans," I informed them.

"This one's a shrewd one," the grease monkey said. "She's thinking." But when he turned the jar over, the number on the tape said 730.

This Joe winked at me. "Don't want to be thinking too hard, though."

I just eyeballed him.

"You want to count them? You can count them if you want," he said.

"I don't care to."

He grinned. "Suit yourself."

And he awarded the music box to the birthday girl, who had written 600. Then I knew the whole thing had been rigged.

The birthday girl's mother said, "Theresa, I bet you'd like some other little girl to have the music box since you have birthday presents. Wouldn't you?"

She didn't want to.

"That would be the polite thing," she said. "Maybe you'd like to give it to Leigh."

“I don't want it,” I said.

This Theresa looked at me. She looked at the grease monkey. He nodded, then she held the box out to me. But I didn't want it.

My mother was down sick all that summer. The doctor had prescribed complete bed rest so the baby would stay in. For the last three years, she had gone to bed again and again with babies that didn't take.

Up until that point, there were six of us children.

There was Zip, named for my grandmother, Ziphorah. Zippy loved me until I could talk. "You used to be such a sweet child," she would say. "We used to dress you up and take you on buggy rides and everybody said what a sweet child you were. Whatever happened to that sweet child?"

There was Wanda, named for my other grandmother. Wanda was bald until she was five, and my father used to take every opportunity to bounce a ball on her head.

There was me, Leigh Rachel, named by the doctor because my parents drew a blank. I'm the lucky one.

Once when I was a baby I jumped out a window—this was the second-story window over the rock cliff. My mother, who was down sick at the time, had a vision about it. I was already gone. By the time she got herself out of her bed and up the stairs, I was in flight, but she leaped across the room, stuck her arm out, and caught me by the diaper, just as she'd seen it in the vision.

Another time, I survived a tumble down Bondad Hill in my grandpa's Pontiac. We both rolled like the drunk he was. Drunks I know about. My dad's dad was one, and my mom's dad was another. I never knew my dad's mom. She weighed three hundred pounds and died of toxic goiter. My mom's mom weighed seventy-five at the time of her death.

Turned her face to the sky and said, "I despise you all." Irish like the rest of us.

There were the boys, Ronald Patrick, Raymond Patrick, Carl Patrick.

Then there were the ones who didn't take. One of these I saw, a little blue baby on a bloody sheet. My mother said, "Help me with these sheets," to Wanda, but Wanda couldn't stop crying, so I helped pull the sheet away from the mattress, and my mother wadded the sheet up.

I said, “We should bury that sheet.”

She said, "It's a perfectly good sheet. We'll wash it."

Then she took a blanket and went into the living room and wrapped herself up in it. When my father came home he found her half bled to death.

My mother has Jewish blood in her. When they took her to the hospital, a Jewish man, Mr. Goldman, gave blood. He was the only Jew in town.

That summer my mother had cat visions. She would begin yelling in the middle of the night. She would come into our dreams: "The cats have chewed their paws off. They are under the bed."

"Mother, there are no cats."

"Look under the bed. See for yourself."

But we didn't want to.

Excerpt from RED ANT HOUSE: Stories by Ann Cummins. Copyright © 2003 by Ann Marie Cummins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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Ann Cummins