FICTION

APRIL 2016

 
 
 

Antennae

by HANNAH RICHTER

A half-open bag of potato chips had never plagued anyone so much as it plagued Porter Wesley. It wasn't so much the bag or its contents (Porter indulged in most snack foods), but rather it was the newfound inhabitants of the bag that Porter swore would give him an aneurism. Yes, November had blessed his beaten-down 1988 hatchback with a colony of ants.

At first he found one crawling between Tuesday morning’s coffee stain and his left pocket, and then another circumnavigating his steering wheel, summiting his knuckles like small mountains. And that was OK and all, but by the following week they were everywhere—stemming from an unknown source somewhere behind the driver’s seat. One thing was for sure: Porter Wesley had lived alone for the past six years and was not going to stand for a colony of backseat drivers moving into his life. It was time to pay rent.

He pulled into one of the quieter sections of the grocery store parking lot, squaring his shoulders as he opened the door to the backseat, proud and whatnot that he was taking initiative and, you know, actually doing something. He bent down, khaki knees hot on pavement, and that's when he discovered the bag of chips, crumbs scattered over his floor mat like ruins of some great civilization. The ants scattered as he moved to pick up the bag, sent further into their frenzy by the vibration of his cell phone on the adjacent seat. He wiped his sweaty palms on his shirt and debated whether or not to answer—a routine battle as of late, it seemed.

He ignored Marsha’s call with a sigh and a defeated expression on his face, wondering why he seemed to be the only American not all gung-ho about Thanksgiving. His sister invited him to dinner every year, and every year he found himself overwhelmed with paperwork at the office. At least, that’s what he told Marsha. Otherwise, he was an honest man, took things as they came, and said thank you (most of the time). He just didn’t see why there was an entire holiday devoted to celebrating the subjugation of Native Americans and the consumption of conventional white meat.

And so Porter remained a stationary planet as hordes of other people flocked into the grocery store to buy last minute ingredients to sustain those notorious relatives who always RSVP’d way too late (not that Porter would know anything about that). It often seemed that he spent his days like this, looking at the lives of others in the way one looks through a transparent storefront, removed and unaware of his own distorted reflection in the glass. As he removed the bag and its constituency, he wondered when exactly he had last really spoken to Marsha. He assumed that was just another reason people loved Thanksgiving: it gives them excessive opportunities to talk about themselves.

Once on the asphalt, the ants scuttled around the bag, exploring their new milieu. They seemed content enough, going about their business silently, not having to bother with formalities, or going out for coffee (or worse—brunch). They seemed complete introverts, intent on feasting on slightly stale chips and doing whatever else it is that ants like to do. Porter sat in the backseat and closed his eyes for a few minutes, letting the sounds of the highway melt into the clatter of a hundred anxious shopping carts consumed by holiday fever. He pictured a thousand families sitting around a thousand tables all having the same conversation.

His mother's sickness had come and gone quickly, there in the winter and gone in the spring. The silence however, was hardly ephemeral. Everyone had expected it to break after the funeral, like it would shatter as the days radiated further and further away from that first, trembling handful of dirt. Not so. The silence left nothing sacred . . . and that was six years ago. 

When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see that the ants had formed a loose chain leading somewhere over to the parking stop. Small clusters of ants carried chip morsels in that direction while other individual ants struggled with burdens of their own. He watched as crumbs were passed from ant to ant, in a long procession that looked almost genial. In fact, it looked like relatives passing food from one end of the dinner table to the other. Where there had once been introverts, Porter saw antennae meeting, the sharing of direction and sentiment between each ant as food was passed down the line. He could almost hear snippets of dialogue, bursts of laughter to punctuate the chewing and clicking of the silverware.

In truth, Porter did not remember what real dinner parties were like, because for the last six years he had shared dinner with the seven o’clock news anchors and late-night talk show hosts. But they never asked how he was doing, nor did they want to hear about his health, his job. Not that he knew how to answer any of those questions, and yet . . . Porter wondered how things would transpire at Marsha’s. There would be a slight lull in the conversation, a clearing of a throat. He would be in the middle of sipping his water or slicing a potato and then it would happen. Marsha would ask him a question; the eyes of everyone at the table (some familiar, but mostly strangers) would rest on him, the air ripe with thanksgiving joviality. He would give them his words, twenty or so, a smile even, after it was all over. He didn’t have antennae, but maybe he could do it, maybe he could touch someone else, after all of these years.

As the ants shared stories from their childhoods and commented on the weather intermittently, Porter searched the aisles of the grocery store for a remaining can of cranberry sauce. He’d stop by Marsha’s. He’d ask her to pass the gravy, and it would be something. It would be something.