The Ant Singer

Alex Volchovok had a small office on 41st street in the Hollywood business district of Portland, Oregon. The district somewhat accurately reflected the state of his own business, and perhaps his own health, he thought, both taking the natural arc of age, with a few unpleasant hiccups along the way. His right knee, for example, which no longer bent in the range of motion he had come to expect knees should bend after a lifetime of co-habitation with two of them.

With his paper cup of coffee in hand he favored this knee as he approached his office. Above the door, his name was written in bold, decisive letters, a foot high each. The letters were displayed so that as you drove along skimming the names of businesses as you went, you slowed to a halt having found the office of the man who would fix your problem. Alex Volchovok.

Though as he approached, he sighed resignedly about the state of those letters, faded with age as they were. Alex put his cup of coffee on the ground and rattled the key in the tired and stubborn lock on his door, and the lock reminded him of his locksmith.

His locksmith had an office a block and a half away and lived a sort of identical life to his. Settled into an office for decades, waiting for a call upon his unique services, listening to music from another era and drifting in and out of slumber in a chair that, through long exposure to his body, fit his shape absolutely. The locksmith was a friend, though they'd had occasion to be enemies often enough in their thirty-six year acquaintance. They did not meet in each other's offices, but in the coffee shop halfway between them, a neutral ground, for their offices contained stifling amounts of their own personalities.

When they met they played backgammon, or sat sideways in their chairs and smiled out amiably at the passing clientele, cherry-picking a memory or two to mention in passing.

But Bernard cheated. While Alex worked his key with dogged indignation in the ancient machinery, he remembered with clarity Bernard's words: cheating was just another way to play a game. He did not take the locksmith's view on this.

The tumbler finally caught, the deadbolt turned, and at once he set about his favorite part of the day. He turned on music. Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet today, the mood called for it, rolled his one daily-rationed cigarette, and took his coffee to his front stoop with the three pleasures in happy cahoots.

Just as he'd sat down and before he'd properly taken a draw off his cigarette, the phone began to ring. In the evolution of phones, his dated to the early Pleistocene age, and when it rang it did so with a shrill violence, and could literally ring itself off the hook. He set his mind to keeping that receiver on the hook so that the connected answering machine would pick up. Were the receiver to jangle off, a distant, disembodied voice would squeak out, and he would have to hobble out of his spot to rescue it.

Shostakovich and the phone played against each other, the answering machine clicked on and then he heard Margaret Goldberg's voice:

"Mr. Volchovok," she breathed into the phone, and then there was a pause in which he heard a glassy tink that he speculated to be the sound of her teacup bumping against her phone as she brought it to her mouth, "I have a problem."

Alex nodded. He was aware of most all of them, he was sure. Another sip of tea was taken on her end, and he sipped from his coffee, and the answering machine tape continued to roll. There was a camaraderie, a sort of intimacy even, in their mutual silences. "Well?" she said, "are you coming or not?"

"Yes, I'll come, Mags," he said into the room. He scraped the fallen cigarette ash off the stair with the heel of his foot.

"I know you're there," she said.

"Yes, I'm here."

"I'm going to wait until you pick up," she said.

Alex groaned. He tried to take a last enjoyment in each of the three pleasures he'd set out for himself, but he could hear the loud, crinkling adjustments of her newspaper over the aged answering machine speaker, and it cut into each of these pleasures.

"Hello?," he said, having picked up the receiver at last.

"It's about time, Mr. Volchovok."

"Sorry? Who's this? Just got in."

"Can you be here at noon?"

"Ms. Goldberg — I've got a noon appointment — "

"I'll have your favorite. After you finish, of course."

Alex pressed his left, cigarette-bearing hand to his forehead. The answering machine blinked fervently with the new message they were creating together, the machine too dumb and old to realize he'd picked up. The music played over top of him now, the mood for it quashed. For a moment, he puzzled over why he was trying to get out of the work, and then decided the job of sorting out the muddle of his own emotions was too great a task for the pause on the line.

"Alright Mags, I'll see what I can do."

"Noon."

"Do my best."

"Thank you, Alex."

• • •

The rest of the morning, Alex debated whether he would drive or walk to Margaret Goldberg's house. It was an easy eight blocks, just up the side of the Hollywood neighborhood where the houses still bore the mark of affluence, an eight blocks he'd walked off and on over the past couple decades. But the knee no longer appreciated the journey. Margaret was a repeat customer, a special case — he had few of these. When the job went well, it was usually finished. There was nothing further he could do, and no reason for them to call upon him again — but for the work he'd done his name would ring out in their future conversations like a lighthouse's beacon.

The air bore the knife-cut of autumn, and so Alex fetched a cap to cover his head. His few tufts of hair did very little to insulate. The walk was spectacular, and he inserted himself into the dream space rhythm of it as the leaves fell gently around him. There was a moment where he lost himself to it entirely, taking joy in the plodding — despite the irritant of pain — so that he wished he could continue on walking these quiet neighborhood blocks forever. But upon reaching Margaret's house, when she opened the door for him and the smell of her baking intermingled with the smell of leaves, and a flood of warm air engulfed him like an embrace, it felt like he'd reached home at last.

They kissed each other's cheeks, and she scuttled him inside, a gleam to her eye he could not help but notice.

"The doctor is here," she sung, and hung up his coat. He watched her stretch on tiptoes to place the coat on the hook. She wore her gray hair curled, and on her feet were shiny, pale-blue plastic shoes.

"You used to call me the exterminator. Herr Exterminator, remember?" There was a quiet tone of resentment he could not keep from his voice, even after all these years.

"Would you prefer Der Musiker?"

"I did not know I was allowed a preference in the matter," he said.

She put her hand on his arm, "You are not, Alex. Proceed," she gestured toward the kitchen.

Quite possibly, outside of a seat in the Hollywood theater during a good film, or the autumnal walk he'd just taken, or in his great chair at home with his cat sleeping across his lap, Margaret's kitchen was his favorite place on Earth. How he could have sustained any doubt about the visit earlier seemed at once a symptom of some social disease he should immediately eradicate.

She directed him to the problem — a line of ants like black silk threaded along the molding from the back door to the kitchen counter where they fanned out, finding great bounty in the assortment of sugared crumbs. Considering what went on in this kitchen, a mystery of perfect confections, he could understand an ant's resistance to his work.

"Thirty minutes enough, doktor?"

"Yes, thank you." His mind was already in the job, and she left the room, knowing the protocols from experience. He needed to be alone with them.

He studied the swarm of ants, grateful that they were on the counter because it did not force him to bend over. Before him they circled and traveled, scavenging in this land of bounty. They were immigrants; they had found the promised land.

When he began to hum, he watched them all stop, their tiny mandibles swayed toward him, the ears in their feet vibrating with the beginnings of the song he would sing to them of their homeland. Some, he suspected, were descendants of those he'd sung to before, and only in Margaret's kitchen would you find such a species, for this kitchen called them like no other.

The song rose from him and he sung it out just above a whisper: nostalgia and homesicknesses and sadness. He spun memories and mythology into it that only their true place of origin could contain. He reached deep into their own evolution and dredged up the birthplace of their species. A countertop was no native land. Every ant in sight stilled itself, stopped in its tracks to hear.

He put his heart into it. When he finished, each turned, and the silken thread along the molding reversed course toward the back door. Within a few minutes they were all gone, and he was alone in the kitchen.

An emotional moment or two passed, the weakness of his age, he supposed, and he leaned heavily against the counter until he could summon his voice again.

"Ms. Goldberg," he called hoarsely.

Then he saw that the lock in the back door had been removed. There was a round, three inch hole in the door where it had been, and he could see the silhouette of an ant perched on the edge of this hole uncertainly, as if it had been late to hear the song, or had just been coming in when the others were sent out, their tiny hearts humming a song of longing.

This was how the ants had come in, there was a royal entrance, an arched gateway of invitation. Alex waved his hand at the ant doddering there, dismissing it. The lock, a rusting metallic thing, was spread out in the breakfast nook like a strewn pile of coppery leaves. Alex frowned.

Margaret arrived back in the kitchen wiping her hands on a dusting towel. She came up beside him and patted his lower back, and then left her palm there. "How are you doing, Alex?"

"Getting some lock work done?"

Margaret shrugged, "Sometimes problems don't solve themselves. Come on, I've made us up a table."

"How is Bernard?" he said, as she steered him to a quaint table set up in the dining room, as if he were invited to a five-year-old's tea party, all the pieces miniature. In place of the teddy bear that might occupy one of the seats, Margaret's dog, a great wolf-like beast, sat serenely, its eyes an icy blue.

"Bernie is…" Margaret said. "Have you not seen each other lately?"

"Hmm," Alex said. He started the conversation and now wanted desperately out of it. In order to change the subject he hunted around for the name of her dog, which stared at him passively. It was Greek, the dog's name was: Jason or Ody, Percy, Hercules or something.

"Theseus," Margaret said, "you remember the great Alex Volchovok? The ant singer?" She put a large muffin decorated elaborately with a seed mandala on the dog's plate.

Theseus took the entire muffin gently in his mouth, eyed each of them with it clenched there — the dog's glances indicating a sort of 'with your leave', Alex imagined, or 'I'll let the two of you catch up' or perhaps 'I'll eat him next, if he gives you trouble' — and then eased himself down from his chair and walked from the room.

Margaret shrugged. "You should see Bernard, he's only what, a block from you?"

Alex spread a thick layer of jam between the knife-wound he'd opened in the muffin, a sweet, red crevasse. Margaret did not make an ordinary muffin, and it was all he could do to focus on the gist of what she was saying as he worked his way through it.

"Us old birds are made for one another," she said, "even our arguments properly align."

He wasn't sure what she meant. There was a pastry with what appeared to be sweetened cheese on the plate between them, and he wondered if it were all for him.

"Sometimes he stays over," Margaret said.

The image of his portly locksmith friend with his whiskbroom mustache caked with croissant came to mind, sitting in the chair he sat in now, exchanging pleasantries or perhaps pillow talk, he preferred not know. For a moment, he had trouble swallowing.

"Congratulations," Alex said finally, taking her remark as a sort of announcement of their together-ness. He reached for the cheese pastry and ate it ravenously, as if he'd not eaten for some time, all the while wishing he were back in her kitchen, where his skill was on display, where the rules of play were clear, where he was master.

Between them there was an earlier strata of turmoil, layers upon layers of it, really, but the deepest and clearest was that of her dead husband. His remains sat on the mantle, an ashen sentry. No one had killed anyone, in the end, not the locksmith, not the Ant Singer, not the cake maker. The husband had died of a disease of the heart. The dearth of a murder, Alex thought, did not necessarily mean a dearth of motives.

Margaret reached across the table and patted his hand, and then she stopped patting and let it linger there. Her softer hand over his was warm and pleasant.

"Delicious, as always, Mags," he said. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and folded it carefully across his plate. "Well."

"Do you want to check upstairs?" she said. She pulled down on the front of her blouse, stretching it tight.

"Next time," he rose from his chair and looked about for his coat.

She paused for a moment and he could see she wanted to argue with him, that she wished to dredge up old fires, but instead she told him she'd make him a doggy bag and proceeded back to the kitchen.

He felt a dizziness, a sort of cake-induced euphoria, and immediately felt sorry that he had not done as she asked. While she was gone he changed his mind and tread upstairs — he knew his way around. Sometimes a desperate ant took to toothpaste foam or mouthwash residue. The bathroom smelled of her, a scent she'd worn for many years now. He checked the sills and along the molding lines, in the bathtub. He stood in the doorway of her bedroom and couldn't bring himself to enter. The bed was unmade and there was a stack of a dozen or so novels on the floor next to her nightstand. A silky green dressing gown draped over a chair. Through the windows the sunlight on the changing leaves painted a vivid orange mural. Bernard had been here, he reminded himself.

The book titles were out of view and as he stood there, curiosity got the better of him, this easy fortune-telling of her mood laying out in the open so plainly. But he did not recognize any of them. A few books bore award stickers and at least one, if he were to hazard a guess, appeared to be about a love affair. All were modern.

She found him there kneeling at her bedside looking through her books. "Not in my bed, I hope."

"Making sure they're not reading your books," he said. He struggled to his feet and there was an audible pop. "Oh!" he said and fell backwards onto her bed, gripping his knee.

She rushed over, uttering words of concern, but he signaled he was alright, soon he was going to be alright.

They sat side by side while he rubbed his knee. The bow of their weight on the bed made their hips touch and she put her arm around him. She said, "You weren't even going to come up here, this is my fault."

"Bernard will be jealous," he said.

"Bernard!" she snorted, and waved her hand in the air as if there were a horsefly to swat.

He nodded and made a fist around his knee. "I think it's better."

"You used to sing to me, remember?" she said.

He remembered. He remembered everything, his memory a hell and a haven. He remembered her in his car, at a picnic in the woods on Mt. Tabor, at his office. He remembered how his whole body had ached, for days on end, when he could not see her. After a while, he rose. His knee was sore. He decided then that he would break his rule and have a second cigarette for the day, that he would return to his office and begin again. He leaned on her shoulder as she helped him down the stairs and this caused him a flush of warmth, and when at last she kissed his cheek and shut the door and he was on the sidewalk with a brown paper bag of her home-baked pastries, he felt immensely sad, and also elated, the promise of something humming inside of him against all logic, and so he walked through the pain in a direction not his office so that he could walk off some of the excess. Steam curled from his ears with a soft sound of static.

• • •

Back at his office, the door wouldn't open, no matter the violence he did it with his key.

"Goddamnit," he said, thinking of the pleasure of the material comforts that awaited him just on the other side. He banged on it as if his dopplegänger would awake and swing the door wide. The swelling in his knee made an unattractive bulge in his pants. In the office, there was ice in the mini-fridge that could be applied. He looked up the block in the direction of the locksmith and swore again. For a moment, an old rage overtook him, and he allowed himself to believe that Bernard had futzed with his lock, that Margaret had planted the ants, that the entanglements one finds oneself in are not ever un-entangle-able.

As he wobbled grumbling up the street, everywhere he looked there were ants. Ants on the ground, clinging to the edges of buildings, on his lapel, as if he marched to war and the troops gathered to the magnetic force of their general.

The locksmith's door was adorned with all manner of novelty locks, great deadbolts and mechanical hasps, at least six. As he came to the door, all of their internal gears engaged at once and they opened. It was a nifty and disarming effect, and Alex frowned and looked, as he had on each approach, for some hidden camera or mechanism, and then the door swung wide and Bernard was on the other side in his office chair, a long stick of beef jerky in his mouth dirtying his mustache, a look of surprise on his face.

"Alex!" Bernard recovered quickly and beamed at him.

"My lock is broken, Bernard."

"And that's what it takes for you to show up. My friend, you know my door unlocks for you any time. Have a seat!" Bernard pointed with the beef jerky stick toward the chair opposite his desk. "Want one?"

Alex sat and studied him. His belly was larger than last time, his mustache grayer. An Irish cap sat on his head, and his cheeks were flushed with the heat of the radiators that industriously clanked away.

"Alright," Alex said, and took the piece of proffered beef jerky that had been held out to him past all reasonable expectation. And then impulsively he ripped open the brown doggy bag he carried over Bernard's desk, sending a spray of sugar snowfalling across the papers and paperclips, watches and pens and lock parts and who-knew-what-other detritus there, offering Bernard a share of the bounty that he carried.

"Oh!" Bernard squealed, the sound of a man who loved to eat more than most anything. "This looks like… Mags?"

Alex nodded and Bernard's mouth engulfed a raspberry scone, and just then Alex decided he hated Bernard. Hated everything about him, every atom of him. How they could have ever been friends, he had no clue. And he hated especially that he might come bumbling back into the life of a woman they had both loved, whose heart-sick husband had died because of their exploits, a woman whom they had sworn to never hurt again, a woman who had caused them to hate each other.

But as Bernard greedily worked down another pastry, commentating on each piece as it went down, for he was a man who dedicated himself to the task at hand fully, and while eating must spectate even his own appetite, Alex began to take in the locksmith's office, the uneven stacks of dirty coffee cups, endless food wrappers, piles of magazines, the stained, perma-formed couch in the corner which surely held the man's frame several nights a week — for what reason was there to go home? They were both bachelors, and the perceptive eye could see one's own habit in the office, could glean the intense loneliness that manifested itself across its entirety. After he had gnawed his way through the beef jerky, Alex leaned forward and bit into a cookie, though he was not in the least hungry, and began to feel sorry for his friend.

"She told me," Alex said.

"Of course she did, that woman can't keep quiet about anything, you know how she is, but there it is, old friend."

"I see," Alex said.

"I can't say as I'm remorseful about it. Look at us! We're getting old! We're at the end, Alex."

"No — "

"Close enough. And I had the idea first."

"So, it's come to that, who was first." A half-dozen ants had gathered on his swollen knee and circled about it.

"Come on, Alex," Bernard said. He held out a hand imploringly, "Let's not do this, shall we?"

With each bite, his anger ebbed, and with each swallow it flowed again.

Bernard noticed the ants on his desk. They coursed up each of the wooden legs, attacking the crumbs and spilling into the middle.

"Alex?" Bernard growled. A small black ant crawled up out of his collar and bit his cheek. Bernard slapped at it, but did not break his stare. Behind him the sound of the radiators's clanking swarmed into a symphony of malcontent, a clock chimed, the chairs groaned.

"You left a lock unfinished, in the back door, you lazy sonofabitch," Alex said.

"She didn't want that one finished!"

This puzzled Alex. He took another bite of the cookie, and the ants swarming up the legs of the desk hesitated. He couldn't imagine why she'd wanted it just lain out there, a mess across her table. "And you just left it there?"

"She — I'm a professional!" Bernard added, he fist-pounded the desk, crushing a handful of ants, and could not suppress a note of wounded indignation.

"I didn't mean — " Alex said, "anyway. Of course you are." The evoked professionalism of his friend was a line not crossed and he felt sorry for having done so; they were what they did. He wiped at his mouth, the mess Bernard had made of his own mouth and mustache an unwanted distraction. He finished his cookie, waved his hand, and hummed a bar that sounded like a throat-clearing. The swelling of ants diminished. "Bunch of idiotry, Bernie, for hell's sake."

"I know," Bernard said, "don't I know it. Look, how about a game, for old time's." He reached up onto a horribly cluttered shelf above his desk and managed to wrangle out a backgammon board.

The sweets were swept away, and along with them papers and empty cups and everything else across Bernard's desk, leaving an open, level battlefield between them. Bernard set up the board with an easy deftness.

"How's things, anyway?"

"Fine," Alex said.

"Work?"

"Sometimes."

"Not like once upon a time."

"No."

"How much longer you keep at it?"

"Don't know. You?"

"Neither." Bernard finished placing the pieces and handed Alex a dirtied paper cup with the dice. "Roll."

They played fast, the habit of a game long-played coming to their hands.

"My knee is killing me," Alex said.

Bernard bunched up his face in a look of sympathy. "I know it, I know it, it's my back. Our pieces are wearing out. But knees, Al, that's nothing, that's something you can fix. Book yourself a trip to one of those countries that fixes them. Thailand, Costa Rica, you heard about them? Go have yourself a vacation. Get some new knees cheap. Find yourself somebody warm, put a little warm blood in you. That's what I'd do."

"Maybe I'll go home."

Bernard looked up at him. "Home?"

Alex shrugged.

"We're talking about the same thing? What's it been, forty-five, fifty years? You're like an astronaut that goes light speed. Your people will all be dead."

"I know," Alex shrugged, "still."

"She would have had either one of us, you know."

"No."

Bernard waved away the topic, too dangerous to discuss by any measure.

A moment later Bernard rolled a perfect roll and won the game. After he'd cleaned up all his pieces, he said, "I'm sorry."

Alex smiled and for a moment they stared at each other, two old trolls, stone frozen in a face off, like a couple of many-ringed tree stumps, side by side, like two mountains between which flows a great river. Alex sucked in the apology, drank it in, quenching his thirst on the clear water of it, bathed in it, and then he couldn't think of a single real thing that was relieved by it, not one reason the apology should exist, not for old wounds, not for new ones, nothing. "Godamnit," Alex said. "You don't owe me a thing, Bernie. I'm happy for you, I really am."

• • •

Early next spring, Alex married them. He sang their wedding just like they used to do back home. There was a peripheral warmness, a fellow camper's fire you're invited to sit by for a while, and he liked it, he liked them, he was happy for them, he realized.

Bernard moved in with her, and for a short time, he could bear it. The lock on the door to his office snapped at attention, knew his own will. There were baked goods to eat that could make any man happy. The union gave him a wandering ambiguous hope, an extra feeling of possibility, provided he did not dwell on any one detail.

He was invited over often, and often he accepted. They existed this way for a time, into the late spring and then summer. But the summer wound up, and the chill came back, and his knee began to trouble him more. One day he closed his office door and heard the decisive click of his lock and knew, without even giving it a try, that the door to the office of Alex Volchovok would not open back up, ever. It had shut itself for good. No man, except perhaps his friend Bernard, could get that lock to work again. That was alright with him. That was going to be OK. He was not coming back. The lingering ants in the office seeped through under the crack in the door and followed after him, and as he walked down the street he hummed them a joyful, anxious song of return.


Benjamin Parzybok's second novel, Sherwood Nation, is forthcoming in 2014. He's the author of the novel Couch, and has had short stories published in the Bellevue Literary Review, Strange Horizons, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. He has been the creator/co-creator of many other projects, including Gumball Poetry (literary journal published in capsule machines), The Black Magic Insurance Agency (city-wide, one night alternate reality game), and Project Hamad (an effort to free a Guantanamo inmate and shed light on Habeas Corpus). He's currently co-writing a novel with writer David Naimon. He lives in Portland with the artist Laura Moulton and their two kids. He blogs at secret.ideacog.net.