Charles climbs the hill above fat camp and watches the children running between orange cones on the manicured lawns, tiny as insects, limbs jiggling in slow-motion, coaches and counselors screaming obscenities through their megaphones. Fire ants climb Charles’ socks, sting the blond hairs above his ankles. He brushes them from the elastic, slaps them dead against his leg. He double-fists rainbow sherbet ice cream cones, licks them through the holes in the bottom of their waffles. Mushed-up fiery ants are embedded in the hieroglyphic squares of the wafer. Charles tastes the flavors of their decapitated heads, thoraxes, abdomens, antennae, and legs as they stick to the roof of his mouth. He brushes them with his tongue, listening to his father and uncles spitting encouragement on the sunburnt faces of lazy gorgers who are trying to improve their lives.
Our mansion sits across the river, a decadent middle finger to flabbiness. We are the most accredited and successful fat camp in the Midwest. Dad used to be obese, so beautiful and strong, but now he is a wrinkled skeleton with yellowed teeth. Mom purged and battled bulimia for more than a decade. Soon after we moved into the castle, when we were swinging from chandeliers, she died, not from her disease, but from the balls it took to swing from the top of the diamonds and French-cut glass.
Mom would climb onto the ceiling-mounted serpent, straddling the mahogany banister on the fourth floor. That evening, they had been triple-fisting champagne flutes, sipping the golden sparkling liquid like newborn kitties, munching donkey cheese and smoked salmon. They were making love to their peas on the grass. Dad sprinkles some of Mom’s ashes into the plastic whistle before every afternoon session of wind sprints and relay races.
These days Dad eats like an animal, literally, either from dog dishes with the Rottweiler or from the trough out back where the housekeeper feeds the old pony my sister no longer cares about. Dad didn’t have the heart to get rid of it after I tried to mount her in the middle of the night. Dad blamed it on the alcohol and the damage from the lawnmower accident, but the moans of the miniature horse scattered illuminated fragments of moonlit shadows of terrified American Oystercatchers like never before.
Charles swallows the fire ants and pours some acid from the barn down the large mound where they live. He wonders what it would be like to watch that mansion burning beneath the stars. Charles cannot take much more of his father, his demands of success through example. Charles is twenty pounds overweight. His older sister moved to California years ago so that Dad could not judge her body. All that remains is her pony.
Sometimes Charles is lonely as he walks home from the cabins where he spends his mornings cleaning toothpaste from sinks and scrubbing the crummy cafeteria from the toilets. His father is an overeater, addicted to bacon cheddar cheeseburgers sprinkled with the ashes of Mom. Charles can hear his father purging after every binge. Image is everything in this business.
Charles picks up the dead workers and drones, folds them in napkins as the fat kids grab their knees. Charles tastes them in his stomach; it makes him vomit. He does this every afternoon in the hopes that his father will accept him with half the enthusiasm of a check from an affluent client whose wife is embarrassed at the country club by her son’s appearance by the swimming pool, sitting on lounge chairs like a beached whale, as the ladies drink frozen margaritas over stacks of wet Scrabble tiles.
Charles sees his mother’s reflection in the rainbow puddles. The queen of the colony is the largest ant, and she can reproduce up to the thirty-five thousand times in her life, which is significantly longer than that of the male drones she fucks, who only last four days; and their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. She can live seven or eight years. Charles has been searching for the queen for almost a decade, waiting for that girl too fat to run—or better yet, bedridden. He scouts the cabins on the other side of the river where a handful of morbidly obese teenagers are quarantined from the hundreds of other campers.
The ants sting Charles on his fingers, and he enjoys it. Charles relates to the workers, those sterile females who repair and build the nest, feed the old ants and the young. The workers live one month, much like the diets of the campers. Charles feels he is doing a service to the queen as they climb his elbow, under his armpits, into his groin. They crawl behind his ears, sting his perineum, swing on the hairs of his nostrils like a chandelier.
Charles hears the whistles from the field. The sun is orange as the fire ants climb his eyelids and some of them lose their legs and antennae in his eyelashes. They climb behind his nasal cavity, inside the orifices he cannot control, and every inch is alive with the building of the new colony. Charles can feel his mother watching down on him. The queen must be satisfied with her new palace.
Matthew Dexter lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Photo credit: ronnieb, morguefile.com