The April “Squidzilla” posting was a mistake, intended for the serial story, “Squidzilla”, in pages. Here is the April story.
The Ant Tsar
Ronald could never have been mistaken for an extrovert, so when the order came to work from home he was more than happy to comply. No more coffee break chatter or being interrupted when someone stopped by his desk? No problem. He would not miss the casual everyday interactions of a large busy office with the workers’ cubicles lined up row on row. He didn’t have many personal friends anyway, at work or at play. Nor would he miss the standing room only jostling, careful not to bump-into-anybody, crowded subway rides that started and ended his work day. Especially now that the pandemic was burning through the city. Every day there were counts of new infections and more bodies on the news and conflicting advice about what to do. Ronald kept distanced, cleaned surfaces, used disposable gloves when he did go out, and though there was no directive to wear a mask, he did so anyway. Later, when it was decided that wearing a mask was of critical importance, he felt a satisfying sense of having been right all along.
He settled easily into the new on-line work culture with an extra sixty minutes of free time each day, as he didn’t have to travel to the office. Since he was at a lower management level, he had fewer zoom conferences than his supervisor did and that suited him fine. The work came in and the work went out. Day after day. It wasn’t hard, especially since there were no side distractions as there were at the office. There had been layoffs, but only a few in his department, and so he was careful to quickly handle the work that came to him and to actively take part in zoom conferences, politely of course.
Ronald’s parents lived half a continent away, and he established a regular weekly zoom hour with them. His brother Raymond was only 200 miles north, but with the travel restrictions it might as well have been two thousand miles. They spoke less regularly but checked in on one another. Unless there was an extraordinary change in the course of the pandemic, there’d be no whole family getaway in northern Michigan this summer. Social contacts outside of the family were much more sporadic. As noted, he did not have many acquaintances outside of work and when one or another of them did call, there wasn’t much to talk about now that wasn’t depressing. Tastes in entertainment differed, politics was too hot a topic, there were no sports, and personal life was at a standstill.
He went out for food and supplies only once a week if he could help it and he was getting tired of frozen meals and his own cooking. Meeting another apartment owner in the hallway resulted in a stilted acknowledgement and a crablike edging around each other. The process of entering an elevator remained awkward.
Weeks passed into months, and what had once been a welcome and novel way to work was turning into an anchor dragging down his spirits. He felt like a prisoner, confined by the pandemic that lurked outside waiting for him to make a slip.
“You really sound down,” said his brother Raymond on FaceTime. “And you don’t look so hot either.”
“Tell me this isn’t getting to you too,” Ronald replied defensively. “I’ve heard you vent about Joannie and the kids.”
“Yeah, I’ve got Joannie and the kids and though we can grate on each other, especially since the kids are schooling from home now, we also lean on each other. That’s a whole lot different from going through this alone like you are.”
“I never thought I’d miss the BS around the coffee urn,” Ronald said. “I’m tired of binge watching shows. I know the dialogue from ‘The Office’ by heart.”
They stared numbly at each other until Raymond asked at last. “Have you ever considered getting a pet?”
“Listen. Maybe having something to care for, that cares for you too, would lift your mood. A dog or a cat maybe.”
“No. I couldn’t see walking it twice a day outside, under these circumstances? Or taking care of a cat’s litter box?”
“How about a bird then?”
“No, Birds don’t appeal to me. I hate pigeons.”
“Still, it’s something to think about. Oh,oh, Joannie just signaled that dinner’s ready. I better go.
But think about it, okay?”
“Yeah, I will. See you next time.”
A pet, Ronald thought. That’s all I need. But the thought lingered. Fish? Messy tank cleaning and fin rot? Memories of burying dead fish in the garden as a child. Maybe not. White rat? City’s overrun with rats. A pet one would be-—well—-weird. Snake, Iguana? He looked up care and food requirements. Too exotic for me.
Wait—he’d had an ant farm for a science project in fourth grade. That was kind of fun, watching them so earnestly busy. Minimal upkeep. Pretty cheap. And the ants did well until he forgot about them after school let out and they all died or disappeared. He went on line. Holy Smoke, they’re not so cheap anymore. Formicarium? Fancy name to justify a fancy price. He thought about it some more. Well, why not. I don’t spend on anything fun right now, so why not a small indulgence. Let’s see, I’ll need a farm that comes with ants. A queen and her subjects.
The plastic ‘farm’ was delivered first and he impatiently awaited the separate arrival of the ants.
They looked lively enough. He introduced them to their ‘farm’ and watched as they proceed to make it their new home. Ronald thought about how he would answer if anyone ever asked if he had a pet. “Well I do keep a formicarium.” Got to spring that on Raymond.
He was diligent about following instructions, neither over nor under-feeding or watering them and the colony prospered as the queen produced more workers. He had to admit that watching the ants, so busy and so task-focused, was fascinating. They don’t seem to need to rest their tiny bodies. If I could only have that much energy and strength. The time Ronald spent binge-watching TV went down as did his survey of social media. His job became a necessary interruption. Observing how the ants disposed of their dead was much more interesting than listening to the daily mortality figures for the city and country. Raymond finally told him, “Enough about the ants already!”
He took to messing with them just to see what they would do. Blocking a tunnel entrance with a small piece of gravel or, more destructively, collapsing a part of a tunnel. The ants always solve the problem. They don’t even know I’m here, he thought, or wonder why their tunnel collapsed. It’s almost like I’m this unknowable force that alters their lives. Do they see me or wonder how or why? They’re totally dependent on me for their food, their water. If I stop providing, they die. The power of life and death. Like I’m their god! That’s too blasphemous—he recalled his Sunday School lessons. More like their king. They have their ant queen. I’m their king. No. More than just a mere king—a Tsar with total power like those Russian Tsars of old. Ronald the Great. Life or death or the whim of a little sugary treat when I feel like giving it to them. They continue to exist only because I permit it. A puff of Raid, and they’d be annihilated. Gone.
One day he found two worker ants on the outside of the enclosure, wandering and almost reaching the tabletop. How’d they get out? Trying to get away after all I do for you, he thought with anger and he squashed them against the hard plastic. That’ll teach you. Ronald checked the lid but it was still fit snugly. Well if those two got out—I don’t know how—I’d better put in an extra barrier. He read that a smear of vaseline around the base of the formicarium would turn back any wanderers and he did that. Okay, if I have to be penned in, so do you.
He took good care of the ants and the colony grew. It’s getting a little crowded in there. Wonder what they’ll do with overpopulation? Kind of like what we’ll be facing if we don’t change. Maybe the queen will just shut down production. Ant birth control. Every so often he’d find another ant outside but he saw that the barrier of vaseline worked and he didn’t get upset as he did the first time and he saw that the ants found their way back in except for a few that became stuck in the vaseline. Like a mini-LaBrea tar pit. Serves you right. He never did find how they were getting out.
Perhaps it was the population pressure that was the stimulus. One night after he’d turned off the lights, a line of ants made their way out to the outer surface of their enclosure, each carrying a grain of dirt that they began to lay across the vaseline. They continued, carrying, depositing, and returning to pick up another grain until they had bridged the vaseline.
The next morning, Ronald found the formicarium devoid of ants and the bridge of dirt that they had laid across the vaseline to obtain their freedom. He raged against their ingratitude even as he admired their ingenuity. Ingrates. You never had it so good. Now you’ve spoiled it. But they got out, he thought sadly, and I’m still locked down and locked in.