t exactly 12:05 p.m., Josť "Joe" Rodriguez left his office. Once outside, he threw his suit jacket into a public trash can located near the building's entrance. The weight of his jacket against the bin knocked a crumpled hamburger wrapper, covered in ants, to the ground. Jose knelt to examine them.
They have no choice, he thought. They're programmed this way.
Feed the queen.
All before the afternoon staff meeting.
For the good of the company.
Work to live.
Live to work.
Feed the machine.
Fuck the queen.
Josť jumped up and then tried to grind the ants into the pavement, put them out of their miserable existence, but they were so small that they safely avoided death by disappearing into the cracks and grooves of the sidewalk. He kicked the wrapper in disgust and looked to the sky.
What should have been a fresh Monday in May instead was just another typical workday darkened by the tall buildings that blocked out the sun. The buildings cast shadows over each other, layering darkness above darkness like a tightly woven basket.
A few feet away from Josť, a woman with frizzy blond bangs laughed while a painfully hunchbacked old man balanced himself with a cane. The old man blew his nose and let his soiled wad of tissue float to the ground. He met Josť's stare, grinned, and shrugged as if to say, "Who cares?"
The woman laughed again. To Josť she said, "That jacket's too nice to throw out. If you don't want it, I'll take it for sure." She stretched a blotchy, white hand toward him. "Do you speak English?" she asked.
Then Josť began to run.
"Watch where you're going, fool."
"Mommy, Mommy, that man pushed me!"
Still running, Josť placed his hands over his ears.
No voices. No engines. No horns.
Surprised at his success, his breathing became louder, echoing in his head, vibrating within his bones, pumping his heart, rippling through his blood.
Now he could think.
The first generation had worked in the fields, picking onions, planting the future. The second had finished high school and marched into middle class with diplomas and ideas in hand. The third went to college, got degrees, professional jobs. This was Josť. This was why he never cried when he chopped an onion. This was why he never had dreams. He was the American dream.
A cold breeze flipped his necktie over his shoulder and Josť stopped running. He found himself standing in the city park, and it was as though he could breathe a little easier out here. He dropped his hands to his sides and looked around. A man napped peacefully on a wooden bench. A couple of children played on the jungle gym. An attractive young woman jogged by with her black Lab. The dog returned Josť's gaze and . . . shrugged?
Josť shook his head. He needed to relax, he told himself, he needed some time off, that was all. Maybe a mini vacation or a weekend at home with his parents.
He tried to stand up straight, but fell backwards instead, landing on the soft grass. From his back, he could see the full shapes of the trees, the gentle way in which they touched each other and formed a grid-like canopy.
If I could just see the sky, he decided. I'd be okay.
Right then, Josť realized his tie was pointing up. He touched it, trying to figure out how it had become erect. Was it a trick? A final joke played on him by his grandfather, the man who had given him the tie in celebration of his new job. The man whose dreams had given Josť this life.
Josť attempted to flatten the necktie down but as soon as he let go it pointed up again. The tie remained stiff and in place, perfectly vertical, perfectly perpendicular to his torso. When it wouldn't even stay tucked into his pants, he gave up.
This was when his body began to levitate.
First, his loose change and cell phone fell from his pants pockets. Next his wallet dropped to the ground with a light thud. This was followed by the red rubber band that he played with when he was nervous. As he lost each item, he rose a little higher. Soon he began floating. He rose above the bushes, above the playground equipment, zig-zagging among the tree branches. Up he went, quickly and easily.
Now he could see how vast the sky was, how small and insignificant the city truly was. The people had become invisible, smaller than the ants he had tried to destroy.
"I could eat the whole world in one bite!" he shouted.
But the light and warmth of the nearing sun steadied him. Josť understood why his grandfather, even after retiring, even after knowing his children could offer him a better life, had never wanted to leave the fields.
Suddenly, the tie yanked at Josť's neck, tightening its grip. He panicked and his hands flew to his neck. He flailed his legs but this only sent him spinning head over heels over head over heels.
The only way to change what was happening, he realized, would be to free himself of the tie. He tried to loosen it with his stiff fingers. He worked around the knot at his throat. He wriggled a finger here, pulled on a bit of material there. He calmed himself by focusing on the problem. He imagined he was solving a technical inconvenience. Just like work.
It took both hands to completely unwrap the tie from around his neck and, when he did, Josť smiled and took in a deep breath of air.
Then he began to fall.
Josť fell for what seemed to be eternity, but he knew from the placement of the high afternoon sun that very little time had actually passed. Like a flash of light, like the involuntary reflex of touching a hot burner, like falling asleep and waking up, everything happened almost instantaneously.
Unlike Josť, the ants understood how time worked: It was a matter of events and opportunities, a cycle of beginnings and endings, cause and effect, never really changing, yet never quite the same from one generation to the next. Time was surviving and not surviving.
As soon as Josť's body hit the ground, they invaded it, biting and tearing, carrying bits of his flesh back to their queen.
The queen ant nodded in approval and said, "You are ambitious."
Maria Deira lives in Salem, Oregon, and is a library clerk for the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. When not working, she writes fiction and studies Spanish. Her writing has recently appeared in the online publication Peridot Books.
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story copyright by author 2004 all rights reserved