Sweet Ants or Grease Ants

I PARKED my parents' car across the street from the barber shop where the red-and-blue pole twisted between two old men sitting under an awning, hiding from the sun. The library was near the corner, past the blinking yellow light in the center of town, where my mother said it would be. Another muggy day in southern Michigan - just what I wanted on my summer vacation.

I was glad to be staying at my parents' cottage on the lake rather than at our big old farmhouse where nothing stirs but dust behind tractors in the fields.

A handwritten sign, ``Reading Community Library,'' hung on the door behind the torn screen. It was an old brick building, book-ended by Ye Olde Junk Shoppe - filled with old lamps and clothes fading in the sun - on one side, and an abandoned luncheonette on the other. The sign said the library wouldn't open until four o'clock.

I walked around the corner to the post office. My shoes echoed on the floor; I was the only one there.

The telephone rang, startling the silence, and a large woman in a blue postal uniform dropped the stack of mail she was sorting to answer it. I asked to look at all the 25-cent stamps she had.

I chose the baseball stamps and walked across the street to the hardware store. Ants had invaded our cottage.

``Do you have sweet ants or grease ants?'' the lady asked.

``I don't know. They're this big,'' I said, stretching my fingers to an inch.

``In the kitchen?''

``Yes.''

``Ooooh. That's real trouble. You got sweet ants.'' She explained that they liked to eat sweets. I didn't ask what grease ants were. I paid and headed for the library.

The librarian was behind her desk by the door. She was busy marking up a calendar. A couple of teenagers were whispering in the stacks. A man in dusty work clothes was walking around. A curly-haired woman was sitting nearby, clipping coupons from a magazine.

The librarian looked up at me with magnified blue eyes behind horn-rimmed bifocals. The part in her black hair was gray. The buttons on her cotton blouse buckled.

``I'd like to check out some books,'' I said. ``I'm here visiting my parents on the lake. I think you know my mother.''

She knew my mother all right. ``But she's never used the library,'' she said. She tilted her head down so she could peer up over her glasses at the stranger.

I filled out the form she gave me. She watched me carefully.

Bells clanged on the screen door as the lady from the hardware store walked in. ``Hello again,'' she said to me, and disappeared into the stacks.

``What do you do?'' the librarian asked.

``I write for a newspaper,'' I replied, handing her the card.

She looked at it. ``You sure that's a seven?'' she asked, pointing to the way I drew a line threw the number, as the Europeans do. I picked it up from a Danish guy I used to date. Painstakingly she filled out the rest of the card, in round cursive letters.

I took the card and went to the shelves. After three days of vacation in this small town, I was ready to get back to old friends. Hardcovers smelling slightly sweet, like smoke and clay, with cool pages like cold cellars. Lonesome travelers with stories of other people's habits.

I TOOK my time.

I made my way through the natural sciences, to animal books, to the self-help paperbacks worn from use. I skipped over the romances wrinkled and bent, and crept slowly through the hardback fiction. I chose a few. Then I got to the poetry. I looked up and she was watching me.

``You've got a lot of books here,'' I said, quickly standing up, brushing the dust from my knees and bottom.

``We do,'' she nodded.

I followed her to the desk and set my stack next to her calendar. It was filled in with times for children's readings on Saturday and Women's Club on Tuesdays.

``You can only take three,'' she said, yanking at her skirt as she squared herself over her chair preparing to sit down.

I picked three as she landed on the seat.

Slowly she filled out the due dates in the back.

``Your mother must be glad to have you home,'' she said. ``How long you home for?''

``A week,'' I said.

``Only a week? Just like my daughter,'' she clicked her tongue against the top of her mouth and shook her head. ``A week here, a week there, and that's it.'' She went back to her dates.

``Well,'' I said, ``it's good enough for me.''

She looked up. ``You must not have much to talk about with your mother.''

I looked down. My face got hot. It hadn't occured to me; was my mother thinking the same thing?

``Aw, that's OK,'' the librarian said, waving her hand at the air. She lifted one hip and then the other before leaning back in her chair. The threads on her buttons were about to give way.

``When my daughter comes home, we talk for a week. By the time she leaves, I'm all talked out.''

She closed the last book and set it on the others. She told me to be sure to return them before next week when the library would be closed on account of the new carpeting. I tried to imagine the old building smelling like nylon and glue.

I used up the stamps and left the three books for my mother to return.

The ants didn't go away. They must have been grease ants.

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