I’m not the squeamish type. Bugs annoy me, but as a general rule, I let them do their thing in the house. Oddly, the smaller the bug, the higher my concern. When we were little kids, wood ticks were all over, and even though they sucked blood, they were an accepted part of having a dog.
It’s the tiny lone star tick larvae that freak me out now, because one fiendish side effect of a bite makes you allergic to meat.
Me: What’s good?
Waitress: The burgers are the best in town.
Me: No, Amblyomma americanum al has cursed me with alpha-gal, a delayed response to non-primate mammalian meat.
Waitress: “Big Bang Theory” is over, Sheldon. You’re getting a freakin’ burger.
It’s the same with the ants — the smaller they are, the better chance they have of slipping through the cracks. I’ve gotten them at every house I’ve ever lived in. It’s a rite of spring, a harbinger of the summer.
“Oh look, dear. The blue lilac in the backyard blooms! Smell the pleasant blossoms!”
“Oh look, girl, I see the scurrying black ant in your peanut butter sandwich! ‘Tis Spring indeed!”
Our Sag Harbor house, built in the 1770s, had every insect and vermin known to man.
Papa dealt with them the same way: ruthless efficiency. He killed everything that moved. I lost a couple cousins that way — hey, casualties of war.
In Northwest Woods, we get the common ants that come in three sizes. This year we have the little ones; I like the big ones the best, because you can see one if it gets in your underwear. With the little ones you can never be sure.
As a family they are known as “social insects,” which means you should offer them tea and trumpets when they drop by.
They appear out of nowhere, they run in packs of thousands, and they get into everything. They can also carry 2748 times their weight. Sometimes when you see a car going real slow up your block, it’s not being driven; one of the juvenile-delinquent ants from the neighbor’s house is carrying it.
They show up en masse. The entire kitchen counter will be covered. You can spray it with bleach until it is spotless. Stand there for an hour and it will be spotless. But turn away for a moment and the entire counter will be packed with ants.
They move in one direction. I don’t know where they are coming from, but they march in single file and are very well behaved. Sometimes I think I hear them whistling “Bridge over River Kwai.”
There is one other color ant besides black: red, the dreaded Cow Killer. You don’t see one often, but they are out there. When we were kids it was understood if one got a hold of you, it would tear you apart. Legend has it one lurks in every house, waiting for the right time to pounce — like when you are quietly reading a newspaper.
Me: Can it really kill a cow?
Papa: I don’t see any live cows in the house, do you?
Try this: clean the counter thoroughly of ants. Spray the hell out of it. Cover a spot in the center with plastic wrap. Make a tuna sandwich and leave an anvil or iron on top of the plastic wrap. Put the sandwich in a lunch bag in your cooler. Go to the beach. Three hours later, open the sandwich. You will find an ant hiding in it. Now go home, remove the anvil, and slowly pick up the plastic wrap. There will be an ant.
He’s like the Jesus of ants — he can turn water into wine and do other parlor tricks. (If you kill him, he comes back as a red ant who thinks you are a cow.)
Here is the miracle of anthood: Like so many good things in spring, they go their merry way. Yes, they will inundate the kitchen for a week or two and, I’ve read, they secrete pheromones, which can’t possibly be a good thing unless it’s meat tenderizer. They are our ants. We have an uneasy truce and that’s enough.
They come back every year to us because they smell the pheromones.
At my brother’s burial a few years back, the priest asked each of the attendees to tell a story about my brother. My mother related that once he was hired at St. Andrews rectory but he got fired because he used to take a can of lighter fluid to the armies of black ants on the stairwell and torch them.
“God forgive his soul,” the priest said.
“It kept them out of his lunch,” I pointed out.
We probably should have said a prayer for Papa, too, who was in the ground right next to us, because unlike the ants, my cousins aren’t ever coming back.