“Look at that one, he's got a big butt,” said my sister.
“Ants don't have butts, Ally. It's called an abdomen.”
“How can they not have butts?”
“I don't know.” I knew an explanation would bring an endless string of other questions.
We'd been squatting on the concrete sidewalk for the last five minutes, our knees bent and our eyes fixed on the insects. The ants had formed two lines that led to and from someone's dropped popsicle. The popsicle had melted, and the stick sat in a pool of pink sugar that the ants sucked up and carried away as fast as they could. The line of ants that took away the sweet liquid moved slower than the line that arrived because of what they carried.
I liked ants. They always seemed to be working on something. Once, on a science trip, my class got to see the inside of an anthill. There were small clear plastic windows put into the hill so we could have short glimpses into their lives. There was so much activity going on in the passageways and chambers—not what I imagined from the outside.
“Look, those two are fighting!” Ally pointed. Two ants had broken off from the rest and wrestled each other. We watched their fight until one ant was decapitated and then dragged away. “I wonder why?” she asked.
“C'mon, we should get going.” I pulled myself away from the ants' tiny world. “I want to buy my new baseball glove before the tournament, but I need twelve more dollars. Think we can collect twenty-five today?”
“Twenty-five dollars! That'll be tough the second time around.” Ally took out the notebook she carried under her arm. She opened it to the last lined page and looked under the neatly written column for April. There were all the house numbers that regularly paid, but we hadn't collected from yet. The Post was our town’s free newspaper, but most of the sixty houses we delivered to gave us a small tip every month—our spending money. Dad took the pennies-per-paper that the Post paid us and put it into savings bonds for us each year. “For your college,” he said. College seemed too far away to be real, but Dad always said it with a smile. He showed us Mom’s and his very first bank statement so we could see how little they started with when they came to Canada. Ally and I read the names, Felix A. Pinto and Clara M. Pinto, and the balance of just thirty dollars. Dad told us, “And we had to borrow that thirty dollars too. At that time you were only allowed to bring ten dollars out of India.”
Ally and I walked along the sidewalk following our regular route but only went to the houses that paid. We’d learned that Sunday, around five, was the best time to catch people at home. And we always went together to collect because the families gave us more when there were two of us.
We had a system for delivering papers too. We'd memorize the house numbers, load up the metal wire buggy, and each take a side. We’d then meet at the end with ink-stained hands in front of Chrissy's house; she was a girl in my class that I didn't like. When we got home, Mom made us wash our hands the moment we stepped inside so we didn't get fingerprints all over the white walls. Black soapy bubbles, and we were done.
My best friend Johnny had a brother that did papers too, but sometimes he just threw his whole stack in the dumpster behind the convenience store. We always delivered our papers on time. A truck came to our house three times a week to drop off big bundles of flyers. We assembled them as fast as we could and became expert shoppers in the process. We flipped through the glossy inserts from every store and spotted the sales.
“Basmati rice for a dollar forty-nine,” my sister proudly told our father. He usually helped us assemble the papers after work but had to take a nap right after.
“Oh, that's a very good price,” he answered.
“Ice cream's on sale for a dollar forty-nine too.” I tried my luck and usually succeeded when it came to ice cream.
After the first five houses, we'd collected only six dollars. Ally and I approached house number 494 hoping the Sheppards were home. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard were always nice to us, and Mr. Sheppard was so interesting; it seemed like every time we saw him he’d come back from playing hockey, or ice fishing, or camping or hiking up north with Mrs. Sheppard.
We walked past the Volkswagen in the driveway, onto the porch and knocked on the door. We heard some movement inside the house. Through the pane of blurred glass next to the door we saw a figure come down the stairs.
Mr. Sheppard opened the door, and Ally said, “Hi, we're collecting for the Post.”
“Hello there.” Mr. Sheppard pushed the glasses up on his face. “Of course, come on in and I'll see what I can scrounge up,” he said, with a thick wooden pipe still in his mouth. The fruity smoke greeted us as we stepped inside, and trailed behind Mr. Sheppard. He wore what I had always seen him wear, blue jeans and a black T-shirt. He was the only man I knew that had a long grey ponytail; it hung over the back of his black shirt.
“You kids aren't thirsty, are you?” he said, from what I think was the kitchen.
“No thank you. We're fine,” I said back, unsure if he heard me. Every time we came here my eyes darted around the hallway and living room, not sure what to focus on: the snow shoes in the corner, the porcelain dog next to the reclining chair, or the long piece of driftwood and mason jar filled with seashells and smooth stones on top of the coffee table. But every time, my gaze settled on a big framed painting hanging above the couch. The painting was of a lake at sunset with evergreens all around, and the sky and water were pink. Last time I’d asked Mr. Sheppard about it, and he told us his family has been in Canada for four generations, and his grandfather had painted it. It made me want a picture like that in our house.
Mr. Sheppard returned a few moments later with a grin. “Well, I only got a ten, but here you go,” he said, and handed Ally the bill. She gave the ten to me, and I put it into the zippered fanny pack I wore around my waist. Mr. Sheppard must have still been in a good mood. Just last week his picture was in the paper. There was an article about how he tried to stop the city from building new houses in the field on the other side of the creek. We gave Mr. Sheppard all the extra copies of that day's paper we had. He said he was going to frame the article.
“Now that money is for you, do you understand? I don't want any of that going to the Post,” he added.
We promised him we would keep the money, and said thank you before we headed out the door.
After Mr. Sheppard's, I thought for sure we'd get enough to buy my baseball glove. A lot of other families weren't home though, and by the time we reached the last house we were four dollars short. The sun was not so high anymore. I thought of my old baseball glove. The ball sometimes went right through it when I was on the infield.
We approached the house on the corner, and I saw the gum on the pavement—Chrissy's house. She'd been in my class since kindergarten, and every year we competed for the best grades. Whenever we got a test back, she would always come over to my desk and compare marks. She kept quiet if I got a better score than her, but if she scored higher than me, she'd always say, “I beat you.” But that's not why I didn't like her. At the bake sale last year, I’d brought in KulKuls. My family usually only made the sweet at Christmas, but it was my mom's idea to make them the Saturday before the sale. My teacher and the other parents loved how they weren’t so sugary, and had more of a spicy-sweet taste. Almost all of the other kids had brought in cookies, cakes and frosted muffins with Smarties happy faces on top.
“How did you make the KulKuls?” my teacher asked me.
“We took small pieces of the dough mix, and rolled them on a comb to make the shape of a shell.” I didn't get far in my explanation.
“That's disgusting!” Chrissy interrupted.
I tried to tell her, “It was a brand new comb, and we boiled it first. We just used it to get the pattern.” But it didn't work; she told everyone my dessert was made with a comb and had hair inside. None of the kids would try one after that. Chrissy's mom had brought in a giant gingerbread house that everyone loved. She gave each kid a gingerbread man too. Mine was missing an icing eye, and also went uneaten.
We still delivered the paper to Chrissy's house, but stopped collecting from her after that. Every time I passed by the front of her house, I made sure no one was looking, and spat out my gum on the sidewalk. After a while, the gum got flattened and dirty, and turned black. If you looked, the spots started to become noticeable. Ally started to spit out her gum there too when I told her it was non-violent resistance. When we were younger, Mom told us about Gandhi for our bedtime stories. We imagined an Indian Hercules, both strong and powerful. We were shocked when we finally saw a photo of him. “That's Gandhi?” we asked, not fully believing. We told our mother that this skinny bald man, with thick glasses couldn't possibly be the man who freed India from the British. The only reply she gave us was, “His power came from within.”
I was about to spit my gum when Ally said, “We could try here if you want, they pay every time we go.”
As we both looked at Chrissy's house, a BMW pulled into the interlocking brick driveway. Chrissy and her mom got out.
“Hi! How are you kids? Are you collecting?” Chrissy's mom carried a shopping bag in each hand and looked like Barbie.
“Yes,” Ally managed to say. We both felt guilty standing right next to the gum spots, and thought she would say something.
“Well, follow us inside and I'll check if I have any cash.”
My eyes met Chrissy's and she said, “Hey,” as she passed by. She wore a Girl Guides uniform with a sash full of badges.
“Hey,” I said back. I’d only ever seen Chrissy at school, and it felt weird to see her someplace different. Like she was more real now.
We walked up the steps and into the foyer of their home. We closed the door behind us and stood on the hardwood floor, next to a glass table with a vase filled with dried flowers. My mom didn't like flowers that were fake or plants that weren't alive. She had potted versions of her favourites from back home: a rubber plant, a small palm tree, and pink bougainvilleas that she kept outside in the summer to flower.
Chrissy went up the spiral staircase. Her mom put her bags on the dining table and closed the glass doors in front of them. I thought of the lines of beads we had in our home that separated two rooms. Ally and I always tried to limbo underneath them, or part their way with the least movement and noise.
Chrissy's mom returned with her purse, but shouted out “Dad?” before she opened it. “Dad? Did you eat the food I left out?”
An old man came out into the end of the hallway, shuffling slowly. He wore a grey wool sweater and had white hair and stubble on his face.
Before he could answer, the phone rang, and Chrissy’s mom said to us, “Oh, just a sec, kids.” She put her purse on the ground and ran into another room to get the phone.
I heard her say hello three times, each time slower than the last, before she finally hung up.
“Must have been a wrong number,” she said as she returned, and scratched the outside of her nose.
Chrissy's mom picked her purse off the floor and opened a smaller wallet. She first dug a finger around the coin pocket, then looked for bills, but she found none.
“Jeez, I've got nothing on me.” She put the wallet back in her purse. “Just hold on another minute, and let me see if I have anything upstairs.”
The old man held his backside as he walked closer to us. I then noticed he was crying silently, with tears rolling down his wrinkled face.
When I noticed the smell, I turned to Ally, and saw she had a frown on her face too.
Just then the front door opened and I pulled Ally out of its path. Chrissy's dad walked in. He wore a suit and had a leather bag slung over his shoulder like he’d just returned from work. I thought this was strange on a Sunday.
“Jennifer!” he shouted out. “Did Richard call?”
Chrissy’s mom came halfway down the stairs, and said, “Someone just called, but they didn't say anything.”
“I've got to give him a call.” He walked past us without a word or a nod but stopped before he reached the stairs.
“Jesus Christ, what is that smell?”
The old man said in quiet voice, “I had an accident.”
Chrissy’s mom’s face dropped, before she said, “Dad, go wait in the washroom.”
“I’m sorry, it won’t happen again,” the old man said in between tears. Seeing his face made me feel so sorry, like I was the one who had the accident. He shuffled back down the hallway.
“This is what I come home to?” Chrissy’s father stomped up the stairs. “Jen, we’re putting him in a home.”
“I’m not putting my father in a home.” She followed him up the stairs and into a room we couldn't see, but we could still hear.
“Then what do you want to do? Where were you today?”
“Grocery shopping, pharmacy, florist, Chrissy's piano lessons, and Girl Guides took the whole day. If you weren’t at work all the time, you’d know this.”
“My work pays for all of those things, Jennifer. And right now I'm busy. I need to make a call.”
“You're always busy. Did you spend today with that woman again?”
“She's my client for fuck’s sake.”
I heard what I thought was a stomp on the floor; it rumbled through the house. Ally and I still stood by the door, her with her notebook, me with my hands in my pockets, unsure of what to do. My parents argued sometimes but never like that. We looked at each other. Ally's eyes were afraid, and without speaking, I knew she wanted to leave.
As we turned around to go, Chrissy came down the stairs and stopped when she saw that we were still there. She was stuck on that step for a few seconds, with her parents arguing behind her.
“Moooom.” Chrissy ran back upstairs. “Mom! The paperboys are still downstairs.”
I saw Ally's face scrunch up; she hated being called a paper-boy.
“Just tell them to come back another time, Chrissy.”
I heard a door slam shut upstairs, and the shouting start again.
A few seconds passed before Chrissy walked back down the stairs. I was expecting her to tell us what we had just heard, about coming back another time.
“You'll wait forever for money, won't you?” she said, and our eyes met again. I used to think Chrissy was so lucky. I was jealous of how she got an allowance every week, how she never had to walk to school, or take care of a little sister. But at that moment, I felt sorry for her.
I didn't say anything back to her and neither did Ally. We stepped back outside and closed the door behind us.
I could tell we were both relieved to be on the other side of that door as if there was no air inside and we could now breathe.
We walked down off the porch and returned to the sidewalk where I saw the dark gum spots again. This time, I swallowed the gum I was chewing on.
We started our trip back home, walking slower than when we had come, and carrying all that we had collected.