Mexican Marching Ants
By Matthew Dexter
Arturo wiped the ants off the counter with one quick swipe of his hand, leaving the distorted remnants of dozens of dead insects clinging to his sticky right palm and the replica golden watch which clung to his wrist like a hungry snake. The sweat and insect blood worked as a wonderful coagulant, especially in the warm summer sun, which poured through the open doorway in the shape of a scorpion during the early morning hours. The rays filtered in through the African peyote cactus which was growing from the base of the enormous elephant’s foot, so the shape changed every few seconds as the wind picked up and switched directions.
There were still hundreds of ants covering the small bar area, running wildly from one direction to the next, like miniature red chickens with their heads cut off. In fact, many of them had actually been decapitated while Arturo happily acted out his daily ritual of terror. Others were left squirming mercilessly on the marble countertop with their bodies torn in half or multiple limbs missing, many with fewer than the six legs they had never truly appreciated until a few seconds prior. It wasn’t as if this procedure didn’t have a practical purpose. Certainly, these crippled ants would be perfect for margaritas.
With rapid precision, Arturo lifted the top from the blender and clapped his palms together in a spastic sweeping motion to get the most out of what remained. He was cleaning and adding all the secret ingredients he needed to make a special margarita for Mateo, the new owner of Cactimundo, who would be visiting in a few minutes. Mateo complained about the cleanliness of the kitchen and shop area, especially the ants he found floating in the open bottle of margarita mix his first day on the job.
“What the hell is this madness?” asked Mateo, as the ants began marching
toward him. “This hideous spectacle of disgrace!” he added, stepping backwards slowly. “Boy, we’re supposed to be professional cacti curators, not dirty bastards! Gardeners and tour guides and standards. Here lies the finest collection of cacti and succulents in Latin America. How the hell can you let the ants--the ants that died--how can you let the ants that died get into the bottle? These are margaritas for the tourists god damn it!”
With that he took one look of raging contempt and utter disgust into the half empty plastic cup in his hand. Mateo had been so gracious when he accepted the frozen margarita a half hour earlier. “Thank you so much my friend, just what the doctor ordered,” he said. He enjoyed it so much Arturo had to offer him a second one. Now he was looking deep into his third, as if he were searching for the answer to life and the cure for the cancer eating away at his stomach. He looked like he was about to get sick, as his quadruple chin began to undergo convulsions, moving somewhat in a circular clockwise motion, like a stubborn yellow blob of Jell-o trapped in a washing machine.
He held his throat with both hands crossed together as if he were choking on a chicken bone, his eyes bulging out of their sunken sockets. That was when he suddenly lunged forward and dropped his hands to his abdomen, though this area was far too large for his hands to touch. He remained for many minutes in this awkward position, panting like a dog with his mouth wide open, displaying a hideous tongue full of calluses and a strange yellow puss that trickled toward the floor. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Yes sir I’ll take care of it all,” Arturo answered. With a quick twist of his head Mateo was gone. He walked away with all the fury of a little child throwing a terrible tantrum. That was the last time Arturo had seen Mateo. His real name wasn’t Mateo of course. He was one of those expatriate gringos who moved down to Mexico and changed their names to pretend to be more Mexican than they really were. You know the type; can’t speak more than twenty words of Spanish, but they change their names nonetheless.
Arturo laughed as he thought of Mateo and the hideous expression he made as he realized that the ants were not only in the margarita mix bottle, but also in his own body, probably more than the bottle. Arturo wanted to have a tequila and laugh some more about the poor gringo and the insects he ingested. There would be plenty of time for that later, but for now there was more cleaning to do.
Arturo looked at his watch, wiping the dead ants from the face so that he could read the digital clock. 8:24 am. He needed to pick up the pace. Mateo would be arriving in five minutes. Knowing there was no more time to waste, Arturo walked outside to pick up a roll of paper towels sitting on a rock in front of the golden barrel cactus. An orange hummingbird fluttered away as he approached. The four inch thorns glistened in the early morning sunlight, as the beautiful bird sung a sweet final melody before gracefully fading out of sight beyond the blooming bougainvillea. Arturo used the paper towels to clean the countertop and tossed the margarita mix full of ants into the trash. He then sprayed down the entire area with poison and put the lid back on the blender, clicking it to life with a wild howl.
Mateo entered the store just as Arturo was sure that there were no more ants alive. The busses pulled up in front of the botanical cacti garden as Arturo slid out of sight behind the back door to finish his beer. He couldn’t care less that a mosquito had gotten itself trapped in the condensation on top of the can. No time for small concerns, confirmed Arturo as he took one final swig of the Corona before throwing the can into the nearby desert. He was always saving nature, or so he called it. His philosophy rested on the theory that some less fortunate individuals would be very grateful to stumble upon his trash while hunting for aluminum cans to sell for three pesos a pound. With the amount of cans Arturo threw into the desert, or the side of a street under the guise of saving nature, every month he could certainly feed a small family for many weeks. Saving nature was hard work, but somebody had to do it.
Licking his lips and spitting the bewildered mosquito onto the ground, Arturo turned around to greet Mateo with a smile. His amber teeth flashed beneath the sun as he extended his hand and welcomed the new owner into his cacti sanctuary. Mateo took a quick survey of the bar area, apparently very satisfied with his findings.
“Not an ant in sight my man,” reported Mateo, “nice work.”
“Thanks amigo!” Arturo answered, while jumping into the air and crushing an Africanized honey bee between his fingers and his thumb. Mateo didn’t notice because he was headed towards his office. That was all the time they had for conservation, since the procession of tourists had already begun. They were streaming in and taking their seats, entering one by one in a perfect line of progression like falling dominoes around the centerpiece of the garden where Arturo gave his speech. Arturo dropped the dead bee into the blender and swaggered outside to greet the guests.
This particular group of tourists reminded Arturo of the ants he had just watched marching, each one in perfect harmony with the next. They looked like lobsters broiling beneath the morning sun, their skin so red and burnt from alluring afternoon siestas during four drunken days on the sundeck of a Carnival Fun Ship cruising down the Pacific coast of Mexico. The thought of boiling lobsters made Arturo lick his lips. He was hungry for something delicious, but that would have to wait till he delivered his speech.
He took the microphone and turned it to life with a deafening high-pitched wail of distortion which ended just as suddenly as it began. He had given this speech thousands of times before, but this time it was different. He felt uneasy, like a laboratory rat trapped in a glass cage, impatiently awaiting some hideous and sadistic experiment that would do little if anything to promote benefit to mankind. Mateo was watching from the humongous window inside of his office, his hairy nostrils pressed so tight to the glass that Arturo knew it would probably leave an ugly mark.
“Welcome to Cactimundo!” Arturo began, wiping the thin band of sweat from his forehead. “Cactimundo is the largest collection of succulents and cacti in Latin America.”
The crowd looked more interested in the air conditioned store than the speech. A couple of old ladies were already making their way toward the entrance, slowly but surely, clearly hoping to locate a bathroom. Arturo let them past even though it upset him greatly and made him very sad when people interrupted or ignored his presentation.
“We have wonderful souvenirs, t-shirts, margaritas, Mexican jewelry,” he continued without a hitch. The orange hummingbird returned and took a seat on the garbage can in the corner of the garden, stealing some sesame seeds and the attention of anybody who was still listening. “Here I hold in my hand a bottle of damiana liquor, in the shape of a pregnant lady…”
Nobody was interested in the speech. This is what always happens when hummingbirds arrive. They steal the show for minutes at a time. They’re like magic, making Arturo invisible as soon as they appear. Sure he keeps talking, but all they hear are empty words, as the birds take center stage and begin to sing sweet symphonies, melodic epiphanies that Arturo could never compete with. God knows he’s tried on many occasion. Damn hummingbirds. They always demand all the attention.
“It’s an indigenous plant from the Baja California desert...” Arturo glared at the hummingbird with vicious hatred. “…It’s an aphrodisiac,” he continued, “from the ancient sacred traditi--”
“Woo-hooooo, did ya just say the shape of a naked lady?” interrupted the bald old man with the southern drawl. He wasn’t even looking at Arturo when he said it, but Arturo flashed him a look of contempt just in case. Nobody noticed of course. Mateo was the only one still paying him any attention.
The curious looking man had a fascinating network of varicose veins running across his chubby face in the shape of an intricately woven spider web. The amazing red web did not end with his forehead, but appeared to connect with the crimson constellation of speckled sun spots on the top of his head, as if it were some sort of secret treasure map that only he could understand.
“No, not a naked lady,” Arturo answered, “a pregnant lady—it’s the Mexican Viagra.”
It was the best line of his speech, one that almost always earned applause or laughter, usually a little bit of both. But today it did nothing. The hummingbird was singing, dancing on the tips of its toes like a fairy taunting Arturo with aerial acrobatics. The old man was the only one who seemed to hear the joke.
“But if the lady on the bottle ain’t got no clothes…” he shouted, struggling to compete with the show which had already stolen all the attention, “…she’s naked then--ya know?”
That’s when all hell broke loose. The man fell out of his seat laughing, crashing onto the ground with a loud sound and a terrible barrage of obscenities that must have scared the hummingbird half to death. To the man’s defense, it must have hurt like the devil. He howled like a jackass. His hands had actually landed on the donkey’s tail and a prickly pear cactus. His rear end landed on the golden barrel.
Arturo immediately rushed over and helped him to his feet, bravely lifting the man with his own hands, even though he instinctively knew that the tiny hairs would instantly transfer into his own palms. It seemed the man had screamed because of two enormous thorns which stabbed his right hand, not to mention about a half dozen poking out of his backside. Arturo pulled them out and ran inside the store for some rubbing alcohol and bandages.
Mateo was watching it all, apparently too shocked to remove his face from the glass window to offer assistance. Some crazy lady tried to comfort the man by offering her hand, placing it on his shoulder.
“Ah to hell with this cactus!” he told her, as he accepted her water bottle in an attempt to ease the pain that he expected from the disinfectant Arturo was about to pour onto his wounds. He wanted to hold her and cry into her breasts like a baby, but he was too embarrassed to attempt it. “Sonofabitch cactus,” he whimpered over and over again.
Arturo doused the man’s hands with alcohol and tried to calm the tourists, who were watching the whole spectacle with silent expressions of horror. As manager of Cactimundo it was Arturo’s responsibility to keep them safe. The injured man began to lift his lower lip all the way to the bottom of his nose and weep, while the crowd began to whisper.
“You’re gonna be just fine,” Arturo said in the most reassuring voice he could find, “don’t worry big guy, the pain’ll subside in a few minutes.”
This was one of the biggest lies that Arturo had ever told. Surely the man would be picking those invisible hairs from his hands for days. So would Arturo. But unlike the poor tourist at least he wouldn’t be picking them from his ass as well. Yet Arturo had his own problems. He needed to sell something. This unfortunate incident had already wasted precious minutes. The group would be returning to the buses at any moment.
“Who wants margaritas?” Arturo asked, the words ringing out of his mouth like magic. He didn’t expect anyone to accept the offer, but to his astonishment almost everybody did, including the injured man, who carefully wiped a tear from his eye with a white handkerchief. Arturo ran back inside, sweating like a pig and trying to prevent the growing pain in his hands from showing in his eyes. He removed the glass jar from the blender and replaced it with a new one. Quickly, he began mixing all the ingredients to make a new batch, and clicking the blender to life, Arturo let out the loudest squeal of his life.
Six more batches of frozen beverages and the tourists were happy. Even the injured man seemed to weather the situation better after the tequila entered his bloodstream. Arturo watched him leave. In the man’s hands were some tweezers, a margarita, and the lady who came to his aid. His face was happy. He was so close he could taste the treasure in his arms. The map on his head led the way.
“That was one hell of an adventure, huh Arturo?”
Mateo finally summoned the courage to come out of his office after all the tourists were gone, like a tornado survivor who needed to wait for the funnel cloud to fade away before surveying the damage.
“Yes sir, that certainly was something,” answered Arturo.
“Is your hand hurt?”
“It’ll be fine…nothing a little tequila can’t fix.”
“That’d be the idea boy, bring us some strong margaritas will you?”
“Of course boss. I’d prefer tequila…but I’ll bring you a margarita.”
“Gracias Arturo, but after a day like this you better bring me the whole damn pitcher.”
“Yes sir,” Arturo said with a smile, as the orange hummingbird returned to the garbage can and began to sing once more, “I’ve got one with your name all over it.”
Matthew Dexter is a 29 year old American writer living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he writes novels, memoirs, poetry, journalism articles, and short stories of literary fiction.