The Footprints of a Sugar Ant
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Vision"
Originally featured on 10-21-2009
As part of our series "The Words That Seem to Justify Anything"

If you could talk, you might say that my vision is somewhat limited. Your mother never did, but you might someday. I would use the word simple. I watch you lying there, perfectly simple. Perfect and simple, at once. And I think there is something to that. The most complex thoughts that you’ve had thus far in your life are in the form of desires for food or sleep or warmth or attention and how to get them. Add sex to that list and you could easily be any of the adults living one hundred miles from us, across the desert outside that window. For that matter, you could be me. Or your mother before she passed. It is really that simple.

You turn over almost silently. All of your movements are this way. There is a sound you make, when you’re moving, that almost must be seen to be heard. It is like the creak of a new hinge. Your footsteps as imperceptible as those of a sugar ant. I think that my mind just fills in the sound, makes one where it perceives there should be one, for the sake of consistency. The sounds that you don’t make now, the movements that fly below the radar of human hearing, those same movements, we, us, the adults—we all make them and wish they could be heard. We fill in the noises for you now because you’re just a baby and it isn’t fair to expect you to be heard on your own yet. That little baby monitor sitting on the edge of your crib is an extension of the same principle. Your cries for all those things I mentioned before, we don’t expect you to be able to cry loud enough for us to hear you on your own. We keep a constant eye on you, waiting to see what you’ll need. Checking on you for no reason. Your mother was wonderful at it, perceiving wants on your part when I saw none. Perhaps there were none, but then she gave you whatever it is she thought it was.

Later, the rule will be that you will have to fight for that kind of attention, if you want it, and we all seem to want it. If I took you across the hall to the den, I could sit with you on my lap and we’d turn on the television and I’d show you a variety of ‘reality’ shows where this same desire is exemplified by people twenty and thirty times your age. We could watch confessional segments where these people would cry without actually crying about the irritation caused them by the inattention of their peers. But right now, the attention is thrust upon you. It is a kind of reverse penance, I believe. The attention we give you comes from the pain we feel now, perhaps, in the absence of such attention. We are giving it to you in mass quantity before you can ever remember it, our full attention, to the point where groups of us—your mother and me, and your Uncle Mike over in L.A. and your grandmother in N.Y. and your grandfather in San Francisco and your second cousin Jon in Japan—a disparate and diverse group of us, will be painfully aware of what color and how solid your feces is and we will form opinions on what type of person you are and how you’re doing with it, all before you speak a single word. The penance we are paying you now is to make up for how we will painfully ignore you later on. The same way we ignore each other. The same pain we cause one another without a second thought. Our mutual pain comes at the heels of the realization that we squandered the attention when we had it. That the older we got, the more we figured out, the less anyone cared. When most of us felt truly paid attention to, many of us fought simply to be left alone, fought for independence, or for the room to just ‘be a kid.’ Now it seems, us, the adults—we can only feel validated when receiving the attention you receive now, all eyes on the details of our lives.

There is this network of computers, everywhere now, where information is stored and shared and everyone that has a single computer can access all the information stored on the network. There is so much information on there that it has become like the world itself, with so much detail present in everything—from the sugar ant to the space shuttle—that it is almost impossible to really see any of it anymore. And just like the real world, the competition for attention is of primary human concern. To have any power, you must first be able to grab the attention of the masses, masses desperately grabbing for attention themselves and therefore highly distracted masses, and this level of competition and distraction will justify you using any means necessary according to the present rules. And then once you have our attention, you will feel an irresistible urge to gradually focus it, like a video camera lens, closer and closer on the minutia of your life. The things about you that aren’t actually any different than most people except that they happen to be your current minutia and are of seemingly special interest to you. The highest thrill many of us, the adults, experience is to be keenly aware that a large group of people know something about our inconsequential daily toil. The human word for this feeling, which I’ll definitely discuss with you at length as you get older, is celebrity.

It sounds daunting, almost pointless, I know, to try to stand out in this sea of attention-grabbers. And you’ll be coming into it much later and won’t have any idea of a world without a network of computers, or updated personal profiles—any more than I can speak intelligently about a world without electricity. And most of them will have a leg up on you in this regard. They’ll be practiced and will remember how they use to fight for this type of attention before it was boiled down and simplified into things like social networking sites. They’ll have the advantage of remembering their campaigns for prom queen or student body president without digital assistance. You’ll have an advantage as well, in that you’ll have grown up in the midst of this—what I called The Age of Inconsequential Celebrity. And this might create in you an instinctual advantage, a preternatural understanding of how to grab the attention of other human beings, the same way a fish understands water. But my vision for you, for us, is that you won’t.

I see you waking up now, and your bottle is ready to go. I guessed that you’d be hungry when you woke up. I also guessed that you’d be waking up right about now, forty eight minutes or so after I put you down for your nap. I took your bottle out of the fridge twenty minutes ago, so it could warm up, a bit closer to room temperature because that seems to be the way you like it. You open up your big green eyes and look at me and I think you’re smiling because you aren’t crying and maybe because you love me or at least recognize me. But that might just be me hearing the sounds of the sugar ant’s footsteps again. I pick you up and cradle you in my arms, my son. You look so surprised to see everything, even though it’s just your room and you’ve seen it before. I rock you and we look around the room. Yep, there’s your mom’s poster, back when she was twenty-six and her band went on the tour where we met. And there’s the picture of us dancing at our wedding. And there’s the one of us, when we bought this house out here in the middle of nowhere. There’s the picture of your grandfather and I on that motorcycle trip and the one of your Grandmother and your mom camping. There’s the one of the rain forest we went to down on our honeymoon in Costa Rica, the one I’ll take you to, when you’re old enough. There’s the one of your mother sitting in her convertible, the one she loved to drive like hell right until the end. I put the bottle in your mouth without waiting for you to cry or fidget. I was right, you’re hungry, or at least you’re cooperating.

So yeah, all that stuff I mentioned before, it’s not so different from the stuff in here. This is your stuff, of special interest only to you. And me too, I suppose. This is our stuff, of special interest to us. And it is special, right until the moment we decide otherwise. Until we need someone to validate it for us. Right now, the Facebook page I deleted isn’t updating everyone I’ve ever met that right now I’m ‘holding my son in my arms…’ nor is it broadcasting that I ‘don’t know if I can really do this alone, but I’m doing okay so far….’ These things aren’t being broadcast because we already know their importance.

And I mentioned a vision before, my simple vision, and my vision is that you’ll know the difference. My vision, my limited vision you might someday say, is that your movements will remain silent the way they are now, the footsteps of a sugar ant, and that it will be enough for you.

Read More By Doug Dean

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Portland Fiction Project

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