Chapter 8 - Dead Ants


The autumn heat and smog made Rubby restless. The lack of oxygen in the air got his mouth started. "Chuck, how in Heaven's name did a smart boy like you end up on the streets with an old bum like me? You could be workin' in a fancy office and livin in a nice house. You're bright enough, and you're white enough, and you got a line a' bull that just don't quit. Man, you coulda' been rich."

Chuck looked straight into Rubby's eyes and asked, "What's really bothering you?"

"What do you mean? I'm happy; nothin' ever bothers me; you know that. What on earth are you talkin' about?"

"For one thing, you're talking more than usual. I swear, if I walked away for a couple hours, you'd still be yacking when I got back."

The old man stoically tried to hide his fear, but his mood darkened. "Son, if you gotta know, I thought I had a bruise that didn't hurt. It wouldn't go away, but it was only on my leg and foot;

kinda purple and blotchy. It didn't really worry me much 'til I showed it to Doc the other day. He used to work at a hospital, you know. Anyway, Doc said it looked like a new kind of cancer that's showin' up, mostly in men."

The news hit Chuck like a gut full of Stemo. "Rubby, why didn't you tell me about this before? We've gotta get you to a doctor to look at this. We need to get you to a decent AIDS screening program."

"Aw, heck, it's nothin'," the old man lied. "I'll be right as rain in a couple weeks. Don't you be worryin' about me." Neither of them was convinced by Rubby's protests.

Chuck's fears prevailed, so the pair hit the sidewalks early the next morning. They quickly canvassed bus fare for the ride to County General. Since Rubby couldn't possibly afford a decent AIDS program, they decided to try the public hospital instead.

Their bus ride to the hospital was its own type of trauma. An emaciated gray woman sat down by the two men. Their aroma apparently offended her. She fanned her nose with one hand, and coughed. After an amusing sideshow of facial contortions punctuated by artificial gagging sounds, she got up and moved disapprovingly to the other end of the bus.

Chuck cracked loudly, "I hope they speed this bus up, I think she's gonna hack up a lung." They both forced a laugh. Somehow, mortality is easier to face if it's somebody else's.

The hospital looked familiar. It should have. Its face had played supporting roles in TV and films since Hollywood discovered doctor shows. But that familiarity didn't soothe the Rubby or Chuck.

The dingy waiting room housed a scene of human carnage you won't find in genteel private hospitals. A baby turned ever-deeper hues of blue on the registration desk as its mother jabbered excitedly at a bored receptionist. The receptionist had seen it before. The mother apparently hadn't. She was told to shut up, sit down and wait her turn. She sat uneasily and watched her baby change colors.

Several macho types proudly sported various degrees of fresh knife wounds, apparently inflicted on, and by, one another. Some of the injuries trickled a crimson sliver. One randomly gushed blood.

Rubby feared they'd be only too happy to operate on each other again, this time under 'hospital conditions.' There was plenty of time for tempers to flare with the hospital in its normal understaffed state.

A faded and raggy man shuffled in and slumped onto the bench across from them. His stubbled mug resembled a sad-faced clown, the kind you find painted on velvet in a cheap hotel. Fresh blood oozed from beneath the clear plastic bag pulled tightly over the top of his head. It looked disgusting, but Chuck stared long enough to figure out that the man's scalp had somehow been ripped off. The plastic covered the spot that had once nurtured a full head of hair. Chuck wanted to help, but knew he couldn't.

Time dragged along like an injured dog on the Hollywood Freeway. The benches had been packed with damaged humans when Chuck and Rubby arrived that morning. Most of them were still there and it was now quite late in the afternoon.

"We want to see a doctor during this lifetime," Chuck sniped at the rotund and harried nurse. "We've been here all day and nobody's done anything except have us fill out these damned forms. How the hell does somebody get AIDS treatment around here?"

The crowd on the bench quickly made lots of room for Rubby and Chuck. The macho types jumped to their feet. The decided to bleed on someone else for awhile, even if they had to do it standing up.

"Excuse me sir, did you say AIDS?" she quizzed. "I thought you were here for emergency trauma care. You're wasting your time with those forms. Go down to the other end of this corridor and get the right applications." She glanced at her watch. "Ooops, they closed a few minutes ago; better come back tomorrow."

No apologies, no fanfare. Just a brusque brush off from the powers of County General. Their whole day was shot to hell, and now they had to score return bus fare in a neighborhood poorer than their own.

The pair sat on the sidewalk hustling strangers for spare change. It was soon obvious that they were wasting their time.

Chuck finally spread his ratty red bandanna on the sidewalk with a few coins in it, just to show people how comfortable their change would look next to his.

Rubby was busy too. He watched as a group of red ants worked the hospital sidewalk. These weren't shiny red ants; these guys had some kind of fur. They looked like they were done up in fine red velvet by a tiny upholsterer.

The ants busily mined the remains of a dirty brown sucker some kid had tossed into the middle of the sidewalk. Because of his poor vision, Rubby's face was close to the cement so he could watch the ants work.

Passersby paid about as much attention to the man as they did to the ants. A shoe occasionally found one of the ants as it crossed pedestrian traffic between the sucker and the nearby dirt. As often as not, the ant stuck to a giant sole, never again to be seen by its comrades. Sometimes one of the fallen team members peeled loose and dropped back into the sidewalk.

Rubby watched each injured ant quiver and twitch wretchedly on the concrete. Sometimes death came swiftly, sometimes it was slow; but eventually each ant curled up into a ball and stopped moving forever. This didn't seem to scare the little red workers. They kept two lines continuously moving. One line ran from their nest in the soil next to the sidewalk, while the other snaked back home from the sucker.

As Rubby watched, he noticed that the first ants to come upon a corpse got very agitated. After a short period of hysteria, most of the group went back to work, but one or two headed home. In a few minutes, a group of pallbearers showed up and hauled the corpse into the nest.

Rubby really wanted to know why one crushed ant caused so much commotion among its companions. Were they horrified by the death of their friend? Or were they just pissed off because there was one less ant to share the work? That's when he realized Chuck was watching the ants too.

"Hey brother," Rubby called out, "What do you think ants think about?"

The question didn't surprise Chuck. He'd spent hours watching ants as a kid. It started with wild ants in front of the apartments. Some other kids thought he was a nut case, but he began to understand how ant society works, just by sitting; sitting and watching ants make a living.

"It seems to me that they're a lot like us," answered the younger man. "Some of them work their asses off all day so they can come back and work their asses off again tomorrow. But every now and then, you find a couple of smarter ones who've beat the system. Nobody believes me, but I swear I've seen pairs of 'em sneak off and sleep all day. Late in the afternoon they'll stroll back in the hole just like they've been at work the whole time. I don't know if they get away with it, or even what happens if they get caught, but it got me thinking, how different are we from ants anyway? They defend their nests from outsiders, even if they have to kill a bunch of other ants to do it. We're too civilized for that, we hire governments to do it for us.

Ants spend their whole day working on boring jobs. Bring back the sucker, a piece at a time; move that sand hill, one grain at a time;

build that car, one part at a time. Go fetch the stiff, bring it home and bury it. Maybe the ants that sleep all day don't have to sneak off. Maybe they were born rich. Maybe they have good ant jobs and they can goof off.

My family used to live across from the employees gate at the automobile plant where my dad worked. Seeing those autoworkers come and go all day was so boring that I took up watching the ants instead."

Rubby's attention had drifted back to the ants dismantling the sidewalk sucker. One little guy really struggled to tear a big chunk loose. He tugged and he twisted, he grabbed and he pulled. Sometimes it seemed like he was going to rip a leg off during the struggle, but he never did. As imperceptibly slow as the rising of the moon, the chunk finally eased away from the sucker. Victorious, the ant carried his prize across the sidewalk.

Before Rubby's brain could register the scene fully, Chuck's hand swept out to rescue the insect from an oncoming shoe. The shoe crunched down smartly on hand and ant. This evoked a rather ungentlemanly epithet from Chuck. The shoe continued down the sidewalk, apparently unconcerned with its brief encounter with lower life forms.

Chuck pulled back his throbbing hand and checked his palm. The ant held firmly to its bountiful piece of manna. But it twitched and writhed in the crease of the huge creature's hand. Both men sadly watched as the little red laborer curled up and stopped moving.

"Let's go home my friend," Chuck quietly suggested as he gathered up his red bandanna, which some unseen thief had relieved of its remaining coins. "It's getting late and I don't think it's safe in this part of town at night if you don't have a warm place to hide. People that would steal money from somebody as poor as me aren't the kind of folks I want to sleep near. Follow my lead, Mr. Johnson, and I'll show you how we used to get a free bus ride when I was a kid."

As the bus pulled up at the bench, Chuck stepped from the shadows near its rear door. When the door opened, he grabbed its edge as if he were holding it open for the four people who got off.

"Get in as soon as the last one steps off," he whispered loudly to his older chum.

Rubby eased into the rear stairwell of the bus with Chuck plastered to his butt. The bored driver momentarily seemed to notice their entrance in the mirror, but she kept driving without a word.

"Did you really learn to do that as a kid?" Rubby quizzed.

"Well, now that you mention it, I guess I learned it in the army."

The ride home was pleasant. The seats felt gentle to two men whose buns had grown accustomed to the ancient benches at the hospital and the even more ancient concrete on the sidewalk.

It took about an hour to get back to Hollywood. Both men had dozed off in the relative comfort of the bus seats well before their stop. Chuck's snooze was interrupted by the driver on the bus PA system. "Hey, you two gentlemen better get off pretty soon unless you're headed for the suburbs tonight."

The noise was just annoying enough to jolt Chuck awake so he could drag himself and his chum down the steps and into a familiar alley. After he got Rubby settled in, Chuck was so tired that he was asleep by the time his head hit the pavement.

Nightmares of endless sterile corridors polluted Chuck's sleep. A force somewhere inside them beckoned him to deliver himself up as a sacrifice. But Chuck was no virgin, not by a damned sight.

The two dragged themselves up from the ground a little after daybreak and prepared for another visit to the Halls of Medicine. This time, they'd phoned ahead and made an appointment.

They got to the AIDS office thirty minutes early, and were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the three hours passed before their names were called by a smartly dressed young man.

He hustled them into a garish office which had obviously been decorated with no concern over price or good taste. The office was furnished with several pieces of furniture too outlandish for the Sharper Image catalog. The young doctor looked like he'd been designed to go with the rest of the decor.

Doctor Bob was lean and tan, with clear eyes and skin. His salon styled hair complemented his butch physique. He gushed as he spoke. "It's so pleasant to see a couple come to me together to seek AIDS assistance. You don't know how many people out there go without help because they're afraid of what their doctor's going to think about them. Please! Can you believe it? It makes me happy that the two of you can come here so openly.... say, do either of you smell that? Ooh, it's awful. What is that?"

Chuck turned to Rubby. Rubby turned to Chuck. Both made quizzical gestures with their faces and hands and looked back at Dr. Bob, who hadn't missed a beat in his rapidfire dissertation.

"Oh, gawd, I hate it when they lose those cadavers in the corridors. Sometimes they just sit there for days, decomposing. We're so understaffed here. But it smells different today. Anyway, as I was saying, it's so refreshing to see couples".

The doctor looked at Rubby and continued. "There's such a cultural stigma attached to being gay, isn't there? Among blacks I mean!"

Rubby and Chuck were both on their feet now, deciding whether they should risk a run at this pumped up sissy boy.

"What the hell are you talkin' about white boy?" Rubby yelled. "I came down here because I've got some purple bruises on my leg. Now you're actin' like Chuck and me are man and wife. What kinda place are you people runnin' here anyway?"

Chuck calmed himself during Rubby's outburst and gently placed himself between the other two men.

"What Mr. Johnson is trying to say, Doctor, is that we're friends; pals. We're social, not sexual. We came here for tests to determine if he needs AIDS treatment, and maybe get onto the waiting list if he does. Neither of us has any medical insurance or savings and frankly, we need your assistance."

"So you're not lovers then," Dr. Bob lamented. "Damn, and it was so perfect! Well, what do you think we can do for you then?"

The interview went pretty much downhill from there, but it appeared that Rubby's application would be given serious consideration nonetheless. The hospital wheels started to turn after the appropriate forms were filled out in triplicate, handed in, lost, looked for, filled out in quadruplicate and returned.

The masked staff prodded Rubby with rubber gloved hands. They rinsed his skin with his favorite beverage, spiked his veins and vacuumed out tiny vials of his suspect blood.

When he was alone, Rubby managed to slip a couple of loose pints of isopropyl into his baggy pants. He was somewhat annoyed that anyone would waste alcohol by dumping it on somebody else's arms and butt.

He felt like it was a reward when they eventually sent him home to await a phone call and contemplate the sins of a lifetime. The call would tell him if his government was going to spend any of its money to help save his live.

It would have been a much easier wait if Chuck or Rubby actually owned a telephone of their own, or even a wall to hang it on for that matter. Rubby's occasional hotel had strict rules against personal calls coming into the office phone. They decided to give their office number, the pay phone near the end of their favorite alley. Everybody on both sides of the masks prepared for their part in a long wait.

Sometimes Rubby would sit sentry all day by the phone. He had no relief, although he occasionally relieved himself in the alley. Even that was risky, since he might not hear the ringing phone over the call of nature. Or worse, somebody might actually use it to make a call. Some people will yack on a pay phone for hours if given half a chance.

As days went by, sentry duty fell to Chuck more and more often. It was partly because of Rubby's unreliability and depression, but mostly because the old man's health got noticeably worse. His cold hung on stubbornly as winter approached, and his weight seemed to drop hourly. Those gobbets of blood he'd been spitting up came more regularly too.

Instead of taking care of himself, Rubby started drinking more and eating less. Those great old soul songs stopped coming out of Rubby's mouth as his spirit shrivelled and each breath became tiring.

The Thursday before Christmas, Chuck shared that day's bad news with Rubby. "I called every hospital in this damned city today to get you admitted. Most of them flat out refused to take anybody without medical insurance. The public ones said they only had room for new emergency cases. Apparently, if you've cut off your leg and you're bleeding to death, a couple of them will give you a bed in the hall after a day or two. Problem is, nobody wants to take care of you. You're what they call a chronic care case, not critical."

"Not critical, my achin' butt!" rasped the tired old man with what little air he could spare. "I'm here dyin' cause I can't breathe and these folks say I'm not critical? Great God above, have mercy on them all when you call 'em to judgement."

Each day they contritely waited for the call of approval from the AIDS program, probably Rubby's last shot. Chuck knew how bad Rubby's chances for recovery looked, but hope bums brightly when that's all you've got.

Chuck kept regular office hours parked beneath the phone, waiting hopefully. It was scary to share the pay phone on the street. Especially when the drug dealers migrated to the neighborhood toward the end of each day.

It starts to get dark around four o'clock on those winter afternoons. Darkness brings the crack dealers out for the after-work crowd. If you want drugs, just call today's phone number and score a deal.

"Why did these mothers have to pick this phone for their deals?" Chuck wondered as he squatted beneath the phone. "My friend's life depends on a phone call and these sonsabitches have the line busy."

His angry thoughts were disturbed by the kicks of a stylishly dressed young man. "Move your useless ass, my man," snapped the cocaine commisar, as he moved in on the phone. "You scare off the customers. These nice white folks don't want your smelly self around while they do business."

The obnoxious black entrepreneur seemed out of place in the largely Latino neighborhood. But some of the Watts street gangs had moved into East Hollywood to get away from the bothersome increase in Neighborhood Watch programs on their home turf. Every smart businessman changes his approach to fit evolving market forces, and some of the gang bangers are smart businessmen. Turn the national debt over to these guys and they'll figure out a way to show a profit on it in six months or less.

Two toadies sidled onto the scene and brutally escorted Chuck into the nearby dark alley as the phone rang. The young nurse had patiently dialed and redialed the number, which had been busy for days. She'd seen the reports. It didn't look like Rubby had AIDS antibodies in his bloodstream after all, but he appeared to be in the final stages of Tuberculosis. She had pulled strings to get him admitted immediately, if only she could catch up with the man.

The dealer picked up the ringing phone. "Robert Johnson? There ain't no Robert here baby. Do you wanna do business with me or not?" The dapper joy salesman was quite upset that anybody would use his private pay phone for personal calls. "Listen bitch, if you're not buyin', I don't want you callin' here no more."

Chuck was angry. Angry with himself for not standing up to the bullies. Angry with the world for making his friend suffer hopelessly. Angry with the thought that the hospital might have called while he lay injured in the alley.

At least it was a familiar alley. He and Rubby and some of the other guys often spent the night here. Even the homeless have a home, and this was theirs.

As he gathered his wits, he noticed that Rubby was already there in the semi-darkness. Chuck didn't know if he could own up to the shame of abandoning his post in the old man's time of greatest need. "I guess I let you down Mr. Johnson," Chuck groaned. "You know I would have stayed by the phone. I would have fought them for you, but two guys grabbed me and held my arms. I'm sorry, brother."

Rubby didn't seem to care. In fact, he seemed especially drunk in the muted darkness. But at least his labored breathing seemed to be quiet. That's when Chuck passed out from his thug-induced injuries.

He slept right through Saturday, and didn't awaken until Sunday noon. He looked over and noticed that Rubby was still asleep. No, wait. Rub's eyes were open wide, but only the white part was visible.

Chuck knew the signs of death, but he instantly checked for a pulse in the cold flesh. Even though he had expected Rubby's eventual death. Chuck was stunned by the loss of his friend, his comrade, his pet. The cold, empty aloneness slowly crept into his soul.

Knowing fully well how foolish it was, Chuck started to jabber at Rubby's emaciated corpse. "Listen old man, I was just startin" to get to know you. We coulda' been friends, you an' me. I was damned smart to keep my distance so I wouldn't get weak old man."

He sucked back tears and emotions as he bent down and cradled Rubby like a child might protect a torn stuffed animal. Chuck quickly gathered his wits and put his old friend back down. Rubby had been dead for nearly two days and he smelled even worse than when he was alive.

He wondered if Rubby had gone on ahead to that place he used to talk about so much. The final resting place that had been prepared for him a long time ago, his first real home in years. Perhaps Rubby's pain was gone, and now he could bear to look down from his heavenly home with clear, new eyes.

Personally, Chuck didn't believe all that Hereafter rot, but he had to allow Rubby this one last favor. If they both believed, maybe Rubby's road would be a little smoother in the next world.

Eventually, 911 was called and the uniformed civic players troupe dutifully went through their scripted motions. The paramedics said "Bag the stiff and ship it to the morgue." The police robotically intoned, "No evidence of foul play."

"No evidence of foul play, my ass!" Chuck screamed as the coroner's van lumbered onto the street. "This whole motherfucking country killed Robby Johnson; the goddamned crooked record company that stole his soul and his self respect, the scumbag manager that pissed away his cash, the wife and friends that ran away when his money disappeared.

Damn them all, with their universal health care for the rich, their welfare that never gave an honest man an honest job. Their police that protect their pretty pink fat asses. They all killed him and they don't care because they don't even know they did it. Robby Johnson died for America's sins, but they sure as hell aren't gonna start a new religion in his honor."

The police started to take an interest in Chuck's rantings, so he shut up and pretended to be civilized again for their benefit.

"So what happens to him now?" he quizzed the officers, barely containing his rage.

"The same thing that always happens in this situation," the young cop deadpanned.

It was obvious that the police didn't have answers to Chuck's questions. They could have found out, but it wasn't their job to know anything. Rubby just went away and never came back. He'd done it many times before. He wouldn't be doing it again.

Chuck got brain deadly drunk that day. He made a good job of it for Rubby, and for his own miserable, lonely sake. By nightfall, he'd started to sober up. Chuck found an easy way to remedy the heartbreak of sobriety. He grabbed a jug, dragged it to his favorite dumpster and passed out as he nursed on the nepenthean nectar.

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