The Bulb

Ant digs.

Ant dug the dry September dirt into a pile in case they needed to smother the fire. “Ant, don’t dig,” the little kids said. But Ant dug. The dirt caked under his nails and rose to his nostrils. One of them shouted, “We’re ready” from the concrete slab decorated with spray paint stenciling. Ant handed them what they needed and went back to digging, his back to the kids and the bay. If they weren’t quiet, they’d lose this game too.

The gladiator game had been more fun. They chalked circles onto the exposed concrete and battled each other while their audience of matted toy animals and deformed plastic dolls looked on. One kid wore a cracked bicycle helmet and the other a bucket with the face cut out. Their shouts drew grown-ups, Ant’s mother chief among them. She said they weren’t being raised on the Bulb to play violent competitive games. So they had quietly shifted to their new game: burning the scavenged toys and dolls like Christians at the stake.

The little kids worked at the damp fur with the washed up lighters Ant kept hidden for them while he exposed a long-buried curve of metal that was worth good money at the city transfer center. Ant rubbed the pads of his fingers along either side of the object, careful of glass. His mother wasn’t a big fan of doctors, but she had marched him to the health clinic for a tetanus shot on account of the things he found at the Bulb: empty cans, metal lunch boxes, baseballs missing stitched leather covers.

The light bulb-shaped promontory that jutted out into the bay was a landscape of cement and rebar overgrown with fennel, scrub, and grass. Underneath Ant imagined a demolished apartment building, a scrapped highway, a long-buried city. His mother told him to let her know when he found subway tile and Charlton Heston. Ant didn’t always understand his mother.

Before the methane fires closed it down, the Bulb had been a dump, and his mother told stories of driving down with her father. On one of those expeditions she had pocketed the set of small, magnetized plastic dogs from the dashboard before she followed her father out of the car and begged him not to dump their trash in the bay. The dogs, one white, one black, clicked together when they faced each other but, when turned around, repelled each other with a magnetic force that could not be overcome. Together or alone, the dogs slipped from her pocket, and she caught hell for losing them. Ant had been promised a reward if he ever found them.

From behind the curtain of blonde hair that hung around his face, Ant watched bits of smoke rise from the toy sacrifices. His time away from the squat on the Bulb that he shared with his mother and half-sister was almost up, so he dug faster to unearth the eighteen inch length of pipe and beside it, the plastic that glittered red, blue, green and yellow. Ant exposed the strand of Christmas lights with the skill of an archeologist. Slash would definitely want them.

He grabbed a piece of roof flashing and slid it along the corroded metal, and before he finished admiring the bright orange copper color, the shank jumped the pipe and sliced a deep, red line into the skin above his knee. He grabbed his bandana from the outside pocket of the pack to tie around the gash.

Ant unbuckled the leather straps on his backpack and shoved the lights and pipe inside. The pain throbbed, and he stared at the embroidered bull’s eye in the center of the canvas flap trying to think what to do next. It wouldn’t be long before his mother hollered for him. He threw the backpack over his shoulder and limped along the path to find Slash.

On either side of the north shore trail the fennel, topped with yellow blossoms, rose taller than Ant. With blood soaking the bandana, he didn’t stop to look for striped swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eating their way toward a chrysalis. Ant hobbled through the Styrofoam colonnade inlaid with bathroom tile and broken mirrors. Slash, perched high on the driftwood ladder, was welding. With his helmet visor pulled down, he looked like a medieval knight prepared for a primitive joust.

Slash cut the fuel and oxygen to the torch and lifted his visor.

“Hurt bad?” he said.

Ant nodded and hobbled to the eucalyptus log next to Slash’s tent and sat with the bandaged leg straight out in front of him.

Slash slipped into the dark canvas.

He’d come to the Bulb around the time Ant should have started kindergarten to work with found objects. He soon had an entire installation on the far shore, but the tidal exposure meant he was forever repairing his work. When he sawed or spot welded, he shooed away all the little kids, some of whom were his own, because they weren’t old enough to apprentice like Ant. The bayside art had attracted admirers, buyers, a curator, and most recently, a conservator. The art was the latest weapon against the city’s attempts to evict the Bulb’s residents for all-weather playing fields and shopping.

Slash returned with a brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide and kneeled next to Ant in the combat boots he bragged about having resoled four times since the first Gulf war. While Slash poured antiseptic over the wound, Ant dug his nails into the soft, twisted grain of the log against the burning. The wound foamed like the sea. Then Slash poured almost a gallon of bottled water over his knee.

“Find something good?” he said.

Ant nodded and toed the backpack with his good leg.

Still pouring, Slash pulled the string of lights from the back pack.

“For me?” Ant nodded.

He studied the laceration. “We’ll call us even today.”

Slash poured more hydrogen peroxide into the wound and instructed Ant to hold pressure with gauze he tore from a sterile paper envelope. The artist slipped back into the tent and returned with a metal tube striped red and white. He sliced the top off the applicator, removed the gauze from Ant’s knee and brought the edges of the wound together with thumb and forefinger. He applied the super glue in sure strokes, never changing his grip. When he finished, there was a shiny white film over the bloodless laceration. He topped it with another piece of gauze and a fresh ace wrap.

“Take it easy this week or you’ll open it up again,” he said. Ant nodded. He was in awe of this man, his survival skills, and his first aid kit. Ant knew how Slash had been fool enough to sign up for a tank brigade when he was eighteen before he realized his mistake and became a medic. After the war he studied computer programming before chucking it for life on the Bulb.

But Slash wasn’t all gung ho back to nature like his mom. Sure, he lived in a tent and ate at Ant’s place, but his mother would freak if she knew Slash had a laptop with a wireless card to email clients and maintain his website and blog. Ant was forbidden to tell his mother. Whenever Slash had a little battery left, he let Ant sit in the homemade armchair and surf until his eyes glazed.

Under the bandage, his leg still ached, and Slash handed him two red and yellow acetaminophen tablets which Ant swallowed with the mouthful of water left in the gallon. This expert care was one of the reasons he bartered his choicest bits to Slash. Ant favored the leg on the walk across the promontory to the cypress where his mother sat with Syb and their first aid supplies: calendula cream and the bitter tincture of arnica. He watched the bees test each borage and waddle across the flowering yarrow his mother had planted beside the path to their dwelling. She liked to tell about the time a fire burned the ground clean and why she didn’t plant anything that wasn’t native and organic. The earth, she was fond of saying, needed to heal.

His mother’s head bobbed red between the branches of the cypress that was their home. Ant ducked around the batik cloth that hung in place of a door and stepped over the low canvas wall that corralled Syb and blocked the winds that drove across the Bulb. Syb sat on the ground and pulled at clumps of hair dark like Slash’s. She wasn’t crying, which was a plus. Ant sat on a tree stump and pulled his clipboard over his lap before his mother noticed anything.

Her home schooling usually included quizzes about plants growing at the Bulb, names of birds, and phases of the moon. While she made nut butter sandwiches, she set him math problems and an essay, enough to keep him at his notebooks for the remainder of the afternoon. In the distance he heard the gasoline powered mowers the city had brought in after Labor Day to cut the summer growth. When his mother had gone out to confront them, the workers said the city needed to maintain the gravel tracks that snaked the length of the Bulb to the water for safety. His mother yelled she thought different. She and the other inhabitants met nightly to discuss the city’s renewed interest in cleaning up the Bulb. The last time the city had threatened to send the police to evict people from the Bulb, Ant had been young enough to hold his mother’s hand for their trips across the overpass to the library where she consulted with volunteer lawyers while Ant pulled books off the shelves. The city lost the case when the judge ruled that it couldn’t evict the Bulb’s inhabitants since they provided no alternative services for the homeless.

Ant remembered his mother glorying in their victory, hands raised overhead in the sun, her breasts jumping around in her tank top. Behind her, the ocean lapped at the shore, its waves, she said, propagated from the wise cradles of Asia across the Pacific to their doorstep. Some day, she predicted, the buildings would fall to leave an unspoiled view of the bay dissolving into the ocean beyond: an ocean as vast and uncontrolled as her thoughts on the environment, art, drugs, and child rearing.

His mother lit a match and the camping stove hissed to life with flames too weak to warm. The Bulb wasn’t Polynesia, no matter what his mom thought, and from fall through spring, Ant struggled to stay warm in the damp by constantly moving.

He compared their living situation to that of Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson except his family hadn’t come by ship. His mother had packed their few belongings in a shopping cart and pushed it across the cement walkway that spanned the interstate.

Ant remembered Winnie the Pooh and My Side of the Mountain: stories in which children and animals lived in trees. The primary animal on the Bulb seemed to be rats. He barely remembered living in a house, but he wasn’t opposed to being indoors even when his grandmother insisted he wear shoes.

“Antaeus, your mother may live in her own personal dystopia,” his grandmother said, “but you will comport yourself like a gentleman while you are with me.” His grandmother believed that watching the Mad Max and Terminator sagas at what she believed was a formative age had affected her daughter, Ant’s mother, for life.

His mother put a cup of rosehips tea next to his notebook. She was always talking about Native Americans, and Ant wondered how they had done it. The library books about the coastal Miwoks told of an indigenous people who build bark dwellings for themselves and harvested acorns to grind into flour. Acorns were plentiful in town and Ant had picked some up on the sly and tried to chew them like gum but spit them out in disgust.

While his mother had been pregnant with Syb, the lawyers said the city wouldn’t dare evict anyone from the Bulb, but Syb was almost a year old now. Old enough to be crawling around the compound pulling things down and getting into Ant’s backpack. One lawyer told his mother to stand her ground and make sure she had a camera.

Even better, the collectors and the university curator were busy negotiating with the parks district. Since the last eviction, Slash had become an international phenomena. Ant wondered why the women on the Bulb hadn’t gotten wise to the Slash’s moves: first he asked them to model for him, then he started showing up for meals.

Syb was crying now, which proved to Ant that she wasn’t as perfect as his mother thought. She was her baby born on the Bulb as opposed to Ant, her embarrassment, who having attained eleven prenatal pounds on organic foods refused to comply with his mother’s desire for natural childbirth. His mother’s best friend, Aura, who believed all babies should be born vaginally to align their spines and the seven chakras, put his mother in a cab after two days’ hard labor, and Ant was delivered at the local hospital by Caesarian section.

Ant sometimes caught his mother rubbing her incision site which she said was still hard and sore. He’d read about Julius Caesar, who was plucked from his mother the same way, one of the first times he stumbled into the library after getting lost on one of his mother’s errands into town to buy milk with food stamps.

When it was time for Syb to come, his mother swore she’d stay at the Bulb, and Syb was born under their tree. When Ant asked her how much the baby weighed, his mother said weight was an arbitrary measurement given to a baby that only set the stage for future measurement and comparisons. He figured she weighed about ten pounds because she had felt like two bags of flour in his arms.

To buy firewood for Slash’s child, his mother took cleaning jobs that paid cash. She explained the best way to clean a tub was to get in there naked to scrub and rinse. At work she saved the bathrooms for last and showered before she left and always came home smelling of something different and wonderful.

Syb was still small enough to bathe in an old dishpan with rainwater, but Ant washed as best he could; his favorite place was the bathroom at the pool. He asked to come with his mother on her jobs, but she needed him to watch the baby. What else could he do? Ant endured being alone with the baby all winter for the warmth the logs brought. He loved watching the fire lick its way up the driftwood kindling to the logs. He knew about toasting marshmallows, but his mother said they weren’t vegetarian. When he found vegetarian ones at the organic grocer, his mother said they didn’t have the money to buy them.

After he finished his schoolwork, Ant limped to his storage crypt. He’d worked hard to dig out the space under one of the concrete slabs and install a rusty cooler, its interior pristine, without anyone knowing except Slash, who promised not to tell his mother. Here Ant stored private things: the lighters for the little kids, the sneakers his grandmother bought him, his magnifying glass and library card, a handful of ball bearings he was saving for a skate board, and a big duffel bag stuffed with lacrosse gear that he slung over his shoulder before he took to the twisting path off the Bulb.

Ant was careful not to show himself in town during school hours because people asked questions of solitary children. When he was younger, he was swept inside by a playground moderator and sent into a classroom where it wasn’t discovered until quarter of eleven that he didn’t belong there. In the principal’s office he was quizzed about his home schooling and awareness of registered sexual predators who lived blocks away.

His friend Hector Ramirez leaned against the brick wall of Happy Produce that fronted the side street. They bought potato chips and Gatorade with the money they hustled carrying groceries before walking to the practice field.

Ant had picked out Hector because he’d seen him carrying a stick with a mesh pocket that looked like the rock slingshot he built from the net off a ten pound bag of oranges and a forked stick. His mother said it looked indigenous and proved that children raised in nature created the artifacts and eventually the society of first peoples.

Hector told Ant lacrosse was a Native American game and let him try his stick. Ant was crazy about sports. He’d loved balls since he was a baby, and he still remembered the lightness of the ones his mother made him from aluminum foil and the dull shock of metal when he bit into them.

There was one problem: Ant’s mother believed organized sports were a proxy for war. Worse still, the developer who wanted the Bulb had promised to cover part of it with artificial turf fields in exchange for the right to build retail stores and a parking lot on the rest of it. Ant’s mother was sure that the promise of sports fields where people could sit on bleachers watching sunsets on the bay would be irresistible.

The first day Ant tagged along with Hector, he watched the players chase across the grass and check each other with the long sticks while the ball nestled, perfectly safe, in the mesh pocket. After practice Hector led Ant to the coach who said he could waive the fee but not the paperwork. Ant needed to register with the national association for insurance, get a doctor’s okay, and his parent’s permission. That, Ant knew, was never going to happen. His mother would go nuts if he said he wanted to play on the city’s team: the same city that wanted to level the debris and reclaim the Bulb. All children needed was sun, wind, and the water, his mother said. Ant wondered what would happen when Hector and his team were playing in their front yard.

Ant talked to Slash who said there was a way to work it out. They got Ant’s grandmother to register him and sign the permission form; Slash hacked into an HMO database and printed out a medical clearance form from the records of a kid with a birthday close to Ant’s.

The plan had worked because back when his mother was pregnant, she didn’t much care how often Ant slipped away. If she found out, he could say it was just Slash being creative. And that lacrosse was an indigenous sport. Ant didn’t want to play the Native American card, he just wanted to hang out at Happy Produce when the junior high let out and pretend he was one of them.

Ant unpacked his duffel bag and suited up. His mother would freak if she saw the equipment: shoulder pads, rib and hip pads, gloves, cleats and a helmet. The shoulder pads with the molded breast plate made Ant feel more like a real gladiator than anything they’d rigged for their competitions at the Bulb. He showed his leg to the coach who pointed him to the shooting practice squad. In a week he’d be running and checking as good as new. Between passes he chewed the hard, bland plastic mouth guard and scanned the field through the white wire of the helmet that muffled the sound of screaming children on the swings, a dumpster lid slamming shut, the six o’clock church bells and a police car siren with its strobes of red and white light.

When practice ended, Ant’s leg ached beneath the grass- stained bandage. He shook out his dripping hair and snapped the rubber band he used to hold it back during practice around the handle of his stick. While he stuffed his bag, his teammates slammed into cars headed home for dinner.

Ant liked to pretend he was a warrior returning home from battle, and he wore his helmet so no one would recognize him. At the top of the access road he saw a line of police cars behind the weed cutters’ truck. He spotted Slash walking away from them, welding mask in his hands. The wind off the water blew his mother’s words away as she argued with the police. Ant skirted the main trail and stowed everything but his sneakers. The chirps of a handful crickets competed with the sound of the men still slashing brush, and the air was dusty with the scent of cut grass, fennel and coyote bush. The red line of cars grew.

The drone of the gas mowers cut out, and he heard his mother shout, “The work’s curated. He’s got a grant. You can’t expect us to leave it unprotected.”

The other residents gathered around her with homemade signs while their children clutched the gruesome dolls they’d found or sacrificed at play.

Ant, still wearing his helmet, ran along the path toward their tree near the farthest edge of the promontory. Slash had disappeared into the fog that drifted in from the bay. He could hear his mom screaming about Syb taking her nap.

“It’s our home,” she said, “don’t you understand disturbing the peace?”

Ant hustled towards their house under the cedar. At this rate, Syb was sure to wake up. Police lights reflected red off the underside of the fog. Then Ant smelled the smoke.

Slash materialized in his steel toe boots, by the colonnade into his installment, but Ant bolted ahead. His mother was running toward them in her woven sandals. Ant reached the tree first and found Syb sitting next to the melon box that had been her crib, crying. On the videotape later he saw himself emerge from the tree with the baby and wave to his mother to turn away from the flames behind him. When he was nearly even with her, the ground exploded. Ant smelled burning hair and called to his mother. He shouted for the other residents who were racing away from him to help his mother, but they didn’t hear him or they dared not turn back.

Ant raced away from the thick, hot air. The pain in his knee was unbearable and he tripped and rolled to the ground with the baby. Sparks propelled by the shore wind disappeared into the advancing fog. He dug them into a crack in the Bulb where they crouched as the wave of fire rolled over them.

When Ant reached the pedestrian bridge clutching Syb, Slash held him back. Blood ran down his leg into the dirt while the paramedics wrestled the melted helmet from his head.

The fire marshal’s report was inconclusive. Anything could have started the fire: the spark of metal thrown against rock by the mowers, the methane from the long-buried trash, Slash’s welding equipment, his family’s camp stove, the kids and their lighters.

Ant’s mom survived with burns over seventy-five percent of her body. Slash’s art work, protected by a sandy shore devoid of fuel, was spared.

Ant’s grandmother took the opportunity his singed hair presented to introduce him to the crew cut. He rubbed his healing scalp burns on his pillow until some of them bled. It would be some time before he could wear another helmet.

The police cordoned off the Bulb and set a guard, but Ant had no trouble sneaking back. From the sarcophagus he pulled the cool metal shaft of his lacrosse stick. The plastic head had warped around the hard yellow rubber ball and trapped it in the mesh pocket. He cut it free with his pocketknife, a gift from his grandmother.

She kept him in lacrosse and enrolled him in school. In science his class studied how Edison’s electrons moved across the filaments and made them burn white hot.

On foggy days at the Bulb Ant still dug, head down, knees in the dirt. He hoped to earn enough from scrap metal to get a place after his mother came home. She wouldn’t be able to live outdoors anymore. Maybe he’d even find her magnetized dogs together after all these years.

The grey-white glass under his fingers was frosted from the inside with the smoked magic of ghosts. He worked his fingers around the convexity to reveal the fragile incandescent light that had survived a shower of concrete and the pounding of feet. Ant tapped the bulb the way his grandmother did and listened for the broken sound.