by Jonathan Callard
What does it mean to be moving, constantly?
When I was nine I killed the ants in the driveway of my Connecticut home, right in the middle of the boarding school campus where my father was headmaster.
Dad had nailed the basketball hoop to the tree. It was low enough for the bevy of junior boys at the boarding school to dunk on when they passed it each evening, their white shirttails flapping under their navy blazers. The challenge was that once the ball went through the net, it hit the bottom part of the trunk that sloped out into the driveway towards the wrought-iron fence enclosing the school cemetery. Even as you successfully made a basket, you would already be bending your knees, ready to chase the ball when it struck the bark at odd angles. Which direction would it go?
I took to killing ants with the basketball. I bombed their anthills in the grass at close range, creating an open-air graveyard just a few feet away from the human one. Power. The small insects clambered mindlessly around, carrying objects. Constantly moving.
To live in rural Maryland in August is to live without breath. The wet air sits heavy on your shoulders. Heat rises in waves as if pushed out of the ground’s pores by the cicadas’ symphonic drone. I stand in the driveway, two weeks past my eleventh birthday, sweating in my Converse sneakers. I hold the basketball that still bears the faint stains of ant carcasses. I watch two men stagger down the moving truck’s silver ramp with the green wardrobe.
When the men approach the front door, the wardrobe’s long skinny key in the lock strikes the door jamb. They are forced to back up a few steps, and then scuttle back in, reminding me of the black ants I had once chased from above.
I follow them to the hallway, a carpeted floor covered with clear plastic. Their boots slide as they head unsteadily towards the kitchen.
“Where’s this piece going, Mrs. Callard?” The foreman, a short stubby man with a buzz cut, stands in front of the wardrobe. Its edge rests on one of his hands, and he gestures a question mark in the air with the other. He toes the lip of the kitchen’s pale yellow linoleum floor, and looks down to behold my mother.
Once again Mom has thrown out her back. Like clockwork. The sixth move of my life, and once again she lies as if in state on the floor—her knees pulled up, her strawberry hair splayed out like Medusa’s over the worn husband pillow. An oversized red cushion peeks out from her lower back. She has been giving orders from a supine position all morning, rolling on her side from time to time to take huge pulls from a thermos of lemonade.
“Oh, hi. That’s going down to the basement. To Jonathan’s room. Let him show you.”
“Mrs. Callard, any chance you could move a little?” The foreman again, apologetic. I squeeze past them and put my hand on the doorknob of the basement door and turn it, barely missing Mom’s ear with the edge of the door. Sweat and tobacco smells travel in puffs from the men’s blue tee-shirts; deep stains ring their armpits.
I don’t know their names, but I know their faces. They’re the Arnoff movers, and they accompany us everywhere. Three years before they swooped down I-95 to Baltimore and loaded us up into the long red, white, and blue truck. Mom was pregnant with my baby sister Katharine then, so she yelled directions from her bed, until they came to take it away. Then she moved to the front lawn.
Arnoff delivered us to the boarding school at the foot of the Connecticut Berkshires, to an eighteen-room white house with a fish pond and nine-hole golf course in the back yard. Two years later they slapped baby blue stickers onto our furniture destined for storage and deposited the six of us – my parents, Andrew, Johanna, Katharine, and me – into a duplex rental unit in Lexington, Massachusetts for one year.
Now they had returned once again to escort us – and the green wardrobe to Sharp Road in Maryland. If you walked down the long driveway bordered by fresh tree stumps, swung a left onto the road, and looked at the sky and the rolling fields, you’d be facing the White House forty miles to the south.
“Johanna! Johaaaaanaa!” Mom feels under her back to adjust the red cushion. My sister screams something unintelligible from the second floor amid the muffled sounds of her plastic Fisher Price record player spinning out a song.
“I need your help. I can’t move myself. Now!” Mom’s face reddens. She has propped herself up on her elbows. The men strain under the weight of the boxy green wardrobe, stamping their boots like hooves.
My sister strides into the kitchen from the family room, carefully placing her Cabbage Patch doll on the dinner table. She rolls her eyes, squats, and takes my mother’s bony hands. As she leans and pulls Mom towards the dishwasher, her butt shooshing on the floor, they look like ice dancers doing a routine. Mom tries to push back with her heels, but her faded white slippers keep shooting out from under her. I get down and push at her waist. We edge her into a berth in the corner, just underneath the toaster oven dangling its black cord over the countertop.
The men’s arms quake slightly under the green wardrobe as they finally ease forward into the kitchen. I skip down to the basement ahead of them, taking two steps at a time. My room is in the far corner. Light shoots in from the two tiny windows in the cement walls, sending spotlights across the thin orange rug with black tarantula shapes.
I had discovered the green wardrobe on the third floor of our Connecticut house over a year before. The third floor was a dead floor, a floor of ghosts, with abandoned desks and mattresses from past student and faculty boarders. I never went up its winding stairwell without a tennis racket to ward off bats.
It was spring. My friend Westy was visiting from Baltimore. His family was old money; they owned hundreds of acres of land in Maryland horse country. Westy was a few years older and in my eyes the coolest, since he was in seventh grade. But with my family’s big mansion, our February trips to Florida, and a maid, I felt almost equal to him now.
I told Westy about the bats and dared him to sleep on the third floor. We found a room up there with two twin beds. We did flips off of them and guzzled cans of Sunkist soda, competing for the longest belch. I tried to belch and jump at the same time and landed on one foot, almost crashing into the green wardrobe that faced the end of my bed. It had ornamental trim at the top, and its door, which was twice my height, had a long skinny green key stuck in the keyhole. I twisted it and pulled.
A smell of trapped air smacked into me. I could smell varnish. The wardrobe was empty, and the walls were dark, mahogany, like the high walls brooding over the large reception room two floors below us. Mr. Van Santford, a former headmaster who never married, had owned this wardrobe, my mother told me later.
I pulled the door wider and lifted a foot inside. Menacing hooks, bigger than my hands, jutted out like sentries, their bronze fading into a green hue. Westy leaped up and tried to shut the door on me.
“Got you, wuss,” he said, and his voice broke. I pushed the door back at him and fell backwards out of the wardrobe.
I felt at home in that Connecticut house. I rode banana seat bikes with other “fac brats,” prep school slang for the teachers’ kids. When we played army on the third floor, I stored my extra ammo in the green wardrobe . I smacked dead tennis balls over the center field wall formed by the azaleas clipped by Hugh the groundskeeper.
No one talks about what really happened. At that age I got to thinking that it was my father’s banning of the prep raid that ended it all. Every year the older students hazed the ninth grader, the “preps,” in a surprise attack on their rooms. I never saw it. But leafing through recent yearbooks in the living room, I found the pictures, including a photo of a male student squatting by the school flagpole, his hands tied to it, his graduation year painted on his butt cheeks, his underwear around his knees.
Or maybe it was when my father abolished the annual panty raid. Students raided a girls’ dorm under the cover of night and covered the tree in front of our house with bras and panties. On my way to school I saw pink and white undergarments strung from the branches that I often climbed with my brother. I had never seen so many, except in the Sears catalogue lingerie section.
Our house was connected to both the school’s chapel and sprawling main building by a long enclosed corridor. In the day, the sun poured through its windows that were so old there were bubbles in the glass panes. When my family filed past them on our way to the dining hall, I felt as if we were walking under the weight of the ocean.
One night, not long after the panty raid, I slid down the corridor in my stockinged feet, drawn by loud noises coming from the chapel. The air was stale and heavy, as if Mr. Van Santford’s breath had been preserved there. I crouched outside the chapel doors and heard students shout my father’s name, banging their palms on the old white pews as they did when Dad announced a school holiday. Except he wasn’t in there now. Roars went up when a voice cried, “We’ve got to fight back!” Suddenly the door shot open, barely missing my face. I backed away to see a young woman run past me down the stone corridor.
I followed her to our kitchen, stopping at the metal ridge separating the gleaming kitchen floor from the finished wood of the living room. I recognized her. She was a junior who babysat my sisters. Her face shone; she was crying.
She stood there in front of my father and looked down, avoiding his steady gaze. Trembling in her gray sweater, she said she was sorry for speaking behind his back, that she knew my father was trying. But he just had to listen to the students, she said, had to listen more. We can’t be all work and no play.
My mother stood at the island where the stove was, shuffling pots from the rear burners to the front ones, her hands on automatic.
My father said a few words quietly, and reached out a hand. It fell on the girl’s shoulder for a moment, then slipped off. His voice sounded like it was underwater.
I turned and retreated to my room. I wondered why the girl was so upset with Dad. I wondered if someone had ripped her panties out of her drawer. Had she laughed if they did? I wondered.
A few weeks later the board of trustees fired my father. He broke the news to us on the front porch.
I was shooting baskets and killing ants in the driveway when Mom called us. We sat on the white benches that faced each other above the white stone steps.
It was June, school was out. It was the kind of day where you wanted to read your favorite book in the hammock, then flip out of its white ropes and kick yourself up onto the smooth rubber harness of the swing that hung from the wooden jungle gym set. It was the kind of day where you could be a child without even thinking. It was that kind of day.
A slight breeze rocked the branches of the tree that stood in the front circle. Hugh had removed the girls’ undergarments weeks before, but in my mind’s eye they still hung there like phantoms. I could smell the grass that he had just cut a half hour before with his John Deere. I wore a rope bracelet, Adidas shorts, and an Izod shirt with black and green stripes and a big white collar with the two buttons undone, like the rich playboy dad on Silver Spoons. I spun the basketball in my hands, examining it for fresh ant traces.
Dad looked smaller as he sat down across from me. His short black hair sprouted gray ends around his ears and temples. His legs, the thick legs which surged through the surf with me on his shoulders and bulged in old photos of him in his football pants at Princeton, seemed smaller too, splotches of sunburn red dotting white skin under faded Bermuda shorts.
He cleared his throat.
“Well, guys, I have some news to tell you,” he said. Mom sat next to him, her mouth pulled in a straight line, her neck tight. Her hair, usually held back by a headband, hung loose. With one hand she clutched Katharine, now almost twenty months old, against her dress smock. People on campus couldn’t believe that my mother had openly breastfed her in public, my friend and fellow fac brat Brian had told me. He asked me why she wore Birkenstocks instead of pumps. Is your mom a hippie?
“We’re going to be moving,” Dad said. Then he opened his mouth again. His eyes looked lost. “I…Dad has decided he wants to work somewhere else.”
I was wondering how he was going to say it. Because I already knew. A week before I had found The Lakeville Journal on the polished table of the dining room. “Callard Resigns,” the article on page two read. It was short.
“Where we going,” my brother Andrew asked. He was red-haired like Mom, but with curls, and missing a tooth.
“We’re going to move to Boston. A town called Lexington. And we’re going to take everything with us in a big truck,” Dad said.
“Why? Why do we leave, Daddy?” Johanna’s legs dangled over the white bench. She sat next to me, her short brown hair pinched with pink barrettes, and frowned.
“The leaders of the school decided they wanted someone else to do what Dad has been doing.” He looked like a child, meek, as his lips moved. “And so we decided to not work together anymore.”
We would be going to new schools, he told us. He would teach at Harvard for a year while looking for a permanent school job. We would leave in a month. We weren’t going to leave anything behind, he said.
The movers rock the wardrobe down the basement steps, exhaling in loud bursts. I drag the wooden bookshelf along the thin rug until it rests against the yellow pole supporting the house. I position it so that it will be at ninety degrees with the green wardrobe, which will go on the other side of the pole, and form a corner of my bedroom.
I had painted the shelf a month before. Dad and I had driven down from Lexington to get the Maryland house ready for the Arnoff movers. On the way down I-95 we strained to hear Jesse Jackson address the Democratic National Convention about the Rainbow Coalition and keeping hope alive. Dad bought me a painter’s cap, and we wore old shirts and jeans. I slapped white paint on shelves in the garage while Dad took a roller to the living room. We lived off fast food, and I learned to love the Egg Mcmuffin with a small orange juice, while Dad preferred sausage and egg with coffee.
Even as Dad had steadied himself on the ladder above me, finishing the trim around the front door, he looked as if he had shrunk, the layers between us scraped away like old paint. He chattered about his new job starting a high school from scratch in the middle of a farmer’s field up the road. Geraldine Ferraro was making history at the convention, and the Baltimore Orioles, Dad’s boyhood team, were roaring into the second half of the baseball season behind Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. Mike Boddicker’s pitching was going to be key, I said, because Jim Palmer was getting old. He agreed and said he remembered when the team moved to Baltimore from St. Louis in the early fifties. Maybe in this new home, the Orioles would win the World Series. And maybe the Democrats would take back the White House.
The Arnoff movers have reached the basement floor now. I beckon to them like a flight controller. They drop the green wardrobe on the rug with a bang, and we push it flush with the yellow pole. I tack up a poster of Julius Erving in his Converse shoes on the front door of the wardrobe. It looks like Dr. J is floating inside for a layup.
I’m driving towards the hoop of puberty. I will soon discover my father’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit magazines, and I will hide them in the wardrobe’s big bottom drawer, underneath the Brooks Brothers sweaters Westy will hand down to me when he wears them out.
When it rains, the drain outside the basement door will clog, and the water will seep into my room, and darken the thin orange rug with tarantula shapes. And the ants will come out then, and wander around, as if lost, banging into the cement walls.
And the green wardrobe will stand above it all.
Jonathan Callard is a writer living in Berkeley, California. His work has been published in The Dallas Morning News, The Witness, Fellowship, and other publications.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.