Looking down, seeing an ant carrying two blades of grass, one greener and shorter than the other, and knowing that I am the only person in the world, in any world, seeing this, I can only wonder what it plans to do with blades of grass that are three, no four times longer than it is. Food? Something for the nest? Do ants even have nests? Not only that, but maybe it isn’t an it? A he or she? Can a petite female ant carry something that large? In the universe of ants anything is possible. And of course, the ant, who is more brown than black, cares nothing for me, as it continues to drag the blades across what must only appear to it as a vast desert of concrete.
When I look to see where it’s headed, there is nothing like an ant home in sight, no crack in the cement, no bushes or flower bed—nothing that looks even remotely anty. In the middle of thinking about this—chin in hand–a woman in a blue dress comes up behind me, walks to the edge of the patio and yells out in what has to be Russian to her friend who is floating face up in the pool. But the face-up floater is not hearing so she places one high-heeled foot on the patio, dangerously close to the laboring ant, and uses a bigger, louder Russian voice, and when she does two things happen: the floater is startled out of floating and I see an errant red thread hanging from the hem of her blue dress. In a flurry of now sedate Russian, the two of them quickly agree on something because the blue dress woman with red thread dangling nods and goes back the way she came while the other returns to her floating.
Meanwhile, I have lost sight of the ant and when I look to see where it should be, there is nothing but dimpled concrete; looking farther, thinking wouldn’t it be something if it had progressed that far in only 30 seconds of Russian, I scan ahead, and sure enough there it is, a flash of twitching green. I can’t believe it has gotten that far that fast. Just then, leaning forward, squinting to get a better look, a gray-haired Grandpa with what can only be his grandson take their turn on the patio, strolling by, the little boy in the middle of asking, “OK, but, Grandpa, why do you take so long brushing your teeth?”
And Grandpa, without hesitation, as if this is not a new question, answers, “My teeth are more complicated than yours. Old people’s teeth are always that way, everybody knows that.” The grandson smiling up at him, as if to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct.’
When the two of them step closer to the pool’s edge, Grandpa takes his hands out of his pockets, and when he does the grandson now wonders, “What time is it?”
Grandpa, looking down at his wrist as if there is a watch there when there isn’t, says, “2:30.”
The boy looking wide-eyed, even holding up a tiny hand to push back the sun, asking, “How did you do that?”
“Tell me the time without a watch. How did you do that?”
Grandpa, sighing, whispers, “Practice.”
Meanwhile, the Russian floater is out of the pool and holding a towel that is far too small for any swimmer. All done at the pool’s edge, Grandpa with grandson turn as one and that is when I see something on the old man’s elbow – something like an extra piece of skin or meat hanging from his elbow. But that can’t be right. When he stoops to tell the grandson something about the concrete, bending and pointing, the whateveritis on his elbow flutters, and now I see it: a piece of leaf has found its way there, at his elbow, waving like somebody’s tiny toy banner. Still bending, pointing, talking to his grandson, who hasn’t stopped nodding, I expect the piece of leaf to fall away at any moment. After all, how long can a leaf cling to old, wrinkled flesh? But it seems at home, minding its own business. And for the shortest moment, I think about calling out to Grandpa, warning him of a leaf that refuses to let go, but they are now done with their inspection of the concrete and make their way off the patio, turning right at the shrubbery. The Russian floater, towel firmly around her neck, standing arms akimbo, staring straight up into a bright blue sky. She is looking the wrong way to see a muffin-shaped cloud behind her, lingering as if freshly baked.
The next day, I tell them about what I saw Saturday at poolside, and they—having been taught to be polite when it comes to teachers and assorted old people— wait for me to finish, until, finally, Hussain, who has told me more than once, secretly, that he is not afraid of anything, raises his hand, asking, “Excuse me, sir, but why are you telling us this…this about ants and Russians and old people with leaves on their elbows? Is this important? Part of the lesson? Some sort of special test material? Please sir, we need to know.”
I sigh, and the best I can do is say, “It is important, but rest assured, it is not the stuff of quizzes or examinations. But…” holding up an index finger, “but, later, much later, things like this will be the most important of all.”
In the first row, Fatemah looks up at me, regretfully, as if to whisper, It’s OK everybody makes mistakes. I understand, they don’t, I do. Hussain nods, as if he has caught me doing something all wrong, and now everybody knows. Hussain, who is not afraid of anything. I smile back at Fatemah, appreciating her loyalty.
Of course I understand completely; they are far too worried about grades and percentages, and memorizing facts and formulas to understand the importance of muffin-shaped clouds.