Ant Chalk

My friend Ruby heard about my problem with the ants and immediately jumped up from the sofa. "What?" I said. "Ant chalk," she said, heading for the kitchen. I could have said What? again, but she was gone. First time I've ever heard these two words together, certainly the first time I've ever heard them said in tandem with such assurance. [quote type+"large" align="right"] The ants in my unit are still having a great time, dancing their conga line across the formica counter in the kitchen, migrating over to the sofa, enjoying the bathroom's amenities.[/quote] I sat and waited. Ruby knows a lot about a lot of things. Whatever it was she was getting from her kitchen in Tehachipi, it was going to be something useful. And fun.

Ruby and I met outside the Prado in Madrid two Octobers ago. It was late afternoon; I had a bad case of Museum Feet (a happy case, let me add: the Prado had been stunningly wonderful) and wanted to sit with a soda and read about home. There was a newsstand. A blond, American-looking woman was buying a Herald Tribune. I said something like "I hope your stocks are doing better than mine…" No plan on my part, just innocuous stranger-to-stranger-in-a-strange-land chat. Could have gone either way. The Uh-Huh Me Too Nod Turn and Leave; The Yeah Me Too How're You Doing Smile and Stay. It was, of course, the latter.

Like me, Ruby waved good-bye to 50 a few years ago. Like me, Ruby likes to engage with people ("It's what it's all about, isn't it?") We discovered we like listening and talking. And we write. (I write plays and short stories and novels; Ruby tells stories about herself and has written a memoir about life with her son Kirk who had cerebral palsy). Now she's in China, teaching (

After a year of e-mail-Ruby's primarily from Mexico, and a few from Japan; me from inside the US, places like Daytona Beach and Phoenix-we are finally meeting up again in Tehachipi, a small town south of Bakersfield in southern California's high desert. Think train junction, mining, Edwards Air Force Base, 20-mule-team Borax. Think a charming 40-block grid with tree-lined streets and small homes with the new shopping center out by the freeway. Think an arts community where the 40-year-old community theatre now has a completely new theatre space downtown, rehabbed from an old movie house, and murals shine in the desert sun and galleries are open on First Fridays and the Indian Museum is now getting a new home.

I had just mentioned the problems I was having with my timeshare trade about an hour east in the desert. "Ants," I said. "Ant chalk," said Ruby.

She returned with a very small orange and yellow cardboard package, about the size of the large erasers I remember using for mechanical drawing in high school. "My friend gave me a carton of the stuff when I was down in Mexico," she said. "She thought she was just ordering one or two, but they came in a carton and she got two so she gave me one. Carton." Ruby is always a little ahead of herself. I asked her what it was.

"Ant chalk," she said again. "You never heard of ant chalk? Weren't you in the Peace Corps?"

I was in the Peace Corps, Nigeria VII, 1963 to 1965. We had ants, oh yes. Army ants that would swarm through your house in a five-inch wide swath for 12 hours or so, sting like crazy if you got in their way, and would probably have thought something like ant chalk was a tasty treat. "We didn't have ant chalk back then," I said. Besides, it was probably considered environmentally unsafe, even back in the 60s.

"Well, it's all over now. It's really simple. Just draw a line around whatever it is you want them to keep away from, and they don't cross it. It's poison. Wash your hands." She pressed the package into my palm. It felt more than a gift. It was a plan, an option, a means of coping. "Thanks," I said. Then we went out for lunch at one of Tehanchipi's two excellent Thai restaurants. Very Ruby, I thought. Like the night in Madrid where we went to hear jazz by an excellent Danish quartet.

Back at the timeshare trade where the balcony overlooks the 9th hole of the golf course with its lush green greens and its flowing water hazards plunked down in the middle of the desert-where the hell does the water come from? how can they feel right in this post-millennial world about this lake and these houses out here, all seemingly poised to turn to dust?-the ants in my unit are still having a great time, dancing their conga line across the formica counter in the kitchen, migrating over to the sofa, enjoying the bathroom's amenities. I sop up those I can with a wet paper towel and get the ant chalk box.

Craie Insecticide Miraculeuse in bold black capital letters next to a picture of an enormous cockroach surrounded by a very artistically drawn white line. Cockroaches, thankfully, do not yet seem to be the problem. My fingernails scrabble at the tiny flap. Inside, a rectangular piece of white chalk wrapped in plastic and, folded into many folds, directions in French and English. Very Ruby. Ant chalk from Mexico with directions in French.

I learn that the Miraculous Insecticide Chalk "is a contact insecticide which attacks the nervous system of the insect immediately on contact." There are instructions for its use to combat cockroaches, lice, bed-bugs, and ants. While even reading about the first three make my skin crawl, they are not, at the moment, a problem. The last-ants-had better be ready to be chalked. The instructions say, as Ruby said, "Simply draw a line in the path of the ants." Or to draw a protective line around the food you won't want them to eat. Easy enough. Take out the chalk, keep it away from my fingers, draw the lines, put the chalk back in its plastic, wash my hands, go to sleep. Et voila, in ze morning, miraculeuse indeed. No ants. And no ants the next day and the next.

And I'm thinking, you know, what I really need-what we all really need-is ant chalk for ourselves. A way to draw a line, a strong boundary, around those places where we are most vulnerable, where even well-meaning friends get in and dig at our innards, the sweet spots we treasure that seem to evaporate all too easily. "That's it?" says Dad. "Let your sister do it, she won't mess it up," says Mom. "You really want to wear that?" says your friend. "You put on some weight?" says another.

Ant chalk. For the soul. For the ego. Some kind of love beam, maybe, that turns the toxic back on itself while keeping me whole and energized. I'm working on it. It will really be Miraculeuse.