The ants had gotten in through the shattered bottom half of Leslie’s laptop screen. Now they crawled across her green- and blue-tinted Word documents and websites one or two at a time with no discernable pattern or destination. It must have been a hell of a place for an ant, all that glowing landscape to be negotiated, possibly forever. It wasn’t clear whether any ants escaped or if they all just died in there. If they were dying, they at least had the decency to do it over in the dark border area of the screen or down in the keyboard, rather than within her line of sight. She was trying to see how long she could go without getting a new computer; the sound of crackling glass every time she opened the screen suggested that the reckoning was nigh.
She was on her front porch, trying to make herself write an e-mail to her ex-boyfriend Marcus, who was, she had just learned, due back in town in a week for an exhibition of his drawings at a local gallery. (Well, “exhibition,” “gallery”—his work was being featured in the basement of the camera store in downtown Missoula.) She wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t be worried about running into her, that she no longer had any loose feelings about the breakup, that she thought it would be nice to have a drink even, if he found himself with some time on his hands. But these thoughts wouldn’t form themselves into coherent sentences on the screen, maybe because she wasn’t sure they were true. She hadn’t forgotten the ugly melodrama of their final months together, and she hadn’t forgiven him for going off to Italy for a fellowship without her, like a punk-ass.
Her newish man, a mannish boy, was named Cal, for the baseball player, he claimed, though Cal Ripken would have only been in his second season when he was born, so it was probably a lie, like Hillary Clinton naming herself after the Everest climber. Anyway, he was from Baltimore originally, or so he claimed. Like many of the men she knew in Missoula, he was a dog trainer, novelist, and organic-grocery-store employee. His sweaters had moth holes in them. He rolled his own cigarettes. His novels weren’t technically self-published, but only because one of his friends in town printed and distributed them. His friend’s service fee was mostly offset by the handful of sales Cal made at his readings, which were attended with shrugging obligation by his friends and the town’s mostly elderly patrons of the arts. There was, in fact, a reading that night at Marlowe’s Books for his latest opus, a four-hundred-page novel set in Butte on New Year’s Eve, 1899.
It wasn’t ideal to date a bad—or, okay, flagrantly mediocre—writer, but it wasn’t as terrible as she’d worried it might be. Cal had decent, if very male, taste in books (Bolaño, Roth, David Foster Wallace) and wasn’t aggressively dumb about things most of the time. He also, blessedly, lacked ambition; he didn’t seem too stressed out during the composition of his books, and he didn’t outwardly worry about the fact that no one outside of Montana, and few people within it, would ever read them. He was smart enough not to push it, and that counted for something. And frankly, she wasn’t in a great position to judge his work or his choices, given her own life situation (a polite euphemism for depressed and barely employed, that), but she did know what was good and what wasn’t. This hadn’t blossomed into an ethical dilemma yet, she didn’t think. Politeness and desire and taste did not all have to be mutually exclusive. And maybe it was his lack of anxiety about his literary status that made him so good in bed? Leave it to somebody else to pierce the human heart with punctuation.
She gave up on her e-mail to Marcus for now. She picked up the laptop—one hand supporting the bottom, the other cradling the fragile spine—and went back into her apartment through the propped-open front door. She lay the computer on the couch gingerly and got a beer from the refrigerator, then drank it in the kitchen, staring out the window at the parking lot, thinking about Marcus.