‘The Ant of the Self’ by ZZ Packer

All the stories in ZZ Packer’s debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, are mesmerising. In this one, a teenage boy is dragged along to the Million Man March — 1995’s gathering of African-American men in Washington, D.C. – by his self-absorbed and reckless father. Along the way, they stop in Indiana to pick up some macaw parrots, which the father plans to sell during the march. The father’s sometimes girlfriend, Lupita, has looked after (and grown fond of) the birds. “You are never thinking about what Lupita feels!” the girlfriend shouts, as they take the macaws. The boy thinks she’s going to come after him and his father when they take the birds, “but all she does is plop down on her porch step, holding her head in her hands.” And so the men continue on to DC, with the macaws echoing phrases they have learnt. When the boy is let down by his father again and sits alone in a DC train station, he watches another father and his son who have come to the march: a man who treats his toddler son with playful tenderness.

From Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books), originally appeared in The New Yorker, November 25, 2002 and available online here

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