Cicadas

Sara Reish Desmond

Perhaps Corinne’s had three by the time her daughter brings over her homework with a smudgy, photocopied image looking only like an inkblot. It takes Corinne’s reading glasses and some interpretation to understand the image itself; a cicada emerging from the unsuspicious earth. Lucille says, “I need to know what they sound like.”

Lucille is seven, a girl whose curiosities, at least for the time being, are confined to the behaviors of others, so her mother is eager to oblige her interest. Lucille tells her mother that the cicadas are coming, that her teacher, Ms. Landry, has told them the sound is deafening. Lucille widens her eyes frightfully when she says “deafening,” which prompts Corinne to take another long sip. Lucille’s assignment is to make a prediction about what they will sound like. She has written: The cicadas will sownd umazed. Like when you see somthing for the first time. Ever.

Corinne flips open the laptop and navigates to YouTube where she selects a BBC segment on cicadas. The sound begins immediately; a siren-like buzzing, electric, persistent. It’s David Attenborough narrating; a haunting whisper in the darkness, explaining the insects’ emergence, their ascent up the trees whose root sap has nourished them for seventeen years. The two watch as a mature cicada splits its shell and arches its creamy body. The wings unfurl like small scrolls revealing intricate river maps. Without recognizing their own phenomena, they leave behind their larval casings by the millions. Candy wrappers at the base of the trees. Corinne and Lucille’s jaws slacken with amazement and when it’s over, the two watch again, and then finally one last time so that Corinne has finished her drink and Lucille’s dreams will be milky with orchestral bug music.

The vodka is nearly gone, she might as well. The dog needs to be walked. The baby who has been stacking Tupperware at their feet while they’ve watched the computer, even as he’s turned his ear to the sound of the buzzing the way a dog might, needs a diaper change. She should beckon her middle child from the couch, remind him that too much television rots the brain. But he has not asked for anything in an hour and she is enjoying feeling in low demand. She considers dinner as she stirs her drink. There is something they should be preparing for. She had this thought even before the cicadas, but now she’s even more distracted by the bugs, by the baby, by her own vices to remember. She checks the wall calendar but finds nothing scheduled. Ted phones to tell her he’s minutes away and she chooses not to ask him what she might be missing, given that she’s the keeper of the schedule. Corinne puts a pot of water on the stove. Even if she hasn’t decided what she’ll cook, a pot of water is useful. Pasta. Vegetables. A few hot dogs.

Now, she lays the baby on the floor for a diaper change while Lucille hollers from her room about the location of her yellow tutu. Lucille wears leotards and tutus most of the time when she’s not in school. It makes her look fancy and graceful and, as of yet, does not interfere with her curious investigations of others’ lives and habits.

Ted is home now and Corinne pours the remainder of her drink into a travel mug and heads out the door with the dog. If her life afforded her a routine, she could consider this dog-walking part of it. She’d like more of that, the way Ted has one—up at six, out the door by seven, a little CNN online before he cranks out the requisite emails of the day. But, on this particular day, for this half hour, and when she’s alone, she relishes the escape. To leave the kids and their demands and the laundry in the dryer and the mail untouched. To leave even her husband so she could fantasize about what a return might look like, his sidelong grin, his welcoming arms that would say I didn’t know if you’d be back.

The sun is low but strong and spring’s colors are at their peak. The last of the tulips are closed tightly for the evening, the flowering pears are dropping their petals like a storm. The sidewalk is moving swiftly beneath her stride. Tinker doesn’t even strain against the leash when they pass Jade, the neighborhood Golden asleep on the sidewalk in front of the corner lot. Jade’s eyelids are twitching ever so slightly with the stuff of dreams. Across the street, a man throws a softball with his daughter. That daughter is named for a season, though the name escapes her, even as the father calls across the street and waves. Corinne waves in response. That man once spent a winter morning in her kitchen when he’d locked the keys in his car and she’d offered him coffee while he waited for AAA to arrive. That’s when she’d learned the name of this girl, even remembered that she had topped both coffees off with Baileys while he explained to her the origin of that name.

Tinker has scrunched up his rear-end in preparation for a squat. She looks away to preserve Tinker’s humility. She inspects the Target bag in her hand for holes. It’s the ones from the grocery store and the drug store that always seem to be riddled with holes. Bending to scoop it up, the light seems to flip, she can see it on the backs of her eyelids and she has to put the tips of her fingers down in the grass to steady herself before she can stand up again.

Now she is passing the park where the boy who once fell from the monkey bars is sitting with his mother. She is always well-dressed and has impeccable manners and has a tendency to clap in her child’s direction when she believes the child is in jeopardy of hurting someone or himself. Since Corinne has no children with her today, she can offer a wave and walk on. It’s then that she realizes she’s forgotten her phone. And it’s then that she realizes how much of a relief that provides. She would text Ted to let him know about the boiling water, about the thing she thinks she may have forgotten. She doesn’t give Ted enough credit for being self-sufficient, a terrific father, the first person to pour her a drink after his day at the office. If she had her phone, she’d call him to tell him how much she appreciates him right now. Ted can handle things. She can picture him; the baby riding “pinky back,” brandishing the misplaced tutu, a bag of mixed vegetables already in the boiling water.

And because she knows he’s got it all figured out, she walks on. Her cup is empty. She walks into town the long way, past the high school where the color guard is practicing their halftime routine for the weekend’s game, past the market where the boy named Tony has always been kind to her, always carries her groceries to the car, always calls her ma’am which makes her feel a little older than she thinks she looks, past the dog park that’s muddy from recent rain, into town where the door of the fire station is open and the men are enjoying the glory of a late spring day. The red trucks gleam brightly. Downtown, which is the kind of town where there is one drinking establishment, one decent Thai restaurant and a dozen hair salons, she notices the swinging windows of the tavern are open to the sidewalk. There is a place in the window that would be perfect for watching the sun grow shadows into darkness. Tinker can rest outside while she has just one more.

She pulls a stool close to the window between a man she knows she’s seen before and two women with white wine interrupting each other’s sentences. Corinne orders the usual: a vodka and soda with lots of lime. Once it’s gone she orders another and inspects the thin red straw in her glass. Curious how it’s all gone up the straw and down the hatch so quickly. Tinker has laid down in the dirt, exposing his belly to the now nearly faded sun.

“You live in the red house on Blanchard, right?” says a voice from the side. She’s been looking at her wrist watch in an effort to figure out how long she’s been gone from home.

He asks again. “Blanchard Road?”

She swivels her stool just enough to suggest she’ll talk. “Blanchard. Yes. You?”

“No. Not Blanchard.”

She’s surrendered a personal detail and realizes he hasn’t done the same. “How do you know?”

“I’ve seen your dog in the street. That’s him there, right?” He points to Tinker who has scratched himself a nest in the dirt.

“That’s Tinker, yes.” Dammit. She’s done it again.

“I’m Randy.”

She’s wise now. “Hi, Randy,” she says without reciprocating. She’s only halfway through her second drink. If she sips faster she’ll look tacky. She remembers that there’s a payphone in the back. She places her napkin over her glass and excuses herself.

When she picks up the receiver, the dial tone reminds her of the cicadas. It buzzes so persistently that she waits slightly too long before she dials the home number. No one answers. She tries Ted’s cell but he’s turned it off. Goes straight to voicemail. “Ted, it’s me. Just calling to say I took an extra long walk. I’ll be home real soon. Gorgeous night. Love you.”

It’s the pursuit of the sound of the cicadas that draws her back outside. What might they sound like? They just might sound umazed. She abandons her second drink, abandons Randy and his probing small talk. She’s back on the sidewalk, liquor in her legs, Tinker tugging at the leash after his rest in the dirt. She’s walking in search of a sound. Her daughter says they’re coming, her daughter’s teacher says they’re coming. She remembers the last time they’d come, now too long ago to really remember her age accurately. It was summer, the Fireman’s Carnival just across the street from her childhood home. Before she and her sister went out to stuff themselves with French fries and funnel cake, before they spent their last quarters on the steeple chase and the whip-r-whirl, they had gone out to the common oak in their backyard and found the cicada casings littering the ground. Brownish, transparent husks whispering like cellophane beneath their treading feet. No one had told them they were coming, and though she doesn’t remember the anticipation, she remembers feeling cheated that she’d missed their arrival and performance; that she had been left only with their remains.

Sometimes she’s driving the car, she glances at the clock, she’s been driving for miles but can’t recall the route. There must’ve been stoplights and stop signs and traffic laws by which to have abided. But there is no memory. No memory of whether she slowed the car down or plowed right through; if there had been an angry person waving a clenched fist in her direction, an endangered child or dog stepping back onto the curb as she raced through red lights and crosswalks. And when she comes to consciousness it’s like clawing back from a dream. You were somewhere else and now you are not. The somewhere else is already lost and sometimes more important than the place you are going. Sometimes it’s only now that’s important.

Here’s her daughter’s elementary school. Brown bricks and floor-to-ceiling glass on the new addition. The sun is so low in the sky that the orange tube slide seems to glow. The parking lot is full and a wall of light cuts across a row of cars. There is her husband’s car. And there are two parents scrambling for the door. It’s the flowers in the woman’s hands that trigger the recall. Lucille is dancing. It’s what she’s forgotten. Like how she’s gotten here, like the red lights and the stop signs and later, she’ll realize, like her children’s first days of school and her husband’s shoe size. She will forget, even, that her daughter brought her the picture of the cicadas that looked like an inkblot. She’ll remember how she spelled umazed and the droning sound, the persistence, the hypnotic lull and the remains.

For now, she’s on the heels of the latecomers, rushing into the auditorium with such haste she feels incapable of being quiet. The hot breath of stage lights and nervous bodies fills the space in her throat where words might be. She is dizzy and once her eyes adjust to the darkness, she sees Lucille, center left, one of a dozen buttercups in yellow tulle and tights encircling the fairy princess. The music fades and dies so quickly she isn’t able to determine the song, the composer. Lucille has been humming that tune all week.

Now the dancers form two lines to curtsy and the applause begins, Corinne’s own hands leaden at her sides. Even from this distance she can tell her daughter is scanning the faces in the front row, discovering her mother is not there. She has missed it: the performance and the possibility. Now, the buttercups part and the fairy princess sails to the front of the stage, her adolescent legs rippling with muscle. Lucille watches intently as the princess cups a delicate hand to her heart and curtsies. And then, in unison, the buttercups raise their fleshy arms like wings and draw their hands across their own hearts. She is trying to be as graceful as she can, long before a time when she might be. And Corinne is left without anticipation, only its wake. Left only with her small girl, her hand on heart, no sound of cicadas approaching.

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