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  • 52. Cicada Cadence, Katie Didn’t

    By Craig Davis

    Craig Davis’s panorama of hot, close nights on the fringes of Topeka is a wonder out of nowhere—furtive yet adventurous, a rhapsodic articulation of life felt in seventeen-year bursts.
    Writers are still using language to mesmerize us, you see?
    And mesmerism can still show and teach, you understand?
    Let a story like this work on you for weeks, like Raymundo and the crew coming after your hair with torches and dos por quartos.
    It’ll do you some good.

    *

    As mentioned, next week we’ll begin anew. The watchword for next year is DISCOVERY.
    All’s I’m sayin.

    We were in a little bar east of downtown, talking about what we always talk about. We like a little elbow room here, in which to talk. To talk about how we wound up where we were. To talk about where we’re from. To talk about night—about nights—and childhood and boyhood and the neighborhood girls and nighttime and the noise of it all. So we were talking about cicadas. These are J. Ray’s stories about cicadas, even though one of them is probably about locusts. The third is a story about bats. A story that might once have been a lie but now is noise too.

    ~

    When he was a kid, J. Ray had this neighbor. Dale. Ray asked me a couple of times did I know Dale or do you remember that guy. I almost did. I remembered him like a word you want to say but can’t quite. My parents had moved out north of town when I was young. But I spent a fair bit of time around J. Ray’s neighborhood. Most of it with a girl who lived the next block up from J. Ray’s Dad’s place. It was the kind of neighborhood where somebody like Dale might make a little stir. The moms mistrusted him. They scuttled amongst each other about his daily meanderings. That’s really what I remember. More than Dale himself, I remember the mention of Dale. I never knew what was wrong with him. It was hard to say, really. He was probably twentysomething, then. Not quite old enough to be a town simpleton. But clearly well past being just a slow kid.

    Most of us actual kids were slogging through our own awkwardness. Some of us were molting into grace. Brunette grace. But somehow Dale slipped our pity, with his lank greasiness and his digging fingers. He had become big but could not quit his boyhood. Not the kind of boyhood that tugged at the moms, either—the stupid, beautiful, hairless sex of boys in cars after school. No. The kind of boyhood that is unwashed and revels in whatever it expels. The boyhood that holds forth unnamed liquid discoveries. Beautiful boyhood was now a thing those moms twittered about but did not touch and tried not to see. The leftovers of that winsome kind of boyhood now occupied their couches. They saw the worst of boys in their husbands’ slouching. They knew the bore of violence that twitched occasionally in all of them.

    It was difficult, even at our age, not to see the wisp of contempt they harbored for us. It was hard not to understand it. When it would pass behind the gossamer and cast its shadow into the husk of their voices. Dale was like the threat that any one, or all, of us might lumber away our entire lives, right in front of their disapproving postures. That we might never get groomed properly on our own or that we’d just go on pawing our way through the living rooms and blouses of their lives. I suppose we’d proven ourselves capable. But worse still, Dale was like a warning. A warning that we might shirk our duty of need. That we might shuffle along and fail to regard them. Out of orbit. Finger-fucking the offal domestic. I suspect they hated him, that they might love or pity the rest of us.

    J. Ray had some kind of feeling for the draggards of our sidewalks. The sidewalks of these neighborhoods that I then thought were full of pantywaists and prisses. The exact kind of neighborhood I live in now. The kind of place that when you’re moving out of your beloved, fringe ghetto, bachelor’s real estate and you’re spending your springtime Sunday afternoons in a realtor’s car which smells sharply of marijuana swept under the scent of air freshener, your fiancée says, Oh, this is cute. Two syllables. Cute. And it was. Little houses with something of the cottage to them. Pocket parks. The sunshine brighter as it bounces around clean things. New foreign cars in the driveways. The gutters following the eaves and the lawns tidy. The smell of leaving your windows rolled down at stop lights. The few vacant lots fenced into the yards next to them. Children about in twos and fours instead of in packs. Mothers bent to flower beds and still round, though broader round. Everywhere the signs of adult employ and afternoon sobriety. Everywhere the prisses and pantywaists and the J. Rays and a Dale or two and also the bobbing, beautiful daughters. The ones who would drink cherry vodka and swing on the playground equipment when the sun was coming up after a party out at somebody’s land when the smell of fall in the country had rode back into town in your backseat and the wind through the windows moved her hair down through your memory for years and years and even then you knew and fuck curfew, you are young and her soft round will never ever. Again.

    That kind of neighborhood. Dale was Mill Park’s resident maunderer. He walked slow and leaned into it like at any second the world might pitch forward and knock him back on his ass. Which it would’ve. Plus the fucking moms and their handwringing. When they got together or called each other on the phone, they didn’t speak. They just took turns working one another up. Like boys circled around two kids squaring off. Only the moms preferred insinuation to incitation. None of those Mill Park mothers ever hollered BEAT HIS ASS or KILL THAT MOTHERFUCKER. They hushed about with their Did you hear about what happened in or You never know or But what about the children.

    Of course the moms had jobs too. So no one ever really knew what Dale did most of the day. Like a lot of dim people, he disappeared at dusk. Maybe tucked into flannel sheets, in a single bed, with glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and his big, dirty feet hanging over. Fuck if I know. Like a lot of able-minded people, I was unable to mind the lot of others except where it intersected my own. Maybe Dale waited till dark to slip out of his tumble trod walk, pull up the hood of his red sweatshirt, and begin prowling for beautiful blond innocence to fuck. And then eat. That’s how the moms acted, anyway.

    Not that the dads were any better about Dale. They pretended there was no Dale. Which is maybe worse. They were embarrassed. Embarrassed by their wives’ pantomime panic. Ashamed that they had to stifle a snicker each time Dale lagged through their front yards like a harrow of smiles, spit bubbles and blither, turning the soil of their evening tedium. They were ashamed of their own shuffle and sloth. So they shushed their wives and tossed off little dismissive gestures and generally did not regard, as was their way. Maybe they were embarrassed of it all. Of their cute little neighborhood and their over-the-fence banter and their cottagey homes. Of the unkempt male company their daughters kept. And of whatever feelings that stirred in the hollows between guts and groin. Maybe shame is the province of all men but the disregarded.

    Dale, our mothers could not swallow your lustless list and our fathers could not keep a straight face to see you with. I am sorry. Our shame shames us. Dale, you reminded us too much of the deeper human smells. There was no air freshener for the realtors to hang over all of Mill Park. There was only Dale and the wet things he showed us, things we were ashamed to love. The smell of her hair before she showered. The color of night in a small town. The wash of stars that I never saw for I should have hung my head. Maybe the imbeciles shuffle forth from all childhoods for just this reason. And they hang their large heads not with humility but with the weight of what we shrugged off on the sidewalks of Eighth Street where it dead-ends at the park.

    Imbeciles? I should be ashamed.

    Maybe I am.

    Maybe J. Ray just told me that the manchild Dale used to tie a cicada to a long piece of string and let it buzz around him like a satellite. Like he was the moon or a porchlight or some other oracle of wayfaring to sleep through. J. Ray told me that he used to see Dale pacing, dragging the toe of his right shoe up and down Eighth with his hand aloft, holding the string like a balloon and the cicada skimming its loop in joy or torment or God knows what frame of mind, and it was the only time he ever saw Dale look up. Now no one can say if he liked what he saw and that’s why he was smiling or if he was just smiling like people so often do when the world is not trying to buck them and their tormentors are gone off to work and the sun is tipping through the trees like it was an accident. The only thing I can say for sure is that the periodical cicadas didn’t hatch that year, so either J. Ray was lying or Dale was walking around all summer like a simple motherfucker with nothing more than a common locust on a string.

    &

    Another way to remember noise is to imagine J. Ray and someone—maybe his brother Elijah—climbing a sweetgum and swatting down clouds of seventeen-year cicadas for J. Ray to swing at with a yard stick. According to J. Ray, this was a variation on a running game of stickball they’d been playing all summer using hard, green sweetgum balls and the red front door of Hannah Reinhardt’s house as the single base. During these ball games, J. Ray chewed wads of sweetgum leaves in his cheeks like tobacco. They played after supper as the sound of the bugs swole. The dusk stretched out its full length and the gum tree smelled cloying and resiny both, like a trolling divorcee. Like marijuana and air freshener.

    The whole world was folded up in the noise of cicadas buckling their bellies. These were the Brood 4 hatch. They came when rap music was still wonderful and I was young and J. Ray my friend was part of the pulse of night. All over Topeka was the white noise of our future. The cicadas brought all that sound to the growing yellow nebula of streetlights popping on and then they shook it out, out, out. Until the glaciations of prairie lay down into the soft whoam and nestle. The last brood of cicadas had passed before Elijah had been born. Seventeen years this air had aged—casked, corked, and waiting. For baby brothers. For the off-course kids to become harmless derelicts. For the slow to skip strange and go straight to simple. This air had waited—I think—for me too. Me and the cicadas. And the first sign that night was stalking our sanity, that our claustrophobic calm would soon be laid to rest. Evening, which assholes and English call gloaming.

    Which we call dusk. Which we disambiguate as civil dusk. Which we name the new night, when the sun has sunk six degrees below the canopy of sweetgums and sugar maples. But we also might say that somewhere in the sound and the leavings of light is the ages of boys. Subtracted from the ages of men. What is left of these we also could call dusk. Though we don’t. We call it what the moms of Mill Park say we should. Mature. Growing up. Settling down. We usually don’t call it at all, since we are its prey and without our grubby flesh it cannot live on. This dusk hunts us and only lets the manchild pass by.

    I remember the cicadas that year, whose collective call J. Ray and I and all the others walked through, into the first part of manhood. The part that’s all cock and crying. The rasp of exoskeletons being shed. The first things of the last place you come to. The drone of the cicadas that summer seemed like a call to. We are both grown now, J. Ray and I, sitting at a high-top table within hailing distance of the bartender. J. Ray is telling me about the noise of them and I am thinking of the noise of us, of our raucousness before it was a kind of display of rakishness. When our noise came straight from our balls and we burned with rage and we had been asked to leave and thought it was a fucking invitation. We were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Noise and nightfall was our birthright.

    The ages of women are not for us to know. The ages of women are lies. Yet here we are, beating these bugs with sticks made for measure. The cicadas look like okra, which your grandma used to make. She did not die of age, even though she would not tell hers. She saw four broods of seventeen-year cicadas and had some spare years on either side. They look like okra, she said. Beat those motherfuckers, J. Ray. Beat them till it’s true. Near as we can come to truth, here so far from water. Seventeen years and we’ll never see the ocean if I can help it. But the bugs will come back bringing some approximation of the sound of tides. And who can deny the land here mocks the sea?

    J. Ray told me he could spit a perfect sluice of sweetgum resin and saliva. The color of empty wine bottles. The smell of balsam seeping. I can smell it. We were there once. We were looking for the other degrees of dusk. We’d have found them too. With enough time and whiskey. But Topeka girls were too pretty for much math, then. All of them. And somebody’s folks are out of town in Mill Park tonight. We plan to pull your world out of round by spinning in circles until we are dizzy to drunkenness. We plan to steal your daughters and your daughters have plans for us too.

    Maybe we could catch one of these bugs and dip it in the coffee can of full gasoline Dad keeps in the garage and we could light it afire and let it go and sit down here in the full fescue and wait for it.

    Wait for it.

    Wait for its return.

    &

    J. Ray finished his drink and turned to watch baseball highlights on the TV above the bar. I got up to piss and when I came back he’d ordered another round. Like children, we’d gotten a bit too drunk. The rest of that night I only remember in flashes, like my memory is on strobe. Beacons. We’d taken the whiskey and all it left was lighthouses. Fireflies afield. Bugs burning in circles. So.

    I wanted to tell you this, Ray. I was working on that bridge crew. Remember that summer? Beneath the Boulevard bridge on the north side, where it comes over the river levee and rides out a while over the slumped slums of northtown. We were doing cosmetic work, really. Remember the railing and the abutments and the piers were all art deco—big, stacked arches of cement? We were refacing that, where it’d spalled and chipped away. The crew’s form carpenters were nubbing out box after box of pencils, sketching forms their fathers would’ve been able to build by sight. I was with the Mexicans, working the chipping hammer, digging out the rotten concrete. It was a good job to be on. We were working little fifteen-pound hammers out of two-person manlifts, chipping our way up the piers. Beneath us we could see the old downtown strip of North Topeka and the industrial ruins. The Morton buildings and the bowstringed roofs pockmarked with weedy vacants and the bum lots. It was like looking down on a world built of corrugated tin, pigeon shit, and tarpaper. The tracks ran between us and the river levee, shuttling boxcars and hoppers by. I spent most of the time dreaming I’d see an old hobo hop off one of the slow cars. Or that the whole bridge would shake loose over our heads and it would rain rotten WPA cement and the iron girders would squeal down on us and the whole damn world would end right there and I’d never have to cross the bridge again into town. I’d never again slip the old Ford through downtown, past the high school and the modest ghetto, into the tidy blocks that Dale’d dragged through. Where I’d seen the sun up in Mill Park and seen the light in her window and the car in the drive and heard the phone ringing through the blue morning empty downstairs. Again.

    Jorge had duct-taped four shovel handles together and was sweeping the bats from between the girders under the bridge. The others were swatting at them with dos por quartos as they came flying out. The buckets of the manlifts were no more than two feet by four feet wide, poked up in the air like the heads of gangly industrial birds. The bats came down in swarms. Like locusts. I remember them screaming but it may have been me. Raymundo had his own lift because he was working the torch to cut the rebar and the acetylene and oxygen tanks took up the second spot in his bucket. The bats came down screaming and Raymundo swung his lift under the gap of the expansion joint. Jorge was snaking the shovel handles into the crack again. Raymundo unscrewed the tip of the torch with his gloved right hand and sparked it. The next wave of bats came out and Raymundo spun the oxygen valve wide open. A gorgeous gust of flame blew forth from the tip of the welder. The bats flew through the ball of flame like they were coming onto the playing field. They began to pinwheel about, little muffins of flying fire bouncing between the girders, blind by birthright and now deafened by this new singing light of pain they took with them out into the dew of morning. The smell of them mixed with the smell of tortillas from the factory and the auto-grease smell of the collected poor whites of Northtown and the brown smell of the river coming around the bend. We laughed ourselves out of an hour’s pay as we tried to duck and swat away the little masses of flame that came from all quarters, dragging trailers of brimstone and burnt hair.

    ~

    Maybe it wasn’t locusts Dale was lassoing, after all. J. Ray talked about the noise they made. The loudest insect here isn’t the locust. Or the cicada, either. It’s the katydid. Even some of the females of that species can saw out their cadence. Katie did. Katie didn’t. They say one of them can make a noise as loud as a motorcycle. It may have been a katydid Dale looked up for. I might have looked up, too. It might have been a sound that called me, not a light in the window. It might have been a noise, a voice. Her name may have been Katie. But unlike us, the katydid has an identifiable regional dialect. And bats are blind, which means they are prophets and fair. We are neither. Nor locusts, which swarm by the thousands, whereas we rolled out two to a car, so that the wind could have the back seat to itself.

    But cicadas, now. They’re choral. Like us. Their interval is the coming of age, which is the passing of youth. The sound we know them by . . . shit, that ain’t nothing but a catcall, J. Ray. The males make that noise. The female signals her interest by a flick of the wing, imperceptible to the human eye. The male approaches. If rebuffed, he flies away and calls to her again. The noise of every seventeenth fall in east Kansas is the noise of all of them together, come courting again. They make the noise we know for evening by buckling the ribbed membranes of their abdomens. The sound itself escapes through the cicada’s eardrum. They can’t even hear it. Much has been made of that, but truth be told none of us can hear the call that escapes us. Echoing around Mill Park, setting course by the light of our own bodies on fire, which means always returning.

    It’s all the noise. The sound is just cicadas as you move through the woods at sundown. The slip of silence moves with you. The silence of your passing is displacement. The sound is asleep. The noise is awake. The wake of a man walking. The wait for his waking.

    © by Craig Davis. Used by permission of the author.

    Get to know Craig here.



    One Trackback

    1. […] story reading ‘breech’ today I have Belinda by Amity Gaige, and the superbly titled Cicada Cadence, Katie Didn’t by Craig Davis. Both writers are an unknown to me so I’m really looking forward to getting to […]

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