Authors: Beth Nugent
Aunt Louise and Uncle Woody follow Francine up the walk, Aunt Louise looking vaguely displeased with the sky and the street and the air, Uncle Woody rubbing his thick palms together as he comes up the path to the door.
Francine drops her little square night case on the floor and
looks me over, then looks outside. —What’s that noise? she asks.
—Locusts, I tell her. —Seventeen-year locusts.
The locusts have been here since the beginning of summer; quietly breathing underground for seventeen years, they have emerged to their few months of life, and they are everywhere, eating. It is only the first of August and already the bare branches of trees are beginning to show through; so far, because of my father’s constant spraying, only the grape arbor in the back yard has withstood them, but that will go too, eventually. Every tree and bush is covered with the abandoned shells shed by the locusts; transparent brown and intricately limbed, they are far more frightening than the insects themselves, which are slow and pathetically graceless. They seem capable of little other than eating, and don’t even bother to fly away when approached, as though survival is not a concern for them; they simply continue to eat until caught or killed.
At lunch one day, I sat at a table across from a boy who ate his entire meal with a brown paper bag quietly buzzing and shifting at his elbow. Every now and then the boy looked at it with a kind of grim satisfaction, but it was only after he’d wadded the remains of his sandwich and its wrapping into a tight little ball that he opened the bag to show me about twenty locusts, their wings torn off, stumbling over and over each other in helpless dumb confusion.
—These bastards won’t be eating any more trees, the boy said. —That’s for goddamn sure.
They’ll be gone by the end of summer, and by next spring the leaves will come back, the bushes will bloom again, and everything will be as it was before. We’ll forget they were ever here, my father says, but I think I will never forget the sound they make. It is an incessant humming, a whirr that goes all the time, day and night, and won’t stop until the
locusts have eaten all the leaves on all the trees and at last laid their eggs and died.
One night my father put his tape recorder on the windowsill and let it record the locusts until the tape ran out.
—That’s crazy, my mother said. —Isn’t it bad enough we have to listen to them all the time without having them on tape, too?
My father paid no attention to her; he rewound the tape and played it back. Even though it was only a cheap tinny echo of the sound outside, there was something terrible about hearing it like that. For the first time I realized what it was that we were listening to every minute of every day, with no change in pitch or intensity, and for a few hours I could hear nothing else—not the voices of my parents, not the television or the shouts of children outside, only the fevered drone of the locusts inside my head.
I point out a bush covered with locust shells to Francine; she thinks they are ugly and is afraid of them. I tell her not to be, that when one of them flies into her hair, all she has to do is shake it out gently. She quivers delicately. She is disgusted.
—Helen’s in the bathroom, my father is saying to Aunt Louise and Uncle Woody. —A bug.
He ignores Aunt Louise’s meaningful look, and begins to manage the luggage with Uncle Woody. They make great show of carrying the suitcases inside and upstairs. Women, they are saying, can’t go anywhere without a closetful of clothes. Aunt Louise examines me carefully.
—Well, she says, —you’ve certainly gotten thin.
—Yes, I answer, —I guess so.
—Are you all over that trouble?
I look at the bathroom door and wonder how long my mother can stay in there. I admire her determination; surely she knows there will be consequences.
I nod to my aunt. —All over it, I tell her.
—Still, she says, —it’s a shame you had to miss so much of your first year of school. I suppose you didn’t get much chance to meet many boys.
She is right, I didn’t, but I don’t want to talk about it, and I am trying to think of a lie about a handsome tutor, or a hospital intern, when a little bubble of cruelty rises to her surface.
—Francine has lots of boyfriends, she says. —All the boys at Cross want to take her out.
All the boys at Cross fuck her, I would like to say, although I am sure this is not true. But I can see them, crowded around her, darting quick looks at her breasts, while she sends out gracious, smug smiles to the other girls passing by unnoticed. —Where is Francine? I ask.
—In the kitchen. She’s hungry. Aunt Louise looks fondly toward the kitchen door. —It was a long drive.
My uncle and my father come downstairs, dusting off their hands. My uncle looks me over while my father stands tentatively in front of the bathroom door, smiling weakly.
—Well, my uncle says, —aren’t
becoming a little lady here. How old are you now, Susie?
—Sixteen, he says. —Sweet sixteen. I bet you have a lot of boyfriends.
—No, Uncle Woody, I say, —not yet.
—Oh, he says. —Not yet. Well. He leans forward, with a little smile. —I bet you’d like one, he says. —Wouldn’t you? A nice little boyfriend to bring you candy? And take you out in his car?
—Woody, my aunt says.
—Well, he says, —I brought you some candy.
He holds out a bag of candy corns, already opened. He has brought them ever since I snuck into the Halloween candy
when I was six or seven; I ate two bags of candy corns and was too sick to go out trick-or-treating the next night. Uncle Woody thinks it is a very funny story. He always brings the candy, but each time he presents it to me as though it is the first time.
I take the candy from him and put it on the table. When I turn back, he is looking at my legs, my knees.
—Woody, my father says, —I want to show you the grape arbor. Maybe you can figure out some way to stop these damn locusts. They’re eating everything in sight.
Francine emerges from the kitchen with a strawberry yogurt in one hand and several cookies in the other. A spoon sticks up out of her back pocket.
—Let’s go up, she says to me.
As we walk up the stairs, I hear the bathroom door open and my aunt’s voice. —Well, Helen, she says, —how are you feeling?
I stop to listen for the answer, but Francine bumps softly into me from behind. —Come
, she says, and we walk slowly up to my room, where she sits on the bed cross-legged and lays her cookies out in a neat row in front of her before she opens her yogurt. She is going to tell me about her boyfriends, about the football games and pep rallies, about cruising McDonald’s with her friends, about the parties. I cannot hear this, and concentrate instead on the tight painful folds of flesh and denim that blossom when she crosses her legs. So where does everybody hang out? she will want to know. What does everyone
around here? she is going to ask me. We will spend a long afternoon, at the end of which she will say, So what are we going to do tonight? There is a carnival just outside town, in the parking lot of the mall; I have driven past it with my father once or twice, and I offer it to Francine.
She looks around my room, which has not changed much
since her last visit here, then picks a crumb from her shirt and places it carefully on the tip of her tongue. Boys, her eyes are saying, don’t you know any boys? She will want to hang out and find some. She slides her spoon back and forth across her lips and assumes a look of boredom. This is going to be a long summer, she is thinking already.
Like the locusts, they will be here until nearly the end of summer, almost three weeks. When I asked my mother why they were staying so long, she looked up from her book and gazed at me.
—Ask your father, she finally said. —They’re his family.
He looked away briefly from the television, just long enough to say, —Helen, then turned back in time to watch the next play.
—Go ahead, she said to me. —Ask him.
My father got up and walked into the kitchen; the icebox door banged open, ice clattered into a glass, and in a few moments my mother put down her book and followed him in. Their voices were just an angry murmur over the ball game, but after a while the back door slammed and the car started. When my mother came back into the living room, she seemed surprised to see me there.
—Susan, she said, —it’s late. Why don’t you go to bed?
I woke up later to hear voices outside, from the back yard. When I went to the window, I saw my mother and her best friend, Carol, sitting close together in a pool of light on the patio below me. My mother leaned against Carol, and Carol ran her hands smoothly over my mother’s hair. It’s all right, she was saying over and over; in the half-light of the moon, all the blue suburban lawns stretched out quietly until they blended into the darker blue of whatever lay beyond us.
I went back to bed, and in the morning we were all pleasant at breakfast; there was no sign of the night before, nothing but a neat circle of cigarette butts pressed onto the white
concrete of the patio. Later in the afternoon, I watched my father pick them up and scrub at the dark stains they’d left until there were only a few faint smudges, which would wash away in the next rain.
Francine opens her suitcase and stacks her clothes neatly in the space I have left for her in my dresser; her clothes make a bright square of color next to mine in the drawer. Then she opens her little night case and begins pulling out jars of makeup, lipsticks, combs, all of which she lays out on the top of the dresser, humming to herself as she unpacks, as if I am not here.
For dinner there is corn, mashed potatoes, chicken. Usually we do not eat so formally; my mother serves us from pots on the stove and we carry our plates to the table or into the living room to eat, but tonight all the food is piled in dishes and bowls around the table. My mother’s third martini sweats by her hand, a cool spot in the middle of the steaming dishes. My uncle looks at me.
—Susie, he says, —I’ll take a breast.
I’m not sitting near the chicken, so I pass him an ear of corn instead.
My mother stares at the chicken thigh on her plate and fingers the stem of her glass; when she asks my father to make her another drink, he rises silently, avoiding the look my aunt shoots him across the table.
Uncle Woody is telling us all about the trash masher he just bought, the convenience, the ecology, the sheer beauty of the thing. Bits of corn cling to his lips, and his chin gleams with grease from the butter. I wonder why no one mentions it, but then realize that only my father and I are listening to him. My mother stares at her plate, or at her glass, or out the window; Francine examines her food carefully as she eats, turning it around and around, searching out the perfect
marriage of teeth and bite, while Aunt Louise watches my mother with a kind of narrow-eyed curiosity; every move my mother makes provokes my aunt to turn her head sharply and gaze at her for a few long, obvious moments. Only my father and I pay any attention at all to Uncle Woody, and we are too polite to mention the butter. On this, our first night together, someone–perhaps Uncle Woody, perhaps my mother–has lit candles, and we sit here in the hot flickering dusk, knitted together by light and the sound of Uncle Woody’s voice. Over all of us is the hum of the locusts, hanging in the air, resting on us like a benediction.
After dinner, my father finds a ball game on TV, and Uncle Woody stays at the table to smoke and watch Francine and me carry the dishes into the kitchen. Though we have plenty of ashtrays, he taps his ashes onto his plate, dropping them into the little puddles of melted butter. Aunt Louise seems to be herding my mother around the kitchen; each time we come in, they are in a different corner, until finally my mother is trapped by the stove. When I bring in the bowl with the mashed potatoes, Aunt Louise takes it from me and sets it in the sink.
—You girls go on now, she says. —Ask your Uncle Woody to drive you to the carnival.
I stand just outside the kitchen door, waiting for Francine to change her clothes and Uncle Woody to finish his cigarette. —Well, my aunt says, inside the kitchen. —You
A match strikes, then a deep breath. —I’m fine, Louise, my mother says. —We’re all fine.
Before Aunt Louise replies, my uncle is standing in front of me.
—Ready for the carnival? he asks. He has wiped the butter from his chin, but his skin still glimmers as he smiles down at me. —You can ride up front with me.
* * *
At the carnival, my uncle takes my arm and steers me toward the Ferris wheel. He points up at the top car, swinging crazily as the two boys inside pump it back and forth.
—Now that’s a ride, he says. —That’s the first one we’ll go on.
Francine’s eyes shine as she gazes around at the bright thumping neon. —Look, she says, pointing to a group of girls at a concession stand. —Do you know them?
The girls are about my age and probably go to my school, but I shake my head.
—How about them? she says, gesturing toward several boys tossing baseballs at stuffed cats, and I shake my head again. —Don’t you know anyone? she asks. She looks disappointed, but perks up when she spots a display of giant pink stuffed panda bears, and sets off in their direction. My uncle winks at me, then follows behind her, leaving me alone in the middle of this explosion of light and sound, surrounded by roving clumps of boys and girls I don’t know.
We fall quickly, after the first few days, into a sort of routine: Francine’s eyes open on a day without love and settle hopelessly on mine. Boys, they say, where are all the boys? Then breakfast, then the day, which we all pass separately. Francine covers herself with a glistening coat of tanning oil and sits on the patio, playing solitaire or reading fashion magazines that are too old for her, full of tips on how to meet more men at work, and what kinds of cosmetic surgery can best improve a problem figure. My father, who is taking his vacation from work now, lies on the couch in front of the television, and Aunt Louise sits beside him, knitting, her needles clicking steadily over the noise of the game; I turn the pages of my books without sound, and my mother wanders in and out of the house, trailing smoke and Uncle
Woody, who stops every now and then to offer me a handful of candy corns. After dinner, someone takes Francine and me to the carnival, and at night, although it seems we have hardly done anything during the day, we all fall exhausted into bed. Francine plummets immediately into a heavy, resentful sleep, and I lie awake, listening to her gentle snore. Some time before morning, I wake to hear my uncle creeping along the hall. He stops outside my door and listens. Or he does not. His foam soles do not give him away; his bones, his breathing do not give him away. He pauses and listens, then creeps to another door, listening.