NOTE: You can optionally enjoy an immersive audio experience of this story by using the player below. I highly recommend listening with headphones to get the full impact of the sound design and original music scoring.
The cicadas in July that year ate up the night, chewing and gnashing at the darkness. You could barely hear yourself think, much less talk about nothing. But we didn’t need to talk much anyway. It was too hot to do more than sit on the back porch with a cold bottle of Cheerwine in front of the box fan and watch the bats dive for water bugs out on the pond.
“They ain’t birds, stupid,” I told Wendy that first night we saw them.
“They could be,” she said. “Like sum kinda night birds. Like a Nightingale.”
“Birds don’t fly at night Wen, not regular birds anyhow – just owls and those are too dang small to be owls. They’re bats.”
She leaned forward on her elbows, scrunched up her nose as she squinted through her glasses out into the night. After a minute, a big one swooped down, in that flailing way they fly and hit the surface of the water. Rings of moonlight rippled out into the reeds along the edge of the pond as we watched and she agreed with me. “Yup, they’s bats alright. Gross.”
That was about the height of entertainment for us that summer Daddy was away, at least until Wayne started coming around, then we forgot all about the cicadas and the bats.
Mama said he was an old friend of her’s and Daddy’s from way back in high school and he’d just moved back to town and was looking for work. I asked how come he didn’t just work for the railroad like Daddy. Mama said he’d hurt himself in the war and couldn’t do that kind of work. I didn’t see nothing wrong with him. Wendy didn’t see nothing wrong with him either and the way Mama looked at him I could tell she sure didn’t see nothing wrong with him.
He knocked on the screen door one night when me and Wendy was doing the dishes after dinner. He was tall and skinny. His hair was black as ink and combed slick with the kinda stuff that made it look wet all the time.
“Hey y’all, is your mama ‘round?” he asked.
Before we could answer, she appeared behind us, hovering like a moth. Looking back, it seems important that he hadn’t asked if Daddy was around too.
“Well I’ll be, Wayne T. Johnson,” she said pushing between us to reach for the door. “This is quite a surprise. Come on in. We just finished up supper, but I could fix you a plate…”
He declined several times but fifteen minutes later he was tucked into the small table in our kitchen poking a biscuit into his face. Mama kept hovering, making trips back and forth from the table to the fridge offering him more food while Wendy washed, and I dried extra slow so we could listen to their conversation.
“I been all over, I guess,” Wayne said. “Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, San Diego…”
“My goodness, that sounds like quite an adventure. Is California everthing they say?” Mama asked as she wrung her hands in her apron and sat down in the chair across from him.
“Oh, it’s purty, I’ll give you that. They got them trees at look like sumpin outta Dr. Seuss and it damn near never rains. But the people’s cold. They ain’t like round here where a body can knock on someone’s door and be fed like a king.” Wayne gestured with his fork to what remained of the pork chop, mashed potatoes and greens on the plate in front of him.
I turned to put the pot I was drying away under the cabinet by the stove and I saw Mama was blushing. “Oh Wayne, it ain’t like I just put a spread like this out for any ole soul at knocks on our door.”
She caught me staring at her and her smile straightened into a thin line. “Jimmy, you and your sister hurry up with them dishes. Mr. Johnson here can barely enjoy his meal with all your clangin’ round. Then you both need to get ready for bed.”
“Mama, it’s summer, we don’t got school tomorrow,” my sister whined in the way only she could.
Mama didn’t need to respond. She just looked at Wendy, sucked her cheeks in and tilted her head slightly. Two minutes later we were up in the bathroom brushing our teeth. We laid awake in our beds for the next two hours, straining to make out the conversation in the kitchen below us. Wayne’s voice come up through the floorboards low and steady and Mama’s, giddy laugh we could hear through the open window down in the kitchen. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard the front door close and I reckoned he was gone.
Wayne came by every night for the next couple of weeks. He always tried to bring something so as not to be empty handed. One night it was some deer steaks and on another, I remember he brought some king crab legs all the way from Alaska. Mama had never seen such a thing and was scared to touch them at first, but they tasted like heaven, and me and Wendy ate them like God would never make more.
He was funny too. Wayne always had the best stories. Some of them were about the war, or about his travels, but the ones we liked best was about him and Daddy growing up. He told about the time they went swimming out at Birch Falls with Mama and a couple other friends and how a water moccasin as big around as his arm came swimming across the pool towards them like it meant business. He said Daddy just froze up there in the water watching that snake serpentine towards him.
“Well what’d you do Wayne?” Wendy had asked him, near to falling out of her chair.
“See, I growed up round snakes. My Daddy liked to keep ‘em, so I had a little advantage in this situation,” Wayne had said, rocking back on two legs of the chair he was sitting in. He took another swig from the beer he was drinking and continued. “Snakes is more afraid of us then we are a them, plus they can’t hear nothin’. They just pick up vibrations round ‘em, so I swum up beside it fast as I could without gettin’ too close and I started smackin’ the top of the water as hard as I could. Let me tell you, at snake didn’t like that one bit.”
Mama couldn’t help herself and jumped in, “So that thing swum even faster towards your daddy to get away from Wayne. The rest of us was on the bank by now a screamin’.”
“So what happened?” Wendy asked, barely breathing.
“You know what happened,” I told her before Wayne could answer. “Daddy got bit. Don’t you remember that scar on his shoulder?”
“Yeah, he shore did,” Wayne said more quietly, his smile draining away by degrees as he looked down at his plate.
“I knowed he got bit, but what happened next, Wayne?” Wendy persisted.
“Wayne swum over and pulled that snake offin your daddy. Its fangs was deep in his shoulder and it wouldn’t let go so Wayne had to pull it real hard. That’s why your daddy has the scar.” Mama looked over at Wayne to see if he would continue the story, but he was still staring down at his plate. When he didn’t, she continued.
“Wayne grabbed it right behind the head. When he finally got it loose, that snake was wrapped all around his arm writhin’ like it was full of the devil. He waded up to the bank where they was a big flat rock and he slammed that snake against it till it stopped squirmin’.”
“But what about Daddy?” I asked. “How come he didn’t die?”
“We carried your Daddy outta there,” Wayne said finally looking up. His voice was course with emotion. Maybe I just imagined it, but I swear there were tears in his eyes even though they never spilled out.
“Wayne saved your Daddy,” Mama said reaching over and placing a hand on his shoulder.
“I wasn’t no hero,” he said pushing away from the table and getting up.
It was a strange summer because it was so different from every other summer I remember from childhood. We laughed a whole lot more and stayed up later. Mama was like a different person, more like a big sister than a mother. She wore lipstick at dinner and tuned the kitchen radio to a station that played Motown instead of the usual serious men talking about serious things. Sometimes when she was working over the stove she would sing along softly and swing her hips like nobody was watching. One night when I passed behind her to get a glass of water, she grabbed my arm and spun me into her. When she saw the confused look on my face, she said a young man should know how to dance. I remember thinking then that she looked prettier than I’d ever seen her. Looking back, I know it was just because that summer was the first time I’d ever seen anything like a natural smile on her face.
After hearing the snake story, I got to thinking about Daddy, wondering how much longer he’d be away. I don’t know if I’d say that I missed him exactly, but I did worry and I think Wen did too. It was the longest we’d ever been away from him. Wen and me didn’t ask Mama about him. It was like an understood rule between us. Somehow, we knew if we mentioned Daddy, the magical spell would be broken, and she would stop smiling and dancing and letting us stay up late.
The last night Wayne came to our house Mama made fried chicken, homemade biscuits, collards, corn on the cob and blackberry cobbler. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time Wayne would come to dinner. Like so many things in childhood you just figure things will last forever.
We ate on a blanket in the grass in the small, fenced-in backyard. I remember stuffing my belly so full then laying back and looking up at the sky with the grass tickling my ears. Wayne had brought a bottle of something that smelled strong. To me it smelled like getting a shot at Doctor Smith’s office, but he and Mama seemed to like it even though they winced after every sip.
Wayne was telling another funny story and we were all laughing so hard we were crying. Our paper plates were scattered around the blanket on the grass and I remember thinking how Daddy would never abide such a mess. Mama passed around a jar of pickles that Nana made and we dug them out with our fingers, savoring the sour pinch in our cheeks when we crunched into them. It seemed to get dark real fast that night and before long, the cicadas took over.
“Wendy, you and your brother take these plates and clean up the kitchen,” Mama said when our laughter had faded and our cheeks were dry. “And Jim, put the trash out on the curb after. Then you both need to get off to bed, ya hear?”
As the screen door slammed behind me, I heard Mama squeal and giggle like a schoolgirl and I heard Wayne’s low, lilting laugh as he said something I couldn’t make out. Wen and me cleaned up the kitchen. It took forever. Fried chicken tastes like heaven but cleaning up after it is not. I was ready to go to bed by the time the last dish was dried but I remembered I had to put the trash on the curb.
I tied up the greasy Hefty bag and hauled it out the front door. We lived on a quiet street and the only streetlight near our house had stopped working at the beginning of summer. I looked up and the sky was full of stars. The air was warm and soft but the little breeze made it feel like school would be starting soon. There was a radio playing in the next-door neighbor’s kitchen window and the Jenkins’s stupid dog, chained to a stake in their front yard across the way was barking his fool head off like it did every night. I dropped the bag into the metal trashcan and replaced the lid.
As I was walking back across the front yard towards the door I remembered I’d left my bike leaning against fence around back. The summer before, my old bike got stolen and I was not about to lose my ride or suffer what Daddy might do if it happened again.
I stopped walking and leaned in close to the fence. There was a small knothole in one of the planks. I bent over and looked through it. The backyard was like an old tintype photo in the moonlight. I could make out the white square of the blanket and I could see their bodies entwined and moving in a way that looked like a really slow wrestling match that Mama wasn’t trying to win. I had no experience of the world, but I knew what they were doing wasn’t right. My ears got really hot and the sound of the cicadas was drowned out by the buzzing in my head as I watched them. Mama made a whispery, keening sound that made my stomach turn over, but I couldn’t look away.
Just then Wen flipped the porch light on and the backyard was flooded with its yellow light.
“Mama, where’s my new toothbrush?” she called through the screen door.
I’ll never know for sure, but I don’t think Wendy saw them, at least not like I did. Mama and Wayne scrambled off the blanket toward the far corner of the yard, trying to get out of the throw of the porch light, while they pulled their clothes on.
“Wendy I told you to get off to bed!” Mama yelled in a voice that had all of the scorn but none of the authority of her usual scolding.
“Yes Mama,” Wen’s voice was small as she turned and went back into the house.
The porch light went out and I was blinded with the afterimage of what I’d seen. I stepped backwards and fell over my bike and onto the blanket of pine needles that surrounded the pond, skinning the palms of my hands on some stiff pinecones.
“Who’s back there?” Wayne’s voice boomed.
I scrambled onto my feet and I ran. I ran without really knowing why I was running or where I planned to go. No one came after me, no one called out into the night.
I ended up at the rope swing down by the creek that fed the community pond where all the neighborhood kids played when the weather was good. I swung out over the water glistening below in the moonlight as it moved over the shallow bed of rocks, and dead branches and leaves. The wind rushed over my face and over my ears and blurred the drone of the cicadas and the gurgle of the creek into something like radio static. My thoughts were just another out-of-range station in all that white noise.
After a couple of hours, when the night air had turned cool, I walked back to the house, taking the longest route possible. All the lights were on in the house and it stood out from the other sleepy ones on our street like the only lit bulb on a string of broken Christmas lights.
When I opened the screen at the front door, I could hear Mama’s voice in the kitchen. She sounded frantic and I paused for a moment halfway in and halfway out. When I heard no on responding to her, I realized she was on the phone and I let the screen door close softly behind me. I walked across the den and stopped in the kitchen doorway, with my fists shoved into my cutoff jeans. When she turned and saw me, she hung up the phone with barely another word to the person on the other end of the line.
She did not speak for a long time, but her face was red and twisted up. Her features shifted all by themselves as different emotions fought for the lead. I saw shame and fear, rage and relief, defiance and resignation. In the end, rage won as it often did with Mama and this time, I was relieved.
“Where in hell have you been James Bilson?” she yelled, sweeping a sweaty lock of hair back behind her ear as she rushed toward me.
Her hand was fast, and my cheek was burning before I even realized she had slapped me. It was the first and the last time she’d ever strike me. She immediately pulled me to her and wrapped me in a fierce hug, stroking my hair with the same hand that had stung me a second before. She was sobbing. My fists were still in my pockets but eventually they made their way out and wrapped around her waist. She was my Mama, and I breathed in her smell, which is something I couldn’t describe to you other than it was the smell of home and of safety and of routine.
But as we stood like statues in the kitchen listening to the hollow tick of the old Sunbeam clock above the door and the random drip of the faucet at the sink – order and chaos, I began to smell whisky and sweat and Wayne’s cigarettes and aftershave.
“I’m tired, Mama,” was all I said as I pushed away from her. She didn’t say nothing or try to pull me back when I turned away and headed towards the stairs to go up to bed.
Neither Wen or me or Mama ever talked about that night or about Wayne the next day, or any day after that. Daddy came home a week later and I remember we waited for him all afternoon on the front steps. He was stiff, like always when I hugged him, and he seemed surprised when I didn’t let go right away. He picked me up even though we both knew I was too big for that.
As I held onto his broad shoulders, I imagined I could feel the raised scar beneath his denim work shirt. I wondered if it still hurt.