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Unbound Fiction
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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Lyris," by Tom Drury (April 20, 2000)
"She climbed down the outside of the bridge and stood on a narrow ledge. It was not a far drop to the river; it might even be a pleasant jump in the summer."

"Contamination," by Dalia Rosenfeld (March 22, 2000)
"Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads."

"A Catalogue of Change," by Piya Kochhar (February 24, 2000)
"In the early morning the girl looks at the lady's palms, which are pink with thin lines. The heart crossed at Jupiter. The mount of Saturn marked by a bursting star."

"Logic Game," by Doug Dorst (January 20, 2000)
"Lydia and her husband, Oscar, are giving a dinner party. They have invited eight of their oldest and best friends. The guests must be seated at the dinner table according to the following rules...."

"Girl and Marble Boy," by Edith Pearlman (December 29, 1999)
"Nina Logan stood facing the masterpiece. Its nakedness had unnerved the Lauras. Its beauty had been lost on the twins. Its politics had left the potheads cold. Its pose had sent her mother off on a mysterious errand."

"Dreams of the Old Green Man," by Poe Ballantine (November 17, 1999)
"Death wore plaid green knickers and a large silver pocket-watch that made a sound like a lumberjack cutting down a tree. I knew if he kissed me I would die."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

May 24, 2000

Cicada, by Judy Wilson

Midpoint of the drag strip, I curl my fingers into the chain link fence, shoulder high, rest my chin on the cool top bar, and watch the paired set-go lights: Yellow -- yellow -- yellow -- green. The car in the far lane hooks the track on the green, the front end rising strong on the driver's side. You can hear it, the Lincoln transmission, can visualize the driver doing his reach-snatch -- one, two, three, four, five levers -- so quick. The competitor's car starts clean, no visible hook, but manages zero to 130 in 4.8 seconds with an automatic transmission. A clear win. A disgusting kind of win -- no real skill, no real effort, no clutching or snatching with precision, no passionate rise of the front end. The numbers on the board say it's a winner, but it's the car with the Lincoln transmission that moves me. A car worth remembering, a driver that can be proud.

These are things my son taught me to care about. Saturday nights he taught me to feel the thrill of the drag strip. "The trick," he said, "is to not blink when the lights go green. Let the visual come at you with the sound of the engines as the cars move toward and past you -- the combination of the two will send you." It's a five-second event, a five-second thrill.

The next two cars smoke their tires and move into position, waiting on the lights. What kind of car is that, I'm wondering, on the far side? I should know this. I do know this. He told me before. What was it he said? I can almost hear him saying it. What kind for God's sake? This was one of his favorites -- a local favorite -- Tater Bug. Yes, I remember that, but what kind? A Nova. Looks sort of like an old Nova. No, can't be; why can't I remember? He told me over and over, "Watch this car, that something there -- Tater Bug -- got more heart than any car out here." He's only been gone two weeks -- fifteen days ago he stood right here beside me and talked about Tater Bug. I'm forgetting his words. God, what else will I forget. Surely not his voice. I couldn't bear to lose his voice. I pat my eyes dry -- the lights run the column -- Tater Bug hooks, loses, and wins me forever.

My legs are trembling, and a man is staring at me from a little way down the spectator's fence. I see him in my peripheral vision. I must look like an idiot -- standing out here watching the races, blubbering like a baby. My fingers tighten on the fence and I want to scream at him, "Will you please quit staring at me -- I got a right to this -- I got a reason for this. My son is dead, damn you. Damn all of you." But instead, I turn to my car behind me. I'd come early so I could park along the fence. The back seat is full -- two suitcases of my stuff; the rest was my son's. I couldn't leave it. None of it. Not even his clothes. Especially not his clothes. In the seat beside me are boxes of his model cars. I will find a place. I will build a special shelf for his cars. When I look at them, touch my fingertips to them, I can see him so clearly, hunched over newspaper spread on the dining room table, gluing, painting. "What you thinking about?" I would ask. And he'd cock his head toward me, serious always, and say, "I do this so I don't have to think. You know?"

I did know. There was too much for him, for me, to not think about. We were not a perfect family. I open one of the boxes next to me. A yellow '69 Mustang. One of the pinstripe decals is starting to peel away. I'll fix it. When I get settled, I'll go through his cars and fix everything. This is the one he cussed over. Couldn't get the struts to set just right. This is the one he was working on when he said, "Mom, you're a cicada."

"A what?"

"A cicada," he said, "You know -- a dry fly -- one of those bugs that comes out of those shell things you find on the side of a tree. Big ugly green bug. The one that makes all the racket in the summertime."

"I know what you're talking about. Thanks heaps. You, son, are a worm."

"You're not big or ugly."

"What then? I make all kinds of racket? What?" I was sitting in the chair across from him, working on a crossword puzzle in the local paper.

He put his model down and stared at me. I put my pen down, waiting.

"I was watching this thing on TV about them. They're pretty cool. The female drills little holes in the twigs of a tree. Puts her eggs in them. The twigs die, fall to the ground, and the larvae dig down to the roots of the tree and feed on the sap -- get this, this is the cool part -- for seventeen years."

I could see where he was going with it now, and I didn't like it. I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off.

"The seventeenth summer these things start digging their way back out of the ground. They start climbing up the side of the tree till their shell hardens on them and they can't go any further. Then, they bust out of their shell like the Incredible Hulk and fly away free."

He's smiling at me -- thinks he's got me pegged.

"So what's your point, son?"

"You've been feeding on sap for years, and now you're stuck in a shell on the side of that tree. You're gonna have to break out of that shell. Ain't normal not to break out."

"I like my shell. My shell is comfortable. I'm perfectly content in my shell."

"You are not. You hate it. You're not happy."

I stood then and said, "I am happy when you and my tree are getting along. Like these days. You guys are getting along fine. Besides, I am not a cicada. I saw that same show the other night. And if I was, think of this -- they only live a matter of weeks after they come out of that shell. And when they come out, all they do is mate, lay eggs, and die. The females anyway. The males sit around and sing their horrible songs. The females don't sing at all."

"Why are you so scared to leave him?" Dean asked.

"Leaving is easy, Dean. Piece of cake. It's staying that's hard."

My tree is Hogue -- but no, not my tree -- my husband. I am not a cicada. I had left him before. Three times. The first when he left bruises on Dean. Dean was only eight then. I left him and took Dean to my mother's for a month. Hogue convinced her first, then me, that he would never lay a hand on Dean again. He didn't. He changed. Five years later, when Dean was thirteen, he started leaving bruises on me. I left after the fourth bout. Stayed in a safe house for a week with Dean. The rule was tell no one where the house was, ever, and no contact with anyone for seven days. I called Hogue on day seven. We talked. I took a grumbling Dean home that afternoon. Hogue changed. Never laid a hand on me again in violence. The third time, last year, when I found out Hogue was having an affair, I left again. Stayed in a motel for fifteen days, charging all my expenses to his credit card. I didn't call him. Dean stayed with a friend. He was seventeen then. Hogue found me when he got the credit-card bill. Came to the hotel room. He'd lost at least thirty pounds. Looked like hell. I went home. He changed. For years, Hogue's been changing. The pattern is established. Hogue screws up. I leave Hogue. Hogue realizes he's screwed up. I forgive Hogue. Hogue changes. The thing defies all statistics. And each time I left and came back, Hogue mourned the passing of another chunk of his manhood. He would be subdued for weeks. But he and Dean could never get along more than a few days at a time.
"You got a brain," Hogue would yell. "Why you want to piss it away? See these hands? You like the way they look?" Hogue would hold up his hands, forever scarred, the small finger of the left hand missing, fresh welding burns on them. "You want hands like this?"

Dean would roll his eyes.

"Yeah, you do. I can tell. You ain't gonna make it, son. See, you got brains, but you don't use them. You're gonna end up out there with me. And you ain't gonna make it out there either. Because you got no common sense. You ain't gonna make it, son."

Of course, the way Hogue said this, with a kind of "watch and see what I tell you" gleam in his eyes, is what made these speeches of his seem something other than fatherly advice. Hogue always had the best intentions. What he wanted for Dean, for me, for us, was never far from what I wanted for us. How could I say to Hogue, "Look, you have the right target in sight, but you're never going to hit it that way"? How could I say that when he so strongly believed the same thing about me?

I'd go to Dean later, after Hogue's biting speeches. I'd tell him, "Prove him wrong. If I were you, I'd spend the rest of my life trying to prove him wrong."

"I just don't listen to him anymore," he'd say. "You know, in one ear and out the other. Fuck him."

"Just make a mental list. All the things you hate about him -- you hate it when he drinks, you hate it when he loses his temper ..."

"Mom, I said I can handle it. He's fucked in the head. Enough said."

I  pleaded with Hogue to keep Dean off the steel till he knew the ropes. "Don't let him up there, Hogue. He's bound and determined he can do anything you can do. I can't stand the thought of him up on the steel. Not yet. Christ's sake, he's only eighteen. What does he know about walking steel?"

Hogue put his arms around me. "I'll keep him on the ground. But the guys will give him hell. He can always coon across on his butt."

"He'd never coon a beam. You know that. If he gets up there, he'll do it like everybody else. You can't let him up is all."

Every night they came home, drinking -- Dean proud of his welding burns, the newest cuts on his hands.

"What did you do today?" I asked.

"Don't worry. I played in the sand," he would say, and wink at Hogue.

I  roll the windows down in the car, lean my head back on the headrest, and listen to the scream of engines. I want to let in the sound, the deafening sound of the engines. I don't want to think. When I think, I get awful pictures in my head. Dean screaming. Dean slipping, trying to hold. Falling.

Hogue explained, three days after the funeral. Hogue couldn't talk till then. Till the third day -- the resurrection of Hogue's voice. How I wished it was Dean's. "He was hooking on," he said, "trying to latch his safety harness. He got pissed off at it for some reason. I don't know why. I just heard him raising hell about it. I was walking out to him ..."

"You told me, promised me, you'd keep him on the ground."

A  hand settles on my cheek. I jump. Hogue is there. He walks around the car, opens the passenger door. He starts moving boxes from the front seat to the back.

"Christ, stop it! They're Dean's models. Stop it." I'm bringing the boxes back up to the front. I'm shaking all over.

Hogue leans on the roof of the car, his head hanging, staring down at the ground. He shuts the passenger door gently, comes back around to my side of the car, and opens my door. He puts a knee on the ground, and puts his head in my lap. He is heaving long muffled cries. I put my hands on the steering wheel. He reaches in and wraps one arm around my legs, his hand squeezing into my thigh. I stare out as two cars swoosh past on the track. My hand falls to his head. I don't want it to. I don't want to stroke his hair. Don't want to run my hand across his shoulders. But there's nothing else I can do. His hurt is equal to mine; we had so wanted the same thing. This is the man that made me strong -- all those years of practice with this man -- learning how to hold without ever really touching, how to look without ever really seeing, to listen without hearing, to smile and kiss and fuck and never feel a thing. I know nothing will ever be harder than this -- touching this man, right now. I squeeze the back of his neck, say, "What kind of car is that? Look, look -- quick." Tater Bug flashes past, taking a buy-back run. He loses.

"That's a Nova," Hogue says, and settles his head back in my lap.

"I was right. I didn't forget. A Nova," I say, and smile down at Hogue's dark head.


Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Judy Wilson is currently working on her doctoral degree in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her stories have appeared in the Southern Literary Festival Anthology,
Mississippi Review Web, Antietam Review, and The Artful Mind. Her work has received various awards including the Henfield Foundation's Transatlantic Award and, most recently, the Truman Capote Fellowship. She is at work on a novel.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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