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Cricket Song

by Marg Wright


   
Mrs. Hollister stood at the screen door, looking through it into the twilit backyard. There was no sound except the faint creaking of an old-fashioned couch hammock which stood at the back of the garden facing an alley. The hammock had been placed in that spot years before, because someone had once said the breeze was better there. A cricket began his strident little chirp and Mrs. Hollister found herself listening, almost unconsciously, to time the pauses between his calls. There seemed to be none. ‘That means it’ll be over 100 degrees tomorrow,’ she thought. The failing light flattered the neglected yard, softening the few dejected lines of iris and snapdragons which struggled to survive in the August heat and hiding the tentacles of crab grass which crept out of the lawn to join them. Honeysuckle in full bloom covered the garage wall and its heavy sweetness hung in the still evening air. Not a branch stirred on the locust tree which shaded the hammock from noon on. Its pods hung ripe, expectant. Mrs. Hollister also seemed to be holding herself in readiness, as if preparing for an unseen but imminent encounter.
   
“Amy?”, she called into the darkening yard. “Do you want some tea?” Both the hammock and the cricket fell silent.
   
“Tea? Do you mean a cup of tea, dear?”
   
Mrs Hollister closed her eyes, very briefly, and when she answered, arranged her words carefully, like small knick-knacks on a shelf.
   
“Iced tea, Amy. Iced tea left from dinner.”
   
“Oh, I don’t know, dear. It’s awfully near bedtime, isn’t it? Well, maybe just half a glass.”
   
Mrs. Hollister stood very still. She appeared to be waiting for something.
   
“Or ginger ale would be nice. Don’t we have some ginger ale, Edie?” The hammock began again.
   
“We don’t have any ginger ale. You finished it yesterday. Don’t you remember?”
   
“Did I? I thought I saw some, way at the back of the fridge. A big green bottle?”
   
“That’s lemon juice, Amy. Would you like some lemonade? Or iced tea?”
   
“Yes. Well…, actually, no. You know, what I’d really like is a nice glass of ice water, dear. If it’s not too much trouble.”
   
Mrs. Hollister withdrew from the screen door, backing away from it slowly, as if she could not bear to leave it. She exited the kitchen shortly, carrying a tray with two glasses and an ash tray on it and a large canvas bag over her arm. She stepped outside, flicking on a light which illuminated the small cement porch. There were a round, metal, table with a hole in the center where an umbrella had been, four folding chairs and a large philodendron in a plastic pot. She placed the tray on the table and sat down in one of the chairs, with the canvas bag on the ground beside her. Eventually the cricket resumed, but the hammock stopped.
   
“Edie? Is that you? Did you put the light on? Are you coming out here?”
   
“I’m on the porch, Amy. I’m going to sit on the porch. Your water’s here.”
   
“Oh, you’re not coming down here? It’s so nice and cool down here, Edie. It’s the most comfortable I’ve been all day.”
   
Mrs. Hollister took a package of cigarettes out of her apron pocket and lit one. She inhaled deeply before answering.
   
“I’m going to sit up here. It’s light enough to embroider up here. You stay there if you’re comfortable.” She waited, sitting motionless. It came.   
   
“Are you smoking, Edie?”
   
“Yes, I am.”
   
“The only reason I mention it, Edie, is that sitting up there on the patio, next to the garage, the smoke just sort of hangs in the air and I can’t help breathing it in. Down here, if there’s just a tiny breeze, the smoke blows away more, is what I meant.”
   
“Then sit down there. I’ll sit up here and smoke and you sit down there where the air’s better.”
   
She withdrew a small, fabric-covered, wooden frame from the bag and examined it pensively. Then, putting on a pair of magnifying glasses and extinguishing her cigarette in the ash tray, she turned her chair slightly more toward the light and began to stitch. Both the cricket and the hammock ceased and Mrs. Hollister paused, listening. Presently her sister emerged like a large moth from the dusk of the backyard, making flapping motions with her handkerchief at something unseen. She was only two year older that Mrs Hollister but she seemed infinitely frailer and less substantial.
   
“Mosquitoes, Edie! I’m sure there are mosquitoes out there. Have you been bitten?”
   
“Mosquitoes hate tobacco smoke. Didn’t you know that?”
   
“I’m sure I never heard that.” Mrs. Ellis eyed her sister suspiciously. “No, I never did. You just made that up, didn’t you?” She pulled out one of the folding chairs and sat down, smoothing the folds of her light, summer dress carefully over her knees. She was a tall, thin woman, given to garments at once appropriate for the occasion and oddly unsuited to her. Much of her clothing appeared to be secondhand, though it had been bought new and expensively so. She reached for one of the glasses.
   
“Is that my water? Ooooh, lovely!” She swallowed and reflected upon it briefly. “It’s not very cold, is it?”
   
“It was, when I brought it out, Amy. It had ice in it.”
   
“Well, it’s cool. It’s just not really COLD. But it tastes lovely, just lovely.”
   
They sat in silence. Mrs. Hollister waited. “What’s that you’re drinking, Edie?”    “Lemonade.”
   
“Oh, that sounds good! I didn’t know we had lemonade.”
   
“I told you that we did.”   
   
“No, I’m sure you didn’t, Edie. I’m sure that I would have remembered if you had. No, you said ‘tea’, and I really didn’t want any tea, because it’s too near bedtime for me to have tea. It keeps me awake if I have it after seven o’clock. But I don’t remember you saying anything about lemonade at all.”
   
Mrs. Hollister lit a cigarette, placed it in the ash tray and resumed embroidering.
   
“Yoo-hoo, Edie? Amy?”
   
A voice came from the alley and as they watched, a small round woman approached, walking heavily and fanning herself with a folded newspaper.
   
“Oh, mercy, hasn’t it just been awful today? I don’t think it cooled off at all last night. I told Ed, I don’t think it cooled off one bit, not one bit.”
   
“Sit down, Dorothy. Have some iced tea? Or lemonade?”
   
The woman collapsed into a chair which gave a small shriek of protest.
   
“Oh, Edie, lemonade sounds wonderful. I don’t know where I’ll put it. God alone knows where I’ll put it. I must have drunk three gallons of ice water and soda and tea and fruit juice today and I just sweat it right back out.” She chuckled and Mrs. Ellis smiled politely.
   
Mrs. Hollister rose and went into the house. The two women sat and in the sudden stillness the cricket recommenced his manic chant.
   
The visitor shifted her chair toward the grass.
   
“Hear that? The cricket? Hear how close together his calls are? Well, the closer together they are, means the hotter it’s going to be the next day. That’s what I heard. They sounded just like that yesterday evening, and it never cooled off last night, and today was hotter than yesterday, don’t you think? Did you ever hear that? About crickets?”
   
Mrs. Ellis made as if to smile and then realized that her lips had not released themselves from her last smile. Her face had begun to ache slightly and she exerted a conscious effort to relax it. She spoke pleasantly.
   
“No, I don’t think I ever have, Mrs. Niederman. Isn’t that interesting? But then animals are more in tune with Nature, aren’t they, than we are? I’ve always thought so.” There was a pause during which Mrs. Niederman fanned herself vigorously and Mrs. Ellis flapped her handkerchief at an occasional mosquito. Mrs. Niederman broke the active silence.
   
“Well, what do you think of it here? Are you enjoying it? God knows August is a hellish month to visit, of course. Better to wait and come in October, really.”
   
Mrs. Ellis’ smile, seemingly possessed of a life of its own, had crept back onto her face and now refused to be dislodged.
   
“Oh, I’m not here to visit! I live here now, with Edith. Oh, yes, we share the house. well, I own it actually, Papa and Mama left it to me as the elder,” (she seemed unable to stop talking) “but I never lived here because I had my OWN house when I was married, you see. I mean, WE did, my husband and I. Edith and HER husband lived here and then he passed on and so did my husband and there I was, rattling around in all those rooms,” (dear God, shut her mouth) “and Edith and I, we, decided that I should come here to live. What made you think I was only visiting? I mean, Edith didn’t say I was VISITING?” Mrs. Niederman slapped her ample forearm.
   
“Mosquitoes, damn ‘em! Eat you right up. Lord, honey, I don’t know, nobody ever said anything one way or the other that I can remember. I guess I just assumed. Hey, never assume, it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’! Isn’t that a good one? ‘U” and ‘me’, get it?”
   
She tapped Mrs. Ellis supportively on the knee. Mrs. Ellis’ smile twitched alarmingly.
   
“Well, that’s wonderful isn’t it? It’s a terrible thing, living alone. This way, you save on expenses and you’re company for each other. Sisters and all, I think it’s just wonderful.”
   
She sighed. “Whoosh, it’s hot, isn’t it?” Mrs. Hollister came out of the house, carrying a glass of lemonade and a plate of small, brown cookies. Mrs. Niederman drank deeply. “Mmmmm, yummy. And you watch, I’ll just sit here and sweat it out. You know you’ve got mosquitoes, Edie?”
   
“That’s what Amy says. I told her that they don’t bother me because I smoke.”
   
“Oh, shoot, Ed smokes like a chimney and they bite hell out of him. Out of both of us. Don’t you have any of that mosquito repellent stuff? We use it and it really works. Only you’ve got to put it on everyday. I forget half the time.”
   
Mrs. Hollister lit a cigarette and took up her embroidery. Mrs. Ellis flapped her handkerchief nervously.
   
“I would hate the idea of putting something poisonous on my body and that’s what it is, of course, poison. I mean, it couldn’t do you any good, could it, putting poison on your skin, even if it did repell mosquitoes?” Mrs. Niederman snorted.
   
“You don’t DRINK it, honey! Nobody’d be fool enough to drink it. You just rub it on your hands and neck and face and whatever else is going to be out there to get bit. That’s all you do. Or you can try taking a whole lot of Vitamin B. My nephew goes camping all the time and he swears by it. He says you stink so bad from Vitamin B that no old mosquito’ll touch you with a ten-foot pole!” She laughed heartily.
   
They sat for a while in silence, Mrs. Niederman eating cookies and fanning herself, Mrs. Hollister embroidering and Mrs. Ellis willing the muscles around her mouth to calmness. The darkness grew deeper and the cricket’s song sounded unnaturally shrill in the quiet, night garden. Finally, Mrs. Niederman sighed gustily and struggled out of her chair.
   
“Well, I hate to do it, girls, but I got to. Ed’ll be thinking that I ran away from home. Thanks for the goodies, Edie.” She inhaled audibly.
   
“Doesn’t that honeysuckle smell wonderful? I just love honeysuckle. Well, goodnight, you two, sleep tight.” She started toward the alley.
   
“Goodnight, Dorothy,” Mrs. Hollister called. Mrs. Ellis murmured something indistinguishable. Mrs. Niederman waved her newspaper fan without looking up and disappeared around the corner of the garage. Mrs. Hollister stood and began to return her embroidery to its bag. She hung it over her arm, put the dishes on the tray and moved to the screen door where she waited. Finally she spoke carefully.
   
“Can you open the door, Amy?” Mrs. Ellis jumped up guiltily.
   
“Oh, yes, heavens, yes! Here I sit! I’m sorry, dear.” Mrs. Hollister went into the kitchen and stacked the glasses in the high old-fashioned sink. Mrs. Ellis could feel herself beginning to smile and took a deep breath to relax. She noticed the little pad and pencil on the telephone table in the hall.
   
“Shall I start a grocery list for tomorrow, Ede?”
   
“If you want to.” Mrs. Ellis perched on the stool by the table.   
   
‘Frozen peas,’ she wrote neatly in her small tidy hand, ‘margarine, a shower cap, safety pins, shredded wheat.’ Mrs. Hollister snapped off the kitchen light and stood in the doorway.
   
“Do you want to try that mosquito repellent that Dorothy was talking about? They’re just going to get worse till cold weather.”
   
“I don’t think so, Ede. I truly don’t like the whole notion of poison on my skin. Ugh! I wouldn’t even want it in the house. It horrifies me, really it does.”
   
“Suit yourself. They never bite me anyway.”
   
Mrs. Hollister went into the living room and began straightening pillows. Mrs. Ellis remained at the phone table, studying the grocery list.
   
‘Tomatoes, hair remover,’ she wrote carefully, ‘granola, aspirin, peaches.’ She stared at the paper and thought, that dreadful, common woman. How can Edie abide her? How COULD she have gotten the idea that I was only visiting? Surely Edie must have said something about the house belonging to me. She MUST have. ‘Carrots, celery, dental floss, laxative.’ But then, Edie is so much more capable than I am. People can picture her owning something like a house. She is strong and sure of herself and I am a fool, such a silly useless fool of a woman. ‘Dish detergent, room freshener.’ They didn’t leave the house to you because you’re the elder, Amy. They knew that you’d need it more, because you would never be able to live alone and this way you’ll never have to. She remembered her father’s voice, across the years. ‘Pity that sister doesn’t have a few of your ladylike ways, Amy, and you don’t have some of her gumption. You’d both be better off.’ She’d thought it an odd unkind thing to say. And their mother, how many times calling after them as children, ‘Edie, you keep an eye on Amy! Don’t run off and leave her.’ Surely it should have been the other way around, shouldn’t it? Edie had been with their mother when she died. Had mama said something like, ‘Remember you must always be there for Amy. She can’t take care of herself.’ Had she said that or something like it, never seeing the resentment, the hatred, smouldering in her younger child’s eyes? Could that have happened? And Edie herself, so self-contained and unreadable. How could she ever know what Edie was really thinking?
   
Of course, she doesn’t want me here. She probably wishes I would just disappear. There were tears of self-pity in her eyes now and her lips curved relentlessly upward. Oh, Amy, you idiot. She blew her nose and took several very deep breaths. There. Better. Much better. Well enough to make a little joke.
   
“Edie?”
   
“I’m in here.”   
   
“Yes, I know you are, dear. I just wondered if I should pick you up some of that stuff that people dip their cigarettes in, you know, to make them stop smoking?” Mrs. Hollister emerged from the living room and started upstairs. She spoke without turning around.
   
“I don’t think so, Amy. I think I’ll just keep right on smoking for the rest of my life.”
   
“Yes, I suppose you will, won’t you?”, Mrs. Ellis said. “Goodnight, Edie.”
   
“Goodnight, Amy.” Mrs. Ellis watched her sister out of sight. The house was very quiet, except for the sound of the cricket madly repeating his single note through the still-open screen door. Mrs. Ellis listened for a moment and then bent over her list and wrote rapidly.
   
‘Ginger ale,’ she scribbled fiercely, ‘mosquito repellent.’ She was not smiling.

________

Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 20-25.

 


Marg Wright
 

Jane