I said, “the locusts are loud,” but grandpa said, “no, son, those aren’t locusts, they’re cicadas.” He called me son often, even though I wasn’t his son. I was just his grandson. Grandpa had that tone in his voice, like a military man or of a time when age is powerful, like he was, somehow, everyone’s father. A tone like thunder or broken glass or the red of a sunburn. Dad doesn’t have that tone. His hands are rough from work, but his tone is more like an October snow or a new baseball jersey. I could always tell, though, when grandpa’s voice controlled dad, almost like it was hypnosis or something. Or like he was paralyzed almost. He just listened to what grandpa said, like he was his student, and nodded and said, “yes, sir,” at just the right times. The cicadas only come either every thirteen or seventeen years, depending on the species. It sleeps that long. It’s a bug. I’ve never seen it, but I bet it looks something vicious. I can’t remember the exact words grandpa used to explain it, but this bug all of a sudden wakes up and eats its way into the bark of a tree. It could pick an oak or a maple or a poplar tree. Any tree, really, that’s what grandpa said. He said, too, the cuts in the bark are about the size of the edge of a nickel. I have no idea what kind of teeth these cicadas have. I can’t remember what happens next, but after a while the tips of the branches of the tree go brown. They’re not dead, but they turn brown. The whole tree looks like dead branches. I asked grandpa several times, because I swore those trees looked dead, but dad finally said, “now, son, listen to what grandpa’s saying.” He wasn’t angry, but maybe he felt bad or something for grandpa because I kept asking, like I didn’t believe him. They still looked dead to me, but grandpa said they weren’t. Those dead branches are actually carrying seeds for the next cicadas. That’s kinda neat. Something dead, or dying, or looking dead, but carrying life like that. Those seeds finally fall to the ground and then the new cicadas sleep for a long, long time. It keeps going and going like that.
When those cicadas first woke up, the night was louder than when Ms. Johnson says our class is misbehaving. I couldn’t scream or yell that loud if I wanted to. Biscuit was going crazy, too. He’s about twelve years old, so it was his first time hearing the cicada noise-making, too. He yelped and barked, like he does sometimes when it storms, and sister Maggie—she’s only two—petted Biscuit’s reddish-brown hair down, hugged him, and said, “shhhhhh.” Mom thought it was cute so she took pictures. Biscuit didn’t know what to think. Those cicadas cried like that for about a week or more. Grandpa said they were mating or it was a mating call, but I just couldn’t imagine what that really looked like. Some animals use scents for the mating call, but these cicadas are so loud, I wondered why they needed to be that loud. Mom said that’s how God made them. Grandpa kinda laughed and said, “I reckon, if you believe in God.” Dad didn’t say anything, but I believe in God, so I think that’s why He made them so loud. It’s still kinda amazing though.
A few weeks later, after all the cicada noise, and then after grandpa went home to take care of his farm, dad killed our rooster, the black and white spotted one with blue tail feathers and the wattle that hung almost to his stomach. That rooster was meaner than “hell,” dad said so many times. Grandpa always laughed when dad told stories about Joe Pesci. That’s what we named him. Dad loves those old Italian mobster movies that mom won’t let me watch yet. He said this guy Joe Pesci is the “meanest dude in the movies.” That’s why we called our rooster Joe Pesci. One time Joe Pesci even killed one of our hens. I can’t remember her name because I was too little that time, but she was a pretty white one. Joe Pesci got on top of that hen and started pecking it like it was mad at it or something. Joe Pesci pecked that hen even though it was making that cackling sound like it didn’t want to be bothered, like cluckaaaawwwk, cluckaaaawwwk. We scared Joe Pesci away, but it was too late. I think that white hen died from fear.
Joe Pesci got killed about a week after grandpa left to go home. Dad didn’t mean to do it. We were all on the back porch and we were watching the night light up with the fireflies. The cicadas weren’t making noise anymore, but the crickets were out. Joe Pesci was all of a sudden on a tear through the backyard like he was up to something, like maybe he was going to attack something, like another hen. Mom said, “there goes that rooster,” Maggie said, “ewwwww,” real loud like she was getting excited. Biscuit just raised his head, like here we go again, and then dad said, “what’s Joe Pesci up to now.” He had an empty Coca-Cola bottle in his hand and just hurled it towards Joe Pesci. Believe it or not, dad popped Joe Pesci on the head, and he just fell over. It seemed like everything stopped for a minute. The fireflies went dark, the crickets stopped, it was like time just stopped. And, just like that, Joe Pesci was dead. I guess he wasn’t that mean after all. I asked dad if we’d eat him, even though I didn’t want to eat any of our animals. I wanted dad to think I didn’t care that old mean Joe Pesci was dead, but dad said, “no, son, rooster meat is tough, and I bet Joe Pesci’s meat is the toughest.” We laughed and then I went with dad to bury Joe Pesci. Maggie didn’t really get it. She just kept smiling and petting Biscuit and saying, “ewwwww.” Mom kinda laughed with Maggie and said, “had it coming, didn’t he, sugar. That mean rooster had it coming.”
It was almost just that sudden when grandpa started losing his memory. Dad called it old-timers, or something like that. He said it’d been happening for a while now, but I never noticed. Grandpa got confused and couldn’t find his way home. He ended up in another county and dad had to go pick him up. Mom said, “that’s it, that’s the last straw, we gotta do something,” and got real upset and started crying, but it was strange because grandpa looked so healthy. Dad said old-timers comes and goes like a summer shower. Sometimes it’s sunny and warm out and not a cloud in the sky, and then all of a sudden clouds roll in and you have to cancel baseball practice. And then, after a while practice is canceled for good. I guess grandpa was fine one afternoon, and then all of a sudden by night time he forgot everything. Dad moved grandpa to an old-timer’s home, but I didn’t see grandpa too much after that. Dad said his old-timers was real bad and grandpa didn’t even remember him. He said grandpa even forgot how to use the bathroom the right way. I bet dad still listened to grandpa though when he was sitting there listening to him being forgetful and trying to figure out who’s who and what not. I hope dad told grandpa the story about Joe Pesci so he could laugh a little. It must be tough to not remember anything. Joe Pesci was one mean rooster. I know I’ll never forget that old rooster. I wonder what stories about grandpa we’ll tell the next time the cicadas come through and make all that noise. I know I’ll never forget what grandpa told me about them cicadas. And I know I’ll always tell a difference between locusts and cicadas, because grandpa taught me.
About the Author: Bradford Philen is the author of the novel Autumn Falls and several short stories. His full list of publications can be found at bradfordphilen.com. He teaches high school English in Beijing, China.
Story Song: "Dear Raleigh" by Kooley High