Return of the Cicadas


Have you ever seen a cow piss or take a dump? It sprays everywhere.

Story by Timmothy J Holt, Winter 2014


I sit on a bench where the courthouse once stood, and as the cicadas’ song waxes and wanes, so does my perspective. In their silence I hear: popping corn, a waitress offering my sister a free Coke because I shared my fries, Bob the pharmacist telling me not to burn my lips on the cinnamon sticks, horns honking and cans clanging in a newlywed parade, the Green Diamond passenger train announcing its departure, Grandpa discussing the lack of rain, Grandma talking about canning tomatoes, the babble of courthouse fountains, and John, my friend, telling me to hurry up or we’ll miss the cartoons at the theater.

They remain silent for so long; cicadas sing when they can, unlike the square that will never sing again, except for a whispered dirge deep in my memory. As their volume surges, I lose that memory, and I’m drawn back to an empty square. It’s all gone: the station, passenger trains, popcorn wagon, theater, courthouse, soda fountain, Bob the pharmacist, Grandma in her hat and white gloves, Grandpa in overalls with clouds of cigar smoke from under his straw hat. Only ghosts linger on sidewalk benches, in retail windows, unseen behind stains of time. The Piggly Wiggly sign is faded, and I can read it only because I know that’s what it says. Famous Cash is now a café. Peering out from behind Sue’s resale shop sign is part of Gottlieb’s Clothing. At the beginning I can see G O T…and at the end I N G, looking for customers and wondering where they’ve gone. They’re all at Walmart or the mall. Only Greeks Tavern remains, and if I concentrate, squint, I see Dad coming out and getting into his new blue Chevrolet truck. He stopped for a celebratory beer. There was only time for a beer, no pool. His grin is wide; you can see his missing tooth in back. He isn’t smoking for fear he’ll fowl the new car smell. People wave or yell a friendly hi. Today it’s all about his new truck and what it says. Dad’s proud and he wants everyone to see his truck before he drives home.

When Dad parks in the gravel driveway, I can’t believe my eyes. His name, Joe Holt, is followed by and son. It’s on both sides of the truck. I’m horrified at the number of people who saw the truck as he drove around the square.

Dad is sunshine on a rainy day, unashamed to glow with pride. It takes all the self-control a chubby, self-conscious, seven-year-old can muster not to turn Dad’s smile into a withered frown. I’m nauseated. A future I don’t want is written in those words, and son. To me it says, and the future farmer. I won’t go to college. I’ll have to milk cows for the rest of my life. I’ll have to gather eggs from pecking chickens that don’t want to give them up. I’ll have to slop pigs. I’ll have to be macho and manly. I’ll have to deal with hay, straw dust, off-color jokes about blondes, breasts, and sex.

Soon 4-H will come up and I’ll have no choice but to give in and join, but with what. Maybe I could enter vegetables or the cakes I help Grandma bake. Little do I know, Dad has arranged for me to obtain a cow from my uncle Fred’s herd. My mom’s brother-in-law has a large number of cattle and has agreed to give me one of the heifers, a fertile female, so I can breed her and start my own herd. I look to the heavens for help from God, but then I remember the biblical shepherd stories. I fear there will be no help coming for this kid.

I sit in silence in the yellow vinyl chair as we eat lunch on the metal kitchen table in the same yellow. As we eat, Dad turns on the radio for the livestock and grain report, as well as the noon news. News of the county and town, that doesn’t get passed on when visiting the square, is heard on the noon radio broadcast. I have all my fingers and toes crossed, hoping with all my might, that Dad’s new deed doesn’t make the news. It doesn’t.

Our telephone is a party line, and each home has a distinctive ring. You hear everyone’s ring. Our phone number is 9R 40, rural line 9 with four long rings. One of our neighbors has four longs and two short. All too often the operator, Peggy, is playful, waiting till the last minute to add the two short rings. It really doesn’t matter. All the neighbors know when someone is getting a phone call and listen to the conversation. So when the phone rings, I run to answer it before Mom, Dad, or my sister can tell the caller about and son, but thankfully, before I get there, the operator adds two shorts. I listen anyway. Sure enough the news is spreading. They’re talking about me and the and son.

Dad calls me back. “Hey, why don’t we go visit your uncle this afternoon and look at the cattle? He called and offered to give you the heifer for your birthday.”

There’s the news I’m dreading. It means tromping through manure-infested mud to pick a calf. What do I know about cattle? I know Uncle Fred’s cattle are red and white, while other cows are black, white, or both. I knew a bull from a heifer, and some of them have horns. How do I choose one? Hopefully, Dad and my uncle have more cattle sense.

The drive to my uncle’s farm gives me plenty of time to ponder my unwanted future as a cattle rancher and farmer. Farm life is lonely for a kid; my closest friend is a mile away. I can ride my bike to his house, but I’d like to have a friend next door, one I could talk to from my bedroom window. I’d like to walk to school with my friends instead of riding the bus. I’m not miles and miles out of the city; but where I live, you’re more likely to hear a coyote than neighbors fighting.

As my father turns into Uncle Fred’s driveway, my aunt screeches, “It’s Timmy Joe.” I love my aunt. I know I’m her only sister’s son, but that voice. I’m sure anyone within miles can hear.

Aunt Ester is a pan of water at full boil. She’s bubbling over with excitement. “Why, Timmy Joe, you’ll soon be all grown up. You’re going to be raising cattle and showing them at the fair. Before long you’ll be graduating from high school and off to college.”

Off to college would be nice. None of her kids went to college. They were in the armed forces and then came home to farm. At least she thinks I’ll go to college; I don’t want to work on the farm or in the factory. Johnny’s dad works in the factory, and he’s always complaining about how he hates it. I tell her, “I’d rather play baseball or ride my bike. If they want me to have an animal, why not a dog?”

Aunt Ester gives me an “I know, honey” smile. The one that’s more a smirk than a smile. “Come with me to the kitchen; I just backed a batch of chocolate chip cookies.”

Chocolate chip cookies can solve almost any problem, and Aunt Ester’s cookies are the best. With cookies and milk, I may be able to face what’s coming next, picking out a calf. My aunt says, “Now, Timmy, they’re going to try and convince you they know what’s best. Don’t let them pick the calf. I know you’re not sure of yourself, but they’re showing off. You pick the one you want. Use your heart. Understand?”

This gives me some assurance that at least someone in the family knows how I feel. I say I’ll do my best. She responds, “God knows that’s all any of us can do.”

She kisses me and shoos me out the door, watching and waving with thumbs up as I head to the barn. I wave back and yell, “Thanks for the cookies.”

As I expected, the cattle yard is muddy and full of manure. I’m not sure what to do, so I follow my dad and uncle. Suddenly, a wet nose is nudging me in the back. I turn to see this heifer staring at me, and she nudges my hand this time. Yelling to Dad, I say, “Here is the one I’d like. Some of the herd starts complaining with loud moos, and I feel sad that she’s leaving the herd. She climbs the ramp into the truck willingly. There’s no more noise from the herd. Perhaps they’ve forgotten her already, or maybe she’s not so sad after all.

My Herford calf has no horns, a white face, white underbelly, and white stocking feet. I join the 4-H pledging my head, hands, heart, and health to something, so I can participate in the annual fair.

I teach Betsy to follow, both with and without a harness, and keep up her appearance with shampoos and frequent brushing. While Mom and I are cleaning her hooves, she kicks, hitting Mom. I learn a whole new vocabulary, words I’m warned not to use.

Finally, the big weekend comes. Dad and I take Betsy to the fair. All the other 4-H’ers are there with their animals: cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, anything that you can raise on a farm. We settle Betsy into her stall with fresh straw. I like the smell of straw. I drive the tractor when they’re baling and that’s fun. There are a few bales at the end to rest on. Dad asks if I need a blanket or anything for the night. Everything I need to sleep is in my room at home; why is he asking? He tells me I’m expected to sleep at the fair, on the straw, behind the butt of Betsy.

Have you ever seen a cow piss or take a dump? It sprays everywhere. No way am I sleeping at her butt or any cow’s butt. When I refuse, Dad looks like I’ve disowned him. His eyes survey Betsy, the stall, the other cattle, the kids, and then settles on my hair. He won’t look me in the eye. His peevish grin that says, “look at my son,” is gone. He pulls a Camel cigarette out of the pack, compacts the tobacco by tapping it on his Zippo lighter, then starts to light it, but stops, remembering he’s in the barn. He keeps it unlit in his mouth.

Dad stands still, placing his hands in the pockets of the denim bib overalls. He’s sulking like I do when I’m mad. He realizes I’m not giving in and finally looks me in the eye. “We can go home. Your mom will drive you back in the morning.

Dad brings me back because he can’t stay away. He won’t abandon me. Besides, other dads are here with their sons. I think he’s the one living a childhood taken away by WWII. He left school after eighth grade to work on the farm. His two older brothers were fighting in the war. He told me once, “I had to farm. There was no time for things like 4-H. You never regret what you did, but what you didn’t do.”

I win a blue ribbon for my breed, but lose the best of show. I kept Betsy and she had a calf, but next year I grow garden vegetables. I win all blue ribbons, and I’m featured, with pictures, in the local paper. Not a cattleman, but vegetables are farming too.

Overriding the cicadas, the noon fire siren wails. I’m surprised to see the square empty. My sister approaches me and says, “It’s time to go.” Only then do I realize I’m not a young boy but a physician who inherited Dad’s land that someone else farms.

“Where are they burying Uncle Fred?” I ask.

 “Next to Aunt Ester in the family plot, adjacent to his farm.”

“Are there still cattle?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“I’d like to pet a heifer, lead her around, give her a bath, take a nap on a bale of hay in the barn.”



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