Category Archives: Robert Bailey

Cicada Song

It’s exhausting living two lives. You start getting sloppy with your work.
++++Driving along Interstate 70 in the summer of ’74, with Merle Haggard’s
“Mama Tried” blaring on the radio, I was crooning along with the
country outlaw. Every now and then a big, juicy cicada exploded on the
windshield like a pus-filled zit. They came up out of the ground by
the millions, these gigantic orange-eyed flies from hell, to torture
everyone in the mid-Atlantic region with their awful buzz saw mating
calls. A molted shell clung to the side mirror, and I kept expecting
the wind to rip it away, but it stayed stuck there, hollow and
trembling.
++++I’d been driving east from Wheeling into Pennsylvania for about an
hour, and I was low on gas. I knew a truck stop off the next exit
where I could pick up a lot lizard. So that’s what I did.
++++I pulled up in my satin black F-100, kicking up a cloud of dust.
There was a little restaurant I’d eaten at a few times, where the cook
seasoned the eggs with his cigarette ashes. Next to that was a seedy
motel, where the hookers turned their tricks, but there was a neon
light on in the window that said NO VACANCY.
++++The garage bell rang as my tires rolled over the air hose, and the
attendant came out and started shooting the shit with me, asking me
where was I headed and how did I like all these damn cicadas
splattering all over my grill. He was a skinny old-timer, working a
wad of tobacco in his cheek, with tan leathery skin that sagged on his
brittle bones. It looked like you could reach under his reeking,
sweaty flannel shirt, grab a fistful, and just rip the skin off his
body.
++++Gas was up to .35 cents, but I told him to fill it up anyhow. “I still
have a long way to go before I get where I’m going,” I explained,
hoping we could skip the small talk. He took the hint and started
pumping the gas.
++++But he was one of those people who couldn’t stop talking. “Ain’t never
seen nothing like that,” he said.
++++I had my left arm sticking out the window, resting on the side of the
door. There was a bad bite mark on my left hand that was still raw. I
turned my head around as far as I could towards him, thinking maybe he
was talking about the teeth marks on my hand. “Like what?”
++++He nodded towards the motel. “A woman dressed like that… It’s a damn
disgrace.”
++++I turned to follow his gaze across the lot. Just coming out of the
motel, lighting up a cigarette, was a leggy blonde in a black fringe
blouse, cut-off jean shorts, and brown cowboy boots. She looked like a
biker babe with her leather headband. Behind her, beyond the motel, I
could see the waves of heat coming up off the interstate and the
boiling twilight sun sinking behind the trees like it was going to
scorch the earth and send us all to hell.
++++“Ain’t a decent woman left in this town.” He shook his head and spat a
copious mouthful of tobacco juice that splattered when it hit the
pavement. “If you ask me, they’re just looking for trouble, dressed
like that.”
++++“You know who the biggest womanizer in history was?” I asked, turning
back towards him again.
++++He sort of scowled at me. “No…”
++++“King Solomon.”
++++“Is that right?”
++++“Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. It’s all in the Bible.”
++++He whistled in astonishment, finished pumping and approached the cab.
++++“You some sort of preacher?”
++++“Nah.” I smiled. I turned back to admire the girl in cowboy boots.
++++“Just like the Bible stories a lot.”
++++Just as I was paying him, a news update about the Monongahela River
Killer came on the radio. Everyone in the tri-state area was talking
about the murders. The fear had reached a fever pitch, and it was
getting hard to find a hooker, because none of the girls wanted to get
in a car with anyone they didn’t already know.
++++“Hey, turn that up,” the attendant said.
++++The voice on the radio said, “The girl was attacked in Smithton and
taken to Mon City hospital. Authorities say she escaped when she bit
her attacker’s hand as he attempted to strangle her from behind…”
++++The attendant worked the wad of tobacco in his cheek, pinched his brow
and glanced at the wound on my hand. I brought the hand into the cab
as soon as I saw him looking at it and used my other hand to get the
money out of my wallet. I held out a ten dollar bill with my right
hand. “Hey, thanks, bud.” He didn’t seem to hear me at first, like he
was in a trance. So I said louder. “I still got a long way to go.”
++++He finally came back. “Oh…” He started to get my change, handed it
to me. “Where you headed to, partner?”
++++Now I knew he was suspicious. But he was scared too. “You know,
there’s a place in Judges,” I said disregarding his question, “where a
Levite cuts up his concubine into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and
sends her body parts to all the tribes of Israel… What do you make
of a story like that?”
++++The attendant eased back. “I’d say the Lord works in mysterious ways, partner.”
++++I turned the key in the ignition. “Amen.”
++++I’d done this so many times. I was starting to think I’d never get
caught. It was like I was being deliberately reckless, always taking
bigger and bolder risks with less and less discretion. You even start
to want to get caught, because you want people to know it was you. And
yet, you don’t really want to get caught, because then you’d have to
stop, and the urge can get so strong, so overpowering. It was like
there was a ringing in my ears—a sound like the buzzing of
cicadas—that was driving me insane and the only way I knew how to get
it to stop was to pick up another girl. So I swung around to the motel
and stopped with the passenger door in front of her.
++++In the rear view mirror, I glimpsed at the attendant going into the
station. I even thought I saw him make the sign of the cross. Who
knows? Maybe I reawakened his faith in God. Then I leaned across the
seat and smiled at the girl. She took a drag on her cigarette,
narrowing her blue eyes to sharp slits. “I’m looking for a date,” I
said. No beating around the bush.
++++“You a cop?” she asked routinely.
++++“A cop?” I guffawed. “Baby, I’m an outlaw,” I bragged.
++++She cracked a smile at my joke, and I knew I had her. But she was a
little uncertain about getting in the truck with me, what with the
murders that were all over the news. I wanted to speed things along,
just in case the attendant called the cops after all. So I told her I
had some grass we could smoke. Early on I learned that they could
never resist the drugs. She was mulling it over when one of those
cicadas flew into her hair, and she flipped out and jumped into the
truck. I got a real kick out of that.
++++As we pulled out of the parking lot, I pushed the cigarette lighter
into its socket. “I haven’t done this a lot,” she said.
++++But she was lying. Maybe if she was seventeen or eighteen I would have
believed her, but she was in her twenties and looked like she was
hooked on junk. Girls like that are like guys like me: we both lie for
a living.
++++“Me neither,” I said.
++++“You sound nervous.”
++++I was trying to keep my left hand out of sight. “Guess I’m a little nervous.”
++++She tugged at her jean shorts. I could tell she was scared. You know
they say a dog can smell fear? I’ve always thought I could too.
++++“You’re not him, are you?” she asked.
++++“Not who?”
++++“The Monongahela River Killer…”
++++I smiled as we drove under the highway overpass. “Isn’t that the sort
of thing you should be asking before you get in the truck?”
++++“I’m serious, man. Don’t fuck with me.”
++++“Come on…” I looked at myself in the cracked rear view mirror. My
face was so pitted with acne scars that I looked like a burn victim.
++++“Do I look like a killer?”
++++Just then the cigarette lighter popped out of the socket, and she just
about jumped out of her skin. “Fuck!” she said. Then she laughed, a
little embarrassed, shook her head and looked out the window. It was
just getting dark out.
++++“Open the glove box,” I said.
++++“Why?”
++++“There’s a joint in there.”
++++“I don’t know, man, I’ll get paranoid.”
++++“No, it’ll mellow you out,” I said.
++++She opened the glove compartment. “Holy shit,” she said. “There’s a
gun in here!”
++++“Can’t be too careful,” I said.
++++She took it out and looked at it, a little .38 snubnose. Her hand
bobbed a little, testing the weight, as if she couldn’t believe it was
real. I think I got off on letting them think they were in control
leading up to it. It made me laugh inside. “Careful,” I said. “That’s
loaded.”
++++Gently, she put the gun back, fished around a bit, then found the
joint. She lit it with the glowing-hot cigarette lighter. Then she
took a big hit, held it in, and coughed. A haze of smoke began to
gather in the cab. She offered the joint to me and I reached over to
take it.
++++“Jesus, man, what happened to your hand?”
++++With one hand on the wheel, I took a puff, the cherry lighting up, my
eyes narrowing. After I exhaled, passing the joint back, I said, “I
got bit by a dog… a real mean bitch.”
++++The headlights of an oncoming car lit up the cab of the truck and
shadows swept across our faces. Then it was dark again. “Turn up here
on Spring Road,” she said, pointing at a rickety old one-lane bridge
crossing the river.
++++We drove about a half mile up the narrow dirt road until we reached a
pull-off spot where there was a sign that said NO DUMPING. It was the
kind of place kids came to drink beer and make out.
++++When I turned off the engine, it got quiet, and then all you could
hear were the cicadas buzzing all around us in the trees.
++++“I can’t stand that sound,” she said.
++++“What sounds bad to us is the sound of love to them.”
++++“I don’t care man. Turn on the radio or something. I can’t stand to
listen to that.”
++++I humored her and turned on the radio. We sat in the urine-colored
glow of the dashboard lights. But there was no music on the country
western station I liked to listen to. Instead, it was another update
about the Monongahela River Killer.
++++“Oh, God, man, I don’t want to hear this. I’d rather listen to the locusts.”
++++“They’re cicadas.”
++++“Whatever. Let’s just get this over with so we can get the hell out of here.”
++++She reached over to unbuckle my belt, but I grabbed her wrist and held
it. “What’s going on? I thought you wanted to get off,” she said.
++++“Wait. Listen…”
++++Reception was poor out in the woods, but you could just make out what
the voice was saying as the signal faded in and out: “Police now
think… more than thirty unsolved homicides in the tri-state area…”
++++“Why do you think he does it?” I asked. I was genuinely curious what
she thought.
++++“Kill women?”
++++“Kill prostitutes…”
++++“I guess we’re easy targets.”
++++“There are all kinds of easy targets out there though.”
++++“Why do you think he does it?”
++++“I don’t know.” I shook my head slowly. “But my hands are like the
hands of God when they’re wrapped around the neck of a sister of
Sodom.”
++++She froze. I could smell the fear coming back again. I heard nothing
but cicadas in an endless frenzy of fucking and dying.
++++Suddenly, her hand sprang out towards the glove compartment, but I
didn’t even try to stop her. She fumbled for a second with the latch
before she got it open, and then her arm flung up, and she had the
barrel pointed right at my forehead.
++++“This is what God wants.”
++++“I’ll fucking do it,” she said. “I swear.”
++++“I know you will, Little Sister.”
++++She tightened her face, preparing for the blood splatter, and then she
pulled the trigger.
++++Click.
++++Again.
++++“I lied,” I said, grabbing her by the wrist, “about it being loaded.”
++++She looked at the fresh bite marks on my hand, the hand that was
locked on to her wrist, and she dropped the gun. Her mouth hung open
but nothing came out, no screaming, no pleading. All you could hear
were the cicadas in the trees.
++++As I caught her by the neck, felt the carotid artery thumping under
the skin, I thought about that old-timer back at the truck stop, how I
could see that he knew who I was, what I was going to do, and yet I
also knew that he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it. He wasn’t
going to lift a finger to help a whore. Then I thought about the
Levite and his concubine in Judges. How he just steps over her after
she’s been gang raped within an inch of her life. That’s cold-blooded
by anyone’s standards. And here was this gas station attendant, and he
wasn’t any better than that Levite in the Bible.
++++Sometimes it felt like they didn’t even want to catch me, and that
deep down they understood that I was doing their Christian society a
service. I lowered my voice and muttered to myself, “Hell, I’m going
to have to turn myself in one of these days.”
++++All I heard were cicadas as I watched the light of life drain from her eyes.
++++And then suddenly the whole cab of the pickup truck flooded with
light. At first I thought I was having a spiritual awakening, like
Saul on the road to Damascus, or one of those people who almost die
and see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a moment, I truly
thought I was about to hear the voice of God.
++++But instead it was a shotgun blast that left my ears ringing. The
glass of the rear window rained down on us. I rose up, releasing my
grip on her neck. She inhaled. I heard the shotgun pump again.
Another pickup had pulled in behind us, blocking my truck in. There
was a figure standing in front of the headlights. I immediately
recognized him, even though all I saw was a slightly stooped shape in
silhouette against the blinding headlights. He must’ve followed us. Or
he knew where she took her johns.
++++“Get on out of there,” he commanded.
++++I came out of the truck with my hands up, feeling like a newly molted
cicada emerging from its shell, naked and vulnerable.
++++“Get down on your damn knees,” he told me.
++++I did as he told me, and it felt like the ground was burning. The
old-timer leaned and spat a mouthful of tobacco. The girl got out of
the truck, shaken and confused, raking the shards of glass out of her
blonde hair with her fingers.
++++For the second time, I was looking into the barrel of a gun. Only this
time I knew it was loaded. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t
just kill you right here,” he asked.
++++I didn’t have an original thought left in my head anymore. All I could
do was calmly quote Matthew 5:21: “You have heard that it was said to
those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be
liable to judgment.’”
++++“Oh, I’m gonna judge you all right,” he said.
++++And I heard the voice of God.

 

BIO

Robert Lee Bailey is the author of Monongahela Blood, a historical thriller. His short fiction has recently appeared in The Big Adios and The Flash Fiction Offensive. Read more of his work at www.anatomyoftheartist.com