Jazzy Sounds of the Cicadas
By Diana Bletter
I am a judge. Most of the time I listen to other people’s stories, but now I feel the need to share one of my own. Silence in the court, please. It happened the other day, when I knocked on a door.
“One moment!” called a pleasant female voice. Then the voice continued, “Actually, a moment is hard to define. What is a moment? Is it a second? A minute? An eternity?”
“I have no idea,” I said, startled.
“The question was rhetorical.” Her laughter rang in my ears.
I was standing on the front step of a lopsided cottage, tempted to leave. But I waited as the heavy wooden door cracked open. I saw a crooked nose, one dark eye, and half a smile. Then the door opened all the way and she appeared. Thin with narrow features, cavernous nostrils like an egret: Adelaide Musgrove, eBay seller of a matchbook collection, stood in front of me wearing a white embroidered peasant blouse, a pair of denim shorts, and black high-top sneakers. She appeared to be about my age, withfine white hair cropped short around her head.
“Deer Spirit,” she said. Her smile stretched. “Don’t you know who I am?”
I looked hard. I knew I was standing on the property of my childhood best friend, but I hadn’t been expecting this. Not at all.
“I’m Dancing Elk,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” I said. In an instant, fifty years collapsed, and a sense of outrage flooded through me. “You tricked me. You’re Annie Moskowitz.”
“Welcome back, Deer Spirit,” Annie said.
“I can’t believe you’d do something like this.” I turned to go. “This is wrong.”
“At least let me explain.” And Annie thrust out her slender hand and beckoned me inside.
Eleven days before, I had come across Adelaide Musgrove’s collection of five hundred matchbooks on eBay. Her collection was flamboyant, full of foreign names and faraway places. These were not your ordinary matchbooks. Adelaide had matches from Zimbabwe when it was still Rhodesia, Sri Lanka when it was Ceylon, and Mumbai when it was far more sensibly pronounced Bombay.
I hadn’t been that excited about matchbooks in years. When I was a little boy, I waited impatiently for my parents to come home from their trips around the world. I was a product of their late marriage, and they often took off to travel, leaving me at home with Pansy, the housekeeper, who alternated between strict and overindulgent depending on her mood. When my parents returned, they brought matchbooks from exotic places as consolation prizes.
I found the auction on eBay early one morning before beginning my exercise on the treadmill in my basement. I read the seller’s description of her collection:
Hi, everyone! My name is Adelaide Musgrove and I’ve volunteered in a variety of programs to help people around the world. My matches come from my travels here and there, to and fro, hither and thither!
It was odd. For one thing, most eBay sellers do not offer a description of their personal lives.
I sent Adelaide Musgrove a message:
Why are you selling your matches?
I finished my distance on the treadmill and went upstairs to take a shower. My wife, Julia, was still asleep, her eye mask on, the curtains drawn. By the time I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking orange juice and eating a piece of toast with orange marmalade, there was a message from Adelaide:
I’ve got the memories inside me. I return to those places just by closing my eyes. Unlike tourists who snap pictures, I snap images that I imprint on my brain.
I knew all about memories. I changed the subject and asked the seller where she lived. Within minutes came a reply.
Hello there! I’m currently living in Elmswood, Long Island, but who knows? Like they say, keep on the firing side of life. Thank you so much for your interest. Adelaide Musgrove
Me: I am surprised to hear you live in Elmswood. I grew up there! I haven’t been back in years.
Then I hesitated. She had signed her name, but I could not possibly use my own. Collecting matchbooks on eBay is not the sort of thing judges do. I chose Deer Spirit, the name I’d picked in sixth grade, when our class was reading The Light in the Forest. Adelaide wrote back:
Deer Spirit, I hope you win the auction.
Do you like standing on your head? Adelaide wrote on the fifth night of the auction. I’m not terrific at yoga, but standing on my head has definitely increased my sense that you can turn your life upside down or right side up.
That’s funny, I wrote back. When I was a little boy, I loved doing handstands and standing on my head, but as Lewis Carroll said, “I am old, Father William.”
Oh, nonsense! I try not to let that little fact stop me, Adelaide said.
I got a plush towel from the linen closet, laid it against a wall in our bedroom, positioned myself the way I remembered from my headstand days (trying to make my arms like a table upon which to rest my legs), but more than that I could not do. Gravity conspired against me.
I had just settled back on the divan, computer on my lap, when Julia walked in.
“Andrew!” Julia looked at me. “Don’t tell me you’re still checking those matchbooks.” She was a shrewd businesswoman—she had taken over her father’s wholesale beverage distribution company—and even shrewder were herdyed-blond corkscrew curls, intended to make her look less intimidating. They gave her bargaining power.
“If I win the auction,” I said, “I’m going to Elmswood on Sunday to pick them up.”
“You’re going back to the town you swore you’d never go back to, to pick up matchbooks that are probably all full of mold and mildew?” Julia’s eyes moved from me to her own image in the full-length mirror that ran along the back wall. She wore a pair of black leggings and a sleeveless black top. She stretched out her right arm and pinched the skin underneath. “It doesn’t look so bad when I have my arms down, right?”
It was a trick question that could get me into trouble, so I kept my mouth closed and counted to ten, as I did sometimes in the courtroom.
“I’m considering liposuction.” Julia turned sideways, peering at herself.
“I thought you said—”
“—I said that I don’t want to enlarge my lips, and thank you for actually listening to me. I couldn’t bear anything largeron my body. But I do wear Spanx, not that you’d know what those are. It’s the new word for girdle. Not that you’d understand what that is either. I remember my mother standing in a white girdle about to get dressed. Do you remember your mother in one?”
I shook my head. “I would never have been in the room when my mother was getting dressed. Anyway, I think I’m going to win the matchbooks.” I did not tell my wife how much I had bid: four hundred dollars. It was an outrageous price. “The oddest coincidence is that the seller lives in the exact same house where my old friend Annie used to live.”
“That is odd,” Julia said, circling both arms. “The trainer said I need to lift more weights. Remind me which one was Annie.”
“The one who lived four houses away.” I stared into the computer screen, my pale face growing hot. “She was my best friend for a long time, until she wasn’t.”
“Love changes and best friends become strangers,” Julia said. “That’s a line from a rap song that Brent likes.”
I nodded. Brent was our oldest son, now studying law. He was the third generation of lawyers in our family. I watched Julia open one of the mirrored doors, pull out a pair of beige pants and throw them on the love seat. “Do you have anything for the dry cleaner’s?”
“So, you’re going back to your old stomping ground,” Julia said, rummaging in the closet. “I’d come with you but I have that big order for Juvenile Diabetes. You can meet me at the fundraiser afterward.”
“I will,” I said. “I don’t plan on staying in Elmswood any longer than I have to.”
Julia tossed one of my shirts and then another onto her drycleaning pile. “Why do you insist on wearing a white shirt more than once?” she asked.
“No need for sorry,” she said. “It’s a good thing you’re up on the bench—no one can see the ring around your collar.”
So on Sunday afternoon, I turned onto my old street, Oak Drive,and rounded the corner, and suddenly I had no idea where I was. The colonial house in which I’d grown up had been razed, replaced by a modern, flat-roofed monstrosity. The house where Annie had once lived, with its lovely symmetry, its crisscrossed beams and stained glass windows,was no longer there; nor was the manicured lawn with its sprinklers that watered in Annieful arcs that Annie and I used to run through. Leaves, brush, and ivy were taking over the plush grass.
I checked the number on the house once more, parked the car, and warily walked up the path. I knocked. Waited. Wanted to run. The door opened and I was pulled inside.
“I am thrilled you came,” Annie Moskowitz was now saying. “Absolutely full of joy. I can’t begin to tell you, even though obviously I have already begun to tell you.” She led me through the living room, where there was a couch and a small coffee table that sat half hidden by stones and shells, feathers, fossils, skeletons, pottery shards, and primitive masks.
“At first I was going to give you a choice of beverage,” she continued, “but instead I decided for you.”
We had reached the kitchen, which was more like a laboratory. A few cabinet doors were swung open, revealing carefully labeled glass jars, powders, and bottles, some of which had drawings of a skull and poison written on them. She opened a vintage refrigerator. “Why do people say ‘a nice glass of lemonade’? What is nice about the glass? This is a glass of fresh lemonade. And I made you a cake. Not like Ebinger’s, remember? They had the store by E. J.—”
“Korvette’s,” I supplied, still fuming.
“Exactly,” she said. “You and I both liked the vanilla cake layered with chocolate pudding. This cake is nowhere near that cake, neither in time and distance nor in taste. Yet at the end of the day—another odd expression—it’s wonderful. My husband left me a recipe; he was a good baker, but he’s been gone for five years.”
The cake was toppling over. After turning her back to cut two slices, she swiveled around to gaze at me again. Her face was lit. I read somewhere that enthusiasm meant “instilled with God’s spirit,” and for the first time, I understood what that meant. Annie’s expression was bright, bursting, animated, and I suddenly felt as if I were standing in this very spot in Annie’s old kitchen, her mother serving us homemade rugelach.
“You finally made it,” Anniesaid.
“I can’t believe you’re Annie,” I said. “I’m speechless.”
“That must not happen often to Judge Andrew Glickstein.” She smiled. “Come outside and I’ll explain everything.”
Balancing the two generous slices of cake, napkins, tall glasses, and a container of lemonade on a tray, she walked through a door that led into the backyard. There were two white alabaster sculptures to my right. The rest of the yard was choked with weeds.
“It’s still here!” Toward the back, I saw the colossal oak tree. Our tree.
“Naturally,” she said without turning around. “I read about an oak tree in New Jersey that’s six hundred years old.”
I tramped behind her through the knee-high grasses that brushed against my trousers. The backyard seemed small and dense but I remembered the enormity of the tree and still felt in awe of it.
Stopping at its base, I peered into the tree’s crown of leaves. Then Annie passed me the tray with the cake and lemonade and began to climb up a ladder made of wooden slats and twine. I watched her, nimble and lithe, her shoes padding up the steps.
“Your turn!” Annie lowered a basket on a string. How long had it been since I’d waited for her to send down that basket? Maybe it wasn’t the same basket but something similar.
“Put the tray in and come on up!” Annie’s voice was a gravelly echo of the voice I had once loved. I glanced down at my stomach that hung over my belt, making it almost impossible for me to see my buckskin shoes. Once I had worn jeans on which Pansy had sewn knee patches, and white Jeepers sneakers. Once I had been a boy who liked to run and jump and now I was overweight, stationary, more than halfway dead.
“What are you waiting for?”
“I can’t,” I whispered. Something had died inside me. I had died inside myself.
“Deer Spirit,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. Don’t disappoint me. Don’t disappoint yourself.”
Through the leaves, she seemed so distant; to reach her, I’d have to climb up to the stars. I thought of the drunks who stood before me in court, listening as I told them they had two choices: either a DWI facility or jail. I knew now it was my turn to make a choice. What did I always counsel? Life is made for the living. Why don’t you try something different? I started to climb.
Perhaps it is like riding a bicycle, something you don’t forget. All those years, and I thought I had forgotten. Seven steps, the wood supporting my weight, and then I was enfolded within the tree.
“You kept this,” I said. “Your tree house. Our clubhouse.” I reached the wooden platform with low walls around four sides. It had once been my whole world. I pressed my hands flat against the wood and heaved myself in. “It’s exactly the way it was when we were up here. How did this all happen?”
“Simple mathematics!” Her cheeks were rosy pink. “Life is a solvable mystery. Before I went to sleep one night, I asked the universe for a clue. I had a dream about your old matchbook collection. I was walking into your old bedroom, dresser on the right, bed on the left, with the Zfor Zorro you painted in black on the wall. You were sitting on your bed looking at me, holding the box of matchbooks. The answer came.”
“Just like that?” I sat down, cross-legged, but it was far too uncomfortable, so I stretched out my legs and leaned back. Too large: that was how I felt. I wanted to fold myself up, make myself small again.
“I knew I had to find you,” she said. “I prayed on it. Prayers are like magical incantations. I studied Kabbalah. I knew I could make my dreams turn real.”
“I’m a grown man, I’m married, I have two sons, I . . .” My voice retreated. In the courtroom I was good at speaking extemporaneously; my sentences sounded rehearsed and well thought out. I always wanted to say the right thing, get people to understand, and now my words were caught, locked in my brain.
“I just had to find you,” she murmured, never letting her eyes leave my face. “I have never forgotten you. You can see I love scientific experiments. I had already sold and bought some things on eBay—vintage scientific equipment, that sort of thing—and then a simple hypothesis dawned on me. From the dream, I figured you’d still be interested in matchbooks.”
“eBay is the flea market to the world,” I said, rubbing my shaved chin, surprised that I could put together a coherent sentence.
“It’s the souk of the new millennium.” Her thin lips pursed to form the ooh sound in souk. I smiled at her earnestness.
“I remember playing with all the kids in the neighborhood until it was so dark the fireflies came out and then Pansy shouted it was time for me to come in,” I said. “I never wanted to return to my house. It was just Pansy and me, without my parents. So empty.”
Annie poured lemonade. “I thought about adding a roof to the tree house so that I can sit up here when it rains, but I decided to keep it the same,” she said. “I spent time up here with my daughter. She passed first, then my husband. Losing our only child broke his heart. It killed him. My daughter caught some kind of parasite when we were living in India. That was her name, India. It devastated my husband, Janek, because it was his idea to go back to the village where he was born. Her death just melted him. But not the way a candle melts.”
“I need to hear everything,” I said, surprised to find myself here, surprised we were this old, even though I tried to stay aware of each day passing, as if time picked out chords on a guitar.
“Did you ever see that enormous candle in the store in Woodstock?” Annie asked. “It was started about the same time as the festival, I think. It’s in a candle store, and the store owners keep adding to it, which goes to show you that things melt but don’t disappear. What is melted is still there. In fact, it grows and grows. I tried to convey that to my husband. But his system of belief told him that he would only be comforted when he saw our daughter after his death. I am not yet ready to leave this life, despite the sadness contained within it.” Her voice faded.
“What did we talk about when we were kids?” I asked. “Certainly not about death and dying. I am sorry to hear about your husband. He must have been a special man. And I’m very sorry to hear about your India. I would never think to name my child after a country.”
She looked at me but didn’t seem to see me. Then I caught her eye and we stared at each other the way you’d look at your own reflection in a pond.
“My kids have simple names,” I said. “Brent and Todd, one syllable each. I never even thought about that until now. One son is in business school, the other in law. I guess I never wanted to give them names that would make them stand out.”
“Why don’t you try the cake?” she said, handing me a plate and a small silver fork with three tines, the kind you’d use for shrimp cocktail. I took a bite. The cake tasted like the concoctions that Annie and I made when we were kids, when her mother let us experiment with flour, milk, eggs because she said that bakers were budding research scientists.
“It’s surprisingly delicious,” I said, and I meant it. “What happened to the old house?”
“Believe it or not, dryer lint,” she said. “Big fire. Terrible fire. It was after my parents were gone; I lost everything. You’d think with all my scientific knowledge I’d have known better, but I’m a terrible housekeeper. It happened soon after Janek and India died. I had left India—the country, that is. I couldn’t stay there without them. I volunteered on a kibbutz for a while but then came back, and the house burned down and I rebuilt it, mostly by myself, to look like a natural habitat. I don’t have to worry about pesticides and fertilizers on the lawn. And it’s small enough to heat with wood in the winter.”
“At first I didn’t like it, but now that I know you built it, I like it very much,” I said. From the back, the house resembled a candy cottage. “How did you ever come up with a name like Adelaide Musgrove?”
“L. H. Musgrove was an American outlaw I happened to come across,” she said. “And my husband taught at the University of Adelaide for a while. I took the pseudonym because I knew I had to throw you off my trail. I called your office three times, but you never called me back. And I know judges get their messages.”
I looked down.
“Deer Spirit, don’t look at the cake. Look at me. Tell me what happened.”
Drops of perspiration beaded on my forehead. I was balding and nearsighted. Teeth were loosening from my jaw. Sometimes my feet cramped at night. Rigor mortis. Why dredge up old history? Better to be buried with it.
“I promise it will be good for you to tell me,” she said.
“I’ve never told anyone,” I said, my head still bowed. “Not even my wife. I don’t want to talk about it. What do you want from me?”
“I need to know,” she said. “And you need to remember.”
“Life is never a fairy tale,” I said. “That’s what I tell my sons. I tell them that nobody gets a vaccination against sorrow. I don’t want to frighten them, but I hope they will find the strength to meet the wallops that life throws at them.”
“Something bad happened to you, I know that,” Annie said. “You stopped being my friend so suddenly, and I want to understand why. It’s haunted me all these years, and I know that it’s haunted you.”
“Why? Why go back?”
“Because,” she said. “It’s obvious that something keeps pulling you back there.”
I thought of one of my friends, Mark Berman. He sits with me on the temple board and always gets teary-eyed standing with me on Fifth Avenue, watching the Israel Parade. I never allowed myself that liberty. That freedom. That vulnerability.
“Do you know I was able to calculate the number of leaves on this tree?” Annie said. “I measured about twenty leaves fitting onto a paper plate. I figured the diameter of the crown and came up with about two hundred and fifty thousand leaves, but that doesn’t factor in all the layers. My rough estimate is that this tree has more than one million leaves.” She smiled. “I could rake them all up in the autumn and count them exactly, but I’m not that interested in the quantity. In other words, we’re completely protected up here. Tell me. I will protect you. I will be your leaves.”
“I didn’t come here for this,” I said, wondering, now that I was here, how I could quickly escape again. I wanted to fly away, pushing myself up through the leaves, but instead I sat there and took a sip of very sweet lemonade.
“Go back there with me.”
“I’m leaving and I’m never going back—”
“We can go there together.” Annie waited, dark-eyed and silent.
I hated the way she kept looking at me, but I did not move as the sunlight spread out above the trees. All these years, I had tried to run faster than the memory, but it had finally caught up to me. I took a deep breath; the race was over. Remember that time you told me to meet you in the lots and not here in the treehouse?” I picked up my head and glanced at Annie, who nodded slowly.
“I thought you wanted to play tag or climb trees,” I said, “the way we always did. But we sat together in the Green Room—”
“Funny we called it the Green Room when it was just a space under the trees with lots of green leaves—”
“You leaned over to kiss me.”
“What’s wrong with that?” she asked, blushing. “I didn’t want to do anything more than give you a quick kiss. I was a girl wanting to kiss my best friend. It wasn’t Spin the Bottle, where you kissed someone random. It was you.”
“That's all. This is far enough.”
“Go on, Andrew. Keep walking to that wall of fire.”
It was odd; I wanted to stop, but I kept barreling toward it. “Do you remember the Westerlin family? They lived on Sycamore.”
“My parents didn’t much socialize with the neighbors,” she said. “You know how scientists are.”
I nodded. She studied me. Nobody ever watched me this close. In the judge’s seat, I could look down at people, and rarely did my wife or sons break through the solid barrier I’d built around myself. “Tell me more about your travels,” I said. “Life on a kibbutz.”
“I’m not telling you anything until you finish your story.”
I shook my head.
“I can match you, pain to pain,” she said. “Courage isn’t fighting the dragons out there. It’s going inside.” She tapped her fist on her chest.
“One afternoon I went riding my bicycle,” I said in a whisper. I couldn’t remember the last time I had whispered. “He was outside in his driveway. Whenever I passed by, he’d invite me to stop and talk. He was friends with my parents. His kids were older. Once he gave me a skateboard that his kids weren’t using anymore; another time he gave me a toolbox. Sometimes he’d watch me do a wheelie on my bike, or he’d invite me in for some cookies. So I didn’t think anything of it when he told me to come to his garage because he said he had something to show me. I rode my bike up his driveway—there was a little incline—and he told me I was a good rider and put his arm around me. Then we walked into his garage.”
I closed my eyes. It felt dark in my brain. “In the garage, he patted the front of his pants and asked, ‘Do you know what I have in here?’ There weren’t any lights, and we’d just come in from the outside, so I couldn’t really see. I thought he had candy or something in his pocket, so I said I didn’t know and then the next thing I knew, he was pulling down his zipper and he—he raped me.”
I peeked at Annie. The fierceness in her eyes. I stayed away from her gaze as long as I could, a sadness seeping through my chest.
“Please, tell me what happened next—”
“What else was there to happen? Wasn’t that enough?”
“I’m sorry—” She waited. “Please, please, go on.”
“Nothing happened next. I went home and I was bleeding. I threw away my underpants. I told my mother that he had hurt me and she said that he would never do such a thing and I had a terrible imagination and I should never talk about it again. A week or so afterward, he and his wife came over for a dinner party. I heard his voice from my bedroom and I refused to come downstairs. Then, it wasn’t much later, you tried to kiss me.”
“Oh my God,” Annie said. “I’m so sorry—if I had known, of course, if I had only known, I would never have asked you to kiss me. I loved you, you were my best friend, and then you ran away from me and never talked to me again. I thought I’d done something wrong.”
“You betrayed me because you wanted more—”
“I’ve felt so sad all these years—I thought you abandoned me when all along. . .” Her large nostrils flared. “All these years, I didn’t know.”
“Now you know.” A forest fire raged inside me.I was burning. “After that, I never spoke about it again. Not even to myself. I’ve kept everyone far away. My wife says so. I know it’s true. Something separates me from the rest of the world.”
“But be with me now, okay?” Annie asked quietly.
I let a few tears slip out of my eyes, my head hanging down, then the grief rolled through me and I was crying like an animal that had just been torn from a trap. After a time, I stopped crying not because I was no longer sad but because my tears had drained. Into the leaves I stared, where the light was softer and greener, soothing the bruises in my heart. And in my ears I heard the jazzy sounds of the cicadas. They must have been the great-great-grandchildren of the cicadas that used to make music for us ever so long ago. I could suddenly hear them. Maybe there had been cicadas trilling when I had gone into the garage. Maybe that was the last time I had heard them.
“I probably wouldn’t miss Janak and India so terribly if I hadn’t loved them so,” Annie said. “But I wouldn’t trade any of it no matter how long I’ve spent mourning. And you’ll see, now that you returned to that garage and came back out, you’ll finally feel alive.”
“Alive?” I wiped my face and glanced at my watch. “I don’t know. I can’t believe how late it is. I better go.”
She sat in front of me, not moving.
I lowered my eyes to her face, and suddenly I was afraid that I would never see her again. I had never let myself feel anything like this before. I had never let myself feel anything. “I know this sounds crazy, Dancing Elk, but will you wait for me?”
Her cheeks flushed. “If I’ve waited this long—” Then she stood and walked down the ladder. I followed with the tray.
“How about I help you with one headstand before you go?” she asked.
“You’d need a crane to pull me up—”
“You’ll be fine.” A few steps from the tree, she reached for the flat cushion from a lone chair and placed it on the ground.
I got down on my knees and hesitated, as if I had forgotten how to pray, and then I curled my hands into fists by my head and Annie hauled up my legs so they leaned against the gray tree trunk, my feet going up, up, up.
“I feel lighter,” I said after I had righted myself. “This was how I used to feel. Before I stopped at his house. Before he—” I stopped. Remember Amalek. Never forget. Blot out his name forever.
“You and I rescued that little boy,” she said.
“But we did nothing against that bastard—”
“We let him go.”
It was true; he was no longer there. I had released him up in the treehouse. He was no longer stepping toward me in the shadows, no longer waiting for me in the driveway, no longer leaving a trail in and around my body. He was gone and all that remained was the music of the cicadas. Holy, holy, holy. The whole earth was filled with their song.