Laura Wright looked up from her textbook and listened to the shrill cry of cicadas buzzing in the oak trees outside the living room’s small window. “Such an eerie sound,” she said. “Like a demented prophet screaming over and over again: Believe, believe, believe, believe.”
She turned a page in the book without seeing the words, just blocks of type, black dots and squiggles on a field of white. “So damned redundant,” she said. Her black hair hung like a curtain around her face, and Laura pushed one side behind her ear.
The cries of the large insects throbbed in the small house, seeming to rise and fall as one voice. Laura couldn’t get away from the sound anywhere in their small four-roomed home. Five, if Laura counted the bathroom. But with only a tight shower, a toilet and a mirror stuck to the wall, Laura didn’t think of the bathroom as anything more than a large closet. That left the kitchen, the living room and two bedrooms in the house set close to the railroad tracks — just four real rooms to carry out daily living.
Laura, living with her Aunt Monica, sat in a study area the women had created against a left wall in the living room. Pushed up to the back wall of that same room, opposite the front door, a small, overstuffed couch — salvaged from a neighbor’s trash — stood out brightly against the wood paneling that dominated the house. The two found the sofa just before a rainstorm and wrestled it into the trunk of Monica’s old Chevy. Though the couch hung out of the car, they tied the trunk lid tight and managed to get it home before anymore than one corner was damaged. The sofa was slightly musty, though comfortable, and Monica covered it with flowered drapery, also scavenged from what others no longer wanted.
Laura sat with her back to the couch in front of the room’s only window. She leaned her elbows on an oak desk, rescued from a school’s closing and eventual destruction. BARRY+MARGIE 4EVER was carved into the desk’s top, and Laura took care as she worked on its surface so as not to rip through her term paper.
To her right was the kitchen, dark with the same paneling that covered every wall but the bathroom. Her aunt stood in front of a gas stove and stirred a large pot filled with a bubbling liquid. A lamp hanging from the ceiling cast a harsh yellow light against the walls. Monica gave the contents of the pot another stir, then took the ladle from the pot and tapped it nearly clean. She turned and walked to the archway separating the kitchen and living room. The aroma of garlic and basil followed her. “Did you say something?” Monica asked. “Are you talking to me, or are you having a conversation with yourself?”
Laura turned from the window and sat facing her aunt. For Laura, it was like looking into a mirror that added 20 graceful years of silver in her black hair and small laugh lines around the eyes. Monica was tall and slender with prominent cheekbones, her skin clear and white, nearly to the point of translucence. Her face was delicate and angular, without being sharp. There were times at the university when the two were mistaken for sisters.
“I was just talking to myself,” Laura said. “I’ve been reading about economics for so long, I just kind of lost contact with reality.” She smiled at her aunt and waved a hand at the window. “Then the cicadas broke through, and now–”
Monica interrupted: “I’m making a vegetarian spaghetti for supper. Do you think you’ll be here?”
Laura stopped writing and stared at the book for a moment. “Yes, I think so. I’ve had about enough of the library for this week.” Laura looked up, a sly smile on her face. “I thought it was my night to cook.”
Monica waved a ladle in the air. “I got fresh zucchini at the store today. I thought you might like a break from the drudgery of a hot stove for one night.”
“Does that mean I’m on for tomorrow night?”
“You’ve got something better to do than cook for your favorite aunt?”
“You’re my only aunt, and besides, I have a date.”
Monica raised an eyebrow and held the ladle over her shoulder. A drop of red sauce splashed the bare skin of her neck. “Tom?”
“Yes. We we’re going to go down to Mike’s. There’s a folk band playing, and I’d really like to hear it.”
“Friday’s a school day, darling.”
Laura closed her book. “Everybody needs a break. I’ll never make it to graduate school if I burn out now.”
Her aunt grinned and drew out her words. “Well, I guess it’s okay.”
“What about you, Monica? Aren’t you ever going to get out and about?”
“It’s hard to keep a teaching assistantship if I don’t get good grades.”
“I know, I know,” Laura said, taking on a falsetto voice: “And what kind of teacher would you be if you flunked out of college?”
Monica flicked the ladle down over her shoulder and a tiny spray of red sauce spiraled out from the end of the large spoon. “That’s right,” Monica said, her voice matching the same high tone. “What kind of teacher would I be?”
Laura wiped the splatter of sauce off of her face, got up and walked over to her aunt. She put her arms around her and murmured: “You’ll be an excellent teacher, no matter what.”
“Thanks for the confidence, but you won’t mind, will you, if I pass anyway?” Monica returned the hug. “Now get back to your studies and forget the cicadas.”
Laura walked back over to the table, but instead of sitting down to her textbook, she looked out the window. “There’s something about the cicadas,” she said, raising her voice enough so that Monica could hear her in the kitchen. “They’re so weird. It sounds as if they’re singing something.” Laura snapped her fingers. “Have you ever heard that Eurythmics song?”
“Annie Lennox singing <i>Missionary Man</i>.”
“You mean the one Marilyn Manson did the remake of?”
“No. Manson did Sweet Dreams.” Laura hummed the tune for a moment. “Missionary Man is much more sensual. I’ll put it on if you want, but you know the one I mean.” Laura looked out the window, her dark eyes staring into the distance. “It’s not a religious song. At least not in the way you’d think. But it’s the one where she repeats herself over and over, kind of like she’s echoing.” Laura took a breath and sang softly: “Believe, believe, believe, believe.” Laura frowned for a moment, and then added: “But it’s tighter than that — almost like it’s one word.” She paused, then added: “That’s what it sounds like the cicadas are saying. It’s what I was saying earlier. Those bugs are like those TV preachers moaning at two o’clock in the morning.” Laura’s frown changed to a scowl, and her voice deepened as if she were trying to reach the back of a church with each word: “Believe, in the Word of God! Believe in what I say!”
Monica came back out of the kitchen and stood in the doorway with her head cocked. She squinted and listened to the cicadas for a moment. She knew the large bugs had only recently crawled out of the earth after a 17-year hibernation. “I hear the believe part,” she said, “but maybe I need to hear the song.” Monica walked into the room, sat down on the couch and picked up a magazine. “But that reminds me. I’m going to let the sauce simmer for a few hours and have a late supper.” She flipped the pages of People, and frowned at a picture of Christina Aguilera: The diva was sheathed in latex, and her face was studded with jewelry.
Monica tossed the open magazine back onto the coffee table. “I think I’ll go down to the church and then head over to Fifth Street to see Preeti while I’m waiting for that magical mix of herbs and spice. Do you want–”
“No thanks.” Laura cut her aunt off in mid-sentence.
Monica leaned back into the overstuffed couch and stretched her arms along the back, idly fingering the stitching of a sampler her twin sister had made 20 years earlier. “I thought you liked Preeti.”
“I like Preeti just fine,” Laura said. “I love Preeti almost as much as you do.” Laura shoved her chair back, the legs harrumphing across the wooden floor. “It’s church I can’t stand.”
“It’s true, Monica.” Laura shifted uncomfortably in her chair and glanced at her aunt, but did not back down. “Organized religion is a leech. An arrogant, unforgiving leech.” Laura jabbed her finger in the air to make her point: “What do you think the church would say about you and Preeti?”
Monica sat up straight on the couch and smoothed out her skirt. She looked around the small apartment, taking in the photos of Laura and her mother hanging on the dark walls. Monica’s eyes lingered on the tiny tow-headed girl hugging her mother’s bare knees. The picture had been taken in an Alabama cornfield when Laura was just five years old. Red clay oozed between the bare toes of mother and daughter, and they were smiling for the camera. Both of them were pale and burnt by the sun, but they still had an innocent joy in that moment, as if nothing could touch them.
“Where is this coming from?” Monica asked, still staring at the picture. “Your classes? Tom?” She turned to look at Laura, and her niece glared back defiantly.
“Reading. Listening. Talking,” Laura said, biting off each word. “It doesn’t matter. I know you love Preeti, and so do I. She’s wonderful for you. She’s been the best thing to happen to us since Hoppy went to prison.” Laura clenched her fists. “I know what God would say about that. I’ve heard enough, read enough. Jesus, read the editorial pages in the newspaper! Just look at the letters to the editor, and what they’re saying about Massachusetts — about gays and lesbians.”
Monica shook her head. Her shoulder length black hair was tied back in a long, loose ponytail. “I read the paper. I know what they’re saying.” She shifted her gaze, and held Laura with her cool, blue eyes. “But this is about more than me and Preeti.”
Laura got up from the chair, walked over and plopped down on the sofa beside Monica. She took her aunt’s hands in her own and held them, as though the latter were a small child. Not looking up, but rather examining the pores and tiny hairs, Laura said: “That’s part of it. The intolerance.”
“God isn’t intolerant,” Monica said.
Still holding her aunt’s hands, Laura looked up into Monica’s face. Her aunt’s pale white skin was free of flaws and imperfections, though the laugh lines and wrinkles that would come with age. “Christ may be tolerant,” she said. “But not God.”