We are freshly back from school and the children are piling into the front hall as I pick up the phone message “Beep…. This is the Georgetown Public Library calling…we will be announcing the winners of our short-story competition shortly…and ah…well, we urge you to bring Molly to the ceremony.”
I hang up the phone and stand there silently, adrenaline surging. There are times when we are required heroically to defy our own natures, and for me this is one of them. I am a blurter, this is potentially big news in our small world, and it will be three excruciating days until the awards, and I can’t wait–
With a sudden access of maternal maturity, I realize that it is crucial that I keep the message to myself.
“Food…must…have…food…” says the literary genius, dropping her book bag and wilting against the wall.
“Can we have an after-school snack?” asks Paris.
“Me too!” says Phoebe.
“You don’t go to school,” her brother counters.
“I do,” Violet remarks.
“Yes, but only–”
“Snack?” I cry gaily, “Why sure! How about ice cream? With chocolate chips, and– and pound cake!”
The children look at each other and their mouths drop open. Paris starts rubbing his stomach and licking his lips, like a cartoon wolf who’s just discovered a straw hut filled with pigs, and flings himself at me with violent enthusiasm, “Aw, wow, yes!” he yells.
“You’re in a happy mood, Mummy,” Molly observes fondly a moment later, slipping her arm around my waist as we climb the stairs to the kitchen.
“No more than usual,” says old poker face, grinning hugely.
“After-school ice cream isn’t usual.”
“Never you mind.”
We take our sundaes outside to enjoy the delicious bug-free air. Someone liberates Twitchy from his hutch, and he capers about around our ankles, lolloping now and then through a collapsible wire-and-fabric tube we got at Ikea when Paris was a baby. Violet and Phoebe begin drawing patterns on the terrace with melted ice cream–and the impulse to scold them dies before I even begin to express it.
For there is a special poignancy to beautiful weather these days. Azaleas have taken over where the dogwoods left off, pierced anti-IMF protesters stomp in and stump off, and children frisk about on lawns and fields which in a week–or two? or three?–will erupt, we are told, in horrible whirring clouds of shiny flying insects an inch and a half long.
Washington is bracing for a plague of cicadas. Every 17 years, a type known as “periodicals” hatch like nightmarish time capsules from their underground pods and burst out of the ground, filling the skies and grossing out the populace. Apparently it is Hitchcockian: Commuters have to bat the things away with tennis racquets while they run for their cars; everyone who can stays inside, gazing longingly at scenic decks now crawling with creepitude. According to my friend Paul, small children dare each other to eat live cicadas. According to the Washington Post, expatriate Frenchmen sauté dead ones with butter, parsley, and a dash of white wine. For a month the trees are revoltingly full and vibrating, and for the rest of the summer dead bug husks crunch underfoot like the wire hangers on the Mall left by last weekend’s infestation of feminists. One could hope that Kate Michelman and Gloria Steinem would erupt only once every 17 years, but alas, no.
Molly suddenly claps a hand to her heart. “We need to go to the library right now!” she says, “I just remembered, our books are due today.”
Paris jumps up, a ready second. I wave a languid hand. “Oh, don’t worry. I was planning to take everyone to the library in three– in a couple of days… “
Shaking their heads, puzzled at this unaccountable spendthriftery, they try again, “But what if we owe a fine?”
“Darlings,” I say grandly, “If there is a fine, I will pay it.”
“What’s a fine?” Violet asks, “I’m fine. Is that a fine?”
Phoebe sits down on her heels, and begins making her way toward me with a side-to-side rocking motion, like a wind-up toy designed by Breugel. “I’m walking to my mother egg,” she peeps in a tiny, sweet voice.
“Hello, baby egg.”
“I’m not a baby egg,” she says crossly, still rocking, “I’m Phoebe, you know.”
Three days on, at the library, there is an excruciating delay. The authorities have evidently made quite a few phone calls, for the place is peppered with nervous-looking children and lip-biting parents. A podium stands in the middle of the floor; people coming in skirt it apprehensively, as one avoid might the statue of a fierce tribal god. Siblings loll drowsily on beanbags. A father hastens into the room and joins his family, his cell phone gurgling its musical transition to “off.” Molly is tucked beside me as if behind a shield. Her face is ashen.
“Hey,” I murmur. “Breathe.” She smiles, and for a moment relaxes her grip on my arm.
The librarian bustles in with a tray of sugar cookies and a bottle of 7-Up. A shimmer moves across the crowd of hungry children. Mothers put gentle restraining hands on small shoulders, lean over, and whisper, “Soon.”
“Any minute now!” says the librarian, wiping her brow and rushing away again.
“Why are we here?” Paris asks loudly from the comfort of his beanbag.
“When is supper?”
Phoebe drops a heavy volume on my lap. “Will you read to us?” I look at the dictionary, at my watch, at the podium–
And there is the librarian.
She coughs shyly, looks around the assembly, and abruptly says, without introduction,
“Ladies and gentlemen, the first prize winner is….”