IN CRAWLING PLACE
Two million years ago, the earth hid in ice. The continents were fixed, but glaciers forged and recoiled, absorbing mastodons and Neanderthals in transparent sheets, revealing sod pregnant with spruce, conquering and conceiving with each frigid advance and retreat. The cicadas emerged then, learning to hide long enough, getting lucky in numbers at the southernmost edges of the ice. Wasps noticed them, plump and hiding in the sand. They burrowed in after them. The smart ones sank venom-filled stingers into their hard shells, paralyzing sleeping bodies to feed foreign vespiaries. This is the nature of hiding.
On an October afternoon, many years later, Pinchas Avalon stared out the window of an el car trying to calm the formidable erection he had suffered for the last three stops. The last of the bare female toes, like nymphs with brightly painted shells after so many desolate months of hibernation and his thoughts of what it would be like to fondle them, had given rise to a problem that he currently hid under the newspaper on his lap. An old woman sat across the aisle and watched Pinchas with disgust, noting to herself that his head was like a great mound of pastry dough, his eyes two small holes in a ball of flour and yeast set atop the grotesque body of a geriatric cherub. He pulled at his pants and tried unsuccessfully to cross his legs as he checked his watch nervously; the train had been running slow, and he did not want to be late. Because when he got home, Pinchas would do what he had done every weekday for the last ten years in the solitary hour he had before his wife returned from work. He would rummage for socks.
He had married June because her feet were huge, eleven-wide and flat as flippers. They produced a heady bouquet with a Limburger-esque pungency and no trace of the all-too-common ammonia in more pedestrian cases. They were true specimens, and they disgusted him. He had loved her once, sure. But when it came down to it, he had hoped that matrimonial proximity to her hideous feet would calm his salacious addiction. But his shameful compulsion remained, and was exacerbated, even, by the intoxicating element of secrecy introduced with the necessity of keeping it from her. He quelled his desires roughly three times a week with guilty calls to a phone sex service specializing in podophilia.
Her socks helped him pay for this pleasure. June was an authoritarian who kept a close watch on their accounts and everything else, and so for the past decade he'd fished her potent socks out of the laundry basket and sold them on the Internet. He was careful to take only one of each pair at a time, reuniting mates at a date just late enough to keep her suspicion squarely on the dryer. The acrid reputation of her footwear spread quickly online, and soon just a few sales would cover Pinchas' calls for more than a month. He opened a covert account, and the deposits and withdrawals went unnoticed, ins and outs as furtive as the ebb and flow of icebergs.
Female cicadas lay their eggs into the bark of twigs, and when the babies hatch, they fall and burrow into the soil. They hide for years: two, five, thirteen or even seventeen years, depending on when danger is evolutionarily less likely to find them. The first to come learned the hard way, took it on the chin for the others. But the ancestors of the late-blooming October cicadas that felt the roar of an el train as nothing more than a vibration a few meters above them were safely underground when the British burned Portland, were too deep underground to hear the capture of Yorktown and were altogether entirely unconcerned with the rolling, guillotined head of Marie Antoinette as it might have crushed them had they emerged from the ground just days earlier. Instead, on this day, they stayed hidden.
June had an abortion four months after they were married. Pinchas never knew about the baby. She had hated him ever since, and furthermore, she knew that he took her socks. She wasn't sure what he did with them, just that once they were gone, they didn't come back. For the past three months she'd thrown her socks out after a single use. The only thing keeping her going these days was watching him sweat.
It had been 61 days since she'd decided to let the sock population dwindle naturally. For years her weekly shopping trips had included a run down the hosiery aisle to replete her drawers. She'd become accustomed to the inconvenience and eventually gave it no more thought than she did the requisite stocking of paper towels or toilet paper. But lately June had been thinking about the baby, a little one that had come too soon, before steady jobs, before mortgages. She had lately considered that maybe the baby had not come randomly, but at a time when Pinchas and June still loved each other, a time before the battles and rolling heads.
Pinchas got off the train and quickly ran down the steps and through the turnstile. He hurried home to their closet and overturned the wicker laundry basket. But it was the same as it had been for weeks, nothing but a bunch of fucking bras and underwear. He ran down to the basement laundry room, but there was nothing, not a single bobby sock or knee-high. He tried not to panic, but he simply wasn't prepared; he hadn't saved or planned ahead, and for the past twelve weeks he had watched nervously as the money in his account drained orgasm after forbidden orgasm. As he craned down into the empty dryer, bracing himself on the metal door, staring into the nothingness, it occurred to him: June must know.
June had, in fact, come home early that day and had been sitting at the kitchen counter drinking a vodka gimlet when Pinchas ran, arms flailing, from the bedroom to the basement. She lit a cigarette while she waited for him to complete his reconnaissance and when he finally emerged from the stairwell and saw her, she raised her leg, dropped her shoe and lifted her skirt to reveal a thigh high. Pinchas smelled it before her ankle strap pump hit the kitchen floor.
"Looking for these?" she asked him.
A Pavlovian shiver shot up his spine as he thought of the price they would bring, not as much as her more absorbent work-out socks, but not too shabby, nonetheless. It was no use trying to lie.
"I've been stealing your socks and selling them to perverts," he said.
June tapped the ash off her cigarette.
"And I'm a pervert too," he continued, "I like feet. Just not yours," he said, adding, "I'm so sorry."
June finished the last of her cocktail and took the vodka by the neck. She walked past him to the bedroom and said, "Pinchas, I'm going to bed now."
Millions of years ago, the cicadas weren't expecting the shock of wasps, not yet anyway. What saved them when others got stung was numbers. The same crowd that moved faster than the glaciers ensured that some of them would make it to October with time enough left to tunnel up into random safety, to climb up the sanctuary of bark, and leave their shells in crawling place, stuck to trees.