You hear them don’t you? As evening falls: brreet, brreet, brreet! The broken up, rhythmic brreeting, at once comforting—it happens this way every year and there’s something to be said for consistency—and disheartening: summer is ending! Fall is coming!
Don’t confuse their song with the spiral-sounding, siren wailing of the cicadas up in the trees: a long low, buzzing, unbroken, getting higher, higher, more and more shrill, as if someone is swinging a pygmy cat with a kazoo around by the tail—then it stops. Silence. Then it starts again, low to high to silence. Cicada song goes on for the better part of the summer anyway; you hear it during the day. I associate it with heat and humidity, because that’s what summers are like where I’m from. Cricket song comes at night. Brreet, brreet, breet! And you know just what they mean:
Brreet, brreet, brreet! Grab those last rays of summer, those last days at the shore, over the grill, over drinks with the far-flung relatives whose kids don’t have the same vacation schedule as yours so you won’t get to see them unless someone’s willing to travel on really major holidays. Brreet, brreet, brreet! Grab the back-to-school supplies in a hurry: remember how last year you couldn’t find a single pencil sharpener anywhere in your county? Make your kids try on their old school clothes; make up a bag for good will; find those lunch boxes and see if nothing can be done about the stickiness in hers or the eerie smell in his.
Brreet, brreet, brreet! I think with nostalgia about Chester Cricket of The Cricket in Times Square, the wonderful 1960 children’s book by George Selden (illustrated by the incomparable Garth Williams, who also illustrated E.B. White’s Stewart Little and Charlotte’s Web among others). Chester is a country cricket, who—due to a series of picnic snafus, winds up living in the Times Square subway station—where he is befriended by the resourceful, liverwurst-loving Tucker Mouse and the honorable, if wily, Harry Cat. Chester, adopted by little Mario Bellini (whose parents own the newsstand inhabited by Tucker), is soon discovered to be a deeply talented musician, able to whip off symphonies any time he is inspired, giving one impromptu concert after another.
I’m nostalgic for Chester, not only because my mother read me the story so many years ago, but also because it seems a very long time since I read the story to my own children. My littlest, Theo, my baby boy, will turn nine at the end of this month. Funny, when the crickets start singing each year, that’s often my reminder to start planning his birthday party.
Theo was already a big fan of Tucker and Harry when I read him Cricket. He was also interested in music, so the story meant even more to him. Chester could touch people with the power of his song, even though he was so tiny and, in other ways (being a bug), fairly powerless. I think, being such a small boy at the time, Theo liked the idea of music magnifying the person playing it. I think he still does. Though it can be tough sometimes to get him to practice, he’ll frequently remain at the piano long after he’s finished what I’ve asked him to play. Theo can spend hours banging out dark, heavy chords, rain-like runs and arpeggios that roll like waves.
“Did you like that?” He’ll say. “That one was called Midnight.” Another is Halloween. Theo’s musical compositions tend to be minor and haunting with names like the above. (Lately, he’s been working out the Harry Potter movie theme by ear.) He loves playing, even if he’d rather do it only when the mood strikes.
“The only reason you’re making me practice,” he roared at me once, “is because you like how it sounds!”
The truth is that I do like how it sounds though, of course, that’s not the only reason I make him do it. I make him do it because he’s good. He’s got something that he’ll be able to do long after he’s done playing basketball and tennis and all the other sports he loves. Something he can do when it’s raining or when he wants to impress someone or just feel good playing on his own. Something beautiful and consistent and reliable. Like the crickets. And there they are again.