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Playing House
Gary Fincke

Forty-four years ago, in late June, I drove to New Jersey to be the best man in my former college roommate’s wedding. On the news, as I drove across the state, a commentator declared that summer the worst ever for tent caterpillars. Gypsy moths, he said, but nobody I heard talking at the gas station where I stopped cared about the parents. It was their offspring that repulsed them and threatened their forests. And certainly in Highland Lakes, where the wedding was going to take place, the trees were feeling the relentless advance of impersonal feeding.

The swelling tents were everywhere. They looked like they were constructed of mosquito netting for worms, and close up, they forced the standard revulsion for places too heavily populated. Most of them, by the time of the wedding, were as empty as the streets of a post-nuclear war movie, the caterpillars traveling the highways of branches to temporary plenty. After I topped off my tank, I was following a gravel road into the resort area where the ceremony was to be held when the sun started breaking through the trees as if it were winter. I glanced up and saw the foliage disappearing—a tree here and there, three or four together. I thought it was blight, something like Dutch Elm disease, two plagues at once, because so many full-grown trees appeared to be dead. And then, as I reached the lake, there was an astonishing sweep of naked branches for a quarter mile, and I noticed the caterpillars clinging to the windshield wipers, writhing on the hot hood of my blue Volkswagen fastback, and I recognized the landscape featured in every army ant movie I’d ever seen.

I found the Wilson’s lake house a hundred yards past the slaughtered woods. I flicked the caterpillars off my windshield and rolled the windows up tight before I climbed the stairs and knocked.

“We’re thinking of installing a moat,” Jack’s father said, not laughing.

I thought about Charlton Heston fighting off the advancing ants in The Naked Jungle, a movie with scenes that made me close my eyes in the Etna Theater when I was eight years old. I suddenly wanted to know how fast these caterpillars traveled.

“It’s not bad here,” Jack said. “We’re lucky not to be on Shore Line back where you came through.”

I agreed with half of what my old roommate said. I could see hairy bodies dangling from the open shutters, patches of bare branches quilting the woods behind the cabin. “Nature’s Agent Orange,” I said. “These guys ought to work for the government.”

Bob Bremley, who’d lived across the hall from us, gave me a short-arm wave. “Protest boy,” he said. “You got out of Ohio alive.”

It had been seven weeks since the National Guard had killed four students and paralyzed another at Kent State University, where I had just begun graduate school. I looked away from Bremley as if it had become important to find the right place for my overnight bag. I thought I deserved to be angry about anything that displeased me. Somebody’s haircut. A woman’s makeup. A song on the radio. An old fraternity brother, here to be an usher, greeting me with prejudice.

“I’d just as soon see Vietnam defoliated as have Jack or you or Bill end up there,” Mr. Wilson offered.

“Somebody ought to defoliate Nixon’s rose garden,” I said, encouraged. “Somebody ought to wait until Nixon’s among the flowers and drop a poisonous cloud all over him.”

Mr. Wilson handed me a beer, and I ripped the pull tab off. “I’m in the Guard,” Bill said, standing now, walking toward me. “How does that strike you?”

He was a year older than Jack and I. I knew he’d joined the National Guard right out of college to make sure he didn’t end up in Vietnam. “The Pennsylvania Guard,” I said. “It’s okay.”

Bill nodded, but he didn’t extend his hand. “Do you know what gypsy moths look like?” he said.

“No idea.”

“If there were three kinds of moths fluttering around a light bulb, could you pick out the gypsies?”

“No.”

“So you kill those worms while you know what they are.” He stared at me until I imagined his eyes looking my way from inside a gas mask. I pictured him kneeling in the ready position and lifting a rifle, the now-famous Kent State pagoda silhouetted behind him. When I didn’t volunteer another “no,” he walked to a window and peered out as if he were deciding when to call in a napalm drop.

Mr. Wilson went to the refrigerator and came back with four fresh beers. “Don’t open these just yet,” he said.

“What’s the deal?” Jack said.

“Turkish chug.”

None of us said anything, but Bill stepped back in among us, and Mr. Wilson looked pleased. “All of you college graduates and nobody’s done a Turkish chug?”

We held out our beers while he punched a hole in each with his opener. “Ok,” he said, “put them to your mouths, pull the tab, and then swallow. Slap the empty down and we’ll see who’s a real drinker. Go.”

I pulled, and the Iron City that Mr. Wilson had brought by the case from Pittsburgh shot out the hole, gagging me until I started chugging like crazy. Just as my can was going empty, I saw Mr. Wilson toss his down. I tilted my head back a little and slapped my can down just after Bill. When Jack tossed his, both holes foamed. Bill snorted. “It felt empty,” Jack said.

“Again?” Mr. Wilson said. “You have the hang of it now?”

“I’m out,” Jack said.

Bill laughed. “How about you, Kent State boy?” he said.

I took a fresh can, punched it, and pulled. Mr. Wilson tossed down before I was half way, choking this time and giving up. “Jack,” Bill said. “Your father ought to be the one getting married.”

“All this proving ourselves,” Mr. Wilson said. “It brings us to our knees.”

I put my finger over the hole in my can, took a sip of beer and waited. Everything I had to say needed to wait until Bill Bremley wasn’t close enough to hear. “This war’s not over, you know,” Mr. Wilson said. “Not by a long shot. Nobody’s out of these woods yet.”

Bill reached over and tugged at my beer, hefting it, measuring it to see how much was left in it. “I wish I was in the Ohio Guard,” he said. “I would have aimed at you.”

Nobody said anything. A month earlier, an uncle of mine had wished me in front of the guns as well when I’d told him I thought the Guard were murderers. “They should have shot you, too, while they had the chance,” that uncle had said.

“Well,” Mr. Wilson said. “We have a rehearsal to get through.”

Hours later, in the dark, I listened to the soft thuds of caterpillar commandos dropping onto the roof of the cabin. They should be falling more softly, I thought, but sleeplessness was making me hear more acutely, my brain translating every sensory pulse into the skewed language of panic. It would take them months they did not have to eat through the roof, but I watched the ceiling above me for the first pinhole of moonlight. I knew what happened to the deep sleepers in the world of natural predators.

I started associating the sounds of darkness in a silent game of Password. Defenselessness—pain. Naïveté—slaughter. Vulnerability—massacre. I sat up, shook my shoes out before I slipped them on to keep my bare feet from the floor. I pulled a beer from the Wilsons’ refrigerator and held it to my lips like a magic potion. As soon as I swallowed, my stomach started the small convulsions of protest. I thought I might vomit. And then I began considering whether or not I had the nerve to rush outside to throw up unheard by the Wilsons and Bill Bremley.

Things went slack inside me. I took small sips, concentrated on the foolishness of irrational fear, and felt myself settling into the relaxation of standing. I was all right as long as my feet were under me, I decided, and then Mr. Wilson lurched into the kitchen, wrapping a robe around himself.

“You hear them, too?” he said, lifting a beer and taking a long pull.

“Yeah.”

“Hell of a thing. It makes you appreciate the power of numbers and single-mindedness.”

“Natural selection,” I agreed. “The insects hold all the cards.”

“The smaller the better, it seems to me,” he said. “What an irony. You don’t get a brain, but you get the gift of adaptability.”

“We get a brain and can’t adapt to anything. We shoot anybody who doesn’t look like us.”

“Kent State isn’t your affair, Gary,” Mr. Wilson said. “It missed you.”

“No, it didn’t. Somebody screwed up big time,” I said. “Somebody needs to get screwed in return.”

I thought I’d earned privilege through the accident of history stumbling over me. I was a Kent State student and that meant I could say whatever I wanted to anybody even if I didn’t know any of the students who’d been killed or wounded, any of their friends or members of their families. All I needed to know was my own anger and the helplessness that settled over me as I acquired a sort of perverse pride in my proximity to a terrible event.

 “Gary,” he said. “You’re the one who needs to adapt. You don’t want to become a bitter son-of-a-bitch.” Mr. Wilson gave me a sort of half-smile. “I’ve been thinking of change myself,” he said. “I’ve already seen half the changes I’m entitled to. I’ve seen what Jack’s become, and now I get one more shot—his children—and then fwloop.” He glanced up and down, ambiguous.

“And that second chance is a gift,” I said. “We can thank science for reeling out the years.”

“Not hardly,” he said. “We’ve always had that chance. We just used to be grandparents at thirty. What kind of gift is old age? What kind of gift is DDT?”

If I had known about them at the time, I would have told Jack’s father about the glow-worms that live in New Zealand. The caves where the mature gnats lay their eggs have planetariums for ceilings, their stars systemized by the fixed positions each of the ravenous glow-worms has for feeding.

Each of those brilliant larvae claims a uniform space and spins curtains of threads to fish for food. Always, in that ordered galaxy, those worms shine, their beacons drawing insects. And sometimes, those larvae, transformed, eventually, to clouds of gnats, are trapped by the sticky filaments spun by their children, held, and eaten.

Forty-four years ago I didn’t know anything about New Zealand except its distance from where we were standing among the caterpillars. I finished my beer, Mr. Wilson finished three, and the next afternoon I flicked two caterpillars off my rented tuxedo while I stood between Jack and Bill Bremley and watched my old roommate’s bride approach wearing a veil that looked, for one horrible moment, as if it had been laced by worms.

The reception was at a ski resort. The lifts hung suspended and still over the differently angled slopes sweeping up on all sides from the lodge at the base. Because all the trees for a quarter mile in every direction had been cut and removed, there were no signs of the caterpillars. I had to strain to make out the lace of bare branches in a patch of trees five hundred yards away.

Inside, near a microphone, I waited for Mr. Wilson, his champagne glass in hand, to work his way around the bride’s family table before I offered my toast. Bill Bremley, from where he sat three feet from me, looked up and said, “You’re almost a long-term survivor.”

“What?”

“You know, like cancer. After a while you protestors go long-term, think the odds are on your side again.” He grinned like a dead man. Mr. Wilson was nearly finished at the bride’s table, stopping, finally, to speak to the minister.

“What happened to all those brotherhood vows we made when we were pledging?” I said, turning away from the microphone.

“That was guys playing house.”

The minister for the wedding was one of those men who could smile and shake hands and initiate fragmentary conversations without appearing to be distracted by thoughts of personal illness, family difficulties, or religious doubt. He was a diplomat, a politician. He could have been an FBI agent in deep cover, keeping his eyes on the wedding party to determine which of us was a threat to national security.

Besides being a student on May 4, 1970, I was also nearing the end of my first year of college teaching. Twenty-four years-old, I was less than half the age of the Dean of Faculty, who approached me, the day after, to ask about the student snipers who’d started everything by firing at the Guard, the student mob that threatened to overrun the soldiers. “They asked for it,” he said with conviction.

I clenched and unclenched my fists. “Those are lies,” I said, and then I walked away to keep from losing my job by spewing a string of obscenities.

I stepped toward the microphone. Jack’s father, when the minister shook his hand, appeared confused. He clung to the minister’s hand as if listening through his fingertips, the vibrations a language he could understand. He leaned forward, sensing a list in the lodge, and then I saw him pop upright, laugh, and heard him say, “The fodder of sermons, Pastor, the allegory of the worm.”

The minister smiled and turned back to the bride’s parents. “Wow,” Jack’s father said to me as he passed. “I thought he was the minister from our church back home, and I didn’t recognize the son-of-a-bitch. I was feeling the old earth opening to swallow me, the old down slope to hell growing steeper while he told me another caterpillar story.”

I smiled, and we touched champagne glasses for a moment, a private toast that didn’t work out. No sooner did he see two granddaughters born just over a year apart than he turned jaundiced and died less than a month later, far gone into pancreatic cancer that took his liver for good measure. He missed one more metamorphosis story he would have loved, how there were frogs, once, in Australia, who raised their young in their stomachs in order to protect them from outside harm.

Those frogs laid their eggs and then ate them. They waited out the hatching and the transformational nursery weeks, until one by one, fully formed, their children leapt from the mother’s tongue.

Such evolution toward the safety of a species. Such protection and insurance. And yet those frogs are now extinct.

 

Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.

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