Insect Summer

by Jessie Lynn McMains

The summer the insects took over The Sardine Tin was hot and slow and quiet. The city itself was loud: boomboxes blasted the summer’s hits. Cars backfired and gunshots crack-cracked. Firecrackers whistled into the late-evening sky, and sirens blared — there were more sirens than Maura remembered any summer prior; the city was experiencing a record heatwave, and the swelter made everyone surly, drove them to crime and violence.

The city was full of noise but The Sardine Tin was quiet in a way that was silent and deafening at the same time. The house hadn’t always been quiet. When Maura moved in, the year before, it was crammed with people and loud music, fighting and sex, bottles clinking and breaking, but everyone had since moved out. Everyone but her and Benny and the insects. The house was so silent that the small sounds became deafening — the whir of the window fans sounded like a lawnmower, the faucet dripping in the kitchen sink sounded like a hailstorm, the cockroaches scuttling through the walls sounded like a stampede of tiny horses. Maura startled herself with her own breathing, or woke up in the middle of the night when she heard the front door creak open and Benny’s footsteps coming up the stairs. And there was another sound, something like the static crackle from a television or radio left on low and tuned to nothing, that she heard underneath everything else; it was there all day long, but got louder at night. There was no television in the house, and she was sure all the radios were switched off, so what could it be? “Ghosts,” she sometimes thought, but never told anyone about the ghost-static, because Benny wasn’t around much anymore, and anyone else she knew would have laughed.

The summer, for Maura, was quiet and hot and slow. It was too hot to move around much, and there was nothing much going on in Maura’s life. The minutes passed slowly in the dense, humid air. She worked four days a week, shelving books inside the old fire station that served as the Fishtown Community Branch of the library. On her days off, she lived out a different routine. In the mornings, she brewed coffee in the coffeemaker that had been a graduation gift from her parents; she let the coffee cool and poured it into a mug she’d filled with ice, sat at the kitchen table and listened to the ice pop as it thawed. She sat for hours at the kitchen table, well into the afternoon, drinking tepid coffee. She kept a can of roach killer next to her and sprayed every cockroach that darted out from under the fridge; she swatted at the mosquitoes that spawned in the vacant lot across the street and snuck into The Sardine Tin to land on her bare arms and bite, raising her skin into red welts that made her look like she had some sort of pox. Sometimes she thought of herself as a mass-murderer — the insect body count of that summer was in the thousands, and she imagined if she were tried for these crimes she’d scream that it was self-defense: “They were invading my home! They were attacking me!” In the evenings, she sat on the front stoop in the last rays of hazy golden light, smoked cigarettes, sipped from a sweaty bottle of lager, smiled at the old women hobbling home from the grocery store, nodded at the punks and hip-hop kids and skaters. At night, she put a favorite record on the turntable in her room, the kind of thing Benny referred to as ‘her art-fag music’ because the stuff she liked was a complex and emotional noise, whereas Benny preferred the short, brutal shocks of hardcore. After she’d flipped the record a few times, she let it click over into the nothing-groove at the end of Side B, and she lay on her mattress, in the dark, listening. She listened to the stereos and sirens of Philadelphia, she listened to the hum of the fan, to the scratchy scuttles of the cockroaches and the high-pitched whine of the mosquitoes. She listened to the static crackle and tried to pick out voices from it, to see if she could get hold of a word or two, some kind of communication beyond mere noise. She drifted off to sleep, and when Benny came home at two, three, four a.m., she awoke and thought about going to talk to him, to talk like they used to. Instead, she stayed in bed, and let the static chatter lull her back into a thick, cottony sleep.

The hottest day of that slow summer was July 20th. It was 100 degrees and humid, the box fans in the windows offered no relief, but that was the day Maura got tired of the dull routine of her life and decided to do something different. She rummaged around in her room, found a pair of rusty scissors, some glue sticks, a pile of old, water-warped textbooks and magazines, some paper, and a stack of records, and put them on the kitchen table. She got her ancient, heavy typewriter from where it sat, collecting dust, in the corner next to her bed, and dragged it down to the kitchen. She opened the front door, letting in whatever bits of cool, reeking breeze might be wafting across the river. She set a record spinning on the turntable in the living room and turned it up as loud as it would go. She opened the fridge, pulled out a bottle of lager; there were several beer bottles in the fridge, but no food. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought groceries.

Maura sat down at her typewriter, and began writing her first zine.

Insect Summer #1

(For Benny, and the other ghosts that live in my house.)

You know you’re lonely when you find yourself talking to the cockroaches and the ghosts that live in your walls. You know you’re living in a punk house when there’s not always food in the fridge, but there’s always beer. But I’m not even sure if I live in a punk house, anymore. Aren’t punk houses supposed to be full of noise, full of people shouting and banging on drums and guitars, full of people who keep odd hours and are up when most of the city is asleep? The Sardine Tin was like that, when I first moved in here, but everyone left, and now it’s just me and the insects and the ghosts — and Benny, but he’s here so rarely and I only ever hear him in the middle of the night, so he’s sorta like a ghost, too. Now, the only noises in this house are the whir of the window fans that don’t do much in this kind of heat, the scurrying of cockroaches and the buzzing whine of mosquitoes, the distant AM radio drone of the ghosts, and me: me clacking away on this typewriter, me opening a bottle of beer, and the record I am listening to.

I never thought Benny would become a ghost. When we were growing up, I was the ghost of the two of us: both of us were the middle children of large Catholic families in South Philly, and I got lost in the shuffle of all those other siblings, but Benny, he always found a way to stand out. My life was taking care of my younger brothers and sisters, helping my dad into bed on the nights he drank too much whiskey while listening to Phillies games, going to church because it was expected, going to school and doing well but not exceptionally. When I had a few moments with nothing expected of me, I disappeared into books and my diary. Benny, on the other hand: he said fuck school, fuck church. He caused trouble; he scraped his knees and broke his bones skateboarding, he snuck around under bridges and scaled rusty fire escapes to find the best places to spray paint Philly Shreds.

Even my looks were ghost-y and unremarkable: fair skin with a few freckles (though not as many as some of my siblings had), reddish-blondish-brownish hair, pale grey-green eyes. Whereas Benny — I want to tell you his real full name, but he’d probably kill me if I did, he shed that name a long time ago, saying it was “too Italian, too South Philly” — Benny was dark and lithe, with black hair and brown-black eyes that shone like oil puddles reflecting the light, and skin that, when he was out in the sun a lot, turned a bronze-olive shade. He was my dark angel, my black cat.

We were good for each other. He made me braver, saw in me something other than a quiet bookworm; he took me with him on adventures, we’d go spare-change on South Street and spend the money we made on beer, or on clothes at Zipperhead — clothes covered in safety pins and studs and zippers that I wasn’t brave enough to wear. And I was maybe the only person in his life who saw him as more than just a hoodlum, who knew that he rescued stray kittens he found on streetcorners, who watched him give some of the money we made to the Vietnam vets who talked to themselves and the bag lady who preached to the pigeons, who knew he had a good heart because he didn’t laugh at my clumsy teenage attempts at writing poetry, and because he would let me wear his leather jacket if I was cold, even if he wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath.

When I graduated high school and moved out of my family’s house, I moved to North Philly, moved into The Sardine Tin. Benny already lived here (he’s a year older than me), and I’d gone to a couple parties here when I was still in high school. You’d think, after the chaos of my early life, I would have wanted to live someplace quiet, get my own apartment. But I grew up so used to living in a house full of noise and life that I didn’t know if I’d be able to function without that. Also, the chaos of The Sardine Tin was different than the chaos of my family. I wasn’t responsible for anyone in The Sardine Tin — if someone was puking in the sink, I could just let them puke in the sink; I didn’t have to help them to bed or scold them for getting too drunk. And rather than being ignored, I was embraced — if I wanted to talk to someone in the middle of the night, there would always be someone up, drinking coffee or beer, smoking cigarettes, ready to listen.

“Why do ya call it The Sardine Tin?” I asked Benny, when I first moved in.

“Cos we’re packed in here like sardines,” he said. “And, ya know, we live in Fishtown.”

You’re thinking I’m in love with Benny, and you’re right. Except not in the way where I want to sleep with him, or in the way where I want to be his girlfriend or his wife. I’m in love with him because he’s my best friend. I’m in love with him because I want to be more like him.

I have spent my whole life not doing anything; spent my whole life not knowing who or what I am. I am almost 20, and I’ve never had sex. I don’t even know if I’m gay or straight or bisexual. I’ve kissed boys, I’ve kissed girls, I’ve enjoyed kissing boys and girls, but I’ve never been sure if I liked anyone enough to sleep with them. I am not sober or into drugs — I drink beer, I smoke cigarettes, but I’ve never touched an illicit drug. I’ve never been in a band, I’ve never written a zine (until this one), I don’t have any tattoos.

I’ve never even cut my hair shorter than my chin.

Benny always jumped into everything, not thinking, not worrying about whether it was ‘him’ or not. He got into metal, and he grew his hair long. He got into hardcore, and he shaved his head and started a band and christened himself Ben Zedrene. He did whatever drugs came his way. He slept with girls and boys and never felt the need to say that he was straight, or gay, or bi. He was just Benny, and he was into everything.

My favorite band of all time is from Washington, D.C. They had this moment in time that became known as Revolution Summer. Revolution Summer was six years ago, but I’m thinking I might move to D.C. Revolution Summer may be over, but I want my summers to be something other than what this one is: Insect Summer. Ghost Summer. Lonesome Summer. Forsaken Summer.

It’s time for me to stop waiting, to stop being afraid. Benny’s not around to make me braver, so I have to do it myself. Tomorrow, I’ll cut my hair into a mohawk, and I’ll leave the hair in the sink for the cockroaches to cart off to their cockroach nests. After that, I’ll make photocopies of this zine, and I’ll leave a few at the cafe and a few at the record shop. And after that? I might go out and find someone to kiss, to maybe even sleep with, and not worry about what that means for my identity. Or I might quit my job, pack up my stuff, and get on a bus to D.C. It’s not even August yet. Maybe it’s not too late to make 1991 my own personal Revolution Summer.

Maura was awakened by the phlegmy sound of a cough. When she opened her eyes, she thought, at first, that one of the ghosts had finally materialized. The morning sunlight coming through the door and windows was so bright that the figure sitting in the chair across from her was just a black shadow in the shape of a person. As her eyes adjusted, she realized it was Benny. He was thinner than the last time she’d seen him, and his skin was a wan beige, without its normal summertime sheen. His eyes were flat and dark, oil puddles without the rainbow light. He was holding her zine in his hands, which were shaking slightly.

“Hey Mo,” he said, “looks like you’ve had quite a night.”

The table was littered with empties and scraps of paper. Her fingertips were crusted with dried glue and smeared ink, her arms covered in bites from the mosquitoes she’d been too busy writing to fend off.

“You read my zine.”

“Yeah. It’s really good. I think you should definitely cut your hair into a ‘hawk, it would look killer. I’ll help ya if ya want. But don’t move to D.C., dude.”

Maura felt like saying: “Why the fuck do you care if I move? You’re never around anymore.” She felt like saying: “I look like I had quite a night? You look like you’re half-dead.” But she half-smiled, said nothing. She loved Benny in a more unconditional way than she did her blood family, and no matter how absent he’d been, she’d take him back without a second thought.

“Mo, I’m sorry,” Benny said. “I know I haven’t been around. I’ve got some things on my mind. Wanna take a walk with me? I’ve got some hair o’ the dog.”

He lifted a bag from the floor; the two bottles inside it clinked together.

“Yeah, okay.”

Benny and Maura walked south, headed into the park. Maura chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“We’re in the park, man, and I have heard that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince tune so many times in the past couple months…”

Benny sang: “Back in Philly, we be out in the park…”

“Exactly!”

They clambered through the hedges and trees on the east side of Penn Treaty, into the weeds-and-concrete area around the PECO station. The building, with all its smokestacks and windows and the fading glory of its beaux-arts design, loomed above them. They walked toward the Delaware River, sat down with their feet over the edge of the water. Benny pulled the bottles out of their bag, pried the caps off with his lighter, and passed one to Maura.

“Do you hear that?” Maura asked. “There’s always this faint hum emanating from the PECO station. All that electricity and…it freaks me out. I love coming down here but I also feel like I’m getting cancer just being near it.”

Benny took a long swig off his beer, then said: “Mo — I might have AIDS.”

“Oh, Benny, what? How?”

“I found out this girl I used to sleep with and shoot up with, she has it. And I always tried to make sure we used condoms, and that I didn’t share needles, but, ya know, some nights I was so messed up I can’t be sure if I was safe or not. And I’ve been feeling really sick, but I’m not sure if that’s cos I have it, or because I quit using.”

“You quit using?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m not straightedge or nothin’” — he lifted his beer — “but, I quit using hard drugs. I’ve been afraid to come home because I didn’t know how to tell you I might be sick. So I’ve just been wandering. During the day, I sit in some crappy bar to stay out of the heat, at night, I wander the streets of Philadelphia. Sometimes I stop to puke behind a dumpster, or whatever.”

“So you haven’t been tested yet?”

“Nah.”

“I’ll go with you. We’ll go tomorrow.”

Maura imagined Benny being sick, getting sicker. She imagined holding his hand while he disappeared into nothing, into a real ghost. She imagined moving to D.C., leaving the ghosts and possibly-sick Benny, behind.

“Just — don’t move to D.C., man. I mean, whether I’m sick or not. Why do you wanna move to D.C.?”

“Because it seems like things are happening there. Philly seems so dead, these days.”

Benny flinched a little at the word ‘dead,’ then said: “Hey, could be worse. We could live in New Jersey.”

Maura glanced across the river. New Jersey was a blur in the summer smog. “Well, you’re right about that. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s nothing going on here.”

“So fuckin’ make something happen. We could start a band. I could be the frontman, and you could play drums. You used to say you wanted to be a drummer. We could find a guitar player and a bass player, and they could move into our house. I’d be Ben Zedrene again, and you could be…Mo Fucker. Cos, I already call ya Mo, and it kinda sounds like motherfucker, and you’d be like Moe Tucker, except more punk.”

Maura laughed at the thought of being more punk than Moe Tucker, and of being even half as good on the drums.

“Think of it though! Mo Fucker, on the skins.”

She smiled. Benny hadn’t lost his enthusiasm.

“And we could call the band…”

“Benny and the Insects.”

A fire engine shrieked from somewhere nearby. Benny flicked his bottlecap into the river.

“Goddammit, Maura, just don’t leave me. You’re the love of my fucking life, you know that? I never told you cos I thought you’d get lost if I did. I never told you cos I didn’t think you’d ever like me that way. And at this point, I don’t even care if you’re ever my girlfriend, or if we ever kiss or have —“

Maura figured he was going to say have sex, but that those words and that concept were too heavy right then.

“I don’t care about any of that. I just want you to know that you’re the only person I’ve ever really loved.”

“I love you, too, Benito Angelo Gatti.”

Maura wrapped her arms around Benny, and put her head on his shoulder. His t-shirt was so worn that there were holes in it, and it smelled strongly of sweat and cigarettes, like he hadn’t washed it weeks. Benny rested his head on top of hers, and they stayed like that for so long that all the city sounds — the sirens and gunshots, the summertime hits, the ghostly static, the electrical hum — disappeared, and all Maura could hear was the thudding of their two hearts.

Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. Visit her website, or follow her on Tumblr, where she blogs about nostalgia, punk, and the Midwest, and posts a lot of selfies.

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