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How long have you gone without seeing a tree?

When my brother calls, there’s a lull in conversation. A deafening roar, at times. I ask my brother if he can hear cicadas where he is. My brother doesn’t know what cicadas are. He is 40 years old. He asks me to repeat it. Cicadas. What? Cicadas. What are you saying? The connection is bad. I do my best to spell it. C-I-C- [pause] A-D-A-S. Cicadas. My brother reads the books I send him. Books of all sorts. Some very good, very smart books. Others just books. Ohhh, my brother says. He didn’t know it was pronounced that way. He knows the word by sight. By sight only. He doesn’t know what cicadas sound like. They live in trees, I tell him. We don’t have trees, my brother says. I’ve been to Huntsville. There are trees there. Not near me, he says. Trees? Really? Where a man can hide? Have you tried to explain to a man who’s never heard cicadas what a cicada is? A cicada. Is there ever just one? How long have you gone without seeing a tree? After 17 years, his release date is set. The call drops. For a moment, I hang on the line. The sound it makes is a plane flying low.

Justin Jannise is the author of How to Be Better by Being Worse (BOA Editions 2021), which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. A recipient of the Inprint Verlaine Prize and a former Editor of Gulf Coast, Justin studied at Yale, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Houston, and now teaches at Prairie View A&M University.

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