The Chinese believe that if a cricket finds its way into your home, it will bring you wealth and good luck. I’ve never left Alabama myself, but I do order chow mein and fried rice twice a month. Maybe they see an invitation in that smell, or maybe it’s just the fact that my house is the only one on the block with decent air conditioning. In any case, starting around July, I usually find myself knee-deep in crickets.
Dead crickets, mainly. They pile up in mounds around my door, on my windowsills, anywhere they think they can fit in. Their hollow little bodies rustle like paper. They look so delicate, like corn-husks, but boy do they stink. Maybe not so much by themselves, but when you get thousands, millions of them all rotting away together, it’s not pleasant. I usually vacuum them up, and there’s enough to fill up a black garbage bag in less than a week. But since I still haven’t found a way to keep them from getting in, I figured I might as well consider myself lucky to have them.
And I was lucky, or I thought I was, for a while. It was the morning after the fourth, and they were starting to make their presence known again. They even got into my cooler somehow, and when I reached in for an ice-cold beer, my hand sunk into a thick black mush of sodden little crickets. I grabbed a piece of nearby newspaper to wipe myself off, and that’s when I noticed the ad in the personals. I normally stick to the funny papers myself, and leave the rest of it for butcher-paper and kindling, so I guess you could say that it was the crickets themselves that told me about it.
It wasn’t your normal want-ad, you know, sexy singles, 32D, that sort of thing. No, this was a government science type, wanting volunteers for some sort of experiment, something to do with cell-phones. I didn’t bother much about the details of the work, seeing as I didn’t even have a cell-phone myself; it was the pay that caught my eye. Cash was a little tight in those days, and I would gladly have sold my kidney for the kind of pay they were offering. I rang them up and, after a few questions about my age and weight and diet, I got the directions for where I was supposed to go. It wasn’t far out of town; I could drive on down that night, if I wanted.
You see, I told myself on the ride down, those crickets really do bring in the money. The lab, or whatever it was, was way off the main road, in the middle of a big flat field. The government owned the whole thing, I supposed; it was just like them to buy up a big plot of land and fill it up with land mines or science experiments so nobody could ever get any real use out of it. The science fellow was just like you’d expect, only younger. The first thing he did was put a check out on the table, for the first week in advance, he told me. Then he had me sign twelve different pieces of paper, all the colors of the rainbow. The whole time he kept going on about what I was supposed to do, I just kept staring at that check, thinking how much beer and cigarettes it was going to buy, how I would get my cable back after all.
Then, the guy went into another room and brought out a big metal box. At first I thought it was a lunch box, or a tool box, but when he opened it up, it was completely empty. Not even a baloney sandwich. He must have seen the expression on my face, because he got out a little magnifying glass from his pocket, held it up to my face, pointed with a white-gloved finger. The box wasn’t completely empty after all; there, huddled in the corner, was a little black cricket. Just like the ones at home.
Well, it wasn’t just like the ones at home. It was alive, for one. It was also blinking. Not with its eyes, but with its stomach. There was something in there, a little red light, and it would blink on and off every couple seconds. The cricket chirped, and there was something wrong about the sound, like it had been recorded on a cassette tape and played back so many times it had begun to degrade.
The science guy, by now, was an expert at reading my expressions. It was a special cricket, he told me. Part insect, part machine. Like a Caterpillar tractor, I tried, but he shook his head. He kept trying to explain it, but the more he said, the less I understood. I’m not sure even he got all of it. Eventually, he must have figured out that he wasn’t getting anywhere, because he told me that all I’d need to do was to bring the cricket home, keep it fed, and write down every time it chirped. He even gave me a free pad of paper and a bunch of pencils, in case I ran out. I assured him that I could take care of it, and, after hesitating for a moment, he handed over the metal box and the check.
When I got home, I put the box on the counter, opened it up, and sat down at the table. I had the pad of paper in front of me, two pencils already sharpened, and a third one ready to go. But the cricket didn’t chirp. I looked in to see if it was alive, but then I realized that I couldn’t really tell either way. It was still blinking, anyway. After about an hour of waiting, I went to get a beer from the cooler, and realized I’d already drank my last one. That wasn’t a problem, though, with the check and all. I drove out to the bank to cash it, and I picked up a case of beer and a bucket of chicken on the way back.
When I got home, I sat down with my beer and chicken and yesterday’s funny papers and waited for the cricket to chirp. Still nothing. Maybe it chirped while I was gone? I slammed my fist on the table, almost spilling my beer. How could I have been so stupid? I had one job, and I had already messed it up. I decided to record it anyway; even if I hadn’t heard the cricket chirp, it must have done it sometime while I was gone. I waited some more, and then I wrote down another chirp, because it had already been three hours that I had been sitting there and I must have missed it. Maybe when I was writing down the first chirp. I decided to write more quietly from then on.
After six hours and four more beers, I was starting to get sleepy. But what if I fell asleep, and the cricket chirped in the middle of the night? There were always crickets chirping at night, so I couldn’t count on it waking me up. Or what if I dreamed that the cricket chirped, when actually it hadn’t? I decided to call the government science guy, but I guess it was later than I thought, because he didn’t answer. Not even an answer machine: it just kept ringing and ringing. Or was that chirping? I hung the phone up quickly. It just wasn’t safe to call the science guy; you can’t talk and listen at the same time. I decided to just stay up that night, then drive back to the lab in the morning to ask him. Bringing the cricket with me, of course.
I walked back to the metal box. Still no chirping. Was I supposed to have fed it by now? I had forgot to ask the science guy what robot crickets eat. I opened up the fridge, but there was nothing in there but a quarter of a watermelon, gone all mushy already. I didn’t think the cricket would like mushy watermelon; heck, I don’t think anyone likes mushy watermelon. So I took some of the chicken bones out of the trash and tried to pull off some meat for the little guy.
When I bent over the box to feed him, though, he wasn’t there. I checked each of the corners extra hard, since I had been fooled before, but it was bona-fide empty this time. My stomach felt sick all of a sudden, and not just from the beers. I had lost the government man’s cricket! Would he make me return the check? What about the chicken and beer?
I wouldn’t have to return the check, though, because I was going to find the cricket. I popped open another beer, to calm myself down so I could search better. Then, I took a good look around the room. I tried to think, what would I do first if I were a cricket? There were only three things I had ever seen crickets do: chirp, crawl into my house, and die. The robot cricket apparently wasn’t very good at doing the first thing, and I hoped it wasn’t doing the last one either. So, to get in the right mindset, I got on my hands and knees and started crawling around, checking every door, window, and crack in the wall.
Everywhere I looked, there were dead crickets, mountains of them. Getting up close to them like that, the stink hit you really hard, and I almost got rid of all the beers I had drank right there. I began sifting through them, running my fingers through their dry, papery skins. I pulled them out, one by one, and began arranging them on the carpet in rows. It was about then that I realized I had no idea how to tell one cricket from another. The only thing I knew about my science cricket was that it didn’t really like to chirp, but the same could be said about any of these, seeing as they were all gone up to see the cricket equivalent of Gabriel. It also had a little blinking red light in its stomach. Would that still blink if it had died?
It wasn’t long before I had the crickets lined up wall to wall, thousands of rows and columns of little black husks, decomposing slowly. None of them looked like my robot cricket. I kept a thin stripe of carpet open, enough to walk to and from the door without stepping on anything, and then I started piling up the crickets on the table, the cooler, the fridge, any surface I could find. Crickets lining the slots on the toaster. Rings of crickets on the lid of a jar of peanut butter. Rows of crickets on my sheets, my pillow. Crickets on bars of soap, on sinks and toilet lids. Crickets on empty beer-cans. The best part about this last one was that the more crickets I piled up, the more empty cans I seemed to find.
Then, a miracle happened. I reached down to pick up a cricket, the last one needed to complete the outer rim of my bathtub, and it flipped itself over and hopped away. I nearly whooped for joy, and then I remembered that I still needed to keep quiet so I could hear if the cricket chirped. I watched it carefully, not wanting to hurt it or scare it. I think it was watching me, too. It chirped, and let me tell you, it sounded like the jackpot at the Indian Casino. I went to go write it down, but then I stopped.
This cricket wasn’t blinking. The other cricket, the money cricket, it had a little red light that blinked every few seconds. This one was just black. Had the batteries run out? I stared at it, trying to watch for that little red light, but I couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open. It seemed like, every time it looked like the cricket might light up, I had to blink. If I didn’t, my eyes got all scratchy and fuzzy and I couldn’t see a thing. This was torturing me: was this my cricket or wasn’t it?
I stared at the cricket. Nothing. I closed my eyes. Was that a red light, flashing between the darkness of my eyelids? The cricket chirped again, and with my eyes closed, it sounded different, more like that run-down-tape chirp I’d heard before. I opened them, and the cricket was normal again, chirp and all.
Why did it only blink its red light when I wasn’t looking? Why did it only chirp when I wasn’t listening? I began to get really angry. Did the cricket think it was smarter than me, just because I only had a high school diploma? Was it laughing at me every time I turned my back? I took a chug of beer, and grabbed the rusty flyswatter from the wall. I’d show the cricket who was smart and who was dumb.
But when I turned back around, it wasn’t there. There they were, rows upon row of still, silent, dark insects. None of them were alive. I shut my eyes, and there was the red again, not blinking anymore but building up like a fire behind my eyelids. It hurt to look at. And there was the chirp, the tape still running down, until the sound was broken up into scratchy little syllable: eee-ee-eeee-ee-ee-ee-eeeee. Laughing at me, just like those men from the government, just like those women at the fireworks party when I offered them a beer. I’d show them who was smart.
I grabbed the rest of his beers and poured them over the carpet, over the lined-up crickets. Wherever I stepped, my feet sunk into sticky foam. Then, I grabbed my lighter out of my pocket and put it to the carpet. I’d show them who to laugh at. But it wouldn’t burn. I smacked himself in the forehead, forgetting to close the lighter first, leaving a bright red welt in between my eyes. I was so stupid! Of course beer wouldn’t burn, not the kind of dog-piss beer I bought, anyway.
I went into my cupboard for the barbecue stuff, brought out the lighter fluid and the charcoal for good measure. I spread it around the house, filling my sock drawer with chunks of coal, splashing lighter fluid like cologne over my bathroom sink. When it ran out, I walked out into the garage and brought back a can of gasoline and a tank of propane. I opened the one, and started splashing the other everywhere the lighter fluid had missed. Finally, I grabbed wads of newspaper with both hands, shredding it over every surface, showering the house with a confetti of funny papers.
After all this, I had to sit down. The beers were starting to get to me. I guess I wasn’t watching where I was sitting, because when my butt hit the soggy carpet, I felt a crunch of dry dead crickets. I started laughing, quietly at first, then louder and louder, until it hurt even my own ears. I was laughing so loud that I couldn’t hear the cricket chirping, chirping, sending its little message on to whoever was listening. I got out a pack of cigarettes, lit one up.
Then I saw it. In the little crack below my closet door, there was a cricket. It was watching me with a mixture of pity and amusement. The little light in its belly flared up, then went dark. A curse on my lips, I lunged forward, letting the burning lighter fall from my hands.