They say the heat and an August rain caused it. They’re everywhere, like a black blanket spread out on the sidewalk, a blanket that moves, shimmering in the heat, a blanket that chirps, a steady chit-chit, chit-chit, all day and night. These crickets are getting on everybody’s last nerve. The desert hasn’t seen the likes of it, this invasion, since forever, as the old-timers at the Five and Dime counter tell anyone who’ll listen. Whatever caused it or however long it’s been since it happened before, I personally just wish they would all die and blow away. I’m sick to death of stepping on these bugs every time I go outside. That crunching sound makes me bonkers.
Because of them, I took two showers today. After this last one, toilet paper dabs stick to my legs and ankles in a pattern of polka dots. Shaving my legs for the first time has not gone quite as smoothly as I’d hoped for, but the results are spectacular. I can’t keep my eyes off the hairless woman-limbs that take me over to Gwen’s house. I look right and left, hoping someone in the neighborhood will be out on the sidewalk to notice how grown up I look. Nobody is ‘cause nobody wants to crunch these stupid bugs.
Knocking, I barely have time to put my hand back down ‘cause Gwen answers the front door so fast. She closes it with a push of her knee, her mouth moving as she turns to face me.
“Did you bring them, Donna Lee?”
“I brought two. How about you?”
“Nah. She must have taken them with her.”
“Is she gone now?”
“Yeah. Taking my big sister to her friend’s house for a slumber party. But I think she’s coming right back.”
“Should we go out in the field?”
“The boys are playing football out there. Where else can we go?”
“How about your bathroom? Does it have a lock on the door?”
“It’s broken. Dad was trying to get Molly out of there when he heard her puking after a school dance. He stuck a bobby pin into it and it broke off.”
“Well, we’d better hurry up if we’re going to try it.”
“Did you bring matches?”
“Jeez, Gwen, do I have to do everything? Doesn’t your mom keep some for hers?”
“Nah – she has a Zippo. I think there’s some kitchen matches by the stove.”
“That’ll work. Bring ‘em out on the patio.”
“Do we have to go out there with those godawful bugs?”
Gwen pokes her head out of the patio door and looks both ways like there’s gonna be cigarette police waiting out there. She scoots the dead bugs aside with the side of her flip-flops.
“Here. Put the filter end in your mouth.” She holds the smoke out to me.
“Do you think I’m a retard? I know that.”
“I’ll strike the match. Hold it up. There. Suck in your breath.”
“Huhh. Huhh.huuh huum. Ack.” I start coughing my lungs out.
“Not so deep. Man. Just a little. Like this.” Gwen demonstrates a quick puff. “Wheeeh. Puuuuuh. See. In and out. Oh, my god, what happened to your legs? There is blood dripping down on the cement.” She gives me back the cig.
“Ahck…achk. Yuck. Nothing is wrong. I just cut myself shaving.” I hand her the cigarette. “Do you have any Doublemint? These are nasty.”
“Nah. At least these have filters. My dad’s are unfiltered Camels. Sometimes, he just pulls the filters off to smoke Mom’s. Can you shave already? My mom doesn’t let me yet.”
“Mine either, but I did anyway. She has been so busy killin’ crickets that she doesn’t even notice me. Hey, gimme my ciggie back. Let me try again.” I grab back the half-smoked stick and say, “ If I hol’ my thongue jus’ righ’….”
I’m Loretta Young sweeping down the stairs, carefully drawing the cigarette to my mouth with a graceful move, pinky straight up in the air. I stare with wide eyes at the camera. “Daarling, call my maid and have her lay out my most beautiful gown….” But then I feel my stomach drop, “ Ew. I feel a little sick. I’m not…”
The front door opens fast and then slams. “Gwen, I’m back, honey, where are you?” Gwen’s mom shouts into the front room. We can see her outline through the patio’s sliding door.
Dropping her smoke, Gwen stomps on it like it was a live snake.
“Oh, God, Oh, God, crap, it’s my mom. Quick. Put it out. Run out the back gate. Here. Take these with you. Don’t leave me with the butt. Oh, God. I am in big trouble.”
“Relax. If she smells it, say we were having toast, okay.”
“Toast? Toast? Jeez, it’s 4:00 in the afternoon. She’ll never…”
“Hey, if she guesses, don’t you dare tell her it’s me gave ‘em to you. She doesn’t like me already. It’s our secret, okay?”
“Hurry. Leave. Wait. Take these. God, go.”
The back gate closes behind me, scraping my arm. I drop the butt in the sandy field that sits behind Gwen’s house and mine and everybody else’s on our side of the street. It’s already a big, giant ashtray. The bugs don’t hop around out here the way they do on concrete. But I see a big one go up to the butt like he’s just been called to supper.
The boys playing flag football, including Danny Scruggs, barely look at me when I run by them. Who cares? I like Danny’s big brother, Ray, better anyhow. Tomorrow I’m stuffing my training bra like Gwen’s sister does to see if that’ll get Ray’s attention when he is out working on his hot rod.
I’m saving up to buy some coral Tangee lipstick and some black eyeliner. I’ll have to hide it from the little kids or they’ll tell Mom. I want to use it when I go to the matinee on Saturdays, but I’ll need to scrub it off before I get home, or Daddy’ll kill me. With make-up and shaved legs, I’ll look at least 14, so Ray or somebody like him will notice me. We could sit in the top row at the Aladdin Theatre and kiss. And smoke. Maybe he’ll even call the radio station on Saturday night and dedicate a song to Donna Lee. Love Me Tender or something like that. And give me his class ring.
Thinking about this, I cut through ol’ Mrs. Mendez’ yard to get back on the sidewalk. She yells at me through her kitchen window, which is closed so I can’t hear her but I can see her hands shooing me away. I act like I haven’t seen her and scoot on by, knocking on the hood of her crappy old station wagon in the driveway. Now she’ll probably complain to my mom about me again.
Back out on the sidewalk, I slow down and practice my model’s walk, like I have a library book balancing on my head. I push one foot out, then the other, lifting my knees up real high and landing on my tippy-toes, like Twiggy. This helps me not crunch so many of those darn crickets.
“Donna Lee, come on in here now and help me set the table.” This is my momma waking me up from my daydream and calling me to supper. I quick pull off the t.p. scraps on my legs and haul myself inside. I still feel a little ookey from smoking but since everybody feels that way from the bugs, Momma won’t notice.
I blow my breath into my cupped hands to see if it stinks. I can’t really tell but Momma couldn’t smell it anyhow, I don’t think, since she is lighting up as she stirs the pot of beans on the stove. She don’t even look at me as she points to the cupboard that holds the dinner plates.
“Hurry up, Donna. I want to finish supper before it gets dark and more of these damn bugs come out.”
Putting the big spoons on top the paper napkins, I think about tomorrow. I am going to convince Gwen we need to practice blowing smoke rings. That will be so cool.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Over supper, talk floats over my head like word bubbles in a cartoon. Lolly yaks about her majorette practice. The little kids, including our “visitors”, Barbara Jean and Julie Marie, my cousins who have been here all summer while my Uncle Bob gets it together, they make their usual messes. Then I hear my momma mention a name that catches my attention,
“That poor Mrs. Mendez. I took some beans over to her earlier and her place is a godawful mess. Those damn crickets are everywhere, and the dead ones stink so bad. I wish her kids would come by more often and help that poor thing.”
“God knows, there’s enough of them,” Daddy says.
“You sure wouldn’t know it by talking to her.” Momma drops her voice. “Speaking of children, I’m late.”
Daddy pushes his chair back from the table and jumps up like he spilled his milk all over himself. “Shit. Are you sure?”
Momma looks mad, “It’s not like I’m new to this. What do you think?”
Daddy just says, “I’m going over to sit in the Meza’s garage with Tino and have a beer.”
Momma just stands up and starts gathering up the little kids to bathe.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I wake up suddenly, the smell of smoke reminding me of Gwen’s house and making me sick all over again. The lights are out but I see the glow of my momma cigarette in the corner of the front room by the radio. She’s sitting in her rocker, but not rocking it, just sitting still, smoking. I go on over to her and start to sit down on the floor beside her. Instead, she grabs me and puts me on her lap and starts to rock back and forth.
“What is going on, Momma? Why are you still awake? What time is it anyway?”
“Just hush, honey and sit with me a bit.”
“Shh, be still now, please or go on back to bed.”
My eyes have adjusted to the dark and I see the ashtray next to Momma filled with her Pall Mall butts. I twist myself around and see that her eyes are gleaming a little, like they have some water in ‘em. There is a wad of Kleenex on the floor and as she reaches for it, her hand brushes my leg.
“Donna Lee, what have you done to your legs? Did you shave?”
I quick change the subject. “Are you crying, Momma?”
“No.” She brings my face right in front of hers and holds my chin. “Honey, don’t try to rush it. It will all happen way too soon.”
“If you say so, Momma.”
Momma stops rocking and makes to stand up. “Go on back to bed, Donna Lee. I’ll just finish this cigarette and get in bed myself.”
“Can you just rock me a little bit, Momma?”
She doesn’t answer except to push off once more with her foot and start the motion. I close my eyes and remember how it was to be a little girl. The chirp of the crickets outside the front door lulls me back to sleep.