SUMMER OF THE CRICKET
A short story by Phoebe Matthews
Since the beginning of summer, I’d been thinking of leaving Scott. Not that I didn’t love him. I did. But I’d lie awake in the Texas heat, staring into the darkness and hearing Scott’s sleep-breathing and wonder what I was supposed to be doing with my life. During the days, I was so tired by the heat and lack of sleep that I couldn’t come up with answers. Maybe if I had been less distraught with my own problems, I would have been able to help Winnie.
In a small, fragile way, Winnie was pretty. Her husband, Joe, who worked for the same company as Scott, was a large, slow-moving man who looked like what he was, a guy who earned his living loading trucks. He brought Winnie over to our place one evening shortly after suppertime. A July night in Texas isn’t good for much except talking. Scott and I were outside sitting on a low windowsill of our apartment, our feet flat on the cooling cement of the apartment building’s courtyard. The courtyard was actually the roof of the garage, built behind the first floor of the building.
“This is Winnie,” Joe said.
Scott said, “Hi, Winnie,” and I asked if she would like something to drink. Our accents told her where we came from.
“I guess you’re Yankees,” she said. “I’m from Tennessee. I wish I was back there now.”
I said, “I know what you mean. I’ve never lived any place where it got this hot.”
“You don’t like the heat?” She leaned toward me. In the twilight her eyes glowed. They bulged slightly and the upper lids shone whitish. She didn’t seem to have any eyelashes.
I shook my head.
“It’s not the heat I mind. It’s the crickets,” she said.
The opposite wall was black with them. She followed my glance. I said, “They get into the corridors at night. I keep a broom inside my door. Every time I open the door I have to sweep them away from the sill.”
“I never saw any like that till we moved here.”
Scott said something about looking at a problem Joe was having with his car and they walked away slowly, going through the building toward the street, their voices drifting back. Winnie took Scott’s place on the windowsill ledge. Bending forward, she rubbed her palms on her shins. Her skin was almost as white as her dress. Her dark hair fell across her face, a shadow hiding shadows. Her high-pitched little girl voice wavered on the edge of a sobbing sound.
“I don’t like being married. Do you?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to say. Scott and I had been married for two years. For the past six months, since the cutbacks when I’d been laid off and Scott had his hours reduced, I’d been asking myself that same question, but no one else had ever asked me.
“It’s rough. We came down here for the jobs. Since the layoffs, I haven’t been able to find anything else. We barely make it between paydays.”
“That’s not what I mean. He’s just a great big boy and I’m just a little girl. We shouldn’t be married. I should still be in school.” Sitting up straight, she brushed her hair back from her neck. “I wish I could put my hair up. I think I’ll have to get it cut short. Every time I try to set it, I get this pain in my neck. It’s from having my arms up. I had a growth removed from my neck and I guess that’s why.”
“You’d look nice with short hair,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything to say about whether or not she should be married. I loved being married to Scott. It was all the other problems, money and jobs, that I couldn’t handle and he wasn’t willing to talk about. Maybe like me she was tired of living pay check to pay check.
She stared at me with those wide, pale eyes. “I quit my job when I got married. I thought I was pregnant, see, but I wasn’t.”
“I wouldn’t want a baby now. Not with the lay-offs. It’s hard enough for the two of us. We had to sell our car. We didn’t get much for it. And now there’s nothing left to sell.”
Winnie said, “It’s no good staying home with nobody to talk to all day. And I can’t find a job. And Joe says he doesn’t see why I need one, as long as he’s got his.”
“Is Joe still on full time?”
“Uh-huh. He’s gone all day.”
“Scott’s down to thirty hours. There’s no use moving back home. Last time I heard from my sis she said we could stay with her but half the town is out of work. Scott says he doesn’t want to move again. It’s not like we have much to pack. Our place here came furnished.”
Winnie didn’t seem to hear me. I guessed she was too busy with her own problems to listen. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back against the windowpane. With her wrist, she wiped perspiration from her forehead.
“Do you think they’ll be gone very long?” she asked.
“The guys? We can go look for them. Or maybe you’d rather go inside and get a beer. We can bring them out here.”
“No. I don’t drink. Tell you what, when Joe gets back, you tell him I started home, okay?” Standing, she backed away from me, her white hands pressed tightly against her skirt, reflecting the dim light. She was shaking her head slowly.
“Going home? Winnie, they’re right out front. Shall I call them? Don’t you feel well?”
“No!” The word broke from her, loudly. Her voice dropped. In a whisper, she added, “No, I’m not really going home. I, uh, I’ve got to meet someone. But then I’ll go right home, I swear I will. You won’t tell, will you? Just say I went home.”
She turned and ran to the back stairs that dropped from the court to the alley. At the railing she stopped, a silhouette against the twilight sky. The shadow of the building reached toward her.
She called, “You come and see me, okay?” Then she disappeared down the stairs.
I called her name a couple of times, knowing perfectly well she wouldn’t answer.
Scott’s cigarette pack lay on the windowsill. I took one out and lit it. It tasted terrible, dry and hot, but then, I had never really liked to smoke. Usually I only did it when someone was watching me and I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my hands. Now I wanted to be doing something when the guys returned. What Winnie had done was asked me to lie to her husband. I didn’t want to. It was the sort of thing I would never ask anyone to do for me, especially someone I barely knew. Sure, I used to ask my sister to lie to our mother about who I was hanging out with, and I’d lie for her. It was all part of growing up, I guess. Neither of us would do that now.
The cigarette burned down to a long, gray, acrid-smelling ash without any help from me. I let it hang from between my fingers, slowly burning. The sky turned to night black. Their footsteps moved toward me in the dark until Scott and Joe were close enough for me to see them clearly.
“Hey, where’s Winnie?”
After flicking the ash from the cigarette stub, I raised it and dragged on it, then coughed. I didn’t like lying. “She said she was going home.”
“Going home?” Joe’s face was a wide, trusting blank. He would believe anything I said, but I didn’t know how much he believed Winnie.
“That’s what she said to tell you.”
“Didn’t she know we were right out front?” Scott asked.
“I guess so.”
Joe said, “All right, I’d better run along, too.”
“Maybe you’ll catch up with her,” Scott said.
“Yeah. I’ll watch for her. 'Night, kids.”
I could have told Scott what happened and maybe I would have if it hadn’t been so hot and I could have thought more clearly. As it was, I didn’t have the energy to try to get into a long discussion about somebody else’s problem. We had enough problems of our own that he wouldn’t discuss.
We sat on the window ledge until we were too tired to stay there any longer. Then we went inside to lie on top of our bed, still dressed in our tee shirts and cut-offs. The walls were hot on the inside, too. I’d drift to sleep, then wake, soaked in sweat.
Once I woke to find Scott’s side of the bed empty. Our apartment was one big front room with a pull-down bed and an archway into the kitchen. I could see a dim light in that direction. Wearily, I got up and wandered toward the light. Scott was standing in front of the open refrigerator door, his eyes closed, letting the cold air flow around him.
We split a beer, mine in a glass because I never could drink from a can. Propped against the kitchen counters with only the open refrigerator for light, we drank slowly.
“Sleepy?” he asked.
“No. Yes. It doesn’t matter because I can’t sleep.”
“Want to go for a walk?”
“All right. Maybe it’s cooler outside now. I’ll have to put my shoes on.”
“Why? No one will see us.”
“Ugh. I can’t stand to step on those crickets.”
Outside the streets were empty. Moths circled the street lamps. A hot breeze moved slowly between the hot buildings. We wandered without particular direction except that we moved away from the downtown area, hoping to find cooler air where small lawns and untrimmed hedges gave an illusion of coolness.
“I went on-line today, Scotty. There are places advertising jobs we could both do out west, in the Denver area and in Spokane and near Seattle.” Every day I walked to the library and used their computers and internet. We had pawned our computer when Scott’s hours got cut. We couldn’t afford internet fees so there didn’t seem much point keeping it.
“Who do we know in any of those places?”
“Also in Alaska. I can’t remember the name of the town there.”
“I know we don’t know anyone in Alaska, not in any town there at all.”
“We didn’t know anyone in Texas when we came here but we did okay until the cutbacks.”
Whatever he was thinking, he didn’t tell me. Was he afraid of starting another job that might not work out? Or did he really think some miracle would hit our home town and the old dead businesses would reopen? Like always, he changed the subject.
“Joe and Winnie live on this street. Their apartment is on the side of a house.”
“Have you been to their place?”
“Once we stopped by on the way home. Winnie wasn’t there.” Scott’s job was in the warehouse office. Since we sold the car, Joe had been giving Scott a ride back and forth to work.
“Is it nice?”
“Their place? I guess so. It’s kind of small. Looks like the owners turned a bedroom wing into an apartment. But they do have a yard. That’d be good, wouldn’t it?”
I thought of something, caught his hand, stopped and peered through the darkness toward his feet.
“You thought I was barefoot,” he said and laughed.
“I wasn’t sure.”
My legs were beginning to ache. If I went much further, I’d be so tired I could sleep on top of a stove. The breeze moved a little faster now, with less heat. Scott stopped in front of a stucco house, patted his pockets and pulled out his cigarettes. A narrow lawn filled the space between the house and the street.
“Is that it? We can’t go ringing their doorbell in the middle of the night.”
“Yes, that’s it. I’m not going to ring any doorbell. Just thought I’d show you where they live.”
There were no lights on inside. If it were daylight I knew I would be able to see the furniture through the front windows, the house was that close to the sidewalk.
Scott struck a match.
“Hey, who’s that?” a voice called.
“Hey, yeah! Come on around. I’m on the porch.”
We followed the cement walk that squeezed along between the house and the sprawling side hedge. The hedge smelled of something that was blooming, dusty and dry. Spider-webbed. I pressed against the rough wall to avoid touching the hedge.
The small wooden side porch jutted into the hedge, ending the walk, and Joe sat on the railing.
“What are you kids doing?”
“Too hot to sleep.”
“Yeah.” He brought beer from inside while we waited on the porch. I lay back in a folding canvas chair and closed my eyes. Their voices droned, discussing car engines. No one mentioned Winnie. I wondered if we would wake her, wondered if she cared that we were out here, and then I drifted off.
Her voice woke me. “Oh! Hello. I didn’t see you there.”
I heard a car start up and drive away.
“Hello, Winnie,” Joe said.
“What time is it?”
“Is it really?” I said, sitting up straight. “I thought it must be almost morning.”
“I went to the movies with a girlfriend,” Winnie said in her little-girl voice. “Do you want to come inside?”
Joe didn’t ask what movie she had seen or why she was coming home at two in the morning. The movie theater always closed by midnight.
“We should head home now,” I said.
“No, please don’t go. Come on inside. I can cook us something. I’ve got some frozen shrimp.”
“Why don’t you do that?” Joe said. “And you kids stay. I’m real hungry. Put some coffee on, too. How about it?”
I followed Winnie into the kitchen, leaving Joe and Scott on the porch. From the kitchen light I could make out the shapes of furniture in the next room, a bed-sitting room with an unmade sofa-bed, clothes piled on chair backs and a half dozen high-heeled shoes scatted on the floor. No air moved. Winnie turned on a small fan above the stove. Its clatter matched the glare of the overhead light.
While the skillet heated, she set the coffee on to perk and lifted cups down from a shelf. After ripping open a couple of frozen food boxes, she dumped the frozen shrimp into the skillet. Grease popped from the pan onto her light dress. She rubbed at the spot with a fingertip.
I offered to cook the shrimp for her. “A few spots won’t hurt my tee shirt.”
She said no, it didn’t matter, and added, “When I got married I told Joe I wouldn’t get married unless he bought me a real wedding dress. You know. A white satin one with a veil. I don’t think it’s right to get married in the wrong kind of dress, do you? He bought a dress for my bridesmaid, too. It was blue. Silk, I think. He bought me this dress, too.”
“It’s very pretty,” I said. It really was. I hadn’t been able to see it clearly in the darkness at our courtyard.
She shook her head. “I don’t like it. But it’s the best thing I’ve got. Maybe I’ll get me a new dress. Here, I think the shrimp is done.”
“Can I help?”
As she slid the shrimp from the skillet onto a plate, she said, “You bring the coffee, okay?”
“Sure.” I tried to pick up the coffee pot with one hand and the four cups with the other, sliding my fingers through the handles. Like so many things I tried to do, it turned out to be more than I could do.
I dropped a cup.
It cracked on the linoleum. When I started to unload my hands so that I could pick up the pieces, she shook her head.
“Never mind. I’ll get another cup. Leave that there.”
“I am so sorry, Winnie.”
“It’s the landlady’s cup. It doesn’t matter.”
“Let me sweep it up.”
“No, come on, the shrimp will get cold.”
“But someone will step on it and get cut.” I was almost in tears because the cup was one more problem I couldn’t fix.
“Joe can clean it up later. Come on.”
She took the shrimp to the porch and set the plate on the railing. In the artificial light from the doorway, we stood by the railing, eating. When I glanced at Winnie, she had moved to the far side of the porch into the shadow. She stood with her back against a post, the fingers of both hands circling a coffee cup that she held chest high. She stared at me but she did not return my smile.
She said, “I’m a pretty good cook. My Ma taught me.”
“These are great.”
“I can cook a lot of things.”
I started to carry the empty plate and cups back to the kitchen but she said no, leave them there. We thanked her for the food. It was two more days to payday and Scott and I were both tired of canned beans and hot dogs.
We said goodbye and started down the walk. At the corner of the hedge, I stopped. As my shoes had rubbed blisters on my hot, swollen feet, I decided to take a chance with the crickets. Scott stood still while I held onto his waistband with one hand to steady myself and used my other hand to take off my shoes.
“The crickets will bite your toes.”
“Oh, shut up.”
He laughed and then he said, “Shh. Listen.”
I straightened up and stood listening. The bushes rustled. A block away a car drove by. Then I heard Winnie’s voice, a shriek of thin sound.
“You keep away from me, you hear?”
We turned back toward their house, stopped, heard nothing else. The square of light still fell across their porch through the screen door. Scott and I looked at each other and he shrugged, unsure. I wanted to go home and I wanted to stay. Maybe she needed help.
While we waited, trying to decide what we should do, her voice broke out again.
“All right, I warned you! I told you!” Shots rang out around, through, above her words.
The sound froze us, terrified.
Joe rushed out the door. It banged behind him. Running to the sidewalk, he stopped beside us, swung to face the house and shook both fists above his head. He shouted, “You stop that now!”
Winnie pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the porch, a small silhouette in the stream of light. She raised her arm and threw something. It clattered on the walk and slid to Joe’s feet, a dark pistol shape. Going back inside the house, she slammed the screen and the wood door.
“That crazy woman,” Joe muttered. “Women are sure crazy.”
He picked up the gun and started back toward his porch.
“Where are you going?” Scott asked.
“Oh. I don’t know. I guess I’ll sleep on the porch.”
“You’re not, well, uh, going to do anything? With that gun, I mean.”
If Joe was surprised to find us standing outside his house, he didn’t say so. I got the feeling that nothing much surprised him. Looking down at the gun in his hand, he frowned, his heavy forehead creasing. “She can’t aim it. I guess I’ll hide it.”
He walked into the darkness. We heard his steps on the wooden porch, then the creak of the canvas chair’s frame.
Scott grabbed my hand and we ran about half a block before I remembered my shoes and went back to pick them up from where I’d left them in the middle of the sidewalk.
It was payday when we saw Joe again. We had walked to the movies and dropped our laundry sack off on the way. Our building didn’t have a laundry so once a week Scott shouldered the sack and carried it to the commercial laundry in town, then picked it up on his way home from work the next day.
After the movie we stopped at the burger place for milkshakes and cheeseburgers.
Even though it was late when we reached home, the apartment was still stifling. We went out to the courtyard to sit on the window ledge. The crickets were thick on the walls, clinging to the heat of the bricks.
We seemed to be the only tenants who used the courtyard. We never saw anyone else there. So we were surprised to hear someone coming up the stairs from the alley.
Joe walked slowly across the courtyard and sat down at our feet. He moved slowly, but so did everyone in the summer heat. He said his usual, “Hi, kids,” and then talked about the problem he had been having with his car.
I drifted into my own thoughts, remembering scenes from the movie. I think he said my name several times before I heard him.
“Have you seen Winnie?” he asked.
“I hoped maybe she’d come visit you.”
“No.” I didn’t want to ask him where she was.
His cupped hand lowered over a cricket. For a while it stayed there. Then very slowly, the cricket crawled out through his spread fingers. We watched it move toward the wall, a black dot joining the others.
“She didn’t come home last night,” he said.
“Don’t you know where she went?” Scott asked.
“No. Sometimes she does that, stays gone a day or two. Only this time it’s different. She packed all her clothes. Everything’s gone.”
“Maybe she went home to see her folks,” I said.
He sighed. “I don’t think so. She doesn’t like her folks.”
“Where will you look for her?” I felt sorry for him but I didn’t have any answers. Not for him. Not for us.
Joe stood up and dusted off his jeans. Digging his hands into his pockets, he shrugged. “Won’t do much good to look for her if she doesn’t want to be found. She knows where I am. Well, I guess I’ll go home and get some sleep. ‘Night, kids.”
He moved slowly away, his hands still in his pockets, his shoulders sagging.
For a long time neither of us said anything. Then I said, “She shouldn’t have gone without telling him.”
“You wouldn’t do that, would you?” Scott asked.
I had never told him I’d been thinking of leaving. But when he said that, I knew he had known and been afraid to talk about it.
“Maybe if things don’t get better here, we could both look for jobs someplace else. Would you want to?”
“If you would,” Scott said. “Where would you like to go?”
“Some place cold?”
He laughed and then he caught my hand. “Snow? You want snow?”
“I want us both to have jobs. Full time.”
“Okay. That’s what we’ll do. We will go wherever we have to.”
We sat on the sill in the dark holding hands, thinking to ourselves but both thinking about the same things, I knew, while we waited for the night to cool.
Copyright © Phoebe Matthews