The Cricket War
That summer an army of crickets started a war with my father. They picked a fight the minute they invaded our cellar. Dad didn’t care for bugs much more than Mamma, but he could tolerate a few spiders and assorted creepy crawlers living in the basement. Every farm house had them. A part of rustic living, and something you needed to put up with if you wanted the simple life.
He told Mamma: Now that were living out here, you cant be jerking your head and swallowing your gum over what’s plain natural, Ellen. But she was a city girl through and through and had no ears when it came to defending vermin. She said a cricket was just a noisy cockroach, just a dumb horny bug that wouldn’t shut up. She said in the city there were blocks of buildings overrun with cockroaches with no way for people to get rid of them. No sir, no way could she sleep with all that chirping going on; then to prove her point she wouldn’t go to bed. She drank coffee and smoked my fathers cigarettes and she paced between the couch and the TV. Next morning she threatened to pack up and leave, so Dad drove to the hardware store and hurried back. He squirted poison from a jug with a spray nozzle. He sprayed the basement and all around the foundation of the house. When he was finished he told us that was the end of it.
But what he should have said was: This is the beginning, The beginning of our war, the beginning of our destruction. I often think back to that summer and try to imagine him delivering a speech with words like that, because for the next fourteen days mamma kept finding dead crickets in the clean laundry. Shed shake out a towel or a sheet and a dead black cricket would roll across the linoleum. Sometimes the cat would corner one, and swat it around like he was playing hockey, then carry it away in his mouth. Dad said swallowing a few dead crickets wouldn’t hurt as long as the cat didn’t eat too many. Each time Mamma complained he told her it was only natural that we’d be finding a couple of dead ones for a while.
Soon live crickets started showing up in the kitchen and bathroom. Mamma freaked because she thought they were the dead crickets come back to haunt, but Dad said these was definitely a new batch, probably coming up on the pipes. He fetched his jug of poison and sprayed beneath the sink and behind the toilet and all along the baseboard until the whole house smelled of poison, and then he sprayed the cellar again, and then he went outside and sprayed all around the foundation leaving a foot-wide moat of poison. Stop them son of a bitches right in their tracks, he told us.
For a couple of weeks we went back to finding dead crickets in the laundry. Dad told us to keep a sharp look out. He suggested that we’d all be better off to hide as many as we could from mamma. I fed a few dozen to the cat who I didn’t like because he scratched and bit for no reason. I hoped the poison might kill him so we could get a puppy. Once in a while we found a dead cricket in the bathroom or beneath the kitchen sink. We didn’t know if these were fresh dead or old dead the cat had played with and then abandoned. Dad cracked a few in half to show us that they were fresh. Then he used the rest of the poison to give the house another dose. A couple of weeks later, when both live and dead crickets kept turning up, he emptied the cellar of junk. He borrowed Uncle Burt’s pickup and hauled a load to the dump. Then he burned a lot of bundled newspapers and magazines which he said the crickets had turned into nests.
He stood over that fire with a rake in one hand and a garden hose in the other. He wouldn’t leave it even when Mamma sent me out to fetch him for supper. He wouldn’t leave the fire, and she wouldn’t put supper on the table. Both my brothers were crying. Finally she went out and got him herself. And while we ate, the wind lifted some embers onto the wood pile. The only gasoline was in the lawn mowers fuel tank but that was enough to create an explosion big enough to reach the house. Once the roof caught, there wasn’t much anyone could do.
After the fire trucks left I made the mistake of volunteering to stay behind while Mamma took the others to Aunt Gail’s. I helped Dad and Uncle Burt and two men I’d never seen before carry things out of the house and stack them by the road. In the morning we’d come back in Burt’s truck and haul everything away. We worked into the night and we didn’t talk much, hardly a word about anything that mattered, and Dad didn’t offer any plan that he might have for us now. Uncle Burt passed a bottle around, but I shook my head when it came to me. I kicked and picked through the mess, dumb struck at how little there was to salvage, while all around the roar of crickets magnified our silence.