There was a girl at Tuxchanie High School who had a reputation for being easy called Cricket, a nickname given to her supposedly because when she closed her naked legs while making it with a boy, she made a sound like that of the insect. I don’t know how many people even knew her real name. I had English II with her and even the teacher in that class called her Cricket. On the last day of class before the Christmas break, a rumor circulated that Cricket had tested positive for HIV, which caught on super-fast like all rumors in school. A secondary rumor to this main one was that dozens of upper level students, boys and girls alike, were ditching school to go get tested for STD’s at the county clinic. Anyone who had ever had sex with Cricket or had relations with anyone who had could be infected.
Cricket and I lived in the same trailer park behind the Piggly Wiggly, although I never really saw her much there. Her family’s place was way in the back of the lot, while our trailer was towards the front and closer to the highway. I took my bike to school while she caught a ride with a senior boy who had a lifted truck that made a lot of noise and left a cloud of smoke in its wake.
I spent as many weekends as possible at my friend Vincent’s, who lived in the nicer part of town full of ranch houses that approximated the look of a plantation with small Georgian columns affixed to their fronts. His mother didn’t mind having me over as I always complimented her on her cooking, while Vincent and his father usually just grunted their approval of whatever dish she had made. He and I had been inseparable since we were the first kids of our class to be put in the elementary school gifted program way back when, and he was picked on mercilessly because he did this thing where he had to wash his hands three times during every trip to the boys’ bathroom. During middle school, he started bringing small bottles of scented hand sanitizer his mom bought for him down at the Gayfer’s department store, and kids picked on him for that too.
Our first interaction with Cricket came one Friday night two weeks before the rumor about her was started. The town had emptied out for a high school playoff football game in a nearby county. There had been pep rallies, bonfires and all manner of school-spirited things our classmates were wrapped up in during the previous week. Vincent and I were not interested in any of that and rode to his house after our weekly tradition of eating Lot-O-Burgers and Oreo shakes at the Frosty Mug. At sunset, we crested a hill near one of the largest houses in Wiggins and saw Cricket smoking underneath a porch light. We stopped in the middle of the street to gawk, inconspicuous lurkers that we were.
“What’s she doing here?” Vincent asked. “I thought she lived over by you. You think she’s robbing the place?”
“You know I can hear you, asshole,” She called out to us. “I’m not deaf.” Vincent and I looked at each other like as did every time his dad wanted us to come watch a sports game on the television with him and were getting ready to pedal out of there as fast as we could. “Come here you two,” she commanded and flicked ash onto the lawn.
Cricket wore short denim shorts and a tank top even though it was fifty degrees, a chilly evening for south Mississippi. Vincent and I dropped our bikes near the end of the driveway. The porch was festooned with small Douglas fir trees and overgrown ferns, which intermingled with the smell of Marlboro Reds, a smell I recognized because it was my mother’s preferred brand.
“I’m not casing the joint, you idiots. I’m babysitting their little one while they’re off in New Orleans pissing away their money.”
Vincent and I muttered our apologies.
“Must be fucking nice eh? To have that much money that you can do that. But look who I’m talking to,” she nodded at Vincent. “Ole Moneybags over here.”
“Vincent’s family is not rich,” I said. “His dad just works hard.”
“Why are you so defensive about it?” She asked. “Don’t you live in the same park I do behind the Pig?”
In just her first conversation with us, Cricket picked at the one scab in our friendship that Vincent and I never touched.
“Where’s the baby?” Vincent asked, eager to change the subject.
“The what?” Cricket stubbed out her cigarette on a statute of Colonel Reb. “Sleeping in her room. I keep up with her on this thing,” she said, holding up a grey monitor with a pink antenna.
“Cool,” Vincent said, trying to affect an aura of self-assuredness.
“Do you guys want to see it?” Cricket asked.
“Yeah!” Vincent said and rubbed his hands together like a squirrel, which he did when he was excited about something. It was one of his endearing qualities that I thought was cute, even if others thought it strange. That and the weird thing he had about germs were acquired tastes when it came to friendship with the guy.
I didn’t see what the big deal was to see a baby. I have three older sisters who are always having babies and bringing them over to our house for Mom to babysit.
We followed Cricket into the house. The foyer echoed with her flip-flops popping on the tiled floor. There were living rooms on either side of the foyer, but neither room held a TV, which I thought was weird. The room to my right had a large fireplace and in the one to my left was a large piano. The house smelled like the potpourri and disinfectant aisle at Piggly Wiggly.
“She’s up here,” Cricket said, motioning us to a stairway just past the room with the fireplace.
“I’ve never been in a mansion before,” I said.
“This is hardly a mansion. You should see the houses where I come from,” she said.
“Where’s that?” Vincent asked.
“Not bloody Wiggins, that’s for sure. Eyes down while you’re following me up these stairs, perverts.”
At the top of the stairs, Cricket took a left and then another, pushing open a white door to a room that was bathed in pink. Inside, a dark cherry wood crib stood by the window where the baby of the manor slept. We stepped lightly towards it and peered down.
“Is that all it does?” Vincent asked in a whisper.
“Yeah, pretty much. By the time they leave it’s her bedtime. It’s a pretty easy gig, to be honest.”
“She’s cute,” Vincent said.
“Don’t be a perv,” Cricket said and punched his arm.
Vincent, who was not the biggest fan of roughhousing—in the many years that we’ve been friends never once had we wrestled as other boys our age like to do—smiled and mock rubbed his arm.
“I mean for a baby. Babies are cute.”
I rolled my eyes hard but at least Cricket seemed to be on the same page with me on this particular topic.
“I couldn’t ever see pushing one of these out of my hoo-ha. Then having to take care of it all the time. No thanks.”
All Vincent and I could do was grunt our response to this because pushing babies out of our hoo-ha’s wasn’t something we had to worry about now or ever, but apparently it was a concern of hers.
The absurdity of Vincent and me standing in one of the largest houses in Wiggins with Cricket, a girl neither of us had ever even spoken to before and who we knew only by reputation, all of a sudden hit me and I giggled out loud. The other two looked at me funny.
“Hoo-ha. Funny word,” I said, trying to cover.
“Hey, do you two want to see something I found in their closet the first time I ever sat for them? It’s pretty crazy.”
Cricket went to the master bedroom and we followed close behind. There, a four-poster bed sat in the middle of the room flanked by two coffee tables with a matching bureau and chest of drawers hugging the far wall. A television/VCR combo sat on top of the dresser. The furniture looked like something I’d only seen on local TV commercials, all nice and not hand-me-downs from St. Vincent de Paul’s.
Cricket slid open a door and disappeared inside a closet overfilled with clothes piled high on the floor and arranged haphazardly on racks. She reappeared with a VCR tape, holding it above her head. “Found it!”
“A movie?” I asked.
“Not just any movie, doofus. Watch,” Cricket said, sliding the tape into the set. She adjusted the knob and pressed play on the VCR. The screen was grey and then it faded into a view of the same room we were standing in at the time.
“Is this like a nanny cam or something?” Vincent asked.
Cricket sat on the bed with the remote and pressed fast forward. Vincent and I stood on opposite sides, each leaning against a poster of the bed, our eyes moving from the screen to the room that we were in to make sense of what we were seeing.
On the screen, a blond-haired woman wearing a satin robe walked in and sat on the bed. My chest tightened up and I looked over to Vincent, whose eyes were not moving from the television. Cricket stifled a laugh, holding the remote over her face.
There were some words exchanged between the woman on the screen and a man off-camera. Now, I had never actually seen any real pornography at this point in my life, other than the soft-core stuff Vincent and I caught glimpses of watching HBO late at night at his house, but I had a good idea of what was about to transpire. On the screen, a tanned, toned man with a mustache who wore nothing but a floral print Hawaiian shirt, a gun holster, and boxer shorts joined the woman.
“These are the people you babysit for?” I asked.
“What’s with the get-up?” Vincent asked.
“They’re sex role playing a Magnum PI fantasy!” Cricket cackled.
I was too scared to ask what sex role playing was so I did not say anything.
The man and woman on the bed started kissing and disrobing each other. Up until this point, it was just like anything we’d seen on late night cable. That is, until the man was completely undressed and standing in front of the bed while the woman performed fellatio on him.
“Dude does have a unit on him,” Cricket said.
“This is weird,” I said. “And probably meant to be private.”
“Don’t be such a buzzkill. If they didn’t want someone to find the tape, they wouldn’t have put it at the bottom of their closet in a shoebox buried underneath a pile of clothes.”
The pair onscreen had moved to the bed and the woman got on all fours facing the camera. The man positioned himself behind her and began thrusting. I looked over at Vincent who had moved his hands in front of his pants to hide his growing erection. The video did not have the same effect on me. I turned to go, but Cricket grabbed my arm and said the best part was still to come and turned up the volume.
All I could hear was the man’s grunting and fleshy, squelchy sounds until the woman yelled, “Give it to me Magnum!” Cricket and Vincent doubled over laughing. Even I had to stifle a chuckle at the absurdity of it.
Then we heard the sputter-loud knockings of a lifted pickup truck, a noise I recognized every school morning in the trailer park, coming from outside.
“It’s Butch!” Cricket said. “You two need to get the fuck out now. He gets super jealous and possessive when I talk to other guys.”
“Yeah right. There’s two of us and one of him,” Vincent said, and I looked at him as if he lost his mind. Dude wasn’t acting like any Vincent I knew.
“Okay champ, I get it that you’re brave. Last weekend he bloodied his best friend’s nose when all I did was touch the guy’s arm,” Cricket said, grabbing Vincent by the wrist and pulling him down the stairs. Outside, the truck stopped and a door slammed. “Go to the back door through the kitchen.”
“What about our bikes?” I asked.
“Just wait five minutes and then come around the house to get them. I’ll distract him.”
“How?” Vincent asked. Cricket cocked her head to the side and raised her eyebrows like it was the dumbest fucking question ever. “Oh, yeah. Ok!”
Vincent and I tiptoed swiftly through the kitchen, then through a door that led to the backyard. We heard the front door open just as we were exiting, careful not to let it close too loudly behind us. In the backyard, a set of wicker furniture and an outdoor barbecue pit sat on a large, brick lined patio.
“This is nice,” Vincent said, pulling out of one the chairs and sitting on it. “I think I’ll stay and relax for a bit.”
I loved Vincent’s sense of humor, I loved everything about the guy, but at this moment in time I wanted to shake the ever-loving shit out of him to drop the funny tough guy act.
“Do you realize he is like four of us put together? It would be like us trying to play defense on pee-wee football all over again.”
“You swore you would never bring that up!”
“Desperate times! Let’s go!”
We scurried like little forest creatures, tiptoe running around the side of the house to the front yard and hiding behind Butch’s truck in the driveway. In the rear windshield, Butch had placed a decal of Calvin pissing on a Ford in the left corner, a silhouette of a naked woman sprawled across the back in the middle, and a deer head in the right corner.
“Of course he would have truck nuts,” Vincent said, pointing below the tailgate. “I’m going to take these off. Watch.”
“Are you crazy? This guy literally has no neck.”
Vincent had squatted under the truck and was already unhooking the nuts from the chassis.
“This is like that time when my Dad got his tubes tied,” he said from underneath. “I wonder if urologists enjoy that part of the job.”
“Wives seem to enjoy it. Taking their husband’s balls,” I said.
“Bad-dum tiss. Casey Rhodes, ladies and gentlemen. He’ll be here all week. Tip your waiters. Got them!” He said and stood triumphantly. The round metal orbs he held in his hand looked nothing like what I saw in the mirror when I got out of the shower.
“Do all guys’ balls really look that big?” I asked.
Vincent shrugged and heaved the chrome nuts into the nearby woods where they smacked against a tree before coming to rest on a bed of pine straw, and we pedaled out of there as fast as our legs would carry us.
“Give it to me, Magnum!” became out catch phrase over the next few days, which also coincided with a couple of other new developments. We told one of our classmates who overheard us using it the backstory of the phrase and it spread throughout the school, giving us a sort of cool cachet. Kids that hardly ever gave us the time of day would see us in the halls and yell “Give it to me, Magnum!” with an accompanying high five.
Vincent took his driver’s test, passed it, and his parents gifted him a brand-new Corolla the Thursday before Christmas break. The night they gave him the car, he knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to take the maiden voyage with him. The boxy white sedan sat in our potholed driveway all shiny and clean. Cricket sat in the passenger seat, hanging her arm out of the window and dangling a cigarette.
“She’s coming too?”
“I saw her walking down Magnolia and picked her up. My first hitchhiker,” he laughed.
“I can’t. I have to babysit a nephew.”
“All right. Want me to pick you up for school tomorrow?”
I gave a half-hearted wave to Cricket, who flipped me the bird before Vincent put the car in reverse and pulled out onto the highway.
The next morning before school, I waited for Vincent to pick me up, but he never showed. I assumed maybe he just forgot and had a very good reason for forgetting because it wasn’t like him to leave me hanging like that. He was not at our shared locker when I got to school and Cricket was not in English II, a coincidence that I didn’t really figure out until later.
That evening I biked over to the Frosty Mug for our weekly tradition of Lot-O-Burgers and Oreo shakes, still feeling mopey but hoping that Vincent would show up and explain his absence from school that day. I ordered and the cashier asked me where my pal was. I mumbled something about him spending time with his new best friend so she took pity on me and threw in some extra fries.
I sat at a cement picnic table and had sucked down most of the shake and eaten most of the burger when Vincent pulled up in his new car. He had on sunshades—I had never seen him wear shades before—and was wearing shorts. Cricket emerged from the passenger side wearing a white t-shirt over a bikini top and bottom.
“Give it to me Magnum!” He shouted from across the patio.
“Give it to me Magnum,” I replied half-heartedly.
“What’s up, nerd?” Cricket asked, taking two of my fries from the greasy box.
“I take it you two skipped school today.”
“We went to the beach. It was a nice 70 degrees. December in Mississippi. You have to love it,” he said.
“We hit the mall too. Got Moneybags here some new duds,” she said and playfully mussed his hair. Vincent turned forty-nine shades of red.
“What does Butch think about you skipping school with another guy?” I asked.
“I broke up with him, so I don’t give a fuck what he thinks.”
The possibility that Vincent and Cricket could actually become a couple had not even crossed my mind, but there was something in his face that suggested a change had come over him in the last 24 hours and that it had little to do with getting a new car. The big rumor in school could not have reached them, since they were on the beach gallivanting all day.
“Get me a Sprite will you, Moneybags? I’m going to hit the ladies’ room.”
As soon as she was out of earshot, I grabbed Vincent’s hand from across the table, probably a little too dramatically.
“Did you two do anything today?” I asked.
“We went to the beach and to Edgewater Mall. We just said that, dude.”
“No, I mean, did you do anything with her like what we saw on that video?”
He smiled and pulled back his hand. “A gentleman never kisses and tells.”
“Why are you so serious?”
“Just tell me!”
“We kissed a little on the beach. She put my hands under her shirt and let me touch her boob,” he said and grinned. I should have been happy for him, my best friend. He gets his first kiss and manages to touch a breast.
“Look, there was a rumor going around about her at school today that she has AIDS.”
“What? That’s dumb.”
“Something like thirty guys from the junior and senior class left school to go get tested once they heard about it,” I said, repeating that part of the rumor as fact. “And you know the reputation she has. I mean, if she let you get to second base just like that.”
Vincent’s face drained of color. The old germ thing. As much as he tried to hide them now, I’d seen the dozens of empty sanitizer bottles in his bathroom trash can.
“Should I go get tested?”
“You can’t catch AIDS from boobs. Or from kissing.”
“I’ve got to go,” he said and stood up.
I tried to stop him but it was too late. He ran to his car—the guy was always a much faster runner than me—and sped out of the parking lot as Cricket emerged from the bathroom.
“Where the fuck is he going? Is he ditching me?” She asked.
I shrugged, ignoring her, and got up to throw away my trash.
“What happened? What did you say to him?”
“Nothing,” I said. I unlatched my bike from the rack on the side of the building. Cricket grabbed my arm, her nails sinking into my skin.
“Tell me what happened. Now.”
Sitting on my bike, I told her about the rumors spreading through the school that day and that I relayed them to Vincent. Tears welled up in her eyes while I spoke. Then, composing herself, she slapped me across my face hard enough I almost lost balance on the bike.
I’d been slapped before, by my sisters, by my mom, but never by a quasi-stranger. It stung worse than those times even though my mom and sisters were expert slappers.
“I’m a virgin, you asshole. And ten to one, Butch started that rumor because I wouldn’t go all the way with him. I only did oral stuff and he wasn’t happy with that. It’s why I broke up with him.”
“You’re a virgin,” I asked, touching my face where it stung. “But your nickname.”
“What about it?”
I told her what the common belief was on the origin of her nickname and this time she didn’t slap me, but rather slunk down onto the curb and started crying softly. I just stood there watching, not knowing how to comfort her and afraid she would just slap the piss out of me again if I tried to say anything.
“My dad gave me that nickname because when he’d take me fishing as a kid, I’d release all of the bait onto the shore while he fished. That’s where it comes from. I only tell people who are actually decent to me what my real name is.”
I thought about this for a bit while she took out a pack of Marlboro Reds and fumbled for a cigarette. I never considered that her nickname might be a type of armor she would wear in a new, unforgiving, and close-minded environment like our small town to keep her apart from the assholes like me.
“Did you tell Vincent your real name?” I asked.
She took a long drag of her cigarette and the smoke rose to my face.
“Yeah, I did. He’s a nice guy that doesn’t belong in this shit-hole town,” she said. I couldn’t argue with that. “I mean I’m not in love with him the way you are or anything.”
“I’m not in love with him,” I scoffed.
Cricket looked up at me with raccoon eyes and mascara running down her face, making her look a little like the Ultimate Warrior.
“Oh please. You are so in love with the guy and it’s obvious. Why else would you repeat that stupid rumor?”
“Because I care about him and worried that he’d catch something.”
“You wanted him all to yourself again and you’re a coward.”
“Yeah right. Whatever.”
By uttering our generation’s catch all phrase to show apathy towards any situation that was too emotionally taxing to deal with, I effectively ended the conversation. I left Cricket on the pavement of the Frosty Mug parking lot, which would be the last time I would ever see her. She had the uncanny ability to assess people quickly and accurately, and I’ve often wondered what became of her having possession of such a gift. She rightly called me a coward, and it would not be the first time I would show cowardice in dealing with that particular issue. I didn’t have the courage to tell Vincent my true feelings for him, nor could I fess up that I was the one who had started the ugly rumor about Cricket.