This story is full of childhood friends. Some may even remind you of people you knew. The story was published in the web magazine Fiction on the Web on November 17, 2013.
Leonard Bessom Hunts For A Present
My pal Leonard Bessom and I pushed our bikes into the bike rack. As we gathered our books from our bike baskets, Len said he was worried about what to get his mother for her birthday that was coming up soon.
“Why don’t you make her a nice card?” I suggested.
“No. Not another card. I’m too old to make her cards anymore. I want to buy her somethin’.”
“You got money?”
His face twisted into a dissatisfied frown. “No. I have to get some.”
“How’re you gonna do that?”
“I dunno, but I’ll think of somethin’.”
Sally Davis had just parked her bike in the rack near us, and we all started walking to our classroom together. Len turned to her and asked, “Sally, do you have any ducks?”
She stopped walking and looked at him with a quizzical expression, her blond finger curls swaying. “No, Leonard. Just a cat.”
“Do you know anyone who has ducks?”
Sally pressed her lips together and looked skyward. “Nope. But my Uncle Archie has some chickens. Will that help?”
“Why do you need some ducks?”
The two of us looked at Len for an answer as we resumed walking. His tousled red hair hung down almost to his blue eyes that began to sparkle as he answered. “Well,” he said, “I heard about this guy who tied a long piece of string to some bacon fat and fed the fat to a duck.”
Sally got a quizzical look on her face. “Why’d he do that?”
“Well, the duck pooped it out right away, but the string was so long the other end stuck out of it’s mouth. Then he fed the same piece of bacon fat to another duck, and that duck pooped it out. Did that to a bunch of ducks, and they were all connected together by one long piece of string going in their bills and out their butts.”
“Wow,” I said.
“And then he tied the two ends of the string together, and he had a necklace of ducks.” Len smiled as though he had done it himself.
“For real?” I asked.
“Yep. And then he made a bunch of money because people paid to see ’em. Pretty neat, huh? If we did that, maybe we could get on the Ed Sullivan Show and the whole country would see ’em. We could make a bunch of money, and then I would have enough to buy a nice present for Mom.” He turned to me. “What do you think? Do you have any ducks or know anyone who does?”
I searched through all the people I knew and then shook my head. “Nope. I don’t know anyone with ducks. Sorry.”
“Yeah. Me neither.”
We were at the door to our classroom now. Sally stepped inside while Len and I hung back. I asked, “So now what?”
“Let’s ask Chuckie at lunch time. He might know someone with ducks.” We went into our classroom.
At lunch period, Len and I sat across from each other at a table in the lunch area. We opened our lunch bags just as Ralph Sibley sidled up. Ralph was a big guy, and he liked to throw his weight around, although a lot of it was fat. He picked up Len’s lunch bag and peered in. “Whattaya got for lunch, Len?”
Len grabbed for his lunch. “Give me my lunch, Ralph.”
But Ralph jerked the bag out of Len’s reach. Len made another attempt but still couldn’t reach his lunch bag.
Then came the loud voice of a large irate woman from across the lunch area. “Ralph Sibley! Give Leonard back his lunch. Now!”
Ralph didn’t even look up. He just said, “Yes, ma’am,” opened his fingers, and let Leonard’s lunch bag drop to the table with a soft thump.
We all knew who owned that voice. It belonged to Mrs. Newman, our fifth grade teacher. Mrs. Newman demanded discipline from her students. Sometimes she demanded it by throwing a chalkboard eraser at a kid who wasn’t paying attention. She never missed. Today she had lunch duty.
Ralph rapped the top of Len’s head with his knuckles, barely mussing his hair, and said,
“Catch ya later, Len.” He pointed a finger at me. “You, too.” Then he sauntered off.
Len stuck his tongue out at Ralph’s back and then looked into his lunch bag. After assessing its contents, he looked up at me. “Mom forgot the Fritos. You got any you can share?”
I pulled out my bag of Fritos, tore it open, and pushed it to the center of the table just as Chuckie Seagars slid into the seat next to me. He had a narrow face and stiff, kinky blond hair cut short on the sides. You could always tell when he was about to get a haircut because his hair stood on end like he had his finger in an electric socket. Today he looked like he needed a haircut. Chuckie helped himself to one of my Fritos and asked, “Hey, guys. What’s up?”
Len told him he was trying to figure out how to buy his mom a birthday present. “Why don’t you just make her a nice card?”
“No. I’m too old to make her a card anymore. I want to buy her something.”
“You got money?”
“No. But if I could get a bunch of ducks, I could go on the Ed Sullivan Show and make a bunch of money.” Chuckie had a quizzical expression on his face. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Len asked, “Do you have any ducks or know anyone who does?”
Chuckie looked into his bag and pulled out a sandwich while saying, “Nope and nope. But if I did, what would you do with ’em?”
Len explained about the ducks and the fat and the string and the Ed Sullivan Show and his mother’s birthday. Chuckie nodded as he chewed.
“So now what?” I asked.
“I dunno, but I’ll think of something.”
One time Len made one of those bolos that the South American cowboys use instead of a lariat: three ropes of slightly different lengths tied together at one end with a leather- covered rock tied to each of the other three ends. When it’s thrown right, the three rocks spin around the legs of the animal, wrapping the rope around them and stopping the animal. Leonard couldn’t get any leather to cover rocks, so he put rocks in some old socks. He then tied a sock to the end of each rope. He practiced on sign posts, telephone poles, and fire hydrants. He got really good. And then he took it to sharing time. He loved taking things to sharing time. I let him use me for a target, and he expertly wrapped the bolo around my legs from across the room. Afterwards Sally said she would be too scared to stand still and have someone throw a bolo at her, and that I must be very brave. I said, “Naw. I know how good Len is with the bolo. Even if he wasn’t very good, I’d still do it because Len is my best friend.”
At lunch the next day I asked Len, “Have you figured out how to get some money?”
Len chewed on his sandwich as he looked skyward. He swallowed, and then his face brightened. He answered, “I bet I could get some money from my Uncle Jerry.” I looked at him. “He owns a bait and tackle store up on Lake Moreno,” Len said. “He told me he could always use more bait. I bet if we got a bunch of crickets, Uncle Jerry would pay us for ’em.”
“Wow! That’s easy money,” I said. “There must be a zillion crickets in that vacant lot by Ol’ Man Cook’s house. I’ve heard crickets singing in the weeds there.”
“Yeah!” Len slapped the table. “Let’s hunt crickets there tonight before dinner. We can split the money.”
Just before the sun started to set, I biked over to Ol’ Man Cook’s vacant lot with an empty oatmeal box under my arm. Len arrived at the same time with his own oatmeal box. We rode to the middle of the lot and parked our bikes by a big patch of weeds where we could hear the crickets chirping. We smiled at each other as we began silently stalking crickets. So long as we were quiet, they kept on chirping. We just followed the chirping until we saw the chirper. They were pretty easy to grab once we saw them, and we got pretty good at seeing them among the weeds. When it got darker, we pulled out our flashlights and continued hunting. The light didn’t seem to bother them, and we kept dropping our captives into our oatmeal boxes with their snug-fitting lids. After a while we noticed that there weren’t very many chirps and our boxes still weren’t anywhere near full.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
Len paused, and then suggested we hunt in the tall grass under the Little League field scoreboard the next evening. “I heard crickets there,” he said.
The next evening we were under the scoreboard with empty oatmeal boxes and flashlights. The grass was about half way up to our knees, so we had to look straight down to see any crickets. We just crept along, following the chirps and looking for our brown bugs. Our practiced eye and experienced hands made for quick collecting. The grassy area under the scoreboard wasn’t nearly as large as the vacant lot by Ol’ Man Cook’s house, and it was soon devoid of chirpers. But our boxes weren’t even as full as the previous night. We had a lot of crickets if we were going fishing with some friends, but not enough to make any money. Crickets didn’t pay much, so we needed a lot more.
As we climbed onto our bikes to head home, I asked Len, “What’s next?”
Len sighed as he gently shook his oatmeal box next to his ear. “We’ll just keep on collectin’ ’em. This is going to take longer than I thought. There’s a weedy area by the water tower. Let’s try there tomorrow night.”
The next day, just as we sat down for lunch, Chuckie Seagars came over. He looked at Len’s serious face and said, “You look like a truck ran over your cat.” He looked in his lunch bag and then back at Len. “You got a cat?”
Len shook his head. He told Chuckie about our cricket-hunting efforts, how they were only moderately successful, and how we needed a lot more to sell for a decent amount of money. And then Len asked him, “Do you know any place where there are lots of crickets?”
Chuckie sat up straight, his eyes wide open. “Crickets? You want crickets? Why didn’t you say so? There are just gobs and gobs, maybe even a bazillion of ’em, around our garage at night, especially when we have the back light on. There are so many that you can just scoop ’em up with your hands if you want to.”
“Yeah. If you want to get some tonight, I’ll turn the light on for you.”
“You bet we want some.” I could see dollar signs in Len’s eyes.
“Okay. Just come over after dark. You can come up Ross Avenue right to the garage. Be sure to bring big bags ‘cuz you’re gonna need ’em to hold all the crickets.”
Len was so excited afterwards that he couldn’t sit still. I watched him fidget and fuss in class for the rest of the day.
That night Len met me at my house with two large paper bags from the grocery store. I had two bags, too. We biked towards Chuckie’s house. Ross Avenue was the border between town and farmland. On one side were alfalfa fields, and on the other were the back fences and garages of houses with front doors facing the next street over, Sandalwood Drive. There were no streetlights on Ross Avenue and only a few back yard lights. It was about as dark on Ross Avenue as in the middle of the alfalfa field.
We looked down the street and spotted Chuckie’s house right away. It had a bright light over the garage door. The light put a white beam on the door and the short driveway linking it to the street. We pedaled straight to it and parked our bikes in the middle of the driveway. We stood there, washed over by the white light, and looked around. We could see each fleck of dirt, oil spot, and crack on the short driveway. There wasn’t a cricket in sight.
“What was Chuckie talking about?” I asked.
We stood there, looking at each other. Puzzlement filled Len’s face. Neither of us could understand what was going on. I was trying to think of something encouraging to say when we heard a couple of cricket chirps by the side of the pavement near the garage. A smile lit Len’s face. He pressed his index finger to his lips, and motioned me towards the side of the driveway. We both stepped towards the chirps, off the pavement, and into the dark.
Our eyes quickly adjusted, and we saw that the surface of the ground was not made up of irregular-sized dirt clods, smooth footpaths, and a scattering of weeds that would be normal back here. It had a uniform pebbly texture. And when we stepped on it, there was a crunchy squishiness under our feet. Len turned to look at me, and in the light reflected from the driveway I saw the biggest smile I had ever seen on his face. We were standing on a blanket of crickets. The blanket extended right up to the edge of the light, making the shadows extra dark. I looked more closely. The small bushes and large weeds that normally grew around garages were now pebbly mounds, having been completely covered by crickets. We weren’t standing on a blanket of crickets; we were standing among piles of crickets. I scanned around, and saw that the walls of the garage had a brown pebbly texture all the way up to the eaves. We weren’t standing among piles of crickets; we were standing in a tide of crickets.
Len and I put down our bags and started scooping up crickets with our hands, just like Chuckie had said. Then Len moved his bag near a “bush” and just knocked a pile of crickets into it. I put my bag against the garage wall, and brushed crickets into its open top. We were laughing for joy, except our laughter was muffled. We kept our mouths closed because some of the crickets were jumping up and hitting our faces. We didn’t want to eat any of them. We soon filled our bags, folded the tops down a few times to keep them in, and went back to our bikes for our other bags. We left wet footprints on the pavement with cricket body parts sticking to the wet: a waving antenna here, a slowly kicking leg there, and an occasional glassy eye.
We went to the other side of the driveway, where we quickly filled our other bags. We scraped off our shoes, and rode home with our booty, laughing with our mouths wide open. The air was cool, and the moon had come out, making the alfalfa field look like an ocean of silver waves.
As we separated to ride to our own houses where we kept our crickets in boxes in our garages, Len yelled to me, “I’m gonna tell about this at sharing time tomorrow. And I’ll take a bunch of crickets to show that it’s true.”
The next morning, after we had parked our bikes and started walking to Mrs. Newman’s class, we joined up with our friend, Eugene Stankewicz. His parents and other adults called him Gene, but all his friends called him Stankie. Stankie was a little shorter than most of us and had ears that stuck out. Today he was carrying a plastic box about the size of a shoe box.
Len asked him, “Whatya got, Stankie? Is that for sharing time?”
“Yeah. It’s my Duck family. Wanna see?”
Len and I looked at each other and then looked back at Stankie. Images of string, bacon fat, duck necklaces, the Ed Sullivan Show, and big dollar signs flashed before my eyes. “Yeah!” we said in unison.
We crowded closer as Stankie peeled back a corner of the box cover. Inside were two large frogs and three small frogs sitting in about an inch of water. They were a dull green color and stared up at us with bulging eyes.
Len looked at him. “Uh, Stankie, these aren’t ducks.”
“I know that. I didn’t say they’re ducks. I said they’re my Duck family. The two big ones are named Daisy and Donald and the small ones are named Huey, Dewey, and Louie.”
“Oh,” we said in unison as Stankie closed the lid.
Len patted Stankie on the shoulder. “I get it. Pretty good, Stankie. What do you feed ’em?”
“Crickets. But I haven’t found any for a couple of days so they’re kinda hungry.” He looked at the large paper bag Len was carrying. “What’s in the bag? It looks a little big for lunch.”
Len smiled. “Crickets. I brought ’em for sharing time. I’ll give you a bunch for the Duck family after school, okay?”
“Yeah. That would be great.” A big grin covered Stankie’s face.
Then we were at our class room. Mrs. Newman stood at the front. She smiled, and said “Good morning” to us as we filed in and took our seats. One of the last to enter was Ralph Sibley.
As Ralph passed Leonard’s desk, he stopped and grabbed Len’s bag of crickets. “What’s for lunch, Len?” He unfolded it as Len grabbed for it. But Ralph jerked it away out of Len’s reach.
From the front of the room came, “Ralph Sibley, give Leonard back his lunch. Now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ralph moved the bag back over Len’s desk as he looked in. A sour expression swept over his face as he turned his face away, opened his fingers, and let the bag drop. The bag hit the edge of Len’s desk and turned upside down as it fell to the floor.
The crickets splashed onto the floor and spread out like a brown liquid in slow motion; walking, crawling, hopping. There were eeks from some of the girls, and kids climbed out of their desks to get away from the spreading puddle of bugs. Mrs. Newman’s eyes got big, and then she went to the closet to get a broom as she commanded, “Ralph, get those crickets out of here!”
Stankie rushed over with his box. He opened the lid and dumped out the Duck family, saying, “The Duck family will help.” The frogs tumbled onto the floor as the water from the box floated the crickets into a wider puddle. The frogs righted themselves and started feasting in what they must have thought was frog heaven. They flipped out their tongues and pulled in crickets as fast as they could while they sloshed in five different directions.
Mrs. Newman arrived with the broom and promptly slipped on the water with a surprised “Aaaahh!” Her bottom landed on a scrum of crickets with a sound somewhere between “crump” and “skoosh.”
The kids who had escaped to the hallway heard her yelling, “Ralph Sibley, you’ll pay for this.” Sally ran to the principal’s office to get help.
At the end of the day our classroom was all cleaned up, and the janitor had disposed of Len’s crickets. Stankie had collected up the Duck family. They were lethargic with their eyes only half open. He had put them back in their box, where they were sitting quietly, digesting. Mrs. Newman had made a quick trip home and was now wearing clean clothes. And Ralph Sibley was sentenced to after-school detention for a term of about twenty-to-life.
Uncle Jerry invited himself to one of Len’s Mom’s famous fried chicken dinners and bought our crickets afterwards in a “secret” deal. When Len and I divided the proceeds, I used my share to buy an ooga horn for my bike. Len used his to buy his mother the most beautiful scarf I have ever seen. It was made of fabric as diaphanous as mist with large prints of brightly colored spring flowers and bugs. It was a perfect birthday present for her. And it was a perfect present from Len, for among the brightly colored bugs were a few little brown crickets.