The University of Houston Provost Prize fuels undergaduate students' creative writing through acknowledgment of outstanding works of prose and poetry. "People Like That," by Zachary Eaton is the 2016 winning prose entry.
"'People Like That' is remarkable for its unsentimental empathy and the quirky filigree of detail that brings the world of the story to life," said Alex Parsons, director of the creative writing Program and a Provost Prize judge.
Cricket wakes at three in the afternoon and pours himself a bowl of AppleJax and a plastic cup of water. He wears a gray t-shirt over boxer briefs he hasn’t changed out of since Sunday. Today is Thursday.
He leaves the bowl and spoon in the sink and moves to his bedroom, to his desk, and loads a small viridian pipe with sticky crumbs of leftover weed stuck to the bottom of his drawer. He smokes by a half-open window and afterward blows the ash over the blocky A.C. units living together in the alley below. Cricket considers masturbation, but remembers he finished himself three times the night before, so he grabs the soiled tissues off his desk and disposes of them in the bathroom. Washing his hands he studies himself in the murky rectangular mirror.
Cricket is a peculiar combination of thin and hairy, with a tangled black beard adding necessary color to his pale complexion. His sunken brown eyes and thin lips combine into a near-constant expression of mild displeasure. When Cricket is idle he often scratches the knotted curls on his neck and grimaces. He doesn’t necessarily hate his appearance, but feels he could possibly, one day, be thought of as an adequately attractive person if only he made the honest effort. Holed up insipidly in his sweaty Houston apartment in the dead of August, Cricket lacks the critical energy.
His reflection fashions the pointer and thumb of his rightleft hand into a pistol, presses it gently to his temple, and fires. With his left hand he pantomimes his exploded brains spattering the appropriate wall and imagines the blood and brain-matter leak reachingly for the tan carpet.
Cricket nestles in the deep corner of a black leather couch in his living room and plays music softly from his phone in the middle of his chest. He closes his eyes. After a few deep breaths his high settles down and he realizes with dark amusement he only smoked enough to get nervous. He kills another bowl by the balcony and watches gloomy curlicues of smoke drift along the ivy wall and disappear. He takes his first shower of the week and lets the hot water wash away the grime built up from these last few days of self-loathing and isolation. At long last, he leaves his apartment and winds along the sidewalk to the parking garage. Nilla Wafer-colored leaves deck the cement stairway.
Cricket drives for Uber in a green 2004 Isuzu Rodeo bought and paid for by his father in more prosperous times. The hot carpet of the interior and grip of the steering wheel remind him of high school and well-trimmed suburban yards. He settles into the driver’s seat and plays a CD, there being no auxiliary jack in a 2004 Isuzu Rodeo, and the Kaiser Chiefs album, Employment, pipes through the fuzzy speakers. “Everyday I love you less and less” is the opening line and title of the first song. The CD, like the car, was not Cricket’s first; his older brother, Charlie, made the purchase during the latter phase of his teenage rebellion, before he left for college in North Texas and hung himself with a guitar string from a wooden beam in his dorm room closet.
Cricket activates the Uber Partner app and slides his phone into the mount attached to the dashboard. The first trip request is a woman named Martha, 3.2 miles away. He exits the garage and after a couple turns is on a major road, leaving behind the cluster of apartment blocks and strip centers that comprise his corner of the city. Houston has no zoning laws, or any internal logic that might help a newcomer navigate the network of pothole-ridden parking lots and two-lane blacktops, but Cricket is a native. He grabs Martha outside a tall, reflective office building in Stucker Plaza and takes the HOV lane to a suburban neighborhood twenty-five minutes south, near Cricket’s parents’ house. Martha never asks why Cricket only nods or shrugs in response to her feints at smalltalk, content to forgo conversation altogether. Cricket is grateful.
A line of oak trees casts a patchwork of shade across the boulevard where Cricket sits his car as he waits for the next rider. He browses his phone briefly and discovers an unseen text message from his father, time-stamped 9:37 a.m.
Happy birthday crick. Jorge’s at 6:30? Mom out of town. Dad
Sure, Cricket clicks into the message bar. See you then. Son
He leans his head against the steering wheel but is startled by his phone’s vibration from the dashboard. The next rider, he discovers with a feeling close to despair, is someone he knows. A girl he knew in high school, Colleen McSomething. He considers refusing the request but needs the money. Cricket can’t decide if he hopes Colleen knows about Charlie’s death and Cricket’s loss of voice or that the Crown family has become so irrelevant here the news missed her entirely. He isn’t sure which scenario he finds more depressing. He lowers the volume of Charlie’s CD as he pulls to a stop in front of Colleen’s front yard.
“Thomas?’ Colleen asks, fitting herself and a giant leather bag into the backseat of the Rodeo. “Didn’t you go to Maxwell?”
Cricket nods and taps his phone screen to indicate that she has yet to enter her destination.
“Oh, right. Take me near downtown, I guess. I’ll find the address.”
Cricket gives a thumbs-up into the rearview mirror and heads toward the freeway while Colleen searches her phone. He increases the volume of his music as the silence between them stretches mercifully close to the point of no return. Cricket accelerates onto the entrance ramp and drums his fingers on the wheel.
“I still know some ASL from high school, by the way.”
Cricket lowers the music.
“I mean. I guess you can’t sign while you drive.”
Cricket smiles in agreement and cranks the music.
“Such a shame about Charlie.”
Cricket turns off the music altogether.
“I don’t know if this is weird to say, but he was, like, very handsome. All the underclassmen girls would talk about him.”
Cricket and Colleen make brief eye contact through the mirror. She has pretty blue eyes but is otherwise awkward to look at. He turns his eyes back to the road. “Underclasswomen, I should say.” She leans forward and rests her elbow on the armrest of the passenger seat, tucking her hand impishly beneath her chin. “You look like him, you know.”
Cricket tightens his grip on the wheel.
“Exit here,” she says, and he does, disappointed the trip is ending.
He pulls into a crowded parking lot and stops in front of an elegant-looking furniture store curiously named “Miranda Dreyer.”
“It’s my first day,” she informs him. She opens the door and grabs her bag but stays where she is. “Hey, I’m sorry if this is, like, weird, but I get off at 10. I know a place that’s 24/7 if you want to, I don’t know.”
Cricket grabs a pen from the cupholder in the console and an old Whataburger receipt from beneath his feet.
I’d love to, he writes next to his phone number. But I don’t speak sign.
“Oh,” she says. “Okay. See you then.” She clambers self-consciously out of the Rodeo and turns back to wave goodbye, still clutching the crinkled receipt between her fingers.
Cricket’s father, Donald Crown, has seen better days. He worked a mid-level job at an oil servicing company for twenty-five years before the market crash, taking frequent road trips to the Permian Basin to sell paraffin-inhibitors. These days, like Cricket, he drives for Uber.
He is a big man, preposterously large, though he isn’t fat exactly. He’s six feet tall, an inch under Cricket, and his legs and arms are still beefy from high school football. He has never left Houston, unless you count the suburb he lives in now, which he does not, and he calls it “Yew-ston,” not “Hugh-ston.” He wears a thin salt-and-pepper beard and wears his fatigue in his face.
“You’ve got a date?” he asks in thinly veiled disbelief, waving the napkin Cricket is currently using to communicate over the bowl of queso between them. “Well, look at you.”
I’m actually sort-of glad to be mute, Cricket scribbles. I can’t possibly say anything to screw this up.
“That’s funny, kid. If you had said that out loud I might’ve laughed.” He grabs his Texas-sized frozen margarita and leans halfway across the table. “Your mother and I think it’s time you learn sign, okay? We’ll take the classes with you. We just want to be able to talk without all these damn napkins.”
I understand. He begins to write more, but scratches and leaves it at that.
Cricket’s father hands him a small, square parcel wrapped in newspaper. “I got you something.” Cricket can tell already, both by the shape and feel of the gift and by the person giving it, that it’s a CD. “Marty Robbins. Return of the Gunfighter.”
Thanks, Dad I love it.
“I think you will. Got me through some times, I’ll tell you.” And he launches into a familiar story. Cricket collapses against the wicker back of the chair and sips his own frozen margarita, content to listen to his father construct the narrative that will one day serve as his mythology.
Cricket observes, sleepily and without alarm, a small black spider dangle just above the rim of his half-empty coffee cup. At the moment before the last moment Cricket loops an index finger through the handle and slides the mug clear of the spider’s approach. The creature stops its motion, writhes its fibrous body upside-down, and climbs in the other direction.
“You’re a hero,” Colleen says, huddled on her side of the booth with her arms wrapped around her knees. “Or perhaps she wanted to die. Maybe you’re a monster.”
Cricket considers the spider’s ascent to the light fixture above the table, where it will no doubt scuttle through a crack in the ceiling into a netherworld of termites. I guess I wouldn’t blame a spider for wanting to kill itself, he scrawls into the notepad Colleen stole from work.
“That’s dark,” Colleen says with an approving tone. “I like disgusting little creatures, if I’m being honest.”
Explains why you like me.
Colleen puts a hand to her mouth. “Who said I like you?”
Cricket smiles. He finds it difficult to focus on more than one element of his surroundings at a time and each new distraction is invasive, tearing him from whatever fleeting loveliness currently owns his attention. At the current moment his attention is on Colleen, framed in her slumped, lethargic grace by the rain-streaked window behind her.
“Oh. I’m sorry, I have to ask. Can you still make that noise? The cricket noise?”
Cricket shakes his head.
“Tragic.” She bites a half-eaten piece of bacon and turns to her head to look at the counter where a lone old man nurses a bowl of clam chowder. “That old guy over there, though, is truly tragic. I’ve never seen someone so lonely.”
Maybe he’s just one of those people who’s meant to be alone.
“I don’t know. Are there people like that?”
Cricket’s pen hovers the pad.
“Forget it. Do you have any weed left?”
He pulls Colleen’s arm from under her body and rolls over onto his side. The dim glow of his cracked phone screen tells him it’s 3:27 in the morning. He takes a deep breath and lightly runs his fingers through the cool tangle of hair in the valley of his chest. Colleen snores in the center of the bed. He does not feel restless, but he is certain he will not fall back asleep, so he steps outside to smoke a bowl.
Cricket’s patio is nothing special, just a couple lawn chairs left by a previous tenant, but he likes to sit up there when he can’t sleep. The moon is just visible through a thick layer of cloud. He presses his index finger to the crumbs at the bottom of his grinder and half-loads the pipe. He hears the screen-door slide open.
“I brought you a glass of water,” Colleen whispers as she takes a seat in the folding chair next to him. He exhales a thin stream of smoke and passes her the pipe. “Thank you.” She’s wearing a pair of black Nike shorts and an old t-shirt from the bottom of Cricket’s dresser.
Cricket has just lost his virginity.
“Harder,” Colleen had said. “Deeper. More of a circle motion.” She said this several times, in fact.
These are the worst times for Cricket, the late nights, when his insides cannot stop screaming and he has no outlet for the noise. He imagines Charlie in his dorm room, cutting a string from the Ibanez Cricket’s parents bought him for Christmas. He teases his chest and takes several deep breaths. He closes his eyes. Colleen, sitting next to him, shifts uncomfortably. The warm June wind laps at their faces until Cricket opens his eyes and motions to Colleen he’s ready to go back to sleep.
The next morning, Colleen is gone. She left him a note on the counter. She had fun, they should do this again, et cetera. Cricket smiles, folds the piece of paper, and slips it into the drawer by his desk. He smokes two bowls, showers, and moves his laptop to the coffee table. He inserts Marty Robbins’s Return of the Gunfighter and skips to track eleven, “Doggone Cowboy.” It’s a song he’s heard before. He used to sing it in the car with his father and Charlie. He remembers some of the words.
Cricket removes himself from the couch, stretches, and dresses for work.