A man, a woman, an apartment. And a spider.
He was large, Boris was, right from the day he walked on all quavering eights into our lives. I'd never cared for them. Large spiders, that is. I'd been victim, since birth or before, to what one somber pre-teen specialist had termed a "primal aversion," this specialist being of the school that phobia was a term apt to debilitate its bearer, particularly when hastily applied at a tender age. My father forthwith--against the advice of this professional and the stout objections of my mother--went out and purchased a medium-sized tarantula, which he placed in my hands as I sat at the kitchen table. And there I held it, for a period of one hour, on seven successive evenings. On the eighth evening my father killed it, dropped the hairy, mangled carcass into the tall kitchen trash can, and proclaimed: "That's that."
He was divorced by my mother one year later, although I can't say with any true certainty whether these kitchen sessions had much, if anything, to do with it. It would have been one year to the day, this divorce, had 1976 not been a leap year.
The small ones--again, I mean spiders--I've mistrusted just as keenly as the large. This despite their limited size, or perhaps because of it. Small spiders are fleeter of foot and, I don't know... sneakier somehow, fuller of the sort of mischief that's likely to end up as a bite on your finger, involving swelling, stitches, necrosis. Amputation, maybe. They fidget and scamper at the first sign of trouble, at the slightest little disturbance.
You can keep your eye on the big ones. We did.
I hate cliché very much. I do. We named the spider Boris. Convenience, as I'm sure you don't need me to tell you, provides a frequent and powerful counterweight to most kinds of prejudice, taste, morality, blah-blah. And I guess the girl had a vote, too. She saw him first.
"I don't know about you sometimes," the girl said.
It was a Monday night, that much I remember. Not even dark yet, and much too early in the week for her to be already not knowing about me. Oh boy, I thought, and here we go.
"If you're thinking about raising the subject of Katy's wedding," I said, "that conversation is over."
"So you'll decide when conversations are over?" she said. "That's good," she said. "Send in the grown-ups."
I didn't say a thing. Not another thing. And as I was being proud of myself for resisting the bait, I began slowly to be ashamed of myself for considering it that. Resisting, I thought. Is that what we're supposed to be proud of on our Monday evenings? It was perhaps in the spirit of such gloomy self-reproach that I got up off the couch and went to Martha, who had repaired, hufflike, to the balcony.
My intention upon rising was to put my arms around her waist as she stood at the rail, to extend the familiar calumet whose precise message had never been clearly defined in three years of togetherness and three months of sharing a roof. At times I guessed the offering to be many things--concession short of apology, pardon minus absolution, comfort without verdict--and perhaps the ambiguous nature of this frequent gesture might have been considered a symptom, if not a yardstick, of the lightly submerged ambiguity of our general situation. My intention, at any event, was to place arms about her waist from behind, drop my head to her shoulder, and gaze over the backyard trees while calm breathing and perhaps sensible thought found its way back into our pressed-together bodies. I stepped out onto the balcony and paused, awaiting my chance, but Martha had the kitchen rug out over the rail, and was abusing it with profound and unrelenting vengeance. When the dust began to tickle my nose, I went back inside.
Martha eventually followed me in, but she didn't replace the rug in the kitchen. Instead, she draped it over the back of a chair so that her hands could be on her hips when she said:
"It's the fact that you won't even talk about it."
"I will talk," I said. "It's only that I won't have the same talk about it over and over again. If there's going to be something new about it, we'll talk about it again."
"She's one of my oldest friends."
"You've mentioned that."
"She's only going to have one wedding."
"I'd adopt a wait-and-see stance on that one," I said, and we were off and talking about it again.
Our apartment, at that time, was like most others leased in Atlanta to people just starting out. With kitchen, bath and bed, there were five rooms altogether, if you counted the balcony as a room, which believe me, we quickly did. Such a layout is nice in winter months, when the timid central unit doesn't have much airspace to contend with in spreading its warmth. But it has its downside, let me assure you, when other manners of heat arise, and you feel the scarcity of airspace then, too.
"Why can't you do this for me?"
"If you're going to have a sudden wedding," I said, rubbing my face slowly and deeply, and not for effect, "You have to expect to pay the price in attendance. Who ever heard of a six-week engagement?"
"It doesn't change the fact that I should go."
"Go," I said. "You probably should. But that doesn't change the fact that I have one, count it, one vacation day to last me the next seven months."
Martha made a noise, up into the air of our small living room. I heard it over my shoulder; she was perched now, hands very likely still on hips, in the narrow space that joined our living room to our bedroom to our kitchen, a snatch of carpet that in a generous moment an unscrupulous realtor had once called a hall. The carpet masked the sound of her foot tapping, if her foot was in fact doing so, as it was in my picture of the girlfriend behind me, hands on hips.
I am a creature who takes to staring when I cannot walk away; a long unbroken gaze is my number two recourse mechanism. I am not a fighter, but neither am I a wall-starer, and for these reasons I took at this moment to the window, and thus, by default, to Boris.
Unbidden squatter of our living room's sole window, Boris the spider met my gaze from the still center of his small universe and looked back at me with interest, or he didn't. Only he knows for sure.
Boris had by now been with us for a week. He was as much a part of our place and our life as other trivial unexpectations that found their way into our home from time to time and lingered thereafter: leaky faucet, single mudprint, unopened mail. I had noticed his web one morning before work, and in the time it required to take my shower and affix the day's neckwear, Boris had risen from his slumber and assumed what was to become his daily lookout.
Situated with prominence and disregard, Boris commanded an enviable view of the property. He had shown what I considered both singular arrogance and admirable cunning in choosing his spot. As he sat fat and prim on his roost in our window, he was at once the proud, consummately visible centerpiece of our limited view, and the safest tenant in the entire building. Defended on one flank by the glass, on the other by the screen, this interloper finally--and crucially--enjoyed the ultimate security of his host's previously-mentioned, debilitating phobia. Martha shared her fellow host's terror. She promptly grimaced, and named him Boris.
"We're not keeping him," I said, to this naming.
But Martha, frocked in the white of her hospital lab coat, had already assumed the privilege of the glass wall's protection, and despite her fear, was peering in close and curious.
"But he followed us home," Martha said.
When she tapped on the glass with her fingernail and smiled at the shimmy this effected in the creature, I began to suspect that her fear was a superficial thing, a thing perhaps confessed out of kindness in the midst of some past, forgotten spider-crisis, to make my unmanliness less compelling.
And so for a week we had watched our Boris, and so I watched him now. His big spider legs were placed with careful precision, each extended in perfect protracted symmetry to display the quiet beast's full magnificence. He was smaller than the tarantula of my youth, I reflected tonight, but he was a different breed, a sleeker model, and if you added a coat of fur and a modest spare tire to his abdomen, he could have been a rival. And, I noticed tonight, he was growing.
There was quiet above and around me; Boris commanded my field of vision.
"Is this a stand you're taking with me?" she said, behind me. "Add something new if that's what's keeping you quiet."
I watched the spider's reaction, which was nothing at all. I wondered if he heard us through the spotless safety glass.
"Or is it maybe," the voice behind me wondered, "is it just that you're afraid of weddings?" She wrung her hands, I thought, if such things make a sound. "Are you that anti-marriage?"
I rubbed my face without taking my eyes off the web in the window, and it was a good long moment before I answered.
"We're going to have to do something about this Boris," I said.
Let it be known that I never trusted Boris; although he never gave offense outside of his very presence, I think any glimpse into my youth is enough to explain my misgivings. I was under the impression, for two days at least, that it was this inborn or inbred bigotry that accounted for the careful eye I kept on the spider, until on Wednesday afternoon as I sat gazing at the web, the truth of the matter dawned clear as a bell: I was waiting for him to eat something.
Would he wrap his victim in sticky thread, I wondered, once my mind had been made aware of my purpose and cleared to wonder. Would Boris take great relish in the slow art of secreting his deadly entangling lines, sinister glee in their gradual, painstaking application to the still-breathing, terrified meal, eyes wide and paralyzed in his web? How long would he wait to sink his fangs, inject the fatal kiss of his venom? How long would he dance about the corpse, then gloat over his dinner before the grisly ritual of final consumption slowly began?
"Eat, you monster," I said to the glass, inches from my face. "You're not fooling anyone."
When I came in from work on Thursday the blinds were down, but only on the one window and for some reason this perturbed me. Martha's lab coat was draped over the arm of the couch. I walked to the window and drew the blinds to mid-level, exposing Boris. He seemed fatter since this morning, but there were no crumbs on his plate, no napkin. He sat very still at center-web.
"Did you drop the blinds?" I called to the other room, which produced Martha, who mimicked my voice with impressive skill as she appeared.
"How was your day, dear?" and she clucked her tongue, stood there.
We had lasagna for dinner--my favorite and hers--and the meal was quiet except for when it was loud. A two-volume standard is dangerous in apartment dwelling, Boris, I thought in the general direction of the window.
It gets like that sometimes, Boris thought back at me and I grimaced at him. You think you're so smart, I thought, and let it go at that.
Of course I didn't offer Boris any of the lasagna, but I thought perhaps I might, him thinking he was so clever and all. There, I could say to him, watching him chew. That's what a favorite meal can taste like when mention is made of a friend's fast-approaching wedding at some point between the pouring of the wine and the passing of the Parmesan. The fact that the mention is not, as it may turn out, about this pre-doomed topic, but about something entirely unrelated, and yet still resultant in the bi-volume tenor of the atmosphere, dear Boris, I could say, makes the dish all the more bland, as you can see.
Eat, Boris, if that makes you grow. Try, while you're at it, to remember the love beneath it all, remember how much you love your meal, remember why you built your web here in the first place. Eat and remember and try not to cry, friend. And keep the talking to a minimum, by all means.
We went to dinner that Saturday night at Pano's downtown, and had a very nice evening, as we are very capable of doing. It's a night like this, Martha said after we had danced one number and started a slow second, that makes me wonder why either one of us would want to do anything else. It was true that we were having a very nice time, and in a way, in the way she had put it, she was absolutely right, so I smiled and didn't say anything. Slow numbers allow the quiet anonymity of long gazes over the shoulder, and I didn't know if she was waiting for an answer or if we were just still dancing. Back at the table, anyhow, I asked if she'd like another drink and she said let's have one at home, and I smiled and she smiled.
At home I opened the champagne--a six-dollar variety that feels at ease in our refrigerator--and poured two glasses in the kitchen and brought them to the couch. We sipped and kissed for a while, and she smiled after each small kiss and I was careful to taste the soft, dry tingles of the champagne that lingered in each corner and wrinkle of her lips. We sat with our heads together and gazed at where the log fire would have burned low in a nicer apartment than ours, and when I felt her breath come close in my ear I turned on the couch and we kissed for real. We made love sitting up, Martha in my lap with her soft small legs folded back on top of mine. She moved very slowly, rising and settling and I held close to the backs of her shoulders and kept our cheeks pressed gently into each other. We ended together, with little more than a sigh and a gasp--one of each--and I knew the source of neither. Her chin and her face in my neck, we sat that way for a long time.
Her breathing settled in and became soft, regular after a while, and I smelled her hair, pushing a bit of it out of my eyes. Across the room, Boris the spider was crawling slowly, picking a meticulous path from the center of his world down along one of its many rays; I watched his progress over the rim of my champagne flute.
"He transfixes you," the girl whispered in my ear. I didn't say anything and then she said, "Are you looking at the spider?"
"Boris is going to bed," I said. Then, "I've noticed you watching him, too."
"I can see him in the mirror," Martha whispered. "Right now. But it's only just motion."
Still she sat on my lap and still I held her. It was warm in the small apartment.
"He's our pet," I said. "And we don't feed him."
"He's very happy."
"I hope so."
"He's our pet," she said.
I will admit the truth: He transfixed me. Us. She was just as guilty, and she watched him as I did.
Who can say why certain things capture us? Maybe it's nothing more than a simple matter of what is thrust in front of us. And he was that, Boris, full in our face. After a while the existence of our spider began leading away from curiosity and into the more serious realms of preoccupation: fixation, a pre-teen specialist might say, and I would be inclined to agree with him. As the weekend bled into Monday and Tuesday, I noticed that my ponderings at the window were steeped more in feeling than in thought. It seemed to me, as the new week took shape, that we were drawn back to the window not so much by the extreme close-up of nature and savagery anymore, but by the binding curiosity of people who habitually tune in. We are programmed--in the womb, I'm convinced--with a deep unending hunger for what happens next. What would be our spider's fate?
Through it all, or through most of it, I thought, even in the naming of him and the fanciful conferment of his pet-hood, we both wanted him gone. Glass or no glass, I keep the demons of my youth dear and close at hand. But still... he was ours. It was our spider trapped in there, and he had chosen us in the first place, hadn't he? He could have gone anywhere. Even as the days passed and he started looking weak--he still had shown evidence of neither crumb nor napkin--he was still ours and wasn't it better that he be our dying Boris than lost somewhere out in the strange, big world, away and alone?
But still, still, on the other hand... What's one to think when, upon stopping by for coffee or to borrow a cup of sugar, one chances to glance at the window and notice a three-inch arachnid holding brazen, uncontested court? I was conscious that the fallout of such could be particularly traumatic for a housekeeper, as Martha--though she put in sixty hours more often than forty at the downtown hospital--had titled herself. And this, in effect, is what really put the ball in motion, I'm sorry to say.
We had known about the party since well before Boris' time. The six couples we knew, more or less, or nodded to at the pool or had dinner with once or twice, had marked their calendars and would be spending one Saturday evening with us, and this coming up was the Saturday. With the two... with the three of us. And this is the thought that struck Martha just in time, hard, on Thursday afternoon.
"There's going to be a spider in our window," she said, rather clinically, by my appraisal. "For the party."
It ends, was my first thought, tinged with light regret; surely no prominent sitting spider, however ferocious or dear, could expect to withstand the dawning of this terror. I thought, well, that's it, the enchantment is over, and maybe it would have been, but for the fact that our mutual distaste for close negotiations with eight-legged things remained in fast effect. This was the second thought, which oddly soothed me, and when it dawned on Martha soon thereafter, it caused her to pace and pace and pace.
I suggested that we draw the blinds for the party.
"That would look ridiculous," she said.
And then the idea struck. Not brilliance, perhaps, but a good showing of ingenuity in the face of acknowledged personal limitation, I thought. Of course, yes, I liked the idea more the longer I held it in front of me, unlike my father's tarantula. It was too good to pass up, and moreover, imperative not to, given the state of our phobias. Laugh at your baldness, my father had told me at a distressingly early age, particularly in front of your buddies. Because you're going to be bald, son, and you won't be able to hide it from anyone.
Of course. We'd get someone drunk at the party. Take on the big spider. You man enough to open that window? You man enough? Come on, tough guy like you. Drunk guts, we used to call it.
As Saturday arrived and aged and began to fade into its inevitable twilight, we dusted, we spread the table, put out napkins and toothpicks, vacuumed twice, at least, and we did not draw the shade. As the preparations wound down and the fridge door rattled with each bottle-laden reopening, as the lights came up and the pillows were arranged on the couch for the backsides of our friends, I avoided the window and was reluctant to meet Boris eye to eye.
My thoughts were fixed on Trevor Nayback, stocky and athletic, advertising guy with a big laugh, my prime candidate for Liberator. He was forever challenging and re-challenging me to tennis and "hoops" and backgammon, a boaster when victorious, a back-slapper when he lost. Trevor with the big laugh reveled in his malehood such that I figured spiders would be no trouble for him, perhaps even a particular delight, some remnant glimmer of glee from a boyhood spent reveling in his malehood. Upon his arrival I greeted him with a large smile and an arm around his shoulder that made me feel like an old ad man myself.
Of course he and Cindy arrived first, and of course I said nothing about Boris, but after the rest of the arrivals and three or four rounds of expensive, green-bottled Dutch beer and music and the grilling of the bratwurst and hamburg and a few more green bottles all around and more laughs and a consistent incline of general merriment, all he would say, upon the big revelation and the focus of the room's collective attention on the small window and its big trophy, was: "Jesus."
"That's a spider," he added, moments later, as punctuation, or to announce that he'd retrieved his breath.
"You're not afraid of a spider, are you Trevor?" Martha baited, as I prepared to take voluble offense to this on his behalf.
"Jesus," he was laughing, and going back into the kitchen for another beer.
He made fine conversation, did Boris. Exceptional, really; his introduction elevated what had heretofore been a humdrum party. He gave good squeal, and even danced a few numbers when prompted, which was frequent; hands not holding green-bottled beer had a habit of finding the glass for a curious tap. The joy was such over this unique diversion that I stepped back for a moment and just watched it. Curious eyes, little smiles, and as I've mentioned, I believe, squeals. Look at him crawl, and where did he come from, and how long, did you say? My good gracious. I began to wonder, as this circus played, about these people and their pets, and I began to wonder, with all this glee, why it was that more people didn't go out and buy spiders for themselves. Why did it seem that only loners and crazy people kept snakes in big aquariums, fed them mice and watched them eat? Snakes were being mis-marketed, somehow, to the marginal characters who lived in basements or with their parents or both, and why? They'd be such hits at parties.
But no, I reminded myself, there's more to it than just parties. Snakes and spiders are monsters and enemies, freaks, they belong to loners who don't mind a lifetime and a kinship spent looking through glass. Dogs and cats are what's for normal people.
But for the evening, for our gala, the nice folks delighted in our good Boris. They even began, at Martha's devious prompting, to wonder about the glass, the real necessity for it, you know? But proud Trevor Nayback was stout in his position when the challenge was hinted around, laughed over, taken up as entertainment, and finally laid down.
"Come on, tough monkey," I laughed.
He shook his stubby head.
"Your spider," he said, drunk, but no guts. "Your problem."
I called him all sorts of names, a tack to which he is particularly vulnerable, but no joy. Others joined the fun, seeing my strategy, wondering loudly what kind of man he could profess to be, sacred of a little spider and all. He was laughing through it all, and then the tide of challenge turned to Nathan Farb, a virgin accountant from the other building, slight of build and given to fits of almost girlish giggles. He demurred so emphatically that I suspected the room had turned on him just to see what, if any, emphatics were hiding in this little creature. Satisfied, and perhaps a bit alarmed, the temptations turned back to steadfast, burly Trevor.
It had started raining just after dark, lightly at first, but then it picked up, and by now was coming in memorable fashion. It was hard night rain, solid and loud against the roof, the kind that makes you feel like there's no one else out there. As the beer disappeared and the laughter grew louder inside our bright, isolated cocoon, I started to fear that somehow Trevor would summon the courage or fall victim to the bravado and make a move on the spider. He would trap Boris in a cup, certainly, and with a daring bolt to the door, would cast the spider into the maw of this ferocious night, whereupon my great fear would be realized, and the mighty wind would catch the thrown spider and blow him back into our apartment before the door could be slammed and the party could resume. Screams would result, and a general scattering, and when peace was restored, we'd be stuck with a ruined party and a renegade and at-large Boris, casting about invisibly on the dangerous side of the window glass and none too pleased at having had the peace of his evening and his world so very much upended.
I let up immediately on the name-calling.
The party settled when it became clear that the spider would not be dislodged. Still, talk came back to him, petering off somewhat, until it came at about the rate of the now-only-occasional taps on the window.
"How did he get in there?" asked Gina from downstairs, after a tap and a smile, it seemed to me, of appreciation when Boris refused to shimmy.
"How do pests get anywhere?" answered Robert, beloved of Gina, and I laughed.
"My theory," answered Martha, looking at me as I laughed, "is that he was just a baby when he stumbled inside and made what he thought was a good home, but then he got too big to get back out."
I didn't stop my laughter but when it was over, which wasn't long, the smile did not linger on my face. Martha's eyes were still on me, just so, and just like that, I wanted another beer. I went for it. As I opened the fridge and rummaged through what was left, I knew almost immediately that I didn't want that beer. What I wanted, and I felt it more than knew it, felt it very deeply, was for the party to be over and for it to be tomorrow, without the interim having to be gone through, the quiet clank of clean-up and just us there with Boris and no party anymore.
Out in the living room, someone else had tapped the glass. I heard it over my shoulder.
"Well, then," this someone else pondered, "if he's so hungry now, and it really looks like he is, what was he eating all along in there that got him so fat?"
"That's a very good question," Martha said.
It was Monday morning when the flyer went around at work. I guess, cradling the benefit of aftersight, it couldn't have come at a worse time, but nonetheless, my copy of dull corporate mimeograph stationary arrived at my desk before I did, and alerted me to the imminence of the jovial, light-spirited, and all-but-compulsory company picnic. As a rule, I am not a fan of such corporate joviality, to say nothing of my stand on compulsion, but I am a dutiful attendee. I am responsible and slowly becoming a grown-up, with all that this entails, kowtowing not excluded.
And fool that I am, I brought this newsflash home with me, if not the actual flyer, and broached the subject with, again I am here referring to my crystal-coated, post-dated gift of insight, remarkably dim-witted expediency.
"The company picnic?" the girl said with deceptively soft incredulity. She didn't say 'you've got to be kidding me,' but of course she didn't need to. The three words she had spoken said it clearly enough, and I immediately cowered, suddenly keenly aware of my bluntness of bearing.
Martha had enjoyed a taxing Monday of her own, and certainly the likeliness of this hadn't figured into my planning either, if, indeed, anything else had.
"I don't expect you to come," I said weakly, knowing it was too late for even weakness of voice to bail me out. "I was just saying is all. They're having it."
"The fact that you would even ask me," Martha said, warming up, warming loud. "Just that you could say it with a straight face."
And off we were.
In my recognition of stupidity, I adopted what I thought was a conciliatory, or at the very least, retreating manner, and I was exceedingly willing to let the matter drop, and perhaps it was this feeling of surrender at the outset that caused me to warm to the offensiveness of her not letting it drop, and allowed this spark of misstep to blossom into the healthy conflagration it quickly became. 'I said I was sorry' was the thought that propelled me deeper into my burgeoning combative spirit, even though I was pretty sure I hadn't, actually, or literally.
Of course the subject of impending nuptials in far-off lands arose rather handily, and the comparison of earlier conversations of same to what I had just dim-wittedly proposed, and at the first mention of this, my cornered eye sought the refuge of our trophy in the window. I beheld Boris from across the room, his peculiar shape hoisted dead still in the center of the intricate web, and I remembered, and wondered yet again, at what a spark he had infused into our drab weekend party. What fun and excitement, what curiosity and theorizing, what dull trouble. I gazed at the window without seeing him, only thinking and wondering.
It had been Cindy Nayback, of all people, who stood longest at the window, a thoughtful finger holding her chin in place, quiet for a change. It was Cindy whom I had approached as she stood in such reflection, and Cindy, of all people, who had turned to me with sadness in her eyes, a solemnity quite sobering amid the squawk and giggle that otherwise stormed in the room regarding the object of her apparent concern.
"Fear not," I smiled to her, beer in hand. "Trevor is holding firm about not adopting the beast."
"It's tragic," she said to me, and Cindy Nayback's face certainly said tragic.
"What's this?" I said, ever the happy face, ever curious.
"His whole little world," she sighed. "Doesn't this strike you as sad? Look at his web, and the beauty of it, and all the care he took. Doesn't it seem a tragedy for it all to go to waste?"
"He's living in his mansion," I pointed out.
"But so what?" she protested. "It's an empty mansion. What's the use of building something so beautiful between a window on one side, and a screen on the other? It may look pretty to us, but what good is it to him?"
I thought about that then, and I thought about it now. What good, indeed? I wondered--and hoped, a little bit--if maybe Boris got out at night. If he walked along the waterspout outside the window cruising flies, if he snuck across the carpet to the kitchen and made use of our fridge. If somehow he wasn't enjoying his stay, thriving perhaps, and living not solely for the amusement of his hosts and their occasional drunken window- tappers.
It was thoughts such as these that gave rise to my protest when the beer-laden crowd, thinned out a bit since the passing of midnight, began to wax philosophical, and the squeals of spider-fright had given way to considerations of our Boris' overall well-being. Martha was of the status-quo camp.
"He's safe," she said to the couch group. "What more can an animal of the wild wish for? From behind the window, he can watch the world and it can't touch him."
"But he's trapped," I heard my voice raised, elevated to cut through the nods of agreement. "Nice view from the web, but he can't touch anything."
Martha looked at me and shrugged, and so did most of the others who lingered, it seemed. This was the part of the evening I had wished to skip past, and yet here I was, talking loud to be heard.
It seemed odd to me then, but such perhaps is the odd way of the world, that two such similar statements could not only sound, but actually be, so dissimilar. Weren't we, someone pointed out, in effect saying the same thing, and arguing not over the consequences of the situation, but over what there was to look for in a situation itself? Sure, I had said. That sounds like about it.
"I don't believe you can sit there and even ask me to come to some company picnic after the way you've exposed your unwillingness to participate in my life," Martha said. Exposed my unwillingness, I thought. Is that what I'd done? "I can't believe you're going yourself," she continued, snapping out each word like a little hook with no discernible barb, "with the way you cherish your vacation days."
The picnic was going to be held on a Saturday, as is every picnic that is not held on a Sunday, and I figured she realized this, of course, but still, I almost had to mention it. Instead of mentioning it, however, I yelled.
"Just say no," I belted, standing, turning in her direction but directing the command at my feet, an arm held out in emphasis. "Just say no and that's that. That'll be the end of it. I asked you a yes or no question, and that's all I want. Say no and we'll stop talking."
Martha was quiet for a moment as I stood with my head down and my stop hand still held forward. I'm a smart enough man to know it was a dangerous quiet. Martha took a small step toward me and folded her arms, if they hadn't been folded already.
"You're too selfish to even see that you're selfish," she said, soft now but with an edge to it.
"That's more syllables than I was looking for."
"Listen to you, goddammit," she yelled. "You're too wrapped up in your own little world for it to occur to you that you're not even a subtle hypocrite. You could at least try to be subtle about it."
"If you want to go, I'll check the box," I said, without a single notion of why I still held onto this, "and there'll be enough potato salad for you. If not, I'll check the other box. They're just looking for a commitment from who's coming and who's not."
"Commitment?" She stressed the word so hard that it shattered like a single syllable of crystallized outrage. "You want that from me? You're too afraid of commitment to even let a spider live in peace."
"What?" I looked up now, flushed full, I felt my eyes wild. This was genuine bafflement, with which I don't fare well. I repeated myself, as I do in such cases.
"The party," Martha said, dragging into this mess our little Boris, the solitary unified link between we two, of late. "You wanted him out."
"Out?" I said, and repeated. "Out? We both wanted him out. We both said..."
"You went nuts about it," Martha cried. "He's fine there and you like him there and you still went nuts about getting him out."
This was beyond me, but things being beyond me and racing past my grasping arms rarely stops me from flailing wild hands and shouting my curses as they zing by.
"That spider should be out in the world," I yelled. "Living, mating, not sitting here distracting us. He's got to be about the most ridiculous spider in the world. Other spiders laugh at him, I know they do. Sometimes I hear it."
I promise you this, I wasn't laughing, and Martha didn't seem any more likely to do so than I. And it didn't slow her down, nor me, this spider-laughter from off in the rain gutters or the trees or the dark corners of my dementia, wherever sneering rivals lurked. We yelled blindly onward, it came fast and easy now.
"What's wrong with Boris?" she wanted to know. "He's got his web and his fortress. He can see out in any direction."
"He's trapped," I answered. "What good is his web?"
"He's safe from wind and rain and..."
"He'll starve!" I screamed, pounding the glass.
And I saw her eyes on the window, below where the butt of my hand had struck it, and I turned to look at what she was seeing. And that's when we noticed, yes, it was true. To the summons of this most thunderous of all window-thumpings, our stout guardian of the window and the web offered no reaction. The glass still rattled, and the silk mesh vibrated in silence beyond, and in the middle, our reduced black housemate remained inert and unharried, swaying only with the faint reverb as his perch settled to. When the storm had subsided, one black leg hung free from its handle, and with the most concentrated, most laborious and slow-motion effort I have ever felt the agony of witnessing, this dangling leg braced and steadied its weight in precarious balance, then hoisted itself, trembling, to its previous point of attachment. We stared at the obvious, struggling truth spread before us, and she didn't have anything to say to that.
He was starving, or worse.
I had just been trying to win the argument. Now we were faced with this.
"We have to yell, for this," I said quietly, before I really knew what I was saying, or what, if anything, I meant. The voice felt funny in my throat, unraised. It felt like nothing more than breathing after what had come before.
We stared at the glass and didn't say anything, and I remember noting, even as the moments passed between us, that we didn't look at each other. We kept our eyes on the glass and we probably sighed or panted or took turns doing both, and when finally I leaned back down and tapped the glass again, Martha said, "Don't wake him."
It sounded like something one would say of a child, a dear-darling little trooper who was tuckered out and whose ice cream would wait until morning. As such, I ignored it, thinking too with some annoyance that Martha was refusing to see the real difficulty here. I leaned in very close and watched the aging spider. His retrieved limb clung weakly to where it had managed to regain its grip. Nothing moved. I tapped the glass with the end of one finger, hoping, just perhaps. I frowned and tapped. Tapped it again. Rapped it with knuckles.
In the morning, well... It was as we expected. Through the misty blue haze of the window's western exposure, it was clear that Boris' late withdrawal, at some time after our own departure for bed, had not been of his own design. The web had been vacated and was clear of all obstruction, save the single black leg that had been so painstakingly lifted and reapplied in the final struggle of our late pet. The frightful appendage did not dangle free, but had enmeshed itself within several strands of the web itself, presumably during the last gasp and fall that had deposited the balance of the spider in the bottom of the inner sill. My eyes followed the likely path of descent and came to rest on a balled-up, thoroughly pitiful shell of blackness directly beneath the leg and the window lock.
Martha came to the window and stood beside me, and I felt her gaze joined with mine upon the remains of our strange and much embattled houseguest. Despite our attachment, and the austere sobriety with which we now attended this anticipated revelation, I stood there not knowing, and in honest truth, doubting, whether either one of us would be enough of a grown-up to open the window and dispose of him properly.
I left the window first, and Martha shortly followed, and as we moved in the kitchen and the bathroom, retrieved the Journal-Constitution from outside the door and settled into the silent commencement rituals of our Tuesday, I thought it both odd and entirely predictable that a word had still not passed between us. In the queerly easy silence I thought I could still detect the raised and angry voices of last night singing in the shadows that resisted the arriving day. It was this chorus, I reflected, this screaming that had driven us to take our first intelligent look at the spider situation in a long time, the screaming that had shown us how far gone the poor guy really was.
I heard the tap turn and the water start to run in the bathroom, then the hiss and low scream of the shower and then the rattle and splatter of Martha's displacement in the stream. I went back to the window and gazed, not down into the sill, but out through the web and into dawning day. No, I thought now. It hadn't been the screaming so much that had made us think. Thought had lurked long beneath the screaming, and had finally broken through in the quiet moments after, in the still, very quiet calm while we had gathered our wits and our breath and had begun to wonder, not about the next point of debate, but about whether there was any point at all. I was quiet now, as I had been then, and my eyes now, as then, moved slowly across the window and down until they rested on the black crust, inert on the wood. Under the muffled rush of the downpour in the bathroom, it was very quiet in the apartment, and I felt the quiet keenly as I stood looking at the web, the window, the little monster. Looking hard at the little monster.
We both went to work on that midsummer Tuesday. Despite our disappointment or unrest, there was a world outside that screen that we belonged to, as much as we belonged to the world inside that window and the window belonged to us. I thought about Boris during the day, from time to time, on a coffee break and during an endless stretch of meeting in which my department head took issue with the staff's generous creativity in abiding by the company lunch policy. I'm sure Martha thought of him, too. When I arrived home she was standing at the window, purse still over the shoulder of her lab coat, and she turned to me and smiled and we embraced.
It was a long hug and we tightened it several times before we let go and when we let go we looked at each other and laughed. To my mild surprise, we did the admirable thing and opened up the window and disposed of the unpleasant remains.
And despite our attachment, any fondness we held or other emotion that might have come into play over Boris' tenure in our lives, the pain of his departure was neither profound nor lasting. We watched a movie that night, a comedy, and we laughed. The death of Boris had been that of a spider. Despite anything or everything else, it was the death of only a spider, and this happens every day, and our Boris, for what little or lot he had once been, was today nothing more than a discarded ball of twisted black appendage, presumably legs, for the most part. These things happen, like I said, every day.
It was a few months later that the red-and-green flyer went around at the office and proclaimed the glad tidings of another season's non-compulsory, compulsory event. Martha's friend had wedded and honeymooned and, in great likelihood, divorced, by this point, but still I held little relish for the task that awaited me at home. I told her about the Christmas party that very night, in fact, and Martha said, very coolly but clearly, that she didn't think so this year. Too much at the hospital and so forth. I nodded and was glad the task was behind me.
And it's fine, really. Whatever. Christmas party. Those corporate goofs are dull anyway and I hope others won't interpret this as spite, but let's see if I show up at the St. Jude fundraiser come Memorial Day.
For the sake of those who wonder about such things, I still resist spiders, I still hold them suspect in my heart. My foot does not falter amid decisive plunges which end with a squish and a sigh of relief. I won't hold a spider close, I won't touch one if invited, and if one should chance to walk across my hand as I lie in bed or sit on the patio, I don't stifle my shudder, my cringe or my revulsion. But I don't back away, either, I don't scream and I don't cry, and I think that's all my father had been trying to get across.
And likewise, for the sake of those curious, my father's premonition of his son's precocious baldness, sadly and surely, is slowly coming true. I laugh when I have it in me.
Redmond James (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a medical writer in Atlanta, where he explains things to his dog Dean Cuyler, who is only one year old and not very well informed. A lifelong croquet enthusiast, Mr. James' personal dream is to one day compete at the sport's highest level, whatever that may be.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Redmond James.