Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Eight Legs to Better Tickle You With... Pt 2


Spiders sit somewhere on the list of public enemy pests for most folks I know. Vile creatures readily met with disdain, fear, even malice. Yet it’s hard not to marvel at the complexity of their webs when not walking face first through one.

Webs that span impressively, almost defiantly, across meters of open air between trees or across paths running down along the gap between inner city town houses. Webs crisscrossing the sky high above amid the tropical trees of Jamaica or rounding the corners of barn windows across the Midwest. The sorts of constructions one could believe might save certain pensive pet pigs or keep the air clear of gnats, flies, and mischievous malevolent mosquitoes. The sorts of webs that perhaps inspired lace, corsets, and Goth music. The sorts of tensile constructs that inspired tension bridges and Renzo Piano’s German Youth House.

I once had several glass fish tanks, the result of a passing interest in raising rodents and lizards, and crickets to feed the latter. One afternoon I discovered a terrifying orange and yellow tiger striped, big bodied, prickly bristled long black legged beauty lounging on my window sill, perhaps watching me try to match socks dug up from the clutter around my Kentucky college days off campus rented room; perhaps just enjoying the breeze on a humidly sunny late spring afternoon. I noticed her and figured she’s move on of her own accord, thinking that all spiders must understand the rule: stay outside and be left alone, come inside and take your chances against brooms, toilet paper, bug spray, and flushing toilets. Surely spider young learn that simple rule set before leaving the egg clutch, that basic principle of cohabitation with man.

After a bit of kerfuffle around the ol’ boarding house rental room, I found two socks similar enough in texture and pattern to approximate kissing cousins and donned them with the anticipation then donning some shoes. I noticed then the sharply defined shape of my eight legged voyeur silhouetted against the soon setting sun. I have no idea why or how I ascertained that she might want accommodations, or that the arachnid’s gender was that of a female, though that guess proved true later on when the egg sack arrived.

I sat an empty aquarium down at the base of the window, lined it up beneath the sill, and put a couple sci-fi toys inside for good measure, an Air Command carapace of purple and pink on one end, something from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the other, something with a spring loaded gun that shot plastic discs adorned with pizza stickers on one side.

I went out for the evening, the spider fell out of my head, and I got home to late to care that a big tiger spider might be roaming around the jungles of my room somewhere. Next morning as I rose like the dead with nothing on but kissing cousin socks, I noticed that the tigress had indeed taken up residence inside the glass box, further, had spun a small, cozy web between the toys standing tall at either end of the 20 gallon enclosure. I stared at the web for a while, appreciative smile spreading across my mug, noting that the spider had found a hollow on the side of the Air Command carapace where diminutive plastic figures once stood to nestle down and nap after a hard night’s weaving. Now a bit more concerned about the tigress claiming additional turf beyond the confines of the glass case, I located a screen top for the case and laid it on top gently. I next set out like Renfield to catch some fat juicy flies lest her heiness go for want in her new crib. Fortunately that time of year in Kentucky has ample flies that still haven’t quite yet shaken off the transition of spring into summer, as easy to catch with a Kleenex as glimpses of disheveled freshmen with haywire hair crossing campus on a Saturday morning, shoulders slumped and eyes on the ground, smells of strangers on their fingertips and clothes.

I lift the lid and dropped each fly in, watched them drop to the bottom with a tiny, stunned thud. After a moment they’d twitch to life as though startled by unexpected news and scuttle around the bottom of the tank, perhaps disoriented to be walking on a horizontal window. After a moment or two more, the fly would take flight, and after a couple bounces against the sides of the tank, would cross the space where the web had been strung.

The tigress might have appeared of repose and lounging, yet scarcely had a fly’s thin wing plucked a strand of web before the spider, a blur of yellow and orange, had the fly spinning from a strand, wrapping it up as though to preserve it for a trip down the Nile, and tucked the cocooned package into a corner like tiny, strange fruit, presumably for snack at some later time or date.
After three flies had become dangling jewels, foodie footballs, I left the tank alone and head off for showering, classes, the usual stuff and circumstance of those days. Days when I made extra money painting patterns on fabric grids for an embroidery shop catering to ladies who lunched, golfed, or enjoyed Kentucky university basketball. Those days when Lisa would drive down from Cincinnati to help paint some of those patterns so we could go out guilt free, her glinting braces helping her look enviably under aged.

Those days when Steve lived downstairs with his two cats, one of them an amateur spelunker that had to be pulled from the heating ducts after removing a segment of ceiling to reach the source of the sound we’d all been hearing cry from the vents in the big house’s many bathrooms. When pulling a trapped and terrified cat from tin pipes, be sure to do so from an uphill direction, or a lot more will be pouring out into your waiting arms than just a fearful feline.

Those days when Joe lived across the hall and kept his door locked so that no one could put Wham into his boom box and turn it on while he tried to sleep in after a long night trying to convince a colleague from Ramsey’s restaurant and I that we would never be Kid & Play, 3rd Bass, or EMPD, no matter how many words I could rhyme with Chalk.

The afternoon of the first day of the tigress’s residency in my room, I picked up a bag of live crickets from the local pet shop and let them loose in the tank. Not sure if spiders generally eat crickets, but this little lady knew how to improvise, and crickets really are woefully oblivious, much like hamsters, those furry little bite sized chicken McNuggets of the wilds of nature. Young crickets would stream one after another up to and over the lip of the hollow full of spider, never to be seen again but for the occasional detached, still flexing leg.

Over the following weeks I woke each day to new webs in the tank, new patterns and forms, almost as though the spider were trying to maximize coverage and efficiency, think and rethink her process, adapting to a space that was low and horizontal versus the sorts of open spaces amidst the brush and trees spiders like her typically roost in. I should have documented the patterns and forms, drawn them or photographed them, as every day they were different. And as long as there were crickets, a few flies, and the occasional moth, she seemed content, and grew bigger, not a lot, but easily doubled her size over the couple months she stayed with me. From the size of a raison to that of a grape. A green one. Seedless. You know the sort.

I had the lid up one afternoon to drop in more crickets when a yellow jacket flew past my head, over my shoulder, and straight into the tank. Alarmed, I thought to reach in and try to get the yellow jacket out before it stung my eight legged roommate, however before I could attempt such folly she was on the case. Moving with speed and stunning dexterity, she lassoed one of the yellow jacket’s legs and set it dangling and spinning like a tequila scented piƱata filled with lemon shot candies, dodging the flailing stinger as she worked, draping and tangling the spinning bug until only the head and stinger were left exposed, and then she travelled around and bit the poor bastard on the nape of the neck. The stinger stabbed the air one last, final time, and went still, poetic and tragic and worthy of applause like a well done salsa dance, all roses and calve spasm stamping, frothing at the hem line, swirling for what’s not yours but mine. 

After a couple months, a few added toys, and a veritable army of slain crickets, I noticed the egg sack in the corner of the aquarium. And shortly after, I noticed that the tigress seemed utterly apathetic about the food scurrying around in the tank. If we learned nothing else from Charlotte’s Web, we learned that egg sacks can spawn dozens, if not hundreds, of offspring. Not eager to host a convention of tiny, cannibalistic arachnids in my diminutive quarters, I carefully extracted the sack by its connecting threads of spider silk and moved it outside to a sheltered spot beneath one of the sideboards of the house, protected from rain, direct sunshine, and passing crows. Next, I moved the tigress atop her Air Command throne out into the bushes beside the house, near her offspring and shaded by the loose branches of the bush. I gently jammed the toy into a crook of the plant and wiggled it to make sure it would remain stuck firm, beached in the breech of the bush. She barely moved during the whole relocation process, a sure sign she’d be passing on soon.

I checked the spot for a couple days after that, and on the third day she’d gone. Passed away in the hollow on the chassis of a pink and purple toy. Shaded by brambles and branches, surrounded by a cadre of other breeds of spider and those that would feed them.

I’ve had my share of scares with spiders, like the canopy of black widows I discovered overhead in the outhouse I’d been told was safe to use, just never look up. Or the massive wolf spider that lived under my parent’s book shelves in the house behind the kitchen at Washington College Academy, the spider that had figured out if it lie flat on the darker patches of the mottled shag carpet in the house it could remain nearly invisible until someone were about to step on it  and forced it to move and give away its position, much to the distress of anyone around. How about the time I picked up a wooden tomato stake for my Dad in the garden behind that house across the highway from Milligan College, picked it up by one end and saw a black widow begin to lower herself downwards from the middle as though I’d interrupted her nap? I recall I jumped up and down on the grass where she’d landed until even the grass gave up the ghost and dissolved into a greasy smear flecked with tiny spider juices. 

How about the cane spiders on the tropical coast of Hawaii’s big island? I still regret killing the one I discovered in my beach house bedroom when I turned on the light one evening. I hadn’t learned until later that as big and scary looking as these beauties are, they’re actually very tame, unlike the local 10 inch centipedes. Fortunately no one did anything to harm the even larger one we discovered outside, though many pictures were taken. She’d been guarding her egg nest, another good thing to replace the one I’d sadly misunderstood, let fear get the best of me, and popped like a grape. A purple one. Seedy. You know the type.

The closet office I worked in managing the Drexel in Bexley, Columbus, Ohio had a minor infestation of spiders, and no number of ones I Scotch taped to the wall as warning to others seemed to deter them from dangling down in front of me as I counted out the night’s earnings and proceeds. 
When Lisa and I rent a basement suite / floor of a house in Eugene, our entrance faced a concrete retaining wall and the bottom of a flight of concrete stairs that ran up the front of the structure off to the left. The banister at the top of the retaining wall had been overgrown with a thick, luscious mane of ivy type vines and leaves, plants that dangled down to only a couple feet from the ground outside our big glass front door. 

There are several things to note about living in a basement suite, things you should consider before taking up residence in one. You’ll get to know all about how water works, particularly the drainage of it, and how easy it is for a drainage pipe to get clogged up with leaves outside your front door, leading to water creeping in from outside and slowly following the grouted grooves between the clay tiles of your living room floor bound for anything absorbent like the oceans into the viaducts of Venice. Another thing to know is that you get very familiar with all the local fauna, from the raccoon family living in the clump of trees in the back yard that come out at night to rummage the compost heap or try to catch the goldfish in the brick pond in the back yard to the myriad of beetles, bugs, millipedes, and of course spiders that wander in off the street.

The mane of ivy-esque dangling vine foliage outside the front door became a particularly harrowing educational experience. First we discovered as the weather warmed that we’d need a broom handle sitting by the door to clear away fresh webs each morning to ascent the stairs to ground level. Next we noticed how many spiders lived in the vines. And for all we could see, there turned out to be hundreds more. How did we discover that, you might ask?

Pesticides. Bug sprays. The noxious semi-liquid stuff that smells of formaldehyde and has clear warnings forbidding use in enclosed spaces lest lungs bleed and eyes shrivel into wasabi peas.

After feeling woefully outnumbered by the bugs and their friends, we went to the Target and procured the strongest stuff we could find, the stuff that guaranteed to drop dead ants, wasps, and most importantly, spiders.

Sure, we’d tried cohabitation. We’d cut the busy mane back. We’d used the broom to clear a path. We’d even tried closing our eyes and ignoring the thousands of eyes watching us from the plants. A sort of hide under the covers and monsters will never hurt you approach that ended after we discovered more and more of the spinsters finding perches inside the low ceilinged suite.

So we turned to chemistry, tied a bandana around my face and pushed sunglasses over my eyes and set to spraying my loathe juices all over that luscious green canopy pouring down the wall opposite our front door.

When the first couple spiders dropped from the brush, some death spasming as they still dangled from their escape strands, others hitting the ground and crawling, dragging themselves, crumpling tragically as only spiders can, I felt saddened, yet triumphant as well. And then more dropped. And more. And more. Dozens and dozens of a myriad shapes and sizes, a plethora of pesticide death penalties imposed in minutes, and my sense of triumph faded just as quickly, replaced with abject horror, and sense that like Mario discovering a brick that will keep spawning coins if you keep jumping your head into it, I might have just found a way to inadvertently harvest more negative spider kharma than I would know what to do with. Me, the guy that so carefully saved the tigress’s egg sack and gave her a peaceful place to pass. Me, the person that almost always adhered to the rule of spiders outside, no care, but spiders inside, beware.

Outside the front door, in the stairwell, this had to be a gray area if there ever were one. The spiders I’d been euthanizing there were technically outside, however directly in the path of our only thoroughfare for entering and exiting our rented residence. A sort of Gaza Strip of contested territory, as only a week passed before we would sense we needed to spray again, as the wholesale vacancy left by the former arachnid residents proved irresistible to whole new bevies of spider populace, new breeds moved in to replace the dead, bigger and grizzlier than the last. The weekly sprays were something like a demented Suess poem as there can be no other kind:

     There were spiders of raspberry red and spiders of blueberry blue,
     There were spiders summarily dead and that left behind me and you.
     There were spiders big and spiders quite small,
     There were spiders fat and spiders quite tall.
     There were spiders with starts and stripes, and spiders with coats of fur,
     There were spiders to startle a thousand Miss Muffets, that’s for sure!

And after at least a half dozen emptied cans of bug spray over as many weeks, the tides of spiders dwindled, perhaps enough spray lacquer dried to create a repellent buffer zone to dissuade any further breeds move in. Leaving me to live with the knowledge that in as many weeks I had also managed to elevate my spider killing score from low double digits into the thousands. I felt an Oppenheimer quote coming on as I stood looking at the piles of dead spiders around my feet. I did not feel proud, or victorious. Just sad, and eager to find higher ground as soon as the upstairs floor became available so that we’d never have to spray anything on any critter ever again.

I felt a deeper aversion to spiders after that, perhaps fearing karma, or stories of the brown recluse native to the North West. One way to confront this fear was to embrace it, or at least, an abstraction of it. Monstrous abstractions, point of fact.

Years after the Eugene Oregon Spider Genocide and a move to Vancouver, BC, Canada; I convinced my friend and former roommate to confront her fear of spiders with a therapeutic double dose of cinematic spider fun. After months of needling her, I finally convinced Celine to come over for a double feature of Arachnophobia and Eight Legged Freaks, with the scarier film first to get it out of the way and enjoy some goofy absurdity after.

Celine, a strong willed trooper if ever there were one, made it through Arachnophobia and survived to tell the tale. There were celebrations, high fives all around. She’d confront her fear and looked forward to telling her folks back in France of her personal victory and achievement. One film down, the harder one at that, and one more to go. All easy cruise smooth sailing on from here. Celine excused herself to the powder room to do whatever girls do for so long in there with the fan on. And that’s when I got busy. 
What Celine didn’t readily remember is that over the past couple Halloweens I’d discovered that a Pharmacy chain called Shoppers Drug Mart carries really good props for the hallowed holiday, in particular rather large scale rubber latex, foam filled, inner wire armature boned arachnids. I have a tarantula that spans about a meter across I’ve affectionately named George Lucas and another more spindly sort of spider that chose to remain nameless and crouches about a foot and a half tall on its thin, spike bristled legs.

While Celine freshened up, I placed one of the spiders on the back of the couch, roughly framing where she’d sit when she resumed her seat. I dimmed the lights and cued up the next feature. I refilled the chip bowl and fetched a couple more beverages from the fridge.

She took her seat on the couch and completely didn’t notice the over-sized spiders on the back of the couch. Whether my comments about the movie being ready to go and likely very silly what with giant spiders and all had worked to distract her, I can only but guess. Must have worked, she plopped down and didn’t notice a thing. The film had been on about 20 minutes or so, long enough I’d decided she’d never notice the additions to the sofa, when she looked towards her right shoulder, perhaps waved her hair over and her hand brushed against one of George’s rubbery legs, and she whirled, screeched, saw the second spider; and teleported a few feet away.

She’d met George before and had heard of the other one I’d gotten a year later, so her fear evaporated in seconds, replaced by a rage that transcended English into a French string of very strong yet strangely enticing expressions of outrage. It’s true, everything just sounds sexier when said in French. A couple punches in the arm later, and make no mistake, Celine is strong like monkey, the faux spiders were relocated away from Celine lest they end up thrown overboard from my 19th floor balcony, and on with Eight Legged Freaks we went. If killing thousands of real spiders didn’t earn me bad spider karma, teasing a close friend with ample arachnophobia probably did.


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