Tony Laiolo struck again with another great story, this time for our October event “Fear.” 

“Spiders. Me. A History.”

One day when I was six or seven, my dad brought home a cardboard box the size of a refrigerator, for the eminently sensible reason that it used to have one in it. He thought my brothers and I might have some use for it, and he was right.

Out on the patio, I sized up this box. It was really just a question of “What do I want it to be first? Fort? Spaceship? Goldmine? Shoot, this box WAS a goldmine — it could be anything. Big things were going to happen in this box. I tipped it over and crawled in, then thrashed around and managed to pull it back upright — opening at the top, me at the bottom.

It was surprisingly peaceful in there, sunlight trickling in through the gently swaying branches of the oak tree overhead. You might almost drift off to sleep, lulled by the slow-dancing shadows at the bottom of the box. Except that one shadow was different. Growing larger. Wriggling. My eyes shot up and who should be rappelling into my little sanctuary — looking big as a football, evil in all eight of its eyes, the meanest chunk of malice this side of Lex Luthor – yeah, you got it — Mr. Big, dropping in for a little visit.

Now, at age six or seven I would frequently pack a gun and holster, but instinctively I knew that “bang, you’re dead” wasn’t quite going to cut it this time. I quickly opted for an alternate strategy, the ever-popular freakout, and knocked over the box so I could escape. One little problem. Mr. Big had worked his way just inside the box’s air space, and my knocking it over had knocked him down…all the way down…where I was. Smooth move, Ex-Lax.

My freakout ramped up exponentially. I could not get free of that box fast enough. Only it wasn’t quite that simple. I couldn’t stand, so 1) I couldn’t stomp, 2) I couldn’t run, and 3) because I was crawling, more of my tasty young flesh was offered up for his smorgasbord. We were neck and neck. I had the slight size advantage, but he had the eight legs to my two. I knew what he was trying to do. I’d done my homework, seen plenty of Westerns. He was going to gallop up alongside and hop on over to my calf, rodeo-style. Maybe that’s why they call it a calf.

I don’t think the hop ever happened. This is where the memory ends. I probably ran crying to mama, and she probably said it’s all right. But it wasn’t all right, not after that. The rest of that memory may be lost, but there’s a deeper kind that never forgets, a kind that recognizes a known threat, fires up the old adrenalin pump, and dictates action — fight or flight. Now I had a mortal enemy, put on earth for the sole reason of scaring the crap out of me. Flight hadn’t solved the problem, now fight got its turn. My wrath was terrible, my swath wide. Any spider foolish or unlucky enough to cross my path paid with his life. No exceptions. That’s just how it was.

Then one night maybe a year later, I was in my room. It was on the upper floor and had a ceiling I really liked — rough-hewn pine planks, painted white so you could see them even by nothing but moonlight. There was plenty to see. Each plank had its own personality — the grains and whorls and textures that caught your imagination, there on the edge of sleep, and pretty soon you were dreaming.

That night, as I slept, I felt something wispy and insubstantial on my cheek, and brushed it away. Then there was another. And another. OK, what’s going on? I turned on the lamp. Blitzkrieg! Tiny spiders, hundreds of them, dropping in from the cracks between the boards of my beloved ceiling. It was as though my carnage, my decimation of their ranks, had reached some critical mass and required retaliation. It was personal now, like they’d all lost loved ones. Likely they had. You could imagine their battle cries — Get him! He’s the one! He got Jerry!

I remember no more of that episode either, although I suspect a vacuum hose might be involved. But my haven was gone. Even in my own room, in my peaceful slumber, they could get to me, and I’d given them ample cause. He got Jerry!

But what was a childhood fear did not outlast childhood. Where does that kind of hate go to die? Apparently it goes to Santa Barbara. I’d stayed there the summer before my senior year of college, had a job, but this was Sunday and I was lying on the beach, drowsy head upon folded arms.

I noticed movement in the hairs of my arm, which on closer inspection turned out to be the sorriest, skinniest, least threatening excuse of a spider ever seen. He’d struggle up one hair, teeter on the top, fall forward, then struggle up the next one. It took forever. If you were playing it for laughs, you could do no better. He was a bass drum and trombone shy of a full-on circus act.

And I was fascinated. Why is he even there? Does he live on the beach? Is he kicking himself for hanging that left at the seaweed and ending up in this fix? Is he thinking “bad hair day”? Who knows, but he just kept going. And I just kept rooting for him.

Fear never showed up that day. Things had clearly become different for spiders and me. I could know one on a non-adversarial basis, as a fellow creature simply trying to get by. Somehow I was finally out of that refrigerator box, out from under that treacherous plank ceiling.

Here’s the best way I can illustrate this change. In a corner of my bathroom, suspended on a near-invisible web, is my pet spider. He just kind of hangs there zen-like all day, waiting to see who might drop by for dinner. We talk — he’s a good listener — about baseball and women, and he really likes it when we talk about flies. Cute as a bug.

The others who drop into my domicile are captured and relocated to the garden. Not him. He’s a keeper. Good old Jerry.

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