Fiction: 'The Life of Her Mother' by Amy Coombe
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
The surgery is on Tuesday morning, and the doctor said to go spend the weekend somewhere nice, before. So our fearless heroine and her mother go buy new dresses, and her mom gets her out of school for a four day weekend, and they fly to Las Vegas and spend the weekend eating and sightseeing and going to all these awful shows. They’re so ridiculous, the one with everyone on rollerskates and dayglo spandex it’s embarrassing. And they have really big dinners every night, even lobster once – they get to pick their lobster out of the tank, and our fearless heroine is a vegetarian, but now’s not the right time, so they have lobster for dinner. And pancakes every day for breakfast. Then, Sunday morning, she and her mom shave their heads together like they agreed. Her mom brought an English shaving kit, which has a foaming soap-thing in a mug, and a brush made with badger fur, just like your dad used to have, and they cut their hair off together first, and it’s just totally shocking. And they both get a little quiet and scared. So then they then lather up the soap-thing in the mug with the brush and take turns getting it all over each others’ scalps and it tickles like hell, and they give themselves foam beards and then start shaving, Lady Gilette versus the terrifying Soap Man. And when they fly home late that afternoon everyone stares at them in the airport and our fearless heroine is shocked how it makes her neck and shoulders tense, all that scrutiny.
So they get back to the airport and get the car and drive back to their stupid town, and have to pick the dog up from the kennel where he was boarding, and finally, finally they get home. The house has only been empty for four days, remember that. And her mom sighs really heavily as they walk into the kitchen from the garage, and our fearless heroine lets the dog off his leash and goes into her room to unpack while her mom listens to the messages on the machine and goes through the mail.
And then she walks into the bathroom, it’s her bathroom; her mom has her own bathroom off her bedroom. She walks into the bathroom and flips on the light and there, in the corner opposite the toilet, is a web. With a spider in it.
A black spider.
You’ve seen a black widow before, right? They’re awful. Like, the worst spiders ever. They’re this fat body with a butt that comes to a point, and a tiny head and these long spindly legs, and they’re shiny. That’s the worst part; they’re like oily-looking and totally unmistakable even if you can’t see that red hourglass, which is a real thing – she always thought it must have been an exaggeration, but it’s a real goddamned thing, and there one was just hanging out in her bathroom.
Our fearless heroine, naturally enough, freaks out and runs back to the living room and bursts into tears, instantly so hysterical she can hardly talk; sort of burbling and gasping and clutching her chest like she’s having a heart-attack, and her mom can’t calm her down and it goes on like this for aaaaaages until her mom finally gets it out of her, and then she can see she doesn’t believe her. So her mom rolls up the New Yorker that just came in the mail, and they walk back to the bathroom, and our fearless heroine can hardly see she’s crying so hard, and they look in the door and of course it’s gone. And her mom still doesn’t believe her and gives her that look, and our fearless heroine of course starts crying even harder, because it’s somewhere in the house now and what if it bites the dog. And her mom is still like are you sure it was a black widow, are you sure, and oh my god yessss.
So they go back to the kitchen and her mom makes her take a drink of water, and then gives her the ant spray (that’s the only insecticide they have) (spiders aren’t even insects) and keeps her rolled-up magazine and they go looking for it, and eventually her mom finds it, just behind the bathroom door by the jamb and smashes it and the dead smear on the wall is so obviously the mortal remains of a black widow that her mom doesn’t even have to apologize for not believing her, and now the dog’s safe and they can go to bed and everything’s fine.
This one’s outside, thank god, in the back yard; it spun a web between the wall of the house and one of those metal boxes that are always on the outsides of houses, fuse boxes or meters or whatever. Our fearless heroine found it when she was out doing whatever she was doing in the backyard after school. Throwing a ball for the dog, I don’t know.
The web is gross. It’s big and sort of dirty-looking, and not at all pretty like a garden spider’s web, or even the soft little cobwebs that some other kind of spider spins across juniper bushes. It’s kind of ball-shaped, a billion random greasy-looking strings attached to each other in a billion greasy random ways, but vaguely spherical. A black widow web is this big gross mess, like what bug could be dumb enough not to see that?
This one has two spiders in it, the black widow and her mate, and even their egg sac. Our fearless heroine gets close enough to verify it, and then gets the dog by his collar and pulls him into the house with her.
Her mom is asleep in the chair in front of the tv, and she hasn’t been sleeping much, so our fearless heroine just goes to her room and sits down on her bed and tries to read a book for a while and forget about the spider. Though she does tell her mom over dinner, and she gets that look again, all why don’t you just go kill it? And our fearless heroine promises to do it the next morning.
So it’s the next morning, and our fearless heroine goes into the kitchen and gets the ant-spray out from under the sink (why don’t they have any spider stuff yet?), and a pair of those yellow gloves for doing the dishes, and goes back outside, and experiments first to see how far the spray will spray. Two feet. So she puts on the gloves and walks over to the box-thing, and the spiders are still there; the female is moving around and the male is close to the egg sac. And our fearless heroine stands like four feet away, and sticks her arm out with the spray bottle at the end of it, so it’s two feet away, and sprays. And the spiders go nuts; the male scrambles really awkwardly toward the box-thing, and the female starts to climb the long strands of web that lead away from the nest, but our fearless heroine keeps spraying and spraying, and the male dies like right away. The female, though, she’s tough. She gets pretty far away, up one strand and towards the rain gutter (our fearless heroine hadn’t gotten close enough before to see that the web was suspended from the gutters, in part). And then the ant-spray starts to work, and the female sort of slides back down the strand, back toward the dead male. But it’s – she’s – still trying to get away, still moving feebly even after being totally soaked like three times over, and it feels like it takes forever for her to die.
Our fearless heroine sprays the egg sac too, for good measure. Then she strips off the gloves and throws them away, and goes back inside, and puts the ant-spray away (the bottle’s a lot lighter now; go figure) and then goes to take a shower because she smells like chemicals.
The worst thing is, it’s a really dry summer already and there’s no rain, and no wind, nothing. So the web never blows away or anything, and the dead spiders just hang there in their web for weeks. Our fearless heroine gets kind of obsessed with them, with going to look at the spider corpses, like every day. It’s the closest she’s ever been to a black widow, certainly a male black widow, all skinny and stripe-y. It doesn’t have the huge butt. It’s as big as the female, but like deflated, a bad black-and-white Tim Burton knockoff of the original. It just looks ridiculous, as much as the female looks horrible.
The egg sac desiccates down to nothing, and the male who’s so light to begin with just vanishes one day. But the female doesn’t; it just stays and stays. And every day our fearless heroine stands in front of that dead spider and stares at it, and thinks this should mean something, this should mean something.
But why should it?
Her mom’s totally insomniac now, and can’t sleep much at night. She feels best after dark, so they stay up and watch movies together, then TV – Law & Order and lame sitcoms, and later cooler stuff like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. M*A*S*H reruns that are on past midnight. Her mom likes WWII so they watch a lot of old WWII documentaries and movies. One of the neighbors stays up late, too, and has a hot tub, and invites people over and they listen to music and talk loudly, and finally our fearless heroine gets fed up and starts throwing sticks over the fence adjoining their properties, sticks with notes tied around them that read “my mom is sick. Please try to be quieter at night.” But they never are, and our fearless heroine begins to suspect they’ve never read her notes. Indeed, one afternoon, she climbs a tree by the fence and peers over. The neighbor’s house has a deck with the hot tub set in it, and then beyond that is this just sort of ignored back-yard wasteland, and sure enough, all her sticks and notes are still there, invisible in the weeds and other crap the neighbor and his friends have tossed away, like beer cans. Disgusting.
In the fifth grade our fearless heroine had had a huge crush on this guy, Josh, and carefully carved his initials into a tree in the backyard with a pen-knife her dad gave her a long time ago. Five years later, what was she thinking, that guy’s such a jerk, and really dumb. Used to make fun of her all the time because he knew about her crush, so our fearless heroine isn’t too fond of him these days. Anyway, that’s the tree she climbed. It’s still there: JS + OFH, inside an angular heart scratched into the bark, like an M on top of a V.
Her mom drowses on and off through the day. They’re both home all day; her mom’s off work, of course, and our fearless heroine’s been home from school for a month and doesn’t have a summer job, so they just hang out. Sometimes they drive into neighboring towns to see movies, though her mom isn’t supposed to drive anymore. But they don’t have air conditioning at home and it’s really, really, really hot that summer. Or they take a walk and go to one of the local cafes a few blocks away, and have sandwiches or burgers, and rent movies. Lots of mint-chocolate-chip milkshakes, too. Our fearless heroine usually spends the afternoon at the community pool with friends, even though that means wearing a bathing suit in public and ugh, her boobs are so weird. And you know all the little kids pee in the pool. But our fearless heroine loves to swim, loves holding her breath to swim all the way from one end to the other (though she doesn’t usually make it). Her favorite is to swim underwater toward the steps at the shallow end, pretending she’s in that James Bond movie where they’re in Greece and go scuba diving around the ruins of an old temple and she opens her eyes and swims toward those glowing white steps very slowly, along the bottom of the pool, and then flows up them and out. It’s awesome, totally quiet even with everyone else paddling and stamping around. She’s tanner than she’s ever been before, and swimming is weirdly even more fun now that she doesn’t have any hair, but her boobs are still, ugh, so weird.
Assurances from her mom that her boobs are exactly like what her boobs used to look like when she was her age are not helpful.
So our fearless heroine swims all afternoon, or hangs out in the shade around the pool with Jess and her little sister, and then she rides her bike home for dinner. And she locks her bike to the decorative wooden railing by the front porch (her mom hates this) and opens the front door and steps into the little foyer and closes the door behind her very softly, and stands in the cool dark of the entryway and looks into the living room where her mom is asleep in the chair in front of the tv, and waits until she sees her mom’s diaphragm move, just stands there watching her breathe for a while. Then goes to her room to read until it’s time to wake her mom up for dinner.
This spider built its web between the front wheel of her bike and the porch railings, must have been after she got home yesterday afternoon, so she unlocks it gingerly and then yanks the bike back, breaking the web. The spider swings wildly in its collapsing nest and then thumps against a rail, like audibly, and then scrambles wildly up, so our fearless heroine fearlessly slaps the top of the railing with the flat of her hand. The spider freezes. Our fearless heroine, without getting any closer, takes a deep breath and blows a puff of air at it, which just makes it pull its legs into its body. She can see it, that slimy-looking black exoskeleton, that disgusting unnatural lump like the zit from hell on the smooth brown wood of the railing. It cautiously pokes a leg out and our fearless heroine decides she’s had enough; goes to get the hose coiled up by the juniper tree next to the garage and blows that spider all to shit with water, even though there’s a drought and it’ll piss her mom off to find out she wasted water on a spider.
Her mom has a boyfriend who was supposed to come help, but he’s such a shithead. They do this every year, get a cord of firewood delivered and then spend all day stacking it in the backyard, so they can have fires all winter. Every year the firewood is delivered on the hottest day of the summer; it was like 114 degrees last year, seriously. The delivery time is supposed to be anywhere from 8 am to 2 pm, and they always hope it’ll come at 8 so they can get some of it stacked before it gets really hot out, but they live in a pretty rural town so they’re always the last delivery of the day. The truck shows up with the wood tossed into the bed, and the driver gets out and does some stuff to the wires connecting the cabin to the bed, and then the back of the truck very slowly raises up at an angle and finally dumps all the wood out all over the driveway, and her mom pays the driver and offers him a Coke, and he goes away and they have to spend the next five hours stacking firewood. And it’s seriously hotter this year than last year, even.
Being the last delivery of the day means they also get all the wildlife from all the other deliveries, billions of spiders and slugs and centipedes and millipedes. Our fearless heroine and her mom put on heavy leather gardening gloves, and stack logs in the wheelbarrow (which is this insane bright orange color, and this is the only thing they use it for, so the tire goes flat every year, so every year her mom makes her walk it down to the gas station and refill the tire, and every year it’s excruciating because of course she sees everyone she knows while she’s walking down the sidewalk wheeling this stupid orange wheelbarrow around like a lunatic. Last year, someone she vaguely knows from school, who has a truck, actually stopped and offered her a ride. Our fearless heroine was so embarrassed.
Anyway, the wheelbarrow’s wheel is already all inflated, so they have to stack the wood. One person heaps the logs into that fucking wheelbarrow, then wheels it into the backyard and dumps it out, and the other person stacks the logs and eventually it’ll be 128 cubic feet, (our fearless heroine thought “cord” was a stupid word and looked it up) but for now it’s three logs laid one way, and then three logs laid perpendicular on top of them, then three more laid the first way, and so on until the stack’s four feet high, and then they move on to the next stack. And back and forth like this, occasionally switching jobs, and sometimes taking a break for a glass of water or a Coke.
And it’s hot and dusty and the leather gardening gloves are ancient and stiff with sweat and too big anyway. Every year, our fearless heroine forces them inside-out before putting them on, just to make sure there aren’t any spiders in them. And every year they sweat, our fearless heroine and her mom, and the sweat makes all the sunscreen they put on drip off so they get sunburns. But this year they don’t have any hair, either of them, so they wear hats, though our fearless heroine hates hats, she discovers, and takes hers off and gets a sunburn on her scalp which hurts like hell for days. Her mom, meanwhile, is just silently stacking wood what she calls her asshole hat, a beat-up bucket-cap that says Budweiser all over it. Years ago her mom was wearing that hat on a boat and it blew off into the water and though she rescued it all the little rivets rusted, so it’s really disgusting.
The stacking takes forever. It’s awful, it just goes on and on in this totally mindless way, wood into the wheelbarrow, wood out of the wheelbarrow, three logs by three logs by three logs by three logs over and over and over. They start out pretty cheerful; they have the radio on to the oldies station (because her mom thinks people stopped making good music in the seventies) and they’ve got loads of energy, and they race against last years’ time (five hours three minutes). But things start to drag out, and it gets hotter and hotter, and dustier and dustier, and they get dirt in their eyes and grit in their mouths and up their noses, and the dust sticks to the sweat and the sunscreen on their arms and faces, and they have to wear jeans and boots even though it’s a billion degrees out, and this year they have to take breaks all the time because her mom gets so tired, but she won’t stop or let our fearless heroine just finish for them, so they keep stacking and sniping at each other and sulking (though maybe it’s only one of them who’s sulking).
And they get the usual spiders and things, and they leave them alone. Normal spiders are okay, you know. They eat all the other bugs in the wood, so our fearless heroine won’t get gross things crawling on her when she brings the logs inside in the winter, so who cares.
The black widows, if there are any, won’t show up until the very end, just when they’re starting to feel like the stacking will be going on forever, just before they notice that it’s actually nearly done. Our fearless heroine doesn’t know how they always know to wait till the end, but they always do, though usually it’s only one or two. That’s how she saw her first one, stacking firewood with her mom four or five years ago. Her mom just casually stepped on it and that was that.
This year, though. This year there are so many black widows. The first one they find in the wheelbarrow after her mom’s dumped a load of wood out in the back yard, next to the growing stack. Her mom knocks it out of the wheelbarrow with her boot and stamps on it. Then, an hour later, when our fearless heroine is the one putting loads of wood in the wheelbarrow, she finds two – one actually on a log she’s holding, which she drops with a squeak and then hits with a second log. The other one she also drops a log onto. They kill so many black widows that day, some really small, others that are humongous. I guess it was a wet spring and a dry summer, her mom says; that’s why there are so many. Ugh, the fatter they are the more likely they’re pregnant, apparently. We’re going to have a lot this fall, her mom says. Our fearless heroine makes sure to drop really big logs on them.
They don’t beat last year’s time, but after they’re done they take showers and go out to dinner, so it’s okay.
The rain doesn’t usually start till October or November, but this is such a weird year. It starts raining on Wednesday, pouring down like crazy. The same day school started again, which she felt was stupidly appropriate. And totally unprecedented. Rain like this in September, when it’s supposed to be hot for another month. Marching band practice isn’t cancelled, of course. They just have to march around in circles in the gym after school. It’s humiliating.
She wears a bright pink wig to school the first day. She takes it off a lot to display her bald head, which people pat and rub, even girls who never talk to her otherwise. The rumor gets around that she shaved in solidarity with her mom, They’re all like that’s so cool, it’s so cool what you’re doing, that’s really awesome. Everyone’s surprised by how soft the little bristles are. They ask how long she’s going to keep it bald. Like, I don’t know. There are some girls who make that bitchy sucking noise a few feet away and you can hear them talking in their flat way, but mostly everyone is totally into it.
The principal calls her into his office after first period. He’s not happy about the wig, thinks it’s distracting. She sort of tears up a bit, and it’s as real as it isn’t, and he’s suddenly so sympathetic, totally understands; whatever she needs to do to get though this difficult time. Victory.
So the wig stays, and she wears it under her stupid marching-band hat even though she won’t be able to in competitions. It’s so hot, with the nylon wig and the hat and the nylon-lined wool uniform, and she can feel the sweat rolling between her breasts, and all the way down her back, down her spine into her butt-crack. Big old beads of it. It’s disgusting. But, whatever. The wig stays.
Friday is theater night. She takes the bus into the city, and her mom meets her at the parking structure near her office where she parked this morning. Because her mom is still working, of course. She’s going to work for as long as she can, and she still can, so she’s back at work, working. Part-time, anyway. They have an early dinner and then see a show, first of the season. Tonight it’s sushi, at this basement place that our fearless heroine likes a lot. She tried to talk her mom into wearing her matching pink wig this morning but her mom just tied a scarf around her head instead. You look like a cancer patient, our fearless heroine says, but her mom laughs and is like, I never wear scarves, so I might as well enjoy it.
But we could match. That’s why we have the wigs! But her mom is happy in her scarf, which is an old lady design with red and blue and chains and anchors on a white background. Totally eighties. Everyone secretly looks at the two of them, the cancer patient and her freak bald kid.
The show is awful, so depressing. About the syphilis tests on black men in the forties. They talk about it on the drive home, through the totally pouring rain. Her mom isn’t supposed to be driving, of course, and her aunt yelled at her about it, came over once this summer and screamed and screamed, while our fearless heroine sat in the sun in the other room and patted the dog and tried to zone out, unhear it. What if you get a seizure while you’re driving? What if Amy’s in the car? What if you hit someone? But she won’t stop driving. And our fearless heroine doesn’t care, isn’t scared, because really? Not the scariest thing going on right now.
So it’s raining. Really pounding down. And the drive takes forever, because her mom’s going really carefully because visibility is so low, but she’s kind of tense, too. The syphilis show really got to her, our fearless heroine can tell. And the show was really long, so it’s late. And they pull into the driveway and mom hits the button to make the garage door go up, and it doesn’t. The battery’s going bad or something, has been for a while. But of course tonight’s the night it just totally stops. So one of them has to get out and open the door by hand. Of course it has to be her, so she takes her wig off (like water would hurt it) and gets out and walks toward the garage door and then, there, in the pouring rain, illuminated by the car’s headlights: a web.
But not just a web. That web. It’s been spun between the eaves and the asphalt of the driveway, on these thick greasy threads, like how did the spider even do that? And, illuminated perfectly in the light from the car, about two feet above the ground, is the nest. A skinny little male and a massive disgusting female and an egg sac.
When could they possibly have built it? It’s been pouring all day. They don’t even have any protection from the rain, not really; they’re just out in the open, getting totally soaked and hanging out like they don’t even feel it. Like they don’t even care.
Our fearless heroine just can’t. Something about the scarf her mom is wearing and the syphilis show and oh my god everything. She stands there and stares at it, water freezing cold on her bristly head, her dress getting soaked, then walks back to the car, to her mom’s side, and says there’s a black widow in a web right there, pointing. And her mom blows that heavy sigh, doesn’t even tell her to go kill it. Asks her to move, swings the door open and steps out of the car. Marches right over to that nest in the dark and the rain and kicks the fucking spider out of the web. And then she steps on it, grinds it into the asphalt with the spike-heel of her shoe. Doesn’t say a word, just stalks back to the car and gets back behind the wheel, shuts the door. Tells our fearless heroine to go open the garage door, for chrissake.
Which our fearless heroine does, eventually.
Amy Coombe grew up in Wisconsin, on a quiet street in an orange house filled with books and cats. When she's not writing she can be found drawing small birds in the margins of lined paper.
Image: "I see" by Nancy Torres