Swallowed Spiders

Swallowed Spiders
By:  Kyle Ellingson

When Grandmother had transitioned into sobriety the reasons for Peter to prolong life at home were nil and so he moved his things into a house two blocks down the street and made an agreement with his grandparents that they treat him as if he were a thousand miles away. They phoned once a week to see that he was adjusting well, and as is usual with separations over great distances, the calls grew fewer and fewer until Peter noted that four months had passed without correspondence. Of course, Peter still saw his grandparents now and then when he drove past their house on his way to work.  But keeping true to their promise they reacted to these sightings no more than they would to spotting him in old pictures or home videos.

            The headache grey of autumn arrived early;  Peter received a letter from his grandfather.  Proper postage stamped on the upper right corner of the envelope.  Peter opened, read, and reread the letter:  it seemed Grandmother had fallen asleep and was refusing to wake up.  Grandfather had tried dashing her face with water;  patted her up and down, slapped her;  shined a lamp close over her eyelids;  shouted her name and played his violin raucously;  lain beside her and snored and kicked his legs.  Grandfather had phoned the hospital, was directed to a somnologist.  A week later and nothing was working.  The letter suggested Peter return home soon as he could manage.

            Peter arranged a week of vacation time.  He canceled appointments with clients and told his boss a family crisis had come up.  He locked the front door of his house and pitched his overnight bag into the backseat of his car.

Grandfather was waiting for him when Peter arrived.  He stood stooped over his walking cane as if he'd taken a bullet in the stomach.  A yellowed robe hung open about his shoulders, and his face, a blood-drained pale grey, was knit about the lips and forehead with creases, like wet clay having dried unsealed.

Peter was shown upstairs and into Grandmother's bedroom.  Her hands clutched the bed sheets close to her chest as she drew easy, shallow breaths.  Her hands were smoother than he'd seen them in years.  Perhaps it was the delayed effect of her recovery, but all over her face and shoulders it seemed Grandmother had only gotten younger.  As if a palimpsest her former beauty was showing through.  Peter had heard over and again growing up the many stories of all the men who'd taken great pains just to catch sight of her.  Now she slept.  He could sell admission.  Amass a paying audience of past admirers to come and eyeball her.

Grandfather explained that he was washing her every day and cleaning her sheets just as often.  The doctor had said daily upkeep would prevent the formation of bedsores.

            Peter asked whether Grandmother had relapsed;  Grandfather said not a drop had touched her lips since Peter left home.  As the two men turned from the bedroom, Grandmother came awake slightly, propped herself up on her elbows, pulled at her pillow and gave it a punch before gathering the covers again to her chest and exhaling back into sleep.

*           *           *

When she was a young woman, lines in the supermarket had a way of colluding up behind Grandmother, gathering in around her, affording closer inspection.  Her beauty made her an oddity, like some escaped deity of the circus.

After graduating high school in a small beachside town in southern Maine, Grandmother worked as a showroom model for a string of local car dealerships, quit to take a job typing scripts at a radio station, was hired at military camps along the upper east coast, down through the Carolinas, served a stint as a corporal's secretary in Georgia, before settling in as a transponder at Eglin Field Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, where she met and, after a somewhat accelerated engagement, married Grandfather.

Afternoons at Eglin, she often pedaled her bicycle into Valparaiso, a rural town a mile to the north.  She frequented the library and could be seen lugging armloads of books back and forth cross that span of countryside.  She kept a journal, even composing a number of short, rather simple stories about failed relationships she'd had all throughout her career with a number of quirk-riddled and jealous boyfriends in various camps and military towns.  At nights, she was bought drinks in the base camp lounge, and would later remark that she couldn't remember having ever once put a penny to the table in her own name.

A few months into her employment at Eglin, a curious thing happened. She lived alone on the second floor of a renovated schoolhouse-a residence for typists and secretaries.  At night when she switched on her bedside lamp, drawing the drapes down over her window, and stood centered in the room for the five or so minutes she took to strip from her uniform and brassiere and pull herself into her nightgown . . . her senses tuned to a peculiar presence at the window;  she could almost discern the sound of cautious breath on the balcony, but when she looked, saw nothing.  This went on for a number of nights, never lasting more than those five minutes she disrobed and any ominous feelings dissipated as soon as she was in her bed with a book in her lap.

Two weeks passed until one night an assembly of men took shape on the lawn below her window.  All enlisted men out of uniform.  Carrying bats, some hefting bricks in their hands.  One of them, a young violinist, hailed her at her window.

"We don't mean to alarm you," he called out, "but for the past week there've been reports of a strange man lurking around this building.  Some of the boys here say he's been camped out on your balcony."

Later that same night a hardware clerk from a shop in Valparaiso was caught climbing a low section of fence at the east end of camp.  He was beaten, his legs and a number of his ribs broken.  He'd seen Grandmother cycling past his shop with books under her arm and his only defense had been to say he had "failed to chastise himself from the idea of her."

That summer Grandmother married Grandfather.

*           *           *

Daylong drizzles of rain fell early in the week, and so Peter and Grandfather busied themselves about the interior of the house.   Peter washed Grandmother's bed sheets while Grandfather dragged her by the underarms into the upstairs bathtub to scrub and bathe her.  The main floor of the house was littered with stacks of soggy magazines and odorous warped records hauled up from the basement.  Curios and ornaments, photo albums and small libraries, all stacked haphazard about chairs and atop tables.  Peter felt he'd matured measurably since moving out of the house, and all these archived possessions of Grandmother's-having sat dormant for the duration of his childhood-seemed somehow more interesting now, like old Christmas gifts he'd never opened.  But everything was damp, some of it molded beyond inspection, save a pile of typewritten manuscripts Grandfather produced from inside a plastic grocery bag.  The stories and journals from Eglin Field were all there, as well as a mound of stories written after giving birth to Peter's mother.  After a certain date stories grew scarce, giving way to series of dream journals.  Grandfather asked Peter to consider reformatting a collection of her best work-a comprehensive account of the life she'd fallen away from.

Grandfather had stopped going to work.  His quartet played weddings and wakes mostly, with a few vow-renewal ceremonies scheduled on chance weekends.  He complained of having lost his musician's touch since Grandmother had fallen asleep, as if his hands and his mind and the instrument itself had joined in strike against his former talent.  He showed Peter his hands, and Peter agreed they looked feebler than last he'd observed.  Shrunken in upon themselves like the corpses of spiders.

They prepared duly for Grandmother to wake up or remain asleep.  Peter observed that above all for Grandfather, even above the fear that Grandmother should meet death before waking, was the fear that she should go on sleeping to outlive him.

After reading through the extent of the dream journals, Peter found nothing that begged to be salvaged, but the darkest of the entries he set aside, considering it well-composed and somewhat of a clever departure from her romance stories, but after reviewing the entry the next morning Peter thought better of showing it to Grandfather.

Dream Journal: 6/18/88

You're outside a house at night.  Tramping through flowerbeds, trying to raise your body high enough upon your tip toes to see into the first floor window.  You have a knowledge of the tenant:  a serial killer no one knows about yet.  You know where she's hid her most recent victim's body.  You've been bringing sections of it wrapped in black plastic bags to her doorstep.  First you brought a leg, then the other leg, then the torso and an arm.  You drop the bags on her doorstep, ring the doorbell and run.  And every time you return, she's taken the previous bag into the house but carries on with her life undisturbed.  This upsets you, and now you're beginning to think you've got the wrong woman.

            Your foot finds connection with a spigot and you're able to hoist yourself up, can now see into the house.  Inside you see a half-constructed corpse walking about a living room.  The legs, the torso, the chest, and one arm have all been stitched back together.  The corpse man is gliding around the room with the posture and etiquette of a French maid.  Dusting the television set, adjusting a lampshade. On a couch sits the killer woman and two other women.  They drink beer, ask the corpse for refills.  When the corpse man exits the room, the three women are talking in low voices to one another, gesturing in the direction the corpse went, and you can see it in their eyes, they're planning violence, the kind of wordless scheming that must've taken place between the first primate hunters.  You see the women rise and walk into the next room. 

            You decide you need to put a stop to what's happening. You break in through the front door and search the room for a weapon.  You find an empty wine bottle amongst beer cans.  You test the weight of it in your hand and walk further into the house, down a hallway that resembles an old high school locker room.  Moldy tile walls and a clammy cement floor. You pad forward on noiseless feet.  You come to the edge of a public bathroom and pause.  Inside you see two women looking on as the third, the killer woman, has the corpse in a toilet stall, bent over a toilet, and is killing it all over again.

            You stealth up behind the first woman and clobber her over the head with a heavy stroke of the wine bottle.  The glass bursts over her head like twinkling confetti and she drops to the floor.  The second woman looks over at you and before you can recover from the reverberations in your hand she lunges at you.  You raise the jagged hilt of the wine bottle and it finds her throat;  it sticks there and she falls back sputtering.  All this has caught the attention of the killer woman, who with a frightened look turns and wiggles her nose and disappears into thin air.  This leaves you alone with the corpse man.  You step forward to embrace him.  You tell him that everything is going to be alright.  You'll never let anyone hurt him again.  He cocks the stump of his neck, like a dog would at a distant sound, and raises his hands, waving you off as if to say "You've got the wrong person," or "I didn't order this salad."

*           *           *

On Friday the somnologist appeared at the doorstep of the house.  Peter was busy fitting clean sheets to Grandmother's bed; Grandfather was preoccupied in the basement and hadn't heard the doorbell sound.  Peter was curious what kind of person would take up a career in somnology-much less the kind of somnologist who made house calls.  Peter answered the door stepped aside as the somnologist mounted the stairwell up to Grandmother's room.

The somnologist was a tower of a human with knobbing broad shoulders, his neck bent in a vulturesque kink.  His eyes blinked huge inside twin panorama eyeglasses and like a large bird having just landed he was ruffled in his mannerisms and emitted quiet clucks of disapproval as he stood beholding Grandmother asleep on the carpeted floor.

"Why is she lying on the floor?" he asked.

            "I was busy making the bed," Peter said. "I set her there. Only for a moment."

            The somnologist's forehead was a washboard of wrinkles as he frowned.  He withdrew a stethoscope from a traveling bag he'd carried in from outside.  On bended knee, pulling back the neck of Grandmother's nightgown, he set about his auscultations.  "Mhmm. These are healthy rhythms," he said.  "She's deep in a R.E.M. cycle.  Best not to disturb her."

"Disturb her," Peter said.  "Shouldn't we be trying more of that?"

            The somnologist sharpened his eyes at Peter, as if upon some pestersome creature ahoot in his nest.  "Why would you disturb such a sleep?  Do you know how rare this is?  If only we could get all get such good rest.  I swear crime rates would go down if we were all getting this kind of snooze."

"But she doesn't wake up."

            "I'm not in the business of waking people up.  That's her job. I'm a sleep doctor.  I make sure she's sleeping well, just like normal doctors make sure you're waking well."  The stethoscope sheathed, the somnologist's long fingers snapped close his traveling bag, fingerprints of condensation disappearing from the metal fasteners.

Peter finished smoothing the undersheet of the bed and stooped to hoist his grandmother up.  She weighed nothing in his arms, like empty human luggage.

"My grandfather insists we don't try to feed her.  He thinks she'll choke.  I don't see how she'll survive without food."

The somnologist observed his wristwatch and combed his hand through the grey plumage of his hair.  "It's unwise for now.  Though I do hope you've been giving her plenty to drink."

            "He syringes water down her throat."

            "Good," he said. He looked at his wrist again.  "It's not impossible to get a sleeping person to swallow food.  In fact, the usual person on the street swallows an average of one or two spiders a year.  The little things crawl in there, you swallow them as a reflex.  Some people wake up in the morning with a stomach ache and can't figure out why.  Three times out of ten it's because they swallowed too many spiders the night before."

Without further ceremony the somnologist gave Peter a soldierly nod and walked from the room.  Peter looked down at Grandmother.  Her mouth had yet to recover the fullness of its lips it had lost to old age and stiffening skin and it stood out a wedge of black from the white of her face and Peter imagined all the things that had fallen in unseen, to be swallowed whole,  over the weeks and months and years of her life.

*           *           *

About the time of Peter's puberty, Grandmother conducted weekly visits to Mrs. Dresden's house, whose husband owned the lot north of Grandfather's.  Next to Grandmother's enstretched, willowed frame, Mrs. Dresden looked an obese child, short and plump and pockmarked in her cheeks, sour of breath.  She had a habit of interrupting anyone she felt was speaking too eloquently or making too fine a point, with the exception of Grandmother, from whom she demanded greater explanation whenever possible.  Mrs. Dresden wore large, draping outfits of ponchos and shawls and oversized sweaters.  She moved with the scuffling sway of a badger, and ever since her husband's death, had abandoned the use of cosmetics and perfumes.  Peter disliked her, and would later mark the Dresden visits as a turning point in Grandmother's slow descent into alcoholism.

            On Wednesday evenings, Grandmother walked the unlit path ground through the trees, branching from her driveway into the woods to the north, alongside the small ravine of a dried up creek bed, to Mrs. Dresden's back porch.  Drinks were poured. Peter could hear Mrs. Dresden's whooping cackle ticker through the woods, hear his grandmother's own retorts and anecdotes. Peter listened to her recount the tale of the Eglin Field Peeper, the Pittsburg Strangler, Lotte Hotel Killer.  The story of the Lotte Hotel Killer was Mrs. Dresden's favorite.  In it, Grandmother was traveling through Korea with Grandfather when Grandfather was still with the Pittsburgh Symphony.  The entire orchestra was lodged in the Lotte Hotel in Seoul.  One night the orchestra was out doing a show at the National Theater, and Grandmother had decided to spend the night in, having exhausted herself in her attendance of the same show all along the already month-long tour.  She was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for a telegram sent from her employer back home.  A dark-featured man had been staring at her since she entered the room, and this man was silently moving from chair to chair along the lobby, nearing her, trying to make it look casual.  She thought she might be mistaken, but couldn't keep herself from peeking over at the man now and again.  Then, taking her by surprise, a charming man in a white suit sidled up next to her and began discoursing on the charms of the Korean lifestyle, and wouldn't she like to know more about his line of work, which involved complex steam, hydroelectric, and other energy technologies.  When she next looked up, the dark-featured man had disappeared.

After having read her telegraph and extracted herself from conversation with the man in the white suit, she took the stairs back up to her room on the third floor.  As she rounded the last stretch of stairs, she heard a scream issue from further off down the hall.  Out from a room near the far elevator rushed a man she recognized as the dark-featured man from the lobby.  He sprinted past her down the stairwell, a bloodied knife in his hand.  My grandmother ran in the direction he'd come from, into the far room to find a young white woman lying dead on the floor.  The man became known as the Lotte Hotel Killer, and Grandmother swore if it weren't for the man in the white suit, it would have been her laying dead on the floor, a young and beautiful woman as she was.  After that night, she attended every show put on by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra until the tour concluded.

At the end of every story Mrs. Dresden laughed herself out of breath.  Peter could feel her wheezing, green-toothed smile, and the way she kept an eye on Grandmother's glass, prepared to refill it lest its remnants vanish and Grandmother realize that the hour's late and she must be leaving.

Peter opted to take a nap earlier on Wednesday afternoons so that he could stay up watching television until sometime past midnight-always a measure past midnight-when Grandmother would phone.  "Whoever this is, come outside and keep watch," she would say.  "I'm coming home." 

Peter would stand out by the path to Mrs. Dresden's, hands in his pockets, dancing in little keep-warm circles.  Through the trees he could see the floodlight of Dresden's back porch, see Grandmother materialize in the dark about the railing, descend the steps and run hunkered and drunk-footed through the dark along the path.

            On one occasion, just after dusk and well before midnight, Peter heard a crashing at the front door.  He rose and walked downstairs to find Grandmother half-sprawled along the wall of the entryway, struggling to remove her boots.

            "Where were you?" she barked, her voice a slur;  what syllables cleared her mouth were half-filled with spit that sagged in a string to the floor and broke, leaving a globule on the linoleum to glisten in the light of the overhead lamp.  When Peter approached to assist with the second boot she warded him off with a wide flung hand.  She kicked free of the boot and stood, disheveled in her coat and clothing as if she'd walked home from a car accident.

 "I gotta go home," she said.  She dropped her arms back and let her coat slide from her;  walked forward onto the carpet of the living room; grasped at her shoulders with both hands, trying to gather enough of her shirt into her fists;  yanked the shirt over her head.  She tossed the shirt aside, her hair matted and statically cross-messed, her mouth half-bent in a smile, as if she'd just told a good joke.  She stood there in her brassiere and Peter got the feeling she couldn't see him.  Her eyes strayed to nothing particular as she hauled herself up the stairs along the railing.  When she was in her room Peter heard the slamming of drawers, the jangle of jewelry, quiet cries of bedsprings.

At a volume that echoed through the house, she cried out, "They all want me eventually, and eventually they all try to get me."

*           *           *

The end of the week arrived.  Peter's days around the house had grown dormant and unproductive, and all he really accomplished was to type up Grandmother's writings and watch a string of television dramas he hardly recalled for their passing.  The spirit of his Grandmother's sleep was spreading through the walls of the house, egging Peter toward inactivity.  Docility. Like numbed fingers unable to grasp anything firmly.  But unlike with Grandmother it was not making him feel any younger. Perhaps, he thought, all that age she is losing is getting injected into me.  If that was the case, it was all the more reason to leave as soon as he could.

Peter repacked his overnight bag and walked into the kitchen to prepare breakfast before his drive home.  Peter found Grandfather sitting at the dinner table, his violin laid before him on a placemat.  His ear perked to the air, he plucked a string, twisting the tuning key back and forth, back and forth.  He seemed unsatisfied, as if searching for a tone he was beginning to doubt had ever existed.

Peter sat across from him with a cold breakfast of cereal and fruit.  Grandfather slid his violin aside and massaged his hands, his old face gathering wrinkles as he frowned in pain at each stroke across the tendons of his hands.

"Since your grandmother fell asleep, I've grown much stupider than I once was."

Peter set his spoon down.  "That's an awful thing to say."

"I don't disagree.  But it's nevertheless true.  My perceptions have grown dimmer, like a lack of electricity in my head is causing a mental brownout."  He sighed . . . and explained to Peter that, for example, the wind had altogether disappeared for him.  He knew it was odd to say, and maybe he was just losing his mind. He had no doubt the wind was still there, for kites still flew and wind chimes still rang.

His ability to gather intelligence had abandoned him as well.  He could discuss issues of great or little significance with men like the postman or the somnologist, but at the end of each talk every word of it became muffled to his memory.

            He tried to make a sandwich the other day and hadn't remembered where the cheese ought to go.  He knew it really didn't matter whether he put it on top of or beneath the meat, but there was a way he used to do it, and that way he was forgetting, had forgotten.

            "What I used to do I can no longer do. So what now?"

            "I can't be coming over all this way just to help you.  If you need something done, you'd best call a serviceman or a maid."

"Your grandmother wouldn't like strange men in her house. The somnologist is one thing.  Even before she fell asleep," Grandfather said, "I was running all over town.  I was cleaning, I was doing the electrician's work, fixing the air conditioner. You remember what it was like, nursing her.  All the stuff we ought to have paid someone else to do. But she wouldn't let anyone through the door, and she wouldn't leave.  She was so afraid that every man out there still wanted her.  She didn't understand that she married one of those men."

Peter rose, swelled with a sense of his own maturity, and told Grandfather to have patience, and hugged him;  it was like embracing an old machine, its springs and gears tense and dry, its eventual dilapidation a present ghost in its clutching at him.

Grandfather said, "She could be doing all sorts of wild things inside her head right now.  She could be eating.  Traveling.  Having intercourse.  For all we know, she could be dying in there."

Peter walked upstairs and cupped Grandmother's forehead with his hand.  She had, impossibly, to Peter's eyes, grown younger still.  No more aged than a forty-year-old.  He wondered if perhaps she would not awake until she was a child again. She mumbled something closemouthed and turned in her sheets.

Peter departed, driving the two blocks back to his house.  When he opened the door, he was pleased to see that everything was as exactly as he'd left it.

*           *           *

Peter still sees Grandfather every day.  The old man has altered his morning schedule so that the time when he collects his morning mail coincides precisely with Peter's drive to work.  Peter imagines Grandfather waiting there-perhaps at the kitchen window or in the trees along the boulevard, until he hears the cough Peter's engine-before venturing out to the roadside.  Peter drives past.  He glances at Grandfather, as one stranger to another.  Grandfather is an honest man, and pauses only to stare politely on, but makes no gesture, winks no eye.  And once a week, Peter returns home to find a message left on his phone while he was out.