Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
July 1, 2010
Jul 1, 2010
17 Min read time
A short story from one of America's most celebrated, and controversial, fiction writers.
Barbara said, “That’s a lot of trouble.”
“Ain’t no trouble at all,” Jay said. “It’s nice out on Gilead. Next time you get a day off, we should take you both. Cook hamburgers and hotdogs on the back deck. Bring that boyfriend of yours, Mr. Bodin, out, if y’all can stand us for an afternoon.”
“Oh, Mom—come on! I’m seventeen, now. I wanna go out there. Today—tonight! Please?”
Jay said, “He ain’t got to be back at work with Dynamite on the garbage run till Tuesday. The boy can come on out and see the place. We ain’t gonna let him stay up all night, believe me. We’re up and movin’ by four-thirty—we’ll have him back here when you get in for your shift. And we’ll give you a call.”
Twenty feet away, below the shingle, the sea made the sound of something rushing off somewhere, even while late-summer waves moved in toward grass, sand, and rock. At the world’s rim, an elongated gray-green scab crossed part of the horizon, one end thicker than the other: Gilead Island.
Barbara started up the steps, a sack hanging from each hand by twine handles. She looked back. “All right. You can go. Thank you, Jay, Mex—really, that’s nice of you two. I mean it’s something for Eric to do besides sitting around at Dynamite’s all afternoon.”
“You thank Mr. MacAmon—and Mex.” She managed to open the door and went in.
“We’ll phone you,” Jay said. “We won’t let him forget.”
So, among anticipations of new orgies and excesses, with the two boatmen Eric wandered down dusty Front Street to the wooden gate of the Gilead Boat Dock, joking and relating his recent adventures on the garbage run with Dynamite and Morgan, while Jay swaggered and laughed and fumed in disbelief, and, with his blasted face, barefoot Mex looked about the silent autumn and western light gilded the glass and made white enameled window frames near platinum on the evening street. Now and again Mex commented on the sexual tales with big, quick fingers. A third of his signs Eric knew by now, though he couldn’t quite turn them into sentences. So he laughed and nodded more or less when Jay did.
On two previous passangerless trips, they’d gotten out on the island dock. But they’d gone no further inland. This time when they pulled in, Eric said, “I gotta take a piss.”
“Off the side,” Jay said.
So, in the island boathouse, while talkative Jay and mute Mex tied up the scow, Eric stood at the edge, tugging his fly aside with a forefinger, looking down at concentric rings expanding from his falling water, its sound drowned in the sea. He wondered if either man would come over and put his hand under his stream. But Jay stood with a work shoe up on the base of one of the cleats on the boathouse dock, swinging a rope around it.
Neither joined him.
In the two earlier trips they’d never left the boathouse itself, but now they walked out and across the dock, up the wooden steps into Gilead’s uneven greens, ferns, and rocks, jungle thick, left and right, while evening’s mist dulled details.
If you’d asked Eric after that first visit, he would have said Jay and Mex lived three-quarters of a mile from the island dock. Actually it was slightly more than a mile-and-three-quarters up the six-and-a-half mile island. During that walk, night fell and filled sky-colored spaces between hemlock branches and scrub pines and the earth-hued interstices between ferns and sumac. A couple of times in the blackness, Eric asked, “What’s that . . .?”
“That’s water down there.” Jay was just behind him. “We’re pretty near the edge, here.” Or he’d thought Jay was behind him—only, no, the voice was in front of him. So the wordless rustle behind him was Mex.
“Oh . . .”
At other places, Eric wondered how the boatmen negotiated this journey through the night and—as he stumbled on root or rock—if coming here had really been a good idea. Then Mex dropped a hand on Eric’s arm, steadying him in the dark; and Jay said, “Watch out—it gets a little steep, goin’ down.” Or, “This part’s easy, now.” Or, “You got about seven steps to climb. Yeah—hold this railing.” Eric held—and climbed—but could see nothing.
Then they stopped.
Eric asked, “How much more . . .?”
“We’re here, puppy.” Jay chuckled. “Hold on a second.”
Above was a dusting of stars. To the right, something blocked many of them: a hulking rectangular shape, at one with the black ground. There and there he could detect light around what must be closed shutters or heavy drapes, all on the first floor.
He heard a soft snap.
On the other side of overgrown grass, flame-shaped lights rose at either edge of a door, between wooden columns. In silhouette Eric could see Jay, belly, shoulders, and broad belt tongue sticking forward, for all the night like a cock to match the bulge his enlarged testicle made, pushing out his jeans. Jay stood before some sort of podium, which must have held switches on its upper panel. Jay fingered another one: a voice crackled from a speaker: “Hi, there—you fellas home?”
“Hey, there, Hugh. Yeah. We brung the puppy”—Eric heard the grin, saw, then felt, Jay’s hand fall rough and warm for three, even four seconds on his nape— “we was tellin’ you about.”
“That’s nice. Shad and me’s waitin’ up—like usual.”
‘Maybe we could get a carpenter in here and have him tear out another couple of doorways so that we could get to the kitchen without ever seein’ the old bastard.’
Mex gave his breathy laugh.
“Gee—and I was hopin’ the old bastard done got tired and gone to bed. Well, we’re comin’ in.”
Fifteen feet of stone flags cut through overlong lawn to the door. As he looked around the dim façade, Eric realized the house was three stories.
No, over there he could make it out: four!
“Come on,” Jay said.
They started toward the building, while Eric tried to shake from his imaginings the house—maybe a little bigger than Dynamite’s cramped cabin—he’d been expecting.
Was it twenty-five rooms? Was it thirty-five . . . ?
Here in the island woods, it was more than twice the size of Mr. Condotti’s entire house back in Atlanta!
On the porch, under the night light, the paint was as blistered as that on Dynamite’s—or Ms. Louise’s—steps, even if these were three times as high, and as wide, and roofed over, too. At the top, Jay pushed in the door, and Mex guided him into and through a glassed-in vestibule, with mahogany walls and a checkered stone floor, black and maroon.
Jay pushed open a second door. A curtain quivered behind its glass. It put them in a hall where a stairway curved down to the wide, worn carpet. A dozen heavy newels supported the banister. Near the bottom, one had broken off.
From an arch that went halfway up the wall—the ceilings were at least twenty feet high, and there was even a balcony inside—a bald black man came in wearing a bathrobe and slippers.
“Hey, Hugh,” Jay said. “This here’s Eric. We got any dinner?”
“Hello, young fella,” Hugh said warmly. “You got some okra, Jay. You got some lima beans. You got some stewed tomatoes with onions and peppers. And you got some chicken stew—with corn and mushrooms. Y’all gonna come in and say good evenin’ to Shad? He’s in his chair, in the livin’ room.”
“Far as I recollect, there ain’t no way to the kitchen except through that place, unless we go outside and come in the back. So I expect we don’t got much choice.” Jay walked into the room. “I don’t mind bein’ a little rude. But I ain’t quite got to that point—yet.” He glanced at Eric, then back at Hugh. “You said you was gonna get that room across from ours ready for Eric here?”
Hugh nodded. “I think you’ll be comfortable.” He smiled at Eric. “If there is something you need, you tell them or me.”
“Yes, sir,” Eric said, bewildered by the size—the scale—of things.
“Thanks, Hugh,” Jay said. “Thanks a heap.” Jay turned around, looking about the high-ceilinged hall. “Maybe we could get a carpenter in here and have him tear out another couple of doorways so that we could get to the kitchen without ever seein’ the old bastard. But, then, life ain’t supposed to be that easy, now, is it? Let’s go.”
They followed Hugh under an archway, through two smaller rooms, in one of which no light burned at all. They emerged into a larger. A ratty rug covered the floor. Several holes in it were wide enough to see warped planks beneath. Above a fireplace, big enough to step into, a stone eagle spread its wings mantel end to mantel end.
Above it, a stained rectangle told of an absent painting.
Across the room, with wispy hair and rounded shoulders, sitting in a wheelchair with wooden wheels, an old man in a colorless sweater faced slightly away.
“Hey, there, you mean ol’ bastard.” With a grin, Jay threw himself down in an armless leather chair. “How you doin’ today? What you been up to?” He turned to Eric. “Go on. Sit down—on the couch there. With Mex.”
They sat, and, because of the sofa’s sag, Mex’s leg slid against Eric’s. Its warmth surprised him—and felt good.
“I said,” Jay’s voice doubled in volume, “how you been? What you and Hugh been doin’?”
Hair overlong—like the lawn outside—Shad’s head turned toward Jay, but probably not enough for Shad to see him.
“This here is our friend, Eric. He come to stay over with us. His Mama’s Mrs. Jeffers—works at the Lighthouse Coffee and Egg.”
‘You do as many nice things as you can, boy, for as many people as you can. You do good things for people for the same reason you beat off—it makes you feel good.’
The old man coughed.
In a normal voice, Jay told Eric, “That’s his way of sayin’ ‘good evenin’.’ He don’t look like he’s gonna be too talkative tonight—which is a blessin’. Otherwise you’d have to listen to him go on about how you’re goin’ to hell, like me and everybody I know. When I was a kid your age, his favorite thing to do was killin’ my pets—he done poisoned three dogs and kilt four cats and busted the heads off more toads and chipmunks and rabbits than I can count. At least he ate the rabbits.”
Having followed them in, Hugh stood with his hands in his robe pockets. “That’s cause he thought you was havin’ unnatural relations with them animals, Jay. They had to be purified—the only way you can purify a beast is to kill it. That’s what he believed. Lots of people around here used to think that way.”
“I was,” Jay said, “havin’ unnatural relations with ’em. At least with the dogs. Other than Dynamite and your cousin Kyle, them dogs was the closest thing I had to a regular love life. Course the dogs all seemed to feel it was pretty natural. But how you gonna have unnatural relations with a cat?”
Hugh laughed and looked at Eric. “Jay’s just sayin’ that to shock you.”
“And with a rabbit—? Them things’ll bite you if you mess with ’em wrong. I liked ’em ’cause they was soft and fluffy”—Jay was going on—“but he kilt ’em on me anyway. I’m glad knowin’ him turned me into an atheist. Otherwise I woulda put his ass out to live in the street. That’s what Christians around here do to each other what don’t measure up to their idea of what a Christian ought to be. At least the ones I knowed. Naw, God’s too much about payback—killin’ off this tribe ’cause of what it believed and destroyin’ that city ’cause of what its sinners done. I’ll tell you, bein’ good to people because they’re innocent, poor, and powerless is just as sick as bein’ good to ’em ’cause they’re cruel, rich, and despotic—which is what most people are into, anyway. Revenge? Reward? Cleanliness is next to godliness? So you send the clean people to heaven and let the dirty ones go to hell. Naw. You do good to folks ’cause it makes you feel better. Hey, when I realized all Shad’s God bullshit was just that—payback; and, yeah, he had a shitty life, so he had a lot to pay back for—I realized you could be a good person not ’cause that was the way you wanted everybody to treat you, but because you thought it would make the whole world better, by doin’ somethin’ right. So I took him in—and I’m glad I did. But I’m glad he can’t hear no more, too. And I only have to listen to him tell me how evil and depraved and wicked I am two or three times a month, when he goes off on one of his anxiety toots.”
Hugh said, “Jay, what you are is a contrarian. You just like to say things and do things that’s gonna shock people.”
Jay looked at Eric. “You shocked?”
“No,” Eric said. “I don’t . . . think so.”
“See there?” Jay raised his bearded chin and looked at Hugh sideways. “You do as many nice things as you can, boy, for as many people as you can. Feed ’em. Give ’em a place to sleep. Hug ’em and keep ’em warm—’cause it’s gonna keep you warm too and make you feel better, if you’re down. You do good things for people for the same reason you beat off—it makes you feel good.”
“See?” Hugh said. “I told you he just wants to shock you. Hey—you gonna show the youngster around the house?”
“I just want some goddam dinner. That’s what I want.” Jay rocked forward, stood, and walked to the old man. Bending, he put his arm around the hunched shoulder—and took a breath. “I sure don’t love you. But maybe if I do enough good things for you, to you, with you, I may learn how. Right?” He hugged the old fellow. “I feel sorry for you, though—I hope that’s a start.” Standing up, he looked around. “Come on out to the kitchen.”
Eric stood quickly, Mex slowly.
They followed Jay, till, at the door, he stopped. As Eric stepped up, Jay looked down at the molding on the wall’s base. The rug’s frayed edge came almost to it.
“You got to pardon me, this evening. But I’m hungry and I’m tired. And we gotta get up at four.” (Only now did Eric realize Jay was talking again to him.) “I’ll show you one thing, though. There—see that mark? The black one, right there?” Jay looked down. On the molding, a black dent darkened the varnish, as if hard rubber had struck it and left some of itself.
Eric looked puzzled.
“That’s where the ol’ bastard kicked my cat, Cindy, to death—when I first come out here to live—twenty, twenty-three years ago. I was stayin’ here with Hugh and Kyle, and he come out to bring me home. ‘This your cat, ain’t it? I was wonderin’ where she got off to. But you brought her with you, didn’t you?’ I swear, I can look at him today and see how he was smilin’ when he said it. Only then he was a fifty-nine-year-old man standin’ up, not a seventy-nine-year-old man sittin’ in no wheelchair. And the next thing he done was hauled his boot back and kicked her all the way across the room, broke half her ribs, then come up and stomped on her head. Then he kicked her against the wall, again—hard, too, to make sure she was kilt. See, he probably didn’t want her to suffer any more than she had to, since he was gonna stomp her brains out. Which is what he did. Then he turned to me. ‘Okay—you still wanna stay, now? You won’t have Cindy no more to keep you company.’ And then he laughed.
‘I’ll phone your ma, and you can let her know we ain’t hog-tied you and violated your honor—yet.’
“But, see, he didn’t think I should ever have no pets. Because of the dogs. At all. Yeah, he was drunk—but that’s how he was. And I said, yeah, I’d still stay. Two weeks later, on the mainland, right after his birthday, he had his accident. So, ’cause I was the only family he had, once they let him out the hospital, I took him in.” Jay turned one way, then the other, as if, momentarily, he was unsure where to go. “Hey, why do I kid myself? I hate ’im as much today as I did back then. But I do try to be nice, even so. Some people said ’cause him and one of Johnston’s men was both drivin’ on I-22 at nine o’clock at night, drunk as skunks in opposite directions, and whammed into each other and Shad caromed off into that ol’ hemlock and broke his back, shattered his shoulder, smashed his hip and broke one leg in three places and the other in four, it was God’s retribution on ’em both. Johnston’s feller was dead and gone and I can’t even remember his name, ’cept he was red-headed and only about nineteen. Farklin? Franklin? Somethin’ like that. But I say it was luck bein’ cruel to a couple of men who both drunk way too much. And down here, probably they had their reasons. Fact is, I’m surprised Shad hadn’t kilt hisself already. Yeah, I took him in. I mean both his damned step daddies beat on him all the while he was growin’ up, so he wouldn’t be no sissy—like me. And two wives done already left him . . . I think he even loved one of ’em. But both just wanted to take him for all they could get—as if there was somethin’ else you could do with a bastard like that.” Jay’s laugh was harsh.
Then, behind them, harsher: “You’re all damned sinners—damned and goin’ to hell! That’s what I say!”
It was loud enough and surprising enough that Eric flinched.
But Jay was grinning. “See? There he goes.”
Eric glanced back. But, in his wheelchair and sweater, Shad didn’t seem to have moved.
“That’s Shad’s ‘good-night’ to you. Right, Mex?” And Jay walked away through a dark hall, pushing aside a hanging drape and chuckling. “. . . Crazy coot.” They followed, while, before them, he shook his head. “Next time we come out here, I’ll take you around and show you a few other things. It’s an interestin’ old place. But, like I say, tonight I’m kinda beat.”
As he walked, Mex smiled. In the shadow, it looked to Eric like general embarrassment.
They came into the long kitchen. On the ceiling, in rows of four, florescent lights were already on.
Fifteen feet down the space, barefooted Mex went to the refrigerator. Over the counter, sink, and stove, the windows were black.
Jay strolled to the range. “I’m turnin’ on the big burner for you,” he said in Mex’s direction. Then he nodded to Eric. “Go on, sit down, there.” A table was covered with red and white-checked oilcloth. “I’ll phone your ma, and you can let her know we ain’t hog-tied you and violated your honor—yet.”
When Jay let him speak to Barb, on the blocky red phone’s receiver, the first thing Eric said was: “They live in a real big house out here.”
“Yes,” Barb said. “That’s what Clem told me.”
The chicken stew Mex heated up was good.
Between spoonfuls, Eric asked: “This is . . . your house?”
“It’s Hugh’s, now.” Outside, cicadas chirped. “It used to be Kyle’s—Hugh is Kyle’s cousin. I mean Kyle still owns it.” Jay’s spoon clinked the ceramic rim as he helped himself to more. Mex had also heated up a bowl of corn-off-the-cob with cut-up green and red peppers and onions and another bowl of okra. With their wrinkled edges blackened, the red peppers in the corn were hotter than Eric expected.
Noticing he hadn’t taken any okra, Jay said, “You know how to eat that stuff, don’t you?”
“Huh?” Eric asked.
“Put a piece in your mouth—” Jay forked up a green tube like a piece of green doweling—“then press it against the roof with your tongue—just once, now—for the flavor. Then you swallow it right down. Don’t chew it—don’t chew it at all—or it’ll make a goosh pretty much anyone would up-chuck over, once it goes to slime. Press and swaller. Press and swaller. Ain’t that right, Mex?” Mex nodded, while Jay put the okra in his mouth—and (it looked like) pressed and swallowed. “Do it the right way, though, and it’s damned good.”
“Oh . . .” Eric said. He reached over to get the two liter bottle of Pepsi Mex had set out and refilled his glass.
Excerpted from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, by permission of the author and his agents, Henry Morrison Inc.
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July 01, 2010
17 Min read time