George sat next to Irene at the dining room table. It was seven o'clock on a Tuesday night, and they were eating generic Frosted Flakes--the kind that came in a box with a laughing ape instead of a laughing tiger.
"I see one," Irene yelled.
"You see what?"
"Over there, next to the fridge, a spider."
George looked up from his cereal bowl and scanned the tiled floor of the kitchen. "I don't see anything."
"It's there, look, it's moving, toward the dishwasher." Irene scooted her chair back and crawled up onto the table. Her skinny arms wrapped around her legs as she closed her eyes.
George walked into the kitchen. Beneath the fridge he saw a black smudge on the ground. It was a piece of dirt, the kind he always found before he left for school. They were from his dad's boots, little square-shaped pieces of mud that resembled pieces of shit. But just as he went to pick it up, something beneath the dirt moved, crawling under the fridge and past his right sneaker, which he pounded at the black shape as fast as he could.
"Did you get it?" Irene asked
George lifted his sneaker and saw nothing. "Yeah, I got it," he said, slowly, making sure he sister saw his smile, and not the bottom of his shoe.
After coming back from the porch, George sat next to Irene. As he did, he heard a truck engine growling in the driveway. He dipped his spoon into the cereal bowl, taking quick, clumsy spoonfuls into his mouth. Irene did the same.
The front door opened and their dad walked in. His arms were tan and oil-smeared, and he held his Mini-Igloo box, the one that he took to General Motors everyday. "You didn't clean the shit off the driveway," he said.
"I'm sorry, Dad." George said, apologizing even though he'd spent two hours that afternoon rubbing the oil stains with an old Sooners t-shirt. He knew that when your dad told you that you hadn't finished what you'd just finished, you didn't argue. You just apologized and stared at your cereal.
"Get up, both of you." They followed their dad down the hall.
Passing the living room window, George saw a woman sitting in his dad's truck. She was Mexican. He could tell by the dark skin and the rounded shape of her face. His dad always brought Mexican women home. There were three or four of them. One was named Lupe, another Gladys. Dad mentioned their names whenever they called the house which was usually once or twice a week and late at night. George had seen all of these women before; they hung out by the interstate, smoking their cigarettes and smiling their smiles behind the Long John Silver's and the T G & Y. He watched them from the last row in the school bus. Pressing his skinny fingers against the window glass, he stared at their pudgy legs and short skirts, and the stretch marks on their brown arms. Even from a passing bus he could see the marks, and the acne on their cheeks, big shiny circles that made their faces glisten in the afternoon sun.
At the end of the hall, they came to the basement door. After their dad opened it, George peered down at Irene. Her fingers trembled, not her whole hand, just the fingers.
He wanted to say something right then, to tell his dad that it wasn't okay for him to yell at Irene. He wanted to explain that she'd just seen a spider, and how she was terrified of those things, no matter how many times he told her that spiders were small and she was big, so big that they couldn't hurt her unless she let them. But instead of saying anything he stepped down the narrow stairway, holding Irene's hand as he entered the darkness.
The light switch at the top of the stairs was broken and the only other light was a single bulb in the middle of the basement, the kind of light you turned on by pulling a little chain.
Sitting on the concrete floor, he heard the squeaking of the door as it closed, followed soon after by the double click of the locks. A pale yellow glow filled Irene's face as George turned on the light.
"I forget my homework on the table," Irene said.
"Why did you do that?"
"Well you can't get it now." George opened the history book he'd brought with him.
"Can I help you with your homework?"
"No, you can't. This is eighth grade work."
"You're not in eighth grade."
"I'm afraid of the spiders. I know they're down here."
"Just don't think about them. They're scared of you."
"But what if they're not? What if they know we're locked down here and that we can't get the bug spray? The spray is in the kitchen."
George closed his book. He couldn't ever study in the basement, and not just because of his sister. The bulb above him didn't give off much light, and besides that it was spooky down here. Not like the horror movies on channel eight, the ones that Irene watched from beneath her zebra blanket. But spooky in a quiet, everyday kind of way, like passing a graveyard in the morning. From where they sat beneath the light, cardboard boxes stacked three of four high loomed from all directions. Every since Mom had died from cancer five years earlier, all of this stuff had been down here--clothes, pictures, silverware, and even some of their furniture.
As George set the book down on the floor, a noise suddenly echoed inside the basement. It came once, then again. It sounded like giggling, or crying -- like someone crying real softly. It came from the far end of the room, over by the basement door on the back of the house. The door was maybe twenty feet away, tucked behind a row of boxes.
"What's that?" Irene asked.
"It's nothing, probably just the wind."
"It didn't sound like the wind."
"Can spiders talk?"
Before he answered, the noise came again, and George was almost sure he'd heard a word. A single word. George thought of the Mexican woman he'd seen sitting in his dad's truck. He imagined seeing the woman standing outside the basement door. Smoking a cigarette, she pulled her shirt down, revealing a trail of pock marks that ran the length of her face and down between her tits. He imagined that the woman knew that Irene and George sat beneath a single light bulb, and that she was making fun of them--laughing, smiling her smile, over and over again--because she knew that they couldn't do anything about it.
"Stay here." George stood up and walked toward the door. Pressing his hands on the first stack of cardboard boxes, he leaned forward. With what little light that seeped into that end of the basement, he saw fractured shadows and a few cobwebs.
"George, what do you see?"
"Nothing. It's just a bunch of Mom's old stuff."
"Is there someone down here?'
"No, I think someone was outside the door. They're gone now."
"Okay," she said.
George looked down at his sister. She sat Indian style on the floor, resting her chin on her palms as she closed her eyes. Turning back to the boxes, he saw a book lying on the floor between his feet. It was covered in dust and webs, but he recognized it as one of their photo albums. "Hey, Irene, if you promise to let me finish my homework I got a surprise for you."
George grabbed the album, cleaning off the cover before handing it to her. She opened the book and smiled as she saw an image of their mom at thanksgiving dinner. She flipped the page, revealing a Christmas morning next to a first communion.
Sometime later the door at the top of the stairs opened. A shard of light shot down the hallway and landed on the floor next to Irene.
"I found cereal all over the table," he said, slowly. "Come up here and clean it up, guys."
After school the next day, George peered out the bus window. He liked his last row seat because the thought of eyes staring at the back of his head made his cheeks and forehead burn, as if he'd just stared at the sun too long.
He sometimes imagined that if someone sat behind him they would see through his skull and brain and out through his eyes, seeing a world as he saw a world, and nothing scared him more than that, because he imagined that anyone who saw through his eyes would see all his mistakes. This is how George categorized the things of his life: His homework was wrong. His food was wrong -- the dinners he made for Irene and himself. And what he did in his bed at night with that square-shaped piece of tissue was wrong, too, even if it felt like a good thing.
"Look at them fucking girls," said Ralph, the skinny kid who sat in front of George. He pointed out the window and smiled, tracing a circle on the window as if trying to capture whatever he was talking about.
"What?" asked the boy beside Ralph.
"Those fucking girls," he repeated. "Just look at them."
Peering out the window, George saw the blinking lights of the Long John Silver's sign and beneath it a group of women. The nearest one wore a leather jacket that looked too big on her, a tight skirt, and a low-cut top that revealed the top half of her breasts. The woman stood in the narrow alleyway way beside the restaurant, and when the bus passed next to her she looked up and rubbed her chin. George imagined what she saw, the pairs of passing eyes and beneath them the junior high smiles blurring into hazy lines, as the bus sped past the TG&Y and rounded the interstate bend. As George watched the woman, his penis grew hard. George closed his eyes and bit his lower lip, feeling his upper teeth pressing against the softness of skin.
"She's George's girlfriend," Ralph yelled, standing on his seat and pointing at George with his thumb, like a hitchhiker trying to cadge a ride. "Did you see the way he stared at her? Did you? He wanted to kiss that fucking whore on the mouth. And on her tits. And probably on her asshole, too."
George grabbed his backpack and threw it at Ralph. The bottom end of the bag struck him in the face, knocking his glasses off as he fell out of his seat. Before he hit the ground, Ralph's eyes grew large and a skinny tongue shot of his mouth, like a lizard's.
Ralph quickly recovered, jumping over the seat and landing on George, who flung his fists upward, hoping that he would hit those beady eyes and lizard tongue. A sudden rush of heat thudded against his forehead followed by another on his jaw. George felt himself falling backward and he heard a sharp crack as his head pounded the bus floor. Ralph was on top of him, landing hit after hit, until George swung his legs up and threw him back against the window. After hitting the glass, a hissing sound came from out of Ralph's mouth. It sounded like an opening Coke can.
The bus driver slammed on the brakes. After pulling onto the side of the road, he grabbed George and Ralph and seated them in separate rows. When they reached their first stop, George stumbled out even though he lived over a mile away. With blood running out of his nose and his legs feeling heavy and soft at the same time, he trudged past house after house.
"George, what happened to you?" Irene asked, as he walked into the living room.
"Let me get a towel."
"No, I'm fine."
His sister turned and walked away.
Washing his hands in the kitchen sink, he followed a black shape crawling across his left forearm. It was a spider, a small one. George tilted his arm, letting the water knock it down the drain.
"Here's the towel."
George turned around. He was going to yell, to tell his sister to stop pestering him. But when he saw her holding the little towel, the one she that used every night to rub her face, he suddenly thought of the spider he'd just washed away, and how glad he was that he and not she had been the one to find it.
After cleaning up, George sat next to Irene at the dining room table. Just as he opened his history book, the sound of a truck engine echoed from the driveway.
"He's early," Irene said. "He's never early."
"Do your homework."
"Is he going to make us go down again?"
"No," George said. "He made us yesterday. So today he won't."
The front door swung open and their dad came in laughing. Whenever he opened the door and laughed, George knew the smell of rum would soon follow.
"You two," he whispered. "You two didn't clean the oil."
George peered down at his hands. They were bruised and cut from the fight, and the knuckles looked raw and fresh, like ground beef. He wanted to tell his dad how good it'd felt to smash his knuckles across Ralph's face, how good it'd felt to hurt someone that was hurting you.
But instead of saying or doing anything, George lowered his eyes and opened the cabinet beside him. Clutching a cereal box with a laughing ape on the side, he grabbed Irene's right hand and trudged to the door at the end of the hall.
Pacing around the basement, George cracked his knuckles.
"Is he going to pick her up?" Irene asked, sitting beneath the light bulb.
"Yeah," George said, rubbing his palms. "He's picking her up, and we're going to get out of here."
"Listen, just sit down there. And don't move." George reached into the stacks and grabbed the photo album. He handed it to Irene.
Walking up the narrow stairway, he gripped the door handle and pushed forward. The door moved, and for a moment, George thought that it was going to open and he could turn around and tell his sister: "Look, I got it, it was open all long. And now we can get out of here. You don't have to worry about those spiders anymore." But as he continued to push, the locks finally caught and the door stuck.
"Not right now."
"Fuck, Irene, what do you want?" He turned and stared at his sister. The single bulb cast a pale yellow glow onto her body, and her eyes looked like tiny headlights. She held her right hand out, and with a trembling index finger pointed at the stack of boxes.
"I heard it. The talking."
Walking down the staircase, George heard it too, a sound -- the same one from the previous day. It came from the doorway behind the boxes.
Curling his fists, he marched up to the stacks. As soon as he leaned against the first row of boxes, the sound stopped. It has to be outside, he told himself, there's nothing in here, nothing that would make a sound like that.
But just as he turned away, he saw something. Tucked behind four, maybe five rows of boxes, a human hand curved out of a shadow. George flinched, his right leg almost quivering, until he realized what he was looking at.
The hand came from his mother's mannequin, a full-size model of a slender woman, like the ones that George always saw at Montgomery Ward or Dillard's.
His mom had received the mannequin from a fashion school she'd once belonged to over in Norman. She used to come home and dress it up with all kinds of clothes, scarves, and skirts.
But Dad didn't like the mannequin much. He used to pick up it up and pretend he was kissing it, saying, I'm going take this little Lucy out, honey, but not you, you're too fat and ugly.
And Mom wouldn't say anything back, only laugh and smile, but even as a kid George could tell she wasn't happy with what Dad was doing with the mannequin, how he would tear off the skirt and put his hands between the legs right in front of Irene's crib, saying to George, "Don't look, don't look," but George would always look, watching the watery corners of his mom's eyes speaking the things she couldn't speak.
George grabbed the photo album and sat next to his sister. He opened the album to one of the back pages. "Look, Irene," he said, pointing at a picture of a carousel shaped like a cowboy hat. "Remember going to Frontier City. Mom took us there, remember?"
"That was when dad went to Tulsa."
"Yeah, he was in Tulsa, and Mom bought us the tickets herself."
Irene closed the picture book. She grabbed the album out of George's hand, smiling as she rested it on her lap.
For one moment George smiled too, until he saw something moving along the edges of the page, a pair of black shapes.
Irene screamed as one of the spiders, a long and skinny one, landed onto her pant leg. She jumped up and brushed it off with her hand--yelling with her eyes closed.
When he got home from school the next day, George walked into the kitchen. "Irene," he said, opening the cabinet and looking for something to fix for lunch. Instead of his sister's voice, George heard laughter from his dad's bedroom.
Dad's door was closed, and on the other end he heard two voices. They were sharp and high pitched, like a car horn, saying words that he could barely understand -- Spanish words.
He opened the door and saw two women in his dad's bed. They were embracing each other, their bodies so close together that George saw them only as disconnected parts of a single person -- dirt smudges on the heels of bare feet, what looked like little sores or insect bites on chubby thighs, and in the center of it all a single reddish-brown nipple, like a Cyclops' eye, staring back at George. "Where's my sister?"
Breaking apart, the women looked up. Their eyes flashed wide, but then they both smiled, their eyes narrowing into tiny slits, as if they were staring at the sun.
"Look at this," one of them whispered. "You look so much like your dad. So much."
The smell of rum and of something like piss filled the room. George curled his fists. "Where's Irene?"
The other woman rubbed her chin. "He gets mad too. Look at his hands. The same hands."
George kicked the door open. He stepped forward, and as he did the women stopped smiling. One of them pulled the covers up and reached for the bottle on the nightstand. "Your dad went to the store. And I think he put her somewhere," she said, taking a swig and closing her eyes. "The basement or something."
He ran down the hall. Passing the living room window, George thought he heard the growl of his dad's engine, but the driveway was empty. He opened the basement door and peered down the narrow staircase. Everything was dark and quiet. The light bulb wasn't on.
"Irene," he yelled, running down the stairs. The door behind him closed before he could set the stopper, and he heard the click of the locks. Stepping into the darkness, he grabbed the staircase rail and took small quick steps, until he felt his feet touch the basement floor. George waved his arms, looking for the little light chain. He found it, but when he pulled downward the lights didn't come on.
He turned and reached for the tool shelf he hoped was behind him. Searching the bottom, then middle shelf, his hands found the flashlight.
Turning the light on he saw his sister. She sat Indian style on the floor only a few feet away from him, clutching the photo album tight against her chest as if it were a teddy bear.
Not knowing what to say, George grabbed her hand. Swinging the flashlight in front of him, he led her into the boxes. He pushed stack after stack out of the way, moving closer to the door, until finally, with his sister behind him, he moved the last stack and revealed his mom's mannequin, naked and covered with webs that extended in a thick bridge from her body to the door.
George grabbed the mannequin and pulled it to the side, heaving it with all his weight. But as he did, he tripped on the edge of a box and fell backward, hitting his head against the concrete. The mannequin fell on top of his body, and as he lay there on the floor, George opened his eyes and stared up at a woman's face. The flashlight beam waved left and right over the ivory-colored skin, illuminating a tangle of dust-filled webs and behind them a single black shape, a spider, rising out from a hole on the side of the mannequin's head. The spider lifted its body in the air, as if stretching, and then dropped onto his open mouth, where a single hairy leg pressed lightly against his tongue.
George knew what he was supposed to do -- yell or flinch or grab the spider from out of his mouth, crushing those hairy legs in his skinny fingers. But instead of doing any of these things, he felt everything go limp, numb, as if his body had fallen asleep. And in that moment, he imagined that he knew what his mom had felt like when she was still alive -- tiredness, the tiredness of watching horrible things happening, and not doing anything about them.
A hand reached into his mouth, someone else's hand, and when it emerged George saw the black body dangling from the end of a thumb. Irene twisted her hand and flicked the spider back into the stacks. She crumbled onto the floor, closing her eyes as the tips of her fingers trembled up and down.
Sitting in the narrow space between the rows of boxes, he held her -- listening to her clipped breaths, feeling her head press against his chest. After a few moments, he pulled at the webs covering Irene's arms, legs, and all around her face. The basement door was right in front of them, and all they had to do was get up and they could leave. But for every web that George pulled, another two or three seemed to catch on another part of Irene's body, as if untying her was just another way of getting caught.
© 2006 by Rob Garza
Bio: Rob Garza’s work has appeared in Tell It Again Stories (forthcoming 2006), RipRap, Likewaterburning, Dig Magazine, and The Long Beach Press-Telegram. In 2005, he graduated from California State University, Long Beach with an M.F.A. in creative writing, fiction. Rob recently finished his first novel, Days and Nights on the Ocean Floor.
E-mail: Rob Garza
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