When I get back in I can hear my desktop blinging messages to my open receiver. It’s Maggie and most of the messages are just asking where I am, why I’m not responding, and hoping I’m not mad at her. This makes me chuckle a bit.
Hey sorry, I went to see my friend Kurt. I type at her, Are you coming back?
There you are! Change of plans, comes the return message, we’re having a little get together and you’re invited here.
I check the time on the machine, it’s still early, but I’m exhausted.
I’m really not up for a party, Darlin’, and as I send this it starts to occur to me that there’s something more afoot.
Well, it’s kind of a salon, an artist’s meeting. I’ve been talking you up, and they want to meet you!
Val did meet me. I reply simply, as I delete all the third-world princes and princesses who’ve asked for my bank account information so they can send me inheritances and other massive sums of money. That’s what I get for leaving the desktop chat open all day.
And you impressed her! Please come!
Maggie blings the address at me. I know right where it is, near the university, basically across the street in one of the many white, picket fence rental houses full of university students.
I agree. She you-won’t-regret-its me. I shake my head.
I pull my Carhartt overshirt back on, grab my keys and find the place, easy enough as Maggie is standing in the road wearing a very cute slate-grey dress that is whipping around her pretty legs in the evening breeze. She’s on tall shoes, with her cellphone to her ear.
“Oh, thank you!” she kisses me and loops her arm in mine and we go in the front door.
It sounds like they’ve got some Gal Costa going on the sound system. The place is full of well-dressed people, young men and women mill about a table of treats.
“So, you folks were throwing a big shin-dig when you bugged out?”
“Yeah, we had these plans, a big problem!” Maggie winks at me.
I’m the only one in shit kickers and a Carhartt.
Maggie’s introducing me around. I’m the scientist, she says eagerly. I correct to landscaper. We laugh, shaking hands. Maggie pouts.
“I’m trying to sell you up!” she smirks aside.
“I’m not trying to sell anything, it’s been too long since I paid attention to academic stuff.”
“I don’t care, these people are all know-nothings,” she hisses. “They’ve all got lots of money and they don’t know anything!”
“Good for them!” I chuckle, gnawing on a stick of celery with cream cheese and paprika—just like mom used to make, though the cheese is weird and I find out it’s vegan.
Val is in the next room lounging on a sofa, a circle of enchanting women around her, including Kari from that party I was at with Saint-Angelo a while back. They wave at me, I approach.
“This is what I’m talking about right here, this man, he’s stolen Maggie’s heart,” Val says, seemingly without a hint of sarcasm.
“I met him a while back!” Kari shakes my hand, “do you remember me?”
“Of course, don’t be ridiculous! I managed to be upsetting to you too!”
“No no!” Kari shakes her head, “not at all.”
They’re behaving like I’m a peculiar exhibit to carry-on about, Cromwell’s head. Though I feel more like they just invited in the grounds-keeper to question about Lady Chatterly. There’s a McSweeney’s Quarterly on the table (though Dave Eggers is now a politician), next to The North Carolina Literary Review Journal. I think someone just said “po-mo”.
“So, Les, you’re a scientist I hear?” says a sparklingly attractive narrow framed lady, her long black hair simply draped round her shoulders, a plain powder blue dress hugs her elegantly down to her knees.
“Uh, I trained as uh-an insect systematist, and identifier, if you’ve got bugs to ID I’m sorta someone you can bring them to!” I chuckle.
“So where do you work, at the university?” says another bright- eyed lady with my mom’s hairdo from the fifties, perched on the sofa, balancing a drink and an ashtray on her lap.
“Oh, I’m a . . . ”
“Les runs his own business, he’s independent,” Maggie pipes up for me.
I grin, hoping I’m not blushing too much.
“Hey, I’ve got a question,” another of the ladies near the sofa starts with a laugh and exaggerated exuberance. I’m overwhelmed by the variety of beauty on display, it’s been a long time since I’ve been around so many pretty ladies. I’m taken back to grad school.
“Sure!” I smile.
“How do spiders spin those huge damned webs?” She’s grinning large and holding up a martini glass.
“I’m sorry? What do you mean how?” I furrow my brow.
“You know, the damned thing is like twenty feet across! Completely, across the driveway in the morning,” she laughs, “I’ve just always wondered how they do it. It’s like he’s trying to catch me!”
A fellow joins her, kind of embracing her from behind, at first she looks annoyed, but softens as she leans back into him.
“Well, they’re, um, dedicated little workers,” I smile unsure as to what she’s asking me.
“But, OK, how do they manage to span that kind of, you know, distance,” she’s more serious now, getting down to the crux of her difficulty.
“They actually do a lot of traversing, they walk a lot, back and forth,” I nod.
“They just walk?”
“Well, the first line, ah, I think this is what you want to know . . . they play out, when there’s a breeze they can just sort of send out a line of silk, just keep playing it out until it connects to something, then they go anchor it.”
“Ah, that’s it! So they can just kind of toss the silk into the air and it gets carried to a branch!” she turns to a fellow she’s near and elbows him.
“Right they can sort of, fish it out there, but yeah some of those big orb weavers make some seriously big webs.”
“What about those big damned yellow striped ones, like the size of my hand!” spouts another lady with a lot of hairpins holding her streaked blonde locks down close to her scalp.
“Mmm, you mean those Argiope garden spiders, yeah, they’re really neat.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“Only if you’re smaller than them and get stuck in the web!” I chuckle thinking of some of my favorite damsel-in-distress scenes with lady’s meaty parts squeezed in faux giant spider webs.
“I hate spiders!” she laughs, “they creep me out!”
I notice that Maggie has stuck a drink in my hand, I sip it, it’s nice—a fruity martini of some kind.
“They do a much under-appreciated job, you know, quietly going about eating up lots of pain-in-the-ass insects,” I nod, repeating a phrase I heard an old arachnologist give in a talk once. “It’s a service that is inestimable in value.” I burble on while folks look bored.
The room has sort of stopped. We seem to be between Gal Costa songs, what happened? I have that overwhelming sense of having broken something, knocked a clock off a mantle or something.
But, OK, it’s back to normal. The sound track has changed to Gloria Gaynor, and some of the ladies are dancing and singing along out in the living room “Never Can Say Goodbye”. Hmm.
I make brief eye-contact with Kari and she smiles and I smile. I wonder how her blow-job giving students are doing. I stick my nose back in my drink and try to find Maggie again with my eyes, staying put. I think my novelty has worn off.
“Les, who’s your favorite writer?” Kari asks me point blank. “We were just discussing favorites.”
Maggie comes back into the room and stands pertly next to me as I kind of roll my eyes, “Gosh, you know, that’s a rough question, I’ve been really fond of Jim Harrison lately.”
The ladies kind of knit their brows and look at each other.
“I guess if I was to pick just one, I’d probably have to say Dostoevsky.”
That was the right answer. They nod, very elegant ear-rings flash and dangle. Maggie smiles up at me.
“I did just finish a Flaubert novel though, he always makes me feel like I’m justified,” I say with aplomb, fuck it, let’s get into this.
“You and no one else!” Val laughs.
“Why do you say that,” Kari asks me.
“You’re asking me? Or Val?” I point, it’s me she’s asking, “I just like the way he produces the capriciousness of love, you know, the way it kind of manhandles our reason,” I sip again, nodding in a manner I think sage. “I think too many of us are slaves to our limbic systems, you know, the emotional side of our experience . . .” I trail off.
“But why does Flaubert make you feel justified? That was an interesting thing to say,” Kari repeats.
“It’s a matter of style, I like the way he tells his stories, . . . I feel like they’re stories I want to tell, things I want to write, . . . I have done much the same with that capriciousness, you know?” I kind of blurt it here, it’s all hanging out.
“Les is a writer!” Maggie reinforces for me.
“Oh!” a few gasps go up, encouragement. I wonder if I’m Po-mo!
“I’m a dabbler,” I wave, “I’ve written a lot, but I’ve not been good at getting anything, you know, out there,” I squeeze Maggie’s arm and she pouts. “I don’t have publications, you know, readers.”
“What have you written about? Tell me about it,” Kari says with disarming charm. Val sits quietly next to her, but completely alert. The music in the other room now RuPaul doing his famous “Supermodel”.
My books! “Um, well, I’ve got a novel I’ve been working on for a while—”
“Hang on, is it finished, in stages of editing, or are we still talking about a proposal?”
“Oh no, this one’s bout six-hundred pages,” I nod.
“Nice!” the ladies nod. Maggie looks very satisfied.
“It’s, basically a fantasy, being kids, growing up in a rural area and wanting dragons and magic, . . . a little girl raises hellbenders in an aquarium thinking they’ll turn into dragons one day, she’s obsessive about berries, and trying to protect her nerdy brother who gets beat up by jerks a lot . . . it’s complicated, but mostly it’s about disappointment and, you know, having to dispense with childish things I guess. . . . eventually, love.”
The ladies are nodding.
“Did you have a sister?” Val asks.
“What made you write about a woman?” Kari wants to know.
“Oh, the girl? I don’t know, it just fell into place like that, it wasn’t a plan. When I first was thinking about the story I was thinking about a she, I grew up in a swampy place, and I thought it’d be fun to put a girl there instead of me. It just worked out. It got me out of my own head a bit.”
There seems to be some consternation about this. A quorum is formed.
“But don’t you feel like there’s something different, I mean, about the mind of a young woman?” Kari asks, shaking her head.
“Maybe. I just treated her the same, you know, about the mind of a boy, much like myself,” I laugh, “I don’t see that there’s much reason to, you know, dither about childish things, a girl can hunt crayfish in a brook as well as any boy.”
There’s some agreement.
“There’s the fantasy part, and I’ll admit it’s mainly influenced by my fascination with natural history, and you know, popular medieval recreations of it. I’ve sort of used William Manchester and Barbara Tuchman to flesh out that basic though magical world understanding . . . more Aristotelian than modern natural history, lots of loopy Herodotus yarns.”
But I’ve lost them, they’re still wondering if I can have done justice to the mind of a young woman.
“What’s a hellbender?” Maggie wants to know.
“A big Appalachian salamander,” I hold up my hands to show something the size of a couple of feet. Me and Merzbow: obsessed with big amphibians and ladies . . .
“What does ‘hellbender’ mean?” someone else asks.
“I have no idea, but I play around with that, it’s part of what the young kids are curious about,” I smile, “part of why my characters consider them baby dragons. Lots of things come from the water, you know, dragonflies and so why not dragons, or other creatures. Ha ha! The rest of it is really just about us kids growing up, spending our lives you know, mucking around in our goofy culture, acting like it’s the most natural thing ever.”
“How do you raise a hellbender?” Kari asks with a her nose wrinkled.
“Well, that’s a big part of the story, you know, it’s not trival, they need very cold water, and so the heroine, her name’s Glory, fails a lot . . . uh, conservation efforts are a big deal on these amphibians these last few years, . . . anyway, you get the idea,” I trail it off. I’m feeling like a chatty elephant standing here chuckling.
My chuckles aren’t met. The stereo is still booming, I think they’ve got some shoegaze going on now. Some folks are leaving.
Maggie is absolutely sparkling, the more I look at her the more I like what I see. I know something in me has changed as I’ve adopted her as mine. Maggie is my member of this club, she’s the most outstanding member.
There’s a commotion up front of the house and it halts further interrogation. Apparently someone needs to call a tow-truck as a car has backed into a ditch and they can’t get it out.
“Let me see,” I put my drink down. And make my way past the stereo blasting Medicine, and out into the cool windy night.
A group is standing around a small hybrid which in an effort to go around another parked car behind it, ended up dropping the left back tire into the drainage ditch.
“Get in, start ‘er up,” I smile at the young woman. Her brow furrowed. Endless young women, so many beauties here tonight.
I climb down into the rut and put my butt against the plastic bumper.
“OK, put it in drive, and give it a little gas.”
I lift, carefully shoving the car back onto the dirt and it pulls forward—easy peasy.
A cheer goes up, there’s applause, I laugh again as I brush the dirt from my shins, stomp the mud off my shoes.
“I’ve never heard of a hellbender before,” I hear someone say as I get back into the house. Folks have their cell phones out and are looking up the famous Eastern North American beasts.
I suddenly notice people are drunk.
The spider woman, tall in her stocking feet, stands in front of me, “Could you just pick me right up?”
“Sure,” I bend down scoop around her butt and put her on my shoulder and turn around while she squeals and kicks her legs. I set her back down.
“I haven’t experienced that since I was a little girl,” she laughs and sort of hugs me.
A line forms. I spend the next few minutes picking up ladies and putting them back down. They’re all cheering and clapping. The last one is Val. She’s also the lightest. There’s nothing to her but clothing and bones.
When I put her back down she kind of smirks at me, it’s the closest I’ve had to a smile from her. I’m accepted, the laborer is in the club, at least, for the moment.
So I don’t push my luck, instead, I pick up Maggie, as she shrieks and walk out the door while everyone laughs.
“Goodnight,” she waves at her friends slung over my shoulder.
On the way back she raves about how well everything went, how impressed everyone was, how I had even won over Val.
“How?” I shake my head in wonder.
“You know about stuff, and you’re genuine,” she shakes her head, “you have no idea how often she talks about the kind of people she doesn’t meet, and you’re it! You are what she’s describing, she wants to meet genuine people. Well she did tonight!”
“She seemed to warm up to me a bit, even let me pick her up.”
“I’d have never believed it if I didn’t see it.” She’s staring into the darkness out in front of the Jeep.
Then she hugs my arm, “You were great!”
“Huh, I wouldn’t have thought hellbenders and some squats would have been so effective.”
“Fuck, it’s what they don’t have, they’re all arts nerds, none of them have ever lifted a weight,” she laughed. “Me either for that matter!”
“You’re beautiful,” and I believe it, and I believe her.
“Aw, thanks, I think we’re a pretty good pair,” she grins up at me as I pull into the driveway.
Before bed I have her walk her little feet up and down my back, especially on the lower part.
She laughs about not realizing that she was going to have to repair me.
“It’s a precaution, just to get those disks aligned, I don’t want to be stiff in the morning.”
“Hmmm,” she jumps off and lays next to me, “I wouldn’t mind if something was stiff in the morning!”