House of Spiders

By Poe Ballantine

Niagara Falls, New York, everyone end of the world nervous: plants closing, the lake poisoned, people getting out, the few left given up. Max on welfare, Magger the acidhead on welfare too, healthy men in their twenties sitting at the bar till their money ran out. I poured drinks for them. Benny watched from the corner. The girls slithered in and out. They bought coke from Weasel in the back.

At the end of the night the bouncer herded all the drunks out. They wanted one more, just one more. I counted my tips. I averaged forty a night. I was lucky to have a job. I washed all the glasses and had a drink while Benny counted the till.

Sometimes the corpses would come in from around the corner, they bumped at the windows waving their arms. We had to watch for them, keep them out. Still they found their way in. It was getting more difficult to tell them from the living. I walked home in the dark. Most of the time in Niagara Falls it is snowing.

The manager was a squat gross gurgling little man with one missing thumb…

I lived in a run-down two-story apartment house across from the Niagara River. The river shot under the trees in the darkness. I could hear the water going over the falls at night. From my window I could see the Nabisco Shredded Wheat Factory blazing in the floodlights a few hundred yards away. I climbed up the back steps that led to my kitchen. The gray timber leaned and sagged. Spiders dangled in their shining nets like silver crabs in the lights. There were thousands of them. I climbed the gray rotting stairs through the thick nervepaths of the spiders clearing them away with both hands. They had covered the staircase since I’d left that morning. They knew before long that the place would be theirs.

My apartment was three huge high-ceilinged rooms, ancient old musty rooms with roller coaster floors, the carpets worn to a shine, rust pouring down the plaster, the windows scratched and convoluted, the ceilings buckled and stained, the pipes groaning in the walls. There was a walkway all around the second floor, a community porch. I sat out there when I got home, watched the snow trickle down, drank a beer, listened to the rapids rush under the trees, the explosion of the mighty falls, listened to the spiders crouch and weave. I drank out of a can with my feet on the rail.

The people who owned the building insisted the place would be restored, but including me there were only four tenants left. The manager was imported from Buffalo, he was a squat gross gurgling little man with one missing thumb. He’d taken over one of the ground floor apartments for an office and waited for prospective tenants. He would eat Danish with his left hand and pull out a drawer with his right, look at some papers, nod somberly. He would walk you down the halls, show you the view, talk about the good steam heat. He was like some old ghoul: he had nine gleaming white rings cut from the spines of slumdwellers, one ring for every finger.

A black nurse lived in 27. We were the only tenants on the second floor; a drug dealer and an old woman lived below. The day my pipe broke under the kitchen sink I couldn’t find the shut-off valve. The fat manager was out to lunch. My kitchen was filling up with water. I could see that it was leaking downstairs. I ran down the hall knocking on doors, on empty apartments. Finally I found the black nurse. She opened the door and I screamed at her. She was suspicious but she came out with a bucket. We hurried down to my apartment and it was flooded. I put the bucket under the leak. She had on her nurse’s skirt with tight white hose on her legs. She was nice to me and firm and beautiful. My apartment was flooding but I wanted to kiss her, push her down on the floor. I smelled her. I kept emptying the bucket into the bathtub. A few months later she disappeared. I talked to her brother one night on the porch drinking malt liquor staring at the shredded wheat factory with his feet on the rail. His sister had cancer, he said, melanoma. Melanoma is Latin for you are dead: it returns from the water poisoned with greed. I wish I had kissed her. I wish I had pushed her down on the floor.

A corpse came into the bar one night and she was not a borderline case, anyone could see that she was long dead. I thought she might be lost. She said she was looking for someone. The bouncer moved to toss her out but I held up my hand. She was homely and rough-skinned like a corpse but tall and though cold with a flash of viciousness in her eyes, she carried herself with some dignity. She seemed different to me than the rest. There was no one in the place except for Weasel patrolling the back-his overcoat lined with cocaine packets-and Max and Magger at the bar watching MTV.

I leaned down and talked to her. She didn’t look that bad. The decomposition on her face looked more like acne. Her eyelids were cracked; there were long fine fissures that grew out of her blouse up along the sides of her neck; her pale riddled head was shaped like an inverted pear; the eyes were veinless and clear. She studied me. She seemed almost proud. She told me she’d been laid off from Harrison Radiator in Buffalo a year ago. Though her hair was coming out, she kept it up nice with a pink ribbon. Her voice was small and musical and delicate like a crushed music box. She remembered what it was like being alive; it seemed to me she even thought she might still be alive, a pretense that held a certain hopeless charm. She had read Jude the Obscure, a book I admired. She had an engineering degree from SUNY. I smelled her and she smelled dead and cold but the liquor in her was warm and she emanated satin and naphtha and cedar, not unpleasant. I bought her a drink.

Benny came out of the back and saw the girl and hooked his finger at me. He took me down into his office in the basement. I don’t want corpses in here, he said. She’s all right, I said. She’s not like the others. Get her out of here, he said. There is something about her, I said. He stared at me. Get her out, he said, pointing at the door. I nodded and walked back up and told her to leave. She bought a packet from Weasel and glanced at me once before leaving the bar.

The first time we went out we had dinner at my place. I made cannelloni with a nice wine. I baked her some blueberry muffins. None of it mattered, but I wanted things to look right. The muffins swelled in the oven while she watched me eat. I couldn’t eat, though, I swirled it in my plate. It didn’t taste right, like the things it was made from, earth and death. We sat around my only piece of furniture, a chopping block. I’d borrowed two chairs from the black nurse. I also had a couch in the other room, the tenants before me had left it because it was too heavy to move. It only had three legs and it was losing its stuffing.

The weather was strange that day, eerie and lonesome and long; the sun hovered orange in the window like a portrait of a golf ball at the end of a desert fairway. I tried to eat and kept getting up for more wine or a little more sauce for her cannelloni or to check the muffins in the oven. She watched me while the food stayed cold on her plate. She sipped the wine and her teeth clinked on the glass. Her teeth were strong and white. I concentrated on her teeth. She was sweet and slow, she leaned her head in her hand. The jawline was sharp and there were tufts of white fungus on her hands. She wiped her mouth and studied me. I kept the lights off and waited for the sun to go down, the deep pits in her cheeks were hard to look at When we finished dinner I packed up her muffins in a little bag and I kissed her out the door, the first time I’d ever kissed anything dead. There was a small thrill, then repulsion. After she was gone I felt nervous and wrong and looked at the sun and glanced over at the shredded wheat factory and picked up everything, the half bottle of wine, the leftover muffins and cannelloni, and stuffed it all in the trash.

We went out but there was disapproval, the dead had their place. Come with me, she said. No thanks, I said. Not my kind of place. She smiled, a patient smile. One of her eyelids sagged. Her lips were almost black; they formed a word. I watched her limp away and longed for her. I followed her, stared in the grimy ice-thick window of the Mausoleum Club. They were all stiffs in there. They swung their heads around at me. She was dancing with the bartender who wore a black cowboy hat. The bones of his hand had worn through and the sharp skeleton fingertips sliced the back of her blue dress. Her head was thrown back in pleasure. I backed away ill, frozen through the veins. I vowed I would not see her again.

But she would find me. She would wave at me through the bar window, she would lurk in the shadows, she would drift under the porch and I would call her up. We would sit up all night on my couch or on the porch, drink and sniff coke. People saw us together, the fat manager, the black nurse, Magger the acidhead. They murmured, they warned me, that girl…is death. She waited for me outside the bar every night, tried to get in. Benny pointed at the door, he knew her from long ago. She was always drunk, she drank the liquor to keep warm, she had to drink it always, it was like blood. She ran into me, bumped into me. I’m toasted, she said. She felt warm. She wanted to sleep with me, I could feel it, but we didn’t. I was afraid to be a necrophile. We sat and talked, I talked too much. I spoke of desire. She said you always want what you can’t have. What do you want, I asked. She shook her head, it was a secret like a knife in her heart. What does a corpse want? A corpse wants to be alive.

I wanted to sleep with her. I’d kissed her cold lips and gazed into her dead eyes and listened to her shriveled black heart. It took a long time to get up the courage, a few weeks, kissing and walks and words in the ear and sitting on the couch watching the clock. One night we got drunk and slept together. I touched her dead body all over, the coarse clay flesh. I lay with her in the cold white-glowing sheets. Even the first time we couldn’t make love: you can’t make love to a corpse. Love is receptivity, vulnerability, response to truth. Love is respect, forgiveness, trust. She was a corpse. She didn’t say the word love but she didn’t like the word fuck either. She frowned at me. I don’t like that word, she said. It is a perfect word though: hate, ruin, selfishness, the pleasure of the dead. We never made love. We fucked.

The first time we fucked we fucked everywhere, on the couch, on the floor, upside down out the window, about two hours worth. When we were through I looked at my arms and chest and they shone with dew. She was dry as powder, folded up. Her eyes watched me dully. My sperm crawled out between her legs. I said that was the best ever. She said you did it all yourself. I saw myself dragging a corpse around the room, bending its arms and legs, hanging it over things, the danse macabre, fucking a corpse all by myself in an empty room

Though she was dead she was to me authentic; the other girls giggled in their fists, pretended the seven spheres of pretense, flashed their little milk glands. The corpse was real and it fucked like flesh. I was vital with her like a light in a black room; I had hope for her like Rex Harrison for Audrey Hepburn. I thought I was Christlike. I professed a love. The word fuck was pushed far back in my brain like a seed, far behind my tongue like a tumor. I professed a love and it was like opening a wound to a vampire: I could see the soft haze of seam over her eyes, a slight upturn of the lips. She knelt before me. The steam flowed out of my wound.

We were of different realms, there were natural laws: she could not live in my world but I could die in hers. Her flesh was dull as tallow. She stayed in the Mausoleum. I saw her only when she was glittering smashed, when she needed blood. I grew desperate enough to hunt her, to drag her out of her little tomb. The other corpses looked up at me gravely. I did not belong here. I dragged her out. There were many early scenes where I shook her up, shook her rotting little bandaged frame, scowled and growled and yelled at Death, spoke articulate Christ-rational-Popeye speeches. I was angry that the world was not perfect, that it was not like a song, that there was such a thing as Death. She liked me angry. I was closer to death then. We were bride and groom in the graveyard.

She lived in a house along the graveyard. I would stay in her house and look out the window and watch the steam lift from the graveyard. I would wait to see her and she would appear, frolicking with the other corpses. At night she was drawn to the Mausoleum. I fought her, she scratched my face and shrieked while I held her down. She came home before the sunrise. Her eyes were blank and I saw the other corpses turn their rotting heads at me as they drifted back into the graveyard. I knew I could save her somehow. I sat her on the couch. How did you die? when did you die? who murdered you? What difference does it make? she said. I am dead. I will bring you back, I said. She laughed and her tongue was a curl of mud. My fingers closed around her throat and she only smiled. This would be the best of all worlds. Come on, she said. I let her go.

One day I kidnapped her from the Mausoleum. The other corpses grumbled, looked up at me, sagging faces, glinting glass eyes, webs hanging from chins. They couldn’t do anything about it, I was alive. I brought her home and strapped her to the wall, filled jars with lightning, poured foaming green elixirs, laughed with my teeth at the moonlight. I made her eat flesh and she spat it out. I bathed her and her skin scaled away. She thrashed at me, swore and croaked and howled. I kept her for a week. I said a chant: a-little-house-a-picket-fence-a-pooch-a-pipe-a-pinochle-deck-at last I gave her my life like Christ would give his life. I knew that love could raise the dead, that she would be restored. A color came in her cheeks, her nostrils flared; I kissed her mouth and breasts and filled her with living seeds.

We don’t normally allow dead couples in here, said the waitress, but you look like a nice couple. She was working her gum pretty hard. I laughed and explained that I wasn’t dead. She nodded and held up her little booklet and asked if we wanted anything to drink. Something to eat, a big steak, I said. She looked at me as if I were ordering coal, dead people don’t eat. Well, with a laugh I said, anyone could make that mistake. It was certainly getting harder to tell; I couldn’t tell half the time myself. I wasn’t hungry anyway. I ordered a drink.

I gave her diamond earrings. She punched them in with little icy puffs of dust. She lowered her head and clasped my hand in her icy fingers. Then she disappeared for a long while. She came into my bedroom one night. It startled me waking up seeing her standing over me like a scarecrow on stilts, like a black-hearted marionette. She was drunk, her hair was wild, her eyes had disappeared, her legs clattered, her long arms scraped. She clattered down next to me. Her hair stank of wax and tar. She was naked and blind. She told me about the corpses at the bar: what those corpses did at the bar, what they said to her, who gave her coke, who bought her a drink. We slept together. I rode up on her bones, fucked her scaly bones. She cackled and wheezed. I stared down into the holes in her skull. When I woke up she was gone. The earrings were in their box on the floor.

It was winter, the streets and houses were clad in ice. She drifted across the windows, knocked on the bar door. The bouncer held up a torch. Her lips moved over a smile. What are you going to do, kill me? I tried to stay away from her but I couldn’t. We sat in front of her television and watched slasher films, she loved slasher films. We snorted coke and fucked afterward and sex was the most violent, impersonal, wicked, selfish, the closest to death, the most like ruin. I lay in bed and could not sleep. She turned her back to me and huddled around the ball of warm seeds in her womb.

Benny took me down in the basement and told me kindly quit her, send her back, put her where she belongs. I shook my head. Don’t you see what she is doing? I shook my head. Look in the mirror, he said. He held up the mirror: my face was ash white, the eyes opaque, the flesh pecked away. You are dying, he said. I am in love, I said. You are dead, he said. Pour me a drink, I said. We are all dead.

One day I found her in bed with the black-hatted bartender. He laughed at me, his skeleton ass poised in the air. He was rotting badly. I picked him up and threw him through the window and watched him scamper across the lawn cut but not bleeding, laughing, shredding, the bones at his joints showing. I turned on her and told her with some violence and glee that she would no longer be a part of me, that she would not take me, that I would not die for her. She shriveled as if words were real; the sheets pooled black; I stepped back. I was killing my beloved, the dying dream of Dr. Frankenstein. She reached up with flesh-stripped arms. I pushed her down on the bed and the dust rose up. Rot in peace, I said.

There is nothing more loyal than death, it leans out grinning from every bend. I went out with the living, the giggly pretenders. I pretended they fascinated me, their worship of earth luxuries and triumph of vanity. She was brooding jealous, she found me in the dark, hissed at me, trailed me in the shadows, left stone rings, earth, clumps of hair in my bed. She appeared in my room at night and I drove her out. She sneaked under the covers, slid rustily beneath me. I dreamed of death and opened my eyes.

Benny fired me, Benny was good, he said leave, don’t ever come back. I nodded, I knew he was right. I told the fat manager. He nodded sadly. The old lady was gone now too. There was only one tenant left in the house, the drug dealer. Well they’re tearing it down anyway, he said with a sigh. He finished his Danish, it was a stale Danish the way it chewed. He had eleven more in the box. He licked the tip of each finger before reaching into the box for another. The no trespassing signs were stacked on his desk. Au revoir, mon fat frer, I said. I left Niagara Falls and it was spring and it was snowing.

I went to the sun like every other lost dying fool. I traveled down to the Carolinas. I’d never been to South Carolina before. I took a bus. I looked out the window and suffered like a man dying on a sword. When I got to Charleston I walked the streets. It was hot and steamy. A guy stopped me and said, hey, where’d you get that vest? I looked down and it was a black satin vest with white quilting and a carnation in the lapel. It was the kind of vest an undertaker or its corpse would wear. I tore it off. You want it? He looked at me for a minute, looked in my eyes. The color went out of his face and he pedaled back slowly, then turned and ran. I laughed and shouted after him, hey, what’s the matter, don’t you like formaldehyde?

I tried to get a job. I took taxis around town. I stayed in a motel for two weeks. There was a pool table in the lobby. I shot pool with a kid and drank cokes and asked him what he thought. He was about 15 years old. He shrugged his shoulders. Some of my hair fell out on the table. I shot the nine ball in the side. I looked in the mirror and my face was chalk, the cheeks eaten away. I could still shoot pool, though. I knew that I had to go back, I had to go back and bury her.

When I came back she was waiting for me on the couch sitting sweetly. I knew I loved her then. She said come on down to the Mausoleum. I went with her. They all greeted me, their hair fallen out, faces sliding yellow, the place heaped with crumbling urns and green dust and hair and hollow laughter and forgotten songs, the floor sticky with liquor and cadaverine, the corners quilted round with cobwebs, drinks on the house! I laughed with them all and howled at my rotting face in the glass. I saw Benny’s face peering in the window. I waved and he flashed grim lips and backed away. Benny come back! I am only having a drink with my girl. Her arm was wrapped around me tight; I could feel the bones of her fingers locked into my ribs, true love forever. We got drunk and all my old enemies were friends now. They slapped me on the back and the dust rose like dust out of old rungs. I got smashed and I whispered in her ear, let’s leave, let’s fuck. No, let’s stay here forever, she said. We don’t have to go out any more. One more time, I said. Let’s go out among the living and fuck like we used to, one more time. She looked nervously around and finished her drink. I looked in the mirror. We were both dead. I had to be dead. I knew I was dead but I didn’t feel dead. I finished my drink and dragged her off the stool. Come on. The others were quiet, they watched us silently, jealously. She turned back and glanced at them, an apology. I hauled on her arm. I took her up to the house of spiders. The windows were dark, there were condemned signs, no trespassing signs nailed everywhere, orange in the black light. There were tractors parked out front. The poisoned green river roared over the poisoned falls. The trees whispered greedily, patiently. The moon hung like a dead pitted face. The shredded wheat factory glittered and gleamed. I brought her up the stairs. She closed her eyes as the webs stretched across her face. Her hand was cold in mine. She pulled against me. I dragged her. I still had the key. I fit the key and pushed inside. The spiders quivered and scuttled, they had taken over my old rooms. I brought her into the living room. The old couch was still there. I laid her on the couch. She watched me. I held out my arms. Look at what you did to me. She laughed. You did it all yourself. I grabbed her hair and brought out a knife. It was my turn to laugh. I cut her throat. Worms shredded like grinding sausage from a grin. I dropped the knife. She writhed and called my name. I struck a match and hurried, lit the curtain and hurried. I lit the curtains in the kitchen too. Down the stairs, I lit the book of matches and threw them under the stairs. I watched the flare, the fire lift and lick, the cobwebs melt, the spiders flee. I limped slowly toward the shredded wheat factory, the heat on my back, the roar of the falls, then the roar of the flames. When I turned back the building was leaning in a dazzling mountain of fire. She was standing at the rail, flames all around her, flames in her hair, watching me, laughing.

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About Poe Ballantine

Poe Ballantine is headed for Odessa, Texas, looking for a hotel with fat black waitresses, electric fans in the windows, heaps of iced shrimps, bored blondes reading oversized fashion magazines, cool, cotton tablecloths, a gin rickey with just the right amount of sugar, and a job washing dishing where the cooks never burn the oatmeal.

2 Comments

  1. Debbie Thompson
    Posted October 2010 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    HOUSE OF SPIDERS is excellent beyond words. After i read it, i read it out loud to my husband, who enjoyed it thoroughly. HOUSE OF SPIDERS flows; the illiteration and short sentences creates a rhythm that sails brilliantly through the whole piece. thank you

  2. catherine
    Posted August 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    poe, you are amazing. found out about you through the sun, started doing “research” on one of these darn blasted computers, and stumbled upon this piece. doubt you’ll ever read this commentary… i almost wish you weren’t even a real person, just some sort of imagined genius i conjured –this idea of a writer i’ll always dream of, but can never be… thanks for your writings.

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