As he lay dying, Bug Boy remembered the first spider, the Argiope Aurantia, curled up against the glass of the Ragu jar that his father pulled from the freezer. Of course, no one called him Bug Boy then, and he didn’t have his thick-framed glasses with the coke-bottle lenses. Both the name and the glasses were years away on that summer day with the sun’s rays beaming through the clear panes of his family’s patio doors. He was only Todd Olden then. Not Bug Boy. Not a delinquent. Not a dropout. Not a user. Not a murderer.
Bug Boy clutched the envelope, the bitter consolation for his greatest transgression, and hugged it against his chest. Hooks were hanging from the ceiling, and the odor of frozen meat still clung to the walls of the long-abandoned slaughterhouse. Webs with fat spiders dangling between egg sacs and the remains of victims crisscrossed between the hooks. Each web belonged to an individual spider, and even if the webs intersected, each spider remained on its own web. Spiders were solitary creatures, and they only mixed to either create life or take it. Life for all its complexities usually came down to that. Making and taking. Without his glasses or contacts, he couldn’t make out the species. He wondered if it was Argiope Aurantia, but he thought it not likely. Not that it mattered.
Only one garden spider mattered to him.
That spider entered his life when he was just Todd, a six-year-old who could barely form letters on paper yet understood very well that his father, Terry Olden, was a high school science teacher, and, to his young mind, that was the equivalent of Merlin from The Sword in the Stone. His father was tall and lean with an easy smile and an answer for every question, and from almost nothing, he could create anything. All he needed was a beaker and a Bunsen burner.
Earlier that afternoon his father brought the jar before him. The trapped spider tried dancing up the side of the glass to escape as Todd pressed his face against the jar. The spider resembled a bumblebee with legs, and Todd tried to count the yellow blotches on its black abdomen.
“Cool!” Todd jumped from the table placed in the nook off the kitchen precisely before the patio doors by his mother. They ate breakfast together, the three of them, every morning at the table overlooking the backyard. “What is it?”
“Argiope Aurantia,” his father answered. The ever-present grin broadened on his father’s face. The grin was gone now, Bug Boy knew, replaced by a scowl and deep-scarring age lines on his forehead and cheeks.
“Arg…” Todd tried to copy his father.
“It’s a garden spider although some people call it a banana spider. They’re wrong. That’s a different spider. I’ll show a banana spider when we find one.”
“Cool, can I keep it?”
“I’ll show you how you can keep it forever?”
“Forever?” The idea strummed the imagination strings in his young mind. His father was a magician.
“That’s right, but we have to hurt it to do it right. Then we fix it so that it lasts forever.”
Those words echoed in Bug Boy’s head like the train that rumbled on the west side of Lincoln every morning at 2:00 A.M. The same nightly train Bug Boy stowed away on after killing the girl and taking her money. That night was so cold that he thought they’d find him frozen to the side of the boxcar like the spider was to the jar after his father removed it from the freezer. He made it, though, to the stop at the big city. He wasn’t even sure which city, he only knew it was big, and he felt like an ant among the skyscrapers and flashing lights.
The big city was where he dwelled days later. The train and cold hadn’t killed him, but the drugs were doing the trick. Bug Boy didn’t mind one bit. Once you take a life, after all, you don’t get a life.
“You’re pretty, Mommy,” Meghan said, chewing on her thumbnail. Brown splotches of dirt dotted the underside of the nail, but she didn’t care. The rest of her thumb was stained red from the juice box she managed to squirt all over the couch minutes earlier. Mommy yelled then. Not mean yelled, just yelled because Meghan had done wrong and that’s when Mommy has to yell.
“Uh, huh,” Mommy said, yanking through a tangle in her hair with a brush. Mommy did look pretty even in the ugly tan and red waitress uniform. If Meghan looked like her Mommy, she knew that Bobby Hall would play with her today at recess. That was all she wanted. Bobby Hall had the prettiest eyes, and he shared his milk with her that one day, but he never played with her at recess. He always roughhoused with the other boys, or sometimes he’d sit on the swings with Lacey Robinson. Stupid-face Lacey Robinson, who always wore dresses like she was going to church and had the fancy pens and markers.
Her Mommy kept brushing through her straight brown hair, working out the knots before pulling it back in a ponytail. Meghan loved her Mommy with her hair pulled back, revealing her face and her green eyes. She looked so clean and pretty. Meghan’s eyes were brown and her red hair curled too much. She must look like her Daddy, Meghan thought. She didn’t know what he looked like, but Meghan guessed that must be the case because she wasn’t anywhere near as pretty as her Mommy.
“You’re pretty, Mommy.” Meghan couldn’t help herself as she stood on the plastic blue stepstool she always used while her Mommy got ready for work.
“Oh, am I now? Well don’t I just have the sweetest five-year-old girl in the whole big world?” Mommy always said Meghan’s age because Mommy loved numbers and turning five seemed so important to both of them. Meghan giggled, and Mommy even spared a rare smile. The smile only made her more pretty, and Meghan sighed.
“My turn?” Meghan asked, already dragging the stool closer to the bathroom vanity.
The mirror was spotted and cracked down the middle. Meghan didn’t know how come it was broken, but a lot of things were broken in their little apartment.
“Fifteen on each side, right Mommy?”
“That’s right.” She brushed the first stroke of Meghan’s hair.
“One,” Meghan said loud.
“One,” Mommy agreed. Meghan thought both of them looked pretty now in the reflection, and she smiled before the next stroke.
They counted the rest together, giggling sometimes in unison for no reason. Meghan liked to pretend the bathroom was a separate little world for just her and her Mommy.
All six lights across the top of the phone were pulsating and Susie glanced over to her co-secretary Marla, who was on her line talking some parent off the blizzard ledge. The sixth button on Susie’s phone blinked white, but it might as well have been red. The voice waiting on hold wanted to talk to Terry Olden and Terry Olden only. She pulled the microphone between her and Marla over and pushed the button at its base.
“Terry Olden to the main office,” Susie spoke once and then repeated.
“Good lord, Susie,” Marla said, placing her receiver down. “It’s like Lincoln has never had a snowstorm before.”
“Let the machine get most of them, they’ll call the day as soon as we go long enough to make it count as a full one.” Susie couldn’t stand to wait much longer, thinking about the pack of cigarettes in her purse.
“I’ll join you,” Marla smiled. The two women worked together long enough to know when the other was thinking about a smoke. They returned every fall from summers spent gardening and walking dogs vowing to help each other quit the nasty habit. This year Marla showed up wearing one of those patches prescribed by that hunky doctor that made Marla’s knees weak. One visit and she promised never to touch one of those cancer sticks again with hopes that doing so would urge the hunky doctor into touching her. Susie went the cheaper route by picking up a few packs of gum.
They arrived that muggy August morning, hugging, laughing, and with fists clenched against the habit. Marla lost ten pounds. Susie was seeing a sharp guy that sold used cars. Everything was going forward just peachy. Then the phone rang, and the two women stared at each other for a long moment. When one put the receiver down, the other was already talking on the other. All the thankless tasks accumulated, as teachers and students shuffled in and out of the office. By the third day, the two stood behind the dumpster at the back of the school puffing away. Marla put the weight back on. Susie’s boyfriend hated her breath smelling like ash, so he dumped her. Sigh, another year jockeying the desk was already half over and she couldn’t wait for the summer. This time she’d quit smoking. Hell, maybe she’d quit this damn job and find something where people weren’t constantly calling to bitch at her for things that weren’t her fault.
Along the opposite wall from the desk was a poster featuring the peak of a huge mountain with the words “Dream Big” written across the top. Next to the poster was a portrait of George Lincoln, founder of the city of Lincoln in 1842. George Lincoln’s nose was pointed below a pair of scowling eyes set deep into his skull. Susie figured he must have been one smug bastard. Below the poster and portrait were placed a row of chairs. Joey Rice, resident thug of the junior class, sat at one end. On the other was another boy, Tom something, with a wet paper cloth held tightly to his bleeding nose. What a day! Blizzard warning had everyone amped to get out of Dodge, and one minor fight was already in the books.
On top of that Line Six blinked and somewhere between the office and Terry Olden’s second-floor science classroom, Terry heel-and-toed it closer to this inevitable fate. He was one of the skinny, dorky-looking guys that grew more attractive with a few wrinkles and sprinkles of gray. It was as if all of that knowledge that repulsed women in their twenties somehow matured into worldly, maybe even exotic, wisdom in their forties. Susie couldn’t deny her urges increased ever so slightly every fall the previous fifteen years.
Mostly he was a good guy and the voice on Line Six was about to deliver bad news. Susie could tell just by the tone, and it wasn’t any surprise really. The call was a month in the making as far as the rest of the town was concerned. The boy was found somewhere, and now it was time to face the music for what he did to that girl. Terry didn’t deserve this.
God, Susie wanted a smoke.
He entered carrying that damn blue mug, the same one he’d supposedly carried every day for twenty years at Lincoln High School. The mug was known better than the man and even been the subject of the occasional prank. The one rule – one that even the unruliest students followed – was that no prank could risk breaking the mug. The mug was an institution.
“Hi, Terry. Make it fast, if you can, we’re facing a blizzard here.” She chided herself for telling him to hurry a call like this. Here’s the life changer but keep it under a minute.
“You bet.” Terry didn’t indicate any offense and took the receiver. For all he knew, this was a call from his wife. Susie pushed the blinking button.
“This is Terry Olden.” He turned his back to her, and she couldn’t help but notice the office went quiet. The phones stopped ringing, and Marla’s attention turned toward Terry. The Tom kid pulled the cloth from his nose and looked up for the first time. Even the pouting Joey Rice’s complexion softened. Outside the wind ceased blowing, a rare reprieve this winter.
Susie’s eyes went to that mug clutched in Terry Olden’s right hand. The muscles tensed in his delicate, long fingers, turning the knuckles a bright white creating a distinct pattern of pink lines. Then the muscles loosened. The fingers released entirely, and Susie jumped to her feet as the mug defied gravity for a moment before dropping straight down, crashing on the tile floor. Marla squealed, and Susie watched the black-brown liquid splatter in every direction across the tiles. Both boys dove away to avoid being hit by glass or hot coffee.
“Okay, I’ll be there this afternoon,” Terry said. He placed the receiver back in the cradle, never acknowledging the spilled coffee, and made to leave.
“Terry. Wait,” Susie blurted out. He glanced back, his face blank of emotion. “What did they say?”
Terry opened the door, escaping into the hall, then slipped down the corridor and out into the cold air where the world prepared for one hell of a storm. Susie followed and lit a cigarette in the parking lot, watching his taillights as they turned onto State Highway 30.
Yanking up the zipper of his slacks with one hand and flushing the urinal with the other, Roger Toms sighed. Getting old was hell. He peed when he left the house twenty minutes earlier, and by the time he reached Marty’s for breakfast, it was all he could do to make it to the restroom at the diner before wetting his drawers. How he ever made it through ten hours on the factory floor at Lincoln Hardware with one break and a lunch without wearing a diaper, he couldn’t fathom. He’d never make rate now, shutting the press down two or three times every hour to high-tail it to the nearest can. Thankfully at seventy-two, his working days were done and done just in the nick of time to miss the constant barrage of layoffs. This town was built on the steel of Lincoln Hardware, but that age was passing, and hard work like that was done in India or someplace else where the wages were peanuts. He wondered how long before this country collapsed on the plastic foundation it was determined to set itself on.
An angry sounding growl escaped his lips as the audible accompaniment to his physical attempt to clear his throat. He supposed other folks thought he was some grumpy old codger. Well, he was a grumpy old codger, but the growling wasn’t a sign of it. He just wanted a clear windpipe, but phlegm from every swallow managed to get caught on some ledge at the back of his gullet – a ledge that wasn’t there a decade ago. Washing his hands, he studied his aging, sagging face in the mirror. Damn, where did the time go?
Outside the restroom he bumped into Marty, the owner and grill cook at the diner, who at forty was stocky and working hard to reach the level of fat. Marty’s curly hair stretched down the back of his neck, and even though his day was only starting, sweat was soaking through his too-tight, white T-shirt.
Marty didn’t bother to answer, slipping through the saloon doors that led into the safety of the kitchen. Rog found his stool halfway down the counter and patted the little notebook and pencil in his breast pocket while scanning the restaurant for the girl. It’d be a miracle if she made it on time for the start of her shift, but it didn’t much matter to Rog. He didn’t have anything better to do.
She rushed through the front door wearing the ugly uniform under a ratty jean jacket. Her dirty blond hair was tied back in a ponytail that accentuated her pink cheeks from walking in the brisk air. He envied her youth.
“How many steps?” He called out, and she shot him a mischievous grin.
“Whew, did you really count?”
“You know it.”
He laughed and took out the notebook, turning to a page in the back. He was tracking her response to the question each morning. Someday he would accompany her from her apartment just to see if she was being honest. Anyone else and he’d know it was a lie, but this girl was different with her numbers and that tickled him to no end.
So too did her waitressing.
Julia ranked somewhere between the best and worst waitress of all time. That was as close as he could narrow it down. Life equipped her with the sense of humor to handle the garbage tossed on her plate – like her zealot father kicking her out when she got pregnant in high school – and that humor worked wonders on old codger customers like Rog. He also knew that she was habitually tardy, mixed up orders, and didn’t always notice when folks came in and sat in one of the booths that ran parallel to the counter.
None of that mattered to him. In fact, she screwed up his order every day just for grins, and he didn’t care one bit as long as she played the game. Rog Toms had little in life that gave him much satisfaction, but for whatever the reason, this girl’s ability to do math in her head captivated him. He never married, but if he were a young man, he’d take this girl with her child in a heartbeat, just to figure out a way to monetize her brain in some way.
She returned from the back, tying a smock around her waist and stopped a bit down the counter to take the orders of Eugene Brill and Howard Owens, two retired farmers. She poured them coffee and dropped their ticket at the window before sauntering toward him.
“Well Toms, what is it?”
He jumped to attention, flipping his notebook to the front. He spent the night before working a handful of problems for her this morning. It was about all he did in the evenings these days.
“S’pose a rich man walked in right now.”
“What’s he look like?”
“What the hell does that matter?
“Well, if he’s rich, I’d be hoping my waitressing days were over.”
Rog hesitated, turning the joke over in his mind before approving with a smile that exposed his coffee-stained dentures.
“He’s old and grumpy.”
“Just my type?” She winked, pouring him some coffee and leaving three packs of sugar in front of him.
“He says he’s gonna buy my breakfast along with Mr. Owens’s and Mr. Brill’s.’”
“What’s that? Free breakfast?” Howard Owens piped up. Howard knew the drill.
“Shut it, Howard,” Rog fired back. “My meal costs $4.27. Mr. Brill’s costs $6.39, and Mr. Owens’s costs $7.19. He pays with a fifty. What’s the change?”
“Before I answer, what’s your order? Marty will bust a nut if I don’t get all your orders before the big morning rush.”
“Two eggs over easy, side of bacon, and a small glass of orange juice.”
She scribbled something down, and Rog watched only close enough to make sure she wasn’t doing any figuring on her pad. She ripped the paper off and put it in the window.
“That’d be $32.15. Actually, I’d say $27.15, because I earned five for the tip.”
Rog, who wrote the scenario down in his notebook the night before and then calculated the answer first using the old-fashioned paper-and-pencil method that he learned way back in his school days and then checked it with a calculator, verified that she was right. The girl was always right. He even jotted down the possibility of a tip of five dollars.
“Whew, how does that brain of yours work?” Rog leaned back, but then growled trying to clear his throat. The girl shrugged and busied herself filling jelly packets in the containers on each table. He read somewhere once about taking time to appreciate the simple joys of life, and so before turning his notebook page to another question, he admired her as she worked in the sunshine beaming through the windows. He might not have much, but he had this. He tried taking a deep, cleansing breath, but it turned into a growl, breaking his train of thought. Looking back at his notebook, he shouted out another two problems before she brought out his order.
He laughed when she did. A genuine laugh. Before him was a pancake, an order of sausage links, and a large glass of milk.
Marcy Olden clutched the glasses in her right hand and the cordless phone in the other. Sitting in Todd’s room dulled her ache, as if breathing in the last remaining fibers of her child’s essence acted as an ointment on her invisible scars. Outside it was snowing, and her husband was down at the funeral home picking out a casket. The phone buzzed.
“Marcy? Sweetheart? You sound so different,” Ray’s voice echoed, his call coming from the cavernous stockroom at the grocery store. She wondered while examining the glasses with its thick black frames and a cracked right lens if there was irony in that she’d been screwing a butcher for three months when three days earlier her son’s body was discovered in an abandoned slaughterhouse. No, not irony, just a coincidence. Her mother, an English teacher, taught her that much.
“When do you get off?”
“At six. What’s up?”
“The usual. I’ll be over then.”
“Are you sure? It’s only been a few days.”
“I know how long it’s been. Just be there.” She pushed the button to end the conversation and feeling no need to explain herself. Besides, her mind was focused on the glasses.
The clunky frames always dwarfed Todd’s face, but for so long he didn’t care. The damn bugs clued them into the problems with his vision. When Terry and Todd started the collection, Todd destroyed specimen after specimen during the pinning stage. Touching the bug corpses never bothered him, although it always grossed her out, he was just incapable of judging the distance between the bug and the needle he was intending to peg to the board. He would stab clumsily at the bugs and then maim the abdomen or cleave off the head. Oh, the tears then.
The glasses fixed the problem, but he lost something, too. Before the glasses he used to sit at their table and trace his finger along the swirling grains of the wood, lost in the strange dimensions his vision provided. The glasses eliminated that extra dimension to his sight.
Once the glasses came, only the bugs mattered for five or six years, driving her nearly buggy. The basement still was like a scene from a horror movie with thousands of specimens displayed in cabinets or framed under glass to hang from the walls. She rarely went down there, even when times were better. She half worried Terry planned for their son’s corpse to be pinned and preserved down there instead of being properly buried.
She still loved Terry despite what her infidelity indicated, but the man didn’t handle their son’s teenage rebellions well. Her own father was much the same, which led Marcy to losing her first son. Terry didn’t know about that son and the fetus never grew large enough inside of her to feel like a real person, but all these years later, she still felt that loss bitterly, too.
A memory shuffled forward then, and she choked back a wave of tears. Todd was nine or ten and rushed into the kitchen after returning from school.
“Mom! Mom!” He shouted. His baggy shorts and T-shirt accentuated his frail frame. He was fragile like one of those trinkets gift shops always place near the edge of shelves just for some clumsy tourist to stomp by and knock off to a shattering, expensive end.
“What is it?” She was mixing something for dinner; the meal, though, was lost in the minutiae of a thousand others.
“I have a new name.”
“A new name? Why I kind of like your old name.”
“Ha.” He always said “Ha” when a grownup teased him. “No, this is a cool name.”
“Well, out with it.”
“I found a spider at recess. It was climbing on a web by one of the classroom windows, so I grabbed it.”
“Oh Todd, you know I don’t like you doing that without your father. Did you wash your hands?”
“MOM! That’s not the point. So, Jenny, she’s in the grade below me, was standing there and she squealed.”
“Oh Todd, you shouldn’t tease girls like that.”
“I wasn’t. That’s not the point. Before she ran off, she called me ‘Bug Boy!’ Isn’t that great?” He paused to push up the glasses as they slipped down his nose. “It’s like a superhero name. Now everyone is calling me Bug Boy.”
The name started as status symbol, giving Todd a unique, but accepted identity among his peers. The sentiment gradually matured from one of adoration to condemnation. Being Bug Boy was cool in grade school but turned into a curse in middle school. He still loved to collect, but his peers referred to him as different rather than unique. As he lashed out to lose the name, he disavowed any connection with that identity – the two most glaring features being the glasses and his father. The tension came to a head in a confrontation in Terry’s science classroom where Todd, while making demands to get contacts, riffled the glasses at his father’s head, missing and hitting the chalkboard behind him, bending the frame and cracking the lens. Marcy wished she had seen the look on Terry’s face.
Instead she picked up the pieces and took Todd to the eye doctor for contacts, which, as Terry knew, wouldn’t be as effective in their vision correction as the glasses. Terry was right. He was always right.
Late afternoon was surrendering to evening and she supposed Terry was at the bar after the funeral home. He stopped at the bar quite often these days. She put the glasses on the nightstand and made a mental note to have them buried with her son. Wiping away a tear, she rose from Todd’s bed and left to meet her lover.
Walking into the diner, Edith Burns grabbed her husband’s hand to collect her senses. The diner around them was spinning, the colors bleeding together, and Edith’s knees were locked in place. Merle, whose eyes always bulged behind the lenses of his glasses, studied her face. She remembered those eyes about sixty years younger studying her with just as much compassion. He was a quiet man, sometimes unnervingly so, but a good man.
“Mother, your hands are cold.” He covered her hand with his other hand and rubbed them all together. The friction brought tingles of warmth through wrinkles and arthritis. “Are you sick?”
“Heavens no. Just a spell there.” The diner came to a natural standstill, and he led her toward the booth unofficially reserved every Friday afternoon at Marty’s. She placed a plate of peanut butter cookies on the tabletop and eased into the cushioned seat. Other than a pair of teenage girls slurping down milkshakes three booths down, she and Merle had the diner to themselves. They preferred it that way. She was pretty sure Julia placed their order before they hit the front door, despite going through the charade of looking at menus. With any luck, they’d pull out of the parking lot before the dinner rush. Merle, bless him, only saw things passably well, and the fewer vehicles and pedestrians to dodge, the better.
“I have to deliver that quilt in the morning for the Presbyterian’s fundraiser,” she blurted out. Heavens, making the quilt tested her faith. Not in God. She fervently believed in her Lord. No, her faith in her abilities was shaken of late. For fifty years she baked, cooked, sewn, and quilted for about everyone and everything in Lincoln, but the plate of cookies before her came from her second try at peanut butter cookies, after tossing the first batch because they tasted like cement. The quilt? Heavens, it was a test in every way possible, and it wasn’t even a difficult pattern.
Julia plopped beside her, a dark stain evident on her uniform top. The poor girl could be a klutz, but the Lord loved klutzes all the same. Edith took a special interest in Julia when she started waitressing a few years earlier. She also took a special interest in Julia’s little girl. If her grandparents were going to be so darned old-fashioned, foo on them. Edith had her own grandchildren, but they all lived so far away. She’d adopt one where she could. Love was free to give, and Edith Burns didn’t want to go into the ground with any love left to spare.
“How’s that little angel doing?” Edith asked.
“Oh, she keeps growin’. She’ll be taller than me by next year at this time.”
“You don’t say.” Merle grinned.
“That’s what kids do. They grow and grow, then they go.” Edith sipped from the tea that Julia must have set before her. Her mind wandered to her own children, a son living in Indianapolis and a daughter in California, for heaven’s sake.
Julia’s ponytail was coming undone, and she looked like she’d missed a night or two of sleep. Raising a toddler on your own could do that, Edith supposed. Raising two with a husband hadn’t been a piece of cake. She couldn’t understand how a smart girl like Julia could get in such trouble, but it wasn’t Edith Burn’s job to question the Lord’s plan. She just tried to behave like the Good Book taught. Edith would give money to Julia for college, if she thought the girl would take it. Lord knows Edith had a little stockpile in the bank from different baking and sewing jobs she’d taken up over the years, and she didn’t have any real plans for it.
“So, what’s goin’ on with you two?”
“My knees hurt. I think it’s going to storm,” Merle said.
“You don’t say?”
“Years of kneeling when welding catchin’ up with me, I s’pose.”
“Oh, I’ve just been tired all day long,” Edith interjected. “I don’t know what the heck is wrong with me.”
“Well, you should just take a nap instead of baking cookies to give little girls sugar highs.” Julia picked up the plate on the tabletop. “Plus sewing Halloween costumes and, no doubt, you’re plotting some sort of feast of treats for Christmas.”
“Hush, girl.” Edith smiled. “I do all that stuff in my sleep. It’s filling the waking hours that’s tough.”
“Ha. How about a waitressing gig? There’ll be a job open if I don’t get off my keester.”
“Liver and onions.” Merle placed the menu on the table.
“A piece of fried chicken and mashed potatoes,” Edith said.
Julia left without writing anything down and Edith turned in the booth to watch her walk away.
The falling snow piled above the toes of Robbie Simpson’s sneakers and soaked his thin socks. Wet feet were the worst. For the last few weeks, Robbie was learning about all the things that were the worst about living on the street, especially about living on the streets in this hellhole in the middle of winter. He desperately wanted to reconcile with his mother, but she needed time to cool down.
“And you need to clean up,” Bug Boy’s ghost spoke behind him.
“Shut up, you’re not even real.” Todd’s ghost showed up on the day the news of Bug Boy’s death reached Robbie’s ears down at the overnight shelter.
The door to Morgan’s Funeral Home opened and Robbie shuffled backward around the corner and out of view. Mr. Olden exited with Royce Morgan following behind. The funeral home director locked the door behind them, apparently leaving for the night with his last customer. Robbie thought it queer he still referred to Bug Boy’s dad as “Mr. Olden,” but it was a habit he couldn’t shake.
“More like Mr. Asshole,” Robbie whispered, lighting a cigarette.
“Takes one to know one,” Bug Boy chimed in.
“You’re dead, and you’re still lame.”
Snow crunched under tires as Mr. Olden and the funeral director left the parking lot. Robbie finished his cigarette before heading to the back of the building. The front door was glass and Robbie didn’t want to have to break it, and he figured the door in the back, where they hauled the bodies in, was likely less decorative and hopefully only padlocked. Who breaks into a funeral home anyways?
“Just a loser like you,” Bug Boy said.
“Har, har.” Robbie couldn’t explain his need to see Bug Boy’s body. Part of him thought returning his friend’s spirit to the resting place of his physical body would free Robbie of the ghoul. He prayed it would work. Talking to Bug Boy really wasn’t that bad other than the strange looks people gave him around town. The problem was his friend’s appearance. Bug Boy was pail and frail, as he’d been in real life, wearing nothing more than a ratty T-shirt and torn up jeans. The bugs were the issue. Worms and beetles crawled in and out of his mouth and ears, and the spiders, big and black with sinister looking yellow stripes, were everywhere, spinning webs, catching flies, and hanging their bags of babies from the ghost’s nostrils. Robbie avoided looking at Bug Boy as much as possible, but when Robbie closed his eyes, all he saw behind his lids was the ghastly image.
One stroke of luck was that the back door wasn’t even locked. Inside were two stairways, one leading down to where the morticians worked on the bodies and the other leading up toward the main floor. Robbie went down with the ghost following silently behind.
At the bottom of the steps, he found a switch and a bank of florescent lights sprang to life. Formaldehyde stung his nose as it clung to the cool, damp air. In the middle of the room was a table, atop it was a body covered in a white sheet.
“Now go back to your body.”
The ghost lingered beside him, staring at the sheet, but didn’t go anywhere. Robbie lowered the sheet to the corpse’s chest. The body was just as pail as the ghost, but thankfully the bugs weren’t there. Robbie hadn’t seen many dead bodies, and this was the first time spending any time alone with one.
“You remember the science fair in eighth grade?” Bug Boy asked.
“My dad pulled some strings so I’d have the best location, and I brought in almost all my bugs. We worked for weeks getting the cases arranged just right and deciding how to configure the display. I even made a big model spider with each part labeled.”
“I hoped everyone would come over and see how neat the bugs were, and then, you know, see how neat I was. My dad sat there the whole time, grading papers and drinking coffee from that dumb mug.”
“Sounds boring. I mean, it sounds really boring,” Robbie said. He circled around the table and the ghost of Bug Boy remained in its spot glaring at the body. “How about you tell it to the corpse and I’ll just leave you two to talk about it?”
The ghost ignored Robbie.
“Near the end of the day, guess who showed up?”
“The freakin’ Pope!” Robbie joked, but he knew. As the story dragged toward its conclusion, the science fair returned to his memory. He remembered Bug Boy’s booth and how hopeful his eyes looked behind those ridiculous lenses.
“Ha. You waltzed right up and really studied each case. The longer you took, the more excited I got. Here was Robbie Simpson. One of the real cool kids of the school and the best athlete, at least when you still went out for the teams. The girls loved you. The guys idolized you. If you liked the bugs then I was in with everyone.”
“Geez, cool it on all that.” Robbie knew his reputation was hero in junior high, but rapidly shifted to zero in high school. The real Bug Boy realized the same, even though the two became running buddies through mostly bad times.
“All of sudden you raised your eyes from my display and you know what you said?” Bug Boy’s ghost eyes never left the shell of his former body.
“I don’t remember,” Robbie lied.
“You said, ‘Geez Bug Boy, same old bugs, when are you going to get a life?’”
“This isn’t my fault,” Robbie whimpered. His grief and fear shifted quickly to anger. “This isn’t my fault!”
“I gave up the bugs for you, Robbie. Shunned my family. Quit on school. Then we started with the drugs. You remember that?”
“That was your idea!”
“This isn’t my fault.” Robbie drove his fist into the table next to the body. The corpse’s eyes opened, staring blankly up at him. Robbie stumbled backward, falling hard on his ass. He wasn’t about to let the corpse rise and drag him down to hell. Jumping to his feet, he pushed the table over and the body made a nauseating wet sound as it struck the tiled floor. Robbie hit full speed fast, glad that not all of his athletic talent had dissipated over the years. The ghost’s voice hit him in the chest when he reached the steps, forcing him to grasp the railing and come to a stop.
“Geez, same old Robbie, running away when things get tough. When are you going to get a life?”
Marty should have fired Julia when she started showing up late. That would have been the first week. The truth was that her tardiness and all her other foibles as a waitress really didn’t bother Marty that much. She was good with the customers and good help was hard to find. If he had fired her though, he wouldn’t be standing at the front door like a goof this morning peering through the fogged over glass of the front door. He needed her to arrive so he could get this over with and begin his food preparation.
“Is this self-serve?”
“Jesus Howard, it’s not like you got anywhere to go.” Marty went over to the counter, grabbed a pair of menus, and dropped them in front of Howard and Eugene. Rog Toms was farther down, but waved off Marty as he made his way with a menu.
Marty couldn’t remember ever being this nervous about talking to someone, and he didn’t really know why. Maybe he liked Julia more than he realized. She was cute and tough, but way too young for him. She also had a kid and that was a deal-breaker. Not that she ever showed any sort of interest in him. The opposite really. They humored each other, but never really spoke about anything more serious than scheduling.
The door opened then and she stormed through. A commotion settled over the diner as if everyone were held in suspended animation until she arrived. She wore a ratty jean jacket for a winter coat, slipping it off on the way to the back.
“How many steps?”
“1,781. I tripped at one point so I veered a bit off path.”
“I need to talk to you.” Marty tried to catch her attention.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Meghan was a complete mess this morning and getting her to go to the sitter was impossible.”
She pushed through saloon doors to the kitchen and returned in an instant without her coat and tying on her smock.
“Geez Marty, get the grill fired already, these guys are wasting away.”
“We got to talk.”
“Okay, but let me get these guys going before they all walk out.” The three customers, all pretty much permanently planted in their stools, laughed at that.
“Fine.” Marty went to the back, but kept watching her from the order window. Rog shouted his first brainteaser, finishing it with his signature growl. If all his customers were as enamored with Julia’s math skills at Rog Toms, Marty would start a “Julia Does Math” night. He considered the appropriate menu for an arithmetic marathon. Julia stuck the first order in the window. French toast and a side of bacon.
“Don’t forget to come back here,” Marty said. He went to work preparing Rog’s order, realizing just how far behind he was in his morning duties. It was going to be a long day, and it was about to get worse.
“Shame about Edith Burns,” Howard said to Eugene. Marty froze. The damn gossipy bastard. If only Julia owned a phone. Marty glanced out the window, and Julia was standing straight, almost on her tip toes, as if leaning in would deliver the news easier.
“What about Edith Burns?” Julia asked.
“Stroke killed her. Heard she died before she hit the floor.”
Julia’s order pad slapped down on the counter; Rog Toms took it as a chance to rattle off another equation. Marty could hear the French toast on the grill starting to sizzle and likely burn. A second later, she burst through the doors and gave him a tear-filled look.
“I’m sorry, Jules, I tried to tell you.”
She marched to the alley. He followed, but kept his distance. He’d seen it with waitresses before. Sometimes customers were their only real family. She cried for fifteen minutes while sitting on an old bucket in the alley that reeked of spoiled food.
Royce Morgan’s lower back throbbed and his dress shirt was pasted to his body thanks to all his sweat. All for some punk murderer, he thought before chiding himself for it. The Oldens were fine folks, but their son earned his notoriety. And now this. It snowed all freaking night and then the wind started blowing. Drifts closed down all the roads around Lincoln, and the plows were slow to push them out. Sadly, the road from his home – three blocks away – to the funeral parlor was clear, making him the only one that could get here to prepare the parlor for this little service. Adding to the fun, the snow blower wouldn’t start, leaving him to shovel the sidewalk in front of the building.
Royce tried to convince Terry Olden to postpone the service a day since very few folks from around Lincoln would make it, but it was a weak argument, considering how few probably planned on being here to begin with. Nevertheless, Terry Olden insisted on today, and he was paying the bill. Royce didn’t blame the man for wanting to get this over with and the family didn’t want a service at the cemetery anyways. Royce just wished some of his younger, stronger employees had made it in to handle the physical labor. Royce Morgan’s days of shoveling sidewalks and pushing caskets were done. His job was schmoozing the families and handing out the bills. A certain amount of finesse was needed for that, but lower back strength wasn’t a requirement.
Pastor Sam from the Lutheran church was performing the rites. The family wasn’t religious, but Pastor Sam agreed to say a few words. Other than the Oldens and Terry Olden’s parents, the rest of the forty chairs placed before the casket and numerous flower arrangements were empty.
The service began with the usual round of prayers and creeds. When Royce noticed that someone was lurking in the shadows at the entrance, he wondered why the person didn’t just come in, considering all the mourners were facing away and there were plenty of empty chairs. Then he worried it was one of the clowns from over at that leftist rag The Lincoln Address. Royce didn’t think so. The figure looked disheveled and never crossed out of the shadows. Eventually Royce realized it was the damn Simpson boy. He wanted to kick the kid out the door and shove him into the biggest drift in the parking lot because Royce suspected the boy broke into the funeral home two nights before and knocked Todd Olden’s body to the floor. Royce had not told the Oldens about that because he was the one that left the back door unlocked. Royce decided as long as Robbie stayed out of the way, he’d let him go for now. No reason to create a scene, but if he ever showed his face here again, Royce would knock his block off.
Pastor Sam, who wore the black-shirt, white-collar uniform of the trade, leaned against the podium before the tiny congregation.
“The Good Book tells us that Noah brought a male and female of each species of animal on the ark and then it rained for forty days and nights.”
Royce listened, keeping one eye on Robbie.
“The Bible doesn’t mention bugs, and I suppose that’s a problem for some. Todd could probably have told us about how many varieties of bugs there are on earth, and from what I’ve been told, he made a good effort of trying to fill Terry and Marcy’s basement with as many as possible.”
Someone chuckled, maybe the boy’s grandfather. The parents remained stoic.
“It doesn’t seem likely they had a pair of every sort of insect on the ark. Consider this: Since Noah and his family emerged from the ark, the world’s human population has boomed into the billions. That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? But the population of bugs dwarfs that number. They are everywhere. From the flies we swat in the summer to the microscopic mites crawling on our skin right now.”
Royce shivered at that thought and made a note to vacuum after everyone left. Their wet shoes were making a mess of the carpet.
“The point being that Noah’s story didn’t cover everything, and thus, we can assume God isn’t telling us everything. He told us what we needed to know. Just as a bee or an ant is assigned a particular task within its society without comprehending the full consequences of its duties, we go about our individual tasks within our society without seeing the whole picture. We just instinctively know that’s what we are supposed to be doing. For a pastor, it’s a calling to spread the Word. For others, it’s less clear. Todd was unique in God’s eyes, and collecting bugs was his calling, but growing up can be a difficult time. The final days of his life seem confusing and misplaced for that boy that loved bugs, the boy his parents loved, and the boy with so much potential. Maybe there is a reason for his reckless end. I wish I could provide it, but only God knows why. We can only pray that Todd has found the peace he so mysteriously misplaced near the end.”
The service concluded shortly thereafter. The Oldens shook hands with Pastor Sam, the grandparents hugged the Oldens and then the sad congregation plodded out in twos. Royce forgot about the Simpson boy altogether, fetching the vacuum after the group left. The vacuum buzzed for fifteen minutes with Royce glancing up at the clock every so often and wincing through the pain in his back. When he finished, he turned off the lights, leaving Bug Boy among the flowers and the empty chairs.
In all their years of marriage, Merle memorized about ten looks that crossed his wife’s face. The first happened the morning after their wedding day when she woke startled to find someone else in her bed. Her thin eyebrows sprang up, her eyes widened, and her mouth seemed caught between a sneeze and a laugh. While she was always easily spooked, none of those looks of surprise ever matched that one. In the look was the shock of seeing someone there combined with the nearly instantaneous realization that her life was forever changed. People put so much stock in the wedding day, and that’s wonderful and all, but that day is the equivalent of signing a contract. The reality of the terms of the agreement comes later in a million different ways.
Not that Edith was ever a chore. Picking wives was the one thing Merle did in his life better than welding. He was an expert welder for forty years, but he wasn’t without a few flubs here and there. He was perfect in picking wives.
The second look happened when she informed him for the first time that she was pregnant. Her nose wrinkled and her cheeks blushed as they sat down one night for supper. He worried she was turning ill. Instead she delivered the news, and they embraced, melding together like two pieces of steel beneath his torch’s flame with all the heat created by their hope and terror. Only a few months later, another look crossed her face – one of complete despair after losing that baby. He tried his best to console her, but he supposed he never did. Words weren’t his strong point. Edith understood that when she signed the marriage contract.
Merle sat alone in their booth the first time at Marty’s without her. An envelope and an empty plate rested on the table. He’d arrived later than usual, and Julia was too busy to stop. So he waited, and now he was going to have to drive home in the dark. Edith was no doubt turning over in her grave. The image of her buried under six feet of dirt turned his usually stout stomach.
He shifted his thoughts back to her looks and that final one. A long time ago, he told her his little fantasy about the flame on the welder’s torch. The first rule of welding was not to look directly at the flame. Even though he avoided it as best he could over the years, the flame eventually claimed most of his vision. His fantasy, which he told her one night after making love, was that the rule wasn’t meant to protect a guy’s vision. Inside that impossibly bright flame was the secret that held the whole universe together. God was in that flame, his image and his power, and for a man to glimpse it, would surely drive him insane.
“Like the tree of knowledge,” Edith said. She knew her Bible by heart.
“Sort of, yeah.”
That’s what made that final look so funny. After finishing lunch, Edith rose to start the dishes as he shifted through the day’s mail.
“Oh, the flame,” Edith said.
“What’s that dear?” She made a half turn toward him and her face appeared almost youthful, like the one he’d stolen a kiss from all those years ago after the Homecoming dance. And the wonderment! She wasn’t a dreamer, more of a doer, but in that instant, she looked enchanted. Like some fairy sprinkled magic dust on her and she could feel her toes coming off the ground. He was frozen in his seat, shocked at this change in his wife.
Then she fell.
“Earth to Merle.”
“What…What’s happening?” He snapped from the memory, and Julia was sitting across from him.
She reached over and grasped his hand. Her nametag was upside down, at least he hoped it was and it wasn’t his mind playing tricks. A wet rag was on the table, and he supposed she needed to get the table ready for someone else.
“So, you’re back in town?”
“I couldn’t stay in Indianapolis any longer,” Merle answered. His wits coming back to him. “Everything is too damn fast there.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t stay and talk at the visitation. The line was so long, and I had to get back here.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I barely knew who was there. Meghan was sure pretty in her dress, I remember that.”
“Tell me about it. I couldn’t get her out of it for a week. She thought she was a princess.”
He chuckled. Raising children provided joys of all kinds.
“Well it’s all but dark, you probably better hit the road, don’t you think?” Julia stood, but Merle grabbed her wrist. The action surprised them both.
“I’ve got something for you.” He pushed the envelope across the table.
“What is it?” Her forehead wrinkled, and he studied her face as she looked inside, not knowing that Julia’s expression would stay with him until his very end. She fought back tears, he noted, but her lower jaw set in a stubborn way like a dog refusing to give up a bone. She was tough and that’s why he admired her, but there was a soft heart under that exterior. He could sense it beating. “Oh, I can’t take this.”
“Hush. It was hers from quilting and baking. She’d want you to have it. There’s only about a thousand there, but it’ll help.”
“There’s a life waiting for you outside this diner, Julia. Edith wants to see you get it.”
The drugs were the final straw. Terry turned that over in his mind while working on his fourth beer at the Corner Spot. He returned to teaching a few days after the funeral, and by all other appearances, life returned to normal for the Oldens minus their one and only child.
Marcy continued cheating on him. Terry didn’t know with whom, but she did little to conceal it. For his part, he did little to discourage it. She also betrayed him by providing for Todd’s habit after Terry kicked the boy out of the house. So why wouldn’t she just go ahead and whore herself out to the neighborhood? He slammed the final drops of the beer, knowing there was a cooling plate of dinner sitting inside the oven at home waiting for him. He stayed after school to grade a surprise exam he handed out that day just for the excuse to stay late. When he finished, he drove straight to the bar.
He didn’t understand how any of this had happened. Todd was a bright boy, Terry a patient father, and Marcy a caring mother. Somehow, they lost it all. When Terry barged into Todd’s room all those months ago to find Todd and Robbie Simpson shooting heroin, a bolt of rage pierced Terry’s brain like he never experienced before. In a matter of seconds, he tossed both boys from the house, demanding that neither ever return. The wail of anguish Marcy made still woke Terry in the still of the night.
“Can I ask you something?”
Terry saw a full mug of beer appear in front him; the hand of Stacy Fulfs – a substitute teacher and a part-time bartender – was connected to the handle.
“If you must.”
“It’s just that someday I want to teach full time, but I don’t know how you’ll do it.”
Terry drank half the beer before him, fearing the question to come.
“How I’ll do what?”
“I mean that girl had a daughter, and you could still be teaching when she comes through high school. Who else would she have for biology?”
The blood drained from his face, and it took all his might to steady his hand to bring the mug to his mouth. The beer tasted sour and caught in the back of his throat. He placed the empty mug down harder than he intended and reached into his pocket for a wad of bills. He put all of them on the bar and stood up. She kept studying him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Outside the frigid air relieved the heat of anger, embarrassment, and fear boiling in his blood. Along the street, mounds of snow remained from the latest plowing. He couldn’t remember a winter like this one, and he doubted spring would ever arrive.
Driving down the block, he turned right off Main onto Second, not knowing why he did this to himself. Second Avenue gave way to a residential section that included an apartment complex where she lived and then a few blocks down businesses broke up the monotony of houses. One of those was the diner, sitting alone in a parking lot. The diner shined like an Airstream with an orange stripe running across the front. Terry supposed the look was an allusion to the 1950s, but the whole motif seemed halfhearted.
Pulling into a parking space, he could see the booths inside and a waitress standing behind the counter pouring coffee into some customer’s cup. Every night he stopped and watched how life continued for the employees and patrons at the diner. He ate there a few times over the years, but he couldn’t foresee crossing that threshold ever again. He didn’t know what attracted him to the place now. He supposed it was the same reason folks returned to the sites of fatal car accidents to place flowers each year. They tell themselves it’s to remember those they lost, but he was beginning to suspect it was to dwell on how things end. After fifteen minutes of swimming in his thoughts, he backed out and went home.
The Olden’s ranch house was dark and a plate with a cold pork chop, green beans, and a baked potato was placed in the oven. To his surprise, Marcy’s car was in the garage, but she must have already gone to bed.
He grabbed the plate, not bothering to nuke it in the microwave, and went to the basement. Down there he remembered the son he loved. Her voice came from the darkness at the bottom of the steps before he could flip on the lights.
“It was a spider, wasn’t it?”
Terry jumped at the voice. It was all he could do to keep the plate in his hands and the food from flying off the plate. Marcy was sitting on a trunk filled with his old college books a few feet from him. Other than the trunk, the unfinished basement was one continuous display of bugs collected by Todd and Terry.
“What was a spider?”
“The first one you brought him all those years ago.”
“Argiope Aurantia. A garden spider.”
“Is it down here?”
Terry considered the question. He hadn’t thought about that spider in years. Other than being the first, it wasn’t a rare specimen. Yet he was sure they kept it. That was the point of preserving things, right?
“Yes, I think it’s over here.”
Terry walked across the room and Marcy followed. She shocked him by slipping her hand into his. The two spent the rest of night in the basement, surrounded by the silent chirps and squeaks of thousands of bugs long gone, but preserved forever.
He stank and his clothes were dirty and torn; just the kind of eccentric guy that always showed up fifteen minutes before closing on a Friday night. The next thing Julia noticed was the magnifying glass gripped between his fingers that he brought to his right eye to read the menu, squinting his left eye nearly closed.
“Looks like you need to go to the eye doctor,” Julia said.
“I lost my contacts, and I can’t see a damn thing. I wish I had my glasses.” His yellow teeth showed behind his lips, matching his pale complexion and the rings under his eyes.
“What will you have?”
“A grilled cheese and a soda.”
“You got it.” She walked away, placing the order in the window. She busied herself by getting ready to close. The babysitter charged extra if Julia was five minutes late, and despite the contents of Merle’s envelope, she couldn’t afford to stay too late. She calculated the hours she worked through the week, each day’s tips, and the three big bills – rent, heat, and Meghan’s second semester school dues – stacked on her dresser. There might be enough left over for groceries without dipping into the brown sack. Edith’s gift rattled her. For the last five years, human kindness wasn’t figured into the balance sheet she kept in the ledger in her mind. She always reduced the universe to numbers, but now Julia was starting to suspect that the universe was numbers and something else. Was it God? Surely Edith would have thought so, but Julia envisioned a spider spinning a beautifully big web. Edith’s money made Julia aware of the web, and how each person – from Meghan to Edith to Merle to Rog Toms to Marty to the rest of her customers – were connected.
When she brought the order, the guy was tracing his finger across the lines of the Formica tabletop, reminding her of something Meghan would do. She placed the check next to the plate, hoping that he’d eat fast and pay. He stuffed half the sandwich into his mouth, and Julia fingered the envelope in her smock, knowing that she could cover the loss if he dined and dashed.
She wiped a few tables down before going behind the counter to search below for the box of napkins to refill the holders on each table.
“Jules, are we empty?” Marty hollered from the back.
“No, we just have…” Julia glanced over; surprised to see the table was empty. “Oh, I guess he left. Yeah, we’re empty.”
“Good, turn the sign, I am going to the dumpster.”
She’d been thinking about what Merle said about getting a life all evening and maybe she could use the money for some night courses at the community college. She was only twenty-three, but most days she thought of herself as forty-five, midway through life and nearly used up. She really was just a foolish girl that slept with a cute boy on their third date when she was in high school. That wasn’t a crime punished by life impoverished. She could swing classes, and she could have Tammy from next door watch Meghan.
She reached the boy’s table where a couple crumpled bills were scattered atop the check. It didn’t look like enough, but it was close. She bent down to pick up his plate, only catching a glimpse of him kneeling against the opposite wall below the counter.
He was on her in three steps. Julia counted everything.
The knife piercing out ahead of him blinded her, its surface reflecting the light bulbs above. Her mind alerted her of danger, but her body was helplessly stuck in place.
“I need money.” The phrase sounded more like a statement than a threat, but the knife cut into her all the same, and in his awkwardness, he jerked up, slashing the length of her stomach. His plate clanked when it hit the table and shock spread from his eyes to hers. She dropped to her knees.
“No! I didn’t mean to do that. I just can’t see. I told you that.”
He put his hand behind her head, tears flowing from his bloodshot eyes.
A cobweb crossed the ceiling above her and she reached up, thinking she could latch on and use it to climb away. Instead it waved in some otherwise unseen and unfelt breeze that swept across the top of the diner. She thought one end was detached from the ceiling, shaking the web’s creator from it.
“The web is broken,” she whispered.
“I just needed money. I didn’t want to hurt nobody. I didn’t want to.” The boy was bawling, and she could feel his hands shaking.
“What’s going on out there?” Marty called.
“I just needed money,” the boy’s voice gained control.
He reached into her smock and pulled out her tip money and the envelope, his eyes bugged out when he looked inside.
She heard the smacking of the soles of his shoes on the tiles as he escaped the diner. Six steps in all. The door opened and he was gone.
Numbers spilled from Julia’s head as if all of Rog Toms’ problems were imprisoned in her brain. She solved the equations as they passed behind her eyes. Gradually though, they slowed and were replaced with a vision of Meghan standing before the mirror in their bathroom, counting each brush of her hair. The cold started then in her extremities and raced toward her heart.
“Hold on, Julia!” Marty appeared over her. “I called for help.” His hands were on her stomach trying to keep her insides from getting out.
Julia counted her breaths in whispers, life escaping with each pump of her heart. Her arms were spread out on each side and the back of her hands felt pinned to the floor. She imagined being posed in this position for eternity as if on display in some cosmic gallery where aliens wandered by to study her species. She never felt so small before. The seconds buzzed haphazardly by like fat flies on a cool fall day and she counted each one.
She counted until there were no more.