Beware Of Barking Spiders


Rick London


Dear Margie,

You were the first one I called when Evie died. She gave me your number years ago—just in case, she said. To be honest, there were only a couple of others I needed to call. Your sister was no social butterfly. She was too direct with people for that to work. Maybe she was already like that way back when.

To me it’s hard to fathom that the two of you had been out of touch for twenty years—more than, actually. She mentioned it but never went into detail. It sounded like one of those fluky things that happen when nobody’s looking. She just shook her head a little when it came up, which was only a couple of times, really. When she left Ohio, I guess she never looked back. I was flummoxed. That was an Evie word. In my family we’ve always been thick as thieves—not that I’m judging. Maybe the break was because she wasn’t into explaining things, I mean not the way family expects you to. That wasn’t her thing. I wonder if that rings any bells. And then the misfortune with your parents not long after she left. One less tie that binds. I hope this isn’t coming off as insensitive.

I’ve been thinking seriously about what you asked me on the phone. Three stories—sweet nothings, as you put it—to give you a picture of her to say goodbye to. It was eerie when you said you can tell a lot about somebody by their quirks. That was Evie for sure. She was an odd bird, to be blunt. But not to be messed with. She was so unafraid to put it out there. Next to her I’m a mouse.

But Evie and I were buds. The best. I don’t know why I didn’t say that when we were on the phone. Maybe you guessed, since I was the one who called with the news. By the end of our first shift together at the hospital she was already my anchor. Not that there were any big headlines that night. Nothing you’d remember. We just clicked.

Okay, three Evie stories to give you a picture. Here’s one from just a couple of weeks before she passed. You said quirky so here goes nothing. That was Evie’s go-to phrase. In the ICU you’re so mindful of infection. Of course at the nurse’s station the risk is less worrisome, even before COVID. Now it’s like a reprieve to come back to the desk. Anyway, one of our COVID patients was having tummy tantrums. My God, on and on. Pyew. It was awful. So Evie printed out an article by this big media doctor in Australia on the spread of COVID by—get ready—flatulence, and posted it on the door of the tall yellow cabinet. It was pretty basic, about aerosols and which kind of mask is preferred. She added her own title: BEWARE OF BARKING SPIDERS (UNTIL NOTIFIED OTHERWISE). You couldn’t see it from the corridor so it stayed up. After she tested positive I took it down. It was my way of letting everybody know there weren’t going to be any barking spider jokes. Since I didn’t know if she was joking—with Evie it was hard to say. Anyhow, I was all business. Terrified, actually. Because of her diabetes. It’s a bear with COVID, but she had just pushed it out of her mind, scowling if you mentioned it. And then there was always fatigue from the overtime. Another chink in her armor. That was curtains, IMHO. She was admitted the day after she got her results. I should have called you then but she was already in a tailspin. Nothing else was on my mind.

Okay, on to story number two. But let me just tell you something first because it will come up. She loved César Vallejo. He was a poet, a Peruvian. She said words about him you don’t forget. He gets under your skin and his nerve endings talk to yours and when you read him he can chime in your bones. I never felt doubt when she told me anything. She never laid it on. That wasn’t Evie. She just loved his strange way with words. She told me about him more than once, in a soft voice, one book gal to another. Okay. Story number two.

Millie works in Admissions. I met Millie through Darlene, an MRI tech I met a couple of summers ago at the picnic table in the little area by the parking lot around back. Those two have known each other since their first year of high school. Darlene and I hit it off. Like right away. Evie was quiet around her but she liked her too, you could tell. We’re always glad to see Darlene. Millie ate with us a couple of times that summer too, but spent most of the time texting. But that came to a screeching halt.

Evie and I always brought our books to work. If we were alone, we’d read a little to each other over lunch. We loved it. Evie hardly went anywhere that summer without her Vallejo book. It was bilingual. She knew some Spanish—not much really, but her accent was something else, just from hearing her grandmother talk when she was little. The one from El Salvador, on your mom’s side. A tidbit she told me. This much I know about her family—your family—thanks to César Vallejo. That’s how it first came up.

On this one day we’d been reading some back and forth when we saw Millie coming through the parking lot from the falafel place. She had this spooky little smile. We put our books down and fussed with our lunches. “Don’t you girls look cute in your nursie blues” was the first thing Millie said. She had hardly sat down when she picked up my book. She read the title out loud. “Our Souls At Night. Any good?”

“I just started it,” I told her. But with a little waver. I was off-guard. “Darlene told me about it.” I don’t know why I said that. Millie and I weren’t really that familiar with each other. I was nervous.

“Darlene never recommended a book worth reading in her life,” she said. Evie was a strong gal but she had soft breath. But right then you could hear it stop. It scared me. Millie didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve been reading Banville,” she said, “John Banville, in case you ever want to try literature.” Then she picked up Vallejo and looked at Evie. “You had this last time I saw you. Just for show, right?” She made a teasing comment about the Spanish, something about a nice touch. By then she had picked up on the silence. I was fluttery. Nobody said anything. “Hey, come on guys,” Millie said. “I’m kidding, alright?” She was balancing her falafel sandwich and looking at her text messages. Then she stopped. Evie hadn’t said anything, nothing, so I didn’t either. “Tell me we’re not having a thing about this. You heard me say I was kidding, right?” More nothing. I could hear Millie breathing. But not Evie. “Hey, it’s just something I do,” said Millie, “like just a default thing, okay?” But still that spooky smile. More nothing. About an acre of it.

Millie let out a breath. “Jesus Christ,” she said. “Can we let it go? I’d consider it a favor.” Evie was a stone so, like I told you, I wasn’t about to chime in. Apart from us all knowing Darlene, Millie pretty much only knew us to say hello to. I can see now she didn’t know us well enough to tolerate the silent treatment. She stuck her phone in her little tote bag and stuffed her lunch back and grabbed her purse. She had a strange look. “Fuck,” she said, kind of slow. “I mean, honestly.” When she got up from the picnic table, she stopped for a second and touched her pockets.

“Do you have everything?,” Evie said. That was all she said the whole time Millie was there—which was wasn’t much more than a minute. Her voice was so calm. “If you find something, give it to Goodwill,” Millie said. She was already heading back to the hospital.

There’s something else the Millie thing reminds me of, Margie. When Evie left somewhere, she’d close the door so quietly behind her. All you’d ever hear was the click. To me it was like, for her, whatever had happened, that was that.

Can I also say, if she were an animal, I don’t know what it would be, but not a chameleon. She didn’t change colors around anyone. Not that I can remember.

Okay, last but not least, door number three. Evie said she could feel God’s love but it’s not there to cover your butt. She said God has about as much power as a twig in a hurricane. He’s not about outcomes. Nobody would mistake Evie for a church gal. Anyway, this one Christmas Eve a few years ago we took the 52x, the express bus that stops at the little strip mall where Shoe Mart is, a block or so south of the city. It’s a little family owned place. They’re always stocked up on Alegria Slip-Ons. They’re open until around 8:00 or so. We called and sure enough, even on Christmas Eve, they were open till 6:00. Evie wanted to make the trek. She loved Christmas lights. And, anyhow, we both needed shoes for work. We took the bus since parking around there is dicey and Phil couldn’t drive us. He works in home security and he’d been called in for something. I told you she had a guy when we talked. Good guy. Like really good. If you need something, you don’t have to ask Phil twice. On the quiet side, but good vibes. Evie liked that he didn’t prance in front of her like she was a mirror. That’s how she put it. But I don’t know where he learned to drive. He never looked more than three feet ahead. So I was glad to be on the bus with all the last minute shopping—all that traffic. Anyway, they were so good together. I loved the way they would brush against each other when they arrived somewhere.

We were coming out of Shoe Mart when a couple with like four or five kids in tow passed by. They invited us to join them for Christmas Eve service. The husband was doing the talking. “Just over there,” he said, lifting his hand a little. He said there so softly. The wife held her purse in front of her with both hands, kind of formal-like, but she had a shy smile. Even the kids were smiling a little. I remember that.

The mall was L-shaped so you could see their church from where we were. It was just another storefront, really, nothing fancy. It was pretty good-sized, not huge, but big enough. Maybe it had been an appliance store or one of those furniture outlets. The windows were big. They were covered, with plywood I guess, that had been painted white. Going by appearances, I’d say most of the people going in had Mexican heritage. I think the husband thought Evie did too—she looks Latina way more than she is. Well, you know that. I’m a mutt, improbably so, so nobody ever knows what I am.

When the nice family headed over, Evie said, “Let’s go.” I thought for sure she was kidding. But she said, “Come on, girl.” I guess the looks of the place piqued her interest. Something did. I was stoked. I had never been to an Evangelical church, which this obviously was. I sincerely doubt Evie had either. When we got to the door she said, “Here goes nothing.” It always made me smile.

Inside, things were just getting started. There was a low stage and rows of folding chairs. Somebody was playing a rickety piano off to the side. There was some singing and people holding hands and swaying. There were maybe fifty people. Seventy-five at most. Some had their arms in the air. The assistant pastor got everybody’s attention and said a few things for starters. I don’t recall what he said. It was pretty vague, to be honest. Then he introduced the senior pastor—Pastor Mateo—to give the Christmas sermon. Pastor Mateo greeted everybody. He took his time, like we were sitting in a living room. But then he started talking about his son. It was like an update. His son had been struggling with addiction. There’d been a lot of setbacks, and still no end in sight. The family was trying not to buckle. I felt like an eavesdropper, but he had my attention. Then, kind of abruptly, he asked what was most important about the birth of Jesus. He said don’t conjure up hallelujahs or thoughts of miracles. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace or mansion or welcomed by adoring throngs, he said. Jesus was born in a humble place. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, a feed box for horses or cows or goats, a lowly crib, at best. The space was so quiet now. “Just hold this in your heart,” he said. “God’s infant son was laid down in a manger.” 

Right then Evie said—in a low voice, but it went everywhere—“Amen to that,” and without missing a beat, Pastor Mateo said right back, “Bless you, sister.” Pastor Mateo talked on about how, if you scratch the surface of anybody’s life, you’ll find a manger. Since my story’s about Evie, I’ll leave it at that, but he said a lot—about mercy and hurt. When the service was over, Evie had to tell me not to forget my Alegrias. I was still processing—but her not so much. She was so quick on the uptake.

Evie got very sick very fast. Sorry to tell you but if there’s diabetes the virus can go on a rampage. Her last night was my shift. I’ll spare you any medical talk. But I thank God I was there. So should you, if you don’t mind me saying so. Because now I can assure you she was surrounded by love. Not just because I was there with her. Something happened. I’m not one to make this up. Maybe we’ll meet in person some day and I can tell you about it. But to go into details right now, I’d feel foolish. I can tell you there was grace in the room—there like a touch.

I’ll share something else, Margie. I hope a comfort. I think maybe Evie had been prepared all along, just by how she looked at things. She said once that death isn’t something that happens in the future. I’ve tried to think about this since her passing.

Of course I understand that you don’t want to travel right now. You should have your portion of the ashes in a week or so. The funeral home has the forms you sent, so we’re set. There really wasn’t much to do and Phil helped with things. That’s him in the picture with the three of us. The Evie pics I put in are my favorites. Fingers crossed nothing was dinged in the mail.

I hope my sweet nothings are enough for you to have her in your heart when you say goodbye. I’m sorry, Margie, that your sister died before you two ever reconnected. I send my condolences. She was so special. Words don’t cut it. But what else do we have?

Ok, Margie. My hugs to you and yours. Big ones.

Sincerely,
Cyn



Rick London’s most recent publications are the poetry collection The Materialist (Doorjamb Press, 2008) and the poetry chapbook The Receptive (Doorjamb Press, 2014). He is co-translator (with Omnia Amin) of Now, As You Awaken, by Mahmoud Darwish (Sardines Press, 2007), Rain Inside, by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Curbstone Books, 2009), and The Novel, by Nawal El Saadawi (Interlink World Fiction, 2009). He lives in Oakland, California.


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