By Sally K Lehman
The entryway tiles echo without the rug Martha used to have there.
Who the hell names their kid Martha these days? My ex-mother-in-law, I suppose. Guess it wasn’t these days; it was forty-five years ago. Forty-five years in real time, thirty-nine according to my ex-wife, who refused to admit she was any older. Still expected me to buy her a birthday present, until she left me for “the love of her life” which is what I thought I was supposed to be.
Today is July 7, 2013, my ex-wife is officially thirty-nine years and seventy-three months old, and it is the one year anniversary of my divorce, which is laughable because I honestly thought I had a good marriage. I was able to get it up at least twice a week, more often if she’d wanted more but, after twenty years together, even that was too much for her some weeks.
She got the house when we split and she let some family rent it. This was the dream house, the place where we were supposed to have two kids and a dog. By the time we got around to looking at dogs, I was shooting her in the butt twice a day with fertility drugs that never worked and she was freaking out on hormonal swings every fifteen minutes.
My shoes make squishing sounds against the rugless tiles. I slip the spare key into my pocket, close and relock the front door. My backpack slips a little and I shrug it back up without thinking. I could set the thing down. Not like someone will find it. But I’ve been carrying it for a week now, up and down trees in the woods that surround the house, waiting for my ex and her life-love to finish cleaning up between renters.
Down the stairs from the living room with its open concept access to the dining room, there’s a cupboard. It’s all very sneaky spy stuff, a door in the paneling under the stairs. No doorknob. My shoes squish on the wood floors, down the steps, and I know the right place to push on the wall to get the door open.
She never knew about this place. I found it when we were moving my office stuff up to one of the two empty bedrooms after we gave up on having pitters or patters of any kind of feet and accepted that the rooms were better suited as “office space” for each of us. I leaned on the wall picking up a pile of books and it came away with my hand.
When Martha was in a mood, I could slip down here and disappear from the drama. She never did figure out where I was. I installed a battery powered light so I could read. Even left the light on once to make sure there was no light leak when the door was closed.
I drop my backpack and pull out the bolt lock I’ve brought along. Sit on the floor and start to screw the lock onto the door then the wall. With the lock installed, I toss my pack in and slide into my home. Shoot the lock closed.
The light batteries should be long dead, but the light comes on with a click.
The space under the stairs is bigger than I remembered. Each of the seven stairs coming down from the living room is raw wood making up the ceiling of my hideout, jagged planes of descending height until ceiling and floor meet at a wall about six inches high. I put rubber caps over the pointed nail ends when I first starting hiding here. I cut my hand on one of those nails when I thought a spider web was touching my face. That’s why I put the light in. That’s also why I’m up to date with my tetanus shots.
The floor is concrete that I covered in a piece of old carpet when Martha decided that, since there would be no pitter patters, we should have cream carpet instead of the hearty, stain resistant Berber. She was right. That Berber still looks pretty damned clean, even after my year and a half absence.
I unroll my bedroll—basically a sleeping bag that’s been unzipped so I can get out easily—and put the pillow under the tallest stairs so I won’t accidental wake up and give myself a concussion.
A spider web catches into my eyelashes when I turn around to see what’s what, and I freak out. Rub my hands over my face hard but it tickles my nose and I have that scared-little-boy feeling of not wanting a spider to crawl on me, so I swipe my face and knock my head on the back wall. In the end it’s just a web. No inhabitants.
After the first web, I look around carefully. The second web is low, in the far corner by the bottom stair. No spider again.
The third web is eye level to where I put my pillow, and I finally find the spider who made them all. He’s a fat black thing with a wonky leg on the left side. Or maybe it’s the right side; I can’t honestly say which end is the front. The wonky leg has an extra crook in it, like a spare knee. I don’t want to kill him. I don’t want him to bite me.
The air is thin and hard to pull in. I lean forward and take a harder look at him. “Shit,” I say. “I really hate spiders, okay? I don’t want to be afraid of you, so just stay there. Okay?” I put my hand up in that Stop-in-the-Name-of-Love way, like a spider in 2013 can understand hand language from The Supremes circa ’65. Who’s to say he can’t.
Moving away from the spider, I start to inventory my supplies. Cans of green beans and peaches mostly. And only a few of those. An eight pack of bottled water. An old Gatorade bottle to pee in.
Five prescription bottles. Bottle of Valium with 60 pills, 10 mg each. Amitriptyline in two bottles, 30 pills in each, 10 mg. Paxil, 30 pills, 30 mg. Vicodin, 90 pills, 5/500.
All medicines the doctor gave me to help out the depression caused by my divorce. I’m back in my home and feeling like myself again. I must not be upset about the divorce anymore. All hail the multicolored pills.
I repack the food and arrange the meds alphabetically in a row at the short wall. Amitriptyline, Paxil, Valium, Vicodin.
Before I turn the light out for the night, I make arrangements with the spider.
“Look,” I say. “I don’t want to hurt you if you don’t want to hurt me. How about we just learn to share, okay?”
He looks at me and the wonky leg lifts up and taps down twice. I’ll take it as a yes. If we can last together a week, I’ll give him a name. It doesn’t pay to name things you aren’t keeping around.
Martha would always name things. Every time she thought she was pregnant, she’d start pouring over the Big Book of Baby Names.
“How about Henry if it’s a boy?” she said. “It’s so English.”
Then, “What do you think about Brandy for a girl? Or maybe Isabella, I love the name Isabella.”
And every time her period came, those names were removed from the list of possibles. Even if another pregnancy came along, and there were too many other times to remember, there were no Henrys or Brandys or Isabellas to be heard of. They had been the last baby. Disappointment and blood had washed them away and Martha was on to new names.
I don’t know what names I would have picked. I mean, she pulled me in the first two times and I got excited about a potential Christopher and Alexander, Anna and Elizabeth, but she only caught me twice. When subsequent pregnancies came along and I suggested the last time names, she lost it.
“How can you even think about those names now? After all I’ve been through?”
I tried saying that I’d been through stuff too, but it could never compare. She was the one with the pain and the loss and the blood. I was just the asshole with a penis who had failed to make her pregnant in the first place.
The space under the stairs is still deep black when I wake up to footsteps and voices above my head. The black in here is too pervasive, so I just focus on the voices.
A woman says, “Does the rent include garbage and sewer?”
A man says, “No, but they’re both very reasonable.” Since his voice has the answer, I figure he must be Martha’s life-love.
And I need to pee. Really bad. But if I can hear them talk, can they hear me pee? Could they hear if my stomach rumbles? Did I remember to lock the door? Where the hell is the spider I haven’t named?
Sweat starts to drip salt into my eyes and I’ve lost track of the voices, so I have to focus again.
“…appliances?” says the woman.
“Yes, everything is included,” says Martha’s life-love.
“Good, good,” says another man’s voice. He must be with the woman.
If I don’t get the chance to find my Gatorade bottle, I’m going to be living in the smell of my own piss.
The footsteps get quiet and I hear the door going out to the garage close. I know my house. That door slams no matter how carefully you close it.
I reach up in the dark and find the light. The spider hasn’t moved. I guess he understood our bargain. I grab the Gatorade bottle and open the top, push the tip of my penis in and let go.
It sounds like a faucet filling a plastic pitcher, smells like hell, and warms the plastic bottle up, which is kind of gross, but I can get used to it. I’m under my own roof again.
While I tuck away my penis, I think of Martha again.
Penis such a clinical word. When I was a kid we’d call them wieners. As teens we’d call them dicks. I get married and my lovely wife insists that I call it “my penis” because that means I’m a grown up. I close my eyes and picture her.
When we made love, her face would soften until every muscle was relaxed. The stress lines around her gray-blue eyes disappeared and made her look like the girl I first met. Her mouth would be those lips that insisted I kiss her. Even her hair would relax into soft curls spread across the pillow or washing across my chest depending on which position she wanted that night.
How she wanted things. Sitting in my space beneath my stairs, I remember how Martha was the decider in all things sexual in our relationship, right from the beginning.
“That’s creepy,” she’d said when I suggested she get on her knees and I take her from behind.
“What the hell are you thinking?” she’d said when I suggested I go down on her.
I don’t hear anything more outside of my space, so I take a can of peaches and open them up. Drink them out of the can, juice, fruit and all. Slide my tongue along the sharp metal top of the can until I can taste the mix of copper blood and sweet peaches near the front of my mouth where the metal cuts into me. The pain helps. I have a reason to take a pill.
The Vicodin bottle is in my hand without me thinking to grab it. Two thick white pills go down with the last of the peach juice, and I take a few minutes for them to kick in. Get to know my eight-legged roommate.
I lie back down on the bedroll and look at the spider, still there on his web. I take a little piece of peach from the lid of the can and set it gently on one of the bottom strands of the web.
“Not much else to eat in here, huh?” I say.
He doesn’t answer because, well, he’s a spider and I’m not crazy. But he is something to talk to which is less like being alone.
“How’d you get in here anyway? Probably through one of those cracks between the boards.”
I look at my ceiling, where the boards are snug against each other so someone coming down the stairs doesn’t crash through. I pop a couple more Vicodin into my mouth and sip some peach juice. Look closer at the boards.
“I don’t see any cracks between boards. You must’ve had a damned hard time.” I tip the can in cheers to the spider I haven’t named yet and say, “You are one tough mother.” Then I click my light off again, slip back into sleep.
I wake up and don’t remember where I am. Sit up too fast and slam my head on the ceiling of my space under the stairs.
I yell, “Fuck!” and then, boom, I remember where I am and maybe someone is in the house and maybe they heard me and I whisper, “Fuck.” I turn on my light and wait.
It’s quiet. I sit with my hand pressing on the rising bump on my left temple and listen harder. Still quiet. What time is it? What day? The last day I remember it being was the one year and one day anniversary of my divorce. The lightproof-ness of my space under the stairs means I can’t tell what time of day it is. My watch says it’s 7:30, but that could be morning or night.
I listen some more. No sound.
I slide the lock open and crack the door. The room on the other side of the door has a huge window facing south, so if it’s daytime I’ll be blinded. The light coming in is cloudy, pink on the west end of the window of the empty room. Evening. Seven thirty at night, but what night? I’ve slept through the clock before; the pills can really mess with your deep sleep cycles.
I close the door again, slide the lock into place with a sad little click, and settle back into my space under the stairs and turn the light on.
In the bottom of my pack is the book I’ve been reading. Atlas Shrugged. I’m determined to make it through the speech given by John Galt before I’m through here. I’ve read this damned book three times, but every time I get to the speech and page through the fifty-something pages of it because it’s just so damned redundant. There are blue post-it notes marking the beginning and end of the speech and I will read those pages.
When I open the book at the first blue post-it, the words fade together. Maybe the Vicodin before I fell asleep. Maybe the bump on my head from waking up, but I can’t read. I dig into the bottles again. Two Paxil, one Amitriptyline, another Vicodin, a Valium, and another Vicodin. Then I close my eyes.
I wake up and the pages of Atlas Shrugged leading up to the speech are folded and crumbled. My light got left on and the bulb is flickering. My watch says it’s about 8:13—Martha always preferred analog to digital so I have to make guesses. I could have missed forty-three minutes, or twelve hours and forty-three minutes. Maybe even twenty-four hours and forty-three minutes. All I know for sure is that I slept on my book and messed up the pages. And my light is flickering.
I throw the book aside and dig into my pack to find spare batteries and a flashlight so I can change the thing without having to open the door. With the flashlight by my crotch aiming up, I turn off the light and pull the plastic casing off to get to the battery compartment. Four AA batteries, dig into the bottom of the pack for the sandwich bag full of batteries, and dig out new ones. Pull the four old ones out and click the new ones in and click the light back on.
But the light still flickers.
It’s the bulb. It’s the goddamned bulb!
I sit and look at my light as the flickering goes from intermittent to more dark than light. Dry swallow two Valium and put the bottle back between the Paxil and the Vicodin. I turn off the flickering light and sit in the beam of my flashlight.
The pages of my book won’t unfold all the way and even if they do unfold, they’re still creased. Closing the book, I see the dead body of my spider under the image of Atlas on the cover. I threw the book on him and killed him before I could even give the poor guy a name.
All I can do now is set the book, dead spider side up, in front of the door, turn off my flashlight, and lie down on my bedroll again. I don’t know why the tears are coming.
I dream about my wedding. Martha walking down the aisle and smiling. The words we repeated when the judge told us to repeat them. “Love and honor.” “Sickness and health.” He didn’t say “Whether you have babies or not.”
We drank champagne, ate salmon, and cut the lemon cake. Everyone said we were such a perfect couple. A dream come true. But after the wedding and the honeymoon in Maui, none of those people had to live with us.
I dream about Martha. About her mania for decorating our house to be the perfect place for little human beings. As though if things weren’t perfect then everything in the world would collapse.
She moved the furniture so the couches faced each other to encourage conversation for when the children would be forming their language skills.
She changed the drapes to be allergen free, the carpets to be stain resistant, the coffee table to be round edged. We couldn’t have children who sneezed or stained or bumped their heads.
She changed the underwear I wore and packed them full of ice packs to increase my spermatozoa levels. She changed the way I referred to my dick because “that’s such a crass word.”
And I let her change me because I was supposed to love her “for better or worse” and I was supposed to want children and I was supposed to be her perfect mate.
Nothing I was before the wedding was good enough after the wedding.
I startle awake to a loud thump on the stairs above my head.
“Watch out, you’ll break something,” says a laughing woman’s voice.
I reach up and flick on the light, but it’s flickering because I forgot that the bulb was going out and I forgot that I forgot to bring new bulbs. So I turn out the light and feel around for the flashlight.
Sitting up carefully so I don’t bump, I click the flashlight to low and I listen.
“…ugly bowl your aunt gave us,” a man’s voice says. He’s also laughing and she laughs more, but I missed the beginning of the joke so I can’t tell if it’s funny.
Heavy footsteps continue down my ceiling and a box thumps onto the floor outside my space. The new renters are moving in with me. It’ll be nice to have company.
Thinking of company makes me think of my spider. I reach over and pick up Atlas Shrugged and he’s still dead on the front cover. Another small being I failed to save. Another child I didn’t get a chance to name.
In my head, Martha’s voice says, “You would have been a crappy father anyway.”
In my head I say, “I know.”
I take a tissue from my pack and gently collect the spider’s remains, fold the tissue into careful quarters. Place him below the shortest part of the stair ceiling next to my meds bottles, after the Vicodin.
The footsteps on the stairs are going back up. I lie back down and flick the flashlight off and try to sleep but they’re making too much noise. Too much laughter.
I dry swallow three Valium and two Amitriptyline.
It’s 3:00 and quiet, so I assume it’s that late-night-early-morning time that doesn’t really have a name. Without light, I feel for the lock on my door and carefully slide it open. It catches half-slide, and I have to move the bar back and forth a few times.
I push my door open. Small nudges. Wood against wood scraping. In the room outside my space it’s nighttime dark so I guessed right on which 3:00 it was, although I still have no idea what week day or calendar day it is. It is, though, more than a year after my divorce.
I want to come out and find the people who are living with me, want to see the faces that made the laughter from earlier. Do they have kids? I didn’t hear any small voice laughs but there’s room for kids. It would be nice to have kids in the house.
I really want to go out and look around at the new people in my house, but I could really scare a kid in the middle of the not-quite-still-night and no one should be allowed to scare kids.
I decide to wait to take a look until I’ve had a chance to listen a while longer.
With my door closed and locked, I find the flashlight then Atlas Shrugged. Time to get some reading done.
John Galt is an asshole.
He’s a self-important tyrant who thinks that he should be allowed to decide what’s best for an entire country. I mean, if people want to laze around and let the train system go to hell, let them. Why do we have to move so quickly from place to place? Why do we have to move from one stage of life to the next? Sometimes, we need to recognize that the place we are right now is the perfect place for us.
Thirty-seven pages into the speech and I’m giving up again.
In my pack, I grab a can of green beans and eat them one by one. As I eat, I remember the piece of peach I gave the spider who I never named. The peach is still in his web. If I’d known he was here I would have brought dead flies for him, although he didn’t survive long in my care so I would be stuck with dead flies. Maybe if I’d had the flies I would have been more careful.
My ceiling stairs creak as my family starts to wake up for the day.
“Porcupine pie, porcupine pie, vanilla soup,” the man’s voice sings.
I know that song. It’s from Neil Diamond. My mother used to listen to that song. I smile at the memory and drink the green bean water from the can.
“Honey, where’s the coffee?” the man’s voice hollers over the stairs.
“In the box marked spices,” the woman’s voice hollers back.
I lean against the wall, I have to bend my neck really far forward to do it but it helps me hear them better since they aren’t in the room where my door is.
“Where’s the box marked spices?” the man hollers, and I smile. Men. We never know where our wives put things.
The woman laughs and says, “I think it’s in the den.”
Bare feet slap the stairs above my head so I hold still in case my moving makes a noise that my family would hear.
Outside my door, the man hollers, “I don’t see it here.”
They must have kids. Otherwise, why would they use that room for a den instead of one of the upstairs rooms?
More bare feet slap my stair ceiling and the woman’s voice is outside my door. I could slam that lock open and pop out of my space under the stairs and surprise them! They would be all “Wow, we can’t believe you surprised us like that!” and “It’s so nice to meet you!”
We could all go upstairs to the kitchen together and make coffee and I can tell them about how Martha and I own the house, how Martha couldn’t get pregnant, how she found her life-love and left me behind. And they would be happy to have someone in the family who cared so much about our house. Someone who would be there for them no matter what.
Then the slapping feet go back upstairs and I haven’t unlocked my door, I haven’t opened the door and surprised them.
I’m not a part of a family.
So I stay in my space and I open the bottles of pills and take as many of them as I can as quickly as I can, wash them down with green bean water. And I don’t count how many pills or what kinds.
With the pills in my belly, I quietly slip the lock open so my family can use the space if I don’t wake up again.
And I might never finish that speech in Atlas Shrugged.
I reach over and pick up the tissue with my spider in it. I miss him. I lift the tissue to my lips and kiss him, hold him to my chest, cradle him. Wish I could think of a name for him.
Then I lie down, turn off my flashlight, and wait to fall asleep.
Sally K Lehman is the author of Small Minutes, The Unit–Room 154, Living in the Second Tense, and, most recently, In The Fat, which came out at the end of 2015. Sally has had poetry and short stories published in several literary magazines including Bewildering Stories, Ascent Aspirations, The Scruffy Dog Review, Voice Catchers, Perceptions a Magazine of the Arts, and Lunch Ticket. She is a founding member of the artisan collective Cats in a Dumpster. Sally currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area. For more information, please go to SallyKLehman.com, InTheFat.com, or CatsInADumpster.com