Sunday, May 31, 2009


Every so often, one of the kids in my class will ask me what I am afraid of. There’s not much. Sure I fear for my children, but that is not truly fear; that is more a constant worry that they will come to no harm. I don’t fear lightning, or tornadoes, or sharks.

Scary movies do nothing but startle anymore. Being startled is not fear. Fear is something visceral that creeps up from the pit of your belly causing your body to freeze, your breath to become shallow, your head faint.

I talk to the kids about it. Usually fear is caused by ignorance. If you don’t understand something, you are more likely to fear it. Sharks, snakes, bears, bugs, whatever it is, usually you fear them because you don’t understand.

One of the reasons I like to bring snakes to school is because I want the children to see that snakes are not scary, they don’t normally bite people, nor do they want to. For many people, getting bit by a nonvenomous, common snake would be the best way for them to get over their fear. It hurts less than a shot, or a bee sting.

What causes the children to fear them is not knowing what a snake can and will do. Respect is healthy. If you see a cottonmouth, give it the space it needs, respect it. Bears, respect them and you’ll be fine. There is no need for any irrational fear.

That is what I thought, until today.

In the summer I clean pools. It’s a great summer gig. I work shirtless and barefoot. No one bothers me when I’m working. It is quiet.

I had to do some work in a pump room today. It is a small, cramped room off to the side of the pool. Equipment hums inside, and all of the extra space is cluttered with other stored items.

My feet whisper across the threshold of the little room, and it takes a second for my eyes to grow accustomed to the dimness. I am all business. I lean forward, glancing down as my legs brush through some cobwebs, and begin work diverting the water from the main drain. My balance is a bit off, as I lean over the jumble of PVC pipes, and I have to put my weight heavily on my left foot. That is when I see it.

It stands on all eight delicate legs, one foot poised up, just off the ground, as if it is feeling the air with that one hairy foot. The abdomen looks huge, and glossy, and black.

There is no other spider quite like it; the black widow, and this is a big one. It stands no more than six inches from the soft side of my foot.

My breathing suddenly stopped, and I could imagine the spider inching closer to me, that one leg slowly caressing the outside of my foot as its fangs move closer. There was a knot in the pit of my stomach, and my legs froze. I couldn’t move.

I know all about black widows. They can’t even actually kill you, but the fear was real and inexplicable. In the sunlight that invaded through the half open door, I could see the cobwebs I’d scattered on the way in. They were the classic, haphazard web of the black widow. I mentally scolded myself for not being more careful.

The spider never moved. It seemed to draw in on itself, crouching down closer to the floor.

Then I shifted my weight, sliding my foot away from the spider. It regarded me coolly. As quickly as I could, I left the pump room.

Spiders don’t like filter cleaner. I retrieved my pump bottle from the cleaning bucket and emptied it on the spider. It wriggled and writhed, climbing higher in its web, until it curled up and fell to the ground, a lifeless lump.

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