Tommy was extremely careful. When the stuffiness of the room forced him to open the window, he took great care not to disturb the spider’s web which was anchored to the outside sill. He would say a quick apology to the spider that sat motionless near the center and then back off and give her her space. She was a beautiful girl with long striped legs and a swollen belly that got bigger each day as she sucked the juice out of the flies that got caught in her web. In a few more weeks, as autumn began to falter and sway into winter, she would hide her egg sack, abandon the web and let herself become absorbed back into the universe. He had a sympathetic kind of love for her and could not bear the thought of making her life any tougher than it already was.
Melinda had long beautiful legs and a fragile smile that made Tommy feel protective. He loved her and went way out of his way to do anything for her. She was recently divorced when he had met her at one of those all inclusive resorts on an over crowded, over developed Caribbean island late last winter. She looked a bit lost and somehow forlorn among the other somewhat rowdy and boisterous guests in her mixture of brand new resort clothes and pieces left over from summers past. He took it upon himself to be her protector- her friend at that crass resort where his mother had suggested he go to rest his nerves after that mess with Christina and her friends had suggested to lick her wounds after that painful divorce.
What a pleasant coincidence when he found that she lived near the same city as him. A wonderful coincidence that could only mean good things. It pleased him to see her sadness evaporating a little more each day as they took their lunch at the poolside buffet together. He was already thinking that he could fall in love with her but he was careful to give her her space and let her come forward on timid feet asking if they would meet in Philadelphia some time. The same coincidence returned and rippled outwards to a shared flight home and his heart soared when they hugged goodbye spontaneously at the airport before parting for respective trains and taxis for the final leg of the journey home.
His mother was glad to see him smiling when he returned home. She wanted to know how he liked the Bahamas. She had been there herself many times and just loved it. Did he notice how lovely the flowers were there, she asked. He continued to gaze and smile and finally told her about Melinda, the prettiest flower on the island. His mother stiffened a bit and said, Melinda? What kind of a name is that? But Tommy was too happy to notice the change in his mother’s demeanor from chirpy to tentative. Too happy to leave that Christina affair far behind him and have a new focus and a fresh step ahead. He wasn’t even considering that the same thing might happen all over again with Melinda as it had with Christina. That the tiny wheels in his mother’s head had became activated again.
Three days after his return, he drove by the apartment building that she had given him the address to. Three days seemed like a respectable amount of time. He didn’t want to crowd her or make her feel ill at ease. She was still bruised and battered from the divorce and had told him at one of those lunches that she had lost the custody of her son. She was a childless mother because the law felt that the father was a better choice. How cruel the law could be, he thought as he left a note in the mailbox saying simply how much he enjoyed meeting her and that he would call her soon.
The yellow chrysanthemums his mother had arranged for the gardener to plant in the ornate planters flanking the front entryway were beginning to whither. The nights had been very cold lately and it seemed as if the spider outside his bedroom window had doubled it’s size in the last two days. Her determination and patience could not help but remind him of Melinda. Her biggest wish was to regain custody of her son. She didn’t care how much fight she had to put up, she wanted him back. After the note in her mailbox, he called her and they met. They met again and again and again. He listened through the springtime as she opened up little by little and leaked out all the details of a marriage gone bad over lunches, coffees and occasional early dinners. It was almost summer when he confessed that he lived with his mother, she having been windowed many years back by the death of his stepfather, his father having passed away when he was too young to remember. Melinda said that she respected that and took his hand in hers from across the table where their coffee mugs sat close together and held it with purpose and understanding.
He knew that Melinda suffered. It was a different kind of suffering from the kind that Christina- or at least what he thought at the time- had experienced. He had met Christina at a night class. He was thinking of getting an advanced business degree so that the people in the financial company that his stepfather had run would take him more seriously and respect him for his own abilities. It didn’t pan out, the courses were absurdly demanding and he felt like he shouldn’t need to prove anything to anyone after all. Anyway, he began dating Christina and he quickly became preoccupied with her. Her father had been a cruel man, she told him. When he wasn’t passed out drunk he was abusive to her, her mother and her sister. There was a hint of sexual misconduct but it was merely a hint and he was far too respectful to pursue the issue. She was restless in her job at the University Hospital working in the billing department. It was frustrating she’d said dealing with the DPA and welfare cases that had to be written off only to get her reprimanded for showing a low return on the billings. At the time he thought her noble, her struggle to survive a triumph of nature. But his mother with her woman’s intuition saw it differently.
A gold-digger, she claimed after having met her in the second month of their dating, interesting only in tying a young man down. Tommy was surprised by his mother’s harsh judgment. She was usually so soft and kind and caring. So patient always with him and his late stepfather even though his late stepfather had been the sort of man who was brusque and direct. No, his mother saw her as such and though she would never presume as to tell him whom he could date, she did not try and hide her feelings. Tommy continued to see her and care for her but he cared for his mother too and the little words poked at him through the veil of kindness and concern that she wore seeped into him and began to tarnish the sterling ideals he held of Christina.
His room was like an oven. Outside the air was crisp and cool, the trees soon leafless but as the temperature dropped outside it rose steadily inside. His mother liked the house warm. Tommy went over to the window in his small bedroom. The same room he’d had since childhood which he’d only had a break from during his years at Cornell. It was a large house, a stone colonial, full of rooms and his was the smallest. His mother thought it would be a shame for him to change his room since it was the one she’d cared for him in as a little boy and Tommy didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He went reluctantly to the window. She was still there. A tidy gray bundle adorned a portion of the web slightly off from the center. She was holding it firmly with her tapering front legs and had her face attached contentedly to one end.
Christina never knew that his mother did not like her. He would smile evasively when she would enquire about her. Oh, she’s fine, he’d say and then change the subject. It was now a curiosity which kept him dating her. A need to have cleanly exposed the sort of conniving woman hidden behind a sweet façade that the most trusted woman in his life was certain that she was. A need to know if it could truly be so and that one more time his mother was right. His mother who was the very embodiment of decency. A small woman of slight build with conservative habits but with such wicked insight into other people’s characters. He let their dating trail on while patiently he observed her and considered her until at last he knew what he had to do.
She liked to cook and Christina was a pretty good cook at that. She had told him that it was nice to have someone to cook for (again, his mother only sighed when he told her that and said, my poor baby how innocent you are) and had invited him several times to her miserable little apartment on the ground floor of an old house. It was on a quiet side street in a distant part of town where the rents were lower and the neighborhoods more discordant. The part of Philadelphia that had yet to see a renewal of any sort even though it had once obviously been very prosperous as the decaying mansion houses slashed into multi-unit dwellings laid testament to. He was strict about leaving as soon as he had helped dry the last glass and replace it in the cupboard of her clean but shabby old kitchen. Strict about crossing lines, about sexual contact. He believed that a virtuous woman would want no sort of such thing until a firm commitment had been made like the one he’d made with Jill in college until she called it off after a couple of years (his mother had predicted that). The night that he’d made up his mind, he closed the cupboard door after replacing the perfectly dried glass and turned to face her. A curl of hair had fallen onto her forehead that was usually brushed firmly back. He extended his hand to tenderly push the lone curl away and found himself in a smoldering embrace with her that within minutes had become a spiraling blaze.
The phone rang just when he’d made up his mind to open the window. His shirt felt moist and limp around him and he’d had to wipe his brow several times but instead of cracking the window he went down the hallway and answered the phone that rested on the marble topped chest at the landing. It was Melinda. She was distraught. Her voice was small and helpless like a tiny withered leaf getting blow in circles above the ground. She had just left the County Courthouse. Her final appeal to regain her son’s custody had been flat out denied. She was not to make another such appeal for an extended length of time. Tommy had to strain his ear to pick the meaning out of her wispy, vanishing words woven as they were with swallowed back sobs and deep breathes. The house was stifling, an oven, a furnace. For some odd reason his mother’s words came drifting into his thoughts as Melinda’s pathetic situation unraveled before him, Melinda? What kind of name is that? He tried to decipher what she’d meant by that and then suddenly without even trying he knew. There was a moment’s silence on the phone before her muted sniffle brought it to an end. What could he do for her, he asked with a calmness that was almost cold. Can I come over, she replied.
No one knew who he was. Her friends and co-workers knew him simply as Tommy, not Thomas Crane. Their’s was a personal relationship, they did not share their company with others. She had not been in close contact with her family for years and they were as shocked and helpless as her friends and co-workers had been. The investigators found several “Toms” in her address book and paid Tommy a visit two full days after the police found Christina’s cold, waxy body twisted among the pink flowery sheets on her bed. She’d been strangled, they said. Not a rape, no penetration at all but some signs of sex play. Maybe it was an accident, they prodded, and whoever committed it was afraid. Tommy looked stunned and stammered that he was merely a platonic friend of hers and knew very little about her other private affairs. He told them about his suspicions that she might have been sexually abused by her father. But they were not interested in that, they wanted hard questions answered and finger prints taken so he left a note for his mother and went down to the station.
It had been fall as it was fall now. A beautiful autumn that only comes every few years. It had remained just warm enough that his mother refrained from blasting the heat and he was able to keep his window closed and still remain in relative comfort. He used to wonder why the spiders liked this particular window so and one day, after years of observing and figuring out what the spider does, realized that it was probably because his light burned through most of the night attracting helpless insects to the glow. It wasn’t his intention to provide the victims for the spiders but he couldn’t help but grow sympathetic to their plight as he watched them year after year. For the insects it was all so simple really. No complicated webs and meal programs. No for them it was all random flying about and reproducing at will. The spider had to plan. Had to think and build and through these efforts even managed to cull some of man’s problems away like mosquitoes for instance. And flies which were dirty.
But this fall had been cold and as Tommy hung the phone up and went back to his room, he knew he would have to change his shirt before Melinda arrived. She’d never been to the house before. He was getting better. He was learning how to see what his mother saw. He was learning how to read between the lines. Melinda would be impressed when she saw the house. It would be easy, he thought. He put on a fresh shirt and combed his hair. He went over to the window and saw the huge limbs of the plane tree outside lumbering in the wind. It’s leaves were gone and it’s mottled bark blended into nothingness against the backdrop of dormant garden. The spider had left. A few threads of broken silk flagging out from the casement the only remembrance of a season’s work.