The wolf spider gestured to me from across the tub, unfurling four legs from behind the metal cover obscuring overflow drain to greet me, naked and alone in a foot of bath water. This memory stands in isolation, as remote memories of a young child often are. The memory itself creeps from a drain, simply to remind me that it exists, that the drain exists, and that at any moment, tiny terrors such as this can make themselves known.
The Glendale house, my childhood home and home to however many undiscovered spiders, sat down the street from the dirt lot that would become a sports stadium. As the lot was developed, scorpion burrows were uprooted and the arachnids took refuge in my neighborhood. One scorpion made its way into the hall separating my room from the bathroom. I didn’t wake up to pee in the night often, but on this one occasion, I did. After my quick sojourn and in that brief moment between opening the bathroom door and turning off the light, I saw it, two inches long, unperturbed in the liminal space, still and watching me, lying in wait. And it need not wait any longer. For it achieved what it had set out to do – not to sting an innocent child, but to sting the innocence of that child, letting it be known that in these dark and liminal spaces, as with drains and the edges of hurried glances, such small yet horrific things creep around and wait. I ran back to my room and hid under the covers. Was I safe from the scorpion? From across the hallway, the bathroom light cast shadows into my bedroom, and the world was forever changed.
Naturally, as a resident of the desert, I continued to learn more about my arachnid neighbors. I learned about those that ordinarily climb trees but sometimes mistakenly climb houses, only to fall from vents onto floors, beds and sleepers. I learned about houses in Mesa, Arizona where scorpions infested the walls. My preoccupation with the unseen creepy crawly continues now into my adulthood. It is an ever-present reality that just beyond the walls, mere inches from me, any number of arachnids could be scurrying about. Living now just a town over from Mesa, there could even be such a large number of arachnids that they scurry over one another, to say nothing of the cannibalistic species.
Living under the specter of a global pandemic, the arachnid is a lesser demon. Walls may teem with tiny critters, but your neighbors may teem with a fairly deadly and highly contagious virus. Yet it is the same anxiety that has come to define our experience of the social world. We learn of three teachers, alone in a classroom, exercising the proper social distancing guidelines and hygiene protocols, only for all three to become COVID-positive – one of whom died from the illness. We learn of the spiders that burrow their eggs into your skin and the babies that eat you from the inside out. Coronavirus is now more widespread in Arizona than it’s ever been – the scorpions are in the neighborhood.
The ever-present reality of Coronavirus cannot be reasonably compared to an irrational fear like arachnophobia, not in itself. However, from both we can extrapolate a very visceral trepidation that has come to define our modern times. From the War on Terror, to the Recession, to the persistence of police brutality, the pandemic is one of many unshakeable nightmares just beyond the walls of our daily lives fostering near-constant anxiety. Our institutions prop up these hollow walls. They dig up the scorpion burrows. They eviscerate our safety nets. They instill co-dependency on employers. They tell us to stay at home. They create instability. They instill discord in our communities. They occupy our neighborhoods with militarized police. They continue to let loose the horrors that haunt us. The America within which we live is infested.
When in my childhood, my family went camping around Lake Roosevelt. In my innocence, it took several hours of playing on shore before I took a close enough look to see jumping spiders filling the gaps between the stones. Spiders jumped all around me. And they didn’t stop, not even as I zipped myself away in the tent and fell asleep. For in my dreams, the spiders still danced around me. That was the only time I’ve screamed in my sleep. I can mark that day as the origin of my arachnophobia. Ever since, I’ve been ever aware of the gaps, the shadows, the vents and the hollow walls within which the nightmares reside. Now, having lived in a relatively spider-free life environment for years, I know the nightmares extend beyond campground creepy crawlies and agitated scorpion burrows, and for the gaps to exist within the folds of America itself.
Are we destined to forever fear the dark corners, just as I feared the world outside the tent? It’s become impossible to imagine anything else. To think I consider myself a revolutionary, resolving to transform the world, and yet I startle at the brush of a loose hair on my arm and the shadows cast on the tent. To rid this nation of its nightmares requires a heroism that I question I have. But even as I screamed in the middle of the night, braver people than I ripped into the tent to save me from the spiders in the rocks and the spiders in the drain. Among them, beneath the constellations of heroes and monsters, I no longer felt afraid.
Brett Bezio is a writer and government bureaucrat wandering aimlessly through the Sonoran Desert. Beyond his literary pursuits, Brett is interested in relearning how to play the guitar and attempting overly ambitious macrame patterns for an amateur.
The image which heads this piece is the work of the author’s partner, Kat Davis. Find more of her work at katdavis.art.