Along came an arachnid . . .

It’s the height of summer, and a spider has taken over my backyard. I was slow to realize the extent of her labors, or to recognize that she was the sole author. They were at first simply increasingly frequent annoyances. I found myself brushing away webs when I didn’t expect them, where they hadn’t been only the day before.

Bounded on two sides by six-foot-high fences, and on the other two sides by the house and the garage, canopied in one corner by a grand and venerable maple, and in the other by a humble, muslin-shrouded gazebo, the yard is an oasis. Beneath the maple a smallish pond is fed continuously by water streaming from an urn carried by a gray stone statue of a Greek woman. The water attracts the birds: sparrows mostly, but occasionally doves and cardinals as well. Raccoons and rabbits have found their way inside our little paradise, as well as possums, but they’re inevitably driven out by our three dogs. Alert and perpetually spoiling for action, they keep the squirrels treed and the larger creatures from setting down roots.

Spiders on the other hand, fall a bit below their radar, although they’re not above snapping at the occasional fly. Throughout the yard, the flies are a constant and insistent presence. When the doors to the house are open, they wander in and allow themselves to become entangled in the swirling eddies of air beneath the spinning ceiling fans, or struggle helplessly to get back outside through window screens, apparently incapable of finding their way back to the doorways through which they entered. It’s these poor stragglers the dogs set their sights on, leaping and biting into the air where a fly had been only a microsecond before.

Ironically, it’s the dogs’ continuous and reliable output that, more than anything, attracts the flies. The easiest way to find their droppings is to locate the shimmering and pulsating metallic green that marks the swarm that surrounds what the dogs have left behind. Often, when the heat becomes too much to take, they abandon their meals and congregate in the cool of the concrete stairwell that leads down to the basement of the house. It was there that I first saw her.

On my way from the basement out to the backyard, I braced myself for the usual swirl of flies cooling themselves just outside the door. Instead, I ran head first into the sticky white threads, just before seeing the intricate and meticulous web at the center of them. Careful to break only the edges in order to pass through, the heart of the web retained its integrity, and I saw her crawl away slowly but deliberately from her perch. As I watched, I made note of her thick torso and hairy legs, and of the concentric yellow stripes that ringed them.

Once safely past, I remembered the recent proliferation of webs throughout the yard, the ones I’d noticed but not quite made note of. At least three graced each of the two fences, spaced at even intervals, reminiscent of the safety nets used by trapeze artists with nothing to prove. Another had caught me unawares the day before in the narrow space between the corner of the house and one of the fences.

And finally, I remembered the recent easing of the sense of inundation so typical to hot summer days dense with the buzzing of those innumerable and relentless, fecal-sniffing and carrion-seeking pests, whose very presence unnerves and disgusts on such a visceral level. I suppose the same could be said about spiders, but it wouldn’t by me. I, for one, am grateful for her work, and regret every web of hers that I find myself breaking, either by accident or necessity.

A spider has taken over my backyard, and I have no doubt that it is a she, and I welcome her with open arms.

regarding trains.

They were never before, when I lived on the eastern seaboard, an item of interest. Now, in Chicago, or what they call Chicago-land (God knows where those borders reside), interminable freight trains, not to mention the occasional idling commuter transport, insist on inserting themselves into daily life. No schedule of mine therefore, is safe, and must be flexible enough to accommodate these hulking, cacophonous conveyances.

They remain for me to this day, some twenty years later, alien interruptions that continue to take me by surprise. But I accept them with grace and patience (rarely forgetting to congratulate myself on my equanimity). While I wait, I look around to peek in on my counterparts in the neighboring cars, looking for any signs of frustration or impatience, for the fuming, for the steam coming out of their ears. But no, they too seem unconcerned.

But no matter. These trains, I contend, are a blight. No, that’s unfair. Not the trains themselves, of course. Clearly, they represent a failure of urban planning, the unwillingness or inability on the part of townships and counties and the state to come to some sort of understanding. Where are the bridges and underpasses? Few and far between is where. This is hardly rural Oklahoma, but a major American city, around which a multitude of communities have spread outward until a map became the only real way to tell them and their five million inhabitants apart. And yet, countless pairs of train-tracks criss-cross Chicago’s many interlocking communities, seemingly willy-nilly, their only rhyme or reason being whatever individual history can explain them.

Yes, these constant, random, unpredictable interruptions of traffic demonstrate a clear indifference to the admittedly provincial needs of what must seem, to the Grand Poo-Bahs, to be the great unwashed, of which I proudly count myself a member. I suppose there’s just a little steam coming from my ears after all.

On the other hand, I willingly concede that the tracks, along with the trains that roll along them, are a lifeblood coursing through our collective, arterial thoroughfares. They carry the raw materials necessary to our society to those places where they can be smelted down for building, or burned for fuel, or cut down to a more manageable scale, where they can eventually be converted into that in which we live, or upon which we sit, or at which we eat.

In fact, I love them. I love the look of them: the official stenciling upon their iron walls, as well as the rebellious graffiti beside it. As frustrating and unaccountable as I find the occasional delays they impose, I love to watch them as much when they sit as when they rush by. I love the sound of them: the rumble of their weight, the clacking of metal. When the sun is down, and I am safely home, sitting on my back porch stoop, I hear the distant, prolonged wail of the Burlington Northern, and feel somehow comforted.

But in the early AM, when I’m racing to be on time for work, I see them only as impeding my forward progress. They obstruct me no less when I’m rolling home, but somehow the effect is less pronounced. Sitting in my car with the day behind me, the wait takes on a meditative respect. In those final moments, as I watch the last of the blinking of the cautionary red lights, and the rising of the flimsy, striped, wooden gates, and the slow rolling past of the last of the innumerable freight cars, I think to myself, each time almost without exception, how much I miss and how much I long to once again see, that traditional punctuation following what seems like the longest sentence in the world, the humble red caboose, whose sole occupant would, a long time ago, sometimes emerge to wave, as if in thanks, to all the cars quietly waiting for his train to pass by.

the first day . . .

On the first day of class I noticed her immediately, her bright brown eyes, set a little too far apart, her freshly scrubbed skin. Of all my students that semester, she was the most beautiful, and at that tender age when youth informs womanhood, imbuing it with a radiance that lasts only as long as innocence, and that is never very long. When she first looked up at me she smiled, and I knew then and there that she believed I was her savior, that I would be the one to raise her up, from the mundane to the divine. I knew at that very moment that I had become her confidant and brother, her confessor and father, her trusted guide through and around the thickets of a dark and disturbing world, a world overfull with the remains of half-eaten prey, and shot through with the watchful eyes of half-starved carnivores . . .