Billy and Candy were heading back to the East Village along Houston. She hadn’t been to his flat for over a week. A very busy lady.
Doing what he didn’t know. But then again, he never bothered to ask.
Though it was getting late in the afternoon, it was still light out. It had been a cloudless day, brisk but holding the promise of spring.
They headed up Bowery and went east on 2nd Street.
Right after turning the corner, as they came up to some steps beside a secured metal-grated garage door with giant padlocks at the base, they heard a gnarly old voice.
“Are you here for a spider?”
On the other side of the cement steps was a bum. He appeared to be sober and was sitting in the midst of several fishbowls. One of them sat directly in front of him on a cement block. It was so dirty it was impossible to see through the glass, the lip had a large chunk broken off, and a crack went down one side almost to the base. A good bump would probably cleave it in half.
Leaning against the cement block under this bowl was a handwritten sign.
Save the planet!
Billy’s curiosity got the best of him. He walked over and tried to look into the bowl.
The old man quickly covered it with his hands, which looked as though they hadn’t seen soap and water since Ronald Reagan was president.
“Your sign says the spiders are free. How can you charge 50 cents for them?”
“These spiders . . . these spiders are freer than you and me. Freedom is never having to say you’re sorry. Besides, the 50 cents is not for the spider. It’s packaging and handling, shipping and taxation without representation. Some goes to the United Nations and MOMA to keep the dream alive.”
“I see.” Billy turned to Candy with a mock-enthusiastic grin. “What do you think, sweetey? Is this something we could use?”
The old man whipped his moth-eaten filthy wool hat off and shook it at Billy like it was a scepter or a sword.
“I’m on to you! You’re just a smart-mouth punk who thinks he’s smarter than an old man just because you floss your teeth and have no ring around the collar. But let me tell you something. Are you listening? Because you might learn a thing or two they didn’t get around to teaching you at girls boarding school. You can’t buy a spider any more than you can by a snowflake or a breath of air.”
He put his hat back on and glared at Billy in disgust.
Candy sat down next to the old man. He didn’t smell as bad as he looked.
“I want to meet one of your spiders.”
The old man reached into a bowl behind him and took out two beautifully red ripe Roma tomatoes. He held one up and handed the other one to her.
“Spiders are colorblind. These are like beach balls or small planets. They don’t watch TV.”
“So can I see one?”
Billy was glancing into all of the bowls, including the one right in front of the old man.
“I don’t see any. Where are they?”
“They’re not here. Homestays. Time shares. Adopt-a-spider-go-to-jail. Three strikes and you’re out. I told you. I’m on to you! You can’t have everything your way.” He turned to Candy. “Why do you want a spider anyway? Are you lonely? Did your cat run away? You’re not a satanist, are you?”
“No, I’m not a satanist.”
The old man smiled at her sympathetically. His rheumy eyes seemed on the verge of spilling yellow mucous-laden tears.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. We can’t disturb them now. They’re on break. IWW union rules. Even Roosevelt didn’t see that one coming.” He started laughing raucously, then shook his head as he let it hang against his chest, grinning away at the irony of his being an insider on all of the political machinations of the spider world.
He pointed at Billy.
“That’s something else you don’t understand.” Pointing to all of the empty bowls around him. “They know I won’t fuck with them. I won’t turn them in just for the lousy reward money. We took the same loyalty oath, see. It’s about love thy neighbor and don’t fuck thy neighbor’s wife. The Golden Rule. In case you didn’t know.”
The old man was silent for a long time.
All of a sudden, he perked up and noticed them, as if for the first time.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. Do you want some spiders? I can give you recipes. You’re not vegetarian, are you?”
Candy stood up and came around next to Billy.
“Thanks, old man. We’re all set. We better be going.”
Billy reached in his pocket and held out a ten dollar bill. The old man just held up his hands and shook his head.
“I’m set for life. Money won’t mean anything anyway. You can’t take it with you.”
Billy and Candy headed east across 1st Avenue. He finally spoke up.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
It had just gotten dark. As they approached Billy’s Avenue C apartment, the caterwaul of two cats across the street announced some unresolved territorial dispute.
“I really love my loft.”
“But you live in a basement.”
“Can’t I have my utopian fantasies?”
“You mean dystopian delusions. Am I the only sane person in this bloody city?” She held out her hand, palm up, empty. “How many spiders do you see?”
“I’m just trying to see the glass as half full.”
“I’m seeing your cranium as half empty.”
They entered. The stale air and some undefined stench caught in Candy’s throat.
“Jesus, Billy, do you ever clean this place? It smells like the graveyard shift at a meatpacking house in Bosnia.”
“Light some incense.”
“How about lighting a drum of kerosene with a six-pack of heavy-duty highway flares and a flamethrower.”
“You are OCD.”
“If I were OCD, I wouldn’t be anywhere near you. You are anathema to order, cleanliness, coherence, balance and sanity.”
“But what about my bad points?”
“It’s one thing to rise above the hungry addiction of consumerism, but to abandon all standards of hygiene and embrace chaos and filth with messianic devotion is pathological.”
“Sounds to me like you want to fool around.”
“Alright alright. I admit it. The smell of rotting carcasses always puts me in a sexy mood. But take a shower first. Please!”
Billy came out with a towel wrapped around him. Candy was laying on the bed, naked as a newborn child, except for a few dozen tattoos. He dropped the towel and got onto the bed, savoring the view.
She put her arms up and raised her legs high. He would need no instruments to land this one. He aimed for the thin pink line below the Brazilian.
“The eagle has landed.”
“Oh my God! That feels sooooo good.”
Then it was over. It took two minutes tops.
“We’re getting good at this.”
“Did something happen?”
“You’re right. Hit the rewind button. I think I missed something.”
Billy started poking and tweeking her nipples and she curled into a ball giggling hysterically. When he got tired of tickling her, they both fell into a deep imperturbable sleep.
At some point late into the night the phone rang.
And rang and rang and rang.
Candy dreamed it was raining tiny Hindu prayer bells and they played melodically as they rippled through a shimmering glassine force field which held her body gracefully suspended.
Billy dreamed he was in a commercial jet which had lost power and was tumbling earthward towards total annihilation, with emergency alarms and screams creating a cacophony of fear.
Just as the phone finally stopped ringing, they both woke up.
It was either a wrong number or a right number at the wrong time.
They lay quietly for a while. Faint echoes of bells trailed off in their shared subconscious.
When they eventually got up, Billy made coffee. Candy made breakfast. After the quick meal, Billy spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom trying to deal with the disfiguring effects of bedhead. When he finally came out, he found Candy looking at a leaflet that came with his phone bill from Verizon Bell Atlantic, which listed the cornucopia of wonderful extra services he was being charged for, whether he knew it or not.
“You’ve got all sorts of features on this thing, Billy. Call waiting. Caller ID. Call ID block. Speed dialing. Call forwarding.”
“What’s Call ID block?”
“It’s so that people with caller ID can’t see who’s calling them.” She punched some numbers into the keypad. “There. That’s activated. Now you can make obscene calls without fear of prosecution. Let’s see. What else? Call waiting is already working. You don’t need call forwarding, since you don’t have a cell phone.”
Candy showed him how to enter phone numbers so that just pressing * and a digit, he could dial a call. She put her own number in as *1. Billy had her enter him mom as *2.
“There you go. Welcome to the modern world.”
“I feel positively futuristic.”
Candy stood up, then leaned over and licked Billy’s right eye like she was getting the last dollop of whip cream from a spoon. He laughed and buried his face in both of his arms to avoid any more dog kisses. When he looked up, she was gone.
Billy lit a joint and sat looking at the blank wall across from him.
He couldn’t remember. Was his mom afraid of spiders?
Hmm. He should call her.