All summer, I holed up in my bedroom behind drawn curtains. With pen in hand, I sat hunched over my desk, an island rising from a sea of candy wrappers, crumpled paper, and books. The room smelled like rum and old socks. The walls were empty, except for a dozen authors’ bios—Hemingway’s at the center—torn from novels and pinned to the plaster. A copy of The Old Man and the Sea, parted and overturned, floated on an ocean of laundry. The only sound was of pencil scratching against paper. When each page was finished, I wadded it into a ball, tossed it onto the floor, and stared at the sailboat pattern in the drapes. If the wind tickled the curtains, it seemed the boats had broken their moorings and were drifting out of the harbor.
I rarely emerged from my bedroom except to part the kitchen blinds and peer out at the church on the other side of the marina. It was freshly painted, hugged by holly bushes and iris beds, unlike my house, which was sagging and surrounded by thistle and ragweed.
Weeks passed, punctuated only by the sound of bells or the clanging of metal against mast. Write. Strike through. Ding, ding. Write, erase, rewrite. Clang, clang. Pencil on paper; scratch, scratch, scratch like a chicken in a garden. When my words became so barren that I could not bear them, I swore off writing and fingered the rumpled pages of Moby Dick, imagining that I were Ishmael gallivanting off to sea.
But when I had no book in my hands, when I sat on the toilet early each morning smelling the laundry piled in the corner and praying for inspiration, I felt adrift, like a single gull bobbing wave by wave and swept away by the Gulf Stream.
One morning before running my bathwater, I saw a small spider in the tub. It was the size of a thumbtack, black with a bulbous body that floated on its legs like a cork. I waved my hand. “Get out of here, spider,” I said. “Move so I can take my bath.” Having given fair warning, I turned the handle. Water gushed, covering the bottom of the tub and splashing water all around the spider. It scuttled this way then that and finally scaled up the side of the tub and perched on the rim.
With gale force breath, I blew the spider onto the bathroom floor, but it climbed back to the rim. I dribbled droplets of water onto its back, but it didn’t budge. I sloshed water onto the rim, but the spider shuffled to a dry spot. We stared at each other and I cocked my finger and prepared to flick the spider into eternity, but it crawled up my finger and walked onto my hand. Except for a slight tickle, I could barely feel it. I waited until it navigated across the hairs on my hand and then I abutted my hand against the rim in time for the spider to step off. I smiled. “Well, okay then. I guess you can stay.”
The spider must’ve had its own alarm clock because every morning it sat there on the side of the tub next to the overflow drain. “You again?” I asked. “I thought you’d be long gone by now.” I sighed and put my hands on my hips. “I said you could stay spider, but don’t get too comfortable. Isn’t room around here for the both of us.”
Whether I brushed my teeth or peed, the spider followed my every move. “Can’t a man have any privacy?” I asked. “Why don’t you leave me alone?”
The next day, the spider, as if it wanted something, began following me from tub to toilet to sink. I reached for my toothbrush and the spider crawled onto my hand. It waited to gauge my reaction and then, when I did nothing, it continued up my arm and sat on my shoulder.
Something shifted and I didn’t feel quite as alone. “Good morning, spider,” I said. “How are you?”
Every morning was the same. “Glad to see you again, spider. Isn’t it a nice day? Do you have a name?”
I thought about giving it a name, but only a crazy person would’ve done that. I did ask a lot of questions, though.
“How was your night, spider? “How did you sleep?” “What have you been doing?” It didn’t reply although it moved its lips.
I wondered where the spider lived. I inspected every nook and cranny in the bathroom. I stood on a bucket and looked in the corners of the ceiling. I removed the contents of the bathroom cabinets, the toilet paper, the glass cleaner and air fresheners. Nothing.
Then a thought occurred to me. I unscrewed the drain plug and shined a flashlight down the pipe. Empty.
Then next morning I awakened early, lit a green apple candle on the toilet tank, and sat waiting for the sun to stream through the window. A few minutes after sunrise, just before bath time, the sun illuminated the tub and the spider emerged from the overflow drain.
“So that’s where you live, spider. Looks like a pretty good place. Got anything to eat down there? Plenty to drink, I’m sure.”
Weeks rolled by and I arose earlier to beat the spider out of bed. I sat in the dry tub, and if the spider overslept, I tapped the overflow drain until it crawled out rubbing its eyes.
The spider inspired me and I wrote like a madman, page after page, story after story about crill, naked sirens, and voices floating on the ocean; stories about sunrises and a foghorn that announced every birth in town. I wrote for days at a time, sentences rolling off my pencil like whitecaps. I began printing the stories and sitting in the tub, tapping on the drain, and reading them to the spider. It was a good editor and gave me ideas that were so wonderful I wished I had thought of them.
I invited the spider to ride on my shoulder and join me in my bedroom while I wrote. It whispered in my ear. Don’t you think that’s a moribund metaphor? Why, that’s a dangling participle.
“You’re a dangling participle,” I said. The spider’s suggestions were accurate, and the work we turned out was brilliant. My muse and I. I laughed. Notify the Pulitzer committee, I thought, but don’t tell them I have a muse. Tell them I wrote it all alone while in my bedroom with the curtains closed.
One morning, I drew my bathwater while the spider sat on the rim. The sun shined through the bathroom window and birds chirped outside. I had a new idea for a short story and I couldn’t wait to get the spider’s opinion. “Wait until you hear my idea, spider.” While the water rose, I whistled “The Little Boats of Newfoundland” and pulled from the closet a clean towel, which smelled like rain. I reached to hang the towel over the glass doors and I tripped on the bath mat, stumbled forward, and held out my hands to prevent hitting my head.
For a moment, I didn’t realize what had happened. I arose and the spider was gone from the tub rim. “Where are you, spider? Did you see that? I almost exterminated myself.”
Where did the spider go? I looked around the tub, in the corners of the floor, behind the toilet. I snatched the towel and looked underneath. “What, you’re a magician now?” I asked. “You just disappear anytime you want?”
I tapped on the drain, ripped open the curtains, and threw open the cabinet doors. A sinking came over me. “Where are you, spider?” I turned this way then that, and then, having scanned every corner, plopped onto the toilet and combed my fingers into my hair. That’s when I felt it—something on my palm.
Puss oozed from the body. The spider laid flat, legs smashed and askew, lifeless. I held out my hands in disbelief, not knowing what to do. I nudged the spider with my index finger. “Get up spider, get up.” It did not get up, but tumbled from my palm onto the floor and I sank beside it. “No!”
I raked the spider onto my hand and slid it onto the rim of the tub. “Oh, get up, spider. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t mean to kill you. What will I do now? You were my friend. Who will help me write? Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
The clouds seemed to roll in and shroud the harbor in darkness and mist. I felt the world around me closing in and I tried to will its expansion, but hope contracted until too small to recognize.
I decided to have a burial at sea. I wrapped my muse in a toilet paper shroud, wet the paper, and stuck it to the inside of the toilet bowl. I saluted and then kneeled with my old family Bible. “’The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.’ Dear God, please bless the soul of this spider, muse and friend. Forgive me for killing him, who never did anything but good in this world.” I hung my head and stood with my hand over my heart and reached for the handle. “I’m sorry, spider. Please forgive me. Godspeed.” The tide rushed in and overtook the shroud, which swirled around the bowl and sank into the abyss. The next day I sat on the couch eating nothing but saltines, which was the only food that didn’t make me vomit. I slept in fits, dreaming my hands were twice their normal size, covered with puss and remorse. Finally, I walked to my desk, picked up a pencil, and began a tribute to the spider; but I could not empty my heart because a fog rose in my brain and my thoughts couldn’t see where they were going. I could only think about the spider, its guts spilling onto my palm. Every few minutes I scrubbed my hands with lye and rinsed them in water, but still, the guilt remained. I didn’t bathe because I could not do so alone. I could only sprawl in the dry tub and stare at the overflow drain.
That night I walked into the bathroom, flipped on the light, and saw movement in the tub. I sprang to the edge. From the overflow drain emerged a long, brown insect with six tan legs. Antennae extended from its head and two sharp pinchers jutted from its rear. Could this be my new muse? The bug crawled around the tub, paying no attention to me. “Hey, pincher bug, got any ideas for stories?” I tapped on the side of the tub. “Hey, the cat got your tongue?” Damn you. I slid off a slipper, turned the sole down, and raised it in the air, but I had second thoughts because I figured God would hold two murders in a row against me, so I gave the pincher bug a pass and we ignored each other. A truce set in. Every few minutes, though, I reminded the pincher bug that I was captain of the ship. It was alive only because I allowed it. The next day, the pincher bug had vanished and, although I was alone again, I didn’t care where the pincher bug went. At my desk, I wrote and wrote, trying to ride the rise of an idea, but I could not stop thinking about the spider. My mind bobbed on the swell of regret.
The magic was gone. Where was my muse? The days with the spider seemed like a dream.
I finished a boring story about a sailor lost at sea. I re-read it ten times looking for an admirable thought or phrase, but I couldn’t find one. I balled up the paper, threw it against the wall, and lay awake all night drinking rum, praying for direction, and wondering if I were meant to be a writer.
The following morning, I was ready for a bath. I reached for the tub faucet, turned the knob, stripped, and dropped my clothes on the floor. As I stepped one foot into the tub, a spider emerged from the overflow drain. I gasped. My heart leaped as if I had spotted dry land after drifting alone for weeks. I felt like the sun had parted my senses and, with flickering glimmers of light beaming down onto the water, reflected sparkles of new hope.
The spider crawled to the rim and stopped. I smiled. “Well, I can’t believe it…” I sat in the tub laughing out loud. The spider scaled down the tub, walked across the water, crawled onto my arm, and scaled up to my shoulder. “I’ll be damned. It’s sure good to see you spider. I’ve been missing you. How have you been?”
“Is it really you, spider?” It waited on the tub’s edge until I finished bathing. I patted myself dry, tossed the towel in the corner, and walked to the bathroom door, waving for the spider to follow. It shuffled across the wall, stepped onto my shoulder, and hopped up and down. I grinned. “Come on, spider. I have an incredible idea for a story.”