Sadie and Max are playing in the backyard when Sadie has a thought. “We should start a restaurant,” she says.
Max claps his hands and shouts, “Yes!” but then furrows his small brow. He’s not sure what his sister means.
“We’ll need tables,” Sadie continues. “Daddy can cook and Mommy can tell people where to sit.”
Andrea is listening in. “I think I can do more than that,” she says. She’s defensive about the fact that Kyle does most of the cooking. But Sadie’s right, if they were to open a restaurant, Kyle would be the chef.
Sadie is always getting ideas like this. One day she’s a veterinarian and the next a newscaster. Right now the look on her face is fiercely purposeful, as if she’s already planning the restaurant’s layout and décor. Maybe she’ll grow up to be an interior designer or have a cooking show on TV.
Suddenly, Sadie pauses, shakes her head, and says, “Wait! We should put it in the garage.” Then she takes her brother by the hand and they disappear through the side door.
Sadie is eight and her sidekick almost four. Andrea loves when the two of them play together. Since moving to Arizona, she and Kyle have made some sacrifices so they can spend more time at home. But on days like this, when she finds herself moving easily between working on her laptop and being a mom, she can’t imagine a better arrangement: busy children and unlimited iced tea. In college, she swore to her friends she wouldn’t have children. Look at her now.
Although the garage is meant to hold two cars, half of it is filled with bicycles, lawncare equipment, cardboard boxes, and furniture no longer in use. The other half is empty because Kyle is teaching summer school and has taken the car to campus for the afternoon. Already, the children have managed to set up a folding table, cover it with a tablecloth, and surround it with unmatched chairs. The tablecloth is one she wishes they hadn’t used but they’re having so much fun she decides not to object. Kyle says that if you have two children you can only have one car. She understands his logic—the earth is in peril and we all need to do our part—yet the precision of his calculations about such matters sometimes makes her brain ache.
“Goodness,” Andrea says. “You’re off to an excellent start. What will you call it? A restaurant needs a name.” She knows the importance of steering Sadie toward things she and Max can actually do. Otherwise she’ll want to paint the walls or start frying chicken and get frustrated when her ambitions exceed her skills.
Late in the afternoon, Andrea hears Kyle’s car and goes out to meet him. She tells him to park on the driveway and describes the children’s project as they walk toward the house. “They have a high opinion of your cooking,” she says. “Sadie’s convinced they’ll make so much money we’ll be able to quit our jobs.”
In the garage, more progress has been made. A large cardboard box has become a second table and they’ve just finished printing out menus. The name they came up with is The Blueberry Café. As Sadie gives Kyle a tour, she explains what’s left to be done: “Mommy says we can pick flowers to put on the tables but we still need two more chairs.” Kyle gushes about the menu, telling them they’ve picked some of his favorite dishes. Max says, “Spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti” and waves his little arms.
When Andrea and Kyle are in the house, away from the kids, she says, “This’ll keep them busy for days. The only problem is we may have to invite some people over and serve them an actual dinner in The Blueberry Café. With Sadie, make-believe is never enough.” At times it has occurred to her that family life itself involves a certain amount of make-believe. As in: “I’ll get through this by pretending to be a mother since I have no idea what actual mothering involves.”
Kyle laughs. “Invite whoever you please but if we’ve started running a restaurant I’ll expect the guests to pay.” Andrea follows with an observation about how a certain stingy friend of theirs will probably neglect to tip. They’re still laughing when Max appears and says, “Sadie wants you. Now.” He sounds frightened so they hurry back to the garage. There they find Sadie pointing toward a far corner, where all the clutter is.
“Daddy, look,” she says, keeping her arm outstretched.
“What? What is it?”
“A spider. You have to kill it.”
“Yes, please kill it,” Andrea says.
He steps closer and follows her line of sight.
“Oh, I see it. Wow, that’s a big one.”
Andrea scoops up Max to keep him out of the way. “Can you get to it?” she asks.
“I think so,” he says, fetching the broom Sadie used earlier in the day to sweep the restaurant floor. It appears he intends to knock the spider down and step on it—or maybe stab it with the handle and crush it against the wall. Andrea, a confirmed arachnophobe, doesn’t care how he does it, she just wants it dead.
When he’s ready he says, “Everybody stand back!” in a voice that sounds partly like a serious warning and partly like his impression of what a guy in a movie would say. Andrea can’t watch and doesn’t want Max to watch either, so she turns his face away. A moment later there’s a crash, a thwack, and a thump.
“Done,” Kyle says.
Andrea turns cautiously, expecting a scene of carnage, but everything looks exactly as it did before. “My hero,” she says.
That evening, after they’ve had supper and the kids are in bed, Kyle says, “The spider I killed was a black widow. Just so you know.”
“Was it really? God, I hate those things.” Then, after a brief pause, “I guess that’s the end of The Blueberry Café.”
“You don’t have to do that. They’re harmless unless disturbed. And it was probably the only one in the whole garage. Besides, I don’t want Sadie and Max to grow up afraid.”
They’ve had this conversation before. She grew up in northern Minnesota where black widows are unheard of; Kyle was born and raised in the desert. He claims every house in the city has two or three black widows in residence, probably more. He continues: “They’re a natural part of the ecosystem. Their bite is seldom fatal. They prey on cockroaches and you know how much you hate cockroaches.”
“Seldom fatal? Couldn’t we poison them? The spiders and the cockroaches too?”
“Absolutely not. Which would you rather have in your house—bugs or cancer-causing chemicals? Think about the kids.”
This time she aims for compromise, preferring to avoid a quarrel. “You need to inspect the garage tomorrow. Look behind all the boxes. If you don’t see any more I’ll let them keep playing out there. They really are having fun.”
“Deal,” he says. “If I find any I’ll relocate them to our bedroom. Assuming that’s okay with you.”
“Very funny,” she says, instead of what’s she’s feeling, which is, “Don’t be an ass.”
The next day they both plan to be home. Andrea has trained herself to work on her laptop even in the midst of demanding children and unexpected household events, while Kyle has created a study for himself in a nook at the end of the hallway where the bedrooms are. Before he begins grading papers, he does as promised, taking a flashlight from his toolbox and going out to inspect the garage. When he returns, he tells Andrea it’s black widow-free. She’s relieved—and delighted she doesn’t have to find something else for the children to do.
But halfway through the morning, Sadie comes looking for her with a sobbing Max in tow.
What’s the matter?” Andrea asks, wrenching her attention away from the laptop screen.
“He’s sad about the spider. He didn’t want Daddy to kill it.”
“Seriously?” She reaches out and draws Max to her side. She’d rather not get into this. Given Max’s age she’d have to start at the beginning and explain the whole situation: spiders are good but certain kinds can be dangerous and the one Daddy killed is called a black widow and . . . She wants to return to her work.
As she begins to get Max calmed down, Sadie says, “It’s because of the book.”
Andrea looks up. “What book?”
“Charlotte. Charlotte’s Web.”
“I see,” she says and nods in recognition. This is another thing she’d rather not get into. Max believes—or at least remains open to the possibility—that animals have charming personalities and can sometimes even talk. Why spoil that? She shoots Sadie a “don’t contradict me” look and says, “Daddy didn’t really kill it. He just scared it away.”
“Just scared it?” Max says.
“Yes. It ran out into the yard.”
Then she sends them back to the garage, but as they depart she can see Sadie shaking her head. Sadie, who in truth will probably grow up to be a skeptical scientist like her father rather than an interior designer or a chef.
When she tells Kyle about Max’s fears and her method of assuaging them, he says, “So we should kill all the spiders but deny the deed has been done. I’m not sure that’s the best approach.”
“It couldn’t be helped. He was sobbing. I don’t know if you remember but they loved that book. When I got to the end they insisted I go back to the first page and start reading it again.”
“In the book the spider dies, right?”
“Well, yeah, but naturally. And then her babies float away on the breeze. It’s the circle of life. That’s very different from being crushed by a broom.
“So humans aren’t part of nature?”
Rather than get caught up in an argument she’ll have little chance of winning, she says, “What actually happens if you get bitten by a black widow?”
“Muscle cramps, difficulty breathing. It can make your blood pressure spike, which is the most dangerous part.”
She stares at him for a long moment. “Did you actually kill that spider?”
“Of course. And I didn’t find any others. Still, I can’t guarantee there aren’t more. I know you don’t like them but they’re not going away.”
“I’m tired of talking about this,” she says.
For some time now she’s been having second thoughts about their move to the Southwest. It’s not only the black widows. There is also the lack of trees, the lack of well-defined seasons, and the intensity of the sun. People say how much they love the dry heat but it’s difficult to appreciate when going outside means industrial-strength sunscreen, long sleeves, and a wide-brimmed hat—all doubly necessary for a fair-skinned person like herself. What, she’d like to know, is so natural about dressing like that?
In the days that follow, the creation of the restaurant continues. Sadie paints a big sign and the two of them build a third table out of more cardboard boxes and some wooden planks. Max wants to use the family dishes but Andrea convinces them disposable plates are the way to go. “Like that barbecue place we went to,” she says. “I have some nice yellow ones. It’ll be easier to clean up.” When Kyle disapproves—more plastic in the landfill—she’ll say, “Then you wash the dishes when they’re done,” and he’ll back off.
But now, as she watches them, she notices something odd. Max keeps looking at the corner where the black widow lived. He stands entirely still and gazes with great intensity at the dimly lit space. As far as Andrea can tell only a few remnants of web remain. She redirects his attention— “Come help your sister”—yet the next time she checks on them, he’s standing and staring again.
Andrea begins to chide him, but before she can finish her sentence, Sadie intervenes: “He wants to see the spider again. You told him Daddy only scared it away.” She almost seems to be taunting Andrea, to be saying, “Your lie backfired. Now what are you going to do?”
Andrea takes Max by the hand and leads him toward the dark corner and the remaining scrap of web. They can’t get all the way to it because of the lawn mower and a broken lamp but it’s close enough. “See, the spider’s gone,” she says. Then, as it occurs to her that’s not what Max wants to hear, she adds, “Now it lives outside.”
Still, he keeps pulling toward the corner. If she were to release him he’d duck under the lawn mower handle, so she holds him in place. “Charlotte,” he says at last.
“No, not Charlotte. But a spider like Charlotte.” She pauses for a moment to recall the plot. “Charlotte was friends with Wilbur the pig and . . . and that rat . . .”
“Yes, Templeton. So I bet our spider went off to find some animal friends.” She glances over at Sadie. “Don’t you agree?”
Sadie’s expression is both dismissive and thoroughly adult. “Whatever you say,” she replies.
Not surprisingly, at bedtime that night Max wants Andrea to read Charlotte’s Web again. She’d fear another cutting remark from Sadie, but lately Sadie has taken charge of her own nightly reading. At present, she’s deep into the Anne of Green Gables books and happy to be left alone. So it’s only the two of them. Max snuggles under her arm and gets a far-off look in his eyes.
Andrea has been vigilant about reading to her children since the day they were born. It’s the time she feels closest to them, an hour in the evening when her mind and theirs seem almost to become one. Together they enter a world of perilous journeys or magical kingdoms or farm animals with profound things to say. She opens the book and reads:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs.—
She stops. She always forgets how it begins. Of course the pig doesn’t get slaughtered but still . . . “You already know the story” Andrea says. “Let’s pick a different part.” She flips forward and starts a second time:
“Charlotte,” Wilbur said.
“Yes?” said the spider.
“Were you serious when you promised you would keep them from killing me?”
Again? She shakes her head but keeps reading. Max is listening intently. Do the darker parts go over his head or does he get it in his own four-year-old way?
“I was never more serious in my life. I’m not going to let you die, Wilbur.”
“How are you going to save me?” asked Wilbur, whose curiosity was very strong on this point.
“Well,” said Charlotte, vaguely, “I don’t really know. But I’m working on a plan.”
As Andrea continues, it occurs to her that Charlotte has all the qualities of an ideal mother. She’s calm, wise, fiercely protective, and a good listener. Most of all she’s selfless. At the end she dies so that her children may live. However, Charlotte has no husband. No male of the species to question her decisions and make her feel she’s screwing up.
After about half an hour, Andrea reaches a good stopping point and says, “I forgot how much I like this story. But now it’s time for bed.”
Before she can get up, Max says, “Why did you not like the spider in the garage? Was she a bad spider?”
“Oh, no, honey. Daddy and I just thought it needed to live somewhere else.”
“With some friends.”
“Yes, with some friends.” But as she speaks she begins imagining how many corners she’ll paint herself into when Sadie and Max are teenagers, how parenting means becoming intimate with all the ways good intentions can go awry.
When the lights are out in the children’s bedroom and she’s back downstairs, she mentions to Kyle that she’s reading Charlotte’s Web again.
He says, “I’ve been thinking about what you said to Max. We should have told him the truth. We should have told him it was a poisonous spider and we simply didn’t want him to get hurt.”
This infuriates her. She’s already admitted that in this particular case she chose expedience over honesty. But he won’t let it go.
“If I’d done that, he would have wanted to know what happens if you get bit, does it hurt, do you die, and are there other poisonous creatures around here he should be worrying about. Which of course there are. You’re the one who said you didn’t want him growing up afraid.”
“You don’t keep them from being afraid by hiding the truth. You do it by explaining how the world works.”
“Maybe you should take over the job of reading to them. Find some books about how the world works.”
For the next hour she fumes about his remarks. She’s hates how he over-intellectualizes; how he talks to her about child-rearing as if she’s a sophomore whose thesis statement lacks adequate support.
That night she wakes up at two a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. She keeps thinking about the garage and what’s in it. Suppose there’s a scorpion or centipede out there too? When they first moved into the house, they were cleaning under the fridge and out came one of the big poisonous centipedes native to this part of the country. She nearly had a seizure when it ran across her shoe.
She knows that the best way to see the kinds of creatures you’d rather not see is to go into a dark space and switch on a light—they’re mostly nocturnal and it catches them unawares. It isn’t something she wants to do but she feels she must. She’d poke Kyle and send him but she’d rather not hear the lecture that would follow.
Although it’s a moonless night, the digital displays on the clocks and appliances scattered throughout the house are enough to light the way. Down the hall, through the living room and kitchen, and into the laundry room, where she stops at the entrance to the garage. Taking a deep breath, she throws the door open and switches on the overhead light. A brief flickering follows as the fluorescents power on. Cockroaches, six or seven, the big Southwestern kind, scuttle into hiding. She expected that. But no scorpions. No centipedes. Still, she remains uneasy. She feels like an amateur. A bug hunter who has no real idea about how to hunt bugs. She’d call an exterminator but Kyle would have a fit.
Two days later The Blueberry Café opens for business. The first customers are Sadie’s friend Lydia and Lydia’s mother Joan. They serve peanut butter sandwiches, sliced apples, and, for dessert, miniature blueberry muffins the children made with Andrea’s help. Kyle misses it because he’s at class but the plan is for them to have supper in the garage that evening.
When Lydia and her mother are gone, Andrea says, “What fun! You guys did a great job,” and then leaves the children alone to tidy up and revel in their success. She’s amazed they have yet to lose interest. This is what—the fourth day?
However, before she can open her laptop, she hears a scream. Ordinarily she’d think What’s Max gotten into now? but this sounds like Sadie. What she finds when she enters the garage is Sadie trembling and saying something unintelligible and Max standing in the middle of their make-believe restaurant holding out his hand. Andrea goes toward him and then stops. On Max’s palm is a black widow spider. Even an amateur like her can identify it: the classic spider shape, the spider of her nightmares, with a jet-black abdomen the size of a jellybean. As the spider’s legs flex, her throat closes and her body begins to shake.
“Look,” he says, his face now beginning to change from pride to fear. It’s her reaction that’s causing him to realize he’s made a terrible mistake.
With no further thought Andrea gathers herself and acts. She sweeps her hand across Max’s palm and knocks the spider to the floor. As it lands, the tell-tale red hourglass on its underside is revealed. Before it can run, she stomps it with her shoe. Her actions are almost graceful—each move perfectly timed and executed. All that’s left of the spider is a greasy smudge on the concrete.
Now both children are crying. “I was afraid it was going to bite him,” Sadie moans.
Max stares at his open hand. Tears stream down his cheeks. “You killed it,” he says.
Andrea examines his palm to make sure it’s unmarked. “Yes. Mommy had to,” she says and gives him a hug. Then she begins at once to dismantle the restaurant and return its various parts to where they had been before.
“What are you doing?” Sadie asks.
“It’s not safe out here.”
“But it’s our restaurant.”
“Don’t argue with me. Take your brother and go watch a video. I’ll be in soon.”
As the adrenalin rush subsides, a feeling of disillusionment replaces it. The restaurant project got tangled up with the spiders and Kyle’s attitude about the spiders and now she simply wants it to end.
When Kyle gets home he says, “How’s The Blueberry Café?”
“It’s closed. Permanently.”
He studies her for a moment and shrugs. She can tell what he’s thinking: I’d like to know more but I’ll wait until later to pursue it. It’s a wise decision. If he says one word about the natural order of things, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.
At bedtime, as she helps Max into his pajamas, she has an alarming thought about her son: Something is going to get him and she won’t be able to prevent it. He’s curious, he’s unguarded, he’s going to go out in the world and some horrific thing will happen to him. When it does, their entire universe, so satisfying but so precariously put-together, will be destroyed.
But she won’t dwell on that now. It’s time to read. “Which one?” she asks. Of course he says Charlotte’s Web yet when she attempts to retrieve it she finds it’s missing from the shelf.
She calls out to Sadie whose room is down the hall: “Have you seen Charlotte’s Web? It seems to be missing. Maybe—”
Before she can continue, Sadie is standing in the door. “Charlotte’s Web,” Andrea repeats. “Do you know where it is?”
Sadie looks stricken. Or angry. Something’s clearly wrong. “I hid it,” she says.
“You hid it?”
“It’s confusing him. It’s making him think bad thoughts.”
“What do you mean? Please bring me the book. Where did you hide it?”
“I threw it away.”
“You threw it away? We don’t throw books away.”
“You’re confusing him. The book is confusing him. It’s all about dying. He doesn’t understand make-believe.” She sounds like Kyle, questioning her parenting decisions, putting her in her place. Is this her new life in sunny Arizona? Is this how it will be from now on?
“Sadie, you can’t—” but before she can complete the sentence Sadie turns and walks away. From down the hall, Andrea hears her mutter Stupid bitch! and slams her bedroom door.
Andrea doesn’t know what to do. Should she go after her? Should she leave her be for now and talk to her when she’s cooled off? Then it occurs to her: Kyle is sitting in his study nook at the end of the hall. He had to have heard everything. He’s allowing Sadie to talk to her like that. She feels as if she’s been slapped.
She sets about removing Max’s shoes, a bit roughly in her anguish, in her distress.
“I’m sorry,” she says, rubbing his small feet to smooth away the pain. And then, “Let me see your hand again.” He holds it out. He doesn’t need to be told which one. It’s a perfect child’s hand, smooth and soft, the palm unmarked by age or wear. Also unmarked, thank goodness, by a spider bite. When she’s done looking at it, she grabs a book off the shelf, a random pick, but before she can begin to read, he turns his hand over, says, “Look, it’s a spider,” and creeps his fingers up her arm.