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Harriet Moves

by Susan Heeger

One of the first things Pete did when he moved out of his mother’s house was to get himself a tarantula. Driving all the way to Reseda in his Malibu, he found the hole-in-the-wall called Wild West Pets that he’d read about on the Internet. He spent an hour shuffling past terrariums with muggy contents, their labels missing or curled up and faded white. Occasionally he used the flashlight on his phone to clarify what he was seeing–mostly a lot of pets he’d had before: that one-trick pony, the Madagascar hissing cockroach; the slightly sexier giant millipede, which squirted black goo when upset; a tangle of milk snakes who eyed him irritably through the glass. A heavy salesgirl in a smock appeared to help. Everything in the store, she said, was half-price. “Your lucky day. Liquidation sale. Woo-woo. Moving to Coalinga.”

Something careless in her voice implied a lie. But there was nothing suspect about the spider she showed him, a large Chilean Rose-hair poised in a forest of plastic palm trees and ferns that would thrive in the darkness the spider liked. Pete, who’d done his research, admired the tank’s hollow driftwood log, coconut coir carpet, the bottle cap in a corner that served as water dish. Everything indicated care. “I’ll take the whole kit and kaboodle,” he said recklessly, as a wide road of possibility he’d never felt before opened up in him. Harriet, he thought, adding a book called Tarantula Husbandry and a box of live crickets at the register.

That night, he hurried home from work to find Harriet in the same pose he’d left her in beside the log, one hairy leg lifted, as if debating the advisability of motion. “You’re upset,” he said. “Sure. That car trip. The new place. I hear you.” He had the tank on a table by his couch, also his bed in this furnished room above a Hollywood garage, the one apartment he could afford. After his mother’s house with its scoured surfaces and china dogs, their constant bickering–about his smoking, his tats, his creepy pets–and why wasn’t he in school?–he could relax here, maybe finally have a girlfriend. He still went outside to smoke, since tobacco was toxic to tarantulas. Healthy, they could live 30 years, he told Harriet, dropping a few crickets on the coir.

The next night, he removed the crickets calmly, knowing that Chilean Roses might not eat for months and he should wait two weeks and try again. Meanwhile, though the book advised against “handling these fragile creatures—for their sake more than yours,” he ventured to stroke her back after washing up. The spider didn’t budge. Studying it closely, he noticed something alarming. At the ends of its two front “feeler” legs were the swollen bulbs or “boxing gloves” found on males that he’d read about in his book. Mature males, the book said, are “doomed to die, usually within months,” because their whole lives were focused on “wandering in search of females.” Fuck, said Pete, letting his breath out slowly. That was the night the spider started to move around, though never in front of Pete. Mornings, it’d be curled up in the log, or hanging upside down from the tank’s mesh top. It fell and lost a leg. Pete called the Wild West number and got a disconnected message. He offered crickets a second and then a third time, waking to their sleepy chirps to find Harriet upended. It had barely been two months. Pete lay on his couch smoking, unable to go to work, even to call in, paralyzed by feelings of ineptitude. After a week he threw out the tank. Still in mourning, he got a tattoo of a tarantula from his buddy Juan. There, in the dim room, as Juan worked the drill, the girl beside him got an iguana on her thigh. Later, Juan inked Chloe across Pete’s heart.      

About Susan Heeger

Susan Heeger has published fiction in Tin House Open Bar, Pinball, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping, and Brain, Child. “Harriet Moves” is part of her story collection, Animals Like Us, a work-in-progress in which animals help humans solve problems, fall in love, improve their characters, and find peace.                             

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