by Terry Hargrove
On October 31, 1989, I was teaching my 8th-grade reading class a good and simple lesson.
“In your writing, try to avoid absolutes,” I said. “Don’t use words such as always, never, and impossible. It’s much better to say something is highly improbable.” Then I sat back, smiled, and let the wisdom I had imparted settle upon their impressionable minds.
“But some things are impossible,” said Dan, who hadn’t said anything else all year. I was prepared for this.
“Dan, the Guinness Book of World Records lists a guy who ate a tree! Piece by piece, he ate the whole thing. He also ate a bicycle.”
“Was he French?” asked Dan. “If he was, it doesn’t count. They’ll eat anything.”
“Remind me to talk later about stereotypes,” I said. “The point is, most people would say it’s impossible to eat a tree or a bike, but he did it. The Guinness folks were so impressed, they no longer accept such gastro-adventures for consideration. Nothing is impossible.”
“I don’t agree,” countered Dan. “Was the bike a ten-speed?” Can he eat a tree in one sitting? Did he use salad dressing?”
“Ten-speed?” I asked. “What’s that got to do with it?”
But Dan ignored me. There was a lot of chop in the educational waters that day because he was soon joined by a chorus of agreement, but I didn’t break. I bent until it hurt, but I didn’t break.
“Nothing’s impossible,” I shouted. “Now… shut up and do some grammar!”
That night, we placed a bucket of candy on the front porch, a futile gesture since we were so far in the country no trick-or-treaters ever came by, and the coyotes preferred our garbage. I remember that it was hot that night, this was Tennessee after all, so I turned on the air conditioner. The cool air that rose from the vents brought with it the stench of death.
I checked the mouse traps. Our house was bordered on three sides by a cornfield, and mice would occasionally risk some variety to their diet. Bold they were, for we had three cats, Tabby Hunter, MCKC (multi-colored kitty cat) and the Other Cat. The Other Cat was a giant black tom who appeared one day and wouldn’t leave. He wouldn’t let us pet him, but he kept the skunks away so we gave him food and water. But he never came inside and I hadn’t seen him that week.
The traps were all empty so I took a flashlight and went outside. Nothing was in the yard or beside the road, so I removed the metal door from our cinder block foundation and peered into the darkness under our house. There he was, as far from me as possible, lying on his back with his four feet straight up in the air. The Other Cat had died.
“Poor thing,” said my wife, who had come up behind me silently.
“Yes, poor thing,” I agreed. “How long do you think it will take before he degrades? I mean, before we won’t smell him anymore?”
“What are you talking about?” she said. “You’re going to have to crawl under there and get him.”
“No,” I said. Between the opening and the Other Cat, over a span of 80 feet, was a ghastly Kingdom of Spiders. I could see their nasty webs hanging from the bottom of the floor, some as thick as barge ropes. I also knew that somewhere in there was the loathsome Spider Queen with whom I had waged a lifelong battle. I often greeted her ambassadors with broom and boot. Spiders don’t forget things like that.
“You aren’t going to bring up that silly Spider Queen idea, are you?” asked my wife. She never understood Nature. “Because if you’re afraid, I’ll go get him.”
I let her. She was only four feet into the blackness when the screaming began. I grabbed her ankles and pulled her out.
“Release her, vile fiend!” I screamed, but it wasn’t the Spider Queen. It was a snake skin, caught on my wife’s watch. She has this thing about snakes. You know how girls are.
That was when I had my moment. A man seldom gets the opportunity to find out how brave he is. It was time to face my fear. I was going in after the Other Cat. I was going to be brave, that was settled, but I didn’t want to be foolish, so I girded myself for war.
First, two pairs of pants, three shirts and a sweater. Next, I donned hip waders, a winter coat, my fleece toboggan and elbow-length industrial strength welders gloves. I had a rake in one hand and a flashlight in the other. Welder’s goggles to protect the eyes and I was all set. A spider would need to be huge indeed to get a fang into my flesh. I was ready. I could barely move, but I was ready.
Ten minutes later, I had crawled almost the entire distance. The rake had been an effective weapon against the spiders. I’d taken out one that was about as big as a catcher’s mitt, and the rest had retreated. But I was getting angry, and I had good reason. I was crawling on the bones of my home’s foundation, in the dark on Halloween night, hot, tired, trapped in some horrible Edgar Allan Poe story with a dead black cat that never liked me anyway. I began to curse. When I was close enough, I lifted the rake and it hovered just above the Other Cat’s body, about to drop. What I didn’t realize was that I was directly under the main bathroom of the house. The very instant the rake touched the cat, my wife flushed the toilet that was just above my head.
If there is an Olympic event for scooting backwards on fingers and toes, I want in. I covered 40 feet in less than three seconds. The sound was so loud and near that it took several seconds for me to realize what had happened. I returned to the body, placed my rake over it, and retreated with the Other Cat. The spiders laughed and laughed.
When I was out, I placed The Other Cat in a garbage bag and walked through the back cornfield toward the railroad tracks that ran behind our house. After a quick two-word benediction (“Jesus Christ!”), I swung the garbage bag over the tracks and into the trees beyond them.
As I made the trek back to the house, I was chuckling at how stupid I’d been. Spider Queen? What was I thinking? And then it hit me. A rogue idea that just came from nowhere.
What would I do if something in those trees threw that dead cat back at me?
What a strange thought. It was, of course, ridiculous. It was, let’s face it, impossible. But hadn’t I said, that very day… and I was running, running as hard as I had ever run before. Ears of corn ready for the reaper pummeled me, but I didn’t mind because they were in front. What was behind? What was so very close behind me? I hurtled into the house with such force I tore the screen door off its hinges. My wife lost her grip on a huge Tupperware bowl of pop corn that made a blizzard in our kitchen.
“What is wrong with you?” she demanded.
“Something!” I replied, rather pathetically. “I have to lock the door.”
I have tried many times since to understand why I ran. I wasn’t a child, after all, I was a grown man. But that didn’t matter that night. It’s really very simple. It was the dark that scared me. The same dark that hid under my bed when I was a child. The dark that lurked in my parent’s closet and under my grandparents‘ staircase.. The awesome dark that rested between the stars had reached down that Halloween night to tap me on the shoulder just to see if I would still jump.
And I did. And I do.