The Spider Coliseum

When I was in the seventh grade I walked to school, even though the bus stopped right by my house. It was an embarrassment to take the bus back then. Dweebs took the bus, everyone knew that. We lived in Portland, where it rained all the time, so shunning the bus was ridiculous, as ridiculous as the kids I see now in my mountain home walking through the freezing air in t-shirts. 

Photo: Joel Tonyan 

Walking to school got us there at various times, and because our teachers would keep the building locked until 8:35, we’d all have to stand outside, wet and cold much of the time. But it was worth it, because my friends were on different bus routes, and we had different home room classes with different teachers, so we never saw each other, except for a few minutes during recess. 

Showing up early was our coffee break.

We’d stand out in the drizzle, with our hands jammed deep into our coat pockets, our backpacks mounted high and nerdy on our backs. We wore corduroys and Toughskins and crappy no-name sneakers, or worse: leather shoes from Buster Brown. We talked about the X-men or ColecoVision or Star Wars figures. Usually, we’d just shiver together under a western red cedar and side glance at the girls, who usually gathered themselves under the eaves of another building just across the way.

At some point, some kid, I can’t remember who, noticed a huge spider in a shabby web, who had set up shop in hedge that ran alongside the school building. Its hugeness became more interesting than the girls who were ignoring us. We practiced profane ways of expressing our incredulity, until this kid named Peter pushed passed us with a long stick. We told him to quit it, until we saw that the stick had a spider spinning from the end of it like a fishing lure. Peter leaned in with the stick and gently lowered it into the spider’s web.

When the spider’s flailing legs plucked the first filaments of its new web, the whole thing shook as the resident spider lumbered across the strands and attacked. This resident spider outweighed the one Peter dropped in, but their tiny contest carried all the weight of blood sport. Each spider reared up, and they crashed into each other, grappling and boxing like Ray Harryhausen monsters

But, like a jujitsu match, the bout was over before we could even think about it. The resident spider had broken the grapple and lunged. Somewhere in the flailing, the smaller spider had been bitten, and the resident spider began securing it with thread of its own. We looked at each other in horror and then delight. We stood abruptly when one of math teachers shouted, “Boys, the building is open. Don’t be late.”

At the time, I thought this was pretty much the greatest thing that I’d ever been part of. In the great wasteland that was Saturday broadcast television, kids of my age had all watched their share of Mutual of Ohmaha’s Wild Kingdom. We had a technical knowledge of the predator/prey relationship because of this, but very little experience with real life and death, except for the occasional mouse or birdicide, pet death, or old relative passing. 

Our arachnid cock fight tapped us into something primal, at a point in our lives when we hadn’t had much opportunity to connect into the deep structures of humanity. It didn’t take more than a taste to hook those shaggy headed turtleneck wearing boys from the late 70s. 

The next day we reconvened at the bush to check on the spider. A kid named Wolfie Mains suggested we name him Boris. 

Wolfie was cool. He had a single mom, not divorced: single. He didn’t have a television in his house, and he was the first kid I knew who’d ever read The Silmarillion. So, Boris it was. 

In the corner of the web was a tiny little Q-tip lashed into place. We didn’t know if Boris had dined or not, and no one was brave enough to check. But we did want to see Boris fight again. We beat the bushes, looking for other spiders but couldn’t find any. The girls across the way had taken a chiding interest in our activities, and just as we were ready to give up our search, this kid named Brian came late and went straight to the coliseum with his hands deep in the big front pockets of his coat. 

“Hey, guys,” he called. “Check it out.” He pulled his hands from the coat and held up a little Gerber baby food jar. We didn’t have to see inside it to know what it was. We crowded around his jar, which contained a humongous tan, brown, and gray striped spider, who was scurrying furiously around the inside of the tiny prison.

“Put him in the web, Brian,” we shouted as if there was any other possible outcome. Brian called us all freaking idiots and told us to get out of the way. He gripped the jar to open it but hesitated. “Come on,” we shouted. “Put him in. Put him in.”

Brian got a worried look on this face and he said, “What if he runs up my arm?”

“Shake him out,” somebody said.

Brian looked like he was going to cry. “You do it,” he said, handing the jar to Peter, the kid from yesterday, who looked at the terrible thrashing spider inside and handed it to Wolfie, saying, “I’m not gonna do it. You do it.” 

Wolfie took the jar and held it to the sun. “That’s a big spider,” Wolfie said, then without a moment’s hesitation, he opened the jar, and as he turned it over, the spider shot out sideways and hung for a moment on its invisible line, then lowered itself jerkily a few inches. Wolfie kept his cool and shook the jar once into Boris’s web.

Then, as before, the web shook, once. After a moment of stillness, the vibrations grew and grew, following one another. The new spider circled as Boris rushed in, like he was sizing up his opponent. He moved laterally with gear-like mechanical precision. The two spiders continued to circle, testing the web, tapping the other one’s legs tentatively, for minutes. We could barely stand it.

Some of us were pulling for Boris, some for the new guy. We shouted at the arachnids like little men with money on the line. A few of the girls had drifted over to see what was happening. Most of them called us horrible, horrible boys when they figured out what we were up to. A few stayed. A few chose sides. 

But the spiders never engaged. They kept posturing and bluffing until the math teacher eventually called us into the building, and we reluctantly peeled away and went to classes. 

All day, when we passed in the hall, we wondered what had happened. We could not check at lunch because recess was held in the lower playground, and we left through the north doors, on the opposite side of the building from the spider coliseum. The waiting was at once horrible to endure and also sublime in how it built the tension. Over the course of the day, it felt as if our bodies had been remade out of wire.  

After school we ran to the bush and leaned in. Boris was gone, another lump of thread had been hung in the rigging. The new spider was roosting in the center of the web, which appeared to be in good repair. One of the girls suggested the name Tigger because of the stripes. We all told her it was a stupid name but could think of none better, and so it stood.

The next day we were there earlier than normal. Three kids had spiders of their own. None of them seemed a match for Tigger, so they were sent off to other bushes. A girl named Elizabeth, whose dad owned a Pepsi distributor showed up. She pulled a cottage cheese container out of her back pack and said, “This is Benatar.”

“Let’s see him,” we said.

“It’s a she,” Elizabeth said, “That’s why I call her Benatar, you dummies.”

We asked how she knew it was a girl spider. She said, “Because it’s a black widow.” 

“Bull crap,” we said.

She pulled off the lid and dumped it into Tigger’s web. Benatar was huge, but it wasn’t a black widow, and we told Elizabeth that black widows are red and black. This spider was brown.

Elizabeth stared at us for a long time and said, “Who cares. She’s huge.”

It’s true, this was the biggest spider any of us had ever seen that wasn’t on TV. Wolfie said we should call her Shelob, a comment I wouldn’t understand for another year. The two spiders went into their excruciating dance, like yesterday. They froze on the plane of Tigger’s web, their front legs occasionally picking at the strands, but aside from that they did nothing. The math teacher came and called us in. This time we didn’t move. We blocked him out. The spiders did nothing. “Kids,” he called out. “School’s going to begin.”

Eventually he came out of the building and stood behind us as we were rooting. We could feel him standing above us.

“My god,” the teacher said. “What in the world are you kids doing?”

“Come on Benatar. Kill the bastard,” a kid named Porter screamed out. “And Mr. Porter,” the math teacher said,  “you’re headed for the office.”

After school we gathered at the coliseum. The spiders were gone. The web obliterated. A few of the kids talked about getting more spiders. Mostly we all seemed bored by the idea, perhaps ashamed to be horrible little boys. Isn’t that how it goes with kids? What begins with absolute intensity, soon sogs out into indifference, and dissolves into boredom.

Once it got colder, we started taking the bus, because even though it was for dweebs, it was warm and comforatble in there, even for former barbarians.