The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 3, Number 4, Pages 2-6
R. B. Smith is a Professor of English at Eastern Washington University. This is the third of his stories on Mineral, Washington, to appear in the Forum.
I don't know what it was that set me off. Maybe it was a backfiring car in the street. I could have been almost anything; you know how the memory is. Whatever it was, I saw Spider Londerman again, as I had years before, banging the screen door behind him on his back porch, coming out to the steps with his shotgun, blasting a tin can in his back yard. That's the kind of small town we lived in-the sort of small town in the depression years where you could fire a shotgun in your back yard and not get arrested or even noticed particularly. Anyway, there he was, swimming around in the memory, as worthless an old ruffian as you would care to meet. He wore bib overalls over his longjohns winter and summer, chewed tobacco, made his own wine and whiskey, drank same in large quantities, lied, stole, and cheated at cards. He didn't do any of those things well. People used to say that just looking at a glass of his whiskey would give you a three day headache. He had a long suffering wife, a son and a daughter; but the only creature who was really fond of him was a nearly grown police dog.
That was some mutt. He seemed to think his mission in life was to terrorize people and, although the breed is fastidious, this dog was very untidy in his habits. There were dog messes all over Spider's yard. He used to fall down in it when he came home drunk. Not that the dog was particularly annoying, considering other things. Spider also kept chickens in his yard and they didn't try to be neighborly either. Spider would not have understood modern suburbia at all.
As for his competence, there is little more to say. One snowy night he and one of his temporary cronies stole some chickens from a neighbor, left some plainly visible tracks in the snow right up to his own back door, made enough noise to wake anybody at all, including our town marshall, and were apprehended frying chickens before they even had a chance to get any grease on their chins.
He tried his stupid and accidental best to ruin his daughter's life, mostly by keeping her locked up "for her own good." One spring she ran off with what was considered the lowest form of humanity in 1934 - a professional soldier. It is true that he got her pregnant and that they had to get married, but he turned out to be a good catch and so far as I know they lived happily together. Her husband's first act was to get himself transferred to North Carolina. He had never been there before; he just wanted to get away from Spider. Spider's son Bernie was one of the nicest guys I ever met. How that man's children managed to turn out so well is something to think about.
Spider used to drive to Morton, the neighboring town, in his Model-A Ford to sell a little moonshine. He would have a jug of wine with him and that crummy police dog would be in the back seat. The state police knew all about Spider and they were just itching to catch him out in some violation. Spider wasn't cunning, far from it. He was one of the worst drivers in the world, drunk or sober, and his progress in that Model-A Ford was mostly one long moving violation. He had been in more ditches than highways, but somehow he always managed to commit his offenses in such a way that there were no witnesses with badges. It should have been easy for a rookie policeman to catch Spider Londerman criminally drunk with the half emptied evidence right there on the car seat, but apparently it wasn't.
You wouldn't think a man of his competence would meddle, but he did. He could just barely read. As late as 1939 he was under the impression that the Republicans were still in office. Nevertheless he used to go to the P.T.A. meetings, fall asleep, farting from time to time, and near the end of the meeting, sniggering away, he would offer some loud advice about an issue that had been dealt with early on. He attended the meetings because he knew that he wasn't at all welcome. Spider had distinguished himself on the day that Toughy Sooter was presumed murdered most foully by Mrs. Sooter. He was among the noisiest who suggested that they had known all along that the Sooter marriage would come to a violent end. He was really enjoying himself until he had to face the wrath of Aggie Sooter who wasn't afraid of anything at all, much less Spider Londerman.
Another time he horned in on the Hermann Flett, Floyd Harrison affair. Floyd and Hermann had a perfect set up for a while. They lived in a shack down by the edge of town and made a living by cutting and delivering cord wood. They would go out almost daily, cut a cord of wood, load it on the truck and deliver it, taking their eight dollars in payment or kind. That was about all they needed because they lived for drink, food, and an occasional new shirt in about that order. They got along splendidly. All that changed after they made one of their periodic trips to the big city of Tacoma and came back with a woman who was apparently no better than she should be. She seemed decadently glamorous to us kids because she wore a green felt hat that had been displayed that year on the cover of the Sears Roebuck catalogue. She looked very experienced and, as a matter of fact, she must have been because Floyd and Hermann were sharing her the same as they shared everything else. Things were never the same for Floyd and Hermann after that. They had their troubles over that woman anyway, but Spider certainly didn't help much by gleefully telling the woman in private that both men had a social disease. He lived through that one only because the woman had the good sense not to tell Floyd and Hermann who had been slandering them.
That was bad enough, I suppose, but the worst thing of all the wrong things Spider ever did was to meddle in the Bobby Michaelson trouble. We kids messed that one up pretty well ourselves; we didn't need Spider's help. Bobby was kind of hard to believe then, and would be more so now. He looked and acted like Sunny Jim, the boy on the peanut butter jar. He was a new kid in town and we met him for the first time one day as we were about to go swimming. One of the places to swim in Mineral was in the lake near the log boom that served the mill. There was a small boathouse that jutted out into the lake, and there was a trail that led right to it from main street. We had a standard procedure when we went swimming. The trick was to gallop down the trail, discarding clothes on the run, and dive off the end of the boathouse without checking for driftwood first. Frequently, there would be a large collection of driftwood all around the area, and the thing then was to select a space between logs in mid air and slip our skinny bodies neatly through it. A new kid was never told any of this, of course, and the afternoon we met Bobby for the first time, he passed the initial test exceptionally well. He went right off the end of the boathouse at the dead run, saw that there were several snags and old boards in his way, writhed his body in mid air like some sort of gunshot grouse, and swished his body safely into the water. We were impressed.
Afterwards, though, we discovered that he couldn't swear. That's right. He couldn't swear. It wasn't that he knew how and chose not to; he had simply never heard a swear word in his whole life. His folks really looked after him. We were astounded. Naturally, we taught him how. Nothing grand, just the words we knew like hell, screw, and goddamit. What we didn't tell him was that he was swearing. We let on that those were just ordinary words he could use anywhere he wanted to.
At Sunday school there was a kind of scoreboard. Our attendance was carefully noted and gold stars were awarded for that and other virtues. Bobby had not been in town long before he had a great many more gold stars than any of the rest of us. Not that we lusted after gold stars all that much. It was just that he made things tough for us because he was often pointed to as a model of behavior. The truth is that we went to the Bible sessions mostly because we were forced to and partly because many of the prettiest girls were there and we could make eyes at them from behind a perfect screen of protective coloration. But Bobby took his religion seriously. He prayed, very sincerely, for people who really needed it like Spider Londerman. You can imagine how that went down with Spider. Bobby's religion must have been a grand thing, really. There are people who see history as a pleasant green meadow where George Washington shakes hands with Lincoln. For a time I myself lived for weeks in the world of Treasure Island, and Bobby's religion was like that. He was living almost literally in the garden before the fall. He used to get this ecstatic look on his face when the hymms were being sung, and it wasn't put on either. Bobby's disgrace happened right in the middle of a scripture lesson in church. Mrs. Sievert was there, helping reverend Swann. Preacher Swann had been a clerk in a grocery store before he got religion and his feet hurt all the time. He was a nice man, but his physical infirmities gave him a kind of pinched look, and he had other problems. He had been trying for a long time to save Spider Londerman without any luck. His sermons tended to run to the big thunder items from the Old Testament while at the same time he didn't seem to have his mind fully on his work. On this occasion he was reading from Jeremiah in an abstracted sort of way.
They have belied the Lord, and said, it is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword or famine.
Bobby was sitting right behind Amada Sooter and he was off in his garden as usual.
"Oh, yes, Lord, goddammit, yes."
Amanda didn't pay any attention at first, and reverend Swann droned on.
Wherefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, because ye speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and the people wood, and it shall devour them.
"Oh, goddammit to hell, yes, Lord, yea!" was Bobby's antiphonal response. Amanda heard him just fine that time and she stiffened with a gasp as if somebody had slipped a sherbert down her neck. Mrs. Sievert, ever alert, demanded an immediate explanation and I didn't blame her because Amanda looked guilty as hell. She held out for a long time but Mrs. Sievert finally got a report out of her, but she didn't believe a word of it at first.
"Not Bobby; not that lamb of Jesus!" she shrieked. But Bobby came to the rescue. He was no fool, just ignorant. He had noticed the suppressed giggles and the shocked response of Amanda, Mrs. Sievert, and Reverend Swann.
The scales had dropped from his eyes as they say. The whole thing probably would have blown over. Mrs. Sievert and Reverend Swann were inclined to hush the whole thing up once they understood the situation. But the very next day somebody told Spider Londerman. He wouldn't show up in church, but he could get a forum at the next P.T.A. meeting, and that's what he did. He insisted that the whole thing get a complete airing. It was really something to hear that foul mouthed old sinner with tears in his eyes complaining about the blasphemy in church. He worked himself up into a real state and my father reported that he had never seen a man enjoy himself more. The effect of that was to get compassionate attention for Bobby from the entire town, not the sort of thing Spider had in mind at all. But it was just as damaging as whatever medieval punishment Spider did have in mind. Evidently Bobby couldn't stand having that many people looking at him sympathetically for such a reason. Anyway it was plain that it had marked him. He didn't lose his religion but he did feel kicked out of the garden and, shortly after that, he acquired a stammer that never left him.
Now I realize what it was that made me think of Spider Londerman. It wasn't a backfiring car at all, at least not entirely. It was a news commentator I was listening to yesterday. He was talking about riots in the streets, our weakening moral fiber, and a lot of other things. He even used expressions like spiritual malaise. That set me to thinking about Spider Londerman. I wish I could report that he came to a bad end or at least that he had to pay in some degree for his ways. But I'm not a man who enjoys bending the truth. The last time I saw Spider he was alive and well. He never did anything right in his whole life, but he was one of the happiest men I ever met. I know it's unfair but there it is.