for my grandmother
We warned Joe not to go knocking on her door. “You gon’ getchoself stuck,” we told him. “Just stay out here and play with us.”
He wouldn’t listen. It was too late, anyway. His nostrils were far too wide, his curiosity far too piqued. “Aww, come on, it can’t be that bad. I’m just gon’ introduce myself.”
They called her Spider Lady. She lived at the end of the block—a dead end where only trouble makers and trouble seekers go—in a floor-level apartment with purple and green curtains. Yes, she wanted everyone to know where she lived.
She was a fourth-generation Barbour girl, and she had all the deadly Barbour girl features. That cornbread skin with those cornbread hips. The womanly figure with those tomboy ways, too butch for the debutante ball but not enough for the ball game. Freckles and a head of wild, nappy hair to match her wild, nappy nature. She had a smell, too, a distinguished aroma, one that carried a feeling rather than a scent. They called it her nectar; it worked like honey for men but like vinegar for ladies, leaving her isolated in a space between the whores and the “rightly” women. She wasn’t as pretty as she was striking. There was a disturbing sexiness in her plainness. Women painted their faces and adorned their bodies to catch glances and ogles, but she circumvented it all and still got what she wanted.
“Venom,” they would say.
She knew these names and she embraced them, always with a sly smile painted on her face, no matter how bad she hurt—that is, if she could actually feel.
When he knocked on the door, she was already standing in the doorway, her arm perched up, showing off the curved lines of that hourglass.
“Afternoon, ma’am. I’m—”
“I know who you are. Come on in.”
She was just like her mother, and her mother’s mother, and all the Barbour girls before her. They all carried the same last name because none of the men ever stayed long enough to get on the birth certificate. They were a cursed bunch. Their gifts of unconventional beauty were stagnant, painful reminders of what could never be, like the wanderlust hamster running on its wheel.
I take pity on that Spider Lady. It’s not her fault, really.
As the story goes, the curse began over a century ago with a distant matriarch down in the glades. The original Barbour girl, a hot little thing named Eloise. Her mother was an African, straight from the bush. A statuesque beauty with rich cocoa skin they called Ebony. Those white men couldn’t get enough of her. While her sisters cried and resisted their advances, Ebony welcomed them with batted eyelashes and outstretched arms, sometimes selecting which one would have the pleasure of keeping her company for the evening. She saw her body as a fair exchange for extra meals and a smaller workload, even after her daughter was born fatherless and her insides had withered away on account of some white man’s private-parts’ disease. But there was still little Eloise, with her mother’s sin imprinted on her person, hot and feral like a cat.
And she knew she was hot, too. She knew it when those strong Haitian men sailed into town toting heavy sacks of sugar cane and bananas, their tired bodies in search of something that would take the sting out, something that wouldn’t put up a fight or hold up its nose or make them meet her daddy first. Eloise ain’t had no pestering daddy, no in-yo-bidness momma, and she smelled too strong to be lady. So she stood at the edge of the water and lifted her arms, fit to fill the empty spaces of her exile, and let the Haitian bodies collect at her feet with no regard for whom they belonged to.
But she crossed the wrong body. One, a hazel-eyed fella, had been claimed by Lady Bishop, a powerful witch doctor known over the glades for her healings and her hexes.
Like me, Lady Bishop wasn’t particularly pretty. She had beady little eyes, a stout neck, and broad shoulders that even her powers couldn’t save. But she knew the boundaries of her league, like most women do. Women like us learn to accept ourselves, our disproportionate bodies, our charmlessness, our lukewarmth. In turn, we adjust our attractions to less-than men and accept them for their protruding bellies and lazy eyes. However, if given the chance with a six-foot hazel-eyed Adonis beyond our homely means, we would be at our feet in an instant. And when these chances do, in fact, materialize, then we sink our teeth in as deep as they can go and let the blood run down our faces like ravenous beasts. Any hot-in-the-drawers cornbread girl that poses a threat must be eliminated.
So when Lady Bishop saw Eloise slow-grinding with Hazel-Eyes at the jook joint, the beast came forward. The warm Cornbread Girl had melted down and sopped up all of that which belonged to Lady Bishop. The instant she averted her eyes, he and Eloise were gone, only to be found outside in the bushes half an hour later in a heap of sweat, skin, and short breaths.
Lady Bishop hurried home and went to work.
The next morning, Eloise awoke to a hangover and a headless rat hanging over her cornhusk bed. A note tied to his paw read: I DONE FIXED YOU GOOD.
A curse of unrequited love was bestowed upon Eloise and all her descendants. From then on, any love she gave would never be reciprocated and any love received, she could never match. She would always hook herself to the wrong men—drifters, hustlers, adulterers, numbers runners—convincing herself that they were star-crossed outcasts and her beauty could surmount their tough exterior. Any man who offered a safe way out, who garnered affection and sensitivity, would curdle in her stomach like spoiled milk and cause her to flee. This cycle of vanity and masochism would continue for the rest of her life, after her beauty faded and her mid-section grew as wide as her hips. Lonely and vulnerable, always in search of the next body to fill that void, always with a sly smile painted across her face.
And we told Joe not to go knocking on that Barbour girl’s door.
See, he was a soft guy, and she liked that. She had had her share of hard men, the ones who fucked her rough, who never kissed her, who turned their backs to her when she slept. This time she craved comfort. She turned up the lights behind her purple and green curtains and waited, quietly waited.
So when he knocked on her door, it was no surprise she was standing there eagerly. It was no surprise that he stayed for hours while we bathed outside in our lukewarmth, our eyes constantly darting between the porch and the road. He was soft, a simple man, but more importantly, he was curious. Our lackluster couldn’t keep him entertained long enough, I suppose.
It was also no surprise when Joe slumped back up the road about a month later, stressed, penniless, eyes bloodshot red, looking like something the cat dug up and played with till it got too ugly to enjoy. Like a bug that got caught up in a web and had all its juices sucked out. Now it’s out trying to fend for itself in the streets. All the soft ones came back down the road looking like that.
“Spider Lady musta got him,” they would say.
See, she moved in waves he didn’t know about. The doting and caressing would last for a set period of time in which she reveled in her saintlihood. It made her feel good to finally be doing something right, for once. The hot meals that awaited him after work, the freshly-scrubbed-with-vinegar-and-lemon-peel floors, the forehead kisses, and the long mornings where it felt too natural in each other’s arms to get out of bed. Her love was infectious, it was so good. He could sit with her head nestled on his chest and just inhale her scent for hours. It made him feel righteous and validated.
“You sho is something else,” he would whisper to her. “But whatever you is, you’se all mine.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt such passion. But for her, it would do, for now.
Had he known the day would come when his tricks would make her roll her eyes, when his advances would be greeted with a stiffened back, when her impotence would grip him in the middle of the night and drive him mad, maybe he would have left sooner. He shucked and jived as best he could but her smiles were lifeless. They came from the lips, not from the heart. His nose had been so open that he hadn’t noticed her left eye and how it wandered, how memories of neck grips and gritted teeth and smacks across her backside danced amongst the eyelashes, while the right eye looked at him with pity. In the midst of a calm lake, she longed for rocky, white waters.
She was cursed, after all. We tried to tell him.
As he sauntered back up that road and dragged his turned-over shoes up our porch steps, I put down my mint julep and looked him square in his bloodshot eyes.
“Didja have any fun?”
He offered me a weak look as I tried my hardest not to smile. “You come sit up here with us, now. You know you always got a place up here wit us.”
“I know,” Joe said. “I know.”