Cat-Face

This essay/memoir excerpt first appeared in Pithead Chapel. ~

My boss admitted she’d hired me for my personality. Past events had inspired her to change the job requirements from supreme artistic talent and extensive previous experience to humility and a passable portfolio of work. I’d recently relocated, traveling west 2,000 miles from a place dubbed Happy Valley nestled near my hometown in the rolling Alleghenies of central Pennsylvania, to support my boyfriend’s dog mushing dream. After dwelling for more than three weeks in various campsites of the Wasatch Mountain State Park, we found a mobile home to rent. I hadn’t held a job in two months and had accumulated, prior to that, approximately six months worth of professional graphic design experience. Though the ad in the newspaper mentioned nothing about humility, this secret requirement of Sue’s had propelled me to the top of the applicant list for the position of lone graphic designer at the largest real estate company in Park City, Utah. Skills can be learned through experience, she apparently knew firsthand. If personality posed the problem, less manageable issues tended to develop.

I had no cause to doubt Sue’s philosophy, which seemed to me like sage wisdom. I loved my new job, and working in Park City represented a glamorous change from our rural dwelling in the adjacent Heber Valley. I’d wake and shower each day at 6:00 a.m., then sit at the table in the wood-paneled kitchen accented by the Harvest Gold appliances native to our rented mobile home. As I ate my granola cereal, I’d gaze out the window toward the barnyard slated to become Nick’s sled dog kennel.

About two weeks into this routine, I emerged from the shower and glanced in the mirror over the sink to notice something in the reflection above my head. When I looked up, my heart nearly froze. Hanging from the ceiling, three inches from my scalp, was a glistening red spider the size of a plump grape. It had dagger-shaped legs, along with what looked to me like venomous fangs pointed straight at my head. I ran to Nick, who was sound asleep at 6:30 in the morning.

“Nick, wake up!” He didn’t budge. “Nick, there’s a really scary spider in the bathroom.” He groaned and rolled away from me. “Please!”

“What?”

“There’s a spider!”

“Well, get the jar . . .”

“No, it’s poisonous.”

“It isn’t poisonous. Jesus, I was asleep.” He grumbled as he walked to the spider jar in the kitchen then back to the bathroom where I directed him to the front of the mirror, and he stopped short. He stared at the spider in silence for a full thirty seconds.

“Get it!” I yelled. He jumped.

“O.K., O.K.,” he said, milder now, as he carefully positioned the jar under the monster. I couldn’t watch.

Later that day, Sue took me to my first open house, where I was forced to resurrect some latent acting skills with which to hide my child-like wonder. The houses handled by my new employer reflected the colossal mountains that surrounded them. Encompassing upwards of 8,000 square feet, these cavernous homes boasted sky-scraping ceilings, sunken wet bars, solid marble floors and backsplashes, eight-burner ranges, refrigerators and cellars just for wine, distressed wood everything, outdoor fireplaces on wraparound decks, and heated garages and driveways, to name a few of the common “amenities.” I’d never even heard of a great room and was so far outside of my architectural comfort zone that the only small talk I could conjure revolved around the Godzilla-sized spider that had almost attacked my head that morning. I was new to the area. I had every reason to ask the natives if such an event represented the norm and what else I should prepare myself to expect from the local fauna and flora.

“Oh, my god,” said the woman I’d questioned. “If I were you, I’d bomb the shit out of my house.”

“Really? Why?”

“It was probably a hobo or a brown recluse. You might have an infestation. Those things can kill you, or at least eat away your skin. I wouldn’t mess around with that.”

Eat away your skin? I couldn’t very well tell the woman who was selling the million-plus-dollar home that I lived in an un-insulated trailer under which I was positive dwelled an unthinkable variety of creepy crawlies, poisonous and/or otherwise; that there would be no point in bombing my house-sized cardboard shoe box because nothing would prevent new monsters from crawling leisurely in as they pleased; that heaven-knew-what else was already planning its invasion as we spoke.

“You should try this chipotle chicken,” Sue called from across the room, and a wave of nausea surged through me. The woman I’d been speaking to advised me to shake out my sweaters before putting them on because poisonous spiders liked to hide in sweaters. She put the fear of death and flesh-eating venom in me that day, and I never even got her name.

The spider episode planted a seed of perception that would take root in my mind over the next several months: Utah bore unsettling resemblance to a mirage. Golf course green lawns defied the laws of the desert in gorgeous aberration, while the acute edges, contrasting angles, and fiery hues of the landscape converged in a breathtaking oasis that veiled an underlying danger. Rather than existing in harmony with nature, living in Utah felt like fighting against the odds for survival. I’d seen where people built houses—right in the middle of the native brush. The kind that needs to burn to regenerate as part of its natural life cycle. Multi-million dollar homes sat in brush kindling just waiting to catch a spark from the sun and combust into raging, seed-flinging flames. I sometimes dreamed of those flames coming after me, inching down a non-existent hill toward our trailer. Each time I dreamed it, the ravenous flames reached closer.

The high desert summer sun could sear to a crisp anything that sat too long in its path. And the “good powder” winters people flocked to enjoy might just as easily swallow them up. Nick and I frequently awoke on winter mornings to explosions far off in the distance. These “triggers,” we learned, were timed to incite avalanches which were bound to occur on their own but which, on their own, had no sense of the skiers and snowboarders they might bury. One day, while working at the real estate company, I heard that a couple from New England had gone skiing and left their toddler at the ski-resort’s day-care center. Someone witnessed the parents wandering into the off-limits area on the slope; they later failed to collect their child.

Utah’s beauty ranked in the terrifying category to be respected in the same way a God-fearing Catholic respects his Maker, I could attest from my own Roman Catholic upbringing. Losing sight of the nature of your relationship with either force might land you in an avalanche or careening off an icy mountain roadway. Beyond treacherous landscape and weather conditions, the number of stories I’d heard of people with cancer caught up with my conscious awareness soon after moving to Utah. Sue had spoken of her sister’s battle with cancer, which resulted in multiple surgeries that had permanently altered her face. She later learned that her brother had cancer as well. In fact, most of the people I’d met in Utah had at least one close relative who had previously battled or was currently battling cancer. If the same were true back east, I’d somehow avoided awareness, and I wondered if this Utah cancer situation was as bleakly unusual as it seemed.

I saw more people with prosthetic limbs during my first few months in Utah than I’d seen in my entire previous life. Everything from sophisticated prosthetics that looked bionic and maybe did cost six million dollars to the wooden stump variety that replaced my neighbor Kelli’s leg from just below the knee joint cohabitated with their biological counterparts throughout Park City and surrounding areas. Neither Nick nor I had wanted to pry for information about Kelli’s leg, but one day, after joining she and Dan for a hearty meal of their famous meatloaf burgers, the conversation took a turn toward the hazards of driving to and from Park City in winter.

“It was black ice,” Kelli said. “We were going up Park City Mountain and slid out of control.”

“We both landed outside the Jeep.” Dan joined in. “One of the hubcaps flew off the tire and rolled through Kelli’s leg. Sliced it right off.”

“Dan died,” Kelli said. Nick and I looked at Dan to make sure we were still talking about the same Dan.

“What?” we said in unison.

“He died,” she repeated. “They did CPR to try and bring him back, and when I saw them put that sheet over his head, I started screaming. He could take my leg but he wasn’t taking Dan from me.” Was she talking about God?

“What happened?” Nick asked.

“He came back to life,” Kelli said, taking a hit from the bowl she’d been packing and passing it over to Nick.

“I just started breathing again,” Dan said.

Nick and I sat in silent shock. They’d been driving a Jeep Wrangler, much like the one Nick drove now, when the accident occurred.

We learned that Dan had hovered dangerously close to death’s doorway on several other occasions and, according to Kelli, he was now counting his lives. Apparently, he was up to number eight.

“We should ask them about that spider we saw in the trailer,” Nick said, reading my mind, and I launched into the story of my own potentially death defying experience. Dan and Kelli had lived in the trailer before Nick and I moved in. If anyone would know what kind of spider had almost attacked my head that day, we thought, they would. For the first time, Nick admitted that the spider had looked poisonous. “I wasn’t going to tell her that!” He pointed playfully toward me with his thumb. An image of the dangling spider flashed like a snapshot in my mind, and a tremor traversed my spine.

“It was probably a cat-face,” Dan said, and Kelli agreed. “They look poisonous but aren’t.”

They’d seen cat-face spiders in the trailer before, but never the really poisonous kind, they assured us as Nick and I said our goodbyes.

We walked down the moonlit road toward the trailer, and I gazed up at the midnight sky, which gaped over us like an open gullet. I wondered how far that sky extended into the unknown. Each breath of crisp, desert air frosted my lungs, and I glanced at Nick, who hung his head against the cold, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. I folded my arms across my chest and picked up the pace. I had not donned a sweater since speaking to the woman at the open house, though I had developed some new habits in response. Regardless of Dan and Kelli’s claim about the cat-face, I would continue to shake out my sweaters, bang my shoes upside down, and peer under blankets, pillows, and bed sheets every day, multiple times a day, in search of hidden monsters. I did not know what Utah had in store for me, but these small measures seemed useful as I now armed myself to prepare.

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