canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

On the Bridge

by Jason Markowsky

I didn’t actually follow her to the bridge but she was on to me in one way or another. I’d camped there every night in the hopes that she’d reappear, which Mr. Ears gleefully professed, was the next step towards stalking anyhow. Like me, she’d come to watch the spiders. There she was, crouched at the railing some distance along the pedway, pushing her glasses up her nose with neurotic frequency and getting closer to their webs than I ever could.

What impelled me to approach her was a six-foot-four cliché, squarely and monumentally carved. He was wearing a dark blazer with a pocketed yellow handkerchief he probably carried in the Hollywood chance that he came across a crying woman. When he sidled up and took her hand I bit my finger. He struck a dance pose—one arm outstretched, the other a Spanish curl above his head—and twirled her around several times. Then he left. He walked in my direction and as he got closer I saw that he was tall, yes, but spindly, his face pinched, and he was wearing a shabby raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was nothing yellow about him, only drab browns and greens. I began to suspect that he wouldn’t last; that he was just another fitful product of my defective brain. Sure enough, as he was about to pass he flickered into a watery chiaroscuro of heady whites and perforated blacks, became grotesquely misshapen, and then dissolved to the corrugated steel at my feet and waterfalled into the river. But not before I got a good look at him. He was as unattractive as I was, perhaps more so. I casually put my hands in my pants pockets, took a deep breath, and walked towards the woman. When I was still a good five metres from her, she looked up and asked if I was following her. I said no, but I thought yes and secretly touched myself.

There was a hint of disappointment in her eyes. She leaned back against one of the girders projecting up to the deck, where the rumbling of traffic was finally dwindling, and wrapped her arms around it. "But you are stalking me?"


"Yes you are," she said and pointed at me, as if making it so. "May I ask why? I’m not really the type to be stalked, you think?" She looked down at herself, striking her hair out of the way. She was wearing a grey pullover with a kangaroo pocket, light-blue stretch pants that stopped midway down her pale, mosquito-bitten calves, and sandals that didn’t quite conceal the plasters applied to the heels and tops of her feet. The pullover had a hood whose string hung past her breast on one side and disappeared into the hole on the other. The stretch pants had a run in them and something resembling a dead flower had been drawn on the left leg. She stretched out their sides, as if showing off a dress, and they snapped back with a terrific blow on her thighs.

No, I suppose she wasn’t the type but I wouldn’t know anyway: Despite Mr. Ears’s prodding I’d never come this far. I couldn’t even gauge if she was attractive under all her exterior chaos and I didn’t care. I wanted to smell her but I was expected to answer and I wasn’t coming up with anything.

She looked hard at me, pushing her glasses up her nose. "I’m sure I’ve seen you here before and I would hate for this to be a coincidence. Coincidences make me nervous. They make me think the world is shrinking or that we’re in re-runs or something. Are you a coincidence?"


"Good." She locked her hands together at her chest like a teacher getting down to business. "So why are you stalking me then? Do you find me attractive?"

I nodded.

"Are you trying to scare me? Because I don’t scare easily."

"I know."

"How do you know?"

"The spiders."

Her eyebrows shot up. "You come to look at them too?" She reached for my shoulder and I leapt back, shaking my head and arms violently. She hesitated for a few moments. The right half of her face—corner of mouth, cheek, then eyebrow—raised in an amused sneer, giving birth to a deep dimple near her nose, and she came at me again. "Yes, of course, you must be one of those. Well suck it up fella, it’s time for a little shock therapy." She seized my arm and steered me towards the railing and I fought like mad every urge to tear myself away. My arm became a piece of driftwood—lifeless, not a part of me anymore. It was the first time I’d been touched in months.

The spiders were spread along the entire length of the bridge, living side by side between the horizontal bars of the pedestrian railing like residents of a tenement block. The lamplight drew swarms of insects off the river into their webs, creating the perfect feeding conditions. Most of the spiders were impossibly big with thick bean-shaped abdomens and long steely legs that often moved very slowly and carefully.

The woman bent over and leaned in awfully close. "That one looks like it has something on it its back," she said. "Doesn’t it?" I wasn’t looking but I said, "Yes, yes it does." I was getting a little upset to tell the truth. This was not going exactly as I expected. When she lured the spider up her forefinger I shut my eyes so tight I saw colours. Mr. Ears was definitely in the vicinity; I could smell his matted fur. She let go of me, presumably to remove whatever had attached itself to the thing—most likely some harmless bit of fluff—and I lurched back and inhaled the first full, even breath I’d taken since she grabbed my arm. My eyes were still closed. There was some thoughtful sighing, as if she was detonating a bomb, and then she said, "There, it’s gone little fella. Back you go."

When I opened my eyes she was holding her finger up to my face. "It was the wing of a fly. See? Voracious little bugger." She blew it off (as if it were an eyelash) and pulled up her stretch pants. "Come on, scaredy-cat, I’ll show you a smaller one." She started towards the other end of the bridge and then I felt Mr. Ears’s heavy paw on my shoulder.

"I do love that expression: Scaredy-cat." He pushed me forward. "Move it along, Junior. The last woman you talked to was your pathetic mother."

"You don’t need to be here. I can handle this."

"The only thing you can handle is your soggy noodle and even then you need a fair bit of cajoling."

"I don’t."

"You do. Forward march, you’re losing her." He pushed me again and I started after her. I could hear him limping behind me. "This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, Junior. Feast your eyes on that posterior. I might be a dying dog and she might be a frumpish little frog, but she’s got an airtight wiggler and that’s the only thing that matters. Isn’t that correct?" There was a hollow popping sound—a displaced joint—and I heard him stumble and suck for air, but he recomposed himself quickly enough to nudge me forward. "I repeat: Isn’t that correct?"

"That’s correct."

"See the shape it inscribes when she walks? See how her hips swivel? That’s the mathematical sign for infinity right there. Can you see it?" He reached his paw over my shoulder—black blood, like oil, smeared along the jagged gash up his leg—and drew it in the air:




It shimmied and floated out in front of us like a beacon before it pulled away and met with her figure itself, framing the part in question like a stencil and then disappearing in her curves. I reached into my pocket and squeezed. I was flaccid but the impulse was still somehow physically present, as always, in the impassable gap between my mind and body.

"It’s high time you acquire some of that, Junior."

She turned around and was saying something but I wasn’t listening. Mr. Ears was sniffing the air around her, his blood-soaked fur gleaming in the light of the bridge. His eye was getting worse. It was saturated with blood and the tissue around it had atrophied, revealing shiny patches of bone, which I thought, in a skeletally polished and sturdy way, was the strongest- and healthiest-looking thing about him. He was also losing great clumps of fur on his neck and back. He might have still behaved like a spirited soldier but I wasn’t sure how much longer he’d last.

"You do what’s necessary, Junior, but be quick. That is, if you think you’re capable."

I was capable. I was. The woman was crouched at the railing now. "These one’s are just babies," she said. Mr. Ears rolled his eyes and sat down.

I didn’t look at the spiders. I looked up and down the bridge. There was no one in sight except for Mr Ears, who was peering up at me expectantly as he licked the scabrous sores on his belly. The sparse traffic reverberated over our heads. The hour was probably near midnight. The wind off the river had died, there was an unusually warm pocket of air around us, and the sky was a starless reflection of orange city lights and half-seen spectral clouds. Somewhere off in the distance a confused bird chirped at the moon.

I made towards her but she clasped my hand and yanked me to the ground. "That one’s spinning a new web," she squealed. "What a treat!"

I felt a dull pain. It spread through my legs and eventually localized and sharpened on my kneecaps. The pain evaporated though when I became aware of an increasing warmth in my left hand. I looked down and saw her small eczema-inflicted fingers, returning the feeling in an appendage that had only moments before been rendered numb and foreign. I could feel her as clearly as I could feel my own memories.

"Let’s take him home," she said.

I looked over my shoulder. Mr. Ears was gone.

She held my hand the entire way to her place. In her other hand she was carrying a Tic Tac container, the orange contents of which she had emptied into her mouth and chewed up in seconds in order to make a provisional home for the spider. The lid was closed to prevent it from escaping but she feared it would run out of air so we walked very fast and didn’t talk and she constantly examined the container to make sure it was still alive.

Her apartment was on the fourth floor. As we stepped in the elevator, her face looked sharper, more in focus than on the bridge. This was her indoor face. Her skin was pale but clear with a faint array of freckles around her eyes; under brown, thick-framed glasses whose lenses I could now see were smudged from having been fingered so much. Her mouth was unusually small but her lips—thin but soft-looking and not at all stretched—were arched in such a way as to give it a rounder, fuller appearance. As she anxiously inspected the spider in its container she spoke to me—voiced concerns about what she would feed "the little fella"—and her tongue was the deep blood orange of a sunset, complete with an artificial citrus aroma.

While I was taking off my shoes she rushed into the kitchen to get the spider into a jar, leaving me in the entrance hall with a Mighty Mouse floor mat, an empty coat rack and a framed black and white photograph hanging on the back of her front door. The photograph was of a young man in a tight suit standing against a brick wall. He had a scared, forsaken look in his eyes, as if he were in front of a firing squad, but he was smiling and holding a tulip. There was something about the way he was standing, a cavalier shift in weight to mask his stiffness, that reminded me of her. I could see it clearly: He had died when she was young. He was a timid, self-reliant man who treated his family well, held a straightforward job as a government clerk, but was beset with anxiety—a source of mystery to the rest of the family—and eventually died prematurely from heart failure. She had adored him as any little girl does her father.

She was in the kitchen trying to puncture the lid, swearing at it, and then talking to the spider as though it were a puppy ("oh, looka you, you wittle itty spidey-widey") as she tried to persuade it from the Tic-Tac container into its new home. Then she was at the end of hall, scratching under her brassiere. "Well? Aren’t you coming in?" She slipped her sandals off and reached up her shirt, fiddled around, and magically produced the undergarment from her sleeve. It was so casual it suggested I had known her for years, was intimate with every detail of her life, and I could walk to the end of the hall, kiss her, and rescue her into the bedroom. Our bedroom. Where I could do what men were supposed to do.

"I was looking at your father," I said.

"What?" She came down the hall and turned into the bathroom.

"The picture. He was handsome. You must’ve loved him very much."

She left the door open and I could hear her urinating. "What the hell are you talking about, my father? Don’t assume things. I picked it up at a flea market for twenty-five cents, fella. It covers the peephole. I don’t like peep holes."

"Oh." I looked back at the picture. It was not black and white as I thought, but light brown, from a filter or something. The man wasn’t holding a tulip but a trowel and he was wearing dirty overalls instead of a suit. In fact, there was nothing of what I first saw in his face. Nothing at all. The picture was a bit off-centre so I straightened it.

I came in and saw her apartment and things finally became clear to me. I felt a surge of alertness, as if from a bolt of caffeine, and became acutely aware of everything around me. As I stood in her living room—the heap of clothes on one end of the sofa, the leftover smell of pork and garlic, a CD of Gregorian chants, the impudent ticking of her oversized wall clock, a poster of a large frog kissing a small princess—I realized I didn’t know this woman at all, that I had no right to pretend I did, and that under no circumstances would I ever be able to satisfy her. To see her life packaged in this contained space—this envelope to her personality—was to see her in the future without me. It was a rare taste of foresight. A sudden loss of muddy, meatheaded illusions.

My senses burst and bled into each other, turning on me. Columns of white noise sprung from the floor and surrounded me. A thick static draped the room and my stomach protested.

"I’ll go."

"What are you talking about? You just got here."

"I’m going to be sick." I rushed to the bathroom and heaved into the toilet. Nothing came out because I hadn’t eaten anything. Still, I gagged and coughed and spit and when I finished I could see properly again but I was now looking at Mr. Ears. He was sitting cross-legged in the bathtub staring straight ahead. His ears were heavy and slick with blood and so they hung lower than usual, past his shoulders like braids, as if nobly groomed in preparation for battle. There was now an empty socket where his bad eye had been and more of his skull was exposed.

"See what happens, Junior?" he said softly. He bit off the end of a cigar and lit it with a long match. "You could’ve taken her on the bridge. The conditions were ideal. Instead you hold her amphibious little hand. And now that you’re on her turf? Now that you’ve got an unmistakable tactical advantage? What do you do? You get sick in the washroom."

"Leave me alone."

"You’re weak, Junior. Just like your mother was. What did you think was going to happen? Did you think you’d start a relationship with this woman?" He leaned forward and poked me in the chest. "Did you think you’d find love? You?"

I didn’t answer but he could see what I was thinking. He blew a smoke ring in the air and it formed the infinity sign. It lingered between us for a moment and then disappeared. He stood up in the tub, brushing loose fur off his shoulders. He wasn’t looking at me.

"Love," he said evenly and academically, "is nothing more than a manoeuvre, and the only way to respond is with violence. No one ever falls in love, Junior. They plot to. They turn on the switch when the conditions are ideal and then they attack. There’s no falling involved. Whatever you do, don’t think about it."

But there was something in the way he said it, a crack in his voice. He looked at me again, just for a second, and then looked away.

The woman knocked on the bathroom door. "Can I get you anything?" She came in and leaned against the frame with her arms crossed. I was still sitting on the floor, resting against the toilet bowl. Her toes were doing funny things on the linoleum, crossing and uncrossing themselves, and in spite of myself, I couldn’t help thinking how adorable they were.

"I should go."

"You’re not going anywhere," she ordered, holding out her hand. "You don’t puke in someone’s can and then just leave. I’m making tea." I took her hand and she pulled me up with startling strength. She led me into the living room and sat me down on the sofa, next to her unpressed laundry.

"You want to know about my father?" she asked, clapping her hands together.

"No, it’s ok. I’m sorry."

"So am I. He’s the politest man in the world. So polite I can never tell what he’s actually thinking. Kind of like a politician. He just smiles and agrees with everything I’ve ever done. He’s never laid a hand on me and he’s always provided for me, but he’s so normal I don’t think he’s human. I don’t even know if he has a favourite colour." She paused to dig a finger around the back of her mouth. "What else? My mother was an alcoholic who loved animals, including arachnids. She’s dead now. Her liver exploded. My childhood was boring except for occasional moments of sexual frustration. Boyfriends? I’ve never had one that stuck around for more than a couple weeks. Probably because I’m too forward and I tend to forget myself. I apologize for that in advance. Your turn."


"Go on. Tell me about yourself. This is what we’re supposed to do, right? Let’s get it over with."

Mr. Ears had since come out of the bathroom and was standing in the shadows of the hallway. I couldn’t see his face but I could hear him panting. I wanted him to leave and it occurred to me that maybe I could make it happen if I just voiced him away. I braced myself.

"I like animals too. I had a dog once—a basset hound."

"But it ran away," she said.

"No. He was always tied up in the yard, so he couldn’t. He just died one day. He couldn’t behave so he got kicked around a lot."


"I suppose so."

"Why did you throw up in my toilet?"

I couldn’t answer right away.

"You’re afraid of things."

"I know."


"I can’t help it."

"It’s ok. You were taught to be. Not much you can do about it unless you have the time and money to change and luckily most of us are too poor and lazy for therapy."

I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth and out it came: "I can’t satisfy you. I’m impotent…"

"No, you’re not."

"… and I see things." I opened my eyes but she was gone. As if she had never been there in the first place. The possibility circled my mind. My throat went dry and I couldn’t swallow. I reached out and poked at the air. Did she say, I’m not? Then I heard the linoleum crack in the kitchen and I smelled her preceding odour, peaty and trenchant, as she came up from behind. Her draft as she passed was a cool relief.

She had the spider jar. She sat down and opened it, carefully stuck her finger in so the spider could scale it. I closed my eyes again.

"Open them."

I did as she said, slowly and with much difficulty. The spider was crawling up her finger. It tried to escape across her palm but she formed a bridge with her other hand and as the spider ran, she kept forming bridges, alternating her hands quickly to match its speed and appearing as if she were clumsily trying to groove to music she neither liked nor understood. She laughed. The spider was half the size as the bigger ones on the bridge; about as small as a man’s fingernail, legs and all. It was black and hairless, its body perfectly round and shiny. The more I looked at it the more I was convinced it was merely a cartoon. It came to a stop on the woman’s hand, raised one of its little legs like a periscope searching about, and then scurried along again, comically running to get nowhere.

"You try," she said. "We’ll do it together."

The spider raced across the back of my hand and I felt absolutely nothing. No tickling of predatory legs, no nibbling of blood-sucking fangs. It crossed to the woman’s hand and I met it again on the other side. Then I used both hands. We were covering all the angles now, forming bridges in every direction, moving faster and more deftly until I couldn’t tell which hands were mine and which were hers. I felt it wasn’t me doing this at all—or rather it was so strangely and truly me—that when I laughed I didn’t recognize the sound.

Mr. Ears had moved into the living room and was quietly watching from behind the sofa. He was standing at attention, his gaze nervously shifting between me and some random point on the wall. He was scared. I’m not sure I’d ever detected fear in anyone else—mine had always eclipsed theirs—but I was certain this was it. I didn’t know what to do. Something light and fragile seemed to arise from my chest, stirring up a maelstrom of pity and sadness. I left the woman with the spider and made for him, but he stuck out his paw and made a windy noise of disgust. He saluted and flickered and was gone.

We drank Chinese tea in small white porcelain cups with pictures of rose hips on them. For a long time we quietly watched the clock tick off its unequivocal minutes. She was worn out, she finally said, and put her nose underneath the cup, fogging up her glasses. She looked at me, steamed discs for eyes, and we chuckled. These were the come-down exchanges of the evening, I presumed, the long comfortable recline into our pre-dream shapes. We were being freed from the tension that throws up defensive walls of personality. We were becoming vulnerable. She was getting quiet and docile, her spark and clumsiness smoothed into a gentle grace of need. She wanted to cling. She put her feet up on the sofa and lay her head on my lap, still curling her hands around the cup of tea. I stroked her hair. The spider clung to a leaf on a broken twig in the jar. She had given it some water in a bottle cap and then centred the jar in the middle of the coffee table, under a doily, as if it were a vase of flowers. She was going to buy a terrarium and some food for it tomorrow at the mall and asked me now, in a sleepy sweet voice, if I’d like to come. We could have waffles first, she said. I just knew the spider wouldn’t last through the week but I said, yes, I would.



Jason Markowsky is an emerging writer who’s had short stories published in Fait Accomplit, The Dalhousie Review, lichen, Other Voices, and Fiddlehead. He also one of the winners of the 2002/2003 CBC Alberta Anthology writing contest. A native of Edmonton, he's lived most of the last five years in Vienna, where he teaches English and works as an actor for a local English-speaking theatre.







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