by Andrew Maynard —
The scorpion and black widow are in a glass jar; the jar is on your phone screen; the phone is in your hand. This video just arrived via text message via Trevor. You press play.
The scene unfolds: for a moment they remain calm, seemingly ambivalent, as if they’re unaware only one will survive. On opposite ends of the jar, the scorpion and black widow begin marching into the glass wall, trying to shove through to the other side, but as they trudge on, their legs slide and flail on the slick floor like roller skates on a treadmill. They’re stuck. Going nowhere.
Your friends’ voices pulse through the phone speaker—yelps and cheers and inciting howls, but their faces are concealed by the P.O.V. In frame: only the jar and its prisoners, but you can paint the picture of the off-screen audience and their eager, anticipatory grins. They’re in the detached garage in Trevor’s backyard, surrounded by old Volkswagen buses and bugs, empty beer cans, smoke, and the dry, heated air of an Arizona summer evening. Trevor’s a mechanic. His collection of rusted German cars, parts, and memorabilia has long been the perfect backdrop to drinking beers before and after going to bars.
A hand appears onscreen and shakes the jar, mixing a cocktail of soon-to-be violence. All of this has already happened, but you’re still drenched with anticipation. The scorpion and black widow ricochet off the glass until the simulated earthquake ends. For a moment they’re still. The displaced creatures become visibly disoriented in the foreign landscape. You wonder if they’re wondering, Why? The shake dispels the mystery of Why? Death match. Discombobulated and cornered, the black widow attacks.
The match of scorpion vs. black widow happened in Phoenix, but you’re watching the video in San Francisco. You weren’t there. But you could have been. Easily. You’ve been scorpion hunting enough times in Phoenix backyards to fill in the blanks of the backstory. BLANK—find a black widow in the garage—BLANK—trap it!—BLANK—roam the backyard shining a black light on the bordering cinderblock wall; you’ll see the scorpions, don’t be frightened by their phosphorescent blue-green exoskeletons lurking in the black light, imagine them as the glow-in-the-dark stars that were stuck to the ceiling of your childhood bedroom—BLANK—don’t kill it, detain only—BLANK—back in the garage, begin the speculation: The what ifs and maybe we shoulds —BLANK—empty the black widow into the jar, add scorpion, shake not stir—SCENE.
You’d think watching the action on your phone would create a distancing effect, make it feel less real, like a movie, but it’s as if you’re there. As the black widow crawls across the scorpion’s back you feel a tickle down your own spine. The scorpion knocks the black widow off and keeps it at bay by using its stinger as a spear. You’re not enjoying this. It’s actually difficult to watch, but you can’t bring yourself to close the video. There’s something about this construction of violence you find simultaneously nauseating and magnetic.
In middle school, all fights took place beneath the big tree in the ally adjacent to the baseball field. It took a while to get used to, but eventually you learned to watch the punches with your eyes open. The smacks of knuckles on cheeks and chins and noses had you holding your breath. But you knew that cuts and bruises were the worst that could happen. No one in school was that crazy. None of the adolescent spectators huddled and yelping around the flailing limbs would ever let it go too far. On the rare occasion it did, someone would step in. Someone would tell an adult. Someone would end the game. But there were exceptions, of course, like when you’re friend Pat had a kid on the ground, banged up, and you thought the fight was over. Everyone thought the fight was over. Except for Pat. As the crowd began to separate, he turned around and kicked his shoe into the cheek of the defenseless twelve year old, producing a thud that you can still hear.
But the scorpion and black widow have nowhere to go, and the eager audience has no intention of letting them both escape alive. Barring a major upset, it’s clear the black widow is outmatched. The scorpion’s just too big, too strong, too plated with armor. It is built to win this fight. Growing up in Arizona, you heard your fair share of warnings about black widows. You’d see them sometimes in your garage, accidentally brush your hand through a web as you dug through the hodgepodge of bikes and skateboards and sporting equipment crammed in the corners. You knew they were venomous and would bite, but it never happened. If it did it would have felt like a pinprick, followed by muscle cramps, possible nausea and vomiting. There are over 30,000 species of spider, but the black widow is one of the few worthy of fear. They release protein venom that will stun the nervous system. They lurk in the nighttime in dark corners and tight crevices. But they are not assassins; they only bite when threatened. The majority of black widow bites happen when they’re protecting their eggs. They only break skin when provoked.
In a fiction workshop you’ll submit a scene where a protagonist and his buddy, a car mechanic, hunt scorpions with a black light in a VW-bus-ridden backyard. The class will say it’s “inventive” but “unbelievable” (not in the good way), because you are too obviously mystifying Phoenix. The word “mystify” will strike you as an odd choice. You’ll hope they’re using it in the sense of “making something mysterious”, but they probably just mean that the scene was confusing. There is not a place in the world more familiar to you than Phoenix, yet for some reason it continues to be a source for lingering questions. You’ll write the scene into fiction as an attempt to discover why this seemingly mystical concept is so unequivocally real.
Fights in high school rarely took place in the daylight. They happened in backyards at house parties, under the moonlight and the influence of cheap beer and whiskey. Most of them were minor, petty, but a few got out of control. You saw fights last longer than they should; a friend take a beer bottle to the forehead; a shotgun pulled by a rich kid in a rich neighborhood, because he was red-faced drunk and was asked to leave a party. You chalked up the incident as an outlier because the kid was a stranger and nothing like that had ever happened before, and you still thought about guns as abstractions—they belonged to your friends’ parents and would die with them. Your parents never owned guns and you’d never held one. A kid who sat next to you in freshman English had fired one into his mouth, but you barely even knew him, and at his catholic funeral the priest never even mentioned guns, but instead used his stage-time to discuss the issue of suicide as sin. But as the incidents added up, they no longer felt isolated. You slowly became aware that firearms erect Arizona culture and politics like bones in a body.
Most of your friends in Arizona don’t carry pistols in their cars, but some of them do. In college you had a friend who stored a sawed-off shotgun with a door buster underneath his bed to protect himself from the possibility of a home invasion. You didn’t bother arguing with them. Your statistics about the likelihood of killing a loved one vs. a predator had been exhausted to the effect of cliché, and would be dismissed with disconnected anecdotes of self-defense and personal responsibility. You’d do best to accept that the libertarianism coloring the culture directly tied to your identity is unlikely to fade anytime soon. That’s why when you look at this jar you don’t feel exempt from responsibility. You’re not there, but even if you were you certainly wouldn’t interfere. So why bother dissecting the division between delusional fear and intelligent preparation in relation to violence and guns, in regards to the proposals for electrified fences and the volunteer border patrol agents who fancy themselves a militia. After all, you were once a part of that group of kids who shined a black light on a wall in order to kill scorpions under the false pretense that if they didn’t they might get stung.
At first glance, the scariest features of the scorpion are its pincers, those lobster-like claws that the black widow is clamped in now. The scorpion is known to lock down its pincers and fight to hold on. Scorpions have hard exteriors and are often colored to blend into their environment. They’ll hide under rocks and in your shoes. There are hundreds of species of scorpions in the U.S., yet the only dangerous one in the western states is the Arizona Bark Scorpion, the kind you’re looking at now. People die from scorpion bites but rarely ever in Arizona. With antivenin readily available, Arizona, despite being flooded with venom, has prepared itself to endure the threat of a sting.