The perfect pet

LIVING in a 12-by-14-foot studio apartment has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you never worry about giving large parties. One of the disadvantages is that even an extra envelope in the mailbox constitutes a crowd. Such an apartment is terrific for solitude, but occasionally it gets pretty quiet. That may help to explain why a few weeks ago I adopted a spider. Not a big, hairy, yucky spider, but a cute little independent workaholic who built her web directly over my shower rod. Any insidiously minded insect would have sneaked into a remote, dark corner -- only to be casually swept away during a cleanup. Instead, this vulnerable little web grew and prospered out in the open. In a city sometimes known for shadowy opportunism, innocence is especially touching and, sometimes, indestructible.

It began as novel entertainment -- watching the almost invisible threads gather form and symmetry. A mood of foreboding, however, began to ruin the fun. Every day I'd watch the web grow and decide that the next morning, armed with a wad of paper towels, I would do the inevitable. Of course, each morning I'd be too busy rushing around for work to bother with such a thing. I knew what the trouble was, of course -- to someone who still owns her own copy of ``Charlotte's Web,'' spiders have ceased to be spiders and remain only potential friends of the downtrodden. One simply doesn't wipe out a potential friend of the downtrodden with a sheet or two of paper toweling. Obviously this reasoning was silly and needed to be replaced with a grown-up analysis of the situation. Maybe I could scare her out.

I began by throwing towels over the shower rod so they landed precariously near the web. This produced little hurricane-force winds that further tested the web's mettle. Both web and occupant were undaunted. Periodic cascades of hot water and steam didn't work, either. And then, the spider turned out to have a rather nice personality. She never ventured beyond the sticky safety of her plot of real estate; she never attacked human passers-by; she treated life with an aloof preoccupation that would gladden any urban heart; and, most important, she developed an irresistible talent. She caught cockroaches. Well, talk about a stay of execution.

From a spider's perspective I guess we lived together harmoniously for quite some time. During that period she was the perfect pet, entertaining, but trouble-free: no litter to clean, no walks to take (unless you had an itty-bitty leash, of course), no outlay for food. I learned her favorite resting spot was in the upper right-hand corner of the web and that she didn't care whether or not I chose to read out loud in the tub. She was active in the morning when alertness of any kind is an inspiration. Her feeding habits, unfortunately, turned out to be modest, but she did her best.

But then one day our relationship changed again. Hanging from her web was a soft, fluffy cocoon. The debate revived. Each day I ripped off a new sheet of paper toweling. Yet . . . yet. I still had that copy of ``Charlotte's Web.'' I still remembered the enthralled attention of my seven-year-old niece as she watched ``Charlotte's Web,'' the movie. And I could still hear her sobs as, toward the end of the story, Charlotte finally entrusted her offspring to Wilbur, the pig. Those tears have been shed by generations of Charlotte's fans. Could I face myself each morning knowing I was less of a human being than Wilbur, the pig?

And then one afternoon the lady of the house was gone. The cocoon swung gently, a daily reminder of either trust or desperation. Wilbur had handled this phase by simply carrying the pouch off in his mouth to a place of safety. But what does a pig know? Still, I felt I could do no less than adopt a mood of resigned laissez faire. I began to consider the bright side to living in a spider co-op. First, of course, any other creepy-crawlies in the apartment wouldn't have a chance. I planned experiments in training domestic spiders to perform tricks and to spin on command.

Then, one day they were gone. No baby spiders. No little webs. Just an empty cocoon and a droopy old tangle of sticky lines over the shower rod. . . . Every once in a while I think I see one of the little tykes hustling for cover, but only occasionally, and it's probably just wishful thinking.

So there you are. The apartment seems very quiet. The only company expected is a new magazine subscription, but that won't begin for several weeks. Still, New York is full of surprises. And who knows what I may find in my 12 by 14 feet tomorrow.

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