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Pins And Needles: Urban Tales

...Patty's story was that cactus means spiders and spiders mean death. When Patty dropped by, as she often did, her coffee sat untouched and her voice trembled nonstop. She got the news from her friend in Wichita who heard it from a cousin who goes to church with a with a woman who had a sister named Mabelówho would be dead by now if it wasnít for 911 and the bomb squad....

But is it true? Can a cactus plant harbour a deadly secret?

Gloria MacKay tells of the tales we are all-too-ready to believe.

To this day I cringe I when enter a room and see a cactus cowering in a corner like a dust ball. I scarcely notice other greenery: a philodendron climbing the walls, swiveling pots of piggy back ferns, violets clinging to their blossoms. It is only when I spot a cactus that I gasp and start looking around for the spiders.

Before I met Patty spiders were simply an annoyance, like snakes in the garden and mice in the garage. Nor was I phobic about anything. I walked under ladders, washed my hands the proper amount, stepped on cracks and looked down when I drove over a bridge. But thanks to Patty I have succumbed to arachnophobia, the dreaded fear of spiders: named after a Greek girl named Arachne who messed up her life when she dared to tangle with a goddess. But thatís another story from a different place and a different time.

Patty's story was that cactus means spiders and spiders mean death. When Patty dropped by, as she often did, her coffee sat untouched and her voice trembled nonstop. She got the news from her friend in Wichita who heard it from a cousin who goes to church with a with a woman who had a sister named Mabelówho would be dead by now if it wasnít for 911 and the bomb squad.

It seems Mabel bought a cactus plant from an import shop at the mall. She wanted something alive and growing, but not too fast, to perk up the living room. For several days it sat very perkily on the window sill. Then late one evening Mabel noticed an almost imperceptible twitch in one or two of the leaves. She got up and shut the window; a cactus might not do well in a draft.

But the tremors continued, always at night after her husband had gone to bed and refused to get up and come downstairs to look at a houseplant, which, according to Patty, was becoming twitchier and twitchier. When it started up just before lunch, Mabel set down her tuna fish sandwich, stomped to the phone and called the import shop where she has bought it. Before Mabel could fully describe her problem and make clear she had a receipt, the salesman bellowed, "Hey, lady! Call 911 and get the hell out of the house."

Mabel watched from the curb as the bomb squad tiptoed into her home and tiptoed out, carrying a bag in which Mabel correctly presumed was her cactus. Patty, out of breath by this time, leaned close to me and finished the story in a whisper. Mabel's cactus was harboring hundreds of unborn spiders, tarantulas no less, and they were just about ready to hatch. "If Mabel had waited one more day those spiders would have taken over the house."

Patty left abruptly because she had spread the word, and I was alone wondering what would I have done if it had been me? I donít save my receipts. I'm no Patty, but I had to tell my bridge club, of course. They needed to know. Right at the part where the leaves started to twitch Dot snorted, "Donít tell me you believe that crap. Itís just one of those urban legends thatís been going around."

"You mean itís not true?"

"Of course itís not true. Urban legends never are. Well, hardly ever. Take the one about the Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe." She went on to explain that Neiman Marcus told a customer they charged two fifty for their recipe. When she got the bill it was two fifty all right. $250. She was so mad she gave the recipe away to everyone she knew and had it printed in the local paper.

Dot looked at us and cackled. "You gals are sure gullible. This never really happened. It's just one of those urban legends."

We all tittered, "Dot, aren't you the one?" Dot wasnít finished: no bugs ever crawled in a manís ear and ate their way through his brain and out the other side; no good Samaritan plucked Richard Nixon out of the San Clemente surf; no firemen found the charred remains of a scuba diver stuck in a tree; and as for the eagle who swooped down and made off with the old ladyís Chihuahua, it could have happened but itís not likely. With that Dot shuffled the cards.

Dot's right, of course. Myths and legends aren't supposed to be true. Achilles wasn't really dipped into the river Styx by his heel. Echo was not turned into a voice because she fell in love with the wrong guy. And Pandora was not the chick who lifted the wrong lid and let out all the troubles of the world.

That could have been Patty. She does tell a good story. There will always be a part of me who wants to believe that cactus means spiders and spiders means death. And I do have a recipe for Neiman Marcus cookies . . . free . . . the checker at the supermarket up the street . . . whose aunt . . . the sister . . . across the street . . . woman who actually . . . $250. Eat your heart out, Dot.

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