sporklet 14

Jessica Murray

Houses of Predation

When I worked as a seasonal waitress in a coastal town, we groaned when a tour bus pulled up. Leaf-peepers ruined our shifts with their exacting arithmetic, their glosses on what we took to be server-served rules of conduct. Yet, we often found ourselves half-heartedly drawn to them—they could surprise us with a small kindness, the depths of their appetites.


In Texas, a spike in the juniper pollen has gifted me a soft-tissue injury from sneezing. Back home, the leaf season depended on complex weather systems. Did summer storms nourish the earth, the roots with enough rain? Or did a critical mass of tent moths thrive, defoliating first the wild black cherry, then the hawthorn, then anything left with shade?


The wasps that prey on moth larvae used to repulse me. It all repulsed me. The soft gray pouches—wombs crawling with half-formed matter—the wasps’ neurological poisons, mummification or consumption of larvae alive from within. Although I know the wasps are just part of nature, it was hard to shake the sense there was something sinister about them.


The only way to guarantee a good tip from the tourists was to find yourself set up with six or more seated at one table, where an automatic gratuity could be included. Management only did that for their friends, lifers like Sharon or Susan, whose hands were always shaking. I was too young for the drugs of the 80s, when regulars might leave an 8-ball in a bathroom stall for a tip. Sharon died young from cancer. Kay, dramatic, acerbic, was always talking about her boyfriend to a small huddle of women, from which new girls like myself were excluded. How, in the middle of their marathon sex, she would defecate on her boyfriend’s face, a thin film of cellophane between them.


Between my husband and me, we’ve lived in seven states and three countries, which doesn’t seem like very many. My brother-in-law says we need to settle down, focus—stop pretending we have world enough or time to keep making choices. I thought about staying right there, in that first town, not because I liked those women, though I did. How their choices—often impetuous, unlucky, irresponsible, naïve—made manifest their options. I’d half convinced myself I could make work that fugitive and cloistered virtue I’d read about, so coolly dismantled by Milton.


I had to change my mind about the wasps when I learned that the trees “call” them, alchemists of an irresistible perfume, when the trees are under larval attack. Turns out, the wasps are practically gallant. Not only that, but the wasps themselves suffer from hyper-parasitism, where the colonizing wasp becomes a further wasp’s victim. When I relayed this all to my husband, he said, just when you think you know what side you’re on, something changes.


Shifts ended, we left through the back door. Cash that didn’t have to be reported, the lie of free money. We sat breathing in the silence of our cars. I am certain Kay would have never walked up to a table and given her name, unsolicited. She would have quit, cigarette already to her lips, before uttering, I’ll be taking care of you tonight. The distance was more honest. In the packed-dirt parking lot, the moon had us clear in her sights. Beyond that, beyond that, the terrible stars.

Jessica Murray is a New Englander living in Austin, Texas, where she works on educational media projects. Recent poems of hers can be found in Aperçus, Birmingham Poetry Review, The Boiler, Construction Literary Magazine, and Free State Review.