Roberta Allen ~ What is (not) made up

What is (not) made up is the cock­tail par­ty in a city where the host tells the woman that she will nev­er go to a trop­i­cal rain­for­est because of the spi­ders. But she gets a thrill hear­ing about them because they are so far away. When the woman describes them, the host laughs and scrunch­es up her nose. But when the woman men­tions the spi­ders in this city, the host stops laugh­ing. “Right here are spi­ders that rival those in the rain­for­est,” the woman tells her. “There’s the white-tail spi­der and the black-house spi­der which have very painful bites. The only lethal spi­der is the red-back spi­der. But it hasn’t killed any­one since 1955. I saw one spin­ning a web on the grape vines in the gar­den of my friend’s house. He refus­es to kill any crea­ture, no mat­ter how dangerous.”

The host sug­gests they talk about some­thing else.

The woman can’t think of any­thing except the news she heard this morn­ing about the mos­qui­toes plagu­ing the city. She’s not sure which of sev­er­al virus­es these par­tic­u­lar mos­qui­toes cause, but she doesn’t think it’s the poten­tial­ly dead­ly Murray Valley virus. All the virus­es cause seri­ous ill­ness, the announc­er said. There are no cures or vaccines.


What is (not) made up is the fact that the woman is not an expert on grasshop­pers. She is not even sure this is a grasshop­per. It is huge, big­ger than any grasshop­per she’s ever seen. But every­thing in the rain­for­est is huge. The grasshop­per has made itself at home on the soiled white hat of the squea­mish woman’s hus­band. The squea­mish woman is mak­ing faces at the grasshop­per, or maybe she is mak­ing faces at her hus­band, or maybe she is mak­ing faces at them both. The grasshop­per is per­fect­ly still while the oth­ers in the group take pic­tures. It doesn’t seem to mind the squea­mish woman’s revul­sion, but her hus­band does.

A mem­ber of the group says he knows a lot about grasshop­pers. That is what he says. But what he knows is not much more than what the group already knows. “They’re great jumpers, plant eaters,” he says. The woman repeats, “Plant eaters?” She has nev­er thought about what grasshop­pers eat—despite the “grass” in their name. The “expert” says they’ve been around for about 250 mil­lion years. But even the “expert” isn’t sure about this one. The grasshop­per—if it is a grasshopper—is still on the hat of the squea­mish woman’s hus­band and she is still mak­ing faces when the group spot a beau­ti­ful lizard with a blue iri­des­cent tail.


What is (not) made up is the tour guide who says. “When the first set­tlers arrived in the desert, they con­tin­ued to dress for win­ter. In sum­mer, women wore lay­ers of pet­ti­coats and high-necked dress­es despite the heat.” The woman won­ders how they sur­vived until she is dis­tract­ed by a lizard on the foot­path. This lizard is with­out a tail. Was it born this way? Is it native to this coun­try? She is curi­ous. The woman thinks she remem­bers see­ing a pic­ture of it some­where. She doesn’t ask the guide about the lizard because she doesn’t like him. It’s a chem­i­cal thing, she tells herself.

Later, she tries to find a ‘tail­less lizard’ online. But all she finds is a ‘leg­less lizard.’ This lizard is not leg­less. Perhaps a preda­tor lopped off its tail and the crea­ture is lucky to be alive. After that she los­es inter­est in the lizard but that doesn’t mean her thoughts return to the arrival of set­tlers in the desert. She decides what she already knows is enough.


Roberta Allen is a Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and a Yaddo Fellow, and has pub­lished nine books. Her third sto­ry col­lec­tion is The Princess of Herself. Her sto­ries have been pub­lished in many mag­a­zines, includ­ing Conjunctions, Epoch, and forth­com­ing in the Evergreen Review. Also a con­cep­tu­al artist, her work explores how lan­guage informs our per­cep­tion of images.