Fiction: Crawley and the case of the out-of-control spiders


November 15, 2018

Publisher’s Note: This series — “The Adventures of Crawley McPherson, Bug Man” — is a work of fiction. Crawley McPherson and all other characters in this series are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All names, places, locations and incidents are entirely fictional, and any similarity to places or people living or dead is purely coincidental.

Illustration: Leo Michael

Oh my gosh, Jimmy!” Jean Engel screamed, grabbing frantically at her shirt. She had been in the kitchen trying to get a griddle down from a cabinet when something fell on her. Now it was inside her shirt, somewhere on her chest.

Aahh!” she screamed, trying to get her shirt off.

“What?” Her husband ran over to her. “What’s wrong?”

“Spider! It’s a spider!”

“Don’t slap it. That’ll make it bite. Here, let me help.” He quickly pulled the bottom edge of her pullover shirt out of her pants and started shaking it, trying to dislodge the spider.

“Get it out! Get it out!” she hollered. In sheer panic, she held her arms outstretched and looked away while her husband repeatedly shook out her shirt. “Just pull the shirt off. I don’t care. Get it out.”

Just then, she felt a crawling sensation near her belly button. She pointed at the area. “It’s down there!”

Jimmy grabbed the front side of her shirt, shaking it violently. A brown spider about the size of a quarter dropped to the floor and scurried toward the baseboard. “There it goes!” Jimmy darted after it, stomping furiously. The spider disappeared into a crack.

Jimmy turned back to his bride of just one year. “It’s all right. It’s gone now.”

“Why did we have to move to this God-forsaken place?” Jean sobbed, then looked over at their infant daughter lying in a baby sleeper chair on the floor by the kitchen table. “I wonder if those spiders are dangerous. What if one of them gets on Molly?”

“I don’t think one’s gonna get on Molly,” Jimmy soothed. “Did it bite you?”

“I don’t think so, but let me go change my shirt and double-check.”

While she left to go to the bedroom, Jimmy considered their situation. He and Jean had moved to Craven, Tenn., so he could attend graduate school at a local college. They hadn’t known a baby was on the way, which now was complicating their plans in many ways. They were living on nothing but student loans and Jean’s part-time work at a local supermarket, so they had been forced to rent a run-down, 60-year-old concrete block house at the edge of town. Ever since moving into the house, they had seen numerous spiders of all sizes. The place seemed totally infested. But what could they do about it now? They had signed a lease, and the landlord didn’t seem too concerned. And what about baby Molly? Was she really in danger of being bitten?

“This is ridiculous,” Jimmy muttered. “I’m going to call the landlord and insist he get this house sprayed.”

Keep reading… (Part 2)


Crawley had met MJ after work for a drink at her Uncle Kelly’s pub. The small-town Tennessee atmosphere wasn’t very receptive to a Boston-style pub, but her Uncle Kelly’s infectious personality and persistence had managed to keep it in business for over a decade.

“You sure you don’t want to drink something stronger than that, young man?” Kelly asked, eyeing Crawley. “It’ll calm your nerves.”

“No, uh, this here soda is fine. Thanks.”

MJ laughed. “Give him a break, Kel. He’s new to all this.”

Crawley blushed. If they only knew …

After Kelly left them, MJ tried to change the subject. “Tell me about yourself. You ever go to college, Crawley?”

“I always dreamed of going to the Mississippi State University, ’cause my cousin went down there, but my folks couldn’t afford no big college like that. So I started out at the local community college, but didn’t get very far. Had to drop out.” He nervously nudged his glasses up his nose.

“Where was your hometown?”

“Shaperville, over near Johnson City.”

“The mountains …” MJ began, but stopped when she saw Crawley’s wistful look.

“Yep. I miss ’em bad,” he said softly. “Too flat here in the middle of the state.”

“Why’d you drop out of college?”

Crawley looked away for what seemed like an eternity. “My folks got sick and I needed to take care of ’em.”

“But I thought you and your dad had a bad relationship.”

Long pause. “Mmm. Doesn’t mean you’re not s’posed to take care of ’em.”

The brutal honesty silenced MJ. After a full minute, she started again. “Hey Crawley, Margie called today, giving me a new service call down in Craven.”

“Oh? That’s quite a way’s away.”

“Only about 45 minutes.”

“It’s a college town. How come ’em to call us? They’ve pest control companies there.”

“Apparently it’s a landlord who has some family connection to Jack.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Spiders in a rental house. You wanna go with me? We could run down there tomorrow.”

He smiled his big toothy grin. “Sure, that’ll be good. I like to spray the mess outta spiders.”

Keep reading… (Part 3)

Sticky traps are useful surveillance tools in pest control, particularly for brown recluse spiders (Loxosceles reclusa).  PHOTO: DR. JEROME GODDARD

The next morning, Crawley and MJ made their way through miles of farms and pastureland toward the Engel place out on the south edge of Craven, Tenn. The October landscape was beautiful, and dotted with numerous mature cotton fields and patches of yellow- and red-clad trees.

When they arrived, they found the house to be a small, flat-roof concrete block structure situated in a patch of large pine trees. It was clearly run-down and in disrepair. Several inches of pine needles and other debris littered the roof, and all manner of junk, old tires and roofing material lay scattered around the yard.

Jimmy Engel met them at the front door and introduced himself. “The landlord said you’d be coming today. We definitely need pest control.”

That’s not all you need. Crawley’s eyes roved around the property, instantly assessing all the potential insect breeding and harborage sites. He fought back the urge to start cleaning up the yard.

“The condition of this place isn’t our fault,” Jimmy said hastily. “We’re just college students and it’s all we can afford right now.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” MJ smiled. “Everybody’s got to start somewhere.” She looked past him toward the front door. “What seems to be the problem?”

“Spiders. They’re everywhere.”

“Any idea what kind?” MJ asked.

“We need to do an inspection inside,” Crawley interrupted, starting for the front door. “Can you show me where they’re worsest?”

“Can’t you just go ahead and spray?” Jimmy asked. “We already know they’re here.”

MJ grabbed for Crawley’s elbow to hold him back. “We can’t spray, Mr. Engel, without first doing a thorough inspection.”

Jimmy’s cheeks reddened, then he waved toward the door. “OK, suit yourself. Just overlook the messy house. My wife and the baby are gone to her mother’s house for a few days.”

Once inside, Crawley went toward the living room, where he noticed the walls were lined with old and peeling wallpaper with a faded floral pattern. It looked like something right out of the 1960s. He reached for an edge of the wallpaper next to a window and peeled it back another inch or so. He immediately noticed several molted skins of small spiders about as big as a dime. Crawley leaned over for a closer look. Uh-oh, could it be?

Then he turned his attention to a stack of old newspapers and magazines beside the fireplace. He began to slowly move the papers aside, looking for spiders hiding in them.

A quarter-sized brown spider scurried out of the pile and disappeared behind the curtains. Crawley eased over to the curtains and gently pulled them back. He saw a few spots of loosely spun, indistinct white webbing attached to the backside of the curtains.

Just then, two adult brown spiders dropped to the floor from the curtains and disappeared into cracks between the bricks on the hearth. When he spotted them, he knew what they resembled, at least from a distance: brown recluses!

He continued the inspection in the other rooms of the house. When he got to the bedroom, he found a bassinet positioned by an old, lumpy queen-sized mattress lying directly on the floor — no bed frame, no nothing. There was a huge mound of what looked like photocopies of science papers on the left side of the mattress. Crawley stealthily made his way around the room, looking for spiders under and behind anything he could move. He counted six more spiders behind pictures on the wall, and three hiding in the stack of science papers. One of them stood still long enough for him to see the fiddle-shaped marking on its cephalothorax, thus confirming the identification.

Just then, MJ walked into the bedroom. “Finding anything?”

He turned the question back on her. “What about you?”

“There’s lots of spiders in here, that’s for sure,” she sighed, then looked around to make sure no one was listening. “And it’s not going to be easy to treat the place with all this junk and debris everywhere.” She lowered her voice. “Can you believe a baby lives here?”

When he didn’t respond, MJ studied Crawley carefully. “You know something, don’t you? What are they?”

“It’s the brown recluses, MJ.”

She raised her eyebrows. “It’s a miracle nobody’s been bitten, as many of them as are in here.”

“They’s recluses, MJ. They don’t seek out people to bite.”

She drilled him with her eyes. “Are you saying there’s no danger to the Engels and their baby?”

He shook his head widely. “No, I ain’t saying that. Brown recluse spider bites can be real serious alright. All I’m saying is that these spiders aren’t all that mean and aggressive, but they’ll sure enough bite if given a chance.”

“What do the bites look like? Perhaps the Engels have already had bites and didn’t recognize them.”

“Oh, I think they’d know it. The bites usually start out as sorta a red, white and blue area on the skin, then a few days later, rot out a hole in your flesh about big as a dime. But sometimes it’s as big as a pie plate.”

“Oohh, that’d be bad if it was on your face.”

“Sure could be a mess, all right.”

“Do those nasty flesh wounds happen every time the spiders bite? I mean, is it a guaranteed thing?”

“No, not every time.”

“So, what are we gonna do? We need to protect this sweet little family.”

“Well, one thing’s for sure, MJ,” he shook his head, “we’ve got to emphasize to ’em that we can’t prevent them brown recluse bites. We might can reduce the spiders in here, maybe even get rid of ’em, but we sure can’t promise nothing.”

“I guess I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Yep, we gotta be careful here. Especially what we say to them.” He paused a long time, thinking deeply. “Let’s talk to the guy and set up a control plan. There are some things they’re gonna have to do, like clean up this junk and clutter. Then we can set out sticky traps to both monitor the spiders and catch a bunch of them. Every single piece of furniture, every box, every container in this house is gonna have to be carefully inspected for the spiders — and maybe vacuumed out. Then me and you can put out a pyrethroid dust in cracks and tight places around the house and also spray with a good residual.

“Think it’ll work?”

“Only if the landlord and them take this problem seriously, clean up the place, and stay diligent.”

“Then let’s go discuss it with Mr. Engel right now.”

Back out in the living room, MJ and Crawley discussed in detail their findings with Jimmy, and their plan to get rid of the spider infestation. He nodded, but seemed irritated when MJ got to the part about how the Engels would need to participate in the pest control process by cleaning up the junk and clutter.

“We’re busy with school and the baby and all,” he said. “Frankly, it’s all we can do to keep our heads above water.”

“But these spiders are quite venomous,” MJ asserted. “You really should do everything you can to help us get rid of them.”

“Sure, we can try, but y’all are the pest controllers. Just spray the place and kill them.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, sir,” MJ said calmly. “This isn’t something that spraying by itself will solve. In this current situation, I don’t think the pesticide would ever come into contact with the spiders.”

“This here is a two-way street,” Crawley interjected. “We can’t help you unless you cooperate. And, one more thing, you gotta understand that we ain’t promising to get rid of ’em.”

The man appeared even more agitated at that remark. “But aren’t you in the business of pest control?”

“I think Mr. McPherson is only trying to emphasize that we can’t absolutely guarantee that we’ll kill all of the spiders,” MJ said. “Therefore, we can’t make any promises that no one in your family will ever get bitten.”

Jimmy stood up. “OK, then, for the baby’s sake we’ll do what we can. Besides, my wife says she’s not going to stay here with spiders like this. When can you get started?”

“We’ll start out today by placing sticky traps around the house, and making some applications of insecticide dusts in the cracks and crevices,” MJ explained. “We’ll give you a few days to get the clutter cleaned up, and then we’ll come back and treat more thoroughly. Insecticides work better if they can make contact with the spiders. And also, see if you can get the landlord to remove or repair that loose wallpaper. The spiders are living in there.”

“OK, sounds good.” Jimmy looked toward the kitchen. “I’ve got a big project due tomorrow, so I’ve got to go study. Y’all can just do whatever you need to do in here. I’ll be at the kitchen table if you need me.”

Keep reading… (Part 4)

It took MJ and Crawley a full two hours to fight their way through all the junk and clutter in the small house to place 48 sticky traps and treat as many cracks and crevices as they could find. Upon leaving, they told Jimmy they would be back to check the traps and treat more thoroughly in a few days.

In the truck on the way home, Crawley was quiet. He unwrapped a honey bun and inhaled it. MJ wondered about the little dude as she drove them home. “You OK? You seem to be deep in thought.”

“Spraying won’t work. They ain’t gonna clean that house up, MJ. I just know it.” He shook his head. “Then what we gonna do?”

She looked over at him. “We’re going to do our best to protect them, and that’s all we can do. We’ll do our very best.”

“I don’t know if that’s enough this time,” he said softly, turning to face the window.


Five days later, Crawley and MJ returned to the Engel place to check their sticky traps and make more residual insecticide applications for brown recluse spiders. Of course, this would depend on whether the family had cleaned up the clutter and junk in their house to make that possible.

Jimmy Engel ushered them into the home. After he introduced them to Jean, MJ went straight for Molly, who was lying in the baby sleeper chair in the middle of the living room floor. “Ooohh, what a cute baby,” she cooed, kneeling down.

Crawley stood by awkwardly, waiting for MJ to get finished conversing with the baby. He looked around the room and his heart sank. It looked exactly like it had the last time! They ain’t done one thing we asked.

Then he noticed MJ was examining a reddish-blue, swollen spot about the size of a dime on the baby’s forehead, at the edge of the hairline. She looked up at Crawley with grave concern written all over her face. She nodded toward the baby. “C’mon, Crawley. Don’t you want to come meet baby Molly?” Then she nodded again toward the baby, as if signaling him.

He guessed she really wanted him to look at the wound on the baby’s head. But he didn’t need to — he already knew what it was — a brown recluse spider bite!

He fought back the urge to cuss, or scream, or something. That spot might spread to be as big as a half-dollar and eat away half her face.

Jean noticed MJ’s concern and knelt down beside her. “I guess you see that spot on Molly’s forehead?” She smiled nervously. “We think it’s just impetigo. The nurse practitioner called in a prescription that should clear it up right away.”

Crawley clamped his arms tight across his chest. “Did you take that baby into the clinic and show ’em that bite?”

“Well no, we just called the nurse on the phone.” Jean stood up, her face reddening. “What do you mean, ‘show them the bite?’”

“You know good and well that’s a brown recluse bite, as many of ’em as you got living up in here.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “You’re not a doctor. You don’t know that.”

Jimmy stepped between Jean and Crawley. “I don’t appreciate you saying things like that to my wife. You don’t know anything about clinical medicine.”

“Why wouldn’t it be a brown recluse bite?” Crawley got louder. “The spiders are everywhere.” He waved his arm back across the room. “And you ain’t done nothing we asked you to do to get prepped for the spraying — ”

MJ pulled him back. “Please Crawley, we shouldn’t say things like that.”

Jimmy was steaming by now. “I want you both to get outta our house!” he hollered. “Right now!”

“But we came to finish the treatment for your spider problem,” MJ said calmly, hoping to redeem the situation. “Don’t you want us to spray?”

“Nope.” He walked to the door. “We’ll ask the landlord to get someone else.” With that, he shooed them out and slammed the door behind them.

On the way out to the truck, MJ noticed Crawley wouldn’t even look up enough to see where he was going. He just stumbled along, stunned, or crying, or both. Then she saw him retrieve a small necklace from his pocket and clutch it to his chest.

MJ stopped in front of the truck. “Stop, Crawley. I’m not getting into the truck until we talk about this.”

He stood still, but wouldn’t meet her eyes. He stuffed the necklace back in his pocket.

“What’s that?” she pointed.


MJ reached for his hand. “It’s OK, Crawley, I mean, what happened here today. Please don’t be mad at me for saying this, but maybe we could have handled it differently.”

“Those people ain’t doin’ right, MJ. That baby is gonna have all kinds of problems from that bite and they don’t even care.”

“No, I think they do care. Maybe they’re just having a hard time facing the truth. If we had been a little more diplomatic, well, maybe we could have gotten them to cooperate.”

He wiped his eyes. “Nope. They wasn’t gonna do nothing about them spiders.”

She looked back toward the house and then at the truck. “Well, at some point we need to call Jack on this one. He’s not going to be happy.”

Crawley finally looked into her eyes. “They could sue us, MJ, saying we didn’t protect their little baby.”

She tried to affirm him. “I see now why you made such a point the other day to emphasize that we can’t prevent anyone from being bitten. That was brilliant!”

He headed for the truck door. “Not brilliant, just the truth. But it might not stop ’em from suing. Shoulda’ made ’em sign something saying we don’t promise no one will get bit. Or … better yet, when we saw that they weren’t willing to clean up the clutter, we shoulda walked away from it completely.”

After that comment, MJ and Crawley made the 45-minute drive back to town in almost complete silence. They had indeed learned a hard lesson today.


About the Author

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Contributor Dr. Jerome Goddard is an extension medical/veterinary entomologist at Mississippi State University. He is also a PMP Hall of Famer (Class of 2012). He may be reached at

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