“Don’t do it that way. You’re going to strip the screw.” Dad corrected as he pushed up from his chair to retrieve the tool out of mom’s hands. They were replacing the screens in the kitchen windows, the last home improvement project of the summer. Winged insects buzzed in and out into the night air. My mother handed the tool over, the familiar look of defeat in her eyes, and went back to the stove to stir the boiling pot of pasta. Her eyeglasses slipped to the end of her nose from the moisture in the air, grey tendrils escaping from her loose ponytail. Dad returned to his seat across from me to read his newspaper. It was the week before I would enter middle school.
“Come See Our Newest Attraction! The Red Bat!” The local zoo summoned in bold print on the back of dad’s paper. I had been to the low budget zoo the year before on a class field trip. Small dirty cages with depressed looking animals circling about. The most impressive animal they had was a giraffe. He had an extra tall doorway leading into his own small dirty cage. The main attraction though, was Smokey Joe, the chimpanzee. Smokey Joe got his name because he smoked Marlboro Reds, up to a pack a day. He inhaled and everything, which was rare for chimp.
Staring at my ceiling that night I dreamed about the red bat. I first learned about bats in my Ranger Rick magazine (I had wanted a dog but dad said they were too messy and got me a subscription instead.) Did you know bats have belly buttons? Although, I don’t know if they are innies or outies, I suppose it just depends, like in people. And mother bats breastfeed their young, because they are mammals, not birds.
Bats have always had a bad reputation, known mostly as disease-ridden, rabies-transmitting guardians of the night. But they are actually quite important to the ecosystem. Seed dispersers, vital pollinators, they also keep the insect population down. One bat can consume up to 600 mosquitos in one night.
But I had never read anything about them being different colors, they were always some version of black. Was it really red? Was it the only one? For the next 3 days I became consumed with the mystery of the red bat.
I had been particularly interested in bats after an encounter with them earlier that summer. One evening, like most others, I sat between my parents on the couch. I was well into my summer reading, Where the Red Fern Grows, while Mom was lost in another cheap romance novel from the bargain bin at the drugstore.
“Do you hear that?” she asked turning to me. A particular scratching sound was coming from above our heads.
“Probably a squirrel,” Dad said.
“But squirrels are diurnal,” I stated.
“Then a mouse,” he said looking down at me annoyed. But mice are so light you don’t hear them walking about. I kept that to myself though, as I made my way outside to investigate.
Walking past the window, glowing blue with the nightly news, I looked in at my parents. It was like looking into a diorama I had made for school the year before, a three- dimensional model with two life-like figurines sitting at either end of the couch, stoic bookends with only space between them.
Nothing like the framed picture on the end table of a moment frozen in time before I was born, dad in his uniform and mom in her nursing outfit. (She stopped working when I was born and never went back.) His arms wrapped around her waist from behind, their heads thrown back laughing, exposing their white necks.
Dad got up from the couch without a word and came to the side of the house with a ladder he had retrieved from the garage. He nudged me out of the way as he steadied it against the house.
“Stay right there. It’s too dangerous,” he ordered pointing at me, and then at the ladder, and then back at me again. I nodded. He went back into the house.
With specific instructions not to climb up, I waited dutifully. I heard my mother through the freshly screened kitchen window sheepishly suggest an exterminator as my father scavenged through the closets, a broom falling out nearly hitting her.
“Don’t need an exterminator,” he said as he walked past her. She bent over to pick up the broom and caught my eye looking at her through the diorama window. She turned to say something to him but he was already gone. That would be the last time she would be stuck in the place between action and consequence. She wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand.
Hot sweat stung my eyes. I turned and climbed the homemade wooden ladder. Creaking with every rung, I made my way to the top. I poked my head inside the round window and looked around.
Dusty beach chairs from long lost summer days when we would go to East Matunuck State Beach stood propped against the pink insulation. My favorite part of those trips was the car rides home. Sitting in the back, stuck to the hot leather seat, dried salt making my skin tight against my bones. From the time the sun set to the time it got dark out was an hour, which was the time it took to drive home.
We would always stop at Salty’s, a seasonal clam shack that only accepted cash, on the way home. Within minutes of ordering the girl would bring two grease-stained paper bags to our car window and a stack of napkins. I would get a cone of vanilla ice cream, vanilla was only flavor they had. I got to eat it in the backseat before dinner so it wouldn’t melt.
‘Too hot!’ Dad would scream as he bit into a clam cake that Mom held to his mouth while he drove us home, the hot grease burning it with every bite. We’d laugh as he swerved between lanes.
Next to the chairs were my old baby things. A stroller, a crib and boxes upon boxes of baby clothes, perfectly folded and organized by age. Mom was good at things like that. They had kept all my baby things in hopes of another baby, but another baby never came.
Whatever was in the musty attic must have already checked out I thought as I tilted my head in a little further, the night air was thick with dust and humidity. Then I saw them, twenty, maybe thirty, little blood-sucking (they don’t actually suck, they lap) vampires taking refuge at the opening of the window, inches from my face. They cloaked themselves in their wings like militant little corpses. Their transparent skin pink in the light of my flashlight, blood flowing from whatever victim they stole it from the night before. I scrambled down the ladder, skipping rungs, my heart racing. A knot formed in my throat when I saw my father round the corner with a butterfly net. Without a word I watched him make his way up the ladder. Less then a minute later he calmly came back down, walked past me, and then past my mother and got the phonebook.
“Mom, can we go to the zoo today, pleeease?” I pleaded with my mother after my father left for work. Summer was nearing its end and soon I’d be back in the real world of complex equations and required reading.
“Not today,” she said softly shaking her head not bothering to look up. She was trimming the roll of screen to fit the dining room windows. I had almost given up when that Monday, my mother announced the three of us were going to the zoo after breakfast. My father looked up from his newspaper as if it was the first he’d heard of it.
We were the first in line at the zoo that morning. After they stamped our hands and gave us a bag of feed for the goats, I was off like a bat out of hell. (No pun intended.) Flamingos, meerkats, cranes, ostriches, lemurs, they were all a blur as I whirled past cages and exhibits. I only stopped to see Smokey Joe. I was worried lung cancer may have gotten the best of him but there he was in all his glory, a head of lettuce in one hand, a cigarette in the other. By the time he had gotten down to the filter I was ready to continue on.
We were nearly to the exit when I saw it. A dilapidated shelter, cracked boards nailed together with the words “Red Bat” scrawled across the top. It had one small peephole to keep the light out. Bats aren’t totally blind, contrary to popular belief, but they do use echolocation to navigate. With nervous anticipation I climbed the three cinder block steps and peered into the aperture. And there it was. Hanging from a rope was a Louisville Slugger, painted red. My eyes filled with tears of anger and disappointment. I quickly wiped them away before anyone saw. On the ride home, skin tight from my salty tears, my parents told me they were getting divorced, but I was too upset to care.