My son came and got me and told me he saw a bat in the kitchen. He was calm. I was asleep and had to ask him twice what he’d said.
“There’s a bat,” he said again. “It went behind the refrigerator.”
I took my son by his shoulder and we went down the hall to the kitchen. The hall was lit by a light on the low baseboard, something his mother told me he wanted when he stayed with her. I went out and got one immediately, thinking I could be just as nurturing as she could.
“Where?” I said when both of us were standing in the doorway. I didn’t turn on the light. I didn’t want to, even if there was a bat. It wouldn’t go anywhere and I had to be up at five to make Jack breakfast and shower and shave before I went to the office. Most morning I slept until seven, but with the bus not running anywhere near my apartment, I had to drive him to school.
“It went back there,” he said, pointing to the fridge, which kicked on and began to hum as if working with Jack to give up the hiding place.
I believed Jack but I wondered how a bat got into the apartment in the first place. So I asked if he had any ideas.
“I opened the window,” he said, and sure enough, when I squinted over the sink I saw the curtains push and suck in with a breeze.
“Why did you open the window?” I said, a little miffed.
“It was hot. I couldn’t sleep. There’s no window in the closet.”
“That is not a closet, Jack. It’s the guest room. I said you could bring some stuff to put on the walls.”
“Mom keeps the air on at night,” he told me.
“Your mom has central air,” I reminded him, “and when your dad bought that central air, I was thinking of you.”
Jack sighed and shifted his weight. It was something his mother did, and for more than one reason at that moment, it made me mad.
“Why don’t we go back to bed,” I said, stretching my back. “The bat will leave the way it came in. In the meantime, we get a breeze, right?”
He tucked his head into my hip, his six-year-old voice muffled when he said he couldn’t sleep with a bat in the house. While I was in an argumentative mood, I felt the same. We weren’t so different.
“Okay, buddy,” I said, flipping on the light. “Run out front and grab that broom from the stoop. We’ll get this thing.”
Jack obeyed. When he was gone I wondered how the hell I was going to manage to get the bat back outside. I didn’t need him telling his mother I was murdering defenseless animals. She’d use it against me somehow; she loved animals and, well, not so much me anymore. Otherwise I would have grabbed my old tennis racket from the closet and smacked the hell out of the bastard.
I took the broom Jack handed me and told him to stay back.
“If he comes out flying, duck,” I said. “I don’t know if these things carry diseases or not.”
“What if he doesn’t come out?” Jack asked me while I tried to figure the best way to scoot the fridge.
“He’ll come out,” I assured him. “He needs to eat eventually.”
Just then a thought came to me, right as my hand touched the cool surface of the fridge. Jack had a science project coming up. I hated them when I was a kid. Jack was excited. I thought almost instantly we could do something with the bat. Study it somehow, engage it, test or measure something about it. That brought to mind a bunch of issues—like how, and what, and if it was ethical. Mostly, though, it reminded me of the projects I tried as a kid, obviously thrown together at the last minute.
Jack quickly let me know how he felt.
“And do what, dad?”
“I don’t know,” I said, holding the broom at my side as we discussed strategy. “Maybe see when it sleeps, if it can survive indoors.”
“That lame,” he told me. “Of course it sleeps. Of course it can’t survive indoors.”
“Oh no? Why not, Mr. Science Pants? Who knows? Has it ever been tried?”
“No, because it’s dumb.”
“We’re trying it anyway,” I said. I went to the kitchen window and yanked open the curtains. “We’re seeing how many bats come in tonight, and tomorrow we’re closing this damn window and seeing if they can live indoors.”
“Case closed,” I said. “It’s scientific, it’s interesting, and that’s your project. Case closed.”
The next morning I dropped Jack off at the school, buzzing about the possibilities of the project. I peeked behind the fridge before bed and saw a potato-sized shadow clinging to the cage that housed the motor. We slept with our doors closed. He seemed ragged with sleeplessness, but I—despite only four hours’ rest—was dizzy with anticipation. I imparted this to Jack on the way to school.
“I mean, how often does a gift like this appear?” I said, hoping my excitement might leap onto him, like the bat leapt onto my old refrigerator.
“Mr. Simmons won’t like it,” Jack said softly.
“We’ll see about Mr. Simmons,” I said, trying to remember if I knew the name. I think I’d met him before, some parent-teacher thing, before the separation. He was a pug, a fat-nosed little guy with tiny eyes and an overbite. “After all, how often does a student come up with something this original?”
Jack got out of the car and leaned into the window. “You thought of it, dad,” he informed me. He walked off and I was proud. I had thought of it, but we were doing it together. His mother would’ve never thought of something like this. Her imagination was all dried up.
At the office, I went through the motions until my lunch break. I went to the Home Depot with a list I made that morning while Jack ate breakfast, Cocoa Puffs and toast (which I’d burned but made better with cold margarine).
List in hand, I tossed items into my basket: a roll of clear plastic tarp; staple gun; three sheets of poster board; a ruler; a packet of multi-colored markers; and a small box fan. I paid credit and drove straight home, calling the office to say I wasn’t feeling well and would see them tomorrow.
Jack’s mother was spending time with her family upstate, so I had him for a solid week. She gave me one simple instruction: he had a science project due by the end of the week.
When I got home, I unrolled the tarp on the small living room floor. I soon realized how small my place was. I took it quickly, the day my wife kicked me out of the house. I meant to show that if she was serious, I could be too.
I took a pair of scissors and cut the tarp into lengths I thought would contain the kitchen. I paid a hefty deposit on the place and though it wasn’t spectacular, I aimed to get it back once things moved a bit one way or the other.
With a second-hand stool that served as a dinner chair, I tacked the tarp over the forward wall, wanting to keep the animal pinned but not wanting it to soil my meager possessions.
Next I rummaged the fridge itself, looking for bits of food I could do without in hopes of attracting some summer flies to it and serve as dusk-dinner to our new project.
I took the lid off leftover casserole and scooted some dishes aside and placed it in the sink below the window. I glanced over at the fridge, wondering if our friend was still there. For some reason, despite the warm breeze hitting me through the open window, I shuddered.
I made Jack wait on the stoop while I rushed in to put the finishing touches on the project. I’d run out of time and was almost late picking him up. After a few adjustments I called for him.
“Ta-da,” I said, spreading my arms in pride. I’d tacked three squares of poster board to the living room wall and used the ruler and markers to cordon off spaces for hour-by-hour updates.
“What’s on the door?” Jack asked, putting his down his backpack and pushing a finger into the tarp. Hazy light came through and gave the plastic a rain-cloud look.
“A covering,” I said, saddling up and putting my arm on his shoulders. “To keep the bats in.”
“They’ll be trapped,” he said, almost sadly.
“Of course they won’t,” I countered. “They’re free to come and go as they please. Remember? You made sure of that. The window’s open.”
“Dad,” Jack sighed, shrugging from my embrace and heading to his room.
“Hey, bud,” I called after him. “You didn’t see the work I put into this!” I take a handful of tarp and shake it. “Come check out my charts!”
Silence from the hall. I smooth the down the tarp and walk to Jack’s closed door. I listen a second before tapping. A muffled reply.
“What you want for dinner, bud?” I asked him.
“I don’t care.”
“I’m ordering now,” I said. “Stu Choy OK?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Pork lo mien?” I said, a grin. We were so alike.
“Vegetable,” he said and my grin dropped. “I’m a vegetarian now. Mom told you.”
“Right, right. One pork, one vedge,” I said. “Eating good tonight!”
I order the food but Jack didn’t come out of his room. I chewed on my lo mein while poking around the Internet for information on bats. They can eat over a thousand bugs a night, one site claimed. Another said they were mammals, like humans, and slept more than any other mammal, hibernating nearly six months of the year.
I finished my food and saw the sun was going down. I peeled back the tarp and set the oven on low, putting Jack’s noodles on the middle rack. From the corner of my eye I saw a bat curled up and clinging to the wall above the toaster. Another was folded up inside the oven’s hood, inches from my face. No, three of them inside the hood. Two more sat like gobs of grease in the back, motionless bodies more brown than black up close. I shuddered again and backed out of the kitchen, clenching the tarp tightly behind me. Standing outside, I shuddered again, almost convulsing. This might not have been such a great idea, I thought, slipping past Jack’s room and—deciding not to press him anymore that night—went to my room.
I flipped through a tennis magazine without interest. My wife and I played when we were dating and for a few months after we were married. Neither of us had much talent, but the fun was in the exercise, the challenge, the gentle competition. When she became pregnant we stopped, of course, but both of us itched to get back onto the court after Jack was born. It didn’t happen, though. Jack was a sick boy. He spent his first two months in the hospital with an underdeveloped lung. After that, he was so fragile it was like being guardian of some priceless artifact. Every movement pre-planned and executed with such precision that everything human was removed from the process. Changing a diaper became unfurling ancient clothing from a mummified body, a body that—with rush or error—would crackle and turn to dust.
Shortly after he was home I started finding reasons not to be there. I wasn’t scared of being a father. I’d wanted to be a father. I was scared of this boy, this helpless mauve creature that rewired who I was in my mind. I didn’t look the same to myself. I couldn’t understand my own thoughts. It was as if Jack was a tiny receptor to all things I feared, and proximity to him made me buzz with dread. It took years to loosen that feeling. I often wondered if the feeling ever really left, or if I was just used to it. I was wrecked with guilt. I loved my son. That I gauzed-out in his presence wasn’t his fault. I watched him grow up from a distance, justifying in my mind that “it’s just how kids are raised these days, this society.” My wife burned with resentment. All the days and nights up and down with Jack. The trips to the doctor until he was three years old for checkups. “Where’s your daddy?” I imagined the doctor asking little Jack. “Oh, daddy’s working, right, buddy?” I imagine my wife’s reply, tight smile and eyes alive with anger. “He wanted to be here.” Maybe she rubbed his back when she said it.
I threw the magazine onto the floor and rolled over. I was too tired to turn off the light. I closed my eyes tight and tried to control the ball that rolled around in my stomach, occasionally getting some momentum and tickling my throat. That boy, I thought. He’s that boy. He’s down the hall right now, mad at me. I did it again. Or am I still doing it? Did I ever stop?
Jack was screaming. I rolled over and sat straight up, my head thick with a quick and deep sleep. I listened for a second to the quiet.
I hit the floor and slipped on the magazine, shooting the glossy cover under my heel. I fell back onto the bed and bounced to the closet, knocking things aside until I came out with my tennis racket. I ran down the hall to Jack’s room. The door was open but he wasn’t inside. The kitchen light was on.
“Hey,” I said, staggering to the doorway and pausing at the tarp. It was pulled back slightly, and I saw Jack’s bare feet in the opening.
“I’m coming, bud,” I said, taking a deep breath and gripping the racket. I took another breath and stepped into the kitchen, pulling the tarp tight behind me.
Four or five bats zipped around the kitchen in crazed, kamikaze patterns. Jack stood at the open oven, not moving, his hands protecting his face. I went to his side and started swiping at the bats, knocking one into the fridge. It hit the floor, unmoving. I whacked another into the sink. The others dived and ducked in movements too zany to anticipate. One finally found the window and flew out in a movement that seemed practiced.
I put my left arm around Jack’s shoulder and studied the final bat. It looked wild and awful and menacing in the glare of artificial light. I studied it, bracing my eyes to remain open. It swooped, scraping the kitchen table before arcing over my head and toward the fridge, scraping it, too, like someone had magically made it appear in its path. I squeezed the fake leather grip of the racket and knocked the bat from its flight. It dropped with a sick thud, like someone dropped a damp washcloth onto the linoleum.
“Jack,” I said, my eyes wide with fear, alertness. “Jack?”
He whimpered, his body rigid against my hand. I smelled the Chinese food coming from the warm oven. “Go to your room.”
He still didn’t move. I pulled him with me when I peered into the sink, keeping my head tilted back against whatever lay inside, against whatever might fly in from above it. The bat in the sink rested lopsided on a dirty plate, a wing pulsating with meager energy.
I reached up quickly and slammed the window down. Only then did I lower the racket. I looked around the kitchen at the scene I’d made, the bats, the open oven, my son quivering against my leg. I put the racket on the counter and guided Jack from the kitchen, yanking the tarp down as we passed.