When my wife Cynthia and I first met, I had just found a place to live in a hemlock pine forest of northeast Pennsylvania. The owner, a great guy named Ron Benjamin, had called it Hemlock Ridge. It was my third month in the region; when I first moved to Scranton, I had lived for a few weeks in a room in an old lady’s basement (not a finished basement, but an actual basement, with pipes, a furnace, and such), so when I found this house, located on a dirt road that speared into the woods and ended a few miles later at a meadow, I was pretty freaking happy.
It was a small house, just six rooms, but it went up three levels, and out the front windows was nothing but forest and out the back windows was nothing but creek. Best of all, there was an upstairs bedroom where my kids could sleep when they stayed with me. (I was divorced at the time.) When I first set eyes on the house, with its red slats, hammock, and garden, all surrounded by the deep green of the woods, with trees 200-300 feet high, I nearly cried with relief. When I was there by myself, I derived great pleasure from the simplest things. Taking a bath with the window open. Hanging my raggedy towels out on the clothesline so I could smell the pine when I wiped my face. Sitting out on the back terrace, watching the creek come to life. Going outside at night to listen to the cracking twigs and branches in the woods, wondering if it was bear or deer. When the kids were with me, I watched Caitlin searching the woods for salamanders, Stephen slaying imaginary Orcs with the stick he dubbed Excaliber, and both of them swimming in the creek with the ducks. In the pitch black of night, we walked the dark road together, exploring the stars, and I told them stories about the constellations.
Then I met Cynthia, and things went well, so well that eventually she moved in with me. When she took baths, I suddenly saw what the bathtub was supposed to look like. Wrapped in my towels afterwards, she made the towels seem beautiful. And when she came out in her robe to join me on the back terrace, I suddenly understood why Ron had installed the swing out there.
But the flying squirrels ruined that little routine. We were sitting there one late afternoon, sipping coffee, watching the creek turn from blue to silver and waiting for the heron to swoop past at dusk, when one of those blasted rodents scurried out from the eaves, leapt out just over Cynthia’s head, spread its weird flappy arms, and sailed down to a distant tree. Then another did the same thing, and then another, and then a whole pack of them. Paratroopers is what they were; it was like some low-budget adaptation of the monkey scene from the Wizard of Oz. They did this every day, but this was the first time Cynthia had seen them. She whacked at her hair, scrambled off the swing, and ran inside screaming.
The squirrels had never bothered me before—they were ugly-looking things, but when they spread their squirrel wings and glided down toward the creek, it looked pretty cool—but I did see her point. They probably shouldn’t have been living in the house. Come to think of it, when the kids were there, the squirrels kept Caitlin up at night, scurrying over the ceiling above her, and it should be noted that there were holes in the walls here and there, so there was always the possibility that one of those ugly critters would end up in the house. (And, of course, one did, when Cynthia was home alone one day. Not a good scene.)
While I’m at it, there were other quirks of the house that had always seemed charming to me, but now that a grown woman was living there, they seemed potentially problematic. There was a door up in the attic which led to nothing but thin air, a three-story freefall. A terrace with plenty of air showing through the rickety floorboards. A leaky roof. No screens on the windows. A family of raccoons that had moved into the garage. And bats that lived in the slats of the house and in the bat box Ron had installed on that third-story terrace. (“They take care of the mosquitoes,” he had said, but the white walls of the bedroom, spattered with a hundred dead mosquitoes, would have proven him wrong.) And if the watermarks on the back of the house were any indication, the threat of a flood, come spring.
Oh, and the front door didn’t lock. Couldn’t lock. They were old French doors, and they opened inward. Even when they were closed, all you had to do is push hard from the outside and they opened wide. (I’d be damned if I could figure out how to lock them from the inside, although I’m sure just about any other man could.) They were doors that were meant for a parlor, a boudoir—not the outside door of a house in the woods. If a bear ever came sniffing around for garbage, he would have found his way into our kitchen without any trouble at all. Wow, that was easy.
None of this had ever bothered me, but it all must have bugged Cynthia, even though she was too nice to say anything about it.
One night, I was alerted to the potential dangers of having an unlockable front door when a four-legged beast paid us a nocturnal visit. We were sound asleep. Noah, the old black Lab, was sleeping by the door, allegedly guarding the house. (Ron, who had moved out west for a year, didn’t think Noah could have survived the trip, so I gladly kept him–it was clearly his house anyway.) Tessie, Cynthia’s Gordon Setter, was on the floor by our bed, as her mission in life was to protect Cynthia from any threat, which could come at any time. (It should be noted that this protection was more emotional than physical. Tessie yelped and took flight the second any living being looked at her the wrong way.) It was one or two in the morning, and we awoke to the sound of heavy, raspy breathing in the room. Tessie barked and scurried around, her claws scratching the old wood floor. Cynthia flew up to a sitting position. Then I felt something licking my hand, its breath on my fingers, and at the same time its stench hit me—like Death itself, paying me a bedside visit. A bear, I thought in my half-awake state. There’s a bear by my bed. I nearly soiled the sheets, but when I tremblingly hit the light, terrified at what I’d see, it was only Buddy, the Golden Retriever from Vic’s place, looking for someone to play with. And who had obviously just rolled around in some dead animal. Noah came into the room at that moment, tail wagging. See? There was no need to bark.
But hey, no problem. Something for us to laugh about. Cynthia loved dogs. We were living together. We were completely in love. That damn door!
Then, the bats came. Again, the middle of the night. Windows wide open. We awoke to the sound of gigantic moths—a whirring, circular sound, right over our heads. This time, Cynthia did not sit up.
What the hell is that? she whispered, like we were characters in a horror movie.
Without moving the rest of my body, I reached over and turned on the light. And that’s when we saw the bats—two of them—flying maniacally over our bed.
Cynthia’s head was already under the blankets. Tessie, her Great Protector, was nowhere to be seen. (Later, we’d find her under the bed.) The bats were flapping hysterically about a foot over our heads, as if trying to decide which one would swoop down to bite the male human, and which one would bite the female human.
We were characters in a horror movie.
They may have flown in the open window and for some reason couldn’t find their way out. Or (given that I found the front doors wide open in the morning), they may have flown in from downstairs. Whatever the case, they were stuck in our bedroom, and something, maybe the ceiling fan, had thrown off their echolocation, and they were locked in this crazy, circular-jerky pattern over our heads.
I told Cynthia to hang in there, I’d be right back. (She made a sound as if I was about to run outside, get in my car, and leave her there to fend for herself.) I slid off the bed, spilled onto the floor, and crawled out of the bedroom. I ran downstairs, found the broom, and ran back up.
I should mention that I was naked. That’s right: I was standing naked in the dark, holding a broom, watching bats circling my girlfriend. Did I say horror movie? I meant situation comedy.
Anyway, I stood there at the doorway, watching the bats. Cynthia was still under the covers. I told her I was there, I would take care of this. Don’t worry baby, I got it. I held the broom like a Louisville Slugger, timing their flight pattern.
This may be a good time to tell you that I was never very good at baseball. I was an excellent fielder, but I couldn’t hit the curveball. Or the fastball. Or the off-speed pitch. However, I did, and still do, have very good hand-eye coordination.
I crouched, watching the bats whirl round and round. It was either them or me.
Dead or alive.
I took a swing.
Their flight pattern grew more frenzied. I don’t presume to know what they were thinking, but it seemed they were now conscious of the presence of a naked man in the room with a weapon of some kind, and his aim was not humanitarian. I swung again.
The bat fell to the floor, flapping around. I whacked it again and put it out of its misery.
Did you know that bats have a lot of blood inside them? Plus let’s not forget all those mosquitoes they were allegedly eating. If you think about it, that blood inside those mosquitoes could have been (if my lumpy arms and legs were any indication) my own. And the blood of my girlfriend, and the blood of my children. It’s not too great a stretch to say that I may have just committed some form of infanticide.
I was gentler with the second bat. He (it’s hard for me to imagine bats as female) was still circling above my lovely girlfriend, the woman I hoped would someday be my bride. I had totally screwed up my first marriage; she was my chance at redemption. And this crazy bat was seeking her warm, delicious blood.
This will not stand.
Following its pattern—like a crazy ball in a crazy roulette wheel during an earthquake—I timed my swing. It was instinctual. Almost spiritual. Like Chevy Chase’s character in Caddy Shack, when he putts the golf ball. Nananananana….
Knocked it out of the park.
After propelling that little mammal out the window, I dropped the broom, raised my arms in triumph, and started my home-run trot. (Somewhere in a packed stadium, fans were going crazy, calling my name.) I scooped up the dead bat with a dustpan and flung it outside—a nice treat for the raccoons–then shut both windows asCynthia peeked out from under the covers, her eyes still wide with terror.
“This house is clean,” I announced, in the voice from the little woman in Poltergeist.
Then I got back into bed like somebody’s hero.