During graduate school, we lived in this run down post-Victorian that the previous renters, a bunch of hippies, had gotten permission from the landlord to paint neon green with purple trim and purple doors. The house sat at the end of a street that opened into the yard of a large feed store, the odor from which I always thought of as psychedelic manure.
Dick and Bertie and their very weird son, Dickie, were our next door neighbors. Dick was a short guy whose belly stuck out like he’d somehow managed to swallow a bowling ball whole. His jet black hair was combed straight back, with gobs of what you hoped was gel, all of it massed at his nape in an upsweep that lay over his stained and dandruff-coated shirt collar. Even though I was close to twenty years younger, Dick always called me “Boss” and told me I should call him “Big Dick…get it?” He claimed everyone on the city maintenance crew called him that. “Either that or Dick Head…get it?”
Bertie was bigger than Dick in every way. She wore dresses that could double as pup tents, but that didn’t stop Dick from putting the evil eye on anyone who looked at her for any longer than he thought they should. “Somebody messes with my Bertie, they’ll need a new sack for their nuts.” This protective attitude didn’t seem to keep Dick and Bertie from regularly mixing it up, the results of which were often seen in cuts and bruises on both. Bertie’s hair was permanently de-permed and she was missing a front tooth, of which you were reminded every time she spread her lips and hissed a deep toke off one of the unfiltered Camels that regularly dangled from her lower lip. Despite a similar age difference, Bertie always called my wife “Missus” and told her she was “too boottiful for words.”
I got along fine with Dick and Bertie, getting along fine usually meaning having too many beers while sitting on the mildewed sofa that lay legless on their front porch. Dick and I mostly talked about how often the little guy got screwed, a topic my wife mistrusted. “I suppose you see yourself as inclusive, standing up for the common man. I think it’s arrogant and patronizing. What do you get out of it? Some kind of approval? You can’t get more appropriate approval, like from your dissertation advisor?” I thought she could be snobby and cold, a poor example for Michael, our three year old son.
The comfort I felt with Dick and Bertie didn’t extend to their son, Dickie, or “Little Dick…get it?” Dickie was an eight year old kid with a square head and uneven black eyebrows. His nose ran constantly and he lost the privilege of visiting our house when my wife vomited after he left a stringy booger on the banister that she idly ran her hand over on her way upstairs. More troubling, I once caught him with his penis pulled out, asking Michael if he wanted to touch it. That was the first time I grabbed his arm and pinched him hard on his undeveloped little triceps. Similarly, troubling, one day I heard the loud mewing of a cat and went outside to find Dickie in his backyard, poking a stick at a small kitty he had trapped at the corner of the fencing. I yelled at him and when he turned around, the cat sprinted to safety. That earned Dickey another strong pinch and me a sit down with Dick.
“I’m not trying to tell you your business, Dick,” I said, “but I think this suggests Dickie may have some problems starting to develop.”
“I don’t know about that,” Dick responded. “I done things like that his age…I din’t keep doin’ them.”
I took a pull on an Iron City and felt my shirt pocket for the cigs I’d recently given up.
“But if you say, so Boss, I’ll kick the shit out of him.”
“You will like hell,” Bertie’s hoarse voice came from inside the house. “You’d be needin’ to beat on two of us then.”
Dick popped up, twisted himself and sank back into the porch couch, odors from a strange life wafting into the air. “That’d be easier done than even said.”
“No, no.” I said. “It’s just information. It’s your business how to handle it.”
My wife later told me that my manner of handling the situation was cowardly. “He’ll do enough one day, with the right person catching him, and he’ll come to the attention of the authorities. I hope we’re gone from here well before then.”
I decided against telling her about my behavior management program, figuring she’d see the pinching as a second wrong. I had to say though that I thought it was working. At least the little scoundrel quit doing things he must have guessed I’d catch him at. And, for reinforcement, no one around, I’d occasionally give him a general purposes pinch. He’d show a confused look after one of those. All of that went as well as I could hope. At least until the goddamn business with the bats.
Near the end of our third year living on Palmer Street, my dissertation stayed undone but my stipends were running out and we needed to think about money. That meant finding a job and perhaps re-locating, developments I think my wife welcomed.
It was a late Spring evening, a warm breeze transporting the day’s pollen and with legions of crickets settling in for the evening. Our son in bed, we sat in comfortably stuffed porch chairs. I had my trusty Iron City, she had a rare glass of Chianti.
“This is nice,” I said. “What more could you ask for?”
She stopped in mid-sip, set her glass down and stared over at the feed yard, seasonal bags of fertilizers and mulches stacked over half way up a ten foot wire mesh fence. “I’ll take that as a stab at humor,” she softly said.
An irritation ran through me. “Why can’t you enjoy the moment?” I asked. “You never seem satisfied.”
“I’m not satisfied,” she said, fingering her wine glass.
I didn’t know what to say, so I gulped down the second half of my beer and got up to get another.
Tears had welled in her eyes as she looked at the can being slowly crushed in my hand. “That’s one thing I’m dissatisfied with,” she said. “I wish you would drink less and focus on your doctoral work more.”
I badly wanted another beer, but stood where I was, wanting to show her I didn’t need one. It only made it worse. I felt exposed, uneasy. But I stayed silent. Then, I began to hear background noises from next door, running, something knocked to the floor, a large object drug across a room. The certain sounds of a rising insanity. Then shouting.
“I’m disappointed we’re still here,” she said. “I don’t like the house, it belongs in a circus…I don’t like the neighborhood….” She glanced over toward what had clearly become a ruckus. “…the people.”
“You’re an elitist,” I said, knowing I was ignoring her pain.
“Is it elitist to not want to live next door to people who fist-fight? People who seem intent on raising a mentally disturbed son? It’s not what I envisioned for us.”
I knew I needed to acknowledge what she was saying, but I just thought about the beer.
“You don’t see any of that?” she half-asked.
“I don’t know, I…” My unformed response was interrupted by a wild-eyed Dick, dressed in work boots, a dirty t-shirt and boxer style underpants. He ran across the shared rutted- grass driveway, holding a broom in his right hand.
“Boss, Jesus…you gotta come…we’re, we’re bat-attacked…we could all get rabbis.”
“Rabies, Dick. Rabbis are Jewish clerics.”
He looked at me like I was the one who was nuts. “What!? Who gives a damn about that? You gotta help us.”
I started to get up as my wife put a hand on my forearm. “Please don’t go over there,” she said. “Call the police, get an exterminator. Please don’t get involved.”
I looked in my wife’s eyes and I knew right then that it was important I do what she asked. But I was still hurt and pissed about her “disappointments”, what she said about drinking, working. I took her hand in mine and smiled. “I’ll be right back,” I said and I vaulted the knee high porch wall and followed the heavy- booted Dick across the driveway and into his house
“Up here, Boss, the little bastard’s up here.” Dick scooted up the stairs, at the same time handing the broom back to me. “Yer taller, you got a better shot at whacking him.”
When I reached the second floor landing, I realized I hadn’t given any thought as to how we might go about doing this. Dick had already headed down the hall, but I glanced over at a small bedroom to my immediate right and saw Dickie, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed under him. I realized he’d grown older, a pre-teen. But he still looked like a devil child. His face slowly widened into a smile, a big, smart-assed smile. I pointed an index finger at him, then cupped my thumb and fingers into ready pinch mode. He didn’t let go of his smile. It was wrong somehow. He acted as if we were equals, as if he had something on me.”
“Dickie, close your goddamn door,” Dick said, as he grabbed my elbow and hurried me further down the hall.
Dick’s approach looked like it had been hit and miss, without the hits. From the hall light, I could see that he and Bertie’s bedroom looked like it had been the site of an explosion. He grabbed the broom back and began wildly swinging at the bat as it swooped back and forth in the darkened room. Bertie was trying but failing to locate the bat in the beam from a heavy flashlight. Dick took one wild swing and the broom head hit Bertie flush in the face.
“God damn you, Dick,” she cried, hot cigarette ash floating all over the room. “Them bristles stuck me in the eyes.” Bertie dropped the flashlight and ran from the room.
“Hold up a second,” I said. “Let’s think this through.”
“Good idea,” Dick said, and he reached down and cracked open a couple of 16oz Iron Cities that had been sitting on the hallway floor. On the wall above, I noticed a thumb-tacked and frameless picture of Jesus that was frayed at the edges and looked like it might have been unevenly cut out of a magazine.
“Let me think,” I said. “Bats are nocturnal.”
“The hell you say, you mean like …they get wet dreams?”
“No, I mean they come out at night. They don’t like light.”
Dick chug-a-lugged half his beer and belched loudly. “So, we should turn the lights on.”
"Right,” I said. “We turn the lights on, shut the closet door and close the windows. We’ll have him,”
“I knew you’d know what to do, Boss. Yer brains are good ones.”
It took a good half hour, and a second tall beer, trying to pin the bat to the wall with the broom and hold him there long enough to capture him. We eventually gave up on the capturing part, and when I finally had him strongly pinned, high on the wall, Dick grabbed a side chair, stood on it and mashed the little rodent with the metal end of the big flashlight.The bat fell to the floor, flopped a couple times, but Dick was quick to stomp him, hard enough that some of the animal stuck to his boots.
Dick was whooping and talking about us being a”champeen” team. I felt less exuberant, but agreed we needed a couple more celebratory beers on his porch. It was getting late, but my wife would likely still be up and I could brag to her about the virtues of neighborliness. Beers in hand, we walked out on his porch and I was surprised to see a panel truck parked in front of our house. I walked over and read the lettering on its side: Sampson’s Pest Control. “What the hell…?” I murmured.
I went in the house and found my wife reading a magazine in the living room. My son was curled up on the couch, asleep with his thumb in his mouth, a habit I thought he had broken.
“What’s that truck doing there?” I asked.
“Now, why the hell would you do that? I had the situation totally in control. He’ll find there is no bat there.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “He’s leaving. The bat control needed was here.”
“That’s impossible…” Some fucking coincidence, I almost said. But what I felt was loss.
My wife stood up, adjusted a cover over Michael and turned off the table lamp. She sighed.
“There was a bat in your son’s bedroom. You were busy saving other people from their bats. I called the police, they referred me to a 24-hour exterminator service.”
I was having trouble making sense of this. I was feeling the beer and wavering. I spaced my legs to steady myself. “Where’s the bat?” I still wanted to challenge her on this action.
“The bat was freed. The man turned on all the lights and opened all the windows…”
She stopped as I said, “Damn…I knew that…”
“Anyway, the bat got stuck on the window, trying to get out. The man used a long pole with a small trap on the end. He lifted the bat off the window, stuck the pole out of it and released the trap. The bat flew away. It was very humane. What about you?”
“What about me what?”
“What did you do with the bat?”
I looked hard at her, to be certain she wasn’t ridiculing me. “Pretty much the same thing,” I said.
My wife went to the couch and began to lift our son.
“I’ll take care of Michael,” I said, but I stumbled on my way across the room.
“No…you won’t,” she said, as she adjusted the boy in her arms, part protective gesture. For a moment, it seemed like she was ready to say something more, but she only looked at me, her eyes opaque in the darkened room. On her way out the door, she flipped off the hallway switch, leaving only the dim light from upstairs.
The week I got back from California, after seeing my son Michael in rehab, I received the invitation to my young friend Sara’s wedding. She was living in the town where I’d finally finished my degree, but I felt little enthusiasm about a return to old haunts. But she was a sweet kid, smarter than God and the best supervisee I’d ever had in training. Wedding receptions were time bombs for people in recovery, but I had six years in and not attending for that reason felt like unhealthy avoidance.
Things had gone well with Michael. I think, for maybe the first time, I was a good model for him. It felt like we were building something that had been hard to work on when he lived halfway across the country. I even spent some civil time with his mother, probably for the first time in fifteen years. I didn’t exactly make amends, but I think I made clear that I was as much at fault as she and that I no longer thought she was Satan’s younger sister.
It was only a two hour drive and I arrived before the wedding itself. I may have made some changes in my life, but being caught alive in a church wasn’t one of them. I decided to find Palmer Street and check out the old house my ex-wife had so disliked. I drove all the way through one crossing street to the next before I realized that the feed store was gone, and on a second run through, I could see that the greenhouse and the neighbor’s house were as well. A large apartment complex took up that end of the block and there was a Starbucks on the opposite corner. I was confused by the sadness I felt, because the neighborhood hadn’t exactly been the site of a charmed life. An odd emptiness stayed with me as I drove over to the reception.
I parked in the American Legion lot, turned off the car and held the wedding gift in both hands, reading my best penmanship: “To Sara and Richard, a lifetime of joy.” I had forgotten the invitation and didn’t even know Richard’s last name. So what? I’d make a pleasant appearance and be on my way
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Sara had introduced me to her new husband, and after a firm handshake and Sara moving on to greet someone else that was the first thing he said to me.
I looked him over. Medium height, dark hair, not a bad looking guy. Something vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “No, I’m sorry. I guess I don’t.”
He smiled broadly as the band began playing some danceable rock. “When Sara mentioned the name, I wondered if it wasn’t going to be you and, damn, here you are.”
I must have looked clueless, because he sighed and added, “I lived next door to you when I was a kid…on Palmer Street. You and your wife and kid. I guess you were only there a few years.”
I could feel a mild pang in my stomach and my face flushed. “You’re…Dick, I mean Dickie?”
He winced. “I go by Richard now.”
“Of course,” I said “How’s your dad…and mom?”
Sara was tied up with a large group of well-wishers and she half smiled and gave the two of us a wave.
“They’re both dead. Mom died of lung cancer…no surprise there, huh?” A dark cloud flushed his face. “That was two years ago, and Dad barely made it a year longer” The cloud lifted and he looked proud. “He didn’t want to live without her. They were a genuine love story, sometimes crazy, but crazy about each other.”
What did I know? Really? “That’s too bad,” I said, ‘but a good story in a way too I guess.”
He rubbed his hands together. “How about you, your wife?”
“Uh, we didn’t make it, divorced a long time back.”
“Sorry to hear it,” he said, but I didn’t believe him.
The hell with this, I thought. I don’t need this little jerk-off pretending to feel sorry for me.. “Listen, Dickie, Richard…I need to say my goodbyes to Sara, and hey, congratulations.”
“You know,” he said while putting his hands in his black striped wedding trousers, “I used to be scared of you.”
I was moving toward Sara, but saw she was headed our way. “I can’t imagine that,” I said.
“Remember,” he said, “you used to pinch me…hard.”
I stopped and looked at him. He was a grown man. I didn’t know what to say.
“That was fairly fucked up,” he said. “I mean, don’t you think? You do that to a kid today, they charge you with child abuse. Did you do it to your own son?”
Sara reached us. “You two seem like you’re carrying on like you’ve known each other forever.”
I gave her my best approximation of a smile. “Turns out we have,” I said.
She threw her arms around her husband and kissed him on the cheek. “Well, did my hubby here tell you he has just been appointed head of City maintenance services? Supervises fifteen people.”
Richard waved her off. “No honey, your old friend here remembers me when I was just a little troublemaker.” He smiled at me, the old smart-ass smile I remembered. I wondered if his wife picked up on it. He chuckled.
“My dad used to think you could solve anything. He looked way up to you. He thought you were really something.”
I didn’t like the feel of this. “You’re dad was a good guy…”
“You didn’t know everything though…did you?”
“Richard…” Sara said in a “be nice” tone.
“I’ve got a long drive home,” I said. “I’m really happy for both of you.”
An attractive silver-haired woman interrupted us, took Sara by the arm and said, “Sara dear, you must say hello to the Henderson’s. You gentlemen can spare her for just a moment?” She looked like the type of woman who was accustomed to getting what she wanted and I was again alone with Richard.
“Well,” I said, looking around for an exit.
“Yeah,” Richard said, clearly waiting until Sara was out of earshot. “For instance, you didn’t know shit about bats did you?”
I felt a rumbling in my stomach, but said nothing.
“How do you think there wound up being a bat for each house?” he said chuckling again. His face filled with fake wonderment. “There were about two too many bats for you to handle, weren’t there?” He raised and lowered his eyebrows twice, the smart-assed grin pasted to his face.
I looked around the crowded hall, the dance floor filling, the noise level growing. I took a deep breath and stepped closer to Richard, putting my right hand out for a shake. He raised his hand to meet mine and I clasped it firmly while bringing my left hand up to his underarm. I pinched him as hard as I could. Hard muscle. No give.
“You take good care of Sara, Little Dickie,” I said.
I skirted the dance floor and found a side door, walking into the warmth of a late afternoon sun.