BAT MAN

The silent darkness felt almost palpable, as if pressed by the intrusion. After the door swung shut behind him, he stretched out, face down, on the mattress. Although listening, he could only hear the steady rhythmic pulse of blood in his head now. His calves and feet throbbed with fatigue. Reaching beside him, he pulled part of the ragged blanket over his legs. Then he drifted into fitful sleep.
.
He woke on his back, staring up at the spotted plaster ceiling. It must still have been early, because he could hear his neighbor in the adjacent apartment, making breakfast. The sound of silverware was distinct, but distant.  It summoned to him dormant memories of once familiar faces. He did not know where or if those same faces gathered, but only the year–2002–which was the last year he’d known family. Now the though oppressed him, accentuated by the loss of his job at the Pearson street Daynite Foods, and he fought it off by thinking of the old man on the other side of the wall. Did he really know anything about him? They’d spoken only three times in the six weeks they’d shared the duplex. “I’m Jamie,” he’d told the man–at least three times his age–soon after moving into the ramshackle house with only his mattress and a suitcase of old clothes. “And I’m Repler,” the old man had replied with a voice like sandpaper, before scurrying inside.  Subsequent conversations had been no more significant.
.
Jamie sat up and shivered. He tried to picture Mr. Repler sitting in his identically tiny kitchen, close to the wood stove, not wearing his thick black overcoat. It took more than a bit of imagination. He’d never seen him without that coat of his. Always, and in any weather, the old man trudged the city streets as if impelled.  Not that there weren’t others, of course. Homeless derelicts who moved with instinctive aimlessness down alleys, pausing at trash can fires to warm their callused hands. But he wondered, glancing about the room curiously, what it would be like to be that old and still have only . . . this.
.
He got up and approached the wall, listening. There was still movement over there, but no longer in the kitchen. He decided that Mr. Repler was preparing himself for his morning stroll. No doubt Social Security allowed him the eccentricity, perhaps with the help of the Salvation Army. And it was possible that he was covered by insurance and Medicare, although he seemed healthy enough with all that walking. At least he was spared of trying to survive on an endless string of minimum wage stints as a print shop sweeper, groundskeeper, or grocery clerk. Jobs lost, inevitably, to what Jamie considered “personality conflict.”  Maybe the old man even had connections to relatives or friends somewhere, and hadn’t been booted free of his family in a not-quite-forgotten past. But when you boiled away all the pretense, that was all it was–survival.

Jamie went into the kitchen and opened the stove grate. Scooping some soot and nails off the bottom with his hand, he shoved several jagged pieces of wood into the opening. Then he tore a dozen pages out of a National Geographic from a stack of them he’d obtained at the Mission. Rogue wave rising over an enormous trough breaks over the Supertanker Esso Netherland–loaded with Persian Gulf crude oil off the Cape of Good Hope one caption read. His eyes tracked in the slanted morning light. Breath misted in front of him. Preparing to strike a match, Jamie heard a voice–faint emanations from Mr. Repler, talking to himself again. He couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was just perceptibly parental.
.
He crouched into the pantry, placing his ear against the particle-board panel which separated the two pantries, and thought he heard the words “Not much longer now” before a door closed. But he couldn’t be sure. The sound was unnaturally hollow, as through a tunnel. And then, because Mr. Repler was gone, the house returned to its usual cold silence.
.
He spent the day at the employment office, applying for what benefits might still be left to him. The place was filled with mostly bored, young blacks wearing jeans, although there were occasional executive types in suit and tie who sat–it seemed to Jamie–as if they were above it all. What eye contact was made was brief. One fat white woman with too much lipstick and a red scarf drawn over her bund of hair played solitaire across two folding chairs. A man in a Stetson, leaning back and studying the fly-specked rows of fluorescents overhead, idly tapped a pool-cue case beneath his boot. And yet Jamie lingered until closing before lifting the lapels of his worn leather jacket against the bleak and already-dimming skyline.
.
Irritable at having been offered a Tec school grant to study welding instead of either a job or benefits, he walked westward, glancing back over his shoulder compulsively. The downtown buildings reflecting the crimson sunset seemed to stand obliquely, as if unwilling to face that abandoned zone of poverty–the slums and tenements of the indigent. Down the elevated bypass which swathed across the perimeters of the west end whisked carloads of city workers, their destination the untainted promontory of the middle class. From a hundred ramps and back road parking lots the glittering python had been summoned, but already it had become segmented as the bulk of the snake like scales, reflecting the dying sun, was shunted north. Soon the stilted ribbon of concrete was thrummed only intermittently as Jamie walked under it.
.
Returning hurriedly to the apartment, Jamie caught glimpses of street people, their shadows stretched in front of them in the growing gloom. Exhaust puttered from solitary cars roving narrow back streets. Smoke rose from chimneys and mouths. Two scarfed black men stood framing the rusted Coca Cola sign on the front of the barred-up Pauli’s Superette, slowly rocking and staring. Their words were muffled, unintelligible.
.
Nearer his street now, Jamie saw him–Mr. Repler in his big black overcoat. The old man moved methodically, stepping over the broken and buckling sidewalk. Then he paused at a grate near the corner to let the hem of his coat billow slightly in the rising warmth. Was he off on another trek? Jamie hesitated, but decided not to follow.
.
That night he ate at the Rescue Mission at the end of the street. The neon cross outside sputtered JESUS SAVES against the darkness. First everyone listened to brother Shoemaker’s sermon on the evils and sins of alcohol, then afterward they were served meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and corn donated by an eastside A&P because the cans had begun to rust. It tasted good, though. None of the men, although mostly transients, ever grumbled.
.
Back in the apartment, Jamie climbed the ladder into the attic through the trap door in the kitchen ceiling, hoping to find wood not essential to the skeleton framework of the house. He had intended to replenish his supply by ripping some boards from the condemned boarding house on the next block, as he’d seen a woman pulling a red wagon do. But it was late now, and the previous night he’d been forced to walk the six miles home after his boss fired him.
.
He lit a match and held it to one side, squinting. Well, well. The old man had installed a bulb. He reached across the rafter as far as he could and pulled the short chain. The bulb lit, swaying and throwing his distorted shadow behind him. Maybe the old man had electric heat now. He waved the match into smoke and began looking around.
.
The ceiling boards sagged. The twin metal chimney pipes were sooty with leaks. What insulation lay between the rafters was stained and smelled moldy. But he saw why the old man had put in the light.  Over to one side, near the opposite trap door, were half a dozen low wooden boxes. Beside these were several hand tools on what looked like a restaurant chopping block. There was a claw hammer, a pair of pliers, a chisel, and a hacksaw.
.
Crawling along the rafters, he edged closer. His shadow reached it sooner. Poised carefully, the light behind him now, he stretched to pull free one of the boxes lids. Then he breathed into his hands and slid beside it.
.
At first he thought there was nothing inside. He put his arm into the opening and came out with a handful of straw. Something moist dewed the pale strands. He smelled it and returned it to the box, disgusted. Then he opened another box. It too was empty, except for the straw.
.
Suddenly, he heard a door open, somewhere below. Mr. Repler’s apartment. He reached behind him and pulled the chain. The darkness which rushed around him felt thick and close, almost cloying. Mr. Repler walked into the kitchen, directly below. He could hear the old man breathing heavily, as if in pain. For a long time, just standing there, breathing. Was he looking up at the attic trap door? But now Mr. Repler was fumbling in the sink. There was the sound of silverware again. Something was taken out of the pantry. A meal was being prepared. After a few minutes he went into the other room and a rustling followed, like a paper sack being inverted. Repler began to mumble to himself again. Or was he alone?
.
Jamie resisted the urge to bend closer, and began sliding backward, along the rafters. Touching Repler’s chimney in passing, he discovered it warm. Had it been burning all along? Gingerly, he let himself down into his kitchen, thinking that tomorrow he would find firewood. For tonight he would burn the National Geographics.
.
The next morning was the same. Mr. Repler was up early and out by eight o’clock. Jamie watched him walking away along the uneven slabs with quick, short steps, the lapels of his coat drawn up beneath his ears in protection. Where was he going? Considering it, Jamie realized he’d never seen the old man at the Mission.
.
Jamie burned the remaining magazines, washed himself, and changed clothes. Through his kitchen window he saw Mr. Repler turn the far corner, his gait slow but energetically steady, and looking like a mannequin being trotted along invisibly.
.
Unable to find distraction, or any comfort in the opportunity, Jamie made his decision as a way of relieving his anxiety.  He lowered the trap door and climbed into the attic. Hesitantly, then, he crawled across to the other side, intently listening. But why was he so careful? Surely there was no one in the house but him.
.
He pushed on the opposite trap. It squealed and he stopped. Through a two-inch opening, he could see into the kitchen now. There were dishes everywhere. Cordwood was stacked in one corner, about hip-high. In the open grate he saw several embers glowing dully on a bed of white ash. Another chopping block was propped in the sink, with an oval stain across it from the dripping faucet. Carefully, he pushed the trap down so he could see into the next room. An unmade bed and a round table with an aquarium near the center.  As he suspected, the apartment was empty.
.
He forced himself to descend. His heart quickened at the prospect at being caught. But what could the old man do? Call the police? He didn’t have a phone. Jamie grinned, feebly. If he wanted, he could clean the place out, chuck his mattress, and check into the YMCA. Looking around, however, he decided there was probably nothing worth stealing except the wood.
.
In the living room he switched on the light. It certainly was warm, he thought, noting the filament space heater which stood beside one discolored wall. He stepped over the scattered newspapers to the card table, and put his hand into the aquarium. The straw at the bottom was also spotted, damp. Four other aquariums, their glass lids ajar, lined the hardwood floor.
.
He went back into the kitchen, not knowing what to do. In the silence the old, battered Frigidaire–which in Jamie’s apartment was used to store wood–coughed into a wheezing hum. He grasped the rusted handle firmly and pulled it open.
.
At first he didn’t know what he was looking at. Then the smell hit him. Beneath a 25 watt appliance bulb and stretched across two bent wire-mesh shelves lay the bloody hindquarters of a freshly killed animal, wrapped loosely in plastic. By the feet, he guessed dog. Blundering back into the stove, he also saw that below this were various fruits and vegetables–carrots, onions, bananas, oranges,and apples. None of these were even remotely fresh.
.
Letting the door swing shut, he stooped and turned away, tightly closing his eyes. When he opened them again he was looking into the grate, where he could see sawed sections of bones propping open the flue. The ash was very white. So white that the image did not fade when, briefly, he closed his eyes even tighter.
.
He stood, looking up at the trap. He was beginning to feel nauseous now. Then, as he was about to ascend, he noticed the closed pantry door. Not wanting to, but feeling compelled, he paused to twist the knob and nudge the door open with his foot.
.
The shelves inside were lined with skulls. Canine and feline. Beneath a row of glasses were several stacks of torn magazines. Glossy photos of nude women. He kneeled almost involuntarily, reaching for a small skull among others. Practically indistinguishable, except by shape.
.
The skull of a baby.
.
He turned it over and over in his hands, staring as if at a relic. Then the rush of blood as he stood was accompanied by three sick plunges in his throat, and he dropped it, absently. It fell onto a burlap sack and rolled off against the particle board at the back. . . Had it come to this? He staggered backward. His chest felt as if someone had hit him. Clutching his throat and looking down, he saw that the vomit-stained sack in the pantry was moving. He glanced quickly around for something, anything!  A knife from the sink–he poked it at the sack. The sack flapped, once, twice. Angrily, he flailed at it. Again, the burlap seemed to respond to the attack, this time by folding in on itself and emitting a very low mewing sound. Appalled, he lifted it with the knife. Beneath the sack was a bat. It’s wings had been cut out, like sails from rigging. The bat had a dog’s face, like a Pekingese.
.
It was a vampire.
.
He heard movement in the yard. Glancing out, he saw that it was only a stray dog, emaciated, alone. But the distraction broke his attention and allowed him to flee. He climbed up into the attic, frantically, and pulled the trap shut behind him. There were the wooden boxes. He scrambled back to his own side, heedless.
.
In his apartment he paced, back and forth, from front door to kitchen. Should he go to the police? What would he say? Done with waiting, he decided to confront Mr. Repler first. Or at least to follow him.
.
He traced the route he’d seen the old man take down Ferris street to the train depot. Passing an auto graveyard, he watched as a gray sedan was lowered into the crusher. Beside the giant crane was a hooded man haloed in sparks, welding something. Wistfully, Jamie imagined that it might have been him.
.
As morning slipped into afternoon he found it harder to concentrate on the images troubling him, and he sought company at the Brown Derby pool hall. The Texan from the employment office was there, straddling a worn leather stool, waiting. Smoke drifted lazily. Had constant need to survive broken Mr. Repler’s sanity? Or, Jamie mused, was it the loneliness at being discarded as no longer productive? Perhaps the old man was only a victim now, like so many who’d let dignity slip away one glance at a time.  Somehow, though, he knew the explanation wasn’t adequate. He was rationalizing.
.
He left the Brown Derby and went to the YMCA to inquire about a room. The director was curt in dismissing him. Would he try again next week? Would he consider the floor of the gym for tonight?
.
He walked the gray streets for miles. Twilight came on subtly, in imperceptible gradations. Passing a policeman writing a ticket to a teenager in a dark blue Camaro, he paused. But they were arguing now.  With a contemptuous gesture toward both, he walked on under the cloud-crowded sky. Nearer his apartment, he saw an old alcoholic climbing stairs into a bar, steadying himself on the rail. Through the window of a service station he saw where a tired attendant saw in a wooden chair, head in hands, with only a credit card imprinter and a symmetrical stack of oil cans visible in the bare room.
.
As he approached the house, his anxiety increased. Should he try to stay at the Mission? Brother Shoemaker would be sure to notice him, though. If he appeared too conspicuous, or they were forced to make too much fuss over him, he would be surely labeled as a freeloader. Being unable to blend in with the other transients, then, he’d be denied meals in the future.
.
Seeing no light in Mr. Repler’s windows, he went in and found his own room similarly dark and cold.  Cursing himself inwardly for not remembering to get wood, he lit a candle and listened at the pantry door.  Nothing. Dimly, he imagined himself stealing some of the old man’s wood. But the thought of crawling over there again repulsed him. Instead he glanced up at the trap.
.
Through a minute crevice, due to the misalignment of the door, he saw light in the attic.  But hadn’t he turned it off that morning? Of course he had. His breath caught in his throat. His arms sagged, and the candle was gutted. The thin band of light now split the room like a razor.
.
He stood for what seemed a lifetime, listening. But he could hear nothing but the faint sweep of traffic along the distant bypass. Where were those people going? he wondered. Somewhere safe, probably. Safe and warm.
.
Slowly, his hand reached for the dangling chain. He drew the trap down an inch at a time. At least his didn’t squeak.
.
He peered up, apprehensively. The attic was empty. Even Mr. Repler’s boxes, whatever they might once have contained, were gone. Suddenly, he realized that the old man had moved out.
.
He crawled across, pausing now and again to listen. And there cautiously descended into the dark kitchen: A low and now thinly-veiled moon illuminated an empty sink. The pantry door was open and murky.  He tried the switch but nothing happened. Perhaps he’d taken the light bulbs too, forgetting about the one in the attic.
.
He walked through the living room to the front door. Nothing impeded his progress. No bed, table, or aquariums. He tried the door and found it locked. A double-keyed deadbolt. Returning to the kitchen, he had begun stacking the remaining cordwood across his left arm when he felt it. A slight pull of air. Puzzled, he stopped for a moment, and then, horrified, realized that he’d neglected to lock his own front door. A sound like shuffling, although exaggerated through the traps and the cold, conductive medium of the attic, came to him hushed. In terror, he considered the possibility that the reverse might also be true, and numbed by the thought, cradled the wood in his arm like a sleeping baby. Then the silence returned, as if he’d just imagined it all. Or were they both waiting, listening?
.
Blood hammered his temples, a sluggish throbbing that was enough to erase the feeble sounds of traffic. He clamped shut his eyes and tried to think of a face. His mother’s, busy about the stove? His father’s, driving him around the block in his striped yellow taxi? No. . .  Those images wouldn’t hold, kept shifting.  He saw instead the blurred faces of street people. Faces which appeared on corners for a day, or a week, that just when you thought you knew them would vanish and be replaced. He saw Mr. Repler’s face too, or what he could remember of it. How old might such a face be? Sixty? Eighty? Eight hundred?
.
He smiled at the thought. But not long.
.
He could hear the mumbling now. Distinct, unmistakable. When he realized it was not coming from inside his own head, and that something was indeed moving through the attic above him, he dropped the wood back across the pile and went to the front windows.  But they were tight, shut on rusted hasps. The handle would not budge.
.
He stepped back and kicked. One pane shattered. Jagged pieces hung from the mildewed frame. He kicked again. This time the frame cracked and another pane exploded into fragments.  But the pieces would not fall out. The struck the woven mesh screen and heaped in a pile, like shards of ice in moonlight.
.
The breeze which wafted around him chilled him, and he turned. Mr. Repler’s mouth bore a twisted, almost toothless grin where he stood in the middle of the room, facing him. His fingers worked on undoing his heavy black coat. Jamie pulled back one fist, instinctively.
.
“You get out of here, old man,” he said, his voice almost pleading.
.
Repler’s smile faded, not really a smile at all. His face seemed suddenly older–old and pathetically tired.  “I’ve almost made it,” he said, hoarsely. “But the help I’ve had isn’t enough.”
.
“You’re still sick,” Jamie agreed, “whatever help you’ve had.”
.
“That’s why I’ve come back to you,” said Repler. “To see if I can be like you. Did you turn me in?”
.
“I should have. Maybe I still will.”
.
 “Will you?” the old man asked, opening his coat.
.
Inside, surrounding his thin and haggard frame–as if in protection–were nestled hundreds of bats, hanging wingless, close. Their eyes reflected red, dully. Their faces were twisted miniatures of Repler’s own face, piteous but rapacious.
.
As Jamie groped for a piece of jagged glass behind him, they waited for his reply.
.
© 2009 Pseudopod (by Jonathan Lowe)

twd

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2 thoughts on “BAT MAN”

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