Five-Minute Memoir

October 23, 2016

A Bat Tale from Poe and Me

Jo-Ann Pilardi

bat-woman-3

“It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.[1]

Well, not exactly, but I hope I now have your attention.

On a mid-August night this year, August 15, 2016, in fact, a fierce and sudden thunderstorm broke loose as I drove the four blocks home from the Giant food market, my thirteen-year-old Chevy wincing under squalls of violent wind and heavy rain. I parked outside my home and waited in dread: was death more certain if I sat in my car (under an 80 year old sycamore whose branches sometimes fall in storms) or if I ran into the house (across my porch, whose ornamental iron fencing was sure to attract a lightning bolt)?

So, yes, “there are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell.” [2] In this particular hellish moment, I decided to make a run for it, from car to porch in the driving rain, as my heart beat wildly—and, I hoped, not for the last few times. Fingers clutching my house key, my body shaking at the encircling bolts of lightning and claps of thunder, battered by a strong wind from the north, I unlocked the heavy oaken door. And was blown inside.

As I entered, I felt a spooky, indeed ungodly, flutter of wind above and around me. Scenes of Young Frankenstein (Marty Feldman’s Igor, in particular) flitted through my mind, but I put those aside. Enter I did and happy I was, finally safe in my sturdy little home. I put away the groceries and, after that, enjoyed an extended phone talk with my daughter-in-law. I then turned off the large lamp, leaving on only a small one, and turned on the television, wanting to find Rachel Maddow defending all things good and right, a beacon of hope on this stormy night. As I did, a flutter appeared at the very edge of my vision, indeed at its outermost edge. Was there a large black moth in the room, or did I just imagine it? Or was it something else? Was there something—or was there nothing? Stay with me here, reader. “Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”[3]

Within the space of no more than ten seconds, I saw that flutter turn into a broadly winged creature: a bat! (So that was the spooky movement I’d felt above me as I’d entered the house! The flimsy creature was blown inside, as was I, both victims of an evil storm.) It fluttered near, then disappeared, then fluttered back again, and disappeared again, into the unlit back rooms of the house. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing/Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,“[4] so I grabbed a large broom and opened the front door, because I’d heard that was the way to purge one’s home of bats. But it was not to be. Once I even thought the accursed creature had left, so I closed and bolted the door, only to find it dipping and soaring around me a few seconds later. I was becoming quite agitated, and even may have cried out: “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” But predictably, “quoth the raven, bat, ‘Nevermore.’ “ [5]

Surely a call to my sister in California would help, I thought (because “the ingenious man person is often remarkably incapable of analysis” [6]), so I dialed her up and told her my story. Alas! Its telling was interrupted by my repeated shrieks, as the bat looped around me, its trumpery and deplorable self constantly mocking me. At times I could even hear a humiliating chuckle emanate from its mouth. All this and more I bore that despicable night. “The thousand insults of Fortunato the bat I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I swore revenge.” [7] I decided it was time to call out the cavalry: I would call 911! So I said good night to my sister. This next call would surely save me: Nine. One. One.

Me: “There’s a bat in my house and I can’t get it out. Could you send firemen out to remove it?” Visions of First Responders courageously rushing to my doorstep, bringing survival for me and death for the monstrous creature, filled my deteriorating mind; I could almost “Hear the loud alarum bells/Brazen bells!/ What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”[8]

911 Operator: “Firemen? Absolutely not. They don’t do that. I’ll send out a police officer.” (?) And she did. Not one but two. It was 10:30 p.m. by now, close to the end of their shift, and evidently, though I live in Baltimore, they had time on their hands. We talked and joked; I offered them coffee; we even looked for the bat sometimes, but never did we see it. Their visit was a nice relief, but pointless—except that one of them suggested I call City Animal Control the next day, because they were closed at that time. (I would learn later that Animal Control was on duty 24/7 and should have been sent to my house that night by the 911 Operator.)

That was all on Monday. On Tuesday I called Animal Control.  A nice man showed up, rather quickly, bearing a large net and an air of confidence, but the bat was in full hiding mode. Yet it flaunted to me its continued existence by leaving its “droppings” for the next two nights (yes, they look like mouse droppings). I slept uneasily each night, and the stress started to mount. Friends kept me company; some brought me nets and hats to wear, others (tall ones) came to search for the bat in the higher regions of my cupboards and windows. But little did it help and shockingly, “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language.” [9] (This was not me!) On Wednesday, the Baltimore City Health Department (alerted by Animal Control) called to say I must run, not walk, to the nearest hospital E.R. to start a series of rabies shots, for “you’ve been living with a bat for three days!” My own primary care physician also insisted—and so, reluctantly, I started the shots. It was the week from hell, as I rotated trips to the hospital with trips home, where I donned a large-brimmed hat and clutched wooden tennis rackets (all hurriedly acquired at Goodwill—see accompanying photo). Verily it must be said that increasingly “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” [10]

Friends helped a great deal, in fact two of them insisted I not sleep at home and invited me to stay with them, which I did. But, sadly, once I overheard one saying to the other: “I was cautious in what I said before the young lady; for I could not be sure that she was sane; and in fact, there was a certain restless brilliancy about her eyes which half led me to imagine she was not.”[11] (I told myself this “restless brilliancy” might be blamed on the rabies shots, but even I doubted that.) Things got worse as the universe began to conspire against me and for the bat.[12] Whenever I turned on the t.v., there were bat movies on the screen. Whenever I answered the phone, friends and relatives reported unending stories of bats: bats in washing machines in Pittsburgh; bat bites in bedrooms in Baltimore and apartments in Texas; bat infestations in colonial homes in Connecticut; a bat birth in a bath tub in Belfast, Maine. Bat. Bat. Bat.

It was all becoming too much, so that “then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.”[13] I have been able to reject that thought so far, ever hopeful that truth and goodness still exist (cf., Rachel Maddow), even in the midst of the 2016 American presidential campaign, wherein I have seen a Creature infinitely worse than any bat. It is now mid-October, and the bat has never been spotted again. Assuredly, I will find its dried-out corpse some day behind a major appliance or in a corner of my moldy cellar, next to the case of Amontillado. Gradually, hope and confidence have re-emerged in me, for I remind myself that “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,”[14] but dream or not, Hillary will crush The Donald.

And as “literature is the most noble of professions . . . and there is no seducing me from the path,”[15] I hope you’ve enjoyed this bat tale wrought by a four-handed monster: Poe and me.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, “Silence – A Fable” [2] Poe, “The Premature Burial” [3] Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” [4] Poe, “The Raven” [5] Poe, “The Raven” [6] Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” [7] Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” [8] Poe, “The Bells” [9] Poe, “The Black Cat” [10] Poe, Letter to G.W. Eveleth, 1848 [11] Poe, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” [12] Bats are excellent for the environment, but not in my house! [13] Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum” [14] Poe, “A Dream within a Dream” (poem) [15] Poe, Letter to F.W. Thomas, 1849

Copyright © 2016 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to 1,000 words, on any subject, in any style. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for a light tone. We’ll help you to edit and reduce the word count of your piece, if needed. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com

Prose Doodle

April 20, 2011

My Crows

Dinner is over. I’ve washed the dishes and read the paper and watched the news on television. Now I’m sitting on my balcony looking straight out at lush treetops. It’s dusk, and a cawing crow alights on a branch in front of me. Its cries are a mighty effort even for such a large bird, and its wings recoil with each shout-out. Soon, a second crow as big as the first one lands on a wire very near the first, then a third settles on a telephone pole several yards away. The first two are mates. I know all three, having watched them now for many sun-downs. They look identical, but I recognize their interactive behavior. For a beat or two the second crow eyes the antics of the original screamer, then takes up the cawing game. Quickly, the third crow follows suit. The first time I saw this crew I remember wondering what the bond between them amounted to. Are the two merely a couple? Is the single one an offspring, returned to live — so to speak — at home? Is the furious caterwauling some sort of family argument? Or perhaps a jealous complication created by a complex domestic arrangement? Interesting, I think, how my lonely thoughts create personifications.

Minutes pass. The sun is well below the horizon and my crows have disappeared from view. I suppose they’ve gone to their nests or caves or whatever for the night. The sky continues its slow darkening. The last trace of orange streaks the western horizon. One by one all sound abandons the evening, every distant warble. For twenty minutes or more there is no movement or noise near my balcony — just early evening stillness.

For a long time I’m in a dreamy trance, then I notice a rapid movement at the edge of my vision. Wings are once again propelling in the cool night. Another “friend” of mine, a bat, has emerged to feed on night bugs. It flies directly at me, then veers into a steep diagonal climb, then swoops down and darts sharply in the opposite direction. I watch its stunting display and wonder: Does it have a mate? Is that sharp ticking noise a coded message, or simply sonar? Before I have time to think again my tiny messenger is lost in the black sky.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

The Falconer Building

October 17, 2009

Bats, Bugs and Drunks

Miss Rita, the middle-aged woman at the desk next to mine, is asking personal questions. That’s something she does every night. I’m 22 years old and this is my first serious job since being FalconerBldgdischarged from the U. S. Army, two years ago. The inquiring Miss Rita and I are clerks in the Social Security Administration — I’m a new hire and she’s my trainer. We are working the 4:00 P. M. to 12:30 A. M. shift on the seventh floor of the Falconer Building at 414 Water Street in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the harbor. The year is 1959, deep summer, and I’ve made a new friend.

The windows are open, three huge floor fans blowing at full power. If the temperature in the Falconer Building rises above 90 degrees, we’ll be sent home. This happens often during the day shift, less so after the sun goes down. Miss Rita and I sit in the cross-ventilation and flip SS-5 cards and scribble name and date-of-birth changes into huge metal-covered ledgers, delighted with each other’s company. Form SS-5(This photo of an actual Form SS-5 shows a Miss Apgar requesting that her name be changed to Mrs. Lake. Click images for larger views.)

The evening passes to the rhythm of turning pages: flip, flip, scribble, flip, flip, scribble, scribble, flip. Against the background of dirty brick walls scores of other clerks’ bend to the identical task. The oily aroma of Baltimore harbor wafts in the windows and, when the wind shifts, more pungent odors come from the nearby wholesale fish market. The whirring fans cool our necks and blow the occasional card from desk to floor — or out a window. The strange sound of bat wings flutter in one window and out another. There is a gentle rustling noise as rat’s forage for sandwich crumbs in waste baskets, and the buzzing of blood-sucking insects foraging for us.

At the moment, Miss Rita’s job is to introduce me to the mysteries of entry-level clerking in the Numerical Register Section of SSA — and, it seems, to trade work information for personal tidbits. With anyone else her intimate prying might be offensive, but, somehow — I guess because of her odd sense of humor — it’s just harmless fun. Miss Rita’s constant stream of chatter, spiced with sexy double meanings, makes the long evenings of repetitive work bearable. In fact, they are downright entertaining. Anyway, there is not much of a private life to expose — I ‘m still in the process of trying to develop one. Somehow I manage to keep Miss Rita interested by making up outrageous but plausible tales about my exploits. She seems to especially enjoy the lies (these days we might call them “creative non-fictions”) that I tell about the erotic adventures of my mother, a born-again Christian, who would have been shocked if she knew that her son used her straight-arrow life for creative inspiration. Perhaps Miss Rita identifies with my fictions because she and my mother are about the same age.

On my first night in the Falconer Building — one of several rental properties which comprise the original 1936posterSSA headquarters — Miss Rita gives me the grand tour. She points out the freight elevator which, she says, I can use at peak load times during shift changes, when the passenger elevator is often overwhelmed. She shows me the stairs and mentions in passing that they are handy because the freight elevator only goes to the 5th floor. She doesn’t comment on the empty booze bottles in the stairwell, nor does she explain the sleeping drunk. Our “cafeteria” is located by the elevator door on the 4th floor, Miss Rita says. That is, at 9 o’clock each evening an old man gets off the elevator and stands there selling cold sandwiches out of a large cardboard box. Finally, Miss Rita gives me a booklet explaining what is expected in terms of production and conduct. The publication also has a small map showing the location of the men’s room and fire exits. I can use the restroom anytime, Miss Rita says, provided it isn’t too often. “Two often” and it will reflect in my “rating,” whatever that is.

The Falconer Building is clean, at least compared to the steel mill in which I had worked prior to this job, and there is even a bit of external entertainment. As we young male clerks arrive early for the evening shift, we often gather to watch strippers sunbathing on the low roof of the nearby Gayety Show Bar, the keystone of Baltimore’s infamous “Block” of sleazy nightclubs clustered nearby. When the women are up there relaxing between shows we all go a little crazy. The younger clerks in the Numerical Register Section — male and female — are friendly, and I am quickly drawn into a sort of loose-knit social club. After our shift finishes at 12:30 A. M., few of us want to go home to bed — we’re still too primed with youthful energy — so most nights a meeting is called for a party or card game at someone’s home or apartment. Or we go out on a sort of group date, which usually involves bar-hopping, the only form of entertainment available at that hour. Some nights we simply cruise the city and talk until dawn at an all night diner. Often, I drop into bed at first light or later, sleep until two in the afternoon, then get up to start the work/play cycle again. Some of my new friends have been living this way for several years, but the fun will last only a few months for me. I have “EOD’d” (Entered On Duty) at the end of an era. The whole of SSA’s scattered downtown headquarters is scheduled to consolidate in a modern complex in the western suburbs of Baltimore in January of 1960, only a few months hence.

Well before we leave the city, though, it comes to pass that my social life is greatly enriched as a direct result of information provided by Miss Rita. She tells me that a particular young lady, another Numerical Register clerk, is interested in me beyond mere friendship, and before long I am involved in my first “adult” relationship. I reward Miss Rita by continuing my stories, now more fact than fiction, and much more titillating than ever. I even expand the scope of the tales to include many of my young and ever-horny (at least in my telling) coworkers. And I notice that Miss Rita’s interest in our escapades become more intense the closer I stick to real life, which I take as a literary lesson. So as I become a better clerk, I also sharpen my narratives. Miss Rita especially likes to hear my juiced-up versions of our nocturnal forays to various “hillbilly” bars and other hotspots around town, and the house parties that follow into the wee hours, many of them ending in sleep overs. These stories require scant embellishment.

All of this happened a half century ago, late summer until the end of 1959. I spent 29 years with the Social Security Administration, taking an early retirement in 1988. Not long after the SSA headquarters moved to the suburbs, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping pages and scribbling in ledgers, so I took advantage of the Korean G. I. Bill and enrolled in evening art classes. That led to a temporary job in SSA’s drafting department, which in turn got me through what I called “the back door” of their large art department —where my first assignment was to help produce the original Medicare Handbook. Living and working in the suburbs was O. K., but I never again had an experience quite so rich in character or characters, or that made such an intense impression on me, as those early nights in downtown Baltimore, flipping SS-5 cards and trading punch lines with Miss Rita.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

A much longer version of this personal essay was published in the October, 1978 issue of OASIS, a magazine distributed monthly to Social Security Administration employees nationwide.


The Last Dog

June 25, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Three

We listened to “Sky King” together on the big floor model radio in the living room, almost like a real family. Afterwards, Ronnie whined at Ted about when he planned to buy a television. He kept on and kept on. Pretty soon Alice and Ted got sick of him and sent us both to bed. No fair. To say goodnight, Alice kissed Ronnie on his cheek and patted me on the shoulder. No fair again, but I didn’t care. She made us swear we’d do our homework until lights out at ten o’clock. Before we were even out of the room Alice made Ted put his paper off to one side, so they could talk. That was a bad news for him. Up in Ronnie’s room I could tell he was in a mood, too, because the first thing out of his mouth was, “Know who’s a better artist than you, Andy?” When I didn’t say anything, he answered himself. “Betsy the chimpanzee.”

“Who says?”

“Ever’body.”

I stayed quiet and took my shoes and socks off. Ronnie already had his off and was spreading and un-spreading his toes for exercise. We always did our homework barefoot. Ronnie said, “Just because you’re the best favorite in Miss Laura’s art class, that don’t make you—”

“Am not.”

“Well,” Ronnie said, “anyway, that monkey is twice as better than you. Three times as better.” I could care less what Ronnie thought since I knew he didn’t know anything about art. Anyway, Betsy couldn’t draw, she just smeared finger paints around to make a mess. Ate more paint than she painted with. “Betsy’s the real genius,” Ronnie said.

“You read that in the News Post—same as me.” I could tell something else was on Ronnie’s brain. When he got bothered by whatever, Ronnie liked to fight me and he had to win, to show who was the boss. It was pitiful.

“Betsy had her pictures printed in Life magazine,” Ronnie said. “And where was yours?

I came back at him with a low blow: “Yeah, and how come your daddy don’t come home from work most nights anymore—huh, Ronnie?” Give back better than you get, that’s my motto. Why not? “Ain’t seen Ted at the dinner table with food in his mouth for days.

Ronnie gave out a puny, “Don’t care,” then he cried some. He used first one sleeve and then the other to wipe off tears and snot, then he shut down and stayed quiet for a long time.

After awhile I said, “Look, Ronnie, I didn’t mean to say that, what I said.” He kept on real quiet and pretty soon I caught on that he was staring at my bare feet. That was so creepy I quick pulled them up under me. “You shithead, Ronnie!”

“Your feet are so little,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to say that. “I’ve got ’em memorized.”

“You know, Ronnie, you’re really one dumb fucker.”

“In case you come up hurt or dead, see?” Ronnie did a laughing snort. “Say one foot gets cut off and mixed in with a bunch of other feet, in a war, say—or a train crash? You’re laid up in the hospital delirious from pain. They go to sew your foot on and there’s a whole pile to choose from, but you’re in no condition to say which one? I’d know the one to point to.”

“They don’t sew stuff back on people that’s been cut off.”

“How about Frankenstein?” Ronnie waited to see if I saw some sense in that dumb statement, but I kept quiet. Ronnie kept at me. “Say you come up dead in the harbor, your head cut off. Hands and arms gone. What’s left for identification?”

“Feet and legs and—”

“Forget legs,” Ronnie said. “Legs are no good for identification—but feet, especially if someone swears they know them particular feet, that would work. You’d be easy, Andy, ’cause your feet are perfect and tiny.”

It took all I had to keep calm and not tell him where to shove his dumb idea. I just said, “Millions of people have little feet.”

“Not in South Baltimore.” Ronnie smiled. “One hundred, tops.”

“At least five hundred.”

“Not perfect-shaped like yours!” Ronnie gave me an oily grin that flipped my stomach. “Don’t worry, Andy, if something happens to you I’ve got ’em in my brain.”

“Ronnie, you best quit with that feet shit.”

“Even better—how about if your feet were a special color? Think about it. Blue, maybe! Blue is lucky. Yeah! If your feet were the only perfect blue feet in South Baltimore, why, anybody could identify ’em, assuming they knew Andy Givens had perfect tiny blue—”

“Screw you, Ronnie!”

“Let me paint ’em Andy!”

When he begged like that I first wanted to gag, but instead I just yelled, “Go to hell!” That was part fake, though, ’cause I was really mad and happy all at once. Ronnie was crazy—yeah—but in a good-bad way. He made it be really strange fun sometimes, us two living in that room.

Some nights Ronnie couldn’t go to sleep if he knew Alice’s tall glasses were mixed in with her short glasses. He’d wait until his folks were conked out and sneak downstairs and go through the kitchen cabinets. We whispered about stuff until we heard their snores. Ted was easy to spot because he snored big. Alice did tiny grunt sounds. When Ronnie got back from his kitchen raid he always saluted me like John Wayne and said, “Mission accomplished.” The next morning Alice would find her glasses in neat rows, arranged by height and color. She must have wondered how they got that way, but as far as I know she never let on. Ronnie did other crazy stuff, too. Like, that one night when he came in and went straight to his bed like he didn’t see me. He turned around five times and sat down. I kept my mouth shut. After awhile he got up and went to his closet and stood there, just faced the closet door, didn’t open it. It was like he sleepwalked over there. He waited awhile, then went back to his bed and turned around five times and sat down.

Finally I couldn’t help myself. “You must be crazy,” I said.

“Uh, uh—Huh?” Ronnie said it like I had just woke him up out of a dream.

“You’re nuts, Ronnie.”

“What?”

“Another thing is, you’re also a big pussy.”

“Take it back,” Ronnie said.

“Make me.”

“I will, Andy, I will.

“Yeah? You and who’s army?”

“The three of us,” He said. And of course I knew what came next. Sure enough Ronnie said, “Me, myself, and I.”

That was so lame. Sometimes Ronnie disgusted me too much to even bother with. “O. K.,” I said, “you win.”

“No, Andy—first take back what you said.”

“I do, Ronnie. I truly do take it back.”

“No, say, ‘You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.’”

“O. K., you’re not a pussy.”

“Say my name, too.”

“You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.

“Good thing, too,” he said. “That was just in time.”

Yeah, right, like what if I didn’t take it back? Ronnie was hopeless, so I gave up and shut up. The next morning, as per usual, I felt his sheets. So far the average for his sheets being soaked was five days out of seven. By the time Alice changed the beds each week all Ronnie’s piss had dried into yellow stains that overlapped and made rusty patterns—kind of pretty designs—light to dark and back again. Alice never let on and neither did Ronnie. Neither did I. That would have been just too mean.

One night I watched Ronnie with one of my eyes, the other one blocked by my pillow. I had been in the middle of a good dream about earwax when some kind of noise woke me up. Ronnie was on his bed by the window, moonlight behind him that made him look like a cutout. At first I didn’t move, kept my head down, half-stuck in the pillow. Ronnie sat still on his bed except when he swayed. He’d be still for five seconds—listening for who knows what?—then he’d do small rocking moves side to side. The sways were so tiny you could hardly tell. He’d rock side to side some and then sit like a statue, then do more moves. The house was quiet. I think I saw a bat go by the window, but maybe not—they’re so fast. Ronnie claimed bats were nighttime swallows that wouldn’t suck your blood. No matter what I heard about bats, I shouldn’t believe that, Ronnie said. “Trust me,” he said, “no bat will every drink a drop of your blood.”

Another night, Alice screamed from down the hallway and Ronnie glanced up from his jigsaw puzzle at the bedroom door, then back down. It was so split-second I almost didn’t catch him—one smooth action—just his eyes moving. That jigsaw was humongous. It had all the animals in some African jungle, plus grass and trees and bugs, and huge-beaked birds. Ronnie had the edges done on three sides and some on the last side. It was a big jaggie rectangle, empty in the middle. He pretended to work at it for five minutes—zero talk, just tiny whimpers—the same puzzle piece in his hand the whole time. Ronnie’s hand didn’t move. More time. Then Alice screamed again and grunted real big—then a bunch of grunts that went from high-pitched to low and then back up again real high. In the nighttime quiet her grunts came down the hall like a church bell. Ronnie still kept still. Then Alice laughed a big screeching laugh and Ronnie smiled but didn’t look up. Then his hand moved over the jigsaw like a helicopter and dropped the puzzle piece in exactly the right spot.

Part four of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.


The Last Dog

June 23, 2008

Short Fiction/Part One

Ronnie claimed he learned to lie good from crime movies. “The best way, Andy,” he said, “is fast and furious with a straight face. Do it speedy so they believe you believe it.” He was perfect at it. When Ronnie said bats were just short fat snakes with wings, I bought it. Later, he got me again saying bats were night birds grownups don’t like ’cause they don’t sing. Yeah, Ronnie loved bats. He had stacks of bat books all over his bedroom. “I worship the god Zotzilaha,” he said, “human body and the head of a bat.” That was pure bullshit of course, but I let it roll off me like it would a duck’s back. I had to sleep in the same room with the jerk. See, Momma sent me to live with Ronnie’s mother, my half-sister Alice, while Momma ran off someplace else. And since she had kicked Daddy out—I didn’t know where he went, or why—I was sort of an orphan. Anyway, after supper Alice was mad about who knows what and made us come up to Ronnie’s room. He was on his bed with a book about zoos, Fred Waring music on the radio. I sat on the edge of the army cot Alice put in for me and used the seat of a wood chair to draw on, trying to make the picture I’d promised Ronnie. Now and then I heard snatches of Alice and her husband Ted come up from down stairs, all hollow and bent out of shape. Ronnie made out he didn’t hear his folks fighting and kept at me with, “Andy, you can’t fool an animal.” That statement was just to hear himself talk. I went on about my business. “Now you take Tarzan.” Right there Ronnie made a big pause for me to say something back, like I was fool enough to bite. He knew Tarzan was my all-time favorite, but I stayed quiet. “All the animals,” Ronnie said, “they love Tarzan. So you know he’s a good guy. A chimp like Cheetah, or an elephant—a man can’t bullshit ’em.”

More talk from downstairs. “Yeah, and then what?” That was Alice, her voice soft, mostly mumbles.

“If Tarzan wasn’t a good guy,” Ronnie kept on, “animals wouldn’t rescue him from quicksand.”

“More gratitude!” Alice again, loud and sarcastic to beat the band. Ted said something back I couldn’t make out, then Alice said, “Easy for you, you don’t have to put up with—” something, something, “—or wash his stinky socks, or—” then she said something else I couldn’t make out, talking about me, I figured. Ted came back at Alice with something.

“Now, you take a baboon,” Ronnie said. “Big exception. Ain’t seen one yet gives a damn about any human.”

“Yeah, Ronnie, you’re the expert.” I said it just to be mean so a normal person would notice, but not him.

“My house always looks nice!” Alice again, hollering. Ted came right back at her, but real low—some stuff about money, I think.

Alice yelled, “Not if I can help it!”

“A baboon’ll screw his girlfriend in public,” Ronnie said. “Then he’ll throw shit-balls at you, then turn right around and play with his food. Then he’ll look you in the eye—no blinks—like he’s saying, ‘I’m having a good time!'” He laughed. “Man, baboons don’t give a damn!

Ted’s voice came upstairs strong but not loud. “Yeah, well, I’ll be here ’til the last dog dies.”

“Can’t have it both ways, Mr. Man,” Alice said.

“Gorillas are almost human.” Ronnie still ignored his momma and daddy. “Same family arrangements we got. Apes use eyesight for identification, like us. Four-legged animals, they use scent markers.”

“What?”

Ronnie tapped his book. “What it says. Apes tell different individuals by eyeball, not like a dog who looks for assholes to sniff.”

“Go ahead!” Alice hollered. “Get gone!”

“How long’s my leash?” That was Ted.

Then something slammed downstairs and Ronnie cut his eyes at the bedroom door, but he didn’t say a word, didn’t lift his head, just eyed that door like he had Superman’s x-ray vision. Then he went back to his animal book, quiet for a change.

Meanwhile, the naked fat people I was drawing for him, they were giving me stagger-fits. Some parts didn’t look right—legs, mostly. Pretty soon I got disgusted and tore the picture into five hundred pieces. More like five thousand pieces. Ronnie looked up, surprised. I just shrugged at him. “Didn’t look natural.”

Shit, Andy!”

“Lousy pose,” I said. “They just stood there all stiff.”

“You had ’em holding hands!

At first I thought he was going to bust out crying. “I’ll start over, Ronnie. Make ’em move. Maybe have ’em dance around some kind of way.”

“Shit, shit, SHIT!

“You’ll get your picture before school starts tomorrow. I’ll come up with some kind of idea.”

Ronnie hollered “SHIT!” one more time.

Right there I got my idea, it popped into my brain like it was hiding in there the whole time and too shy to come out. The picture was going to be three fat women and two fat men, a whole bowling team, and ever one of them naked. The picture wasn’t just for Ronnie anymore, but more for my own sake. It was something I just had to try and see if I could draw it. But not right then. Right then I was tired, so I put the pencil down and pitched back on the cot. My eyes went out like one of those movies where the person’s in a daze. I saw pictures in behind my eyelids—balloons and clouds and Army trucks—big faces of girls came and went—voices, too—all of it in my brain somehow. At first I couldn’t tell who was talking, but pretty soon it came clear, like when you tune a radio around the dial. Those voices got to be my own Momma and Daddy somehow—and those sounds?—they were ghost sounds.

Did I mention that Ronnie was some kind of crazy and stupid at the same time? Like, he collected yo-yos and empty cigarette packs and special rings. He’d wear two rings on the same finger and change them every week, to show off. His main ring was the Green Hornet one that his daddy gave him when Ronnie was still tiny. It was Ted’s from when he was little, and it had a secret compartment for magic codes. Also, it glowed in the dark. You couldn’t get them no more. The Lone Ranger atom-bomb ring was Ronnie’s favorite that he sent away for off a corn flakes box. It cost him ten cents plus five box tops and he stole the money from Alice’s purse. I had Ronnie in my brain ‘way too much. See, he was this momma’s boy who couldn’t do any wrong and he knew it and took advantage of it. Meanwhile, Alice was my half-sister but old enough to be my momma and liked to remind me of it ever chance she got. Sometimes I’d tell lies on Ronnie to get back at the both of them, but Alice, she’d never bite. She’d just smile and shake her head and move on. What Ronnie got away with was no fair. Alice trusted Ronnie just because he was her precious son, without any sense to it, and him lying with every other breath.

When we were done our homework and such, Ronnie got his cigarette’s from under the mattress. Had them stuck up in the springs so Alice couldn’t find them. He brought the “Lucky Strike” pack to me cupped in his hands like it was pure gold. Right, like I never saw Luckies before. I just nodded. “Try one?” he asked. I shook my head. Ronnie went to the window and pushed it up as far as it would go. “C’mere,” he said. I didn’t move a muscle. Ronnie tapped the pack on his hand and a cigarette popped out. He tilted the table lamp on his night stand and reached up under it, undid the bottom and pulled out his Zippo. He held the lighter and cigarette up and smiled his evil smile. Then Ronnie motioned at me with both hands to come on, like Dracula in the movie where he meets the Wolf Man. Another dumb temptation. I shook my head again. “Don’t know what you’re missing, kid.” That last word was a sneer like I was pure pussy. Ronnie tossed the Luckie in the air and caught it in his mouth. He looked to see if I watched— which I did, couldn’t help myself. He flipped the Zippo lid and stuck sparks against the night sky out the window. The flame flared up yellow-orange five inches high, seemed like, and he had to come at it sideways or burn his face off. Ronnie pulled the first drag real big, then let part of the smoke come out and go up his nose. His tongue sucked the trail of smoke back in like a frog catching a fly, and his head jerked back with such pleasure I never saw before or since. He made a click-noise too, just like a frog. Beautiful. Ronnie kept at it—pulled big drags, inhaled, smiled. He blew the smoke out the window and watched me out the corner of his eye. He knew he had me hooked. After a while Ronnie said, “Andy, you seen any Alan Ladd movies?”

“Nope.” That was a lie. Alan Ladd wasn’t no favorite of mine—too sissified—but I did know his stuff.

“Best smoker there is,” Ronnie said. “Watch this.” He hit the Zippo with the back of his hand, which somehow flipped the lid and struck a spark to light it, all in one slick move. He smiled and closed the lid over the flame. “Alan Ladd,” he said. I kept quiet. “How about Dark City,” Ronnie said. “Seen that, with Lizabeth Scott?”

“Nope, ain’t seen it.”

“She’s good too, great smoker for a woman. Stupid mouth, but she’s special. The best smokers are movie stars and sluts.” Ronnie took another fancy drag on his Luckie and blew perfect smoke rings that floated out the window. The warm breeze bent and smeared them in with the dark. He flicked the cigarette outside. “See how I did that?” Ronnie smiled. “Pure Alan Ladd.”

He tapped another Luckie out of the pack and offered it to me. I felt how crinkly and stale it was, but when he went to light it I said, “Later,” and stuck it in my shirt pocket. There was a loud bang downstairs. The front door? A ghost? Whatever it was, the sound made me jump. Baby Elizabeth started to cry. Ted’s old dog barked. Ronnie kept quiet. Finally I said, “What was that?

“What was what?”

“You know damn well, Ronnie.” He just shrugged. Right. He knew it wasn’t Baby Elizabeth or the dog did that. Ronnie knew a noise that loud had to be Alice or Ted.

Part two of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.