The Latest Very Rough Draft Chapter of Jim Harstad’s Memoir

ON HE RODE — Chapter Thirty-Two

To complete the Carlsbad Experience, cavewalkers are encouraged to return at sunset to watch clouds of bats emerge from the depths of orifices far beyond the gentle limits of our polite walk, their nightly maraud of the desert sky. Affirmative. I shall return, but in the meantime I’ll find a quiet place at the back of the parking lot to exercise my powers of composition. Hey, hey Jack Guthrie, I’ll write you a song. I know, I’ll write it to Jack Kerouac as well and call it “Son to Two Jacks”. Or maybe just “Two Jacks”. Let’s see now . . .

In that far-back summer of sixty-eight
Me and my Chevy left Washington State
Headin’ for Texas and Boston too
Lookin’ for luck and love that’s true.

Headin’ due south on the Oregon Coast
A beach stop damn near burned our toast.
The tide came in and we drove on through
But her motor got wet and her floor mats too.

The fire in the hole never went clear out
As we steamed away southward, still in doubt,
But her wheels kept turning in the right rotation,
The meaning of life is our destination.

Obispo, Sausalito, and Big Sur too,
Got lost in Central Valley, “Is this Kalamazoo?”
Las Vegas, Lake Mead, Grand Canyon, Great Crater,
These Caverns now, West Texas comes later.

Hmm. Well, not that smooth, and it doesn’t mention either Jack, but the sun’s descending and folks are gathering at the Cavern’s entrance. Best put this aside and join the fun.

Impending darkness and access to cars makes this a comfortably informal event, heavy on couples and families, light on loners like myself. I’m wearing my watch cap for its promise of anonymity and protection from unnamed desert night vermin. Who knows what nefarious indigenous critters emerge with and maybe on the backs of earth’s only flying mammal?

“Daddy, I’m sca, sca, scared,” a tensed-up slip of a girl stammers, hugging her parent’s encircling arm.

“What’s to be scared of, Missy?”

“That they’ll get in my hair.”

“They’re not interested in your hair.”

“But what if?”

“I’ll bite their heads off.”

“Eww!”

The bats start pouring from the Caverns’ mouth like a blossoming cloud of petrochemical smoke, rising straight up, coalescing and fragmenting into smaller clouds that disperse and disappear, blending with the darkening night. It’s time for me to do the same before it’s too dark to scope out a suitable place to sleep.[My question regarding that sentence is: Is “suitable” suitable? Would that sentence read better without it? Yes, probably. Next question: Replace the adjective? Or remove it? A good place to sleep? A place to sleep? Which? Ah, an English teacher’s mental landscape is so richly accoutered with seemingly countless verbal combinations, all ready to be acted upon in novel concoctions and assemblages leading to revelations of ultimate truth: revelatory infinities of circumscribed madness, I tell you, a patterned circumlocution without end. Amen. (Psycho-linguistically inclined English teachers might wonder at the large number of ten-dollar words beginning with “c” in that sentence.) (Should I change “accoutered” to “upholstered”?) Madness. Where are Kerouac and Kesey when you need them? Kafka?]

Bats in one’s belfry is not a mere figure of speech to anyone who, like me, shared quarters with a small colony of those fluttering shadows coming and going through unscreened windows left open for ventilation. This was in our family’s second log house, the one I mostly grew up in. After Whitey made the upstairs habitable by installing a jewel box handcrafted dormer looking out upon maples, alders, hazel brush, and repurposed chicken coop, he added a double bed, chest of drawers, and desk, then turned it all over to me. Until then, the bats — all four or five of them — were nobody’s problem. Then they became mine.

At first my presence in a place they’d always had to themselves unsettled them, and every time I went upstairs at least one of them would let go of the rafter it was hanging upside down from and flail out at random, sometimes grazing my arm or ear with the soft fabric of their wings. But they never threatened to tangle my hair or bite or scratch, and I got used to their high-pitched sonar beeps and did not think I was under attack. Which does not mean I was committed to co-habitation, in spite of the social benefits of quietly letting Evers and a few other male contemporaries know about my living situation. Bats! Do they, like, get in your hair . . . and . . . bite?

My question exactly. Just because it hadn’t happened didn’t mean it couldn’t. So far they’d stayed clear of my cozy sheet-rocked nook — as far as I knew. I’d never seen them in there, and if they came when I was sleeping or absent, they’d left no sign, no calling card. Sly.

Because I’d gotten an unusual amount of hard cash for my tenth birthday, I was able to indulge in a pup tent, a sleeping bag, and a B-B gun. Mighty hunter-to-be, when the chill left the ground I’d camp out in the woods, trusty rifle at the ready.

Before then, some upstairs shooting practice with live targets might prove interesting and beneficial. Saturday morning shopping was a family ritual that I’d recently been given the option of not attending. For roughly three-and-a-half hours, the place would be mine, all mine. If I wanted to take pot shots at nappy flying rodents in my own upstairs, I could do that. And I would.

Actually I’d counted on picking them off the rafters, but then I ran into a pre-“Catch-22” catch-22: Unless I turned on the overhead light, I couldn’t see my quarry hanging by their toenails, but if I turned on the light I’d likely stare up at least one of them and (s)he’d get them all going, which is exactly what happened, of course.

But of course I’d be up to that particular challenge with my speedy pump-action air rifle. Oh yeah. Get four or five of those devils flapping at your eyes and see how speedy your pump action really is. Not to be deterred, of course, I did squeeze off a couple shots that rattled and ricocheted and let me know I stood to be my own best target. And it more thoroughly stirred up the bats until I ended up grabbing my gun by the barrel and swinging its stock into the swarm and actually connecting and knocking one unlucky victim straight down the staircase, stone dead.

After taking it outside and examining its ugly face in the daylight, its sightless eyes, its tiny razor teeth, its pained expression, I wondered what it must feel like to live life as a bat. Truly wondered.

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