Nothing to Worry Aboutby Keith Stahl
Maybe it’s not a dream. Something’s in the bedroom. It’s flying. Silent. Near Les’ head, near Amber’s head. Down by their feet. In the corner, up near the ceiling.
Tic. It stopped.
Les buries his head under the pillow.
Les’ feet dangle off the bed. Exposed. He Cryovacs himself in the blankets.
It stops again. Lands. Tic. Like a fingernail clipped. By the closet. Over the closet door.
It’s too hot for blankets, but Les likes the blankets always. Bedroom door closed too. Likes to be swaddled. The air conditioner crapped out a week ago, but Les left it in with all the duct tape and plastic. How long can summer last? The other window, it won't open. It’s broken. Stifling.
Airborne. Like Les has some innate motion detector that can track the thing’s sinister, doodling flight path.
Amber is awake and under the covers now too, her breath steaming Les’ face. Pesto from Femricco’s. “There’s a BHAAAT,” she whisper-spits.
Les’ body gets tight. He makes himself small. Amber makes herself small. Two sizzling escargots in the same shell, barely breathing so the bat won't hear. Can bats hear? Could they suffocate under the covers like this?
“I think it stopped.”
“Don’t jinx it.”
Sweaty bed sheets cling to Les’ naked body.
Amber just breathes and breathes and breathes. Pesto. Pesto. Pesto.
“We have to get out of here,” Les whisper-commands. Like he has a plan.
But the bedroom door is closed. And it’s pull, not push. There is no bursting from the bedroom to safety. Bedding must be unraveled, the glitchy doorknob must be jiggled and finagled just so, to the right, but not all the way to the right. And Amber is closest to the door. By the time she reaches the sanctuary of the bungalow’s tiny living room, Les will be tangling with a bat in his thinning but tangled hair. Why didn’t he stop at Super Cuts? Delicate bat-skin wings flup-a flup-a flup-a in his ears. Warm, downy fur on his neck.
“Turn on your light,” Amber whispers. “Your reading lamp. It won't fly. They don’t like the light.”
“I think your lamp is closer.”
“I think I remember, my bulb is blown.”
Amber exhales garlic like she’s breathing into a breathalyzer. Les catches snippets of monotone mumbles, “Heavenly Father…infinite divine mercy…bats…”
“Just turn on the light for God’s sake.”
Amber holds her breath, inches her sinewy arm through the blankets, feeling for her reading lamp, the shade, the base, the switch.
Heavy blankets, stillness, silence.
“I’d go first, but you’re closer to the door.”
“Yea, though I walk…shadow of death…thy rod and thy staff…”
“Before it wakes up.”
Amber lowers the blankets to the bridge of her nose. Les scrutinizes her angular face from his pillow-tomb, suspicious for any hint of alarm as her eyes search the room like a squirrel about to leap.
The blankets come off, Ra-woof. Like a magician. And the flowers are still standing!
And the room fills with bats.
It’s not filled with bats. It’s the mirrors. The mirrors on the ceiling and walls. Where is the bat? They’re everywhere. It’s everywhere. If it’s far away in the mirror, that means it’s close in real life. If it’s close in the mirror, that means it’s close to the mirror. That’s good. Or is that bad? Is that the reflection of a reflection of a reflection?
Les is back under the blankets. “Jesus Christ. You said it didn’t like the light.”
But Amber has left Les behind and slammed the door so hard there’s plaster. She cries from the living room, “Honey, do you want me to call Dane?”
“NO! DON’T CALL DANE!”
Dane, Mr. Fix It, Big Dane-O, Darlin’ Dane. With his critter removal and his snow removal and his No Job Too Small. Twenty-four hour speed dial. Here darlin’, let me put my number in your phone. His big tools and his plow and his truck with extra wheels. His stubble and his chin. Dirt like man-makeup. Gristled jowls. Eyes food color blue. Hair. Woodchuck under the porch, darlin’?
No, Dane. It’s a bat this time. Amber all petite and naked under the windbreaker she just threw on. Like a lollipop ready to be unwrapped because a bat chased her from the bedroom where her pasty, crock pot-bellied husband now cowers in his sweltering hell.
“Don’t call Dane.”
“I have an idea.”
There was this mouse in the kitchen at Femricco’s. Les was already sweaty with panic because his orders weren’t going out fast enough and it just appeared there on the counter. Les danced and the waitresses screamed and Les pounded his sauté pan on the stainless steel, but the mouse froze like a porcelain figurine. Terrified. So he slammed a mixing bowl over the mouse and yelled, Boo! Like a battlefield surgeon under fire, Les kept sautéing his Veal Scallopini until Boo, the plate-headed maintenance guy, came and slid the mouse in the mixing bowl off the counter, like a shell game, into a pickle bucket.
Buried within the blanket’s safety seal, careful not to open any bat-sized holes, Les pours himself and his bedding onto the floor. Like a shell game. Like the mouse in the mixing bowl. He slides his cocoon towards the door. It’s a scene from The Blob. The Blob rises from the floor so it can turn the doorknob.
Krattle. Krattle. Krattle.
The knob’s too far to the right.
Krattle. Krattle. Krattle.
The bat is airborne. Les can sense it. Like he’s left something in the oven.
“Amber? Can you hear me? Open the door.”
“Are you jiggling?”
Jiggle. Jiggle. Jiggle.
The door explodes into Les’ head. Blankets prevent the drawing of blood. He falls out of the blankets onto the living room floor like a hotdog from a bun.
“Honey, maybe Dane can do something about that door.”
“Shut it. Shut the door. Before it gets out.”
“I think I saw it. I think I SEE IT.”
The bat’s hopped on caffeine or something. Flapping jittery wings in every corner of the living room, Mothra, its shadow bigger than the plasma TV. Les is shriveled naked on the floor. Like that Hitchcock movie in film class, The Birds, where everyone has their arms over their face like the heroine on the cover of some seedy gothic paperback. The bat hovers over the carpet. Les spins away, drops one hand to defend his penis.
Amber is locked in the bathroom. “I’m calling Dane.”
Dane’s searching for bats behind wedding photos on the bookshelf. The morning sun really shows the dust.
Seven years ago Les and Amber shared an umbrella near the For Sale sign for the lilting bungalow. Amber’s eyes were all sparkly, glowing, It’s a Wonderful Life. She loved that Les grew up in this house. Who says you can’t go back? she said. It makes sense, she said. A fixer-upper, she said. She had faith he’d learn how to fix things. It would be a great starter home until Les moved on from Femricco’s to start his own restaurant. And they could afford it. She worked for the post office now, the most secure job there is. Food and sex, Amber giggled. That’s all she’d ever need. Now Les could cook for her at home, in their home. Cook for her and only her. Maybe hang some mirrors in the bedroom? She knew a guy who could do that kind of stuff.
“They shrivel up real small.”
Is Dane checking Amber out? Nothing like a woman in postal uniform. Blue-grey shorts, black knee socks, hard legs like a gymnast.
“Need to hang.”
Cross-over tie like a schoolgirl.
“Like to come inside this time of year.”
Les’ eyes follow Amber’s eyes following Dane. Dane’s biceps dimple beneath a clinging t-shirt as he reaches to check behind the window blinds. Did her eyes just go down and up?
Dane checks the bedroom. “Mirrors stayin’ up for ya, darlin?”
“Little critter kept ya up all night?”
“Amber really has to get to work,” Les says.
“Probably dead in an air-duct. Can’t go more’n three days without eatin', and they got to fly to eat.” Dane thinks. “They eat on the fly.” Dane laughs. “Poor guy’s been stuck in your house, prolly starved. Imagine that? And you, owning a restaurant!”
“I don’t own Femriccos, I just…”
“I should check the attic.”
Les follows Dane up the narrow stairs.
Les flinches, cowers behind Dane.
“That’s one crooked chimney. You worried ‘bout that chimney?”
“It’s always like that.”
“And all those openings? You going to have all kinds of varmints. Squirrels chewing wires, yellow jackets. If the chimney don’t collapse into your bedroom first.”
Dane pokes through winter clothes, boxes labeled Christmas, boxes labeled Amber.
Les trips over the exercise bike to fidget with his band saw. Fidgets with the lathe. Makes a lot of metallic noise so Dane has to look. Someday he’s going to learn how to use these things.
“I’m not seein’ no droppings. You're lucky.”
Les follows Dane from the attic. In the kitchen, about to leave for work, Amber’s wearing her pith helmet. Her official U.S. Postal Service pith helmet. She never wears her pith helmet. Except on birthday mornings when she sings “Happy Birthday to You” and climbs into bed with Les wearing nothing but the pith helmet. The pith helmet and the cross-over tie. Proud to serve, she always says. Saluting. Smirking.
“You goin’ on safari, darlin’?”
“Proud to serve,” she says. “Gonna be hot, hot, hot.”
Amber is saluting. Dane is saluting. It’s like a blinking contest.
Les clears his throat. “Oh, hey, you’re wearing your pith helmet.”
Les rubs the halibut with his own special blend. Cracked black pepper, celery salt, ground rosemary, paprika, thyme. Virgin olive oil smokes from the pan, crushed garlic sizzling and dancing as it turns golden. He sears the fish steak, flips it, races it outside to the grill in the back yard. Sweet Mesquite wafts through the blue-collar neighborhood. Les sprints back inside. Shaved Prosciutto di Parma in the sauté pan, flaming flash of white wine, chicken stock, floured butter chips to thicken the sauce, fresh leaves of sage.
“You have a gift.” Amber’s mouth is stuffed with mesclun greens, candied walnuts, Gorgonzola. “But when do you get to eat?”
“Enjoy your salad.”
Les is inside, outside, inside. Trickling sweat. Probing halibut with his thermometer, broiling Utica Greens, plating fish. Hundred and eighteen degrees. Perfect. Escarole, cherry peppers, onions, garlic, bread crumbs. Pecorino Romano. Fingerling potatoes.
Amber munches brioche crouton, pinky extended.“Happy Birthday Halibut, and it’s not even my birthday?”
“The whole bat thing,” Les shrugs, mincing Italian parsley. “I took the night off. To cook for you. Only you.”
“Probably dead in an air duct.” Les replaces Amber’s salad plate with his creation, turning the dish just so. “Your meal is bat-free.”
“Bless us, O Lord,” Amber whispers.
Les wipes the side of her plate with his dishtowel to remove the thumbprint.
“And these thy gifts…”
“It’s getting cold.”
“…which we are about to receive from thy bounty. Through Christ our Lord.”
“Amen. Tell me if it needs salt.”
Amber’s eyes are getting shiny in the candlelight. “You. Are. A. Godsend.”
Les leans back against the kitchen counter, watching Amber eat. The Great Provider.
Dad used to watch Les eat like this. After Mom died. Dad would lean back against this very counter, arms crossed, wearing the same decomposing, bolognese brown bathrobe Mom got him before Les was born. Pancakes, eggs, sometimes steak and eggs or Eggs Benedict. Never Froot Loops. Never Cheerios. Dad was up at five. Les would grog into the kitchen before school and Dad would have the radio on, news so quiet you could hardly hear, Les’ breakfast ready to plate, drinking coffee, leaning, lost out the window. Dad would jump, Oh, hey, how’d you sleep?
Dad drove Les to Seneca Elementary every day on his way to Sysco, even though they lived on the bus route. Even in high school, Dad drove him. At least until Amber started picking Les up. She’d idle in the driveway and Dad would follow Les out the door, Are you his girlfriend or his chauffuer? She’d smile and shrug and roll down her window to say something, but Dad would just smile and wave and go back inside. After Dad found Les a job doing dishes at Femricco’s, Amber gave Les rides from school to the restaurant and back home again. The only time Les really saw Dad was in the mornings, leaning against the counter. Oh, hey, how’d you sleep?
Les wipes his hands on his dishtowel. “Tell me if it needs salt.”
Les was in his junior year of college when he found out Dad dropped dead. Les was in the library working on this group project, a fake commercial for a pretend calcium supplement called Bone Again. He got a text from an uncle to call him. It was an uncle he’d never met and Les just knew.
“Save room for strawberry shortcake.”
Dad had sold the house Les’ freshman year because it was time to move on, and all that. Dad had certainly moved on. Everybody had moved on. Amber was going to a different college and said they should date other people. If you love something, set it free, and all that.
It was Friday night before high school graduation. Les couldn’t figure out why Amber wanted to see him at booth number two, instead of coming back to the Femricco’s kitchen like she always did. It was like a movie script. Les said the right things. Yes, absolutely, it was a good thing, a great thing to have that kind of faith in a relationship. Even though he felt queasy, like when he found out Mom had cancer. Opportunity for growth, nothing happens by mistake, and all that. Les kept turning the saltshaker in his fingers like a combination lock. He had dishes to do. Felt like the Invisible Man as he passed the waitresses, pretend busy with their heads buried in guest checks like super concentrating physicists even though the restaurant was slow. They knew. Les focused on the swinging doors like he had crashed through the ice and the kitchen was dry land.
After Dad died Les got the letter from Amber. Les read it like he found a pearl in an oyster. College hadn’t worked out for her, but she was going to be a fe-mailman. Ha ha. This letter was job security. Ha ha. She had been to a rehab or a hospital or something. Les was welcome to read her journal if he didn’t believe how messed up she had been. No secrets, she wrote. Complete trust, she wrote. But she warned him that the journal was complicated. She had made a lot of mistakes. She wanted Les to be the last guy’s name entered into that fucking journal. Les and Amber were soul-mates, and all that. But nobody comes before Jesus, and all that.
That’s when Les decided college wasn’t working out for him, either.
“Fresh whipped cream.”
The windows are vibrating, Dane’s oversized truck glug glug glug in the driveway.
“Oh, shit.” Amber drops her fork on her plate. “I forgot.”
Dane’s truck door opens and closes. Keys jingle like spurs. Boots in the driveway.
“Dane’s here to look at my car.”
“I’m sorry, honey. You weren’t supposed to be here.” Amber gets up. “I’ll just give him my keys.” She grabs keys from the counter, heads for the door. “You make whipped cream.” She comes back to the table, picks up her napkin, wipes her mouth. “Be right back.”
But she’s not right back. Les watches through the window, Amber and Dane in the sunset, Amber all perky and chatty, Dane ridiculously good-ol’-boy. They’re under the hood, Dane pointing at gizmos and tubes, explaining how they affect the dealy-dos. Dane’s using his tool, tic tic tic, to pop something off. You. Are. A. Godsend, she says, shoving him playfully. Dane’s dropped his tool and she’s picked it up. Now she’s behind the wheel obediently pumping her pedal, racing her engine.
Strawberry fucking shortcake.
Les clears Amber’s plate, dabs his pinky in her sauce, breaks her plate in the sink.
Les spins and cringes, death-grips his dishtowel, listens.
In the attic. That came from the attic. Was that a tic? More of a rolling across the floor, like something dropped or was knocked over. Maybe a scurry.
Les is tight, flushed, hurries to the back door. Dane’s got to check this out.
There they are. Still going at it. Rev it darlin’. Rev it good. It’s like the image of Amber and Dane all NASCAR-pit-crew in the driveway is double exposed with the thought of Dane coming to Les’ rescue in the attic.
“God help me.”
Les moves to the closet, opens the closet door.
Still smells like Christmas. Pine needles in the vacuum cleaner bag.
Flashlight. Doesn’t work. He shakes it, shakes the dead batteries. It’s still pretty light out. Maybe there’s enough light through the attic window. There is a bulb up there, but it’s dangling from an extension cord wrapped around a rafter. You have to be standing in the middle of the attic to turn it on. Dad ran the cord because the original fixture was messed up. How often would they be in the attic? That dangling light was the only trace of Dad after Les bought the house back.
Les grips a tennis racket, thin titanium, but it could still crush the skull of a squirrel or a woodchuck. Even a person, probably. Maybe not Boo with the plate in his head. Boo, who reminds everybody of To Kill a Mockingbird. Boo, too stupid to worry about rabies. Boo, who pulled that mouse in the pickle bucket up by its tail and dangled it in Les’ face, Hey little guy, causing Les to drop the Veal Scallopini making all the waitresses squeal. Except Ann, who looked like Mother Mary in The Passion of the Christ because she needed that Veal Scallopini for table thirteen.
Les spins the racket loosely in his hand.
Les approaches the attic door, turns the knob. He starts up the stairs, tennis racket in his left hand. It’s darker than he figured. Switches the racket to his right hand. Switches back.
The twilight is dulled through the caked attic window. Les stands at the top of the stairs to let his eyes adjust. But it’s too dark. He needs the light.
His breathing is a secret.
He shuffles into boxes and hard things, waving his arm in the air like a TV evangelist, searching for the bulb that should be hanging near the chimney. Right. About. Here.
Let there be light.
Tiny shards of brick on the floor. Mortar dust. It’s the chimney. It’s just the chimney he’s been hearing. Les pats the leaning tower of Pisa like an old friend, showering brick flakes and cement pebbles on the floor. It’s been crumbling all his life. He just never heard it. Sounds like an avalanche up close, like a menagerie if you’re downstairs. But no bats, no squirrels chewing on wires, nothing nocturnal. Nothing to worry about. Like hearing voices of the dead when it’s just Amber waking him up.
Les leans the tennis racket against the chimney. In the morning he’ll wrap the chimney in duct tape or something to keep the bricks from falling. Then he thinks better. Keeps the racket in his hands to poke boxes and piles just in case.
Amber’s journal is kind of sticking out from her box. He never did read it. Complete trust, and all that. Amber told him everything that was in there, anyway. Like how when she asked Les to the movies in high school and he didn’t respond, she thought Les was quite the challenge, so aloof and okay with being alone. How she got all tingly when Les finally shrugged and nodded, Okay. And all those guys before Les should be in the journal, and all those guys from college should be in there, too. Is Dane in there? The letter Amber wrote to Les about being soul mates, Les can see it folded inside. She was teary that Les still had it, wanted to read what she had written, wanted to keep it if that was okay. I love you because you don’t want to just fuck me, she said. And Les let her cry in her arms for a really long time. He kissed her forehead but not her mouth, careful not to touch her breasts. She hasn’t written in the journal since they were married and that’s good. Happily ever after, and all that. He thinks about opening it, like a closed door in a scary movie. But he shoves the journal deep into Amber’s box with the tennis racket.
The box marked Les is full of old movies and broken camera equipment and a few action figures from when Les was a kid. A copy of the finished Bone Again commercial they sent Les from college is in there. But no journal. If Les had kept a journal, in it would be how he couldn’t breathe when Amber asked him to the movies. That’s why he didn’t answer. In it would be how he went home after she asked him out and locked himself in the bathroom. How he did a little dance in the mirror.
He’s at the window watching Amber and Dane through generations of dirt. They seem done down there in the driveway. Dane’s leaning back against his truck, blowing perfect smoke rings. Amber’s going through his toolbox, What’s this one do?
Strawberry shortcake. Whatever.
Les turns off the light.
Attic black. That deep black you get right after the light goes off.
Dane said it was a myth, bats getting tangled in your hair. Their sonar is perfect. They don’t bump into anything by mistake and it’s bugs they’re after. Not human beings. So it can’t be a bat that’s just brushed Les’ neck.
It’s the bat’s airstream. It’s the bat’s wind.
He’s frantic for the light cord, waiving for it, waving his racket blindly at the bat. The racket strikes the chimney in the dark, exploding brick fragments and bits of mortar into the air. Like bugs to a bat’s sonar. Like he’s serving dinner. Come and get it.
Les can’t tell if it’s the dangling light cord that’s grazing his arms and his face and the back of his neck, or bits of falling chimney, or bats. Maybe it’s Boo, the plate headed maintenance guy. There it is. There it is again. He’s wildly swinging in the darkness, tangling in the light cord, pulling the extension farther and farther down from the rafter.
Now the extension cord’s around his neck. Now he can’t breathe.
But he feels the light bulb caught under his chin. There’s the switch.
Les frees himself from the extension cord. “Mommy,” he whimpers.
Dangling from the box marked Amber, bloodied and logy, is one dying fruit bat. Body, size of an egg. Crippled wings stretched like parchment paper. Gasping devil face. Fangs.
Les looks at the tennis racket. Bits of bat flesh and fur. Maybe an ear.
Les towers over the bat whose last breath is like a falling soufflé.
“Hey little guy.”
Amber’s in the driveway watching Dane slam toolboxes shut. Les emerges through the squeaky back door balancing the dead bat on his tennis racket. Amber squints at Les in the fading light, walks over, leans her face in close.
Les holds the dead bat up like a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “Bat, madam?”
It’s like a fork in the toaster, the way she explodes in shock, flapping her arms to fly away. “Holy shit holy shit holy shit.”
“Batman coming through.”
Dane comes around his truck. “What’s all the commotion, darlin’?”
Les waves the dead bat, like it’s a torch and Dane is Frankenstein. “Watch out, darlin’. It’s gonna getchya. It’s gonna getchya.”
Dane dances, cowers behind the pickup, “Jesus, Les.”
Les carries the dead bat to the end of the driveway. Amber and Dane follow, keeping their distance, like a funeral procession.
Dane marvels. “You got it, Les. You got it!”
Les is in the street, flicking the dead bat down the sewer drain. “Dirty job, and all that.”
Les is walking back to the house, Amber and Dane staring like he just rose from the dead.
Amber jumps at Les’ blood splattered shirt. “Honey, are you hurt?”
Les, unaware of the bat blood, says, “I’ll be alright.”
Amber takes his arm. Clings.
“Dane, man, you want to stay for dessert? I’m making strawberry shortcake.”
Amber squeezes a definitive no into Les’ arm.
Amber’s pith helmet lies at the foot of the bed. Strawberry fingerprints.
Les’ tennis racket leans against the nightstand.
Les is sitting up. It’s like a love scene, the way they’re framed in the mirror. Amber sleeping so innocent on his shoulder, cross-over tie, strawberry drool. Her bleached blond hair tickles, sticky to his sweaty chest. Les’ arm is numb and tingly around her, but moving it would wake her, and she’s so calm and tranquil. Like that lake in Friday the 13th.
Her eyes flash open. “Did you hear that?”
“Your snoring? It’s sweet.”
“There it is again. In the attic. There’s another bat.”
“It’s not a bat, darlin’.”
Amber curls deep into Les, snaps the covers over her head. “Heavenly Father…”
Les pulls her tight, tries to stroke her lovingly with his dead arm. “It’s just the chimney,” he says.
He leans over to turn off the light.
“Just the chimney.”
“Nothing to worry about.”