Friday, April 08, 2011

Keeping Away the Invisible Bats

A month or so ago I while walking through the office, I was thinking about something I had experienced years ago.  In a sudden fit, I raised my hands and began shaking them in the air, as if trying to drive something away from me.  It happened right when I was walking past the cubicle of a young female colleague.  She spotted my reaction and looked up at me.  
“What was that?” she asked me.  “What were doing?”  
I turned to her and said, with complete candor and without any hesitation, “Invisible bats were trying to bite my face.  I had to shoo them away.”  
My female colleague lowered her head and stared at me a moment, her mouth hanging open as she tried to figure out how to respond.  “What makes you…?  I mean, how do you know they’re trying to get you.”  
I smiled back at her.  I nodded my head in a wise and knowing fashion.  Clearly, she had made a mistake.  The people that know me best, when they hear me say such things like, ‘invisible bats are trying to bite my face,’ or ‘my thoughts are leaking out of my brain and on to the floor,’ know enough to reply with, “uh-huh” or “good for you,” and then back away or return to their business without any sudden movements.  This is not because I’m dangerous to any degree (despite what some members of the law enforcement or psychiatric communities may think).  It’s just that quick sudden movements may invite me to rush forward with a hurried explanation when their efforts are bent toward extracating themselves from the conversation.  
Instead, my young colleague had invited me to provide her with information about the nature of ‘chiroptera invisibilis.’  And since I see myself as a font of information, and am willing to share what I know about the universe (particularly those parts that I have made up), I began educating her about how invisible bats, using their sonar to stay in contact with each other, will wait until a person least expects it before pouncing to bite and extract the blood and bits of flesh they seek for nourishment.  They especially are fond of attacking soft and easy to reach parts of the body, such as the lips, eyes and earlobes.  
My co-workers continued to stare at me during this lesson on invisible fauna.  I was beginning to explain how they were able to turn invisible (small structures on their fur which, being smaller that the wavelength of visible light, bend the light around their body) when she shook her head like someone waking up from a short nap.  “There’s no such thing!”  
“If you believe that, why did you ask me how I knew they were there?”  
“Because…”  She paused for several long moments.  The question seemed to have her stumped.  She shook her head again, and found her way out with,  “You’re weird.”  
The conversation ended shortly after that.  I smiled and nodded, said good-bye and returned to my desk.  She shook her head and turned to the person in the cubicle next to her.  “Did you hear that…?” was all I caught as I walked away.  
Thoughts just come to me like that sometimes.  Thoughts about invisible bats.  Or the thought that had proceeded it.  About how I seem to forget things these days.  Every day.  I’m evening keeping a list in my journal.  It reads something like this: 
Tuesday - Forgot to bring my lunch to work.  Hung it on the front door knob so I wouldn’t forget it, but forgot it anyway.  Had to buy lunch. 
Wednesday - Forgot my gym bag.  Left it on the couch.  By the time I got home I was too tired to go the gym so I didn’t exercise.  
Thursday - Left my laptop on the sofa.  I plugged it into charge it before going to work.  I packed EVERYTHING ELSE into my backpack, my notebook, my pens, everything BUT the laptop which was sitting RIGHT THERE!  Couldn’t work on my story at lunch because of that. 
It goes on.  I’ve gotten into the habit of frisking myself, like I'm arresting myself for a crime, feeling my pockets to make sure everything is there.  I go through mental checklists, writing down the things I want to do when I leave for the day and what I need to bring to do them.  But things still slip through.  Last weekend, I opened my gym back to discover my shoes weren’t inside.  Convinced that I’d left them at the gym, I went back and checked their lost and found.  They weren’t there.  A few days later, I found them in the closet.  I hadn’t forgotten them at the gym, I had forgotten that I had taken them out of the bag and put them in the closet.  
This behavior doesn’t just irritate me, though.  It scares me.  We are what we remember.  Losing your memory is like losing bits of yourself.  Sure, forgetting your laptop at home one day doesn’t change you as a person.  But in the paranoid parts of my brain (which is probably more terrain that what some people sport) I wonder if it isn’t a sign of things to come.  It makes me angry when I think that.  
This fear stems from something that happened after I graduated from college.  I went back east to visit, and eventually move back in with my parents.  My Mom and Dad had moved to the same small town where my uncle and my grandparents had moved to in North Carolina.  The day after I had arrived, my dad took me over to visit my grandparents.  
“Now…  I want to tell you something…”  My dad reached out to touch me on the arm to get my attention.  I turned back from opening the door to his truck to get out.  “Your grandma…  She’s different than when you last seen her.”  
“Ok.”  I knew what he meant.  Or thought I knew.  My grandmother had been battling Alzheimer’s for several years by then.  I had heard about it through the family grapevine.  The family had said things like, “things slip her mind,” and “she’s holding on,” at first.  Later it was simply, “She’s getting worse,” and even more simply, “It’s not good.”  
“I just wanted to tell you…  To prepare yourself.”  He got out of his truck then.  I sat there for a moment and followed him out.  
Grandpa met us at the screen door.  I shook his hand then gave him a hug.  He patted me on the back.  He introduced me to a woman that lived next door that ‘helped out’ with grandma.  I filed that in my brain.  We sat in the den and talked.  Grandpa asked me how I was doing.  I told him.  
“I’ll go see if Pearl is up, then,” the woman said.  She left the den and left us talking.  I was telling Grandpa about the show I had been in that summer, and about the difficult trip I’d had getting to Mom and Dad’s house.  “Here she is,” I heard the neighbor-lady announce.  I turned around to greet Grandma…  
And found a zombie there instead.  A concentration camp survivor that had been turned into a zombie.  That’s what she looked like.  It's the only way I can think to describe how she looked.  The neighbor-lady was holding my grandmother around the shoulder.  She shuffled forward, half a step at a time.  Her mouth was moving, she was mumbling…  Something.  I couldn’t hear it well enough to tell what it was she was saying.  She never stopped mumbling the entire time I was there.  The neighbor-lady placed her in a recliner by the den’s entrance and sat next to her on a straight-back chair situated next to it.  
“Hey, Pearl…  You see Erick here?”  This was from my Grandpa.  The neighbor-lady joined in.  “You see this handsome young man sitting over there?  You know who he is?  He’s come to visit you.”  
Grandma’s eyes darted my way, then just as quickly moved away.  Her mouth kept moving.  She kept on talking to herself while I sat there in silence.  
“Go on,” Dad said, nodding at me.  “Go on and say ‘hi’ to her.”  
I swallowed.  I looked back at her.  “Hey…  Grandma.”  I had been about to add, ‘how ya doing’ but edited that part before it got out.  
Again, her eyes darted my way, then off to something else, then on to another something that only she could see.  
Dad started the conversation up about…  Something.  I can’t remember what.  I participated as best I could.  Grandpa asked me about my plans.  I told him.  I kept hearing my grandma mumbling, a soft gentle burr to my left.  I focused on my Dad and Grandpa.  I didn’t know what else to do.  
A few moments later the neighbor-lady said, “Oh my, would you look at her look at him!”  
I looked back.  Grandma was staring right at me.  She was sitting up straight.  She wasn’t mumbling.  Her eyes were glued to my face the way they used to be when she caught me stealing cookies from her squirrel-shaped cookie jar without permission.  
“Hey, Pearl…”  The neighbor-lady leaned forward to look Grandma in the face.  Grandma kept her eyes on me.  “You know who that is?  You know who that good-looking young man sitting over there is?”  
“Yes.”  It was the voice I remembered.  It was Grandma’s voice, loud and clear.  “I know who he is.”  And then, without taking her eyes from me, a single tear rolled from her eyes and down her cheek.  
I believe what she said.  I think, in that moment, a tiny moment of clarity, Grandma remembered who I was.  And in doing so, she understood or realized what was happening to her.  I think that’s why she cried.  It made me feel guilty.  That by being the thing that sparked a return of her memory I had brought her that measure of pain.  
I think about that moment more often now that I’m no longer that ‘handsome young man’ the neighbor lady pointed out to my grandma.  I read every article about Alzheimer’s that comes off my RSS feed.  I know that there is a genetic component to it.  That I might have inherited the same gene set she had through my dad.  I think about that whenever I do something like forget to pack my lunch on my way out the door.  It’s not a rational fear.  The odds are on my side.  My grandpa lived well into his nineties and was as sharp as a tack, in complete control of his mind until the end.  My Dad, well into his seventies, is doing just as well.  But like the idea of radiation spreading to cover a whole country, reason doesn’t help much against it.  
Every so often, like someone picking at a scab, I will try to imagine what it felt like for Grandma, that moment.  A drowsy, medicine-head feeling, maybe.  A dark, empty feeling, where thoughts move back and forth like mice in an empty house.  And then…  Out of nowhere, a light of clarity, showing the closed shutters, the dirt in the corner, the unlived-in state of things in all its undeniable truth.
That’s what I was doing, walking to my desk that day.  In an unguarded moment, my mind returned to that memory and found a way to put myself in my Grandma’s place.  A flash of darkness.  Then, me scrambling to get away from the thought, pulling back the fingers of my mind from that dark, fearful flame.  So much so, that I even raised my hands to bat the thought away, like it was a bug trying to fly up my nose, or…
“What was that?  What were you doing?”  
“Invisible bats were trying to bite my face.  I had to shoo them away.”  
And they’re out there, too, those invisible bats.  And I’ll keep shooing them away as best I can.  
News and Other Things
I have the galley proofs from Asimov’s Science Fiction for my story, “Shadow Angel.”  The story will appear in their September, 2011 issue.  I have until April 15th to review them and get any notes back to the managing editor.  It’s fun seeing the galleys.  There are “xxx’s” where my bio is supposed to go, but other than that it looks like someone copied it straight out of the magazine.  It somewhat amazing at how long it takes to put an issue together.  I’ll post any more news as it happens.


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