Going to See the Bats

When Becky, my older sister, invited me to go see the bats, I thought it odd. Not something a high schooler was apt to do, nor did I know Austin had its own colony. Turns out 750,000 free-tails migrate from the musty caves of Mexico to the Congress Avenue Bridge during the warm months to roost in the crevices beneath the bustling asphalt. All of them pregnant, sheathed in fur, ears like pistachio husks. Come to give birth and graze on plump bugs. A total of 1.5 million when they flee farther south for the winter.

Becky drove us in her gumball-red Ford Escort. We parked on First Street and found a comfy spot on the slope behind the Four Seasons Hotel. A filigree of live oak limbs shaded where we sat in the cool grass. Becky’s wheatblond hair was pulled tight into a ponytail. I sported a sweat-rimmed ball cap. The early June sun slunk behind buildings and trees as the first column fell—a drape unfurling from shadows under the bridge, bats dropping one after another in ritualistic sequence, fluttering above the stretch of the Colorado that purled through the city. The first ones veered east against the apricot afterglow, a stream of buzzing dots spiraling out to hunt for mosquitoes, beetles, wasps. Well before the laggards had found their way, those at the front of the formation had vanished into the dusk. I lay back on the solid earth, enthralled with the spectacle. Becky sat slope-backed with her arms wrapped around her knees. A straggler bat floundered in clumsy circles and winged the water’s edge.

In the third grade, Becky soaked my Winnie the Pooh in the kitchen sink, then crammed him into the freezer. I ransacked the house when I noticed he was missing. Under my bed. In the hall closet. Upstairs in the sunlit loft. He was nowhere to be found. I checked the ice bin when Becky suggested Winnie might have wandered into it. Thawed him with a hair dryer and swaddled him in a fluffy towel. Hugged him close to me that night in bed.

We perched on the back of a blue Buick, waiting for the morning bus. Although I was 11 years old and Becky was in junior high, we rode together to our respective schools. My arms were tucked inside my buttoned winter vest, wrapped across my stomach for warmth. Our breath curled into clouds of mist from our mouths. I commented that the girl five houses up didn’t have friends because she was Iranian. Becky gasped, shoved me off the trunk, admonished me for saying that. I landed with a thud on the cold street, arms wrangling to bust loose from their hold. Already a knot growing on the side of my head.

I went back to watch the bats alone. There was a small wooden dock along the shore behind the hotel. Slats ran cross-wise and water lapped at its posts. Every so often a soft-shelled turtle would surface, paddle in place, peek shyly around. Only once did I have to share the dock with anybody else: a girl with dark hair and a worn paperback. She’d peruse a page, then set the book open-faced on her lap. Five, seven onlookers at most, scattered along the hill. I trundled down there in my dad’s brown hatchback, swigged a few beers, contemplated how baffling life can be.

Had I known what they were, perhaps I wouldn’t have done it. I happened upon them in the bathroom cabinet Becky and I shared. No longer than an index finger and thick as a highlighter marker. Sealed individually in plastic. Twenty to a box. Tampon printed in fancy block lettering. I plugged the sink, filled it with water, and dunked each one, transfixed at how they bloated to twice their original size. “What are they?” I asked when Becky walked in. “Dammit, John! Those aren’t toys,” she screeched, slapping me on the shoulder. How was I supposed to know?

It had been strained in the house for weeks. Becky thought I was gross. Something to do with me being immature and her being a teenage girl. Everything I did irked her. Smacking gum. Bellowing fart noises from my armpit. Belching in her ear. She’d shake her head and tell me to grow up. Roll her eyes and stomp away. She was in the tenth grade and I was in the sixth. The time she snuck to the front yard to talk with her boyfriend at 2 a.m., I shook our mom awake. Mark sped off, his pickup truck revving down the street. Must have noticed the lamp flick on. Mom reared back and slapped Becky across the cheek. Slung her jaw sideways. Jabbed her finger toward her face and ordered her to bed. I stood to the side, hands proudly on my hips, gloating over my accomplishment. Was a month before Becky uttered a word to me.

On one of the evenings I called my sister from county jail, she told me she’d gone to see a psychic. A year earlier. World-renowned. Supposedly knew her stuff. Becky said she handed the woman my picture, asked if she could get a read. Said the psychic held it for a minute, told her I was lost in drugs. Warned that I was headed for trouble. Six months later I was facing a life sentence. Becky apologized for not telling me sooner. Said she felt horrible she hadn’t. I told her not to worry. It wouldn’t have changed a thing.

My sister visited me in prison. Schlepped our mom to Huntsville where the three of us prattled for two hours, Becky about her job and friends, Mom about the dog, about plans for Christmas, about how she hadn’t drunk in years. Corked the bottle eight weeks after my arrest. Once on their way back to Austin, Becky pulled off the road. Couldn’t drive with all the quarreling. On a patch of dusty gravel, the two yelled at each other ’til their voices shattered into shards. Becky furious and blaming Mom for where I was.

Erin was four months old when I first saw her. Whisper-thin hair slicked smartly across her skull. Eyes churning with curiosity. Ten teensy fingers splayed on two tiny hands. Becky had brought her newborn to meet her Uncle John. I cradled her in my arms and inhaled her baby scent, wiped her spittle with my thumb. Other inmates mingled with their families. I was seven years into the 15 that I’d serve. I looked around, imagined all of us inmates as infants, held against somebody’s chest. Wondered where we all went wrong.

So much had changed. I thought I’d settle into my old spot on the wooden dock and toss bits of bread to the turtles. The dock was gone. Sightseers huddled on the hill, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the sun to set. Kids giggled. High schoolers flirted. Adults chatted about the weather. A throng of people spanned the Congress Avenue Bridge, leaning over its rails and flinging pebbles into the water below. Tourists pointed from a pontoon boat that shined a red spotlight into the crannies where the bats clustered and cheeped. A guy with long hair peddled souvenirs: t-shirts, banners, baseball caps, koozies, posters. I stood on the red-clay path, waiting for the bats. Thirty-seven-years old and on parole. Three slices of white bread limp in my hand. A visceral sense of the world ablur with unnerving change. Then they began. One slot at a time, same as before, unspooling like curtains toward the lake. The crowd squealed as the free-tails corkscrewed toward the Hill Country, followed the tug of their hunger, and merged with the darkening sky.