The Old Bats 

by Randall Garrison

At night the rain turns to oil. It sticks and glistens to the street. Tonight the neighborhood is dark and there is no sound except the sound of the bats. Nobody walks. Nobody even drives through anymore.

At the edge of the neighborhood, six shadowed men stand and stare down the unlit street, kicking at the plastic bottles and the papers that will never be collected except by the wind, staring at the pale hornets’ nests the streetlights look like when there is no lit bulb inside. Nobody has put a ladder to these old poles in years.

Cigarettes glow and are discarded in an arc to the pavement. The men shrug and shuffle down the alley that leads them backwards into other darkened neighborhoods that look the same, but to these men, are not.

In this neighborhood, if you need a brick, you pull one from the building nearest at hand. The brick will unlock most of the doors and windows and pushed down against the knotted hand of an old woman or her husband, will unlock a tiny bank of nickels stashed away.

And when you’re done with it, and maybe it’s got some blood on it and you don’t want to soil your pants, you can just toss it away on top of a cardboard box that sits around a sleeping man with the almost empty bottle and maggots in his open sores.

And if you wince at maggots, don’t. They live in symbiosis with the battered man and when someday someone picks him off the street and takes him to the charity ward, the first thing they will do is kill the maggots, and he will soon die afterwards of his infections.

It will not surprise you that this is a careless place. Where nobody gives a damn. Where vulnerable and fragile nest and the old huddle in the night and the last time a police car came was when they took old man Polsky’s shotgun away.

There is not much the police can do about the shadow men, but an old man with an old and dangerous shotgun is much easier to handle. For a while, before the cops showed up, old man Polsky used to sit in his window with the shotgun on the sill and the old Ukrainians in the ground floor opposite could open their window for the air. And the Jews in 511 came out on sunny days to walk a little and talk some with the Baptists down the alley.

Once there was even a kid who rode down the sidewalk on a bicycle and everybody was amazed.

Still it was chancy to go for food because the fortified store with the Chaldeans was around the corner. Out of sight. Out of range. And even when your friend was with you, old people can’t move very fast, so you took your chances. It was the luck of the draw. And sometimes you made it ok. Sometimes all you lost was your money. Sometimes you lost your friend.

So Polsky’s shotgun acquired a certain celebrity. He really only used it once which is how we know it worked. The newspapers heard about it and that’s how they came to write about the crazy old man with the shotgun and not so much about the psycho that he shot. I mean, who could tell how nuts the guy was after he’d been shot?

The cops came down in daylight and I must say they were polite and stood in the street talking up to old man Polsky and explained that it was the cops’ job to take care of crime. All we had to do was call. With what, I wonder? There’s one phone in my downstairs hall and it doesn’t even have a 9 or a 1 or a 1 on it anymore.

But the cops were firm and old man Polsky was a man who believed in rules so he gave them the gun and that night nobody went out, and the next night he sat in the window while we all listened to the Irish lady scream.

You could see the shadow men mostly everywhere. Not that there was much to steal, but it was a way of keeping back the boredom. A whole nest of us who couldn’t run with doors we couldn’t really lock. They got Polsky when he went for bread but except for the limp, it didn’t last.

He was a tough old bird and he went out again, using an old baseball bat for a cane and hobbled right past three of them and went in the store and came out again and went back in front of them and when they cornered him on his front steps he took a swing at them with the bat and they liked that a lot and they laughed and the tall one kicked Polsky’s bad leg and when he tipped they took away the bat and I thought maybe that was the end of Polsky but the short one kind of liked the bat and didn’t seem to want to get it dirty.

Polsky got another bat and the next time he went to the store hobbling by them they got pissed and followed him all the way back and up his front steps and up his inside steps and in his front door which wasn’t much anyway and straight into his front room with the old couch and four other old guys sitting on it, waiting, every one of them with a baseball bat.

The old guys broke the young guys’ legs and rolled them down the stairs and out the door and left them there in the gutter near the man in the cardboard box. They probably would have died there, but damn if some city truck didn’t drive by and call it in and they hauled them off.

I thought maybe the cops would come back for the bats but they didn’t.

It was quiet for two days and then I heard Mrs. Sida’s door being knocked in and damned if she didn’t hit the guy across the face with her own bat. I couldn’t figure how she got it and then I found my bat just leaning up outside my door when I went out in the hall to go down to the toilet. It was an old knocked-up bat, looked like somebody had tossed it in a Dumpster.

Then two more days and I watched old man Polsky sitting in his window with his bat across the sill.

And that night, the cars came. Three cars with three guys each. Out at the curb in front of old Polsky’s building. And I was scared but I went to my window and I started to beat on the sill with my bat.

And I heard Polsky beat on his sill. And then next door, the two old guys who can’t even see started pounding on their sill. And pretty soon, the whole street was beating bats on wood and cement and tile and metal and it was like being inside a drum. I beat faster and so did everybody else. And all of a sudden I didn’t feel afraid anymore, There were a hundred old bats out there and beyond them maybe hundreds more.

Old man Polsky got us the bats but we were the ones who connected it up. You could see how scared the street men got. It was like something I never heard on earth. It was in the guts. It got us. We would have done it. We would have come out of our buildings and beaten them. But they didn’t stay to find out.

That’s why we listen now at night and when somebody sees a shadow man they start to beat the bat and everybody hears it and everybody takes up the beat, and the old buildings shake and we all know we’re here and nobody. bothers us any more.

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