BATS IN THE BELFRY
David J. Gibbs
THE POINT: 1989
It wasn’t something she liked to talk about, certainly not at her advanced age. They would send her to the loony bin for sure. And her brat Andrew would smile, as he wheeled her in. No, she wouldn’t let that happen. But there was no denying something was happening. And it was something she couldn’t readily explain away or even control.
Ida had been born just south of the 20th-century mark and witnessed war swallow the known world twice over. She had witnessed a level of poor she had once thought impossible and had endured hunger leaving her too weak to move. She had witnessed three assassination attempts of presidents, two of which were successful. She remembered being a little girl and the world stopping as the Titanic took a nosedive to the depths. Ida remembered being scared when the astronauts died on the launching pad in a terrible fire and then just a few short years later, being so excited when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for all mankind.
She could recall all of it, but somehow the more time passed the less real it seemed. It was as if she became more and more removed from it each time she thought about those things. There were even times when she almost questioned whether it had happened or not. And still, other times when she felt the things around her were whispery thin. It was almost as if she could push her hand through the lamp on the end table or her book would fall to the floor, her hands suddenly unable to grasp it. And it was that in part which made her start to begin wondering about how fragile a state of mind could be.
Could there be too much whispering?
When she had been a young girl, she remembered her Aunt Lottie and how her parents had whispered about the aged woman behind her back. They would constantly talk about how they didn’t think she was safe by herself out on the farm being so far away from neighbors and doctors. It was the same small farm Lottie had been born on, and the same one both of her parents were buried on, but that didn’t matter when there were bats in the belfry.
Thankfully, Ida had been quiet about those certain little things and so no one was the wiser. Well, no one, save herself. And she wasn’t foolish enough to think she would be able to outlast the darkness she knew was coming. But for now, she was in control.
She could still cook and not worry she would burn the house down. Honestly though, if it did burn down, as long she was in it, she didn’t care. It was hers, bought and paid for, well before Lyndon had made his appearance in the White House, and it would remain hers until she was no more. Yes, and then Andrew could gut it or sell it or do whatever he damn well pleased with it.
Ida looked up at the small framed picture of her late husband Edward, or Eddie, as she had fondly called him. In the picture he sat on an old wooden barrel beside a split rail fence, one foot resting on another smaller barrel, both arms crossed on one of his knees. He clutched a worn cowboy, a wry smile crossing his face. She’d always wished he would’ve waited for her to sit down on the barrel beside him before the photographer had taken the picture, but he was in too much of a hurry.
Smiling, she turned on the gas for the stove and then lit it with a diamond tip kitchen match. Andrew always insisted on having her use one of those butane lighting sticks, but she thought they were unsafe. As the blue ring of flame danced around the burner, she shook the match out and then put the kettle of water on it.
The wind always tended to catch the south corner of the house and whisper through almost constantly. The incessant handfuls of sand wrought with the wind’s venom had worn the wooden shingles along that part of the house to an almost impossible smoothness. The whispers were music to her ears and she longed for more of it each day.
She knew Andrew had never liked it on The Point while growing up. He had hated the sand and the wind, but mostly he had hated the isolation. He had hated her and his father for keeping him in such a place. As if they were punishing him for something he had done. It had so little to do with him that he probably wouldn’t understand even if she tried to explain it to him.
It was more than a little frustrating her son couldn’t understand her love for the place. The thrill she felt each time the sun fell to the sea’s edge and spilled color across the sky. The way she felt when she watched the lightning crash to the sea, the flickering light show making the sea spark and the clouds glow. The ebb and flow of the tides every day and the way the sea would take away sand in one storm season only to deposit three times as much sand the following season. It was all something wonderful to her. It was as if each day was a secret slideshow for her and her alone.
Ida breathed with this place.
It was her air.
It was her.
She knew she was but a fraction of the person she had been thirty, forty, fifty years earlier but she was still more than able to take care of herself. God, she hated when one of the snooty visiting nurses would say things like ‘hey you’re really with it’ to her. The comments which might seem like compliments were like quiet daggers in a dark room. ‘No bats in the belfry’. ‘No rust upstairs with this one’. ‘Oh, you seem sharp as a tack darlin’. She’d like to show her a tack a time or two as much poking and prodding the nurses did all over her. Ida never understood how if her hands or elbows ached why they needed to check her feet or listen to her heart.
She had always had nervous hands. A smile burrowed across the weathered landscape of her face as she thought of Eddie again. He had always asked her if she had ants in her pants because of the way she would tug at the hems of her dresses or pick at her fingers. He’d been dead almost thirty years now, but she could feel him with her every step of the way, even more so lately it seemed. It was odd how many voices she heard in the wind each night. His was one of them.
The days no longer held much difference to them. They were becoming more and more, one long strange voyage, through which she walked. She didn’t go anywhere and had very few visitors. She spent long hours just sitting on her porch and watching the tides as they would come in and then softly shuffle out just as easily and was more than content.
She hated when her son came to visit because he was only interested in where she had her money and what she planned to do with it and oh yeah by the way did you forget to sign the power of attorney forms and did you finalize the updated last will and testament? If she had her way, she’d leave it all to the damned seagulls that cried across her small finger of beach.
She knew Andrew was going to sell it all when he had the chance. Developers had been after her eleven acres of The Point, for as long as she could remember, always raising their price to something they felt she couldn’t possibly refuse. Ida never failed to surprise them. Oh sure, she’d listen to them. Her mother raised her to be polite. But once they were done with their folding easels and big glossy pictures and gave her the bottom line, she always politely thanked them for their interest and then showed them the door.
She heard a car door shut and knew the nurse was about to make an appearance. It was Thursday, so that would mean it was Mary Jane who would be coming through the door.
A large smiling woman dressed in white stepped through the door and said, “Well good morning Ms. Ida. I brought you the paper from your stoop.”
“Morning,” Ida said, resting her elbows on the arms of her chair, her eyes looking out at the ocean. “Thank you.”
“You’re looking well this morning. Did you eat anything yet?”
“I had something earlier. Was just waiting on the kettle to warm up for some tea.”
Mary Jane nodded her head and said, “I’ll just tidy up a little bit and then we can do your blood pressure and other things while you drink your tea. How about that?”
The question came in a voice that sounded like the woman was talking to a toddler. Ida nodded, hoping the conversation would end so Mary Jane could finish up quickly and get out of the house faster.
“My goodness but the wind is sure whipping out there. ‘Bout blew me off the bridge coming across to see you today,” Mary Jane said, as she went into the other room. The sounds of her putting things away could be heard, as Ida continued to stare out the window. The sunlight was making the small ripples sparkle. She loved when that happened. Mary Jane was right the wind was talking plenty outside.
Just then, she heard footsteps coming up to the porch, and for a minute and Ida wondered if Mary Jane had brought some help. But that thought quickly went to the wayside, as she suddenly recognized the footfalls. She heard the spring creaking as the storm door opened to the screened-in porch. Ida heard him dutifully wiping his feet on the small worn welcome mat. She knew it was Eddie coming up the steps. She knew it for certain in her heart. She had heard him follow the same routine hundreds of times before.
It was him.
Mary Jane’s humming came to her as Ida waited for the doorknob to turn and her Eddie to walk through the door. He hadn’t turned that doorknob in three decades and although part of her knew he couldn’t be there, another part of her that had been listening to the whispering wind all this time, knew he was there nonetheless.
Her heart shuddered with that sweet ache, as the doorknob turned and she watched Eddie step into the room. He was so handsome, always had been. She’d oftentimes wondered how she managed to hold onto someone with such dashing good looks. Ida knew she was no looker. She was a Plain Jane if there ever was one. Her sister Marie had always had the boys fawning over her, but not Ida. Not until Eddie walked into her life that is.
“Hey there Peaches,” he said, his voice hinting at laughter just below the surface. He tossed his worn hat onto the table beside her. She loved when he called her Peaches. It was his pet name for her.
She could only smile.
“What do you say we take a walk? Weather’s nice and the water looks beautiful. It always is this time of year. We shouldn’t waste the day now should we?”
She could only nod, as she reached for his outstretched hand. It was so warm, and rough from labor, just as it always had been. They left together side by side and stepped down from the screened-in porch. The pair headed for the sparkles in the water.
“I’ve missed you,” she said her voice almost a whisper.
“Well, I’m right here. No reason to miss me now when I’m right here with you Peaches.”
They stumbled down over the rise of the dune and she could feel the water kiss her toes. Her one hand pulled her dress up so it wouldn’t get too wet, while her other held on to Eddie’s hand for dear life. The wind still talked to them as they walked through the shallow water near the shore. They walked through the shimmering water that glittered with the sunlight. The sun-warmed water teased her feet as they walked together. Lost upon the pair, the wind continued to lash out across the sandy expanse of beach with even more strength.
“I can’t believe the wind finally died down,” Mary Jane said a little loudly from the other room so that Ida could hear it.
She grouped the magazines neatly and tucked them into the side pocket of the Lay-z-Boy chair by the television before trying again, “Miss Ida that wind finally gave up I think.”
She walked into the small sunroom just inside the screened-in porch. It was Miss Ida’s favorite spot in the house. Mary Jane saw her sitting in the chair, her cane with four rubber feet stood dutifully at her side.
“Miss Ida?” she asked, with no response.
It was eerily quiet with the wind completely gone. Mary Jane had never known The Point to be this quiet. It was always windy, always.
As she moved closer, she heard a few drops of water tap against the floor. She knew that Miss Ida was prone to fall asleep and reached out to gently rouse her when she saw the water dripping from her bare feet. The bottom few inches of her nightgown were wet as well.
At first, she thought Miss Ida may have had an accident, but she knew that wasn’t the case almost immediately, she could smell the saltwater. But that wasn’t what chilled her heart. The first was the worn hat on the table. She knew it wasn’t there when she had come in just a few minutes earlier. The second was the wet sandy footprints that came in from the screened-in porch. There were two sets of them.
She picked up the phone and dialed Andrew’s number. As she waited for him to answer, Mary Jane looked up at the framed picture on the wall. In it, Ida was leaning against Eddie’s shoulder and they were sitting on two old wooden barrels. Her arm was tucked inside of his, and his large hands held a heavy saw. There was something that struck her about the photograph, but she couldn’t say exactly why. Something about it seemed different.
And then, the wind finally mercifully began to pick up again, whispering around the edges of the house.