We run out of candles on night ten. Marvin singing operatic in the dark about fire breathers, making light out of dark, he says. I fit my hands over his mouth. He pulls his face away. Lord knows what kind of miscreants hear. His breath suffocating us, stomach molecules. His response: “Light a match, burn my particles, let’s revisit our nighttime selves.”
“What if I don’t want to see you?” Robby asks, our first son, eight.
Marvin says, “Then all you have to do is close your eyes.”
This house on a hill once had light and every other house on our street once had light, but then terrible storms came. For days later, we scooped wide-mouth bass from our basement floor with a snow shovel. It was my idea to start keeping them in the bathroom tub upstairs. Cupboards going bare. I brought a few up there, their bodies writhing hard and slick, slipping out of my hands, striking nearly every riser. Little Murray, six, named each fish after days of the week, even after we ran out of days. My sons and I stood around the tub and pointed at different bass, saying, “That’s Tuesday.” “No, that’s Saturday.” “Sunday doesn’t look like that.” “Yes, yes it does.”
They all blamed me for the bear, the tub of bass like a magnet, though the bear ended up just searching our cupboards. (Murray had stacked milk crates to watch the bass jump from yard puddle to yard puddle and when they reached him and wriggled through the rip in the window’s screen, he, too, insisted on bringing them up to the tub in our first-floor bathroom, me chasing the whole time, telling him to be careful, be careful, his wet feet slipping across those pink tiles, putting another fish in that tub we’d filled with pitchers of rain, his new pets). We had heard people walking around upstairs before – looters, mainly, or people lost – but the way that the basement ceiling creaked above us with the bear, the sheer weight, and the way four limbs shuffled, we grew excited, as though the zoo had come to visit.
We still had candles then. The suburbs got so dark. Sometimes, we spoke about the world, whether the entire Western hemisphere lost power. With that noise above us, Marvin insisted on going upstairs. He had to see, had to lift the dog-chewed Louisville Slugger barring the door. He cracked the door open and we huddled at the base of the stairs, Murray and Robby each clinging to one of my legs. He turned a little and wagged an index finger at us like we were a symphony and his hand a baton. He peeked out. When I met him sixteen years prior to all of this, his teammates called him Starvin’ Marvin because he always looked hungry for a homerun.
We’d passed a lot of time with stories, a kind of light for us, warm energy conducted with words, bygone days such as when Murray and Robby squirmed across the floor, their tummy skin raw from the carpet, both of them now embarrassed that they had once done this – embarrassed, too, that they had no recollection of doing this – crawling so much like insects that I had the idea to paint their faces brown and green and sew tubular suits of matching colors, thread pipe cleaner through sheer lace and attach wings to their backs, two dragonfly larvae just metamorphosed, bugs about to fly. I could go upstairs and get the costumes if anyone wanted.
The bear heard Marvin. Then it saw him. It turned from the cabinet. It stood as high as it could. Marvin said all he had to do was bare his teeth at it. This big brown beautiful creature broke eye contact. It went back down to all fours and walked out through the front door. Someone had had the audacity to tie a pink ribbon around its tail. The ribbon’s strands hung all the way down over the hind legs’ matted hair. With the bear safely gone, my husband brought Murray upstairs to check on his bass. Robby and I didn’t go up, my oldest still clinging to my leg, but I pictured what my husband and second-born boy saw: a dozen gray-green bodies wriggling past one another, weak and lazy, days of the week in the giant puddle we once called a bath.
I kept saying everything would be okay. We only had to wait. We could pass time with stories. The worst of the storm had subsided. Day one: Marvin and I went outside, Murray and Robby watching from the basement window. Marvin pointed at our neighbor’s house. The rain came down hard but we kept dry under yellow slickers. The house next door had a peaked roof and across its eave, someone had written in what might have been salmon lipstick, “Isn’t it funny how life turns out?”
“That’s something Justin would write, isn’t it?” I asked, Justin being our next-door neighbor, black mustache, rotund, and almost always jovial. “Maybe he came back.”
“I don’t think so,” Marvin said.
Most people had decided to evacuate, Justin included, but we decided to stay. Behind us, Robby called for us to come back. The little rectangular window with the slit across its screen cut off his and Murray’s faces. On Justin’s roof, someone had set up more than a dozen open parasols, all brightly-colored, some striped. If a helicopter had passed our homes, the pilot would probably see a hill alive with black-eyed susans and marigolds.
I called out Justin’s name. Behind us, Murray shushed me. One of the parasols fell to its side and for the first time we noticed a gray tarp, its hue matching the roof’s shingles, the pair of bare feet that had kicked over the parasol sticking out from one end. The person underneath was too thin to be Justin. Then, as though to prove this, a woman came out from underneath the tarp. She pushed it aside and propped herself on an elbow so she faced us. She wore a brown suit several sizes too big.
“Hey, you two,” she said. “Come on up.”
We went back inside to wait things out a little longer, to use up our batteries, our candles, our matches, all of our means of light.
Not long after the bear, the next day I think, we tried leaving. Up the staircase. The rain had started up again and it pelted the house’s side like the fingers of a thousand looters drumming on clapboard. We stepped out into the gray morning in our slickers, holding hands. Pieces of bear lay in our front yard amidst the puddles. One paw, a leg, the snout with its fangs, the ribbon unwound and flattened next to the crooked mailbox like a bright line daring us to pass. I covered Murray and Robby’s eyes and pulled them back inside by their heads, back down the basement stairs. Still, we’d seen what we’d seen and even what we hadn’t seen would remain with us for eternity, an entire bear in pieces.
I didn’t know it then, but somehow Robby scooped up a bear paw before I could pull him inside. Of course I’d noted that he resisted my pull, and how his face had slipped out from under my slicker’s sleeve. He’d doubled over and coughed—a retch from the bear paw’s dampness as he lifted it and stuffed it in his waistband, I suppose. I thought he’d just paused to look at his reflection in the puddle near his feet. Robby had my wide nose. He had his father’s small ears. I can recall thinking then, as he stood straight and hooked his arm around mine, he sure didn’t look at himself for very long.
Once we were back inside, we huddled in the basement’s shadows, rocking together in a circle, apologizing to each other for something, for anything, maybe for trying to leave, for staying in the first place, for being the type of people that we were. We pulled off soaked shoes from each other’s feet, then wet socks. We wrung puddle water down the floor drains, the streams ringing below, tinkling, hitting water we couldn’t see past the grating.
Then the tenth night, in the last flickers of candlelight, my sons’ sweaty faces looked like vanity mirrors wrapped in dark sheer curtains, but I could tell brighter stories, that old trick of boys holding Christmas tree bulbs in their mouths, cheeks blinking hot pink. The dead bear. The fact that someone had taken the time to lay the ribbon flat at the edge of our yard. The fact that we didn’t try to go any further. The long-gone holidays. Capillaries exposed through lit cheek flesh. It’d all make you think of how thin our skin really is.
So, now Marvin belts out his version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” his stomach exhuming combustible particles, or so he says, enough to light the air around us, “Just use a match.” Robby admits to taking the bear paw, which has stunk up the basement good, and now he sticks a match between two of its claws, maybe our very last match, and he scrapes the head against the basement floor several times until a flame bursts, crawls down the match’s body. Robby drops the paw, which blazes even before it hits the grating, our feet still bare, column of smoke winding up between us. We look at each other’s faces, the fire’s light already beginning to stutter. Cinders fall through the grating. They go psst, psst, pssst. Murray, the youngest, says, “I can think up a name for it, if you want.”