The Black Bear
What began as a sunset walk to the convenience store with Dylan, who was craving vanilla-flavored coffee and Sugar Babies, evolved into hours of drinking wine product on the railroad tracks until Teddy got off work. Then we could all get serious about...
All sketches by Olivia Hinds
Wistar Murray is a writer from Charlottesville, Virginia. She graduated from Columbia University's MFA program in fiction, where she was a 2010 winner of the Henfield Prize. She holds a BA from the College of William & Mary.
What began as a sunset walk to the convenience store with Dylan, who was craving vanilla-flavored coffee and Sugar Babies, evolved into hours of drinking wine product on the railroad tracks until Teddy got off work. Then we could all get serious about getting retarded. As I banged through the doors of the Lucky-7, I was still thinking about the blowjob I had given earlier, looking for something to wash down the taste. A man dozed upright like a mule against the beer fridge. Dylan rapped on the glass beside the man’s forehead but he only mumbled back as though reciting a nightmare. Christmas music played in fits between candy aisles and I bombarded myself with dirty words. You pussy, I thought. In those days everyone either had a pussy or was a pussy incarnate. I managed both. Too many people were talking at once near the beverages, so I let Dylan pick the poison while I concentrated on dollar bills. You beaver, I thought, as I fumbled the money. You vagina. Quiet down before I kill you. I was already drunk.
At the cash register I was drawn to a chocolate cube wrapped in silver foil. I thought it might sit like a toad in my palm. Dylan toyed with a pair of red panties crushed into the shape of a rose, a stocking stuffer with a glass stem that people used for smoking crack. After we left with our bottles, Dylan launched the red panties at a boy on a skateboard. The kid caught them midair and twirled them over his head like a flag, making Dylan’s night in a way that my mouth hadn’t. After we took our places in the gravel beside the railroad tracks, I licked my chocolate cube and then placed it on the steel rail for a freight to run over. But the move wouldn’t pay off until the midnight train arrived, and we didn’t have the patience to wait. It was a full-time job, getting cockamamy. I can’t help how my life turned out.
Unlike Dylan and me, Teddy had a real job. He worked at a radio station, which was the source of all our stolen music. I was the go-to girl if either of them needed head, and they made me feel loved and distracted most of the time. They traded me back and forth like an audio file. We drank at bars where we weren’t welcome, broke into hotel pools so we could float together in a cocoon of warm water, and did wholesome things like guitar strumming while doing unwholesome things like cocaine. We were best friends. I’d found them somewhat recently.
The secret to giving a great blowjob is to act as if you’re enjoying it. My secret is that I rarely had to act.
Dylan and I waited in the heated lobby of the FM station until Teddy descended the stairs carrying a bottle of Pepsi and a black parka. He and Dylan talked about getting tickets to the Arthur Lee/Love reunion while I hung in the background. No matter how close I feel to a person, it always takes me a while to warm to a fresh body. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually know my mother when she comes through a doorway. Occasionally I worry that I’ll get my brother’s name wrong. More so now that he’s dead. But Dylan and Teddy could always manage my awkwardness by making fun of it and then getting me wasted. Teddy gave me a stubbly kiss on the cheek, told me I smelled like dick, and then we all walked to the bars downtown, blowing our smoke into the yellow domes under streetlamps.
Intoxication and sugar highs both let you down eventually. By the time we made it to our third bar I felt that I was sobering even though I was slurring my words. I didn’t have the wherewithal to tell the boys that the last time I’d been to that bar was the previous October, with my older brother. We’d met there for a beer after one of his rotations at UVA’s hospital. I was proud to sit next to someone in surgical scrubs, but my brother was more interested in watching the football game on TV than in shooting the shit. I tried to ask him about his day in the ER, but he dismissed my questions as though pain were some secret I didn’t have the maturity to deal with.
Teddy had challenged a few frat boys to a game of pool and Dylan was in the corner rubbing the thigh of a bleached-blond chick I could tell he wanted to hate-fuck, hence my solo placement at the bar beside a graduate student who’d been trying to match me shot for shot. There was never a tape recorder handy for these priceless encounters, but they usually went like this: flirty, fun and accessible, scary drunk, flirty, hint of blowjob to come, this girl’s fucking crazy, actual blowjob. On any other night my face would’ve crashed into the graduate student’s lap, but on this night he toppled his bar stool on a trip to the boy’s room, attacking the top of my hand with the still-warmish seat. He picked up his stool and departed, not realizing that he’d shaved a polygon of skin clear off my knuckle. Eventually I staunched the flow with a cocktail napkin, but for a moment I’d admired the way my blood reflected the Christmas lights twinkling above the liquor bottles. I drained my bourbon and stood quickly, looking for elsewhere in a room that kept swimming.
It’s not that I was pissed at the grad student for laying into my hand. God knows I’d gotten sloppy before—stepped on some toes and broken some spectacles in 2 AM hookups—but my mood had been salvageable until I was injured. I could’ve had another shot of whiskey after the sadness hit. I could’ve put a smile on my face and resumed cluster-fucking Dylan’s tète-a-tète with the blonde. I could’ve been respectably laid by any grubby drunk at the bar. I could’ve walked to the frozen graveyard to visit my brother because that’s what sisters did at Christmastime. But instead I was sliced like fudge, cruelly reminded of my own body, my own blood, the skeleton under my skin. My injured hand was a glove I’d wear for the rest of the night. At least it felt more real than the one I wrapped around these men.
I go on and on about my stupid hand and chocolate candy and my handsome brother who killed himself before he became a doctor, but I remember now that when I found myself in that bar bathroom standing in front of the hand dryer, I had a sort of Zen moment listening to the drone of hot air, as if I were conducting its blasts. How long did I stand there? Not long enough, but the pounding on the door said otherwise. I kicked the air freshener plugged into the wall. Why would anyone want to scent a bathroom like pumpkin pie? Even with the looming holidays, it seemed miscue.
When I unlatched the door, Teddy barged through. “Stay with me while I take a piss,” he said. I leaned against the sink and felt halfway horny when his stream made contact with the toilet water. It sounded like music he had written for me. “What’s wrong, cubby?” he said as he buckled his jeans. I pouted and held up a backward fist as if I were planning to uppercut his fuzzy chin. “Poor baby,” he said. “Did you stick your hand in another cockfight?” He tore crusty bits of napkin from my wound and offered to fashion me a sling out of his wool scarf. I told him to keep it in case he needed to make someone else a tourniquet later. Then I saw some things in the bathroom mirror like my dress crumpled on the floor like dirty laundry and Teddy’s big hands hoisting my bare boobs and my tongue lapping up the collarbone under his scratchy scarf. When he lifted me onto the sink, the white porcelain felt cold against my ass so I turned on the faucet behind me.
The hot water steamed up my back while he fucked me with one of his sneakers propped against the door so no one could push it open. Afterward I pressed toilet paper onto my wounded hand, and we each did some of Teddy’s coke. He went back to the pool table and I removed to the sidewalk.
It was still winter outside. I cradled my bad hand in my good hand and wanted more chocolate. I wanted to exchange my skin for a candy coating. I wanted to nibble my wound as I would a Hershey bar, and I wanted to serve someone my own brutish body in increments of Kisses. I thought about drunk dialing my mom but didn’t. She had enough to worry about.
Lately I’d been counting my brother’s total Christmas mornings. There were twenty-six because I didn’t include the year he spent at his med-school girlfriend’s place. It was my mother, not a daddy or Santa Claus, who put the chocolate coins in the toes of our stockings every season. My brother had clean, sharp fingernails for snagging their metallic wrappers. I bit them open with my canines, ingesting flecks of gold foil like King Midas. Last Christmas my brother had forgotten to buy me a present. I pretended that my feelings weren’t hurt. He’d been suturing skin and curing diseases while I’d been marching from store to store with my waitressing money, caressing books and cashmere sweaters.
At this point I was really losing it. Usually it was around midnight, the witching hour, when I started to cry. If the boys had been outside, they would have bundled me up and teased me with this running joke where my name was actually Gaelic for “stupid.” Then they’d call me a silly cunt and buy me a shot and sort of pound their hearts with their fists and take turns kissing my forehead and I would recover until the next time. But on this night my blood pulsed into the wad of toilet paper that I still gripped like a talisman. I felt sick to my stomach. If I forgot to blink, all the headlights and neon signs on the street morphed into a laser show, like when I was high on mushrooms in the Holiday Inn swimming pool. I wanted to hail a cab to the moon. I would pay in fingers, in arms. My hand throbbed as if it were already going somewhere. “Please,” I whispered, “take me with you.”
Dylan and Teddy came looking for me, as I knew they would eventually. They found me crying on the curb like a little pussy. I generally prided myself on being one of them, one of the tougher rock and roll dudes, but they had both dumped large volumes of tears on my shoulder as well. Just last summer Dylan had told me that he hated himself and wanted to die, so I fucked him in the James River where we were skinny-dipping drunk in the moonlight. We tended to talk feelings with our pelvic areas. Who knows how many lives my vagina has saved?
I decided to drive. That’s how much I wanted to go home, never mind the fact that I’d been drinking for roughly nine hours. My brother kept his leather doctor’s kit under the driver’s seat of the car I’d inherited from him. If my hand happened to fall off, I would be my own medic. I tripped and shivered back to Dylan’s apartment. I can’t remember how I shook the boys. It probably didn’t take much, to be honest. Like I said, we were all very busy in those days. Anyway, there was only one boy whose arms I wanted to collapse into that night. “Merry Christmas,” my brother would say to me. “It’s time to wake up.”
Something compelled me toward my childhood landscape instead of back to the bar for a one-night stand. My wound was a stamp from a club I no longer wanted to frequent. After a 15-minute drive that felt like hours of evading booby traps, I was relieved to pull into the country lane that led to my mother’s house. I’d been sleeping on her bedroom floor for nearly ten months, since the morning we’d found the body in the blue room next to mine.
I shifted into neutral and coasted down the gravel road that smelled of cow manure and moonlight. I withdrew my mangled hand from the steering wheel and licked the wound until I tasted a fresh coat of blood. Then I was hurled violently toward the dashboard. Between jolts I prepared to meet my maker—and wondered how I’d clear my bloodstream of Maker’s Mark before the cops showed up. What the hell had I hit? It was too late for neighbors to be on the road. I inspected my immediate surroundings for damage. My car was stalled. The hood looked dented, but I couldn’t be sure. I realized that upon impact I’d bitten my bad hand and was now bleeding from a much larger wound. The pain was doing double duty and I spit something salty onto the upholstery of the passenger side. I recalled reading about a Parisian mistress who’d accidentally bitten off her boyfriend’s dick when they were rear-ended during a front-seat blowjob. Castration by whiplash.
I didn’t want to leave my car to face the deer that I’d probably knocked to kingdom come. I needed to get home so I could listen to my mother while she slept, so I opened my car door. I unbuckled and spilled onto the lane. My brights were still on, illuminating a black hump on the gravel. Cow. Gorilla. Beanbag. Bear. Maybe the bear had gotten drunk and thrown himself in front of my car. There were no visible marks on the bearded boulder, nor any semblance of life. I couldn’t locate his jaw, his teeth. He was tangled in the sober ground and its bed of tiny stones.
My thoughts went something like this: If I touch him, I’ll be electrocuted. I’ll touch him and he’ll finish off my hand. I’ll touch him and he’ll melt into red Virginia mud. I’ll touch him and he’ll break apart into fifty howling black cats. I won’t touch him. I’ll create a diversion to wake him up. I’ll take him out drinking. I’ll let him fondle me like all the others. I’ll bind his paws with duct tape and throw him in the trunk. I’ll slash my body with his stilled claws and settle my neck inside his mouth. The neighbors will find us in the morning and say that I was like a lamb to the slaughter, that I didn’t have a chance, that the bear had pulled me from my brother’s car, had tossed me around, and then had gnawed through my aorta. Except my blood was poison, not the sweet stuff the bear had anticipated, and as my fight slackened, so did his big bear heart. And there we’d be on the road, locked together in morning rigor mortis, an interspecies tragedy.
My body was all slanted with the dark weight at my feet. The bear was a landmine, a furry tank, a gift from a war. He was a bed to sleep on. A Dylan, a Teddy, a blackout. I’d been looking for a predator to pump some blood into my veins. I’d been looking for a dark place to crawl. I’d found the animal driving me home. He was the gravity fighting my headlights.
I did hate to watch something die so close to Christmas. Especially something so obviously displaced. I could think of nothing more demoralizing than stumbling down from the Blue Ridge Mountains and getting taken out by a secondhand Honda Accord. And the creature had really attacked me. I’d just been innocently driving along and he’d indirectly tried to chew off my hand. Maybe bears were drawn to light like moths. Maybe this one had danced right onto my hood, compelled by hypnosis or religiosity or a death wish or whatever else drives a bug to a flame. Whatever makes a man hang himself from a ceiling instead of sticking around to watch over his kid sister.
I knew there was a stethoscope in my brother’s medical kit. I thought of shaving a square from the bear’s chest and checking his heartbeat. He’d shiver with the cold metal of my inquiry. He’d never had anything that close to his heart. He’d want to tell me everything. He’d want to tell me why he did it. He’d murmur that he had his genesis in a hole in the ground and I’d say, “That was exactly like my childhood,” and we’d dish about darkness and honey.
I’d been standing there for miles trying to exonerate myself for my crime when the black bear rumbled at my feet and a face appeared. I was briefly relieved that I hadn’t collided with a little boy in a bear costume. So the beast was real. I retreated to my vehicle and locked the doors, as though the bear might jack my car. I watched through my windshield as the bear tried to orient himself and found the feet beneath him. His face was void of revenge, of blood-thirst. He was a black hole with eyes illuminated like sunken stars, like licorice. I remembered the word for bear in French: ours. He couldn’t see me for the glare of the headlights. I turned them off. I started my engine. I backed up. I hit the beast again.
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