Each time Mom stopped for coffee with Aunt Edith, Mickey and I would head for the parlour to see the bear. A dare from my brother pushed me towards my darkest nightmare, its glass eyes following me as I crossed the room. Mickey’s challenge nudged me to lean down and stroke the thick fur on the bear’s back. Each visit I attempted to confront my fear and stroke the bear’s hard skull.
On one visit Mom entered the parlour and found me whimpering beneath the black piano. I was frozen with fear on the bear’s back, blocked from stroking the head by my lack of backbone. I remember the sound of my brother’s round: Laurie Hartman with yellow hair, can’t touch the tonsils of a bear. Mom explained the animal was dead and couldn’t hurt me, but her assurance held no weight. I could see my brother thrusting his hand through the teeth to touch the tongue and pulling it out again, over and over, behind her back. I would not allow my older brother to get the best of me. That time I got as far as poking the bear’s black nose, but could never muster the courage to lay my hand on that coarse-haired head or the spirit to stick my hand inside the mouth and find the tonsils like Mickey said he did.
The next bear that frightened me showed up in our farmhouse.
I remember how it was with Dad the day he folded the newspaper that usually prevented me from climbing into his lap, and reached down to lift me to his knee. His overstuffed chair in the living room was reserved for him to relax in after work each night.
During the day the chair was different. Mickey and I could crawl and jump on it and play under its pillows. Missing in the mornings was the rhythm of Dad’s harmonica pulling and puffing music from that chair and the sound of his shoe tapping a beat on the wood floor. Gone in the afternoons from his chair were his hearty whisker rubs and the horse rides on his leg. The empty chair lost its interest without the warm scent of sweat that came from inside Dad’s elbow. The chair was an event to be invited into after work. It rarely happened. His blue eyes that day were serious.
“Pumpkin,” he said. “There’s no bear in this house. Daddy wouldn’t let one get indoors.”
“But Daddy, there’s one in my closet. It’s watching, waiting to eat me. Please Daddy, I don’t want to go to bed. I don’t want to bleed.”
“How do you know there’s a bear inside your closet?”
“I can hear it breathing.”
“Okay, let’s go upstairs. We’ll both check your closet this time. If we find a bear in there, I’ll get my gun and shoot it. But if there’s no bear in your closet, you’ll go to sleep. It’s way past eight o’clock. Deal?”
The strong arms that won a Golden Gloves boxing championship lifted me from his lap, and placed me on the floor. The same fingers that made music on our square grand piano took my four year-old hand in his. I had to walk fast to keep up with his strides. We tramped through the kitchen where my mother stood, her hands deep in a bubbling sink, passing dishes through the water, stacking them on the other side. We walked by where my brother sat smiling. He could stay up until 8:30 because he was the oldest.
I stumbled and stopped before the heavy wooden door that led to the second floor. It was a gate kept closed to reserve heat; a gate kept closed to contain the bear in the upper level.
“Goodbye, Mom,” I said, my hands sweating. I wiped them on my shirt.
“Goodnight sweetheart,” she said.
“Ready?” Dad asked, and dropped my hand.
When he pulled the door open, a cold rush of air bumped down the painted wooden steps. I faltered. My breathing became shallow. I gasped for courage. I willed my heart strength, exhaled and plunged ahead.
“Is that my brave girl coming up the stairs?” Dad said from the landing at the top. “What’s keeping you?”
I took one step at a time. “I’m checking the stairs for berries, Dad, food the bear missed last night.” I bent over. “I’m looking around for signs, footprints in the dust.”
“How are you doing down there?”
“Okay so far. I’m at the landing. Where are you, Daddy?”
“Pumpkin?” Dad called from my bedroom down the narrow hallway.
I crossed the landing quickly and flattened my back to the wall. I checked the floor for tracks. With my arms stretched wide, my palms flattened, I slid along the floral wallpaper … a thin target for a lurking bear planning to pounce. “Dad, where are you?”
“Exploring in your closet.”
I dashed through my bedroom doorway and fanned myself against the wall, my heart thumping.
“Did you find it, Daddy? Is it big?” I saw his arm waving me inside the closet. My legs were stiff, like logs. I took a deep breath and forced them toward him.
Dad unraveled a long string from where it had wrapped around the light bulb. He squatted to my level.“Here, you pull the light on.” The bare bulb flashed on, revealing a lump of underwear on the floor, and some Sunday school dresses hanging from a wooden rod. “This closet is an eyesore.” He glanced around. “Pumpkin, there’s no bear in here.”
I gaped. His head was close. He smelled like cigarettes. “Look behind that.” I pointed to my uncle’s uniform from World War II hanging on one side.
He moved the army dress greens as I stared. “See?” His big arms encircled me and placed me in the bottom bunk in the room I shared with Mickey.
“Daddy, check under the bed and behind the door.”
He closed the door so I could see. “Now go to sleep and be tough.” He rubbed his whiskers on my cheek, his signature kiss. The bear was gone.
The next night the bar came back. Dad’s friends were playing poker around the Formica-topped kitchen table, sitting on chairs with smooth chrome legs and turquoise-plastic upholstered seats. Dad showed me how to spread and hold his cards while he went outside to get more beer. He warned me in a whisper to hold on to any pairs.
Bill Kemp sat across from me, holding his cards behind a screen of gray smoke. He died a few year’s later when his chainsaw whipped back and cut him down the middle.
Ernie Winkle sat to my left. A tall bottle of cold beer trumped his stacks of red and yellow chips, like . Mom’s flower arrangement in the flat white vase … one tall stalk flanked by shorter blooms.
Donald Schwab was the third player at the poker game. He farmed forty acres of prime, tiled ground south of our back forty. He was the quiet man who sat to my right.
The deal I made with Dad that night was to go to bed when he came back inside to play his hand. For that my closet light could stay on all night and he would keep the downstairs door open.
Dad waited while I laid his cards face down on the tabletop. I took the stairs with courage, scanning above and behind me for the bear. I skimmed along the hallway flowers, flipping sides on the steps, back and forth, searching for the prowling bear. I skipped past the closet, bounced into my bunk and yanked my blanket over my head. At least I knew the closet light was on. Dad had checked for bear and pulled the string before the poker game began.
The smell of Lucky Strikes and the sound of laughter blared up the stairs. Even when the men swore, their rough voices calmed me, slowed my breathing, soothed my rapid heartbeats … until I heard the rustle on my closet floor. Dad had warned me that he didn’t want to hear more about the bear tonight. I had no choice. I swallowed hard and made a plan.
My Sunday school teacher said mine was the sweetest voice singing in the choir. It seemed to me the bear might enjoy a song and spare me for the night. I crossed my arms over my neck for protection against a claw attack and sang. My voice came out shrill, and loud. Made-up songs soared from my cloaked throat. Tunes about bear scavenging beehives, finding blackberries and boysenberries. Hymns about mulberries and blueberries roared past the flowered wallpaper, down the painted steps and out the stairway door.
“Stop that singing and go to sleep!” Dad’s voice was firm. He shut the door. I was spared that night.
A Michigan autumn shines on us today, fifty years later. It’s Thanksgiving and the bear is back. tradition brings my family together in our house each year. My brother brought a wild turkey which is roasting in the oven beneath a pound of smoked bacon strips. Mom brought pumpkin and mincemeat pies. My niece brought garlic mashed potatoes and some rabbit stew. My dad brought steaks and is standing next to me beside the outdoor gas grill. He’s lucky to be here after the carpal tunnel surgery, the gall bladder removal, the carotid artery surgery and the herniated disc procedure. He said he wasn’t afraid of getting old, but I was; afraid I would lose his music; petrified I would lose his strength.
My father’s poker friends are dead, except for Ernie Winkle. They still play cards and hunt the fields around the farm during the season. Dad is smaller and grayer standing here beside me today. His boxer’s arms have lost their tone. His hands, now gnarled, grasp the tongs. His arms, still strong, turn thick steaks.
I can sleep each night without a light, but I still fight the bear. It happen last time we were scuba diving when I saw the shark. I had no choice. I forced myself to slow my panting, willed my muscles to move, my knees to unlock. I kicked toward the surface, decompressing at thirty feet for three minutes while the shark flashed by. My eyes were on my depth gage and my diving watch, not on the shark. I made it up because I learned to be strong, like him.
“Dad,” I say. “Do you remember when I was little and a bear in my closet was about to eat me?”
“Sure I do.” He shakes his head, smiles and turns the steak on the grill. “And today we eat the bear.”