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"Big Bear, Little Bear," in the Delmarva Review

 

 

He was Bear now. Nobody called him Mikey anymore, not even teachers, not even his sister or his mom. Only Pop called him by his real name. He was built like his mom, broad and heavy, but he had his pop's height, most of it. Pop was six feet, Bear was five-eleven. Pop was long-legged and bony; Bear was chunky, thighs thick as hams, calves muscle-loaded, solid meat. Bear Strum, number twenty-five, powerhouse of the Raptors' defense, the main reason the Raptors were going to the playoffs for the first time in history. Bear would have been out on the practice field right now, running and hitting with the other guys, except he was quitting the team.

 

"You crazy, Bear?" Coach hollered. "What's this about hitting too hard? Harder the better. You know that."

 

"Coach, I hurt somebody again last week. I broke his arm."

 

"You didn't break it. He fell on it."

 

"I was on top of him. I crushed him."

 

"We already been through this, son. Crushing's your job. I'm counting on you. Defense is nine-tenths of our game."

 

Coach stared at him with colorless eyes. Bear waited. He'd always hit hard, but up until a month ago, his hits hadn't resulted in guys moaning on the turf, unable to move or focus their eyes, injuries he'd inflicted since Pop's accident. Coach had mentioned the accident only once, when he'd called Bear into his office and said, "This business with your dad, it coulda happened to anybody." The way he said it, Bear could tell Coach didn't believe he would accidentally back a truck over a little kid and crush him to death.

 

"Stuff happens you're not responsible for," Coach was saying now. "Don't worry about it. Help us win the championship."

 

Bear stood there, feet clamped to the floor.

 

Coach sighed. "Tell you what, son. Skip practice today. Go home. Get your mind clear."

 

Bear went into the locker room and stripped off his sweats. The locker room with its rows of dented lockers, slimy concrete floor, and odors of fetid shoes and disinfectant was as familiar to him as his room at home, more familiar even, but now, without the other guys around, snapping towels, trading insults, banging metal doors, it felt weird, as though somebody he couldn't see was looking at him. He pulled on jeans and a sweater, stuffed his sweats into his bag and left, glad to be out of the empty locker room with its invisible eyes.

 

Outside, in the liquid dark, his teammates labored on a field that was mud soup after a week of rain, running plays under the direction of assistant coach Frank Potter. Bear stood beside the chain-link fence and watched the first-string offense run 14-A against the second-string defense. The play was simple in theory: a lateral from Tony Abrego to Ben Bragg who handed off to Trevor Harris who ran for the down. They'd rarely made it work in a game. Tony would execute the pass, no problem, then Ben or Trevor would fumble, or the opponent's defense would take out one of them—if Bear defended Ben, Trev would get hit, or vice versa. Bear couldn't be two places at once.

 

As he watched, Tony fed the pitch straight into Ben's hands, Ben handed off to Trev, and wham!, somebody tackled Trev. Bear squinted. Freddie Ferguson? A sophomore tackled Trev? What the fuck? Who was lead blocking? Bear wanted to charge out onto the field and kick some butt. He had the right to kick butt; he'd be captain next year—unless he quit the team. He walked off fuming. Three days to the play-off game and sophomores were stopping their first string.

 

He cut across the girls' soccer field to the side street where he parked the Mercury during school hours, illegally, in a delivery zone. He never got towed. "Somebody up there likes you, honey," Ruthie told him. He didn't know if she meant God or Officer Higgins. Probably God. Ruthie's mother was a born-again. He wished Ruthie were here with him now. He was getting that feeling in his chest.

 

He walked slower and concentrated on his breathing, the way his mom had taught him to do when he was thirteen and getting panic attacks before a game. That year Coach had pulled him off the eighth grade squad, where he ate opponents, and put him on j.v. with bloated fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds who ate him. "Breathe in—feel the air in your nostrils, feel it go down to your belly," his mother had crooned in a voice different from the commando bark she usually used when talking to him and Bree. He'd liked the feeling he got from the breathing, liked his mom's new voice. He'd used the technique a lot that year. He hadn't needed it since, until now.  

 

He had to convince Coach he was serious about quitting. This was the fourth time he'd tried, the fourth time Coach had blown him off. He didn't exactly blame Coach. Coach was concentrating on winning the playoffs. He wanted Bear to concentrate too, but Bear was messed up. It was Pop's accident—nobody talked about it, but Bear knew they were thinking about it, Trevor, Tony, Coach, the way he was, all the time. At home, the atmosphere was so loaded it was like you'd lift a finger or take a breath and somebody might explode. Pop sat in his chair looking at the TV as if he were stoned—he wasn't stoned; he wasn't watching TV either, he was just sitting—his Pop, who was always up doing things. When he wasn't at his job taking down trees, he'd be out crabbing or cutting grass. If weather kept him inside, he'd be carving birds out of driftwood.

 

Now Pop seemed terrified to move. When he spoke, he sounded as though he was having trouble finding words—his dad, who used to be ready with an opinion or a joke for any occasion, though capable of silence too, as when he and Bear went hunting. They used to go out every Sunday this time of year. "Mikey," Pop had whispered once when they were crouched in a blind waiting for the ducks to show, "this is prob'ly as close to heaven as I'm gonna get, and that suits me just fine." His dad hadn't gone hunting since he ran over the kid. Now Bear's mom fed him tranquilizers she brought home from the hospital and bossed him like he was a kid with the flu.

 

Bree was the only one in the family who talked anymore. She filled the gaping silences at meals with accounts of the cool way her teachers and friends were treating her, how sweet everybody was to her at school, how girls who never spoke to her before, older girls, seniors, came up and hugged her in the hall. Bear and his dad and his mom sat through Bree's monologues not saying anything, he and his dad like twin zombies, lifting fork to mouth, fork to mouth, while his mom stared at Bree with this look like she was about to go up in flames.

 

Ruthie was Bear's consolation. "Honey, you are tight as a drum," she'd say, massaging his shoulders. "I need to give you a good rub." And she'd straddle his back and dig her fingers into his muscles until he groaned.

 

Ruthie was strong. She was point guard for the girls' basketball team and her body was beyond perfect. He'd seen a lot of it, but Ruthie and her mother and sister were hardcore Church of God and in that church there were lines beyond which you did not go. When he and Ruthie were in the Merc "cuddling," as she called it, she'd let Bear unbutton her blouse but wouldn't take it off. She'd let him slide his hand under her bra but not remove it. In case God was watching, he guessed.

 

He found his car, untowed, and got in. He was still doing the breathing, but when he started the motor, the sudden roar jarred his attention and the thing was upon him before he could fend it off, the monster that awoke in his chest when he was on the field, head lowered, knee to turf, aimed like a missile for the body he had to bring down, and the bellow that came out of him when he lunged at an opponent came out of him now. He mashed his foot down and the Merc leaped off screaming. He rounded the corner so fast the rear tires spun out. He fought the wheel, the car righted itself, and he was flying through a stop sign, fighting the thing in his chest, pushing it away, not breathing. He turned onto the main road and opened it up. Nearly home, hitting ninety, he saw lights in his rearview, red and blue flashing lights.

 

"He made me get out of the car," he told Ruthie. "Then he just stood there looking at me. After, like, five minutes of us standing there, he said if he ever saw me exceed the limit again he'd put me behind bars for the rest of my life."

 

"He gave you a break," Ruthie said and climbed onto his back.

 

They were in her room. After the run-in with Officer Higgins, Bear couldn't face going home. He'd gone to Ruthie's instead, where he was in luck. Her mother was working dinner at Tides and her sister was at church. They were free to go to Ruthie's room for a massage.

 

"Why'd you leave practice, sweetie?" she asked, pressing down with her fingers, digging deep into his flesh.

 

"Coach said I could. I told him I don't like to hit anymore."

 

Ruthie stopped pressing. "You don't like to hit?"

 

"I don't like to hurt people. Go on. Don't stop."

 

She pressed again, in a half-hearted way. "Sweetie, I don't understand. Hitting's your thing."

 

Go on, dig, he silently urged. He yearned for pain.

 

"It's your dad's accident," she said, sitting back on her heels. "It's eating you up. You need to tell me—"

 

"I don't need to tell you anything," he roared and in one powerful swoop he smacked her jaw with his elbow. She fell back, inert—for a second he thought she was dead—but now

she came at him, pummeling, scratching. He pinned her arms. She had muscle but he had more. He could crush her.

 

"It was an accident," he yelled.  

 

And then the roaring in his head faded and his arms went limp. Ruthie jerked away, holding her chin. He got ice and wrapped it in a towel and held it to her face. She didn't cry. Too proud. He groveled. He would have licked her feet if she'd let him.

 

The next day they walked down to the gym together after school. The bruise on Ruthie's  jaw was the size of a baseball. "Got an elbow," she told people, who figured she meant at practice. She acted as though she'd forgiven him. Before they went their separate ways, she squeezed the back of his neck hard enough to make him wince. But had she really forgiven him? Or was she playing for time until she dumped him?

 

He was wondering about Ruthie and her intentions when he opened his locker and there it was, taped to the inside of the door, a photo of a little kid. What tha'? Who was this kid? Then he realized.  

 

All around him, guys were putting on their practice gear, preparing for trench warfare. Bear looked into the smiling face of the little boy. When his mom told him and Bree about the accident, all she'd said was Pop had been on a job trimming trees, driving a company truck, and didn't know he'd hit the child until he got back from lunch and Officer Higgins was there. Now here was this picture in Bear's locker, reminding him of what had fucked up his family, in case he'd forgotten. Bear was ready to charge, ready to hit, ready to kill. But he couldn't move.

 

Trevor noticed Bear staring into his locker and leaned over and saw the picture. "Get Coach," Trev yelled.

 

Anybody could have done it. The gym was not locked during the day. Half the guys left their locker doors ajar. Bear was one. Nothing in there to steal, except a pair of cleats, not his best ones, and a filthy towel.

 

"You wanna give me the picture?" Coach asked.

 

"I'll take care of it," Bear said and stomped off. He had to get outside before he threw up.   

 

Two hours later, almost dark, after push-ups and sprints and well into the play drills, so covered with muck they could hardly see, a bunch of mud men wallowing on a field where traction was next to impossible, Tony called 14-A. Everybody was half dead with pain and fatigue. It was the last serious practice before the play-offs, also carb night. A couple more plays and they could go home and dive into pounds of pasta and loaves of garlic bread. Bear crouched. Tony lateraled to Ben, Ben handed off to Trev, and Freddie Ferguson homed in. Bear hit Freddie so hard Freddie had to be carried off the field.

 

It was after eight when Coach got back to his office from the emergency room. Freddie  had a run-of-the-mill concussion but it had taken the young doc three hours to rule out all the

other worse things it could be. Meanwhile, Coach had had to deal with the Fergusons, who acted as though they'd never heard of an injury occurring on a football field. The Fergusons were after blood, Bear Strum's blood. Bear Strum was out of line. Bear Strum needed to be taught a lesson. That was Coach's job, to teach lessons. These were youngsters, not NFL bruisers. Blah, blah, blah. Coach had taken everything they laid on him; he'd had to; though in fact he couldn't care less about Freddie. Bear had gone missing.

 

Marie Strum had started making calls when Bear didn't come home or answer his cell. She'd called Trevor, who told her he'd seen Bear leave the gym. He also told her about Freddie getting hurt and said Bear wouldn't talk to anybody after practice. Marie called the gym and spoke to Assistant Coach Potter, who told her the locker room had been cleared by six and gave her Coach's cell number. She reached Coach in the ER. Neither Frank Potter nor Trevor had told her about the picture in Bear's locker. Coach didn't either.

 

"Bear's a sensitive kid, Marie," Coach had said. "We don't know what's going on in his mind."

 

"Tell me about it." There was a brittle silence before she added, "Terry's out looking."

 

He called her back half an hour later. She told him Terry had checked the landing. If the boat had been gone they'd have known they were in trouble, but the boat was there. Trevor and

Tony were driving around too. Marie sounded calm. She'd patched up Coach's boys in the ER any number of times. Top-notch nurse, tough as nails, even if she did resemble a fireplug. 

 

Coach said, "Bear's been worried about hitting too hard."

 

"He told you that?"

 

"Yeah. A couple guys been injured on his tackles lately. Nothing too serious."

 

He could hear her breathing over the phone. It occurred to him maybe he should tell her about the picture, but decided that could wait.

 

"What exactly did he say?" she asked.   

 

"Something about he didn't want to inflict injury."

 

"What'd you tell him?"

 

Coach didn't remember but he could make a pretty good guess. "I said he should do his job. Things happen not his fault, don't worry about 'em."

 

"So why are these guys getting hurt?" she asked.

 

Coach hesitated. According to Assistant Coach Potter, Bear's taking out Freddie Ferguson had been an act of savage aggression. In a game he'd have gotten a flag, maybe benched.

 

"Accidents," he said.

 

"Yeah?" Marie said in a voice he didn't like.

 

He'd called her two more times. The last time he called, Marie said Lance Higgins was out in his cruiser looking for Bear. Terry's brothers, Rob and Stony, were looking too. She told Coach not to phone again, she'd get back to him when she had news. She hadn't sounded calm anymore.

Coach had known Terry Strum and his brothers since they were pups. He'd grown up down the road from the Strums' farmhouse, living with his waterman dad in a silent shack fraught with shadows and ghosts—his mother left them when Coach was four. He'd kiss ass to go fishing with the Strum boys or get invited to one of Miss Pauline's fried chicken dinners. Sometimes he imagined he was one of the family. Then he and Rob had a falling out, Coach punched Rob, broke his nose, and the Strums closed. Twenty years passed before any Strum would fish with Coach again. It was Terry who finally broke the ice.

 

Coach eyed his phone but didn't pick it up. Instead, he went into the locker room and opened Bear's locker. The little kid smiled at him. Frank Potter had recognized the photo as the one handed out at the funeral. Coach removed it and took it back to his office and dropped it on his desk. He'd listened while every member of the team, one by one, laid his hand on the Bible and swore he hadn't put the picture in Bear's locker. He knew none of them had. He'd seen Ruthie McFadden go into the locker room that morning early, nobody else around. He'd waited until she came out.

 

"Just a minute, young lady."

 

"He-ey, Coach," she'd said in the flirty tone some girls used when they spoke to him. He noticed she had a bruise on her cheek, a fresh one.

 

"What business you got in the men's locker room?"

 

"Looking for Bear. I thought he might have come down to the gym. He's pumped. Everybody is. Go, Raptors!" She did a silly cheerleader wave with her arms.

 

"What happened to your face?" he asked.

 

She stopped waving her arms. "Collision driving for the basket."

 

"Give her one back next time," he said. "And stay out of the men's locker room."

 

Now he knew what she'd been doing in there. And he had an idea the bruise hadn't been planted by one of her teammates.   

 

Coach looked at his phone again. He remembered the way Marie had sounded on their last call, as though she thought this thing with Bear was his fault. For a moment, his gut clenched painfully, then the feeling eased—just the old acid acting up. From the desk, the little kid grinned up at him. Coach reached out and took the picture and crushed it in his hand.     

 

Nine o'clock. Ruthie came out of a three-hour prayer meeting at the Church of God and flipped open her phone. Five calls, all from Bear. On the first call he sounded as though he was having trouble breathing. "Ruthie—(pause for breath)—'gotta talk. (heavy breathing) Call me." The second time it was as if his mouth was full of marbles. "Rut'ie, gotta shee you—" No messages for calls three and four. On number five he sounded scarily clear. "Ruthie, Coach says it doesn't matter we do stuff by accident. But it does."

 

She dialed his cell and got the recording she'd heard a million times, his sweet, jokey  boy-voice saying: "You have reached Number Twenty-five. Leave a mass-age." Massage: their private code. She dialed the Strums' landline. "Mrs. Strum? It's Ruthie." She listened, then said, "Tell Mr. Strum to check Heron Point."

 

She clicked off the phone and put her hand on her sore jaw. She'd looked at the little boy's picture every day after her mother brought it home from the funeral service. After Bear socked her, she'd decided to give it to him, a little nudge so he'd open up and talk to her and she could explain that the little child was in heaven and God would forgive his Pop. Bad idea. She'd known it the minute she walked out of the locker room and there was Coach. Coach was dumb but not that dumb. He'd tell Bear for sure. Maybe he'd already told him. Maybe that was why Bear was calling her. Maybe he wanted to do her harm. She began to cry.

 

He parked the Merc where nobody could see it from the road and got out and walked into the woods. He knew the path so well he could've walked it with his eyes shut, but moving through the dark with his eyes open and seeing nothing was different. The path was made by deer crossing the woods, their slim bodies and delicate hoofs moving silently along the same trails day after day. Bear wasn't a deer. He lumbered along noisily, snorting as he breathed, the wet mat of leaves soft under his feet like an old mattress. Little thorny fingers scratched at his jeans. A branch tapped his shoulder and his whole body shuddered. He wasn't afraid. He wished Pop were with him.

 

He smelled water, then he was out of the woods. Lights winked from across the creek. His feet made sucking sounds in the wet sand. When he found the log he sank down on it and huddled, shivering, not knowing why he was here. Then he remembered. He'd gone berserk and for all he knew Freddie Ferguson was dead. And Ruthie—he might hit her again, accidentally on purpose. It was a possibility he could no longer rule out. His body controlled him now. He remembered the feel of Freddy's flesh when he hit it, the punishing blow, the soft give as the body fell, and for a moment he couldn't breathe.

 

His eyes stung. The last time he'd cried was when he was a little guy whose hair stuck up on the top of his head like a cartoon kid—back when he was Mikey.

 

"Mikey?"

 

He started violently. A tall figure materialized out of the darkness and came striding toward him.

 

"That you, Mikey?"

 

Now Pop was kneeling beside him and the big arms enfolded him. He whimpered. Pop hugged him tighter. Bear tried to say something that came out like a gargle.   

 

"Shhh," Pop said. "Talk later."

 

The sound of heavy flapping overhead made them both look up: an owl out hunting some little rodent that didn't know its life was almost over. Bear's cheeks were wet—his tears or Pop's, he didn't know.