The Significance of the Bear


I took this picture and I wrote a story about it. It’s in the second person. Bet you didn’t know you were an alcoholic named Carl! You are.
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The Significance of the Bear

You know very well one day at a time isn’t going to last forever – not for someone like you. You feel trapped. When you go to the movies and the lights dim, the idea of two hours in a room with these strangers is enough to make you want to rush for the exit. The only reason you don’t is that you’ve played it out a million times before. You’ll be just as listless out in the fresh open air of the parking lot. In this way it doesn’t matter where you are or whom you’re with. On a long enough time line you will always want out. Still, you have to keep doing things. That’s what life is made of. So you moved from Michigan to Montana on the whim of a pamphlet and vague hope. A friend had told you, baselessly, that Missoula had the best meetings, and off you went into the pointless fucking void.

You don’t have to be a Christian in Alcoholics Anonymous. You can be other things, so you tried out dime store, new age mysticism. It’s hypnotizing to think that events have meanings, that thoughts become things. You started with The Secret and it was embarrassing. When you tried wishing for checks to come in the mail and they didn’t, you looked into it. You worked your way backwards to the heart of the matter, which is that it’s not enough to intend for things; you have to get your head buzzing right, and you have to be a good person and meditate and remember to say thank you, always, and still, even then, if the angels don’t want you to have it then you can’t have it. You despair in the bleak truth that there is always a catch.

When you were first made to admit that you were powerless over the sauce, you promised everyone you’d stick with it forever, but secretly, by forever you meant one year. It’s about that time and a voice in your head calls, wanting to know whether you’re planning on renewing your subscription.

Drinking a lot is like democracy: it’s the worst, but what’s the alternative? Still, you grew weary. You felt sick and ugly most of the time, so you got more drunk and woke up broke and embarrassed. You got so embarrassed one night you told everyone you knew that you recognized you had a problem and you wanted to get better. Later you were like, “just kidding about that thing I said about being an alcoholic” but they were all, “no take backs.” More or less.

Driving down from the Rattlesnake yesterday you saw a brown bear strapped on the back of a pick up. It’s the only bear you’ve seen in Montana - not alive but it was almost better that way, because you could see it close up. There was a cloth bandage around the bear’s paw, applied with what you could only interpret as misplaced tenderness. For a moment you fell in love with the driver of the truck. Was it a homo moment? It wasn’t love, you reasoned; it was admiration. (If it were romantic love it would be a valid and beautiful choice, but it wasn’t.) The man was an unapologetic killer of beasts and he was in no hurry to escape his situation. He would probably be content to drive up and down Broadway for all time, like the legend of the guy rolling the rock up the hill, but cheerfully. It's not sexist to assume the driver of the truck is a man, and not just because men are killers and women plant flowers or that only men drive trucks - remember, you're in Montana - it's just the whole scene. It’s the way the carcass is knotted to the truck bed, the sheer audacity of it. It’s like how everyone can tell girls’ handwriting from boys without understanding how. You took a picture of the bear and you showed it to your new AA friends.

-Hey guys, let's not talk about not drinking for a change, you suggested.

-That's a grizzly bear, they said.

-Look at the way the nose turns up. Those are round ears, not pointed like a black bears. No doubt about it.

-There's no hump, someone argued.

-Too young for the hump. That is definitely a grizzly bear.

They told you Grizzly bears are famous in Montana and it is always illegal to kill them. They decided you should report the bear to the state Fishing and Gaming Whatever. You were uneasy. Where you come from nobody calls the police on anybody.

-But look at the way the hunter nursed the paw, you pleaded.

-That’s not a bandage, one of them said.

-Nah, that’s just the tag. You have to tag animals before you take them out of the woods. It’s the law.

-Ironic, someone pointed out, helpfully.

You wanted to go around the circle and punch every one of them for telling you all these things you never wanted to know about hunting.

-What’s the big difference between killing a grizzly bear and killing a black bear? you asked them, and then you realized it was stupid. Because there are less of them?

-Yes, they said.

-Well, I mean, it's a respect thing, another added, but the reception for this comment was mixed.

It’s true that you don't drink or live in the Midwest anymore, and you’ve changed some, maybe even a lot, but you still can't see yourself as the kind of person who would ever call an 800 number to report a crime. You try to imagine the right scenario. If it had been a naked man up there, phallus dangling wherever, stripped of not just life but also dignity - Hell, if it had been a naked woman, still, you would hesitate. Perhaps they had it coming, and maybe not even in a "she was a real bitch" way - maybe she came at him with a knife. Plus, why would a man have a human strapped so flagrantly to the back of his truck if it weren’t somehow legal? You do that sometimes - reorganize the entire world to fit one anomalous idea.

You tell everyone you're going to call the wild life people, but you're lying. You're not going to. It's the same way you’re lying when you say your name is Carl and you're an alcoholic. You don't believe it, not really. It’s not that you love drinking, it’s that you hate life. You should say instead, “Hi, I’m Carl and I hate life.” And when you tell the others to keep coming back, the truth is you don't care either way.

What's the significance of a bear? You think about crossing the room to look it up in your spirit animal book, a relic from when you believed in things, but what will knowing do? Anyway, it's just as cold on that side of the room as it is over here. You try to draw connections between the two things on your own: There’s your alcoholism, a disease of the spirit, and there is the dead bear and your cowardice. Or indifference. Whatever. You try to weave it together in a rich tapestry of truth to create a synthesis and nothing happens. You get caught up in the events of the day. A third thing comes up that doesn’t match the other two things, then a fourth, until it all becomes one big thing again and you’re back to not believing in magic.

You’re standing in a church basement in the center of the room, fluorescent lights dangling overhead, surrounded on all sides by smiling men seated in metal folding chairs. They want to give you a keychain. The room is hot and you’re sweating and all you can think is: what the fuck. Why.

6 thoughts on “The Significance of the Bear

  1. Reading stories in 2nd person when the main character’s name is yours, that’s creepy.

    Every time I read “you,” it really felt like me.

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