Each spring, the rains bring flowers or something along those lines. It’s a poetic sentiment. But those same rains turn roadways into waterways. Unfortunately, automobiles don’t float so well. Neither do passengers with lungs filled with floodwater. But once their insides swell, after all the bugs and bacteria that live in your gut are forced to feed on you in their own self-interest, you become what could best be called neutrally buoyant. And the tornadoes that punctuate those thunderstorms like to turn homes inside out; show the world all the clutter inside, the way a dog will when it chews on the leather hide sewn around a baseball.
The weather was once an icebreaker; how we made new friends, even. Now, it makes enemies of us. People roll their eyes when someone says something about Mother Earth becoming bipolar as if there are not innumerable other things that could be discussed. But when she shivers, claws, and does her damnedest to shake us like the bad case of fleas we are, I’d argue there isn’t much else that should be brought to light until her fever breaks.
All these misconstrued extremities remind me of when my grandparents concluded how a tornado couldn’t cross water, so they sat in the screened-in front porch and watched the spectacle from afar. They figured they did not have to bring my sister into shore. Instead, they let her bob and float in a two-man raft they’d tethered to the dock. As luck or the Lord would have it, she stayed put while the tornado tested every inch of that fifty-foot rope, invited her to take a ride inside like Dorothy, and her little dog, too—Scrappy, a tiger-striped brindle Boston Terrier.
There is the possibility that Grandma and Grandpa had it in their heads how if they lost a grandchild, my father would make more with his one superpower being fornication. As if we were the human equivalent of Doritos: Go on, God. Crunch all you want, he’ll make more.
I make this logical leap because of how eager my grandmother was to send me out to save the grill my grandpa failed to chain and padlock to the telephone pole a few summers after that. He’d bungeed the tarp onto the thing to protect it from the rain, but the tornado turned that into a sort of sail.
While we watched the waterspout summon the Weber toward the beach, Grandma cuffed me upside the skull and barked at me to go put the grill in the boathouse before God put it in the lake.
My weight wasn’t enough to do anything but grab onto the grill and go parasailing, despite how I had to wear husky jeans back then. Thanks to a tree that came down through the cabin’s roof and ceiling and picture window and laid atop the bunk beds, I didn’t get sent to my room. Grandma got maternal instead, hugged me close, got to thinking God had it in for me. Her showing any sort of affection sticks in the mind the way any other sort of traumatic experience would. It was a rarity. That would have been the same summer when we all went berry picking. We, being Grandma and me and her sister, both of who were in their sixties. They wanted to make pies and jams and jellies and preserves. I wanted to make Grandma happy for once, and so I went along armed with the knowledge of how I was younger, closer to the ground, and bound and determined to fill a bucket faster than them. Grandma, though, did not care about any of that. She was properly marinated with her sale bin brandy and store brand 7up. Sauced is another way to say it. Auntie Harriet came along as adult supervision, so to speak.
The county cleared acres of trees. Some were dead and little more than kindling begging for a bolt of lightning to find them turn them into a cascade of sparking and smoldering splinters. For whatever reason, they felled the trees and left them lying around to rot and make mushrooms. The issue which arose from my being so close to the ground is simply that I could not see over the bigger stumps or toppled trees.
I’ll interject an apology here for not being able to fill this with the comedic dialog lobbed between the two sisters or tell you how much time transpired or anything other than my tunnel-visioned berry picking. But in the interest of keeping this tumbling ever-forward, I’ll forgo that as well.
Once it dawned on me how I could not hear the two of them talking any longer, I felt that familiar feeling which filled me whenever I realized I was alone in the grocery store. Not lost or abandoned or forgotten, but left. They left because of what they could see, and what they could see was a bear who saw people poaching its food supply. To say said bear was grumpy doesn’t mean to imply it had a storm cloud on its belly or it’d woken on the wrong side of the den. From what I’d always been told, black bears are not carnivorous unless their forageable means of sustenance is threatened, and though I looked about bite-size, my rounded buckets and I posed a threat. Or I looked like bait. I felt like bait. I turned that berry patch, that bear’s smorgasbord, into a virtual grove of green.
Stop me if you have heard the one about how you don’t have to outrun a bear, only whoever you’re with when the bear gives chase, or how a bear can’t run in slippery shit? Ever hear the one about the little boy who got his leg stuck between two logs and watched his grandma and auntie get smaller and smaller while the bear got bigger and bigger? That one is not so funny. But I’m writing this, so I must have wormed my way out and made it inside my auntie’s Impala. Somehow.
Let’s pretend this was the summer of the bear. Summers at the lake seemed to blur together anyhow. Catching frogs happened at such a frequency it barely warrants mention. Yet, not every outing was as uneventful as a little boy wading through the weeds in knee-deep water while trying to scoop frogs and tadpoles into a bucket.
Sometimes I’d find bullheads. Sometimes a snapping turtle would find me. Snappers hid in the mud and muck. To find one when you’re not looking for one is a great way to put some mud and muck in your swim trunks or soak the front of them with brackish water.
That’s simply what adjective-free fear and shock look like.
Sometimes you can find a bear cub in those same shallows mimicking mom the best they can. Sometimes you don’t see them. Sometimes mom sees you first, and Scrappy, your formally-ever-loyal dog, does nothing but leads the way back to the cabin without bothering to check behind him to see if your arms and legs are pumping fast enough to keep up.
There’s an ice cream bucket full of frogs hung from each side of the handlebars, and the bike is being pushed, not pedaled. Bumpy as that dirt road might be, the water is not sloshing out and spilling down onto the road. Instead, the water and the frogs quivered in such a way their spots seem to separate, float apart, double or triple in number. Their eyeballs, too, making them look more like the insects they turn to for food. The water inside those two buckets rippled, and droplets defied gravity while the wheels ran over the indentations left by the grater. It’s one of those visuals which will never fade. Or hasn’t yet.
Scrappy, made it back to the cabin, up the stairs, and scratched at the screen door until he made his own way inside. Grandma got to screaming at him and snatched up her flyswatter, but he trotted right by her, impervious to her scolding and swatting at the air behind him. He headed onto the living and coiled up on the couch, mixed into the pile, and joined the other umpteen Boston Terriers Grandma bred like hobby horses.
While watching him twist and contort and get lost in the splotchy mix of the black and white dog pile, Grandma got confused. So confused, she asked the dog, “Where’s David?” knowing he would never leave my side. Or hadn’t ever. He’d even circle the outhouse while I was taking a dump. I never peed in the outhouse. I could pee anywhere at the cabin, and more times than I could ever count, Scrappy and I peed on the same tree at the same time.
Grandma could not comprehend what was happening. There was no moment of him barking, trying to tell her Timmy was stuck in the well. Instead, it seemed he had resolved to grieve my loss in his own way and in his own time.
She went looking for me, but no farther than the porch steps. She saw me coming down the driveway, knees to my chest, pushing my bicycle, balancing both buckets ever so gingerly with a black bear coming down the driveway behind me.
Like Scrappy, she went into the cabin as fast as her feet could take her but returned in time to watch me put the kickstand down on the bike—not daring to let the bike fall to the ground—and place the two buckets beneath the porch. She stood over me with two saucepans in hand and smashed them into one another, the way one of those wind-up monkeys do with the cymbals sewn into the palm of each hand. She screamed too. What she yelled, I could not say. “Blood-curdling” might come off as cliché but as accurate as anything could ever prove, given how she pinched her lips to keep from losing her cigarette. It was a mucousy trill she let go, free of any discernible vowels or consonants. I didn’t cringe the way you would when hearing nails dragged along a chalkboard, but more like when she dug her nails into the nape of my neck if I wasn’t moving fast enough for her.
There was a third time. Whether it was a charm of some sort, I couldn’t say. My big sister and I went for a walk, so she could smoke. I went with simply because it was away from Grandma. That, atop a little brother’s compulsion of tagging along.
My big sister—big, meaning: older, not bigger, standing a towering five-foot-two—wrapped her fingers around my bicep and took off running with me as if I was a track and field baton. Around that corner sat the boat landing. Around the next bend in the road stood the cabin where my Aunt Bobby babysat a chimpanzee when she was a teenager. Hugo’s house came next. Then there was the Rasmussen’s where the little redheaded girl appeared every now and again, as did I—sheepishly. Finally, the two steel wagon wheels Grandpa bought at an auction and spray painted a neon, safety orange to mark either side of the driveway came into view. Grandpa stood hidden behind the outhouse, sneaking a cigarette.
The how, when, and where, of why the bear gave up its chase, I could not say. I can confidently say everything about that 800-yard dash was a bit blurry. But maybe God didn’t have it in for me that summer. Maybe, though, just maybe, I should stop trying so hard to feed the bears.