Squire had just got himself set at one end of the living room sofa with his spiral notebooks and homework spread out, television tuned to his favorite afternoon programs as background noise, when he noticed something out of the ordinary happening in the backyard. He hopped off the sofa, walked to the window and squinted. The afternoon was bright, every tree and flower and blade of grass, every plant in his father's vegetable patch clearly distinguishable and vividly colored. Only the thing inside the birdfeeder was difficult to discern, as if it was dragging around an envelope of night with it.
The birdfeeder was shaking.
It was a very sturdy birdfeeder, a two-foot by one foot by two foot box sitting on a thick post, covered by a gable roof. Using a borrowed arsenal of serious tools that needed to be sworn at to work properly, Squire's dad built it to stand up to snowstorms, hailstorms, and squirrels. It did not shake in the wind. It was needlessly, redundantly sturdy. Once upon a time, Squire was small enough to climb up on it.
The unidentifiable thing filled up the open space of the birdfeeder like a large pillow forcibly crammed into it. This "pillow" was covered with dark fur. A raccoon, possibly, was all Squire could think of. An unusually large raccoon.
Squire pushed his books to one side, sat up on the couch, pulled his white tube socks off and proceeded barefoot through the kitchen and out the front door. He tiptoed across the porch and down the steps, silently and slowly. Feeling the moist dirt give beneath his toes with each step he took through the grass, he squinted harder at the birdfeeder. The thing squirmed around, turning. Squire saw the lighter brown mask of its face. "Holy shit," he said out loud, trying on one of his father's swears. "It's a little bear."
Its black glossy eyes fixed on him.
"Hey, little bear," he ventured. It didn't respond, unless its occasional blinking was a response. It didn't seem likely to move. Squire could tell it was alive and alert and uninjured. He wondered if it was stuck there, or if it was cozy all crammed into the birdfeeder for some reason. Squire didn't know if bears could have rabies or not.
He went back inside and did his homework for a while and put down his pencil and watched the last ten minutes of Digimon. When he looked out the window again and saw that the bear was still there, he called his father at work. "There's a bear in the birdfeeder," Squire said.
"What kind of bear?" His father was demanding, taking charge, as of yet still bewildered by the very idea. "A bear?"
"I guess a black bear," Squire considered, looking at it. "I mean, it's black."
"You mean a bear-bear? A wild bear?"
"Sure, a bear-bear," Squire said. "What did you think?"
Sometimes Squire could be a bit of a storyteller. "I don't know,"
his father said.
"It's little," Squire said apologetically.
"Hmm," his father said. "Yeah, that's not good."
"It's not doing anything," Squire said.
"Yeah. Still." His father coughed and was silent for a moment.
"Yeah. I guess we ought to call Animal Control."
"Oh Dad," Squire sighed. "Are they gonna shoot it?"
"No. Don't be stupid. Maybe with a tranquilizer dart."
"I'm not being stupid."
They argued over which one of them should call Animal Control. Squire's father wanted him to go across the street and tell Mrs. Almony what was happening and call from there. Then he changed his mind, saying he would make the call and Squire should go over to the Almonys' immediately. Squire made intentionally confusing half-statements, agreeing and not agreeing at the same time. He felt insulted by his father's patronizing attitude. "It's a dangerous wild animal," his father insisted, "a half a dozen yards from the house."
"Maybe I should just stay in the house." Squire looked at Judge Judy on the television. "I should just stay put."
"This isn't a joke, Squire," his father said. "I'm not going to argue with you."
"Who's supposed to show them where the bear's at?"
"I have told you exactly what I want you to do and I know you understand me."
Deaver Hull sat at his desk wondering if he should drive home. He hoped his son would stay away from the bear in the backyard. It was the bear time of year. It was probably a very small black bear. The juveniles did wander down from the hills, down out of the forest, eating from Dumpsters, getting in trouble. They were not typically aggressive or dangerous. No one knew of any modern incidents of a person being mauled by a black bear. Maybe every once in a long while a dog got mauled, not even fatally. The young bears were setting out to find their own territory, was all. When the juvenile males got to a certain size, reached sexual maturity, the large older males drove them away. It was probably frightening for them. They didn't know where not to go
Deaver called Animal Control and spoke to somebody. He explained the whole thing. The guy said they'd send someone over. Eileen McNamara turned from her workstation when Deaver hung up the phone. "Deaver, did I hear you say there was a bear in your birdfeeder?"
"Yep," he said, drumming his fingers on the desk. He still wasn't sure if his son would behave the way he wanted him to. "Yes indeedy."
"What kind of birdfeeder is this, if I dare ask?"
"It's big," he said. "I built it. It has suet in it, I guess. I guess that must be what he's after, right? The suet?"
Eileen looked at him incredulously.
"They're pretty lithe," Deaver said. "Like mice. They can squeeze through little spaces. As long as it's big enough to get their skull through, they can squeeze their body." He didn't know all that much about bears, to be honest, but he didn't like to admit to ignorance. It sounded
good in any case.
"Well, I'll be damned," Eileen said.
"Do you think I should go home?"
"You don't want to embarrass him," Eileen says. "He's a big boy. I'm sure he's not scared of a little bitty bear."
Deaver didn't know if Eileen was underestimating his son's age, or if she was making fun of his concern. "Oh, I'm sure he's not," he said. "In my head I'm seeing him out there poking it with a stick."
Squire rang the Almonys' front door bell, then knocked hard on the aluminum screen door. The inside door was open and he could hear Mrs. Almony padding around in there somewhere but it was polite to knock. He felt uneasy. He'd changed his tee shirt before going over because he was worried, he'd been wearing it all day and they'd had gym class.
"Hello?" he said, knocking harder and yelling through the door. He pressed his lips against the screen. It felt prickly, tasted faintly like black pepper or the tops of batteries. "Mrs. Almony, are you home? It's Squire Hull!"
When he was a little boy, he used to let himself in, striding boldly to the kitchen in the back of the house, where Mrs. Almony might be canning tomatoes or baking a pie or giving her parakeet a bath in the sink. The parakeet's name was Pretty Boy. He was dead now. This was four or five years before. When she'd told him about the bird's death, Squire wanted to know where she'd buried it. Mrs. Almony had said, "Well, honey, do you want to help me bury poor Pretty Boy?" and then she'd disappeared out the back door, returning with a brown paper bag. Squire looked into the bag. There was Pretty Boy on his back, feet curled into little pink avian fists, head cocked to one side, bill slightly open, a gray tongue matching his gray eyelids. They'd buried him in the dirt by the foundation at the side of the house. Now that he was grown up Squire realized that she'd put the bird in the trash can. That's where she'd gone, to get him out of the trash can. She loved the bird when it was alive but adults don't do things like that, don't bury a dead parakeet in a coffin made from a Styrofoam egg carton. Little kids do that. Mrs. Almony buried Pretty Boy for him.
Squire looked back at his house across the road. He would rather be sitting in his living room. The bear wasn't hurting anything. It must have been at least two years since he'd been over to the Almonys'. He remembered coming over at Christmas with a card and a bottle of Jack Daniels in a holiday gift box, the present his father had bought and sent him across the street with. Nobody was home so Squire just went around to the back porch and left them just inside the screen door. He was a terrible boy. Mr. and Mrs. Almony had always been nice to him, generous and welcoming for many years. Now he'd grown too self-important to go over there and say hello and sit and talk.
He wouldn't have had to face his guilt about this as long as he'd never been forced to go over there again.
Mrs. Almony appeared as a silhouette in the far door of the living room. "Oh, Squire," she said. "How are you doing? I thought I heard someone out there."
"There's a bear in the birdfeeder," he said. "Over in our backyard."
"A bear?" she said as she came right up to the screen. Squire was startled to see how white her hair was. It had always been grayish, salt and pepper, but it was now mostly white. There was scalp. She was a lumpy old lady covered by a white tee shirt and blue slacks. People get old and die. Maybe she had twenty years left but they wouldn't all be good ones.
"A little bear," he said. "He climbed all the way up into it. My dad called Animal Control and told me to ask if it was okay to wait here."
"Oh sure, sweetheart," she said. "You can come right in and sit on the couch if you like. I'm just getting started with dinner. If you want, you can watch TV."
"Thank you," Squire said.
Deaver called his house and no one answered the phone. He wanted to assume Squire had obeyed him and was over at the Almonys' as instructed, but it was also possible Squire was home just not picking up the phone.
He called the Animal Control again and the guy there told him that they were getting in touch with someone from the Forestry department because bears are protected. It might be another couple hours, the guy said. "What am I supposed to do?" Deaver said. "What if it decides to climb down out of there, and goes wandering off?"
"Well," the guy said. "Just make a note of what direction it's going."
"That sounds pretty dumb to me," Deaver said.
"I'm sorry," the guy said. "If it was a snake or a raccoon, we could come over and grab it. But bears are protected. We need to get the ranger."
"If you say so," Deaver said. "Seems to me that you'd want to get ahold of it while you know where it is." Perhaps he should go home, to make sure the bear didn't escape. To make sure Squire stayed away from it. Plus he kind of wanted to see a bear.
Once when Deaver was hunting with his buddy Glen Morehouse, they saw a bear way off in the distance. He'd also seen bears at a zoo once. But he'd never seen a wild bear close up, twenty feet away, from behind his living room window. He wanted to see it with his own eyes.
"I'm worried," Deaver announced. "The Animal Control people might not be there for hours. I'm really kind of worried about my son. I think I should go home."
He repeated this until he felt reasonably certain everyone believed him.
Mrs. Almony used to tell Squire all sorts of stories about what living in Pine Branch was like in the old days. She told him about all the families that had lived in his house since she and her husband had bought theirs. Squire was the only little boy who had lived there in a long time, Mrs. Almony told him. He had never assumed otherwise. He was the only boy. That's why everyone was always so delighted to see him. Mrs. Almony used to make him chocolate milk with the syrup instead of with the powder.
Squire knew it was rude to make himself comfortable on the couch and watch TV while Mrs. Almony cooked in the kitchen. He knew he ought to go into the kitchen and talk with her. He was still thinking about things that happened in school. As he looked at the television, he had his hand dug deep in his pocket, toward the inside of his thigh. He wasn't doing anything but he liked to know that everything was still there. He knew he ought to be talking to Mrs. Almony, so he stopped. And when he'd stopped for what seemed like an adequate interval, he got up and walked to the doorway.
"What are you cooking?" he asked.
"Brunswick stew," Mrs. Almony said. Squire didn't know what that was. Mrs. Almony had an array of vegetables she was chopping up for a large pot of broth. There were chicken parts in the broth. Bony backs, necks, wings simmered in red tomato broth.
"I can help."
"Oh, don't you worry about it, sweetheart. You can go watch your programs if you like."
"Naw, it's boring," he said. "I'm not interested in them." Squire picked up a paring knife and began to peel the potatoes Mrs. Almony had set to one side.
"I have a peeler," she said. "You don't want to cut yourself."
"I always do them this way," he said.
After they had silently worked for a while, Mrs. Almony said, "I remember when a mountain lion came down out of the hills and killed Mr. Brady's goat. Mr. Brady lived down past Phoenix Road. That must have been thirty years ago. You never see mountain lions. Even back then. I don't guess they're doing as well as the bears. The bears seem to be coming back."
"They sure do," Squire said.
"Every year you hear about a couple of them, at least. And those are only the ones that get all the way down into the suburbs. A bear up here is no story at all, is it?"
"Well," Squire said. "Not to put it on television, but it's cool. Especially when it's your own backyard. I wish we had a video camera. I wish I could make a video of it."
"I wish I had a video camera to lend you," Mrs. Almony said. "Now we have a regular camera, if you wanted to borrow that. You could take a regular picture. Just to have proof that it happened."
"Do you think..." Squire said. "Do you think my dad maybe forgot to call Animal Control?"
Mrs. Almony frowned. " I'm sure if he said he called, he did."
"Do you want to come over with me," Squire said, "and we can see if the bear is still there? My dad couldn't get mad if we both went over, could he?"
Mrs. Almony lifted her cutting board to the edge of her pot and dumped the chopped bits of one carrot into the stew. She decided she would like to see the bear. She decided it would be all right for Squire to go back to his house as long as he stayed inside and as long as she was with him. Her camera was in the top left-hand drawer of the double dresser in her bedroom, and she knew there were pictures left on the roll.
Deaver arrived home to find two trucks and a car in his driveway. There was a blue van with Ulster County Animal Control lettered on the door. Its rear windows were reinforced with strong wire. There was a green Forestry Department pickup truck with the full-color state seal on the door. There was a maroon Pontiac sedan with tags that were marked "Fire Department" beneath the numbers. Four men were standing around talking. At first they did not acknowledge him but as he walked toward them one of them nodded, serious-looking, and then the other men turned.
The men talked there as if they had every right to be going about their business on his property. The way their vehicles looked parked there reminded Deaver of the police coming when Squire's mother died. When he said, "I'm Deaver Hull," the men smiled and then it didn't remind him of that other day any longer because the men then hadn't smiled.
"Yes sir," said the ranger. "You got a bear in your birdfeeder all right."
"He's still in there?" Deaver said.
"Yep. He isn't budging."
"Huh," Deaver said.
"Listen, can you tell me about the footing for that thing? Is it just a post set in the dirt? Or is it set into concrete? 'Cause he must be a good sixty pounds, at least. I got a loop I can slip over his head but I don't want to try and pull him out of there if that's going to bring the whole thing down.
"Can't you shoot him with a tranquilizer gun or something?"
"Oh, we popped him one. Now it's just getting him out, is all."
"The post is just in the ground," Deaver said. "But it's long. My neighbor across the street, he had this tool for digging holes for fence posts. It's like a..." Deaver paused while visualizing this tool. He felt it was important to explain somehow. "...kinda like an apple corer." The post-hole digger was also like salad tongs, the kind that are hinged. It cut a long plug of turf. Maybe it was a more unusual tool than he had thought. He wished that everyone knew what he was talking about.
"Well I guess we'll give it a try and see if the sonofabitch'll come out."
Dissatisfied with his explanation of the post-hole digger, Deaver went up onto the porch as the men prepared to capture the bear. He opened the front door. Squire was standing right there in the kitchen, in front of the open refrigerator. He was pouring himself a glass of orange juice as if he was the Prince of Pine Branch and was entitled to do whatever in the hell he wanted at any given moment. Orange juice. Little fuck.
"Hey," Deaver said. "This isn't where I told you to be."
"Dad," Squire said.
"Hey buddy," Deaver said. "I told you to go across the street, didn't I?"
Squire pursed his lips and closed the refrigerator door. He turned away from his father, heading back into the living room. "Dad, come on," he said.
"Hey!" he said, following after him. "Seriously..." Deaver reached his hand out and caught his son at the wrist. Squire stumbled backwards, on purpose, as if his father had tugged him hard by the arm, which he most definitely hadn't.
Deaver saw into the living room, the white-haired woman sitting forward on one of the kitchen chairs in front of the window. "Come on, come on!" she ordered, motioning to Squire with her hand, not taking her gaze off the unfolding scene outside. In her excitement she had not even noticed Deaver coming in. "Oh, look! There's his head! Oh, he doesn't want to come out, does he?" Deaver released his grip on his son's wrist. Squire looked sidelong at his father, a smartass glance, conspiratorial rather than defiant. "That poor baby, he's so sleepy, isn't he? He just wants to stay in there and sleep it off, doesn't he?"
Deaver approached the window. The ranger had a loop of cord at the end of a long pole and was tugging at the little bear, whose forelimbs now hung limply down off the feeder platform. It looked aggrieved to be disturbed in this way but not alert enough to be angry. Squire bumped his shoulder into his father's side, once or twice, until Deaver realized it was on purpose. He placed his hand paternally at the small of his son's back - only a trick: he found a soft bit of flesh there, above the elastic waistband of Squire's underwear, and he pinched it between thumb and forefinger. "Fuck!" Squire yelped, jumping to one side. Mrs. Almony jumped, turned, astonished. Squire grabbed his father's hand by the thumb and bent it backwards. He stopped where it was reasonable to stop, but for a moment Deaver thought it was actually going to hurt.
When they started pulling at the bear Squire regretted having called the men. But Mrs. Almony said it was all right, if they didn't catch him and take him into the mountains he'd end up hit by a truck, or shot. Squire knew this to be true. Still, he regretted that the animal had to be terrified. A few years earlier he would have wanted to explain the situation to it, or at least wished he could. A trace of this desire still existed, relentlessly smothered by everything Squire knew about reason and maturity and not being silly about things. "Do you want anything to drink?" he asked the old woman. "I'm going to get something from the kitchen."
While he was bent into the refrigerator pouring a glass of juice, the front door swung open with a sudden thud, and Squire hit the back of his head jerking upright. Standing in the open door his father was staring at him with wide eyes, a round open mouth, his body poised and rigid, his hands arched talons. It was a cartoon character's look of shock, impossible not to grin at. "This isn't where I told you to be!" his father pouted.
"Dad..." Squire said, rubbing the back of his head.
"Hey buddy - I told you to go across the street, didn't I?"
Squire didn't know where this phony rulebook father had come from all of a sudden, or how dangerous he might be. "Dad, come on," he said, nodding toward the living room where Mrs. Almony was sitting. Squire took three steps in that direction before his dad clamped a hand around his wrist like he intended to drag him off somewhere and pretend to beat him. Squire made like he was falling backwards to see what his dad would do. He didn't try to catch him, for one. His dad straightened up as soon as he saw the old lady from across the street. "Come on, come on!" she motioning to them with her hand. "Oh, look! There's his head!"
Relaxed the fierce grip he'd had on Squire's wrist, his father was grinning now, sheepishly. Squire studied him. He could tell that asshole phony dad had evaporated. He had seen that guy a few times and he always sucked.
Now all three of them watched the little bear as the men slowly tugged him out of his house. His dad was looking at this bear as if it were magic. His eyes were wide and his lips open and he wasn't paying any more attention to Squire, so Squire bumped him with his shoulder. He didn't even get a flicker of a glance from that so he tried it again. Now his dad bit his lower lip and put his open hand on Squire's back, moving it downward as he swept him closer. At last Squire was nestled under his father's arm. But then the old fuck pinched him - hard - and he barked out an obscenity before he could help himself. Poor Mrs. Almony might have had a heart attack. Squire knew he would pee himself if he started laughing. I'm going to get you, he mouthed, grabbing his dad's hand like he meant to twist it violently. He remembered thinking his dad had the biggest, hairiest hands in the world but that was obviously a child's-eye distortion. Their hands were the same size. When he closed his fist around his dad's thumb you could hardly tell he was holding anything.
* * *
A recent graduate of the MFA Program at the University of Alabama, Bard Cole wrote and illustrated Briefly Told Lives, a collection of short stories published by St. Martin's Press. He currently lives and teaches in New Orleans.
ABOUT THE STORY:
Bard writes: "For the last five years Pine Branch has been my main made-up place and Squire and his father my main made-up people. Working with characters and places that have become as concrete to me as reality is a particular kind of challenge - one that often defeats me. It's easy to lose hold of a story in the mess of all this expansive knowledge of backstory and connections. But in "Juvenalia," I had right from the beginning a fairly clear sense of purpose, which gave me strength. I knew it was the story of one moment in these characters' lives, a moment that's memorable for obvious reasons and significant for less obvious ones.
"I had seen footage of a bear in a birdfeeder on America's Funniest Home Videos, actually, and I knew as soon as I saw it that it was something that ought to have happened in Pine Branch in the Hulls' back yard. So once I started writing about that moment, the existence of the emotionally significant moment beneath it became pretty clear to me. In some ways, Squire is a much more autobiographical character than I can ever give him credit for when I'm actually working on him. Clearly I'm in denial about some things but I wouldn't be able to write about it otherwise. His relationship with the old lady across the street is very much like something from my life and so are his awkward feelings about outgrowing it. It seems so sad to me that as a child you can have this amazing capacity for affection that, paradoxically comes from a place of complete self-centeredness: and that innocent egoism is something that you lose once you develop an adult sense of self-awareness and empathy. In a way, with this story I guess I'm manufacturing a little emotional resolution that I never had with some of the important people of my childhood."