“You’re in for it, son,” they told me. “Tonight, you’re fighting a bear.” I’ve never been good for picking up on a joke, so I asked them again. They said they were serious. There’s a bear coming in on a truck and I gotta fight it. Payout’s eighty bucks, eighty-five if I can beat the thing. I asked how I’m supposed to beat a goddamn bear and they said “very carefully.” The sons of bitches had a good laugh and slapped my back. One of them, I think he was the bar owner, gave me a nip of his shine but I knew better. Shine only works on a rube.
“How big a bear?” I asked.
“Big enough,” the promoter said. He checked his watch as one of the guys from the undercard walked by. He was scrawny, probably about a buck thirty, and he was holding his jaw. It looked like an orange after you squeeze it. The man that gave me the shine put twenty dollars in the scrawny fella’s hand and told him maybe the bare-knuckle fight game wasn’t for him. I felt bad for the guy, but then again, I’d take bare knuckles over paws. The bar owner pulled me aside. His hands were soft and he spoke a little too close to my face.
“Don’t give too much thought to the bear. It’s got no teeth, don’t you worry.”
“How can it have no teeth?”
“They pulled ‘em.”
“What does it eat then?”
The bar owner looked angry that I even asked. “Honey? I don’t know. It’s a bear. This ain’t rocket science.” He made me sign a piece of paper, something for his insurance. I wanted to ask where the bear was coming from but I didn’t want to irk either of them. They were holding that eighty-five tight to their chests and I’ve been known to talk myself from a bad spot to a worse one.
The bear arrived in the back of a Mitsubishi pickup with two-by-fours rising around its bed like some kind of stockade. I asked the driver why there were nails sticking out from the tops of the planks. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and told me it was to stop the bear from climbing out. The driver signed another piece of paper that looked a lot like the one I got and backed into the loading bay. He unbraced the two-by-fours and pulled the gate down. The bear was laying in the back of the truck, looking more like an overfed dog that had gotten into all your winter reserves and had left nothing uneaten. The driver and the bar owner tugged on a big rope that was tied around the bear’s collar. I didn’t stay to watch them heave the bear out of the loading bay. It felt wrong, like peeping on someone in a dressing room.
It’s a hard thing figuring out where to punch a bear. I didn’t think I could throw it over onto its back, much less grab it. Punching was my first idea, the one that my gut told me was the way to go. I worried about the teeth, I couldn’t trust that the thing had been defanged until I was with it face to face. It made me regret leaving the loading bay before I could get a closer look, but the decision had already been made. I put extra tape around my knuckles while I prepared in the stock room. All the other fights had been bare-knuckle but I thought I could be forgiven for this one. I finished my third beer from the cooler they left for me in the corner by my bag, sort of like a perk for taking the bear fight. There was no ice inside and a couple silverfish crawled around the bottom, but I appreciated the beer all the same. It had a warm sweetness to it that I felt like I needed.
The crowd was good and drunk by the time I was up. They had a kid wipe up the canvas mat they were using for a ring. The bar owner said he bought it from the rec center down the road earlier in the week, so all the stains had come from us. I stood on my corner of the mat and the bar owner read my name wrong off the card. Then they brought out the bear. It had a dark cloth over its face, sort of like a blinder except it looked more like a dish rag. The bar owner said it was for everyone’s protection.
“This animal will viciously attack whatever unlucky dumbass steps into its line of sight,” he shouted. A few people in the crowd patted the bear as it got walked out. Someone smacked it on its haunches and another guy dumped his beer over its back. It moved like those big cargo boats I used to see back when I lived on the coast, steady and slow but swift enough considering how much weight it had to drag along all day. The bar owner leaned to my ear and told me that all I had to do was last a minute or two. Give everyone something to see, something they could really talk about. The truck driver lifted the cloth from the bear’s face. It had maybe three teeth, none of them were sharp. Its eyes sunk back into its head and there was a bunch of watery goop hanging around the lashes. Its nose twitched from side to side but it looked like it only breathed through its mouth, which seemed to curl up into a smile. The bear sat down on the mat. It yawned and never fully closed its mouth.
“What am I supposed to do with that thing?” I asked the bar owner.
“How the hell should I know? Piss it off somehow. Earn your money.” He left the mat area and rang a rusty bell mounted on the back wall next to a fire extinguisher.
I’ve done more than my share of things that I’d wished I hadn’t to make a dollar in my life. I didn’t really care for stealing copper pipe from construction sites and I’ve waded in shit like a pig to drain septic tanks. Process serving was giving someone the worst news of their life, all day every day, and feeling like a roach working for the county to boot. Going clean working at an old folks home was anything but clean. If someone had told me when I was five-years-old that, even if my grades were good in school, I would still end up fighting a bear for eighty-five dollars in front of folks that wanted to see it kill me, I’d have just quit right then and there.
The bear sat in its corner, so I had to walk up to it and pick a fight. Hitting an animal feels like you’re wronging a million years of settled law in nature. You can shoot it, you can stick it with a spear, but slapping an animal just doesn’t sit well in your craw. I have to admit that I pulled back right before I hit it, only someone sitting right in front would have noticed that the slap wasn’t as hard as I let on. The bear still had the happy curled-up smile on its face and I saw a little more water form around the goop hanging from its eyelashes. In all the years I had recollected of shoveling shit and barely being able to breathe working in crawl spaces, I knew the bear had just as many years of having it worse. I leaned against it in my best impression of a hold and guided it down to the mat.
It quivered a little and stretched its haunches, rolling over on top of me and smothering my face with a sack of fat that dangled underneath its arm. I tried to suck in air but it was the foulest mix of stale beer and musk that I had ever come across. The bear got pulled off me after the bout had lasted a minute to satisfy the crowd and they paid me sixty dollars when I finally stopped coughing in the back room.
They added one more event to the card so nobody would get rowdy after the bear fight. The bar owner announced an open challenge for the crowd to go a round or two with one of the bruisers that had fought earlier, sort of like an audience participation bit. If it lasted twenty seconds it would be a miracle, but that’s where my missing twenty five dollars went. I sat in the back with another warm beer and listened to everyone raving. I wanted to see the bear.
It slept in the back of the truck beside a jumbo bucket of fried chicken that had been its dinner. I looked around to see if the truck driver had bought biscuits for himself. I thought maybe I could forage a honey packet for it, but then I wondered if bears really liked honey or if that was one of those things that we see in cartoons that isn’t real. It seemed to like the fried chicken alright, though.
I pulled the gate down. The bear raised its head, recognizing me with a grunt. I ran my fingers through its hair, feeling all its scabs. A gurgling sound came from the back of its throat, like a bear purr. It nudged its nose against my leg before a roar came from the bar. Someone must have gotten punched out. The bear flinched and buried its head under its paws. The purr was gone. I looked past the loading bay to a patch of pine trees across the road. The moon was brighter than the dim streetlights that lit the highway and I could see the outline of the hills beyond the pine thicket. I felt a pull. I’d like to think that it came from someplace out in the dark past the road, but it was from that spot in my craw that made me pull back when I slapped the bear. I’ve never really planned much in my life other than to always make it home on Christmas until the year my family told me not to come back unless I had a wife or a real job. Not being bound by anything hardens you in a way, but being hard’s never done anyone a lick of good. A second roar came from the bar while I untethered the bear and guided it over the highway.
The bear plodded along the gravel like a kid in bare feet, taking long and short steps that didn’t add up to avoid the rough parts. It stopped at the first pine we came across and tried to smell it, although I think its nose had stopped working a long time ago. It gnawed on the bark with its gums and resisted me as I guided it along. We slipped out of the light from the street lamp before anyone spotted us. The truck driver’s shouting echoed from the loading bay after a minute or two until he faded away and all I could hear were crickets and our footsteps crunching the pine needles beneath our feet. If he came after us I’d give him the right cross that I had first planned for the bear. It never happened. The bear probably cost more money than it brought in, or he was too drunk to run after us. The hills were further away than I thought, maybe on account of the dark. The bear wouldn’t run and I had to make sure it didn’t plod head-on into a tree. It was close to witching hour by the time we reached the foothills and there was a feeling of something moving around us even though it was still and silent. I looked up to the moon and tried to have a thought, one of those good thoughts you have in a moment like this, but it didn’t come. All I could hear was the bear trying to gnaw on more pine bark. I gathered some leaves to rest my head against and hoped the bear wouldn’t wander off while I slept.
I don’t really dream much. I see things sometimes, but I can’t make out a story or anything. I was hoping I’d have a real dream sleeping out in the thicket. I thought I was starting to have one, too. It felt like really rough sex, like she was wrapping her arms around my head and giving me a real torque while she stuck her tongue in my ear. I didn’t really like it to tell the truth, but over the years I’ve come to take whatever comes my way. She was starting to breathe really heavy, working herself up. I didn’t see her face, I saw her mouth. My brain started to try and wake me up when her lips let out a grunt full of snot. I forced my eyes open to see the tip of the bear’s tongue as it lapped down my forehead. It had dark blotches and looked like spoiled cauliflower. It pressed its paws over my shoulders and licked again, sucking my hair up and swirling it around like it had a mouthful of dip. I pushed against its lumpy chest to get away, but it opened its mouth wider to groom more of my scalp. It grumbled and stretched its paws further down my chest to weigh me down. I stopped squirming and it sat with my hair in its mouth making its bear purr. I watched the sun come up like that and stayed that way until I noticed a pine cone out of the corner of my eye. The bear didn’t give me much wiggle room so I had to roll the cone my way with a flick from my fingertips. I stuck the cone in the bear’s mouth to give it something to chew on while I swapped myself out. It ate the pine cone in two bites and looked at me for more as I slicked my hair back with its spit. There have only been a few things that have been obvious to me at first sight, and none of them were as clear as the fact that there was nothing this bear could do to help itself.
The first winter was the hardest. After a lot of poking around, I found that the enclosure where we slept was as good a spot to stay as any. There were plenty of pine cones to occupy the bear and there was a gas station a couple miles away where the road met the thicket. My payout from the fight lasted a while and I could always find a way to get someone to bum me a buck or two if I stood around long enough. We lived off the gas station pretty cheap and I only got sick from eating things in the thicket a couple times. The bear actually liked honey packets and I even let a family that was passing through in their station wagon take a look at him for a few bucks. They were marks, but good people. Not rubes. I didn’t even have to swear them to secrecy. They said they’d send others but I haven’t met any yet. I’m always on the lookout, though. There’s an old paper mill close by the gas station that has a cheap lock on the door to its boiler room. I picked it open after a few weeks of working on it. When it gets too cold to sleep outside, the bear and I go down there. I make sure we’re clear by dawn so nobody’s the wiser.
I honestly never thought the bear would live this long. In a way, I think this new life has given it more years than it had probably counted on. It still wakes me up licking my hair, and it’s only charged me once. It was trying to play, but there are limits to what the human body can take. It learns quick. If we last another winter together I’m thinking of waiting at the gas station to see if we can get a ride back to my family’s old home at Christmastime. If they’re still there, that is. It’s not a wife or a steady job, but it’s something.
“Tonight You’re Fighting A Bear” originally appeared in The Glasgow Review of Books on January 23, 2019.