The Bear

by Paul Griffin

As he slowly became aware of himself, the boy clutched the blanket closer to him.  He did not open his eyes, because he knew it was there and he knew he would open his eyes and look.  He squeezed his eyes closed and rolled to his left and put his back to the closet door, knowing the futility of this.  He could feel the ursine stare boring into his back, the compulsion to roll over and see its horrible shaggy silhouette building inside him.  His eyes slid open.  The room was dark and warm and he was still facing the wall but he knew it was there standing behind him beckoning his gaze, demanding to be seen.  He rolled slowly onto his back, staring at the bottom of the bunk above him, a comical arrangement for a child without sibling or companion save the one he wished more than anything was not there.  Despite his open eyes and supine position, he took great care not to look at the closet door.  He knew he would look at the closet and he knew what he would see and he knew that he would scream when he saw it.  The terror waited him out, patiently building up to its full roil.

He studied the cheap metal springs of the bed above his, careful to aviod glancing toward the closet.  He tried to tell himself to pay it no mind but in his core he felt nothing but the terror.  The time was nearly come and he knew he would see it and he knew would scream.

Trembling, slowly, he rolled to his right and darted his eyes quickly past the door of his closet which gaped wide and dark and malevolent and looked at the floor.  The last safe haven for his gaze before he looked.  It was only a matter of time now but that had been the case since the moment he woke up.  His building blocks lay strewn pandemonic across the low pile of the carpet, like the tiny plastic remains of some newly shattered windshield.  The trembling was uncontrollable and the time had come and he looked.  Finally he looked into the closet door and it was there standing horrible and black and massive.

Across the hallway of the second floor of the small apartment, the boy’s father nearly leapt clear out of the old rubber-scented waterbed at the piercing scream that reached his ears.  He quickly reassured his likewise startled wife and rushed out of the room as the screaming continued unabated.  He burst through the door of his son’s room and howled and danced cursing across the room as his bare feet came down on the boy’s building blocks.  Father and son in some malbolgian harmony of terror and pain.  The boy stared at the closet, still screaming.  His father, having the crossed the small ocean of tiny makeshift caltrops, stood staring at his son and grabbed him and shook him gently while calling his name.

Suddenly recognizing his father, the boy finally stopped screaming and tore his eyes away from the closet door and laid them on his father’s face.  The bear skulked off to whatever lair it had made for itself in the lakebed bowels of the metropolis.

Good Lord Almighty, boy!  You like to raise the dead!  What on earth happened?

It… it was a… a… bear…

The boy sobbed, shaking but not on account of his father, who had let him back down to the bed.

A bear?

There was a bear in the closet!  I saw him!

Son, there’s no bear in your closet, how would a bear get into your closet?

I don’t know…  He was there.  I saw him.

The man climbed into the small uncomfortable bed and held him close until the tears no longer flowed and his son finally lay sleeping, snoring softly, head moist in his tearsoaked pillowcase.

The next morning the three of them sat around the table in the tiny dining room downstairs eating their cold cereal.  The man exhausted and yawning for lack of sleep and the boy visibly shaken and looking quartercrazed from the night before.

Son, you gotta get this bear out of your head.  There ain’t no bears in the city.  If you think you see him, just remember that there ain’t no bears here, it’s just your imagination getting you worked up.

I’ll try dad.  I knew he was there before I saw him.  He made me look at him to make me scream.

I… I don’t know what to make of that.  Just remember there ain’t no bears here and you’ll be alright.

Three nights later, it happened again, just as before.  The bear awoke him to be looked at to be screamed at.  He could feel it grinning malevolent, if indeed a bear could grin.  He told himself that there ain’t no bears in the city, but after his eyes had travelled their usual path and when he finally looked at the closet, compelled by this hairy creature, there it stood, all blackness and shag, reveling in his terror and his screams.

His mother came in this time, falling to the ground when her bare feet got their first taste of the boy’s building blocks and struggled over to the bed.  The boy could not be consoled.  He stopped screaming, but could not release his terror or stop staring at the closet until his father came into the room and the skulky bear trundled off as before, unseen by either of his parents.

Over the next few weeks, the boy’s father tried to reason with the boy in the mornings, to convince him that the bear wasn’t there, or to encourage him to pray for God to show him that the bear didn’t exist or at least to clear a path through his building blocks so as to spare his father’s feet.  The boy did his best to follow his father’s advice and even believed himself convinced of the power of his father’s arguments while the sun shone.  Some days he even remembered to pick up his building blocks before going to bed.  However, as soon as it was dark and the bear awoke him and his dark grinning companion began demanding his gaze, all of his father’s words lost their weight and force and substance.  The bear was there.  There was no use telling it that it wasn’t.  The screaming continued, every few nights, and his father’s feet grew sore and red and he walked gingerly and haltingly from the pain of them.

One night just after lying down next to his wife and turning out the light, the man had a premonition that a scream was to be visited upon them.  He told his wife this and they laid side by side, their bodies wobbling along with the surface of their gelatinous waterbed, feet throbbing, and they did not know why they had been given this foretelling or what to do with it.  Neither of them slept.  They could only wait for the inevitable.  Things foretold came to pass not long after, the boy screaming at the top of his lungs.

His child’s screams filling his ears, the man suddenly felt himself no longer wobbly but solid and angry and resolved.

Damn it, if my boy says there’s a bear in his closet, then there’s a by-God bear in his closet, and I intend to do something about it.

He got up from the undulating bed and reached under the side of the wooden boxlike stand that held it off the floor.  There his hand found the old Mossberg 12 gauge pump-action shotgun he had bought from a friend of a coworker years ago with a thought toward defending his home from intruders.  Upon buying the gun, he had attached two large metal hooks to the underside of the wooden bedframe, and the gun was hung there safely out of sight.  It had sat there untouched from that day to this.  He pulled the gun out from under the bed and he held down the action lock with his right index finger and worked the pump partway back with his left hand.  Seeing an old dusty 7 ½ birdshot shell sitting faithfully in the receiver as though it had been divinely placed there years ago to await this very moment, he slid the pump forward and marched toward his son’s room, barrel pointed at the floor lest the floor refuse to hold him up.  His wife stared at him through the open door as though this new angle had afforded her a glimpse at some depth or perhaps some insanity not previously perceived.  She got off the bed and went to the other end of the apartment.

He was still screaming when his father came in the room.  His father did not look at him, but stepped into the room directly on the vicious building blocks, not flinching or giving the least indication that he was even aware of them as they dug into the sore flesh of his feet.  The boy stopped screaming and his eyes fixed on his father and he watched the man turn to face the open closet door, still standing on the innumerable plastic shards.  The gun came awkwardly up to his father’s shoulder. There was a click as he thumbed the safety forward.

Cover your ears boy, it’s gonna be loud.

The boy squeezed his hands hard to his ears until he heard nothing but the blood coursing through them and stared transfixed at his father and the gun and the bear no longer grinning.

The room flashed whitehot for an instant, suddenly too bright to see as the shotgun jerked and belched fire and roared forth all of his father’s anger at this bear, this invader that would extort screams from his onlyborn and rob him and his wife of their sleep and torture his own feet.  For all the boy could tell, the world ended in that moment.  He could not see, his ears refused to hear anything beyond a high-pitched whine, and he could smell only gunpowder, a scent strange and unfamiliar to him.

The first indication that the apocalypse had not yet arrived was the creaking movement of his bed as the man sat down on the edge and bumped the back of his head against the top bunk, still blind and twice as deaf as his boy on account of his ears being uncovered in all the riot.  He set the gun on the floor and sat waiting on the bed for some semblance of order to return to the world.  The boy, stunned but no longer shaking or even afraid, felt around in the white blindness for his father’s arm and drew himself up until he was sitting next to him in a similar manner.  Two weary men sitting on the edge of the world, one of them picking plastic building blocks out of the pads of his feet and casting them out into the strange white abyss before them.

A few minutes later, as his sight returned, the man stared through the hazy room at the last wisps of smoke trailing up out of closet and despite the ringing in his still-offended ears, he spoke, wondering what exactly he had accomplished.

That damn bear still alive?

No – no dad, I don’t see how it could have survived.  I can’t hardly believe that we did.

We did though.  And he didn’t.  So.  Alright.  I can’t hear a damn thing and I’m sure your mother is terrified.   I can only wonder what the neighbors think.

The following day was occupied with cleaning up the mess and placating the neighbors with hastily contrived stories of fireworks accidentally ignited.  No one believed the man and he did not expect to be believed, but they were content to accept his explanation as he was known and generally liked and had no reputation for being a troublemaker.

While his father mended the ragged hole in the back wall of his closet, the boy sorted through the toys that had been stowed there, throwing away those that had been shot beyond repair.  One of them rattled when he shook it, a hollow rubber dinosaur poorly rendered as an ungainly and pot-bellied lizard reared upon its hind legs.  Some of the birdshot had been content to travel through only one side of the already extinct creature and had become trapped inside, rolling and rattling as the figure was moved.  This toy the boy placed next to the pillow on his bed.

One single pellet of birdshot, appointed to its own peculiar mission, had managed to travel through two walls in a crazed ricocheting path with enough remaining force to puncture the old waterbed.  The giant grey bladder had leaked slowly out, but the stand, despite being wooden, managed to hold most of the water while the man and his wife scooped it out with plastic food containers and dumped these contents into the shower drain where it swirled away, stinking of plastic and rubber for all its time trapped in the bed.  Once the gray, formless rubber had lost enough water to be manageable, the man and his wife hauled it out of the stand and dried the stand out with old towels and laid their bedding in it for lack of another place to sleep in the small apartment.

That night, with the twin scents of gunpowder, now familiar, and ursine blood still lingering in the air of his bedroom and mingling in his nostrils and in his mind, the boy dreamt himself a giant, striding across a wooded and untamed land in long, slow steps, a small, straight pine tree for his staff.  He rumbled down a worn but dangerous path towards a higher ground, unseen despite his height but which he knew to be somewhere beyond the horizon.  Here and there a branch had been cleared or a stone removed from the path, but on both sides the wilderness and wildness that pressed against it threatened to overflow it and swallow it up.  Still he strode onward, his wide giant’s feet trampling down any thorny overgrowth unfortunate enough to find itself under his heel.

[ “The Bear” Copyright 2012 by Paul Griffin. Published with the author’s permission.]

Real Men Invoke Fear and Awe Just With Their Eyebrows

Lee Marvin was a peerless sonuvabitch in so many ways, but this interview is fascinating. Foremost for just the sheer, slightly frightening MANness he gives off with his aging features. He could hide an entire screenplay just in his eyebrows! Just watch him smoke a cigarette in a merciless grapple with the damn coffin-nail! The thousand-yard stare at his interviewer is cringe-worthy, even though softened by the watery tell of his years; but you have to admire the moxie of someone who can sit across from all that and still ask questions:

Just damn if Marvin doesn’t soften– if small but elegant graces don’t appear as twinkling eyes re-ignite the glorious memory of a different day in Hollywood, a different time in America. A time of the Cowboy spirit, the rugged individual, the man who could carefully groom wild eyebrows into an asset, punish a cigarette for its cancerous temerity, and charm a woman right out of her virtue –but only if she asked him to.

Time enough for politics on Monday. Right now, a Western movie seems appropriate. Western: a happy coincidence of term as both Western ideology and the Wild West threaten to fade into the sunset. Fading not for lack of caring or vigilance, but simply because cowboys don’t have the time or the meddlesome energy to herd folks into their way of thinking.

It might not be the easy way, but it’s the Cowboy Way.

Of Trains and Higher Planes

This lovely Pullman car as photographed by Mike Reynolds has had the distinction of hosting many presidents before Obama. It’s practically a political institution in and of itself. It used to be my almost-daily companion, too. Here it is, working for its keep:

I used to have the privelege of looking upon that Pullman car almost daily, as my once-upon-a-dream art studio used to be upstairs in the old train station in the town where I used to live. Lots of beautiful club cars are lovingly cared for and restored in one of the last remaining privately-owned train stations in the South.

Here’s that beauty at rest as seen by my own camera, up close, complete with spotty dog! You’ll want to embiggen these pics:

It looks so lovely next to the palm trees, too:

Here’s the old train station where my art studio was upstairs. The train tracks were directly behind me as I took this picture, and the train yard to the left. In the studio I used to have to hold my paintbrush away from the canvas as the trains rumbled by, which they frequently did, shaking the whole building:

Sometime if you’re riding the Silver Meteor of the South, you may just pass right by these beauties:

Sigh. It was a wonderful place to catch the morning sun, let the air conditioners hum along and the mind wander to that place of perfect creativity, about as close to being and not-being as I’ll ever achieve this side of eternity I suppose:


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What Life Does

Starfish

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the pond, where whole generations of biological processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds speak to you of the natural world: they whisper, they sing. And herons pass by. Are you oldenough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
– Eleanor Lerman


Stolen from Whiskey River


Do I Look Like William Shatner?

Because this is an art gallery, not some Priceline Pawn Shop, Pal.

Well, that’s almost what I said.

A young Joisey man and his father came into the art gallery last Friday, my FIRST DAY, and started with the “negotiating” of our set prices. The guy warned me about his old man, and how I wouldn’t want to deal with him. Yeah, yeah. Oh, the posing, the pushing, the pleasant insults! To the point where they insisted I call my boss because a measly 10% off wouldn’t do it. She laughed at their “proposal” (yea, boss!) calling it an insult. I told them, they shook my hand and walked away. “I can’t believe you’d send a customer away.”

A few minutes later the younger one returned to say, “I’ll see you Monday, see what you can do.” Yeah, right. They are pawn shop dealers from Jersey down here for the 500 race, and were woiking hard to live up to the reputation of being tough guys.

Well, buh-bye. Say “Hi” to Hairboy when you get back home.

So, the son comes back in today at 5:00 p.m., my SECOND DAY at my new job, with the gallery full of folks. Heh. He’s MINE now! But now, his posse of friends is with him, and so they begin. It was pretty bad, all the things they accused me of, of ploys and lies, which merely told me how they operate in their own business. Damn if I didn’t hold his stare and dare him to call me a liar outright. Which I’m sure in his own warped world only convinced him of my duplicity.

He asked his friends about the art, they ragged on the price, didn’t think it was worth that, blah, blah, give me a farookin’ break but they were so over-the-top obvious in their game.

He started in, I’d had enough and I let him have it:

He: Joan, c’mon, how can you turn me away?
Me: This is not a national franchise of Thomas Kincaid galleries, this is a stand-alone gallery and the prices are very reasonable. You may not like the price, but if you don’t buy it here, you can’t own it, or hang it on your wall, or enjoy seeing your guests’ reactions to this lovely work. It’s here, it’s now, at this price, and if you don’t buy it, you can never have it.

Game. Set. Match. He gave me his credit card, and then proceeded to change the deal as I was ringing it up. That’s when he really got the abuse he was craving. He backed down, I rang it up, and then he turned to his gang and said, “Man, you guys thought my old man was tough!”

Not a bad badge of honor for a sweet Southern Belle to wear. Heh.

Messing with Joisey punks from South Amboy could have only been more fun if Erica were with me. In fact, I handled the situation by trying to imagine, WWED?

Update: okay, now I know what Erica would do! Check the comments. Heh.

Of Art and Privilege and Politics: Washington, D.C.

I swear, I could abide with the traffic exacerbated by over-long traffic lights. I could smile and learn the five other languages necessary for casual communication on any given day. I would gladly resign myself to the fact that our nation’s very heart of institutions is run by footlings and their hand-picked family members, to the exclusion of anyone with a brain or sense of professionalism. All this I would cheerfully suffer to be in proximity of The National Gallery of Art.

It must be visited over and over, and much like my visit to London’s National Gallery, this one was a quest to see some beloved prizes. Like some game hunter zeroing in on the one magnificent specimen for the trophy wall, I was circling around the other galleries, appreciating the other fine epochs of art, the evolutionary procession of time and technique. All wonderful, all thrilling, and too marvelous to detail just yet.

But I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the world of light and dark, the mastery of shadow and show, the inexpressibly heart-stopping awe of Rembrandt. I know at one point I was gaping at a work purported to a Rembrandt’s Workshop (great name for a band!) creation. It was just slightly overdone, a bit too slick, belying the self-conscious attention to detail and perfection of some young apprentice eager for the master’s approval. But totally inspiring to see. I know I was gaping because someone came up to me and followed my gaze, and then settled in beside me to admire the piercing eyes gazing back at us from the canvas. Someone from the middle of the 15th century sat in costume for a school of artists, and half a millennia later fixes his gaze upon an unaccompanied woman in a leather coat and velvet scarf who has the temerity to stare boldly back at him with mouth slightly agape in wonder.

I would give body parts to live in that gallery.

How awesome it was to surround myself with the dark and brooding colors of the Dutch painters, and then allow myself to drift over to the French Impressionists. The lighter-than-air Monets, Cezannes, Renoirs! The contrastive Degas, then rounding a corner to be greeted by Gaugain’s planes of color and shape, primitive renderings of the primitive peoples.

I was in heaven! My taxes at work, bringing me real value! Awesome!

It was only marred by the security person standing around filing her acrylic nails while posted near the Cezanne, and the incessant noise of the other guard hitting on her that made me go and look for the captain of the guard. Not finding him, I decided to at least fill out a comment card alerting the curators to the damaging acrylic dust particles settling on their priceless art, (more than one guard was filing her acrylic nails next to priceless art. Grrr!) and the obnoxious prating of the male guard. After all, visitors were getting remonstrated for where they stood and how loud they spoke, while the rent-a-cops were whooping it up like it was Friday night at the bar.

I returned with my comment card to find the guards still partying, so I asked the gentleman for his name. He refused, playfully, and walked away. I insisted on reading his name tag, and noted it for my comments. He then became a bit concerned, hoping I was writing something good, pursuing me around the room, trying to read my comments. He was dogging me at one point, to the point of arousing a bit of fear in me. His insistence on reading my card was alarming, and by the time I located the captain of the guard I was shaking. I turned my remarks over to him and left the museum.

Now, I will certainly cop to being less than worthy of some of the people and places I’ve been privileged to acquaint myself with. I’ve been known to not appreciate things properly, to my shame and consternation. I know when I am outclassed and out-of-place in certain situations. It’s why I won’t even pretend to any sort of scholarly exposition on the art I experienced. But, it’s just a fact of life that we can’t legislate cultural understanding into or out of a society.

In the strictly esoteric and transcendent translation of that moment and the singular beauty to be found in that gallery– the juxtaposition of the magnificent art and those hired to “protect” it could not have been more pronounced. Our National Gallery apparently lets just anybody pretend to protect its priceless treasures.

And I would give body parts for such a post of honor.

Or so I say. Maybe I’d fall into the familiar contempt bred in constant association with magnificence and become ungrateful, unmindful of my privilege. Maybe I’d take certain abiding truths and freedoms for granted and throw away precious things. I’m capable of it, sad to say. Hopefully, I’m still capable of knowing how wrong it is, too. We don’t do what we ought and know to do, but our saving grace is in feeling the weight of it.

In saying all the above, I’ll bring it to this point: It is artless and soulless not to enter into the first level of political and social interaction by act of your priceless right to vote. It affects the high and the low of everything else we enjoy and take for granted. Do not vote for any unworthy candidate, Left or Right, who would stand at their post of honor, honing their ego at the expense of freedom and with the pretense of protection.

We appoint priceless value to a bit of oily paint, resin, and canvas from across the ages. We do well to uphold the lasting impression these works of art leave upon civilization. We should do as well to uphold our part in the masterful work of Freedom, rendered in priceless blood and sacrifice, and not sell it out for a personal stake in less enduring pursuits.

Don’t sell your vote. Don’t vote for anyone who wants to buy it.

Good luck with that.