You are in the woods. You’re two feet deep in the creek. You’re thinking, what fine, cotton ball-like flowers on that tree. What blissful whippoorwills. It’s springtime and whippoorwills have such a strange, stomach-bottoming dip of a call. You’re not really thinking of the whippoorwhills. You’re thinking, where is the search party? This is your third day out here. You think. You are estimating, because you have eaten ten apples and a half-pound of GORP. After the panic wore off you spent a lot of confused time gulping creek water. So maybe this is still Day Two. You’re not sure. You’re miles deep. Your parents thought this program would be just the thing to break you of your more unsatisfactory habits, which included but were not limited to: keeping your toenails long, smoking cloves out the bathroom window, letting your mouth hang open, sitting at the kitchen table writing their rants down verbatim in the blank pages of your Garfield spiral-bound notebook while they were still speaking to you, Benjamin! This program made promises, like: Here you will learn to tie heroic knots. Here you will learn to gut fish—behold, their pearly stomachs squirting out of them! Here, learn to rip leaves for a poultice. And possibly, oh possibly, learn to break a rabbit’s neck and eat it. Oh. You could eat three rabbits right now. Possibly four. You could do rare. Well, medium rare. Either way you’d even eat the eye. These promises were nothing—you’d learned nothing, you’d barfed berries twice.
Well. If there’s one thing you can say for your time at the Outdoor Survival: Teen! program, it’s that you liked your bunkmate, who was a guy named James who didn’t go by Jim. He had one glass eye and he told you that he wanted another. “I hope to become a completely artificial person,” he said from the top bunk, in the dark, and laughed. He had a deep honking laugh, ugly but confident. He was one of the weirdest-looking kids you’d ever seen: skinny in the legs and lumpy everywhere else. He wore real leather shoes that made his feet look like black duck flippers, and shirts that buttoned up the front, shirts with flapping short sleeves. Eventually the wide-toothed college counselor wrestled him into an extra pair of sneakers.
You thought that James was weird enough for you to tell anything to. You thought you could tell James that the first love of your life was Mr. Jameson D. Daniels, yes, a guy, and a teacher, one who started his Advanced Poetry class by saying “This class is going to cradle your brains.” You could even tell James your personal opinion, that you thought Mr. Jameson D. Daniels should have followed this up with, “…and rock your souls.” You could probably tell James that you did not understand any poetry. Really. Not a single poem, ever. You could admit that you’d kept smiling and nodding. Yes, Mr. Jameson D. Daniels. Yes, indeed. You probably wouldn’t tell James about your plans to seduce Mr. Daniels through the power of song. In your fantasy, you would be lost in thought on a bench, under a dogwood tree, your contemplative alto lifting through the branches. Mr. Daniels would appear from behind a tree trunk in a baby blue polo. Maybe also some slacks, cuffed to show his fine, tanned ankles, with their blonde hairs. “Benjamin,” he’d say, “I never knew you had such a beautiful voice.”
When you hear branches breaking nearby, you freeze, then stand on your tip toes in the middle of the creek, trying to see into the trees. For a moment you can’t see anything. You look behind you, then back. “Um,” you say quietly, then whisper, “Mr. Daniels?” But it’s not. It’s not a search party, either. It’s not even your bright-toothed counselor. It’s a bear. It looks at you, rears onto two legs, and says, head cocked to one side, “Maroo?”
Once I watched my mother get a stupid tattoo. She’d sat for hours in the parlor waiting her turn and still had no idea where she wanted it when they finally asked. Even the pre-tattoo form had confused her. “Is pot a drug?” she asked. When she caught me looking at her, she said, “Stop it, Jim.”
“James,” I said. Besides, I wasn’t trying to give her a look. Well, maybe I was. But medically, my eyelid does droop a little.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Jimbo. My son has a disability,” she announced to the tattoo artist. “It’s a stinkeye condition.”
The tattoo artist was a boy who couldn’t have been more than two or three years older than me. “Cool,” he said. He had pimples.
My mom sent me to Outdoor Survival: Teen! in the hopes that I would become a man she could stand being around, “unlike all the other men.” As a peace offering, she let me drive her car there. This ended up being more useful than she could have possibly imagined. After they “released” us into the woods for our three-day solo survival challenge, I waited until dusk, then crept back to the parking lot. It wasn’t so much a lot as a deserted strip of gravel, just at the edge of the woods. Just far enough away from the campground to hum the battery up and turn the radio on, eat my mom’s backseat Hostess cakes under the little overhead light. As my mother says, “You can get away with anything if you do it with enough confidence.”
This wasn’t so bad. In a car, life can’t feel too dismal. In a car I can play any music I want. For instance, the disco hit “Rasputin” (rah rah Rasputin, Russia’s famous love machine). It makes it hard for me to feel sorry for myself. I wondered how my bunkmate was doing. He was the worst. Just because I liked to wear button-downs and bathe regularly, I always got paired with the nerdiest, most insecure kid in a ten-mile radius. It happened at school, too. I didn’t hang out with anyone, so they assumed I’d want to be friends with the glue-sniffers. I had to set Ben straight the first night, after he practically tripped over me trying to get to the knot-tying station. He was painfully eager to please, like a puppy.
I told him about something I’d read once, about a group of kids in Sitka, Alaska, who caught a hawk and tamed it. The hawk clawed tracks into their mother’s windowsill. It flew up and away in a scythe shape, came back with strung out rabbit. Some months later the local Raptor Center got wind of this and confiscated the bird. They drilled it daily in the Raptor Center to teach it to fly away. The technical term for this is re-education. Here is how you hunt, said the brown haired, wide hipped raptor re-educator. Here, swoop. Here, glide. Gliiiide.
“That’s us,” I said. “We’re the hawk.” But I don’t think he got it.
You’re pretty sure you’ve pissed yourself. It’s hard to tell, standing in the creek. But you’re pretty sure. You’re also pretty sure the bear did not actually talk to you, though it is now looking at you with its unbelievably large open mouth as though to say, “Marr?”
The bear is bigger than anything you have ever seen. Anything. Ever. You are Rolodexing through your mind for anything marked bear. Black bears are the most dangerous. No, brown bears. Grizzlies! Kodiaks! No, no, black is safer. What about brown-black? What color is this bear? You think you’ve probably been staring at it for an hour. Nope. Not possible. Maybe a minute. Your Rolodex is completely spun out. You think this is probably a good way to die: Teen Mauled By Bear. “He didn’t go down without a fight,” said Ranger Dan McDan. “That’s for sure.” McDan said that the youth would not have experienced much pain, having had his head bit off in one motion, rather than a prolonged gnawing.
There’s so much you would have done differently. You realize that now. You would have smoked more cigarettes, for one. You would have spent less time in your room. You would have had sex. Well, that wasn’t exactly your choice, you tell yourself, and you are just beginning to nod sympathetically when you realize that the bear hasn’t moved any closer. It’s just resting there on its back legs like a kid in a classroom, like it’s listening to you. It has goofy ears, round like Mickey Mouse’s.
“Please,” you say to the bear. “Please. I have love in my life.”
Did you get that from The Princess Bride? No wonder you spent so much time in your room, friendless and alone. Your life has been worthless. The bear shifts a little like its seat is uncomfortable, and grunts. All of a sudden it rears its head back, lips pulled back in a horrible, toothy sneer, and sneezes. Then it heaves up off its butt and shambles away from you, into the woods.
No way. You look down at your hands to check if this is really happened. They are pruned and shaking but definitely attached to your body. You also definitely still have a head. And a neck. Your legs are bright red from the freezing water but they still work!
No way! You just drove off a bear! You start hopping up and down in the water. You think you might be shaking, but you can’t tell if it’s the cold or the fear rushing off you in sheets.
“Take that!” you scream. “Take that!”
By the third night in the car, I’m playing Disco! Hits 2 loud enough so that I can’t hear anyone coming. I’m right in the middle of “YMCA,” actually—my arms are up in the V and everything, and I’m really yelling it out: it’s fun to stay at the! Whyyy— when Benjamin bursts out of the woods. He stands there blinded by my headlights for a second, panting. I don’t have time to turn the music down, or even be embarrassed, before he’s at my driver’s side window, banging on the glass and screaming something. His eyes are embarrassingly, drunkenly bright. It takes me a while to reach up and click the doors unlocked. He’s jumping up and down, then running across my headlights to the passenger side, his white shirt flashing.
He tells me he killed a bear. No, didn’t kill it. Chased it. He’s babbling. Something about a creek, a tree, raw rabbits, brown bears versus black bears. After a while he stops, looks around and says, “Dude, what are you doing in a car?” He looks across the seat at me. “How long have you been here?”
All of a sudden, I don’t have an answer. From the speakers, the radio gurgles like a creek: shake shake shake! shake shake shake! I think about turning it off, but I leave it. I’m not really that embarrassed anymore. I offer Ben a Hostess cupcake. I put the car in gear, and we go for a drive. The road signs flash by like eyeballs, and we glide.
Hostess cupcake photographs by Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons