The Last Bear
by Vicki Winslow
I lay on the floor of Granddaddy Sloane’s living room, inside a faded orange sleeping bag. Daddy and his two cousins, Graham and Scott, sat around me as if I were a campfire — Daddy on the sofa, Graham in a rocking chair, and Scott in Granddaddy’s recliner. No one had turned on the lights as it grew dark. The house was lit only by a porch light that shone into the kitchen and down the hall to the living room. I breathed in the smell of smoke and pine needles from the sleeping bag.
Three young boys stood on a trail in pine woods, fidgeting under the weight of their backpacks. Their grandfather lowered a canvas bag to the ground and shifted his own pack off his shoulders. “Boys, this is it,” he said. “The perfect spot to set up camp.”
We had all been together since my great-grandfather, Granddaddy Sloane, got so sick that Daddy had called everyone else in the family to come. Mama and Daddy, me, and Bethany had been staying at Granddaddy’s since Daddy had convinced him he needed to go to the hospital. Then Graham and his wife, Molly, had come to stay near the hospital in the Newberry Inn, and Scott had driven up and was staying with a friend in town. I had lost track of the days. They seemed long, and the world felt like it was emptying out, a blue bottle pouring into space. When the bottle was empty, Granddaddy Sloane was dead.
“How’s your eye feel, Dixie?” Daddy asked.
I lifted the package of frozen chopped spinach Daddy had dug out of the freezer. “It feels okay,” I said. “It’s numb.”
“Keep the spinach on it. We don’t want you to look like a battered child at the funeral tomorrow.” Then he chuckled. “Reckon anybody will come, after today? The best part,” Daddy added, speaking low, “was when Graham pulled out the kitchen junk drawer and emptied it in the middle of the kitchen floor.”
I could tell everyone was grinning, even though I couldn’t see all their faces in the dim light. Daddy and his cousins are exactly alike, Mama says — half-grown boys with a genetic tendency toward silliness. My daddy, Frank, is the oldest, and he is beginning to see some gray in his dark brown hair. Scott is three years younger than Daddy, red-headed and handsome. Graham is in the middle between them. He looks a bit like Daddy but he is taller and he loves to puff out his chest and act big.
Graham hadn’t emptied the kitchen drawer with great drama or in anger; he simply sat on the floor in front of the stove and tipped the drawer so that everything inside — a considerable number of small things —spilled out. A cascade of toothpicks, matchbooks, buttons, screws, spools of thread, pencils, bolts, and other oddments spread across the kitchen floor and rolled into every corner. The friends and neighbors who had come, summoned by word of Granddaddy Sloane’s death to clog up his kitchen, were forced to step lively.
Mrs. Shirley from the farm across the road was unable to step anything but heavy. She stood by the stove talking for the longest time, blocking access to the counters, which in truth were too full to hold another thing. She had brought a chicken pie as dense as she was. Mama nearly sprained her wrist when she took it to put it in the freezer with the growing pile of foil-covered casseroles.
“That woman delights in the details of someone’s passing,” Scott whispered. He raised his dark auburn eyebrows at me. “She grows fat at the death-feast without lifting a fork.”
As Granddaddy Sloane’s nearest relations, Daddy, Scott, and Graham were hosts of the death-feast. Daddy had tried to get Mrs. Shirley to go through to the living room where Mama and Bethany and Molly were, but she was comfortably propped and seemed as if she might stay forever until threatened by the flood of bits and pieces from the junk drawer. Then she picked up her feet and moved her mass across the room with exaggerated care. When the door slammed behind her, the house was quiet.
Mama came to the doorway to the kitchen and looked, then turned and walked away without a word.
“Really, Graham?” Daddy said. “Was this necessary? You’re obstructing the parade of mourners.” He considered this, and added, “Not that I’m entirely sorry.”
We felt overrun. The floodgates of Nicanor had opened, and every person from within 15 miles, especially those whose membership was recorded at the Nicanor Methodist Church, had come streaming in. By lunchtime the guest book provided by the funeral home to list visitors and their offerings had been lost beneath a deluge of edibles and paper products. It was just as well. No human being could have kept up with the writing required to note the people and foods that had come into that house to sustain my family in its grief.
Granddaddy Sloane’s refrigerator was full to bursting. The table and counters held all that they could. Extra tea, lemonade, orange juice, soft drinks, a carton of eggs, and a gallon of milk were stashed in two large coolers outside the back door. Apple, sweet potato, and pecan pies were stacked on top of the refrigerator. A pound cake, chocolate pound cake, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, yeast rolls, cornbread, and a dozen doughnuts were in the living room.
Anything that could be frozen for later consumption went straight to the chest freezer in the laundry room, and we piled more food on top of the washer and dryer. Finally, Graham and Scott emptied four bags of ice into the bath tub, where a flotilla of cream-and meringue-topped pies sailed on the surface. It made a pretty sight.
The kitchen table had been cleared once, and a new rotation of foods — a deli meat tray, olives, a cheese tray, crackers, sliced ham, green Jell-o salad, orange Jell-o salad, ambrosia, and a plastic tub with a masking tape label that read “Cowboy Cookies” — replaced the preceding spread.
No other empty surface being available, the kitchen floor was logically the only place where Graham could have emptied Granddaddy’s junk drawer. When Daddy continued to growl about it, Graham said, “We’ll have to make some sort of inventory for the estate, won’t we? Might as well start now. Look. Here’s a pristine little spiral-bound notebook to use for the inventory.” He showed us a small notebook with a blue cover and selected a pen from the pile.
“Estate of Preston Bertram Sloane,” he said aloud as he wrote. “Inventory of personal property. Item 1: Blue notebook. Item 2: #2 pencil with bite marks near eraser end.” He added a subheading: “Categories of things that are in the kitchen drawer.
“1. Things that you want and need and use regularly.
“2. Things that you had forgotten you owned and don’t understand why you have them.
“3. Things that you had forgotten you owned and are delighted to rediscover.
“4. Things that you cannot imagine owning.
“5. Things that are too good to throw away and yet have no practical or aesthetic purpose.
“6. Things that are total crap.”
Graham looked up from his list. “Do you know,” he said, “I could very easily put every person who comes to the death-feast into these same categories. Ain’t that something?” He began to pick up loose toothpicks off the floor. Once he had a handful he stood to place them on the food that was unveiled on the kitchen table. He stuck toothpicks in the olives, in slices of deli meat, in cheese cubes, brownies, and even in individual lima beans, neglected and shriveled after overheating. He popped a lima bean in his mouth. “Needs salt,” he said.
The back door opened, and four people filed in with more food. Daddy groaned softly, and Graham began writing in the blue notebook. There was a German chocolate pie, a chicken and rice casserole (not the first), a deli tray, and a loaf of multigrain bread. Scott looked to me for help, so I pulled chairs out from around the kitchen table, and we deposited the latest offerings on them. Daddy moved this set of visitors around the contents of the junk drawer and into the living room to say hello to Mama and Molly.
“All right, Dixie,” Scott said, “Enough is enough. Grab that platter of slick meat and follow me.” I picked up the deli tray and followed Scott out the back door.
He headed for the old picnic table. The wood of the table and benches were worn soft and gray as driftwood. Scott placed a plate of deviled eggs covered with plastic wrap on the table, and I added the deli tray. Nothing would spoil in the brisk November air.
“There,” Scott said, surveying the table. “That should be fine. Although I can’t for the life of me imagine eating any of this stuff, can you?”
I couldn’t. It had stopped looking like food some time back, and now it was just pieces of a puzzle that we had to move into place — and the shape of the puzzle kept shifting.
In the kitchen, Graham stirred through the junk drawer items as he documented them in the notebook. One deck of cards. Thirteen paper clips. Seven rubber bands. One recipe for something called “Betty’s Brew.”
“Evidently it’s a homemade cleaning solution,” Graham told me. “I’m just guessing, since it has ammonia and dish soap in it. Or maybe Betty was a lousy cook.” He returned to the bottom of the drawer. “What’s this?” He held up a piece of paper, torn from the blue notebook or one the same size. “An old grocery list! A piece of history.”
Daddy came back into the kitchen, rubbing his face with both hands. “Are we allowed to lock the doors?” he asked.
“Listen, Frank.” Graham held up the grocery list. “It’s a grocery list. ‘Salt, sardines, crackers, Little Debbie oatmeal cookies, mustard, hot dogs, buns, Sue Bee chili (large), Folger’s coffee, instant oatmeal, peanut butter, doughnut sticks.'” Graham looked up. “What do you think of that?”
Daddy and Scott looked at each other. “It’s all the stuff we took when we went camping,” Daddy said.
Granddaddy Sloane sent the boys off to gather firewood. “Collect dead branches close to camp,” he said. “It’ll help stop wildfires from spreading. Scott, you remember what poison ivy looks like?”
“I guess I forgot.”
Granddaddy walked with Scott to show him what to avoid, and the boys rustled around and hollered to each other as they gathered a supply of wood for the night.
Graham stared at the grocery list again. “Do you think that really was a possum that Granddaddy saw that night in the woods? Or do you think it was a bear, and he didn’t want us to run screaming like little girls?” He glanced at me. “No offense, Dixie.”
Scott took the list and examined it. “This can’t be as old as that, can it? Maybe it’s a more recent list.”
“But it’s all our camping food.” Graham said. “It’s not your ordinary weekly shopping.”
Scott handed the list back. “Maybe he started eating like that again. You know, as life began to feel more temporary. More like camping out.”
The back door opened, and Mr. Spinifax struggled through it with a large aluminum pan, nearly too heavy for his tiny frame to carry. “Potato salad,” he said, in a surprising deep, rough voice. There was nothing temporary about that potato salad. After Mr. Spinifax left, Scott carried it to the picnic table and rested it with great care on one of the benches.
Granddaddy Sloane showed the boys how to store their food to avoid attracting scavengers. “Now, you remember what to do as you walk down a trail, especially in the early morning and in the evening?”
All three of the cousins said at once: “Hey, bear!”
Granddaddy nodded. “That’s right. Make a little noise, and it will keep those bears away. Don’t forget: I can’t spare a single one of you. I want you happy, and healthy, and lively. That’s what I pray for you, every day.” He smiled at them, his gray eyes alight.
“He knew what he was talking about,” Graham said. “We never saw any bears.”
“There aren’t any bears around here,” Scott repeated. “Haven’t been for years.”
“Graham, pick up that crap off the floor,” Daddy said.
I squatted down to help him, and we were collecting bits and pieces when more people came through the back door: the Johnstons, bearing food, and Mrs. Shirley with them. They surged into the kitchen, pushing Daddy and Scott back toward the far wall.
It appeared that Mrs. Shirley had some things she wanted to get off her mind. She must have been well and truly disgusted by the unorthodox reception she had received on her first visit. “Preston Sloane thought the world of you boys,” she announced, her glance quickly moving away from Graham and his junk drawer and landing on my Daddy. “You should thank your lucky stars you had such a man as that, a godly man, praying for you the way I know he did.”
Scott edged toward the back door, which was blocked by Mr. Johnston, a church deacon as wide as he was tall. Daddy rubbed his thumb against the side of his nose.
Mrs. Shirley was not finished. “Though, Lord forgive me, I can’t see the good that his fervent prayers did, with you all treating his home with disrespect and throwing his possessions to the ground before he’s even been buried!”
I rose to my feet with a handful of those thrown possessions, just as Mrs. Shirley completed her denunciation by making a grand gesture of indictment with her right arm. My left eye connected with her swinging elbow.
I saw white stars on a deep black sea and backed into Graham, who dropped the junk drawer. This led to a second hasty exodus of visitors. While the cousins fussed around and found me an ice pack and scolded each other for child neglect and abuse, Daddy declared the day over and locked the doors and turned off the lights.
Molly went back to the hotel to shower, but Graham stayed to eat a picnic dinner in the living room. Scott had squirreled away Virginia Forehand’s roast beef with potatoes and carrots in some secret place where he said it was kept safe from being consumed by the wrong people. He heated it with tender care, and we savored it without a single green vegetable on our plates. Afterward, Mama took Bethany to the guest room to get her settled.
“Anybody want a cream pie or banana pudding?” Graham asked. His voice echoed off the bathroom tile as the shower curtain rattled on its metal rings.
“Nah,” Scott said. He sat in the recliner with the plastic tub of Cowboy Cookies on his chest.
“Those any good?” Daddy asked him.
Scott examined one closely. “Yeah, they’re good. Oatmeal and M&Ms inside. No sign of a cowboy so far.” He passed the tub around.
“Let’s go camping,” Graham said. There was a quiet that wasn’t exactly quiet — it felt like a spark had flashed across the room. He jumped up and pulled down the attic stairs in the hallway, scaled the steps and threw down four sleeping bags, one by one. I took mine out of its drawstring case and climbed in. Daddy tossed me a throw pillow from the sofa. He and Graham used their sleeping bags as footrests, and Scott kept his beside the recliner, placing the tub of Cowboy Cookies on top.
While the boys investigated a creek nearby, Granddaddy lit the campfire. The light grew dim quickly under the trees, and every so often one of the boys could be heard calling out, “Hey, bear!” Granddaddy Sloane smiled when he heard them. Soon they returned to the campsite, lured by the fire and the promise of supper.
Around bedtime, the boys settled into their sleeping bags, whispering and rustling and kicking. The campsite grew quiet, until all four awoke with cold dread in their hearts. Something snuffled, wet and loud, outside. Close.
“Is it a bear?” Scott asked, his head still deep inside his sleeping bag.
Granddaddy sat up, and three voices rose as one to beg him not to go out, to stay safe inside. “Boys, settle down,” Granddaddy said sternly. He crawled out of the tent with the flashlight. The beam of the light roved left, right, up, down. Then the door of the tent rustled and Granddaddy was back inside. “Possum,” he said. “Just passing through.”
Daddy said, “Nah. We can’t go camping. Without Granddaddy we wouldn’t last twenty minutes out there in the dark.” He turned and glanced out the window. The air in the room froze solid as he stilled, suddenly watchful.
Scott and Graham looked at each other. “Shhhh,” Daddy said. He scooped me up, sleeping bag and all, and I let my frozen spinach fall to the floor. “Look, Dixie.”
He held me up to the window, and Graham and Scott came over to see.
We all stared. Then Scott said, “Hey, bear.” His voice cracked.
A bear stood at the picnic table, scooping up the Spinifax potato salad. As we watched, the bear lifted its nose to snuffle the air, and his breath came out in white bursts.
“Granddaddy always said there were still bears around here,” Graham whispered.
The bear swayed away from the bench, and then he ambled away on all fours, first toward the pool of light from the back porch, then into the darkness, and then gone.
We looked after him, straining to see him even after he could not possibly be seen. I wanted him to turn around and come back to us.
“There you go,” Daddy said. He turned his head and looked at Graham. “One bear. Write it down.”
We stayed there, lined up on the couch on our knees, still facing the window. Finally Graham turned and went back to his chair. Daddy sighed deeply, and lowered me down to the floor. I reclaimed the pillow and adjusted my spinach. Scott slumped into the corner of the couch. “Did we just see a bear eating potato salad at the picnic table?”
“I’m pretty sure we did.” Daddy cleared his throat. “A strange and marvelous happening after a long and wearisome day. Dixie, don’t you want to go crawl in the bed with your sister?”
I didn’t. I wanted to stay in the middle of the living room floor, inside this ancient sleeping bag, and listen to the three cousins talk about Granddaddy. I wanted to be the campfire in the middle of it all.
Granddaddy got up, stiffly, and coaxed the fire into a blaze. He put a pot of water on the fire to boil for coffee and oatmeal. The woods were still, but not silent. The tree tops creaked in a light breeze, birds called. Granddaddy stirred hot water into a cup with his Folger’s coffee, and sipped. One by one the boys emerged, blinking, from the tent.
When they were all assembled and staring in early-morning silence at the fire, Granddaddy Sloane smiled. “Sleep sound, boys?”
“Not hardly,” Graham said. “It was the loudest night of my life. And then that old possum sneaking around, woke us up.” He sniffed the morning air. “But I like it here. If I had a few nights to get used to it, I bet I would sleep real good.”
“I know you would,” Granddaddy said. He looked around the campsite, on this bald spot in the woods with its soft turf and green moss, surrounded by columns of trees. “I purely love it here,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place to lay for the rest of my life.”
Frank looked around, too. “Bet it gets awful cold in the winter.”
Granddaddy Sloane laughed, and his laugh floated up above the trees and merged with the voices of the birds. “If I got too cold,” he said, “you know what I’d do? I’d reach down and dig my fingers into this good North Carolina land, and I’d pull it up around me like a sweet green blanket.”
Graham sniffed. Daddy held one hand over his mouth and chin. We heard the slow tick of the wall clock in the kitchen.
Scott whispered, “Who’s going to pray for us now?”
Vicki Winslow lives in Liberty, North Carolina. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has published short stories and a novella, The Conversion of Jefferson Scotten. Her book for middle readers, Follow the Leader, won the Marguerite de Angeli Prize from Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.