The Boy, The Bear, & The Pajamas
I have often been asked if I have ever been published or if I have submitted for publication, and the answer is no. The intent of my writing is not for publication. However, I did enter one national writing competition. It was the Midwest Writer's Conference in Akron, Ohio. In the end I was granted second place by a panel of judges who read the pieces blind and voted accordingly. The keynote speaker that year was John Updike, who had also been one of the judges. After his keynote address, while he was standing in the lobby taking questions and autographing books, he took me aside and told me that he very much enjoyed my story.
I have deliberated about posting this since I first created this diary, but I have decided that this is better to share than to let gather dust. So below is the piece that earned me a second place title, a compliment from a published author and a meager check so many years ago. It was written on a cold dark night in a single sitting. It was not for a class, or any other reason, but it was the first paper of any significant length that had been written on a computer. You see, I had received the computer only a few days before, and had sufficed with only a typewriter for my first three and a half years of college.
The story is largely autobiographical in nature, which should give you some insight into my past, and subsequently, my present. Enjoy.
The bear was looming over the bed when I woke. My mouth opened and my throat closed around the scream. I shrank away and collided with the lump sharing the bed. The lump moaned and shifted, recoiling me toward the bear. I closed my mouth and opened my eyes and waited for some sense to filter through. It came like a mother's voice to a child in the dark. I opened my eyes and focused on the bear. It hadn't moved from when I fell asleep. I turned to my left and examined the boy on the bed next to me. His figure was swollen with the blankets he had robbed from me, but he was still the same. I rocked gently on my back to confirm that I was still wearing the same pajamas. I could feel the buttons engraving themselves in the flesh of my back. Yes, everything was the same as when I had fallen asleep--the boy, the bear, and the pajamas, and I still didn't like it.
I looked again at the boy. He was roughly my age. He was taller than me. The sleeves of the pajamas hanging past my fingers were evidence to this. He was thin and fair-skinned and had scabs on both knees. He smelled faintly of urine. I had no problem waking up in my own puddle, but I didn't find the thought of waking up in somebody else's appealing. He wore his socks pulled up to his knees, even to bed. My mom said he looked like his father, but I didn't think so. He didn't have hair above his mouth like his dad.
I had forgotten the boy's name. I think my mother told it to me when we were driving over, but I wasn't sure. He wasn't a girl, but his father called him honey and he wore pink pajamas. I couldn't think of his father's name either. My mother told me that he was a nice guy with a son like me, but I didn't wear pink pajamas. I didn't put the tops on backwards either.
I was wearing pink pajamas now. My mom told me I had to, and I told her I wanted to go home. She told me not to argue and pulled my shirt off over my head. She told me to face forward and slid the sleeves over my arms so that the buttons were in the back. She ignored my protests and showed me that the other boy wore them this way. He wasn't anything like me and I didn't want to be anything like him. My mother told me it was for one night and I would have to deal with it. As a four year old that meant I had no choice.
I was herded into a room with a single bed in the middle. It was the only piece of furniture. The rest of the room was choked with stuffed animals. Real animals. They were dead with shiny eyes and living poses. Squirrels climbed the walls, birds perched on the windowsill, a deer gazed at us over his red painted nose, a raccoon held a dusty fish in its mouth and peered at us from behind the furry trunk of a leg belonging to a grizzly bear. The bear stood on its hind legs in the furthest corner of the room. It was taller than my mother and held its arms forward with the claws out. Its mouth was open and lips curled back to show his tongue through teeth. The boy's father walked over to it and draped his arm around the bear's shoulder as if they were lifelong friends. My mother asked him if it would give us boys nightmares. He laughed and said we should know the difference between dead and alive. He said Honey never had nightmares. He looked at the bear and growled. He stuck his hand in its mouth and pretended to be hurt. This made my mother laugh, and knocked a cloud of dust about the bear's face so that it looked more like it was sneezing than trying to scare sleep from a pair of children.
My heart slowed to a normal rate, but sleep was nowhere to be found. I lay in bed for a while, staring at the ceiling. I could hear traffic passing by the window. The Venetian blinds were down, but open, and every time a car passed the room was striped with light. I could see a bird's breast, a squirrel's tail, and the painted red nose of the deer's head. The light fell across the bear's face. One bar across an ear, one across its glassy eyes, and the last across its open mouth. The Cheshire bear stood guard over me, and he started making noise.
A heavy breathing filled the room. Different types, one deep and slow, one shallow and fast. The breathing increased, and a low growl escaped its lips. The growl disintegrated into a series of barking grunts, husky and strong. They grew louder and more persistent. I needed to go to the bathroom.
I slid from the bed, never taking my eyes from the grinning bear. Inching the door closer to me. The breathing remained, the grunts grew louder. My legs became weak from the weight of that grin, and the weight of my bladder. The doorknob was in my hand, the door creaked wildly. The bear failed to take notice. It continued gazing at the morsel wrapped in the covers. I stepped out of the bedroom and into the living room. The noises were louder in here. There was an animal writhing about on the floor crying out in pain. I was about to retreat to the bedroom when a car threw light into the room exposing my mother and Honey's father on the floor together. They weren't wearing any clothes and they were both making noise.
I wondered if I could make it across the room to the bathroom unnoticed when the bedroom door clicked closed. My mother rolled her head to one side and looked at me. She seemed far away thinking of something, or just in one of her moods. That's what she would tell me whenever she would not answer my questions the first time I'd ask. She would stand at the stove when I talked about Daddy and just stir the soup and put one of her hands on my head. I would have to ask her again and tug on her shirt before she would look at me and answer. She would always say that she was sorry, and call me sweetie. Sometimes she would have tears rolling down her face and when I asked her what was wrong she would say that I wouldn't understand and to nevermind. She just lay on the floor looking at me for a while before she realized I was really there.
She looked at me and Honey's father kept on moving and making noises. He had his head on the floor next to hers, and she had one of her arms around his neck and was patting him on the back of the head like she does to me when I'm crying, but she wasn't telling him that everything was okay. I wondered if he was crying or hurt or maybe he even needed to go to the hospital. I wouldn't want to go to the hospital if I was as old as him. Whenever kids go to the hospital they just get stitches or their tonsils removed, but whenever adults go they don't come back. My grandfather went, and he never came back. Grandma went to a different one and she didn't come back and everybody cried. I was wondering what was the problem with Honey's father when my mother interrupted and asked me if something was the matter. I told her that I had to go to the bathroom really bad and that I was sorry. She told me that I had nothing to be sorry about, and she removed her hand from his head and pointed to the door on the other side of the room.
I walked across the room, keeping my eyes on the doorway ahead of me to avoid looking at them on the floor. Honey's father was still moving around and making noise when I reached the door, and closed it behind me. I could still hear him, even when the door was closed, and I wondered if there were any animals in the bathroom with me. I slid my hand along the wall and groped for a light switch. It wasn't where it was supposed to be. I started to get scared and used both hands on the other side of the door. I still hadn't found the switch when I heard it move. Something was in the room and it was right behind me. I caught my breath, turned around, and listened. All I could hear was my heart and my mother and Honey's father making more noise. I stood in the dark listening to their moans get louder, sharper, and faster when I heard it move again. The noise came from directly in front of me and I jumped back into the wall. I hit my head on something sharp and everything became bright and intense. I closed my eyes and gave a startled cry before I realized that I had found the light switch.
I slowly opened my eyes, and blinked the room into focus. It was small and intensely white after walking around in the dark. My eyes adjusted and my heartbeat slowed before I heard the noise again. It came from the shower. Something had brushed against the inside of the light-blue plastic shower curtain that kept the shampoo bottles safe from sight. I wasn't sure if I could go to the bathroom knowing that something was in the shower. I decided that I just couldn't do it, but I had to go to the bathroom or I would have an accident. A warm and wet one at that.
I moved toward the shower and curled one hand around the closest edge of the curtain. I pulled it away from the wall, slowly inserting my head into the gap it left, and hoped I was dreaming everything. The tub came into view slowly--first a baby-shampoo bottle and then a withered bar of green soap followed by a washcloth draped over another bottle. The tub had little rubber flowers in the bottom that feel weird on your behind when you take a bath. I stuck my head all the way in until the curtain hid nothing--and that is what I saw. I stood a moment, confused and relieved, when I heard the sound again. The showerhead was dripping and the water caught a corner of the curtain that sprawled almost to the drain. It landed with a dull thwack on the plastic and ran down into the hole.
The dripping water reminded me of my purpose. I lifted the lid, pushed the elastic waistband of my pajamas and underwear down in one motion, and went to the bathroom. I thought about where the water goes when it goes down the drain. I thought about the fish my mother would flush down the toilet and wondered if they went to the same place. I finished my job, put the lid down, and made it back to the door before I remembered to flush. I went back to the toilet and rested my hand on the handle when it occurred to me that the noise from the other room had stopped. I listened for a moment and when I didn't hear anything I flushed and went to the door. I had reached the door and had my hand on the light switch when I heard Honey's father and my mother talking. Honey's father sounded upset. I tried to listen to what they were saying but I couldn't hear much over the flushing toilet. I was worried because Honey's dad sounded mad and I thought I was in trouble.
"What do you mean your kid got up to go to the bathroom?"
"Exactly what I said."
"About five minutes ago."
"Jesus Christ, why didn't you say something?"
"You were a little busy at the time, besides...was just standing there when I looked up...went in before you finished."
"Well that just takes the cake, Gloria. First you tell me you can't find...sitter and then...mother won't watch the runt...he walks in on us and you don't see a problem with this?"
"I just thought..."
"I just think you ought to...shrink. Maybe this time you'll get your money's worth."
The toilet finished flushing and I stood at the door listening to the whine of the tank refill. I listened some more but all I heard was my mother say I'm sorry a few times, Honey's father say shit, and the refrigerator door open. When the toilet filled and the room was quiet, I went into the living room. My mother was still on the floor, but she had a blanket pulled around her body. She looked like Honey all wrapped up. She lay in the path of a beam of light coming from the other room. I heard ice fall into a glass in the kitchen and started walking back to the bedroom. My mother had that stare she gets when I ask her about Daddy, and she had tears running down across her nose and onto the floor. I walked right by her and she never looked. It was like she didn't even see me. I thought briefly about asking her what was wrong, but I figured she would tell me that I wouldn't understand, so I just neverminded and went back to the bedroom.
The bedroom was as I had left it. Honey was amorphous on the bed and the bear was a dim silhouette in the corner. The room wasn't so scary without the moaning from the next room. After my eyes adjusted to the dim light again I walked across the room and stood looking at the bear. It wasn't so bad. It had nice soft fur like my Aunt Rachel's dog. It sort of looked like a too big dog. Honey told me that his father was a hunter and that was why they had all the animals--because his dad shot them. I didn't like the animals standing around stiff and stuffed. I didn't understand why anyone would want to shoot them and then take them home--they were much more fun if you could play with them when they were alive.
I looked up at the bear's face and decided that he didn't look so mean; instead he looked more like he was crying than growling. I grabbed it around one of its legs and gave it a hug. I told him that I was sorry that Honey's dad went and shot you, Mr. Bear. I got back in bed beside the lump. I didn't bother trying to wrestle any covers from him. I curled up in a ball and fell into a troubled sleep with dreams of guns and animals and crying moms.
The next morning my mother woke me up early. She told me to be quiet and not to wake Honey or his father. She helped me take off the ugly pajamas and led me out of the bedroom and through the living room. Honey's dad was sleeping under a blanket on the floor in the living room and there was a piece of paper on the empty pillow next to his head. My mother had her clothes and her coat on and was carrying my clothes in her other hand. We left the apartment and went out into the hall. She closed the door quietly and turned to me standing in my underwear. She said she was sorry dear, handed my clothes to me, and helped get me dressed. I told her that I needed to go to the bathroom as she was putting my winter boots on my feet. She started to cry and asked me to hold it till we got to a gas station, okay, sweetie? I nodded and she led me to the yellow Volkswagen Beetle in the parking lot. I got in and put my seatbelt on while she swept and scraped the snow from the car.
Being inside a snow-covered car is like being in bed with your blankets pulled up over your head, only colder. I could hear the brush on the roof, and then the morning broke in through the windshield, one sweep at a time. Mom finished clearing the car and stood in the open door stomping snow from her boots. She tried to roll down her window, and when it wouldn't work she switched her cigarette to her other hand and knocked on the inside of the window a few times. When she could open the window enough to drain the smoke from the car, she put the keys in the ignition and settled into her seat with a heavy sigh.
By this time both of us had chattering teeth. She looked over at me and smiled and asked me if everything was okay. I said yes. I told her that I didn't want to stay there again and that I didn't like Honey's father. She said I know, precious, I didn't like him either. I told her that I thought he wasn't very good for killing animals. She pumped the gas and tried the ignition a few times. When the engine wouldn't catch, she sat back and sighed. She took a drag from her cigarette and said he wasn't very good. She blew the smoke out the crack and said no, sweetie, he wasn't very good at all. I didn't understand, and before I could ask her what she meant she was already outside thanking God for downhills and push-starting the car.
December 28, 1994