Sleeping Between the Bears

It was their first day together since the judge ordered them apart.

Royce had picked him up around eleven from the boy’s grandfather’s in East Tulsa, then pulled into a McDonald’s drive-thru on the highway south for lunch. But Denny would not eat. The boy wasn’t shy about his aversion to being here, and Royce, deciding the boy had seen enough punishment lately, let him do as he pleased. Royce balanced his own cheeseburgers on a thigh as he guided the pickup down the road, glancing every so often in the side mirror at the small aluminum camper bouncing behind them.

The land here before the foothills of the Arkansas Ouachitas was still flat, but beginning now to run occasionally into shallow brown hills of prairie grass or rough inclines where the granite pushed a few feet up from the earth. When he had finished the burgers, Royce lit a cigarette, opened his window, and rested an arm on the rubber sill. The hot wind moved the hair on his forearm in rapid little circles; it was not yet June, but the temperature was already in the nineties. He looked across the cab at Denny, who sat cupping his chin in his fist, reading an Incredible Hulk pulled from a stack of comic books in his backpack.

“Want to roll your window down?” Royce asked. “It’s a real heater today.”

Denny had dressed himself in a T-shirt, hiking shorts and a pair of hiking boots Royce had bought him especially for the trip. He rolled the window crank and the cross draft whipped through the cab.

“Hey!” Royce raised his voice above the wind. “I spent nearly every Memorial Day out here when I was a kid. Did you know that?”

“No,” Denny said, gazing out the window. He was a chubby nine-year-old, with pale skin and thin, sandy hair in need of a cut.

“Sure did. Your granddad—my dad, not your Big Pop—was stationed at an airfield outside Muskogee, back down the road from here. I think it’s a landfill or something now. He brought your uncles and me down here on the weekends to hike and fish all over the Ouachita River. It was really tranquil.”

“What’s tranquil?” Denny said.

“It means peaceful,” Royce said.  Then, having said the word, he realized the oddness of it. The fishing pool itself was tranquil to him, if only because the old man didn’t actually occupy Royce’s memory of it—he’d simply left the boys there to souse himself in privacy further down the creek—and the pool was what Royce wanted Denny to see. But peace wasn’t a concept he often applied to dealings with the old man. His father had sought it, maybe, with a poor compass, one that stranded him in a rough country of rage and violence long before he could arrive at anything like peace. When he died, he’d passed on no real material inheritance to Royce, but how surely he’d passed on his two greatest sins: a weakness for drink and that same devilish temper. Both had guided Royce the night at Big Pop’s—two and half years ago, when Denny was six—guided him to jail, guided him away from Aileen, guided him away from their son.

The pickup’s engine balked, and Royce shoved at the stick until the gear caught and it evened out again. “It was really uninhabited back then,” he said. “No one around but the bass and the bears.”

Denny brushed the hair from his eyes. “Actual bears?”

The kid was finally being a good sport. Royce exhaled smoke through his nostrils and threw the last of his cigarette out the window. “Sure as candy. Wild bears, not like in the zoo. This whole country used to be filled with bears, before the mountain men killed them to make room for the pioneers. Black Bears, Plains Grizzlies. From way north in Canada all the way down here, and west into New Mexico. Can you imagine that? Bears in the desert?”

“I guess not,” Denny said.

Royce took another cigarette from a pack above the sun visor, checking the camper again in the rearview. He had worked hard to pay for it, holding down a job mining limestone long enough to save the money, and he had worked hard to make something new of himself in the last year, too. If Aileen could see him now, she wouldn’t know him. The thought of his ex-wife brought a hollow, anxious feeling; she and her mother had been killed in a pickup accident just two weeks before, leaving only Royce standing between the boy and orphanhood. He felt the responsibility of that hang on him like a lead weight. But he was determined to show the boy something special on this trip into the Ouachitas, something that might heal the wound between them.

“The Indians, though, they lived in harmony with the bears,” Royce said, bringing a lighter up to his cigarette. The wind snuffed the flame before it caught. “They thought the bear came from heaven to guard the woods. And the Great Spirit gave the bear all the fish he could eat as payment. But the bear’s spirit was kept safe in heaven, you see, which makes the bear magic. You can still see his spirit in the stars. What the white man calls the Big Dipper, the Indians called the Bear.”

“I know the Big Dipper,” Denny said.

“Then you’ve seen the Bear, if you’ve seen the Big Dipper.” Royce fought again to light his cigarette against the wind, with no luck. “Bet you didn’t know you were looking at a bear’s spirit, did you?”

“I guess not,” Denny said. “I’d want to see an actual bear. I would live in harmony with it.”

“I bet you would,” Royce said. He shook the lighter in his fist. “Well, buck this piece. Hey, want to hold the wheel for me?”

“Me?” Denny said.

“You, sure.”


“Like this.” Royce guided Denny’s hand onto the steering wheel. “That’s it. Just keep us straight in between the lines.”

Denny’s fingers gripped the wheel, and he lifted his head high to see over the dash and beyond the hood of the truck. Royce looked away from the road and leaned below the window, making his fist into an O around the tip of his cigarette and the lighter. Just as the flame caught the truck jolted up hard beneath him, knocking the lit cigarette from his mouth onto the seat, where it lodged right beneath Royce’s crotch. He jerked upright and saw they were on the shoulder, the strong wind of the exposed highway pushing them into the ditch. He cried out, fingers scrambling beneath him for the cigarette, until his thumb came down squarely on top of it and sent a sharp bolt of pain shooting up his arm.

“Left!” Royce shouted.

Denny jerked the wheel hard. The camper began to jack-knife, tires squealing like some furious bird flying behind them. In the corner of his vision, Royce caught its shape disappearing from the rearview as it swung out and around on the ball hitch. His fingers, finally, latched onto the unlit end of the cigarette as his other hand found the wheel, and he steered them back into the lane a second before the truck left the pavement on the opposite side of the highway.

Then Denny started to cry.

Royce’s spirit fell.  “It’s all right now,” he said, and patted the boy on top of his foot. He felt like a fool, believing he could pull off this trip. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Let’s forget that, okay? Let’s just forget that happened, okay Denny?”

They drove for a long time in the wind without talking. Royce stared out the big windshield of the truck as larger hills came up in the distance. Soon, he turned the truck east onto the forest highway and the road began to rise. There was a smell like smoke in the air from someone burning brush nearby, and beneath that the green, bittersweet scent of pines coming in thick alongside the road.

The campsite sat snug inside an elbow of the Ouachita River. It was hidden at the end of a long, rutted dirt road, isolated enough that no other Memorial Day vacationers were in sight. A trailhead led out from the far corner, disappearing between the river and the trees climbing the short slope of the hillside. Royce pulled the camper onto a patch of dead grass near a blackened fire pit, and then he and the boy stepped from the truck. He found himself surprisingly pleased the spot had remained as secret as it had been so many years before; it seemed exactly the same, but for absence of the old man’s pickup, parked where his own was now. Stretching his legs after the drive, the enthusiasm Royce had lost on the highway began to return somewhat. He had imagined Denny’s first entry into the woods since Big Pop called to suggest the trip, a few days after Royce had heard about Aileen’s accident. Big Pop was a decent man to think of the boy and his father. Royce tried to rouse a good mood in himself again.

“This is just about what the first mountain men saw when they arrived,” he said, gesturing in a circle to the woods around them. He watched as Denny examined the surrounding trees. “Yep. No highways, no office buildings. Just about like this.”

Smiling uncertainly, Royce checked the supplies in his pack and replaced the comic books from Denny’s pack with a new raincoat and a water bottle. He led the boy to the edge of the camp and helped him choose a long, straight branch for use as a walking stick. Then Royce pulled from his pocket a small silver bell, which hung from a length of red string.

“To let the gentleman of the local bear consortium know we’re stepping out for the afternoon,” Royce said, tying the bell tightly to the top of the stick. “You have to make some noise so you don’t surprise them. ‘Don’t get up, gentlemen, we’re only passing through.’”

“I don’t want to go,” Denny said, staring at his feet.

“What do you mean you don’t want to go?” Royce said.

“I don’t. I’m tired.”

“You should have eaten something,” Royce said, adjusting Denny’s backpack for him. “Come on now. Want to see a bear, don’t you? Sure. Stand up straight now.”

Denny straightened. Royce looked him over and nodded to himself, then shouldered his own pack. They started up the trail, Royce leading the way, the little bell ringing brightly above Denny’s head.

Even beside the river, the hot afternoon air was stifling. The trail led up over the low hills, following their crests above the water, and Denny worked to keep up with Royce’s pace along the path. Stopping here and there, Royce pointed out slingworm nests in the branches of the trees, or pulled Denny close to him, his finger stretched from the boy’s nose, sighting a cottonmouth lazing in a streak of sunlight across the trail ahead of them.  Denny looked on, leaning against the walking stick like a subway rider against a pole. After they had walked a good distance, the grade of the hills leveled out and they came to a clearing where to one side of the trail a large, smooth boulder jutted out from the trees. Royce stopped once more, bent over at the waist, and slapped his thighs with satisfaction. He smiled at the boy.

Denny sat down on the boulder, his expression dull. His hair, wet with perspiration, splayed messily across his forehead.

Royce studied him. “A glacier carried that very rock you’re sitting on, you know,” he said. “It took maybe ten thousand years to move that rock just about one foot. Can you believe that?”

Denny kicked at a thumb-sized stone packed into the hard dirt at his feet. Royce stopped smiling and stared down to the river below.

“Now you know what I almost forgot?” Royce said. “I can’t believe I almost forgot it, but there I go. I almost forgot to show you the best trick a mountain man can ever know.”

Denny freed the stone from the dirt and rolled it around with the toe of his boot.

“Now what did I do with it?” Royce flashed Denny a nervous grin and patted his hands across his shirt’s breast pockets, watching the boy’s face. “Hold on, now, hold on. I know it’s around here some place.”

He reached into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled his hand back, closed tight. He waved his fist through the air with a flourish, like a magician finishing a trick. Then Royce opened his palm toward Denny. Sitting in it were two nickels.

“Now I know what you’re thinking. What can a mountain man do with two nickels, right? I’ll show you. You have to be very quiet, but I’ll show you. Can you be very quiet?”

Denny kicked the stone to the far side of the trail.

“Come on, Denny,” Royce said.

The boy settled himself against the rock. Royce took a nickel in each hand and, crouching next to Denny, peered out from the clearing as if he were searching for something among the trees. He began to saw the edge of one nickel across the surface of the other. As he did, he scanned the woods in a slow circle around them. Finally, his eyes fixed on a thick copse of ferns at the clearing’s edge.

“Look,” Royce whispered.

Denny followed his gaze. At the foot of the ferns, two red squirrels poked their heads cautiously from the underbrush. After a half-minute more of the sound, a third squirrel appeared a few feet away.

“It’s a decoy,” Royce whispered. “Back when the mountain men hunted squirrel meat. They called it squawk hunting. That sound is just exactly like the sound other squirrels make cutting nuts. And here they come inviting themselves to dinner, you see?” At the sound of Royce’s voice the squirrels darted back into the brush and were gone. He set the nickels proudly on a flat section of the rock beside the boy. “Want to try it?”

“No,” Denny said. He leaned forward and put his hands on his knees.

Royce realized his lips were moving soundlessly, as he thought of something to say. They felt like two motors idling without words to push them into gear. He pursed them.

“All right,” Royce said. “But say ‘no thank you.’”

“Okay,” Denny said.

“Say it. Say it now. Say ‘no thank you.’”

Denny stared at Royce. Royce glared down at him, jaw set forward. Denny stood up and took a step backward, holding the walking stick between his own body and Royce’s. The little bell clinked softly against the wood.

“I just don’t want to—”

“Just say it, goddamn it. Work with me here, goddamn it.”

Denny’s fingers clinched the stick. For a moment, a confused expression flashed over his face and he looked to Royce as if he were about to ask a question. Then his eyes grew large and his lips curled away from his teeth. He raised the stick above his head and brought it down hard across the top of the big rock. He brought it down over and over again, as if he were trying to break the stone itself, until the stick splintered in two. The bell broke free of the string and sailed into the brush below them on the hillside. When he was done, the tears mixed with the sweat on his face and he did not look at Royce. Instead, Denny turned and ran back down the trail, fists pumping, backpack swinging side-to-side behind him. Royce, silent, watched him go. Then he looked once up the trail toward the fishing pool, and followed.

But the boy was gone. Walking a hundred yards or so, Royce came to a fork in the trail and felt a sudden panic; he knew the way by heart—the northern branch led to their camp, but the southern wound directly away from it, following the riverbank—and he didn’t know if Denny would remember the way back having walked it only once. Royce didn’t know, in fact, if the boy intended to go back to camp at all. They had walked a good mile or so into the woods. He stood at the fork listening to the rush of whitewater in the valley below, then stepped quickly down the southern trail toward it. It was a dangerous sound and a comforting one. Both at once.

And then he was thinking about floating in the pool.

There were four of them in all, the brothers. The pool was given to Royce, the oldest, in a kind of system the old man had developed. The rest were tied further down the Ouachita according to age. He used lengths of manila rope—one end attached to the trunk of a tree high above the steep side of the creek bank, the other to the ankle of each boy and above their gaiters—tied in a complicated overhand knot that was nearly impossible to undo once the fibers had swelled with water. When he returned to free them after nightfall, unsteady on his feet, he had to cut the knot in half with the long blade of his pocketknife. The system kept them separated, silent, and stationed where the old man could find them again.

Royce felt only numbness at this part of the memory—what he knew some would call cruelty, or that harder word, which was more difficult to reconcile with his feelings: abuse. But another part of the memory was good: on those hot evenings, when the fishing was done and the sun had set but the old man hadn’t yet returned, Royce learned to position himself with his tied ankle closest to shore—and to float for hours on his back in the shallow water. And when the stars came out, reflecting in the pool’s still surface, it was as if he were floating in the stars themselves. Lying there in complete stillness, except perhaps for the fish, if any had come in, whipping in the basket at his side. The fish tied to Royce, Royce tied to the shore.

He came to the Ouachita’s bank and waded into the water past his knees, until he could see a half-mile down its bank in both directions. There was no trace of the boy, which, unless Denny had fallen in, was a good sign. Royce crawled back up the trail, toward the northern fork, and camp.

That sensation of stillness in the pool had terrified and exhilarated him. At twelve, Royce had thought it was perhaps how death would feel, when it came. And yes, sometimes, especially in the drinking days, he had wished for that feeling to take him, permanently. But despite his self-destructions, that had not happened. He was not the dead parent now. That was Aileen.

The last time he saw her had been the night at Big Pop’s. Aileen had packed Denny into the hatchback of the yellow Datsun and abandoned their little trailer, and Royce, forever. Royce, nearly too loaded to track her taillights, followed her to her father’s house. As she pulled into Pop’s driveway, Royce took the truck headlong into the lawn, trying to cut her off from the front door. When the pickup vaulted the curb, his head connected with the doorframe; Royce sat for a moment in the cab, dazed, blood running into his eye from a deep gash on the bridge of his nose.

After that, the memory was only fragments: bluish exhaust drifting through the headlights as they lit the front windows of the house….Aileen scrambling from the Datsun, pulling Denny by the hand as they dashed toward the porch…Royce’s own hand grabbing for the pistol behind the seat…and then the reports, which had, mercifully, resulted in harm to no one. Big Pop rushing at him from the porch, the taste of grass and earth in Royce’s mouth as the big man held him down.

Then, waking in the cell the next morning, a sick feeling inside of him that was not just the hangover. It was the knowledge that everything had gone irrevocably wrong.

But he had really been chasing Denny. True, the drunken, wrathful part of him—his father’s part—wanted to deny her winning the boy. But something else only wanted to keep Denny from disappearing. It was the better part of him, Royce hoped; the same part that was chasing Denny down the trail now, the part trying to figure a way free of the situation in which he had tied himself, this time, starting that night at Big Pop’s. Because was there a possibility anyone else would free him? No. There was no possibility of that. This was the true cruelty, Royce thought, the correct definition of abuse: you can be corrupted by another person, as his father had corrupted him, but you are alone in setting yourself right again. The world can hurt you, but you must heal yourself. It seemed to him as if a stitch had been skipped somewhere, a mistake in the laws of human experience.

He wanted a drink. He wanted to fight against it all. And he wanted to set things right with himself and Denny. But those actions did not—could not—exist together.

Royce realized he was nearly running down the trail toward camp. With the back of his wrist he wiped his brow, damp with perspiration. He was caught between the ruin of the past and the setting right, and he did not know how to get the rest of way there. He felt the familiar terror of floating in the pool, and, with no one to cut him loose, he thought he might feel it forever.

The sun had almost set as Royce pushed through the last brambles at the trailhead. Looking around the site and finding it empty, he thought for a moment Denny had become lost in the woods somewhere, that he would have to search for the boy in the dark. Then a flash of movement above the camper caught his eye—and there was Denny, sitting on top of it. The last sunlight turned the aluminum roof a deep orange all around him.

Royce set his backpack against one of the camper’s tires and climbed the little ladder to the roof. He raised his head slowly over the lip and found Denny sitting cross-legged, watching him. There were dried, dirty tracks on his cheeks from the tears. Royce pulled himself the rest of the way up and crawled awkwardly across the surface to Denny.

He had no idea what to say to make the boy okay. He was afraid any word might start him crying again. But he couldn’t let him be disrespectful, no matter how great his suffering was over losing Aileen and his grandmother, couldn’t let him have that power. They would never get anywhere, if he did. At last Royce said, cautiously, “You can’t run off from me like that, do you hear?”

Denny, picking at the lace of a hiking boot, said nothing. But he didn’t start crying, either.

Royce kept going. “It’s a hard place I’ve put us into, and an even harder place for you, right now,” he said. “I’m sorry for it. But that’s where we are. I’d like to run away myself, I suppose. But it’s only going to make things harder if we do that. So we’re stuck with each other. Do you understand me?”

This time Denny nodded. “Yes,” he said.

“As long as I don’t run away from you, you can’t run away from me, either,” Royce said. “Is that a deal?”

Denny brushed his hair from his eyes and looked up at Royce. “All right,” he said.

Royce breathed a sigh of relief. “All right,” he said. “Well, this was some kind of an idea. Some kind of an idea, sure.” He shook his head and slapped at some mud from the wet cuff of his pant leg. “You okay?”

Denny shrugged his shoulders. “I sat up here awhile. This place is…tranquil.”

Royce laughed. “Okay. Tranquil. Sure.” He stretched his palms flat onto the roof. “Let’s just—hell, I don’t know. I just don’t know.” He scratched his chin. “Do you want me to take you back to Big Pop’s?”

Denny thought for a moment. “No, I don’t.”

Royce was thankful for that. “How about dinner?”

Denny leaned over the lip of the camper. Then he looked up at the sky, which was darkening quickly now. “Can we eat up here?” he said.

“Where?” Royce said. “On the roof?”

“I don’t want to see a bear anymore, if one comes.”

“You scared?”

“A little,” Denny said. “We can’t see the stars inside the camper, anyway. We could sleep up here, for tonight. We could sleep in the camper tomorrow.”

“All right,” Royce said. He climbed back down the ladder and collected their sleeping bags from the camper, then took some bread, apples and cheese from his backpack. He passed everything up to Denny, then climbed up again and unrolled the sleeping bags side-by-side. He took out his pocketknife and started slicing the apples and cheese, and gave the slices to the boy.

Between bites, Denny looked up at the sky again. “How can a bear live with his body down here and his spirit up there?” he said.

“Well, I don’t know,” Royce said, finishing the slicing and folding away his pocketknife. He put his arms behind him and leaned back, surveying the woods. “Maybe we’ll get an idea tonight. We’ll be sleeping somewhere between, up here on the roof.”

Denny thought for a moment, holding an apple slice to the corner of his mouth. Then he said, “That’s good to think about. It’s nice to think about us being up here, like that. Don’t you like thinking of it like that?”

“Sure,” Royce said. But he suddenly realized he was very tired of thinking about everything, in general. He closed his eyes and tried to make himself think of nothing at all, feeling only the cold, hard shell of the camper beneath his legs and the palms of his hands. It lasted just a moment, but in that moment Royce felt as if nothing bad was certain. Not for him, and not for Denny. He felt as if everything could be okay. He opened his eyes again. “Sure,” he repeated. “Let’s just think about that. Let’s not think about anything else, for tonight.”

“All right,” Denny said.

After dinner, they lay with their backs flat on the roof, staring up at the night sky. The first stars faded in from the east above the river, and then the Bear came out. When it did, Denny, his stomach full, had already rolled over onto his arm and fallen asleep. Royce lay still, listening to him breathe, smelling the scent of the boy’s body next to him. He raised an index finger in the air and traced, once, something like a bear into the lines of the constellation, then closed his eyes, too.

Originally published in Tulsa Review