Todd hefted two grocery bags from the rear of his Subaru and cursed under his breath. It had been a terrible week. A terrible month. A miserable year.
Emma, who’d been patient with his dark moods for longer than Todd preferred to admit, had finally said “no more,” and then Claire, their daughter, calling to console him after Emma subsequently moved in with her sister, listened to his whining for only three minutes before telling him to “fuck off.”
That led to such a funk that his supervisor at the mortgage office told him to “stay home a few days and clear up whatever the hell is making you so volatile.”
Which he did, but it hadn’t helped.
Now, at the rear of the townhouse he and his wife had once shared, alongside Emma’s abandoned birdfeeders, less than fifteen feet from where he stood holding the awkward armful of groceries, mostly beer and chips, Todd saw what he never expected to see in his own unkempt yard.
Todd thought at first that the oversized mound was a mere pile of dirt, left by a work crew; maybe someone had been digging up a sewer pipe. Who knew? But then the mound shuddered, and a large tan snout turned in his direction.
As the vast creature slowly came into focus, what Todd perceived was a disaster of a bear. Matted fur, speckled with bits of leaves and yard debris. A wide scar just above the left eye. Thick breathing.
And the smell. Like stagnant pond water.
“Jesus,” Todd managed to say. The bear rolled onto its right side, which seemed quite an effort. “Jesus Christ, you’re a freakin’ bear.”
The bear seemed almost to nod in agreement but may have just been shaking itself awake.
Todd, for his part, remained frozen where he stood, not sure if he should back up gradually, advance slowly, run like hell, or fall to the ground and cover his head. He knew one of those was the correct answer, but he didn’t want to lose his groceries, and the bear seemed only vaguely interested.
So, Todd widened his stance, and spoke forcefully. “I’m going inside now,” he said to the untidy lump. “I’m going to turn slightly to my left, slide open that glass door, and go inside. Then neither of us has to deal with the other one of us ever again.”
He paused, waited, then added, “Okay?”
The bear lifted its snout a bit higher, snorted or belched, Todd couldn’t tell which, and gradually maneuvered itself onto its front legs, which made the unexpectedly huge bear seem positively colossal.
As a result, Todd didn’t go anywhere.
The bear huffed, so forcefully that Todd flinched at the hot, rancid air that swept past his face.
The bear then lifted onto his rear legs as well. And he snort-belched again.
“Christ almighty Jesus damn,” Todd said then. “Shit, shit, shit.”
The massive creature stood, with surprising quickness, Todd thought. And the bear that had gone from unexpectedly huge to positively colossal was now simply gargantuan.
The scrubby blackbrown fur-blimp teetered a bit up on two legs but was still plenty impressive. For a moment, the bear just stared at Todd, perhaps equally puzzled as to what should happen next. Then it took one awkward sidestep, steadying itself by resting a massive paw on the seven-foot cast iron shepherd’s hook that held Emma’s tube-shaped finch feeders.
Which is precisely the moment in which Todd realized why the bear had appeared on that day, at that time. It had been not just a horrible week, month, year. It was not just Emma. Not just his lousy job. His daughter who couldn’t stand him anymore. His life was an utter disaster, a failure of epic dimensions. A tower of mistakes held aloft by narrow cement pilings and each of those pilings was disintegrating. Even if he shored up one side, the other side was certain to collapse.
Life was a journey, an adventure, a noble quest, and he sucked at it. All of it.
“Suck,” Todd said, almost as if spitting the word, “suck, suck, suck.”
The bear hunched his shoulders slightly and held very still.
Todd registered the bear’s reaction and decided then and there what he would do. And how he would do it.
He inhaled deeply twice, felt his heart rhythm skipping irregularly. He stood a long moment, lightheaded, as if in a trance of some sort, then managed to take one cautious step forward.
“Are you married?” he asked the bear. “Kids?”
The bear huffed.
He took one more tentative forward step, spoke to the bear through clenched eyes. “My Gramps used to kill bears like you. Kill ‘em in the woods. You know what I mean? He’d just shoot them down.”
Todd, hoping to provoke his new friend, took another step. The distance between them was now maybe six feet, enough that the bear could easily lurch forward and catch him with a paw.
“When I was a boy, he made me watch. One day he killed a Momma bear that had two babies.”
It was a true story.
The massive bear didn’t move. Todd opened his eyes.
“Made me sad, what happened to those babies. They just wandered away. Gramps didn’t care.” One more step, and Todd and the bear were now four, maybe five feet apart. “You ever wish you were dead?”
Todd was looking directly into the bear’s enormous snout and face. The eyes were unexpectedly beautiful, a deep honey brown. And more human than he might have imagined. “I’m named for that grandfather, you know, even though I hated the bastard. So here I am. Take your vengeance.”
The bear huffed again, and Todd thought he would faint from the smell. He almost dropped his groceries. But he didn’t.
Todd re-closed his eyes then, clenched his butt muscles, winced, and stepped right up to the bear. He held his breath out of fear, and frankly, the smell.
“He was a bastard,” Todd muttered through closed teeth. “You know what his nickname was for me?”
The bear did not respond.
“Little shithead.” Todd stayed still. “How’s that for a nickname. How am I supposed to feel when my own grandfather sees me in that light. You had grandparents?”
Again, the bear didn’t move.
“I didn’t have a father, so Gramps, he was the best I had. And he was a bastard, you know? Used to call Grammy a fat cow. God, how I hated that man.”
And then Todd felt it. The bear was on him, around him, pulling his body in against a carpet of thick, acrid fur, crushing the chips in the grocery bag, squeezing Todd so tightly he thought his ribs might crack.
This is it, Todd thought, and he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about that. He did miss Emma, though. Wished he could speak with her one last time.
He thought of Claire. Maybe he should have apologized.
He thought of his grandmother, who had been kind.
He thought of the wandering bear cubs.
He imagined himself chasing after those cubs, helping them.
He felt beer running down his leg. One of the cans had split.
He felt oddly comforted. At peace with it all. He leaned even deeper into the thick-matted fur of the bear.
And then, for no apparent reason, the bear let go.
The bear let go, the groceries dropped, Todd tumbled backwards and fell hard onto his rear, and the bear was out of there, through the bushes, around the hedge, out of sight, quickly, so much more quickly than Todd would have thought possible for a beast that size.
And Todd said, “Shit.”
He said this because the bear had hugged him.
Had spared him.
He said this because he had no idea what had just happened, why it had just happened, if it had really just happened, or how he would convince anyone of any of this, if he even told anyone, which he most likely would not.
He said this because his ribs hurt.
He said this because the world.
Because the world is such a glorious place.
Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoirs Between Panic & Desire and To Hell With It, among other books. He has published essays and stories in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. The bear is his spirit animal. Follow him on X at @brevitymag.