The Significance of the Bear

Molly Laich

Molly Laich

Carl knows very well one day at a time isn’t going to last forever—not for someone like him. He feels trapped. When he goes to the movies and the lights dim, the idea of two hours in a room with these strangers is enough to make him want to rush for the exit, but he knows he’ll be just as weary out in the fresh open air of the parking lot. It doesn’t matter where he is or whom he’s with. Sooner or later he will always want out. Still, he had to keep doing things because that’s what life is made of. He moved from Michigan to Montana on the whim of a pamphlet and vague hope.

You don’t have to be a Christian in Alcoholics Anonymous. You can be other things, so he tried out dime store, new age mysticism. It was hypnotizing to think that events had meanings, that thoughts became things. He started with The Secret and it was embarrassing. When he tried wishing for checks to come in the mail and they didn’t, he worked his way backwards to the heart of the matter, which is that it’s not enough to intend for things; you have to get your head buzzing right, and you have to be a good person and meditate and remember to say thank you, always, and still, even then, if the angels don’t want you to have it then you can’t have it. He despairs in the bleak truth that there is always a catch.

When Carl was first made to admit that he was powerless over the sauce, he promised everyone he’d stick with it forever, but secretly, by forever he meant a year. It’s about that time and a voice in his head calls, wanting to know whether he’s planning on renewing his subscription.

Drinking is like democracy: it’s the worst, but what’s the alternative? He felt sick and ugly most of the time, so he got more drunk and woke up broke and embarrassed. He got so embarrassed one night he told everyone he knew that he recognized he had a problem and he wanted to get better. Later he was like, “just kidding about that thing I said about being an alcoholic” but they were all, “No take backs.”

Carl lives in the mountains. On the way down from the Rattlesnake on the truck in front of him in traffic he saw a brown bear piled into the back of a pick up. There was a cloth bandage around the bear’s paw, applied with what he could only interpret as misplaced tenderness. For a moment he fell in love with the driver of the truck. Was it a homo moment? It wasn’t love, he reasoned; it was admiration. (If it had been love it would have been a valid and beautiful choice, but it wasn’t.) The man was an unapologetic killer of animals and he was in no hurry to escape.

He took a picture of the bear with his camera phone and showed it to his new AA friends. ‘Hey guys,’ he suggested. ‘Let’s not talk about not drinking for a change.’

‘That’s a grizzly bear,’ they said.

‘Look at the way the nose turns up. Those are round ears, not pointed like a black bears. No doubt about it.’

‘There’s no hump,’ someone argued.

‘Too young for the hump. That is definitely a grizzly bear.’

They told him Grizzly bears are revered in Montana and it’s always illegal to kill them. They decided he should report the bear to the state Fishing and Gaming Whatever. He was uneasy. Where Carl comes from nobody calls the police on anybody.

‘You can make out the license plate in the picture,’ they said.

‘But look at the way the guy nursed the paw,’ Carl argued.

‘That’s not a bandage,’ one of them said. ‘That’s just the tag. You have to tag animals before you take them out of the woods. It’s the law.’

‘Ironic,’ someone pointed out.

‘What’s the big difference between killing a grizzly bear and killing a black bear? Because there are fewer of them?’

‘Yes,’ they said.

‘Well, I mean, it’s a respect thing,’ another added, but the reception for this comment was mixed.

It’s true that Carl doesn’t drink anymore or live in the Midwest, but he still can’t see himself as the kind of person who would ever report a crime. Even if it had been a naked man in the truck bed, phallus dangling, robbed not just of life but of dignity–hell, if it had been a naked woman–he would hesitate. Perhaps she had it coming, and maybe not even in a ‘she was a real bitch’ way–maybe she charged him with a knife. Plus, why would a man have a human piled so flagrantly in the back of his truck if it weren’t somehow legal? Carl does that sometimes–reorganizes the entire world to fit one anomalous idea.

He tells everyone he’s going to call the wild life people, but he’s lying. He’s not going to. It’s the same way he’s lying when he says his name is Carl and he’s an alcoholic. He doesn’t believe it, not really. It’s not that he loves drinking, it’s that he hates life. He should say instead, “Hi, I’m Carl and I hate life.” And when he tells the others to keep coming back, the truth is he doesn’t care either way.

What’s the significance of the bear? He thinks about crossing the room to look it up in his spirit animal book, a relic from when he believed in things, but what would knowing do? Anyway, it’s just as cold on that side of the room as it is over here. He tries to draw connections between the two things on his own: There’s his alcoholism, a disease of the spirit, and there’s the dead bear and his cowardice. Or indifference. Whatever. He tries to weave it all together to create a synthesis and nothing happens. He gets caught up in the events of the day. A third thing comes up that doesn’t match the other two things, then a fourth, until it all becomes one big thing again and he’s back to not believing in magic.

Carl stands in a church basement in the center of the room, fluorescent lights dangling overhead, surrounded on all sides by smiling men seated in metal folding chairs. They want to give him a keychain. The room is hot and he’s sweating and all he can think is: what the fuck. Why.


Molly Laich lives and writes in Missoula where she is completing an MFA at The University of Montana. She also teaches, walks dogs, and rides a bike. She encourages you to visit her at


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