WRESTLING THE BEAR
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WRESTLING THE BEAR
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(This story first published in Cimarron Review # 146, Winter 2004)

Bert entered the Bear’s Den, a bar on a main street in a small Detroit suburb. A stuffed yellowing polar bear sat in a glass box and greeted customers at the front door. Bert nodded to the bear then stopped and blinked. For a moment he thought the bear nodded back, but the bear’s glassy eyes stayed focused straight ahead. It was almost spring but the air still felt Arctic.

The Friday night regulars perched on stools off to one side of the bar, doing shots with their beer.

“Hey, Bert’s back!” Heads turned.

“Nice tan, my man.”

Every winter, when construction work slowed, Bert drove his grandparents down to McAllen, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. He helped them set up their winter camp, parking their Winnebago with several hundred other metal RVs in a circle like modern age covered wagons.

Bert drew himself up to his full height, all six foot four inches of solid muscle and walked towards the bar, adjusting his new stiff white Stetson. He felt Texan as he leaned on the countertop, placing a boot on the metal rail below it.

“Give me a Hair of the Bear,” he said, ordering his favorite drink.

He was Butch Cassidy or Jesse James, living on the fringe. He liked being thought of as a primitive man living a survivalist life and cultivated that look with almost addictive workouts at the gym. Thirty years old, he was in his prime.

“Did ya get any of that fine Texas nookie?” Mikey grinned at him, flashing his gold tooth. The tooth attracted women, he told Bert, but it could only be seen when he grinned - which he did a lot.

“Naw, not this year,” Bert replied. “Got me some mighty fine Mexican ass. I just learned to make love in Spanish,” he drawled affecting a Texas accent, letting them think that he had broken hearts from north to south and back again. He unbuttoned the pearl button on his shirt cuff and rolled up his sleeve.

“Take a look at this souvenir.” There, tattooed on his huge forearm, was a cactus with a giant rattler winding its way around it - fangs bared. This was as wild as his winter sojourn had gotten. He had drunk too much tequila and woke up as the needles were pricking away at his arm in a low brick building next to the bus station in Brownsville. The tattoo artist was a Mexican midget with long black hair held back in a ponytail who stood on a stool as he worked.

“Gringo, your girlfriend, she gonna love this,” he said. “Takes real cojones to sit through this job. You doing great. Rodrigo’s a great artist. Very famous. You tell her that.”

Bert didn’t tell Rodrigo that there was no girlfriend, that he steered clear of those kinds of entanglements. When he’d looked the midget in the eyes, he saw the beautiful gringa that the midget was imagining. Her small hand linked through Bert’s beefy arm. Her fingers stroking the tattoo. Bert could even feel her warm salty breath. So he’d just nodded at the midget.

“Yeah, man. She’ll love it,” he’d said.

Now, he showed off the tattoo at The Bear’s Den. Mikey flashed his gold tooth smile and the rest of the crew nodded in approval at the artwork.

“Must of really hurt,” Molly, one of the young waitress, said as she reached out to touch it.