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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.

Bert pulled his arm back and shook his head, rolling down his sleeve. That’s when someone handed him the flier. He almost tossed it, thinking it was just an ad for the circus. It had a drawing of a bear standing on two feet towering over some men in spandex. But in bold black the letters said: WANTED. WRESTLERS!! $500 to the man who can pin Victor, the world champion wrestling bear. Call and register for your three minutes of fame. Saturday, March 22 at the Light Guard Armory Hunting and Fishing Show between 1-3:00 p.m. Hosted by the one! the only! fabulous Hulk Hogan. No fee. Hurry, number of entrants limited!

The Hunting and Fishing Show was an event he knew well. It was one of the formal father and son outings he’d participated in years ago. It was an annual event, along with the annual Let’s Try Bonding Hunting Trip up north. Both activities relieved his father from having to make eye contact.

His father, Ralph, had remarried so many times that Bert confused the wives – Vivian, Jane and Suzanne, maybe others. They were as blurry to him as they seemed to be to his father. Here one day and gone the next. Bert and his father preferred to pretend that the women didn’t exist. He doubted that his father knew or cared that Bert had never married. It pleased his father that Bert took care of himself, held a steady job, and could dead lift 600 pounds.

They’d go out hunting each November, opening day of the season, an almost holiday in Michigan. Classrooms emptied and thousands of men phoned in sick. The last time they went was years ago. Bert and his father had loaded the pickup and headed north on I-75 with Bert in charge of navigating. They arrived just before daybreak. That year there was no snow for tracking. The frost made it hard to walk quietly through the woods. No matter how carefully they’d tried to step, each footfall sounded like bones crunching. They headed for a blind that Ralph had set up the week before and crouched in it waiting, eyes fixed on the brush and on the horizon. “Remember, don’t drop your shoulder when you shoot,” his father reminded him, feeling like he was fulfilling his role as a proper parent. They leaned back on an old mattress. A pocket of air remained thick between the two men as they crouched in the blind without touching. Nothing was required of Bert. Just squeeze the trigger at the correct time. Except that day Bert peeked into his father’s eyes for the first and only time, and was almost swept away. The sadness felt heavier than any of the weights he’d ever lifted. It sucked at him until he shook his head and closed his eyes.

Bert tucked the flier in his pocket. The bar was steaming up. The only window in the place, up front, was completely fogged over. The band, “The Wailing Borrachos” played an extra loud raunchy Southwest Detroit Boogie Beat. Dancers crammed the small square that passed as a dance floor. Lucinda, one of the regular Friday night crew, tried to get him to dance.

“C’mon Bert. It’s a rockin’ Friday night and it’ll be gone before you know it!” She tugged at his arm. “What are you waiting for, come on!”

He didn’t feel like it. That’s what he was waiting for, to feel like it. To feel something. “Naw,” he said sitting tight on the barstool. “Just got into town and I’m sort of out of it. You know what I mean. Maybe later, honey.”

At closing time, she was waiting for him, sweaty from dancing and looking for a walk home or something more. She lived in the neighborhood, around the block from Bert’s apartment. Once a year they’d get together – her tiny frame and his bulky mass made for a strange coupling.

Bert could smell her desire. He knew all he had to do was reach out and pull her to his chest. The veins in his temples ached. His hands felt thick. He couldn’t make the leap from desire to action, from want to connection.

“Lucinda, darlin’,” he said. “Tonight’s not the night. You look so great, I wish it were but it’s just not.” He nuzzled her and then bit, a little too hard, on the back of her neck.

She punched him and rubbed at her neck. “Geez, hope you didn’t leave marks. Just for that, you’ve got to walk me home.”

They walked to her bungalow but he went home to sleep alone. As he lay in his bed, he imagined a whole troupe of dancing bears stomping from foot to foot. The bears were singing with deep growling voices. He couldn’t make out any of the words. They moved in unison. One, two, three, Stomp. One, two three. He could feel the bed shaking with the rhythm of their feet.

The next morning, he woke around noon and phoned the number on the flyer.

“Jones and Jones Entertainment” a voice barked.

I want to register to wrestle the bear,” Bert said.

“We can squeeze you in and I do mean squeeze, har-har-har,” Jones and Jones chortled. “First I need the basics – name, rank, serial number and next of kin.”

Before Bert could respond the voice went on.

“Har-har-har. Just kidding. How’s about we get your name, height and weight for starters. And let me tell ya a bit about Victor the bear, in case ya wanna change your mind. This here’s a Kowabunga Grizzly. He’s a monster of a bear. Maybe 700, maybe 800 pounds. Solid. This is one of those, you know, ultimate challenge things. Any repairs or medical bills are yours too. Jones and Jones don’t bear no responsibility, get it?” Jones and Jones cackled away on the other end of the receiver.

“All I’ve got to do is pin this critter, right?” Bert asked.

“That’s it – a three count. No holds barred.”

Bert pictured himself lifting the massive body for a take down. The biggest one of his life. He could hear the thud and imagine himself riding on top of something resembling a dusty rug.

“Alright, sign me up. I’ll put on a good show. Bert Jenkins. 6 feet 4 inches, 275 pounds.” He flexed his muscles as he talked on, exaggerating his expertise. “I’ve wrestled alligators and wild boars. A Kowabunga Grizzly shouldn’t give me a hard time. And I get to meet Hulk Hogan, right?”

Years ago he ‘d gone to the Pontiac Silverdome to see Hogan wrestle Andre the Giant in front of 93,000 manic fans. Hogan, the much smaller wrestler, body slammed the 7 foot 4 inch 500 pound giant and the stadium went berserk. It was just before his parents’ divorce. It had been good to escape their house, which had felt electrified. He’d yelled so loudly that night cheering the Hulkster that he’d lost his voice. He remembered losing it for the rest of that year. But maybe no one else had noticed that he didn’t speak. His voice was changing at the time and it felt good to just let it be, give it a rest. He took up wrestling and weightlifting shortly afterwards.

“Yeah, yeah, sure. No problem. You can meet the Hulkster. In fact, if ya pin the bear we’ll have Hogan deliver pizza to your house. Right to your door.”

“OK. I’m on board then. What else do you need? Do I need to bring anything with me?”

Jones and Jones snorted. “Ya might wanna bring along your Last Will and Testament, and a designated driver. He can double as the designated mourner if Victor goes on a rampage. Just be at Entrance C of the Armory by 12:30. Free admission, too.”

He decided to stop by his mom’s place as the day warmed up. She was a hairdresser who once worked at Antoine’s Style Salon on Woodward Avenue trying to save enough money to open her own shop. She had established a cult following of suburban women with hair emergencies but had never managed to save enough to open her own business.

Then a couple of years ago, a customer, Mrs. Fitzgerald had rescued Betty from the endless supply of matrons in crisis. She was the wife of William Fitzgerald, who owned and operated a line of funeral parlors, and Betty’s new customers became silent patrons of her art. Mr. Fitzgerald would hand her a picture of the deceased and Betty would replicate the hairstyle on the corpse. She traveled from parlor to parlor throughout the metropolitan area whenever her services were needed. It left her with plenty of time for crossword puzzles, soap operas, and WWF wrestling on TV.

Bert drove into the Flamingo Trailer Court. A dozen flamingos that once were pink but now were a faded gray lined the drive. They leaned every which way, in odd directions, like a disheveled hairdo. Betty’s home was along the back row. Bert drove slowly, trying to decide whether or not to tell her about the bear. His mother was a true wrestling fan. It transformed her into a dragon lady, into a wild screaming banshee. At one of his high school meets, she had attacked another mom who she had overheard criticizing Bert’s wrestling style. She had to be pulled off the woman by two strong men in the audience and carried outside, cursing all the while. Bert remembered feeling trapped somewhere midway between amusement and embarrassment. Betty was banned for the rest of that year from attending meets.

Bert should have been a state champion his senior year. He’d had a perfect record going into that last meet of the regular season. Then he’d lost his first match. The hair on the back of his neck had stood up when he realized that the ref had intentionally made the bad calls that caused him to lose. An ever so slight leer appeared in the ref’s face as he raised Bert’s opponent’s arm in victory. Bert walked out of the gym and into the hall. He punched the first thing he saw - the door, with its window of glass and embedded mesh. It ripped his hand, just missing the tendons but tearing it up badly. So ended his high school career.

He opened and closed his hand, thinking of it. Then he squeezed his hand and made a tight fist as he walked up the dusty path to his mom’s mobile home, kicking up little clouds of dirt. He released it to pick up the crushed cigarette packages that were tossed all about.

Betty answered the door with an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. Her platinum hair was highlighted with a cranberry tinge. The color changed from week to week. Blue and cranberry were her favorites. Bert was relieved that today was a cranberry day. He could handle that color. The occasional lime green days made her appear ghoulish. And made him slightly seasick.

“Bert, baby, how are you?” She stood on tiptoes, removing the cigarette to kiss him, as he bent down. She planted a red lipstick mark on his cheek, which he rubbed at, smearing it like blood across his face. “You look good, sweetie. Welcome back home. Aren’t you early this year?”

“Norman called down to grandpa’s. He’s got work for me starting next week, so here I am. Money was getting tight anyway. Time to be back home, I figured. You been OK?”

“Lots of work on the dead heads. Kept me out of trouble. Been real quiet around here this winter otherwise. C’mon on in – don’t stand out there like some stranger.”

“Listen Ma. I can’t stay today. But I wanted to tell you something.” Bert thought for a moment. “I’m going to wrestle again, two weeks from today. At the Light Guard Amory.” He could see that her face looked puzzled. “It’s the Hunting and Fishing Show and I’m going to wrestle Victor the Bear.” He waited for a response. Her face, which had hardly aged except for a few fine lines around her eyes and mouth, took on the same tone as her hair.

“Bertie! Honey. You can’t wrestle a bear. You’re teasing me, aren’t you.” She stepped past him, outside for a smoke. The little bit of wind blew her flimsy bathrobe, flapping it against her body, which looked wispy and frail standing next to Bert. Betty cupped her hands around the cigarette to light it. She crossed her arms over her chest, and blew smoke up into the air. It hovered over her head like a nuclear cloud.

“No, Ma, I’m not. You can watch if you like. On the twenty-second, sometime between one and three, at the show. Hulk Hogan is the referee. You like him, right?”

He felt her softening, the smoke settling around her head. She took another puff, then smiled.

“O.K. Sweetie pie – if Hogan’s there I wouldn’t miss it for the world. What a man! And my darlin’ son wrestling too! Just so’s you know, I think you’re crazy, wrestling a bear. What’s this world coming to anyway? Next thing you know, it’ll be alligators.” She tossed the partially smoked cigarette into the yard and ground it into the dirt with the heel of her brocade slipper. “Just remember, you didn’t get the crazies from me. That’s your daddy’s fault.” She gave his arm a squeeze. “Lord, feel those biceps. You did get those big strong muscles from me, don’t forget that!”

Bert gave her a peck on the top of her head and made a quick exit to spare himself any rant about his father. He knew that if she got started, he’d never get her to stop. She’d spin her tires, which had gone bald long ago, with that old speech about what a cold fish his father had been. Bert knew when to exit.

During the next two weeks, Bert increased his gym time and, with construction work starting, he was pumped up. He cut and pinned photos of bears to his bedroom walls and to the ceiling so it would be the last thing he saw as he fell asleep. He taped a photo of a large grizzly standing on its back legs with its mouth opened to the bathroom mirror. A huge solitary creature. Hibernating in winter. Mating in spring. It watched him shave every morning. He stared it down.

On the morning of the meet, Randall, a carpenter on Bert’s crew pulled up in his blue Dodge pickup alongside Bert’s apartment. He was a pimply-faced kid with oily blond hair partway down his back who had volunteered to chaperone the expedition, to be the corner man.

“Look what I got, Bert!” Randall said as Bert climbed into the truck. “I fixed me up a real repair kit.” He leaned over the seat and hoisted a beat-up brown leather bag into the front seat between them. “Got me tape and gauze. A sling and bandages. Some of them butterfly strips to hold you together. And I got some smelling salts too. Found ‘em in my ma’s medicine cabinet. Think they’ll work, though’ they might be older than Granny Jones. If you don’t need this stuff, maybe the bear will!”

Randall bounced around on his seat as he drove, his eyes popping. He lit up a cigarette.

“Hey! Mind waiting on that?” Bert rolled down a window. “I’m gonna need my lungs working on all cylinders today.”

“Sorry man. No problem. You call the shots today. You the man. Yessir. I’m working for you today. I’m right here. Woo! Woo! One squeeze from you and that old hairball’s gonna make for the north woods. You’ll be rich and famous. On all those talk shows. The he-man who beat the bear.” He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirty ashtray.

Bert stared out the window after rolling it part way back up. He opened and closed his hand, which throbbed in the peculiar way it always did when he thought about wrestling. He clenched it and the throbbing traveled up his arm, squeezing at his chest.

The truck jiggled and skidded its way down Baseline Road, jumping sideways as it hit numerous potholes. Road repairs were either a non-priority issue or else the potholes formed at such a speed that the crews could not keep up. Bert wistfully thought of the miles and miles of smooth Texas blacktop he drove across each winter. Spring back home was the worst time for the roads. He expected, one day, a pothole to yawn open and devour him, leaving no trace. Anything seemed possible.

Above the emptiness of the potholes, dozens of billboards shouted messages:

“Stay on the right track, to Nine Mile and Mack” “Invest in Your Future” “Phone 1-800-I Sue Big for big results” “God is Watching You” “Talk Line – Connect with Sexy Women” “Merry Maids to Clean your home”.

The final message was some graffiti scrawled on an overpass as Baseline Road dipped below one of the octopus arms of the Detroit freeway system. The blue pickup slipped under the overpass in slow motion; at least that’s how it seemed to Bert. The words painted on the overpass read walk backwards.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Bert thought, as they approached the LightGuard Armory. “Maybe it’s the name of a local garage band. Walk backwards – what for? From where?”

Randall swung the truck into a space in the crowded lot. They spotted Entrance C and walked towards it. A security guard sat in front of the entryway, armed with a box of donuts and coffee. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“The bear, we’re here to wrestle the bear,” Bert replied.

The guard grinned. “Sure thing, mister. You look like one of those crazy guys. Big enough anyway. Right that way.” He pointed with his thumb down a dingy hall. The hallway mixed the smell of popcorn with ammonia and sawdust. It led behind the grandstand and out into the center of the arena where a stage had been set up. The rest of the Armory was divided down the middle. Fishing gear on the right, and Hunting supplies on the left. A strip of food concessions ringed it all.

Bert and Randall walked up to a man in an ill-fitting grey suit, possibly Jones and Jones, who held a clipboard.

“Bert Jenkins.” He reached out with one of his big paws to shake hands. Jones and Jones pushed the clipboard at him.

“You’re number three on the card. Final bout. Just sign this here waiver so’s the front office knows you’re a volunteer. Like that I didn’t hold no gun to your head and make you do this.” Jones and Jones was a short, scrawny man with a neck like a chicken. "If you like, why don’t ya watch the action from out front? I’ll let ya know when you’re up. Victor should have a good warm-up with the first two wrestlers. Just don’t go flying the coop on me if it gets too wild,” he said, scribbling some note to himself as he talked.

Bert and Randall stood in the back of the crowd, which let out a cheer as Victor, a massive brown bear with a slight hump on his back, lumbered onto the stage. He wore a loose muzzle which allowed him to open his mouth part way and appeared to lack front claws. He walked out on all fours, then stood up. And up. Maybe seven feet up, maybe eight. The crowd went whooped and hollered. Victor seemed unfazed.

Hulk Hogan, dressed in gold spandex, walked over to the mic. His oiled pecs reflected the lights pointing from the exposed rafters above towards the stage. Hogan was almost as broad as the bear.

“All you wrestlin’ fans, turn your eyes this way! In the far corner is the undefeated champion of the world – Victor the Bear! Four-footed and undefeeeeted!” He turned towards a nervous squat man in blue wrestling tights who puffed and blew out his cheeks as he waved his arms over his head. “And in this corner the first challenger of the day – Matt Newman. Down and dirty in Motown! Let the blood battle begin!” He stepped aside as the challenger charged into the ring.

Bert studied the bear as the barrel-chested wrestler attacked it. Victor stood up on two feet and looked offstage wistfully. He looked bored as the first challenger streaked at him and grabbed an arm. The wrestler clung to Victor and tried to kick out one of the bear’s legs for a takedown. Sweat poured down his body as he flailed about. Victor didn’t budge. Finally, tired of the event, the bear swung his arm and whacked the wrestler sending him flying off the stage. And out of action. The crowd hooted and jeered. The work crew tossed pieces of raw chicken to the bear to placate him during the short break between bouts.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Hulkster’s voice boomed over the speakers. “The next challenger, from Paw Paw, Michigan!! Thom Brown is here, ready to rumble. Let’s hear it for Mister Brown. This action is going to be fast and furious. Man vs. beast. No holds barred!!”

Thom Brown jumped into the ring and danced from foot to foot. He shook his shoulders to loosen up as he danced. Victor watched him and shifted his weight ever so slightly, foot to foot, trying to match Brown’s footwork. Bert thought he saw the bear grin. Maybe just a little bit of a smile. Brown was quite tall and must have thought that would give him leverage. He went at Victor lowering a shoulder. Nothing budged. Brown lost his footing on the ground, which was slippery from the raw chicken. As he fell, he grabbed at the bear. The match ended as Victor, obviously trained in the art of wrestling, pinned Brown with one arm – releasing him on the count of three and dancing around the stage to the delight of the crowd. “Victor, Victor!” They chanted as the bear paced back and forth.

Jones and Jones scurried up to the stage and handed the Hulkster a brown paper bag. He kept a wary distance between himself and Victor. Hogan extracted a two-liter bottle of Coke from the bag and handed it to the bear. Victor clasped it between his paws and lifted it to his lips. The muzzle was fitted loose enough to allow him to drink. He chugged the entire bottle with his head thrown back. When he finished, he tossed the bottle and licked his lips with a thick, black tongue. He shuffled, restlessly, from foot to foot and Bert again glimpsed what he thought was a smile.

Once again, the Hulkster approached the mic, pitching the show.

“Give me a roar!” And the crowd responded. Hogan strode back and forth across the stage, posing and flexing his muscles, which stood out on his body like a relief map. The crowd encouraged him and he pumped both arms over his head.

“Now it’s time for our finale - the match of the century,” he bellowed. “Victor the wild bear dragged to the Midwest from Montana is ready to take on friend or foe. And our challenger, from Berkley, Michigan, Wild Bert Jenkins, the King of Alligator Wrestling!”

Bert removed his warm-ups and handed them to Randall. He saw the gold flash of Mikey’s tooth and heard the voices of the Friday night bar crew cheering as he moved toward the stage. He stepped onto the platform as the crowd whooped it up.

If I could get my arms around him, maybe he’ll lean over and I can take him off balance, he thought. As he approached the bear, Victor smiled. This time Bert was sure of it. And Victor’s breath smelled like a dog’s. Just like the drooly old yellow lab he had grown up with. Bert rested his head against Victor’s chest and put his arms around him. “Good boy,” he said softly, patting the bear’s back. The fur felt like swamp grass.

Then he lifted. It was an odd sensation, because only the bear’s skin moved, sliding loosely over muscle. He could hear the bear’s heart and smell his musty breath. An odd sensation overcame him. He felt himself inside the bear’s skin. He felt the bear’s skin slide over his own bones; he felt the heartbeat and the pulse. The weight of the heavy body. The sensation of claws. For a moment Bert was roaming the mountains, foraging, scanning the lay of the land. He felt a cool rain run off the hollow reeds of his pelt. He looked out through beady black eyes and knew he wasn’t alone. The nostrils of his nose opened and closed, sorting the smells. The rain, a raccoon, deer, pine trees, a marsh. He belonged here. His ears twitched and swiveled from side to side. Bert focused. He squeezed and lifted one more time. Nothing moved except the bearskin. A voice in Bert’s head said “walk backwards” and he did. The bear followed him. Bert looked him straight in the eye and got down on all fours, feeling the weight of the fur still draped over him. Victor followed as if hypnotized, dropping to the ground. Bert recalled one of his favorite moves from competition, a pull through, and he ever so slowly reached out towards Victor. Victor eyed him curiously as Bert quickly pulled the bear’s arm under his belly, which lowered one of the massive shoulders. Victor rolled over, finishing the motion for him, and Bert rubbed his belly as the bear lay there on his back, both shoulders down while Hogan hollered: “And a ONE, And a TWO, And a TWO AND A HALF...” a long pause before “And a THREEEEEE.” Hogan’s face was red and Mr. Jones and Jones looked anything but pleased.

Bert turned and looked at the crowd. He spotted a middle-aged woman with green tinted hair. Betty moved towards the stage as Bert sprang off of it and grabbed her. He wrapped his arms around her tightly and gave her a hug. A squeeze that made her catch her breath. Randall thumped him on the back. He hugged Randall. The crowd chanted “Bert beat the bear! Bert beat the bear!” Bert moved through the crowd, hugging them all, man and woman, friends and strangers, lifting them off their feet and pulling them to his chest.