Sage Marsters

Bear Story

We are walking side by side and talking about what a real cowboy is when the car passes us, slowing, two heads inside leaning in our direction, eyeing the sight of us, I think, hiking girls from the East with all the gear, two girls together, two girls alone. Anyone we’ve met out here—the waitress, the hotel clerk, a honeymooning couple, a curious ranger—has had something to say about it right away.
      The car pulls to the side of the road a ways up ahead, tires grating over the gravel; somehow you can hear the silence of this place in noises like that. Abby and I keep walking, thumbs hooked in our shoulder straps, feet slapping the road, blinking and squinting up at the snowcapped peaks and the sky, that high, flashing blue, like razor blades. And Abby keeps prattling, explaining how a cowboy is a skinny kid with a darting Adam’s apple and soft cheeks and pinkish, wet looking acne rising across his forehead from wearing a sweaty hat all the time.
      The car is older, black, a fierce pointed look to it, like a stinging insect. It reminds me of other cars: cars from high school owned by angular boys; the car with a broken windshield, bits of glass like pale teeth scattered across the dusty seat, that sat for years abandoned in the field behind my grandparents’ house. Abby says her real cowboy’s got a dead mother. It was stomach cancer, she tells me, that’s why the cowboy can’t stand flowers or medicine. And he has an abusive father and a couple of curly-haired twin sisters he’s always looked out for, and a piece of land. Her voice is loud; she sounds brave and pleased.
      The passenger door swings open and a woman wearing a dress steps out. She shuts the door behind her and waits for us, standing next to the car with her head propped to the side and her hands on her hips. I remember from an intro psychology class, a leaning head means interest. It’s an innocent-looking dress, like a prairie woman who sweeps the floor all day, and I’m thinking maybe she’ll ask us what we’re up to, how far from home we are, and then we’ll be walking again, and I’ll ask Abby what’s this cowboy’s name and how long has the mother been dead, and feel my legs moving, hitting a rhythm, as she tells me.
      “A ride,” Abby says. “It’s a ride, Kate.” She hops in place.
      “We’re hitchhiking?” I ask.
      “Why not?” Abby says. “My feet hurt.” And something shivers up my calves, excitement and fear and pleasure, because Abby is the kind of girl I have always wanted to be friends with, my whole life, and here we are, and I will do whatever she wants. At times, I’ve imagined her being cruel to me on a playground, if we had known each other as children, and I feel like I’ve tricked her into something and I have to go on tricking her, making her believe somehow that I am pretty and lucky like her. This morning, sitting at a picnic table, our hair wet from quick, cold showers, she looked at me and said, “You don’t look like you. You look like you have a brother named Sven.”
      “Early, isn’t it?” the woman shouts, even though she’s walked a little ways from the car to meet us and now we stand close to her, close enough to see that she’s no prairie woman, not the kind with a clean-swept cabin. Her face is broad and blunt, colorless, the skin pitted, her hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail. The dress she’s wearing is faded green corduroy, and it fits her strangely, her stomach rising in a tight, lopsided lump against the cloth, the hem crooked at her knees. There are gray hairs stuck in clumps here and there across the dress, cat fur maybe.
      “Early for what?” Abby says. She crinkles up her nose in a curious bunny rabbit way she can do, and she shows her front teeth just a little; it’s the look she’s greeted people with all across the country, on the train on the way out, men in starched Wrangler jeans, and old couples with their own homemade chicken sandwiches in coolers waiting at their feet, and the obese man behind the desk at the motel we found on the first night. It gets people talking, it gets people thinking they know her, maybe, or she’s someone they’ve known, or wanted to know, or missed. It’s got something to do with those front teeth, I think, their slight overlap, and the mole on her neck, and her brown hair in a braid, sleek like a field hockey player, like a well-cared-for horse. I move just off to the side, the way I do, waiting, watching, chewing at the insides of my cheeks until I get a few shreds of skin I can twirl with my tongue.
      “We’re hiking the park,” Abby says.
      “Two girls hiking Glacier National Park alone?” the woman asks. She starts laughing loudly with her mouth hanging slippery and loose. “Didn’t you ever watch America’s Most Wanted?” She picks a clump of fur off her chest, flicks it into the dirt. “Did you ever notice, at the end, whenever they find those guys, those rapers and killers and lunatics, they always find them in Montana?”
      I glance around, catching at once the pines, dense, endless, and the snow-streaked mountains, and the woman’s pale forehead, and the sun glinting off the roof of the car, and the empty ribbon of road almost glittering in this kind of white light I can’t get used to; it’s a kind of clear you can’t look away from but that also makes it harder to see.
A man with thick, blue-black hair leans his head out the window. “Offer them a ride,” he says. Until now, I’d thought it was a woman, the long hair, and I’d thought, two women, you can get in a car with two women. He’s wearing giant, mirrored sunglasses, gold rims, from another decade, like the car.
      “What exactly is it you think I’m doing?” the woman shouts, turning to the car, her voice going guttural.
      Abby looks at me, chin tucked over her shoulder, and I shrug and take a small step back, and Abby sticks her tongue out at me.
      The woman looks down at her feet, chuckling, a wet sound. She’s wearing black hightop Reeboks without socks and something about the dress and her bare legs popping out and the big shoes makes her look like a puppet. She points her sneakered toe and makes a careful half-circle in the dirt, and then she looks up at us, an inquiring smile slanting across her face.
      “Girls, girls, girls,” she says. “You do know about the grizzlies? Some awful things I could tell you. You know if you have your period those bears’ll sniff you right out? Bears crave blood, you know. Intoxication. Addicts for it. You know there was a girl out here last year died that way? Poor thing died screaming, ‘My muff! My muff!’” Her voice goes high and hysterical. She raises her arms and flaps her hands at the sides of her face. “My muff,” she says again.
      Abby giggles, her hand cupped to her mouth, and I laugh with her, and the woman laughs; the three of us are laughing in the cold sun on the side of the road while the man sits in the car with his sunglasses on, until the woman takes a breath and says, “Sure. Sure. But bears are no joke. No joke. Four, five-inch claws. Rip your chest clean open.”
      “Everybody keeps telling us about the bears,” Abby says. Before we left, Abby’s Uncle Ray sent her an envelope with nothing in it but a yellow Post-it that said “Grrr,” and pictures cut out of National Geographic: grizzlies on their hind legs sniffing the wind, muzzles bristling; flipping silvery trout out of a river; on boulders pawing at pink flesh. And men on the train enjoyed giving us advice over Heinekens in the bar car, leaning in close, flashing saliva and fillings. Make noise while you walk—talk, blow a whistle, shake a Coke can full of pebbles. Avoid mama bears. Bears have a method of flaying the victim and storing the body under a rock or an old log for a snack later. Wear cayenne pepper spray in a holster on your hip, bear spray, but never spray into the wind. And a gun will do you no good against the already slow-beating heart of a bear. Even if you get a good shot the bastard’ll still have time to maul you, then wander off to die. As a last resort, drop into the fetal position. And never go to sleep wearing fruity perfume or lip-gloss or with chocolate on your face.
      Yesterday we hiked three miles into bear territory, the path dim and quiet with pine, shouting back and forth the entire time, singing when we ran out of talking, and at night we put all our food in the steel box they have at every site, and we cleaned our faces with just cold water in the restroom, rubbing our fingers hard across our lips, and we changed out of the clothes that smelled of smoke from the beans we had cooked, and put those in the steel box too, and then we both lay in the tent listening for rustling, for the snap of branches, for sniffing, for the growl that is supposed to sound like a hog snorting.
      The woman gazes off down the road, her mouth slack, thick, white spittle hanging at the corners of her lips. Then, quietly, calmly, she says, “I know it. Nobody shuts up about the bears. But save your feet, you know?” She jerks her head at the car. “Lester and I can give you a ride. Get in the car and take a ride.”
      “We can take a ride down the road,” Abby says, her voice a bright chirping, only agreement, and without looking at me she swings her pack off her back and then she is climbing into the car, folding herself in, and I follow her, groping forward, awkward, suddenly hot in my chest and in my cheeks, entering that small, dark space. With the click of the door I think of the half-circle the woman’s toe drew in the dirt like something I’m supposed to remember, a signal, a marker, and I sniff and Abby smiles at me and gives my shoulder a shove.
      The man peels out onto the road, empty except for us. All the guidebooks say early June is when no one is here. This is when it is cold and pristine and there are no crowds and you can see the place how it’s meant to be seen. The car has a pressing, stale smell to it, like old, burnt things, shoes and mattress springs and tires. We sit with our packs wedged between our legs. My neck starts to ache. There’s junk everywhere: a quilt, a place mat, a gun, a fork with the prongs crusted in pale brown food, a bundle of T-shirts, an umbrella, a flip-flop, a hot pink plastic daisy. Like clues. Like one of those brain games in high school, make an invention from the following items. You are stuck on an island with only the following objects. I nudge Abby, make a motion at these things, but she only smiles at them. I study the gun. It’s the first time I’ve seen an actual gun, I realize. It’s the hunting kind, a triangle of wood to prop to the shoulder, an old black trigger, the pioneer kind, not the kind people get killed with, the small, cold, black or silver ones that get put in people’s mouths. I press my thigh to Abby’s.
      “We’ve been on the road for a while,” the woman says. “When you’re on the road you carry everything you own with you. And add to that everything you pick up along the way. Right, Lester? We’re collectors. We collect things.”
      The man nods his head thoughtfully, chin up and down in the light through the windshield, neck long, sinewy. White V-neck shirt, jeans. Thin hips. I try to piece together their lives. Cans of food, a cheap hotel room now and again. The T-shirts are his, she washes them when she can, rubbing at them, her hands in a river, knuckles red under the water, once in a while they hit a Laundromat, the quilt, everything they own in for a wash, a cigarette outside, waiting, maybe a restaurant, lemon meringue pie for a treat, he drives, mostly they skirt the towns, hunt and fish.
      “Where are you guys from?” Abby says, like we’re meeting over drinks somewhere. That smile again, an eager milk drinker.
      The woman turns in her seat to look at us, her face bobbing between the two headrests. She stares for a minute, wide-set gray eyes, and it occurs to me that she isn’t looking at us, she’s looking at the road behind us, looking at no one following us. I think of movies, memorized license plate numbers, signs held to windows, Help Us, fingers scuttling for door handles, bodies tumbling to the road. Slowly, the woman says, “From here. From there. Neither of us is from the same place. I had a trailer once in Ohio. And kids, had those once too.” She laughs her damp laugh. “Remember Ohio, Lester? Lester found me in Ohio.”
      “We’re from New Hampshire,” Abby says. “Abby and Kate. It’s so beautiful out here.” She makes a motion, sweeping her arm around the back seat.
      “Hi,” I say, and I move my hand like I’m waving at a baby.
      “Call me Sandy,” the woman says. “As in Sandra or Alexandra or Cassandra. Or Andrew for that matter. Take your pick of the litter. Which one can’t be confirmed without ID. Me and Lester here both lost our IDs back in Canada, which is not far away. Whole other country, but not far away.”
      “Canada is empty,” Lester announces, his head shooting forward as though he is addressing the windshield. Then he moves a hand off the steering wheel, and lifting his hips, he draws a joint from his pocket, fits it to his lips, and hits the cigarette lighter all in one fluid motion. His fingers are long and clean, soft looking, like they’ve been soaking in something.
      “Abby,” I mutter. She gives my shoulder three pats.
      “That’s two things to know about Lester,” Sandy says. “One is he’s quiet. Preserves his words. Understands that there are modes of communication other than talking. Two is he likes to smoke. Frees his inhibitions. I’m sure you girls have seen the stuff before. Everybody knows what college girls are up to nowadays. Drugs and sex on campus.”
      “That’s totally cool,” Abby says.
      “Right, totally cool,” Sandy says, slow and smooth and mocking. “Totally.”
      Lester lifts his graceful chin as he inhales. He gives that hair of his a shake. Lustrous, I’d actually call it, good enough for a shampoo commercial. I think he might be an Indian and I feel guilty about it. The air turns thick-sweet with smoke.
      “We believe in a lot of things not everybody believes in,” Sandy says.       “Destiny routes, the powers beyond, star guidance.”
      Abby keeps nodding slowly. “I’m into that stuff,” she says.
      Sandy bobs her head, her lips pursed. “Of course you are.”
      She turns away and opens the glove compartment, roots through some papers and plastic bags and then takes out a square-shaped piece of purple metal, the size of a drugstore novel. “See this?” she says, holding it up for us. “I got it from a magazine. A healing plate. Doubt whatever you want, but it works. Pulls the healing energy of the universe into you.”
      “Wow,” Abby says. “It’s kind of pretty.”
      Sandy turns the plate in her hands and it glints in the light, sparkly. It reminds me of roller skates with fancy wheels, banana seats on bikes.
      “Right now I have a toothache. Nothing like a toothache to put you on the edge,” Sandy announces like an infomercial. “But this’ll suck the pain right out.”
      She nestles down into her seat with the purple plate pressed to her cheek. I look over at Abby, but she just sits back, roams her eyes lazily over the car like she’s looking around for some other fun tidbit to discuss with Sandy: tarot cards, cooking on the road. Sunlight filters in through the smoke, thick and drifting, golden and filled with slow dust motes. I watch the park slide away, the trees, and the alpine flowers that bloom in snow, the towering rocks, wet with runoff, the curves where the land drops suddenly away from the road, the places I meant to spend hours seeing, gone instantly. We drive past a glacial lake with one speck of an island rising in the middle, on the island one pine. I recognize it, I’ve seen it in a picture before, it’s a famous island. The guidebooks are always talking about the glacial lakes, their depth and cold, the ancient movements that formed them, the turquoise color, something about sediment sifting down, the perfect reflection of the land in the still water.
      “Look,” I say to Abby. I hold my finger to the window.
      “Nice,” Abby says.
      “See something you like?” Sandy says. “Pretty as a picture.”
      Sandy puts her hand on Lester’s thigh, rubs up and down. The sound of her skin against his jeans is menacing, a scurrying sound, like a small animal in the bushes. It makes my stomach turn and I burp up a bit of breakfast, Snickers bars and Tang and instant oatmeal, joking about eating bear bait, swishing afterward with a mini-bottle of Scope, spitting onto the charred logs from our fire. I press my face to the window, hard to the cold glass, press to feel the ridge of my cheekbone, press and look to see more, to see the distance here, to see everything.
      After a while there is an open stretch of meadow and Lester flicks his wrist and the car leaves the road and we are hurtling across the grass toward more forest, more mountains, and I think we are going to be dead girls with our mouths hanging open in the grass, and then I wish I knew Abby was imagining this too, could see herself with her throat slit. It is embarrassing to be girls killed hitchhiking. I see a perky anchorwoman standing out here later, new hiking gear on, her foot propped up on log, telling the story of us, interviewing the clerk at the hotel we stayed at that first night, he’ll move his pudgy hands across his desk as he remembers us, vaguely, vacantly, and I think about my father, how he has always liked girls having adventures, how I knew he was impressed by Abby, by her being my friend, with her long legs and the color in her cheeks that makes her seem on the verge of something, always. My father took us out for pastrami sandwiches the day we left; the three of us sat at a big wooden table, chewing and smiling at each other.
      “This isn’t going anywhere,” Abby says.
      “Coyotes,” the woman says. “Lester here is going after a coyote now. Lester likes to skin things.”
      Lester speeds up, leaning forward. The grass thwaps against the wheels.       When the road is out of sight he slows and drives the car in three wide circles, and then comes to a stop.
      “Okey-dokey,” Sandy says. “We drop you here.” She opens her door, steps out, and pushes her seat down for us. We stumble into the grass, back into the day, dragging our packs with us.
      “Anything to show your appreciation?” she says. “A thank you for the ride? Let’s have a look inside your packs here. Come bearing gifts?”
      “What gifts?” Abby says.
      While Lester waits in the car Sandy opens our packs and riffles through our clothes, unfolding them and holding them up against herself, smoothing them to her body. She comments that we’re all three about the same size, even though we aren’t. Abby and I stand in the brilliant light, smelling exhaust. She will take our things, she will tease us, I think, and then Lester will climb out of the car and reach his long arm into the back seat and grab the gun.
      “What are you doing?” Abby says.
      “Shopping,” Sandy says. “Shop till you drop.”
      “You’re taking it?” Abby says. She sounds annoyed. She is talking to Sandy the way she sometimes talks to me and I wonder if she still can’t understand that something terrible is happening to her.
      “Maybe she won’t take all of it,” I mumble, and Abby snorts, a thread of snot flecking out of one of her nostrils.
      Sandy makes a pile of our best things, our sweaters and fleece jackets and turtlenecks and hats, our clean T-shirts, six pairs of wool socks, Abby’s purple, lightweight shorts. I’ve had the sweater she takes for years, a gray pullover, the elbows and the neck sag, I like to sleep in it. She holds up a pair of my long underwear and gives them a shake. They dance in the air and look absurdly small. She tosses aside the guidebook.
      When she finds Abby’s make-up bag she makes a sound like purring and sits down in the grass with the bag in her lap, unzipping it and pawing through it, her pale fingers and wrists flashing in the sun as she grabs at soap and a tube of toothpaste and nail clippers and floss and deodorant. She goes over her mouth with Abby’s ChapStick, smiling, leaving her lips thickened and pasty, a girl playing dress-up. She takes out a bottle of Neutrogena sunscreen, inspects the label, frowning, and then squirts a white squiggle into her palm and wipes it along her cheekbones and down her nose and across her forehead, holding her face up to the sky, rubbing with her fingertips, leaving a shine over her skin.
      She takes the food, peanut butter, beef jerky, cans of beans and boxes of macaroni and cheese and graham crackers and Snickers bars and cans of beer from the dusty shelves in the store in St. Mary’s. After inspection she decides to take our sleeping bags and the collapsible pans, and a pair of tin cups, speckled blue and white—all my father’s things, he went up into the crawl space above the kitchen to find them for me and Abby—and I remember it all from years ago, camping with him in the Smoky Mountains, the hush of rain against the green walls of the tent, my father in a flannel shirt cooking eggs, the snail shells we found scattered across the trails as we hiked. Sandy takes our wallets of course, but out of obligation, or maybe out of habit, it seems, more than interest. They are stored in side-pockets, and she doesn’t miss a pocket, unzipping and untying. My pack is old, red canvas, new leather strings strung through the eyelets. I remember packing it all, squatting on the floor, rolling the sleeping bags tight, counting out underwear.
      She makes a few trips between us and the car before she’s got all the stuff she wants, moving leisurely through the long grass, bending and picking up a few things at a time, carrying them held to her chest, tossing them onto the back seat. When she’s done she gets in the car and swings the door shut. She says something to Lester and they laugh, a tired, intimate laugh, the laugh of shared labor, and then Sandy rolls the window down and leans her head out. “Well,” she says, “thank you and pleased to meet you and God bless America.”
      Lester revs the engine and Sandy settles back in her seat, and then they begin to circle us, Lester’s two huge, clean hands on the wheel like limp fish. Abby and I stand close together. The car will turn and run us down, maybe, I will hear the thump of our bodies, chests, thighs, against the hood of the car, a dull sound, and our hair and blood will fill our mouths. I hold my hands clasped in front of me, politely waiting. Mostly, I’m tired, my legs hurt behind my knees and I want to sit down. But there are rules I’m following: to stand, to be still, to be quiet. What I can do is follow the rules. No running, no back talking. Lester circles us, each circle just a little faster, and closer, I think, closer each time. My saliva tastes unfamiliar, like fingernails and glass, and the wheels plow the grass down around us in a ring. He makes his circles and I watch in pieces, sun, hair, wheel, metal, until light and sound shift, and as though distracted the car lurches, but not at us, away, and Abby makes a weird, short squeal, and the car is spinning away from us, and they are leaving, and we are watching the small, black car careen away across the meadow.
      The car becomes a hum, the meadow returns to its own clicks and whirs. It is hard to breathe. I don’t want to look at Abby yet. I imagine Sandy moving on with our things. Maybe a ways down the road they’ll pull into a campground and Lester will wait outside the restroom with the car running while Sandy washes herself with Abby’s soap and then brushes her hair with my hairbrush in the dim mirror. I see her, chin pressed to chest, holding up the hem of her dress, lathering up her crotch. I see her bare feet, her bluish toes on the cement floor. I think of her smelling like Abby, her wind-rough skin softening over time with face cream.
      Abby sits down in the grass, her legs splayed out in front of her. “God,” she says. Her breath comes short and terse. “God,” she says again.
      “See?” I say. My chest feels tight and hard and small.
      “See what?” Abby says.
      I go around picking up our leftover things, grabbing like I’m picking up somebody’s room, stuffing useless odds and ends back into our packs. Abby lies back, stretches out, her arms flung above her head. The wind pushes the grass in silvery waves, and I remember a show I watched, a PBS thing about the wagon trains, how the pioneers would get seasick, watching the grass move all day, lurching through it. In the distance a wall of rock rises against the sky, and you can see movement in it, dark lines like scars, where, I imagine, something, ice, earth, ancient trees, once heaved against it, wrenching and pulling. I think again how big it is out here, how wide, and my eyes don’t know where or how to look.