Sleeping Bear: An Autobiographical Fable

Fred Arroyo

At the river’s mouth, where it poured brown with glints of iron into Lake Superior, the father stumbled on a lump of black coarse fur. It didn’t look soft enough for a dog, the shape of the upper shoulder too large for cat or raccoon, its arm streaked with a line of gold fur. Down on his knees the father cleared away the cold wet sand with a piece of driftwood, and in the bluing evening light he found the cub’s head, his eyes closed, his nostrils filled with sand, his paws frozen in the scoop of swimming through the wailing storm of the night before, or running along the shore as he bawled for his mother. The father stood, looked towards Grand Island, and felt the power of the freshwater sea as the waves thundered into the beach, something shifting below his ribs — a tearing, a growing, a feeling for his blood coursing within. He turned west, his pace quickening, and then started to run in the twilight. He called his son’s name and waved, glimpsed his turning back as Manuel pulled a white string, his red boxed kite rising higher and higher towards the blanket of stars beginning to thicken in the sky.

Death, he thinks, when it’s your own, does not — must not — reside on a calendar. He won’t die this year, or the next (he feels the welling of a will to stay close to the earth a bit longer). And the memory of the bear, some ten years ago when his son was only eight and they had spent the summer living in a small cottage in the upper peninsula, where did that memory come from? Why had that evening never died, and why return to him now on the corner of 5thStreet and Hearst Avenue on this August day?

He blows on his steaming black coffee. Daylight has bloomed over the streets. There are several groups of men standing on the corner. Some talk. Some stand silent, white puffs of vapor escaping from their mouths, their hands tucked in their pants’ pockets, or thrust into the pouch of a hooded sweatshirt or their jean or flannel jackets. They wear baseball caps, or knit winter hats. Their clothes are streaked with paint, spackle and drywall, and the others who don’t necessarily seem ready for work give away their want with their mud-caked boots.

His son thrums his fingers along the top edge of the driver’s door, then on the steering wheel, and the father feels again how much he is not in control of “raising” his son. Eighteen, they’ve been around each other for a great part of these years, and though the father never listened to pop or rap, it seems his son has an encyclopedic knowledge of who is who, what is good, the music he wants to listen to. His hands are never far from a graphic novel, comic, or video game. The father had rented a U-Haul trailer, stuffed it with his favorite books, his scarred desk, and a few brightly chosen objects — a lamp, a rug, a chair, a microwave, a dorm fridge, some sheets, two pillows — his son picked out at Target. On their way to his move-in day, they had taken the high northern route through Wyoming and its open rolling prairies, swung through Yellowstone, and spent two glorious days camped along a cold creek on the edge of Truckee. The high Sierra blue sky clear and warm and clean as they laid back on inner tubes floating down the creek, the pines swaying in the breeze. They floated farther than planned, maybe two or three miles from camp, and finally stopped when they heard the change up ahead in the rapids. His son carried him up the rocky bank and found a soft patch of grass in a circle of warm sun. He headed back to camp, and the father felt the sunburn rising on his neck and face, his shoulders shivering. His legs began to shake uncontrollably, and suddenly he turned away as far as he could and vomited. Coffee, some peanuts, part of a doughnut. He laid back, pine needles gathering in his hair, behind his ears.

When he heard the tick of stones, then the truck’s engine, he uncrossed his arms from his chest, his hands — they were no longer his own, stiff from clutching his shoulders — fell to the grass. His son wrapped him in a tartan wool blanket and carried him to the truck.

At their campsite the evening was tender with the wind in the pine boughs, the cracking fire, and the silence they seemed to accept with gratitude. The father did his best to show control: he set up the camp stove on the edge of the picnic table, so he could cut up some onions and peppers and cilantro, smash some garlic, and make a simple meal of chorizo, scrambled eggs, and tortillas. He offered his son his first glass of bourbon (three fingers worth). His meds left a bitter taste in his throat, and he held the whiskey in the back of his mouth until it burned and his eyes began to water.

The next morning on the interstate, as they approached Vallejo, the father remembered how there were always men standing on 5th and Hearst from dawn to noon, and if they picked up a day laborer or two, offered them seventy-five dollars for half a day’s work, he and his son could have more time together.

Two men step to the passenger side of the truck, look inside, and their eyes move down to his thin sunburnt legs. He mostly wears jeans, dark blue ones, with a pair of boots, a kind of uniform that provides the appearance that he isn’t too bad off. The jeans, the boots — sturdy, stable — might be a glimpse into a man who got up every day and worked. To be bad off in America is not the best, of course, and yet after Truckee it feels good to wear a pair of khaki walking shorts, sit with the sunlight on his legs. The men smile as he offers them coffees and a pack of cigarettes.

His son looks out onto the street, his fingers drumming softly on the steering wheel. He stops and listens to the men and his father. They talk like old friends. The men slide into the back of the SUV, and the son drives towards campus following the GPS directions and his father’s hands as he motions to turn.

Outside the dorm, they park behind the long line of parents helping to move in their children. The men open his wheelchair on the sidewalk. Hector, the larger man, lifts the father like a bag of oranges, gently sitting him in the chair. Aqui, papi, aqui, he says in a whisper. They begin unloading the trailer, a box on a shoulder, a framed poster or a lamp in a hand, and head up the sidewalk following his son. He sees the last box he had packed on top of the fridge. The box contains a few items from his study, things he’s had since his son was born, objects he hoped might fill his son with the familiarity of his voice, his body, the long hours of work he had put in as the boy played underneath his desk with cars or Legos, watching DVDs, reading comics. On the very top is a piece of driftwood from that summer in Michigan. It’s a little bigger than his hand, shaped like a stingray or an airplane, a WW II mustang, ready to take flight along the bottom of the freshwater sea or up into the broken clouds. The wood’s smooth as velvet after years of drifting and tumbling in the waves and sand. He always had a spot for it on the edge of his desk, a talisman to keep him company.

There’s an aloneness that can take up the mind, become lodged in the deep pocket of one’s stomach, can crowd out memories and hunger, and you’ll come to find within your body a series of rooms where you sit alone in the corner, and each time you recognize your face it is replaced by a swiftly opening door, you enter another room, and the corner and face and door and emptiness begin again and again and again. You are on the edge of existence. There’s no stopping the nothingness you encounter. It’s what it feels like to fall from the sky. Or, he thinks, more like an infinite sea of waves striking him down, and he cannot gather the strength to stand. Sweat drips under his arm as he lifts the driftwood up and through an arc of hot blue Berkley sky. He sets it back in the box. He lets go as another wave surges, pushes him down into the sand, grinds his face and stomach against the bottom, feels his skin begin to burn, and then he pulls up and releases himself through a wave into the air, feels the next wave approaching.

Don’t remember the box of books or the framed Hemingway photo I carried on my lap, wheeling in and out of your room, or the extra tip we gave those quiet, careful men who moved the heavy things. That was money well spent. Thank you for shaking Hector’s hand before he walked away. Once you begin to fill your bookshelf, Manuel, you may come across a volume of Spanish poems and wonder about the streak of blood I left after checking my sugars one morning. We will always be joined by the pulse of words, that light smudge above “green / love / / silver of sea in the galloping night.” Never remember my depleted kidneys, or when you saw me last that I was weak, and never really better than bad off. Just a man who had too much sun, got cold floating in a creek, and vomited. If only you remember me as papa, your father, who once walked with you along a beach in the twilight, these last ten years will continue like the waves on Shelter Bay. Your kite roaring above us, and when I called your name, it sounded like bear     bear     bear.

          8/28/13 (Shelter Bay, MI, to Berkley, CA)

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