The bear was huge. Reared up on its hind legs, it loomed over her, beyond feet and inches, a dreamlike presence which did not yield to common measure: dark, still, more like the shadow of something larger than she might ever have imagined than a real bear.
Pauline held onto a wooden post a car’s length away, refusing to come closer.
“It won’t hurt you,” her father said. He stood beside the bear, smiling, motioning her to come toward him, scooping his arm toward her and back. A black square camera hung on a strap around his neck. The camera was hers, a Christmas present. The Kodak, they called it. It was that long ago.
Pauline would have been eleven that year, twelve in August. Her chest was flat, her body smooth and hairless. She had that childlike swayback stance that punched her stomach forward and made her butt stick out, those sinnia-stem legs, knees knobby as chicken joints, her shinbones long with long feet tacked on at right angles like boxes, giving her a storky look. Already she was too tall.
The bear, stuffed of course, stood on a dusty Arkansas street in front of a souvenir shop, inviting the curious to come closer. On wooden sidewalks, barefoot Indians in feathered hats stat cross-legged, their wares spread out on blankets before their feet: turquoise rings and keychains, beaded belts, play tomahawks. The village was not real but manufactured for tourists, fake old, fake Indian, fake everything.
Her father crooked his finger and wiggled it. How could she stand it? Such a joke excuse for a father, like a miniature replica of a real man, a perfectly formed, walking, talking figurine. The top of his head came barely up to the bear’s shoulder. Even then, when fathers loomed larger than bears, Pauline knew how ridiculously small he was.
Meantime she was growing, growing, all legs and arms and long pliant feet. That year her father was taller by maybe an inch or so. In two years she would pass him. When she was fifteen she bested him by inches. By then it was over. They were locked together in battle for good, size had been declared such an issue between them.
She shook her head and held on harder to the post.
Pauline looked like a Messican, Jack said, a tall Messican, with that dark skin, that nose and mouth. Everybody else in the family was white and short. Where did Pauline get her looks, he askedasked her, as if she had anything to do with itthe woodpile?
He went over and smacked the bear on the shoulder. Dust flew. He had on his usual costume, jeans and skin-tight, pearl-snapped Western shirt, high-heeled cowboy boots and a 10X beaver cowboy hat with a high crown. People on the trip called him Tex instead of his real name, Jack Miller. They did live in Texas and so the name was geographically appropriate but about his size no one was fooled.
“See?” he said. “Stuffed.”
He didn’t have to tell her. She was eleven going on twelve: Didn’t she know the bear was stuffed?
The bear’s lips were drawn back, his teeth locked in a permanent snarl, his nose pinched so that it looked like a pig’s snout with two deep wrinkles. All this was calculated to make the bear look ferocious, which it did. Then you were supposed to ignore that. You were supposed to go stand close, as if the face was somewhere else. Impossible. And all the rest was nothing compared to his eyes: glassy, vacant, yellowish gold with shiny flecks. Something was back there, an empty otherness. Pauline couldn’t stand, a promise of, who knew? Wherever she went, the bear watched her. He knew where she was and what she was thinking. She could not stand the thought of being close to him.
In her adult dreams things come after her. Things? A man, stalking her from out of the darkness. It is always nighttime in the dream, usually misting rain. She is in the city with friends. They have attended some meetingconvention, lecture, class, what the occasion is is not clear but the event is always benign, the spirit of the group quite friendlyand now they are all going home. Pauline, who lives in a different direction from the others, has decided to walk. Her friends try to dissuade her. The street is not safe, they say, dangers are everywhere, they are taking a cab and so should she. But she, having always been a daredevil kind of girl, a girl who believes herself up to whatever risks and dangers come her way, refuses. What could happen? Hasn’t she always taken care of herself? Isn’t she a lucky sort of person? And so in the dream she leaves her friends and begins to walk. And then on the way the horrible man (dark and dirty, sometimes driving a leaking, rusted-out car, old, with busted springs, a dripping transmission, a crumpled fender) comes after her, pursuing her from behind, close enough to feel. Too late, she turns. He is on her, smiling, slimy in triumph. She has nowhere to go. She feels not only terrified, but at fault and stupid as well. Doesn’t she deserve what she gets? Didn’t she ask for trouble, imagining herself endlessly self-sufficient and immune to harm? Why didn’t she listen to her friends? The dream stops there, at the moment of greatest fear when she realizes the man has her and there is nothing to do. She wakes up whimpering, heart and gut turned to water. Then cannot shake the dream but goes through the next day still feeling the man’s eyes on her, thinking What terrible thing just happened?Sometimes she can’t tell if the feeling evoked by the dream is closer to fear or the erotic. Or if both are involved, one intensifying the other until her very core of self is shaken. The dream never leaves entirely but only lies in wait. After a while she dreams it again some other night. And does not reflect on what it meansshe is an actress, after allbut only dreads its recurrence.
The bear’s arms were extended in a wide embrace, talons clasped. Peopletourists visiting the mock-Indian village, shopping for Indian souvenirstook turns stepping inside the bear’s arms to have their pictures taken, them and the bear, together forever. And so the bear is eternal, like Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore, a concrete backdrop for the untrusting traveler’s need for proof of what has been seen, done, experienced.
Pauline asked the owner of the nearby souvenir store if the bear stayed outside when it rained. The store owner laughed. “I don’t guess he had a house to go to when he was living. And he sure as heck don’t have one now.” Jack laughed with the man. They both looked at her as if she were a funny toy. She did not hate him yet but it was building.
A small boy on the wooden sidewalk shifted his feet and loudly ahemmed. The boy was waiting for Pauline to get inside the bear’s arms and have her picture taken so that he could take his turn.
Pauline shook her head no. She put her finger in her mouth, like a baby. Her father smiled. He was still in an agreeable mood, so far. Things could change fast.
“Hey,” he said. “Watch me.” He bent his head and went under.
Inside the bear’s embrace, he rested his chin on the bear’s paws and danced a jig. The camera bumped his chest. Pauline sucked her finger. He didn’t have to show her. She knew the difference between a live bear and a stuffed one. He didn’t have to make a fool of himself again. She hated this so much, everybody watching while she and her family did their dance, like performing monkeys in red suits turning flip-flops for change.
Mavis, who had been negotiating with an Indian for a string of beads, came up behind Pauline.
“Go ahead, honey,” she whispered in Pauline’s ear. Pauline pulled away. “It won’t hurt you.”
Her mother exuded her usual smells, sweet perfume and sticky lipstick, too many cigarettes and the other, her most persistent, the flowery aroma of bourbon. At the hotel, the three of them slept in two double beds in the same room. Before they left to come to the Indian village, Pauline had walked in on Mavis in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, tossing down a water glass half-filled with bourbon. As she set the glass down on the sink, Mavis made a face and groaned, then flushed the commode so that Jack wouldn’t know.
“Just go on and do it,” her mother said. “It’ll be over with before you know it.”
She gave Pauline a shove. Pauline’s finger flew from her mouth. She jerked her arm away. She thought she might be able to, but if she was going to, it had to be on her own. They would have to shut up or she would never. She took a step toward the bear.
Certain of her psychologically minded New York friends tell her the bear is a seminal, archetypal image, a metaphor for that which is most frightening to her and at the same time most seductive. No matter that intellectually she knows the animal is sawdust inside. No matter anything. Fear exists on the other side of knowing. Ghosts take their stand beyond words and facts. The erotic in particular is never accommodating, never comfortable, will not yield to predictability. The bear stands: an underground current, indecipherable, cosmic.
Other friends say the bear is a phallic image representing the erect penis. The powerful, primal push/pull. Meaning father of course, always and boringly forever.
Pauline knows all this and more; New York has taught her a great deal. But cleverness is not all. Nor does information necessarily invoke change. She is also efficient: smart enough to acknowledge the information she can make use of, canny enough to ignore the rest. In acting, emotions are useful. Memory serves. Sliding past her friends’ slippery interpretations, she focuses on the pragmatic. Some possibilities are too dangerous to consider.
One step more. She looked up. The eyes. They never blinked. She could not make herself do it.
She took a step backward.
“I’ll go,” Mavis volunteered. Mavis started to push past Pauline.
“No, you won’t,” Jack said.
Mavis stopped in her tracks.
Jack came out from under the bear’s arms.
“See?” he said, holding his own arms out wide. He was as small and as perfectly proportioned as a muscle-man doll. “Not a scratch.”
Pauline tried to take another step. “I can’t,” she said.
“I don’t know.” She was starting to whine. “Because.”
Jack screwed up his face and mocked her. “Because why not, Pauline?” He swung his hips, imitating girlishness.
Pauline lifted her head, straightened her long braids, leveled her voice. “Because I don’t know. I just can’t.”
In Baytown where she lived, she was known to be a daredevil, a girl who, afraid of nothing, gloried in danger and sought out adventure. A member of the town’s junior swimming team, she swam distances, won ribbons, and for fun, after swimming practice did flips off the high dive, entering the water perfectly every time, practically no splash at all. Plunging carnival rides thrilled her; she liked the feeling when her stomach went to her feet. Enjoyed being suspended. Like the air: leapt from rope swings tied so far up in oak trees even boys hesitated to go.
The trick to rope-swinging was to let go at the peak of the swing. Scared people waited, held on too long, waited for the descent to begin, then hit flatfooted and hurt themselves. Pauline trusted her luck, releasing the rope when she was highest, throwing herself into the air. For a moment, it felt like flying.
In water she was even more proficient. She swam in the bayou, which people said would give you hepatitis. Nothing happened. She could hold her breath underwater longer than anyone, swim to the other side of the bayou and back, water-ski when she was seven, ski on one leg at eight, on bare feet at nine.
All this was different from the bear. Except for the eyes, the bear was soft, untrustworthy, both fake and real. There was no way to measure its danger.
Her father came toward her. The camera swung.
Someone giggled. The boy on the sidewalk awaiting his turn.
Pauline, backing away, bumped into Mavis.
Mavis gave her a slight shove back in the direction of her father, sending Pauline’s head and shoulders toward him. Pauline flexed her knees and bent her toes to grip the dusty street with her sandals. She was barely able to stop herself in time. Facing her father, her eyes met his.
They were all three within a few inches of the same height, something between five-three and five-five. Mavis was a squarish person of skewed proportions, large in the middle, tiny at the extremities, wrists thin as twigs, baby feet, tiny hands with fingers that tapered to points like the tips of candles. At school, when the health nurse came to give shots and measure everyone, Pauline turned out to be the tallest person in the fifth grade, a statistic the nurse found so amazing she told everyone. Mortified, Pauline was beginning to stand in a stoop. She felt like a freak.
Jack reached out to her.
Pauline buried her hand in the gathers of her skirt but her father found it. She hadn’t wanted to wear a skirt but Mavis said no to shorts, they might want to eat someplace fancy. Jack grabbed her by the wrist and pulled. Pauline planted her heels in the dirt. Her braids flew behind her. She was strong. From spending all her time at the country club swimming pool, her skin was as dark as that of the Indians who sat on the wooden sidewalks selling things, her long dark hair tinged by chlorine a faint greenish gold.
She had not wanted to come to the Indian village in the first place. She had made friends with the hotel pool lifeguard, whom she’d promised to help that day, cleaning out the traps, seining leaves from the surface of the water. But Jack said she needed to see new things; she could swim at home. On trips, she had no power at all. She was expected to suspend her regular life totally and go look at things.
Strong but her father was stronger. He pulled. She couldn’t help it. She was moving.
“You’re hurting me,” she said, still pulling back. His fingers were locked in a circle around her wrist. The pressure of his skin against hers burned.
“Only because you’re so willful.” He pulled harder. His face was turning red. She could see the spark of victory in his eyes. “It’s stuffed. It’s not real.”
There was only one thing to do. Still pulling back, Pauline let her knees buckle. She crumpled to the ground, spineless as a dishrag.
Surprised, Jack stumbled. His left ankle was weak and it sometimes gave. He fell halfway with her, his bony shoulder crashing into Pauline’s shinbone. Pauline quickly drew her legs and feet into her skirt. She rubbed her shin.
His face on fire, Jack jumped up. His cowboy hat was cockeyed. He fixed it. There was no telling what he would do now. He was springy and quick, like a whip. Pauline had a secret method of judging his moods. She watched the vein in his temple, to see whether it rose or just throbbed. The vein seemed on the verge of bursting. He took a step toward Pauline, then stopped.
The dusty fake street looked like a wax museum of tourists, everyone in their sightseeing clothes, no one moving. Beside Pauline, Mavis was a statue, hands up, mouth open in perfect circle, like a comic strip version of fright. Only the Indians seemed unimpressed. They moved their jewelry around, maintaining a stolid demeanor, trying to look like the kind of Indians everyone imagined American Indians to be. Wise, unfazed, ancient. Like trees.
Pauline stood, brushed at her skirt and reminded herself not to take a step away from him. Retreat was a sign of weakness, and weakness only increased his powers to win.
The redness drained as quickly from her father’s face as if someone had pulled a plug. The men in Jack’s family died young, a family fact of which Jack reminded Pauline and her mother often enough. Most of them went in their forties; “Gone like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. Pauline watched the pulsating vein in his temple, crawling down the side of his face like a worm. His temper was cooling, but the vein still throbbed.
Jack took the camera from around his neck and tossed it to the ground. Her camera. Dust puffed up around it.
“Fine,” he said in a completely normal voice, as if they were disucssing what to have for lunch, peanut butter or tuna fish. “Fine with me.”
He lifted his hands to the bright blue Arkansas skies and made a face, twisting his mouth to one side.
“You made your bed,” he said, smiling as if her fate were sealed. “Now you can lie in it.”
The remark had no bearing on the circumstances; it was only a convenient exit line and a general statement of fact, denoting his truest feelings about her. All Pauline’s life, Jack Miller waited for her to fail badly enough that his sentiment would make some dint in her defense against him. All her life she planned strategies to disappoint him.
He turned on his heel and, passing the bear, went to the end of the block. At the corner, beside a pretend saloon with wooden swinging doors, he wheeled around and faced her like a gunfighter. Thinking he might come back, Pauline drew herself up to her full height. But Jack only pointed his finger at herpointed, let his hand drop, raised it and pointed againand then turned and left.
Vacations never worked out, not ever. She wondered if other families really had fun the way they said.
They didn’t go anywhere that often. With Mavis in and out of treatment all the time, they never knew when she’d be up to traveling. Mavis had this problem. Nerves, her family said. Pauline imagined nerves to be something like a rat in her mother’s brain. Sometimes the rat slept, but when it wakened and began to gnaw, Mavis’s brain turned to sawdust; her mother went away and left someone else behind, a stranger, made of stone.
And so mostly they stayed where they were, out from Baytown in the big white house on the banks of Cedar Bayou, with their dogs and cats and horses and one cow.
Only sometimes when they had a nice night togetherit happenedplaying Parcheesi or sitting in the porch swing watching stars and lightning bugsthe three of them grew first wistful, then sentimental, then dreamy. And when they got dreamy they did this family trick togethera balancing act, like three people on one bicycle on a circus high wire.
Exercising that familial skill, Jack, Mavis and Pauline forgot to remember how terrible other vacations had been and how they had vowedsworn to God!never to take another. They would have heard about other families’ trips, to Colorado where you could ride a train straight up the side of a mountain, or to the Blue Ridge Mountains where the horizon was said actually to be blue. All the other families said they had such fun, swimming in clear cold streams, eating fried shrimp with drawn butter. Carried away, Jack would send Pauline to get out the atlas and, following major highways with their fingers, they would decide, like a regular American family, to take a trip.
Most vacations, they never reached their destination. The thread inside Mavis’s mind started to frazzle or Jack got fed up with somethingthe heat, a mediocre motel, Pauline’s need to go to the bathroomanything would do. He might suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, stop the car, get out, look up at the sun and say, “If I wanted to be hot, I could have stayed at home,” and they would turn around and go back.
The summer Pauline was eight, they actually made it to Carlsbad Caverns. Inside the cave, Mavis fell apart. Puffing like a steam engine, she had to be led back out by flashlight. Jack went with her. Pauline stayed to see the rest of the cave. When she came out, Jack was standing at the exit waiting, that vein in his temple thumping, his red face swollen with rage.
Pauline would just as soon they never went anywhere . . . although she did like certain features about hotels, room service and candy bar machines, the smell of the empty drawers, the swimming pool, some even with high dives. What she hated was the feeling that the success of a vacation depended on her, on what kind of time she had and how they watched her, how on the road they kept telling her to look, look, every time they passed a cactus or a tree. They never let her just sit there. She always had to say something or they either picked a fight orworsegot swelled up and refused to speak.
Scenery was nothing. Nothing happened. Scenery was just out there.
Jack’s Thunderbird was parked a block down from the Indian village. Pauline heard it start up. He gunned the motor hard. The other tourists went back to their looking. The boy waiting to have his picture taken steppped inside the bear’s arms. He was only six or so. To get in, he did not have to duck.
“I ain’t afraid,” the boy said. And as he stood leaning against the bear’s belly, hands in his pants pockets, the boy looked directly at Pauline. He smiled for the camera. His father snapped the picture and said, “One more, son, to be sure.”
Pauline turned away. If she had a brother or a sister, she’d have been better off. There’d have been someone else around to keep her from feeling so watched and responsible all the time.
She had asked Mavis to have one, preferably a girl; she really wanted a sister. But a brother would do.
Mavis was old for a mother, forty. Jack was forty-five. Mavis hadn’t said no to the baby. She hadn’t said yes exactlyreally, nobody had babies at fortybut she hadn’t said no.
Pauline picked up her camera and, with her skirt, wiped the dust from the lens. In the distance, the Thunderbird roared away. When he came to a paved street, Jack did something to make the tires squeal.
When her father went at her, Pauline never felt like crying. She could not fight and cry at the same time. But when the fight was over, the rest of her feelings came down and she wanted to go sit in a closet in the dark, press her eyeballs into her bony knees andcomforted by the smell of sour shoes and mothballscry all night.
She pretended to be rubbing dirt from her eyes with the back of her hand. Mavis sashayed over like a girl, fluffing her hair. Mavis was getting fat again, the first sign of trouble. After the fat stage came the stone-dead nothing time, when Mavis sat in a chair by the window with her bourbon and refused to move or speak. Sometimes Pauline slid her face down in front of her mother’s to see what Mavis was looking at, but it was only the yard, the trees, nothing new. When the zombie stage had gone on a few weeks, there would finally come a night of whispers and telephone calls, of car tires crunching in the white shell drive and then silence. In the morning Mavis would be gone. Pauline would be alone in the house with her aunt, the great Wanda, her steady presence.
“It’s okay, Mama,” Pauline said. “Here,” she said. “You take the camera.” She handed her mother the Kodak and took her hand. “We’ll get a cab home.”
Pauline led her mother toward a telephone booth beside the swinging doors of the fake saloon. The fat stage was not so bad. At least she was still normal.
Nobody used cabs much in Arkansas and so it took a long time for theirs to arrive. While they waited, Pauline let Mavis take one picture of her beside the bear, standing a safe distance away, her hands at her waist, clasped tightly.
Mavis pressed the red button andtoo soon; she moved too soon, the picture would be blurredlowered the camera. “He should like that,” she said. And she smiled. Mavis had two looks, happy and sad. The greatest smile, up at the edges, like an angel on a Valentine. When she was sad, her face collapsed.
In the cab, Pauline pressed herself close to her mother. Now she would get to swim. Maybe the lifeguard hadn’t cleaned the pool. Maybe Jack would stay gone. She and Mavis could order from room service. It was Sunday. They could lie in their beds and watch Ed Sullivan.
Mavis felt warm. Round and enveloping. Next to her mother, alone with her, taking care of her, Pauline felt safe and protected.
A nothing kind of incident, no lasting repercussions, nothing that hadn’t happened before. Yet every second is as fresh to Pauline this minute as if she were standing on the street of the Indian village, eleven years old instead of thirty-two, in Arkansas instead of Texas. Mavis giving her that shove, Jack being his ridiculous self, pretending to be what he is not, with no picture of how he might appear to anyone else, locked into his own stubborn sense of himself, the big man, Tex, the Iron Duke. The motheaten brown bear is always close. Surely he invades her dreams. And she is still afraid. The bear’s eyes pin her to the wall, even in memory, some twenty years later when she is grown, has moved, established a career, her own life. Even though she tells herself, Stuffed, the bear was stuffed, the memory sticks. Crawls lightly but surely up her spine like a feather-footed insect.