Bear by Ben Loory
A man goes camping with his wife. A bear shows up at their tent. They decide to bring him home. The reader’s curiosity is immediately engaged by the straightforward yet absurd premise of Ben Loory’s “Bear.” In the author’s note that accompanies this story, Loory generously offers the reader a window into his writing process, sharing that “almost everything I do as a writer is designed to eliminate rational thought and amplify the voice of…the unconscious, the subconscious, the instinctive….” Reading Loory’s note alongside “Bear,” one can imagine the writer following the thread as it unspools, as the narrative “push[es] relentlessly to uncover and exacerbate the central conflict inside the main character and bring it to some kind of conclusion.” Throughout the piece, Loory uses spare, even stylized language to convey the story of Bear and his family, thus creating space for the reader to connect with the central metaphor in a way that encompasses their own experience. What happens when a couple brings a bear into their home? What happens, Loory seems to say, is life, as the couple attempts to fold Bear into what appears to be a quintessential middle-class, suburban experience. Bear settles in and the story expands until reaching its logical, unavoidable yet wrenching conclusion. Meanwhile, the reader is left with a sense of wonder as to how much a mute bear, and the hapless couple who take him in, can reflect to us all that we know—and all that is unknowable—about love. We are thrilled to share this short story from one of the masters of contemporary fabulism, Ben Loory. —CRAFT
My wife and I went camping one day. It was nice! But that night, we met a bear. He came into our tent and sat down and stared at us, kept pawing sort of sadly at the ground.
What do we do? my wife said to me.
How would I know? I said.
We looked at the bear. The bear looked at us.
Finally, my wife cleared her throat.
Excuse me, she said. Is there something wrong?
The bear paused. He seemed to consider.
No? he finally said—or maybe seemed to say.
But the way he said it—or seemed to—seemed sad.
Can we help you somehow? my wife said to him.
The bear didn’t answer.
We exchanged glances.
Hmm, said my wife. What do you think we should do?
Really, I said, I don’t know.
Well, said my wife. We have to do something.
Yes, I finally said, I guess that’s true.
So in the morning, we put the bear in the back seat, and took him home and showed him the guest room.
We never actually found out how old the bear was; the truth is, he didn’t talk very much. He mostly seemed to want to roll around on my wife’s skateboard.
Bear, wear your helmet! we always said.
We built him a cement pool out in the side yard, and stocked it full of different kinds of fish, but the bear never seemed all that interested in them. He preferred peanut butter sandwiches.
What about school? my wife said one day. Is it right that he’s home all the time?
School? I said. I mean…he’s a bear.
But then I felt guilty for saying that.
And so, in the end, we went down and signed him up.
His name, the lady said, is Bear?
Well, I said, we don’t really know.
That’s what we call him, my wife said.
The years went by. Bear did okay in school. I’m not saying that he exactly shined. He wasn’t what you’d call a natural scholar.
But on the other hand, he never got into any fights.
He didn’t make a friend till he was in the eleventh grade—a pale, shy boy named Ronald Knight. Ronald came over after school a few times and he and Bear watched old Star Trek episodes.
Sometimes I’d stand there in the doorway and watch them. Ronald sometimes laughed, or made a joke. But Bear never did; he just stared at the screen—his shoulders, as always, hunched over.
I don’t know, I told my wife. He never seems all that happy. Do you think maybe something could be wrong?
Wrong? said my wife.
Like what? she finally said.
So we took him to a therapist for a while.
The therapist never told us what exactly they talked about.
He’s going to be just fine, she said.
But a few weeks later, when I went to wake up Bear, I found his room deserted. He wasn’t there.
I stood there staring at the spot where he usually slept (in the closet—he always slept in the closet).
He must be around here somewhere, said my wife.
But—the thing was—he wasn’t.
We searched the whole house, calling out for Bear, but there was no sign of him at all. Even his skateboard and helmet were gone.
Maybe, I said, Ronald knows?
Can we talk to Ronald? we said to Ronald’s parents when they answered our knock on the door.
Ronald? they said. Is this about Bear?
It is, said my wife. Is he there?
They showed us to Ronald’s room, and there we found Bear, fast asleep in the top bunk of Ronald’s bed. Ronald was there too, awake on the bottom, furiously playing some video game.
Ronald, we said. What’s going on?
Bear’s gonna live here, Ronald said.
He is? said my wife. Are your parents okay with that?
Yeah, I think so, Ronald said.
I looked at my wife and my wife looked at me.
Ronald, I said. Did we do something wrong?
I don’t know, Ronald said. Why are you asking me? Bear’s right there—why don’t you ask him?
We looked at the bear. He was sleeping so well. He was snoring in a way I’d never heard. It sounded so smooth, like he’d had an engine installed. Like a brand new engine—it purred.
I looked at my wife.
What do you think? she finally said.
Do you think we should wake him? I said.
My wife bit her lip. Then she shook her head.
He’s a growing bear, she said. He needs his sleep.
So the two of us went home, and climbed into bed. We turned on the TV and watched a show.
I didn’t even know he liked Ronald, I said. Maybe we didn’t know him very well.
Well, my wife said, Bear always kept to himself.
We did do our best, though—right? I said.
Of course, said my wife.
A few minutes went by.
Do you think he’ll be happy? I said.
I don’t know, said my wife. I mean, I hope so.
We sat there in silence for a bit.
Do you ever think that we should’ve had a kid? I finally said.
Oh honey, my wife said. We did.
BEN LOORY is the author of the collections Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, Fairy Tale Review, and A Public Space, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives and teaches short story writing in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter @benloory.
Image by Zdeněk Macháček courtesy of Unsplash