Friday, November 19, 2010

Mark Jacobs, "The Jesus Bear"

Mark Jacobs

The Jesus Bear

            It was not all that difficult, fending off the scouting party from Twin Springs Baptist.  Eleanor Winsomme was seventy nine so had age on her side.  If you didn’t know enough to profit from a lifetime of experience you deserved what you got, ambushed by well-meaning people.  She could not abide the sympathy of chatty Christians, which always felt like a hundred sticky hands dragging her down.  As long as her strength held, she planned on staying vertical.
            Of course she was down on her knees behind the trailer knocking a dirt dauber nest from underneath the grill when they showed up, which put her at a disadvantage.  For some reason she didn’t hear the car, so that was how they found her.  Scrambling too quickly to her feet, she got dizzy.  To cover it she smoothed the front of her dress and held up the putty knife.
            “Dirt daubers.  They never give up, do they?”
            Although she hated the wasp-like creatures she admired their tenacity.  They would go on building their mud cells until the Last Day left them without a flat surface to stick to.
            “Good morning, Mrs. Winsomme.  I’m awful glad we caught you home.  We’ve been wondering up a storm.  I mean how you’re managing on your own, way out here in the country.”
            So that was how it was going to be.  They were young; neither of them could be over forty.  They had bright faces and good manners and did not immediately ask her to pray with them.  Put two forties together and it didn’t add up to seventy nine.
            “I’m fine,” she kept having to tell people.  “I moved out here by choice.”
            That was a stretcher.  She had sold the house in Mosby’s Branch when she got the letter from American Bell Textile advising her that her widow’s pension was being reduced by seventy percent, due to the fact that they were going out of business.  Globally, was how they put it, and the word irritated her.  She got a fair price for the house, which D.W. had maintained in tip-top condition until the day he died.  If she kept her expenses low, she figured the money she made on the house would see her out.  Rent on the trailer -- a tin box with plumbing, really -- was only a hundred and seventy five a month, plus electric.
            She had no desire to antagonize these women by telling them it was their mothers who had driven her out of Twin Springs in the first place.  Sitting in the pew listening to women pray used to set her teeth on edge.  She never came up with a satisfactory explanation for why so many sincere people joined in worship came off sounding like a bunch of phonies, but they did, they invariably did.  If Jesus came back to earth, he would likely spend his Sundays elsewhere.
            “Shall I put on a pot of coffee?”
            “Too hot this morning for coffee,” said the thin one, whom Eleanor decided privately to call Sweet Pea.
            Mid-May in Southside, you expected the sun to start showing the brutal face it put on for the summer.
            “Here’s a question for you,” Eleanor said after they had talked the weather to death, and the two women waited expectantly.  “If Jesus so chose, could he take the form of a snake?”
            “A snake?” said the plump one, practically begging to be called Honeysuckle.
            “I don’t say a copperhead, but what about a black snake?”
            “I don’t imagine the Lord would want to confuse us by doing that,” said Honeysuckle, the smile shaky on her lips.
            “I suppose we ought to be getting along,” Sweet Pea spoke up briskly.  “If you like, Mrs. Winsomme, Billy and I will swing by on Sunday on the way to service.  Billy drives a minivan.  We’ve got plenty of room.”
            Eleanor shook her head.  “I expect my boy Nelson back from Venezuela any day now.  He’s a roustabout, you know.  The oil business.  They make good money down there.”
            The two flowers could not help exchanging a glance any more than they could help the condescension they put into it.  Eleanor had been telling people her son was due back any day for the last ten years.  She walked the women to their car to put an end to the visit.
            That evening she saw the bear for the first time.  Her trailer sat on the road-side edge of a field most of which was given over to hay.  It was a large field of eight acres, with dips and ridges, running into woods to the south.  A creek ran through the woods, and from where she stood cooking a hot dog on the grill, Eleanor could make out the ruins of an abandoned grain mill.  At some point a local nutcase had dynamited a hole in the old mill race, creating a waterfall she could hear at night in bed if she slept with the window open.
            The bear, he was a black bear and on the large side, came out of the woods at the mill.  Seeing or sensing Eleanor, he stood stock still and stared.  She expected him to turn tail and race back into the woods, but possibly the idea of an old woman with a long-handled fork standing over a charcoal grill was fascinating to the creature.  He was still there when she took the hot dog off the fire.
            She forgot about the bear when she went inside, because the well pump was on the fritz.  It was the responsibility of Morton Carwiller, as her landlord, to make sure she had lights and running water.  But she shaved expenses by not having a telephone, and it was too late to drive over and cajole him into fixing the pump that evening.  She turned on the television.  The only station that came in without snow was out of Lynchburg.  The program seemed to be some sort of contest for extremely fat people to lose weight.  She watched a bruiser of a woman with long blonde hair step onto a scale.  The moderator, thin and beautiful, announced that the heavy blonde had lost four pounds.  Eleanor switched off the set.
            The next morning when Morton came over to work on her pump, she mentioned the bear.
            “You won’t see that old boy again,” he predicted confidently, chuckling and holding up a pipe wrench as if it somehow proved his point.  He had sandpaper skin and the voice to go with it.  Morton had lost most of his American Bell pension, too, and tried to make up the difference renting run-down trailers on property his mother had left him.  “Those gentlemen keep moving.  This one is following the creek, north would be my guess.”
            But that night the bear came out of the woods at the same spot by the mill where he had shown himself the previous evening.  Eleanor enjoyed cooking over an open fire and was heating a can of pork and beans.  Sprinkling Tabasco sauce on the beans, she had the distinct impression the bear was watching her, although of course her weakened eyes were capable of betraying her.  She moved away from the grill.  The bear stayed where he was.  She hooted, making a sound somewhere between an owl’s and a mourning dove’s.  But her voice was not strong, and the bear stayed put.  She ate her tangy beans outside in the fresh air as the sun was going down.  When she went into the trailer she could not be sure but thought the bear might still be out there by the tumbledown mill.
            That night on television, movie stars danced in flamboyant costumes.  Everything was a contest, lately.  The program bored her, and she listened to the radio instead.
            The next day a delegation of three from the Zion Crossroads Baptist Church came by.  People seemed to have fallen under the sway of television and were in a competitive mood.  Now it was a contest to see which congregation could woo her into their flock.  Privately she gave all three women flower names.  She told them her son was due back from Venezuela.  Nelson would drive her to church.  She was mildly disappointed but not surprised when the bear did not show up that evening.
            Sometimes Eleanor had a hard time sleeping, and always woke early.  She was outside weeding the garden with a hoe when a dangerous-looking man dressed in black showed up on a motorcycle that morning.  He cut the engine and sat there on his saddle with his arms folded across his chest, and she recognized her son.
            They walked at each other not knowing what to expect.  Hard words and bad decisions had led to his leaving Virginia in the first place.  D.W. had never quite gained the control of his son he ought to have had.  Nelson was an only child, born late in the marriage.  His father let things slide, shrugged his shoulders and laughed too easily when the boy messed up.  Still, ten years in Venezuela was an extreme solution to a problem that might have been settled with straight talk and family feeling.
            The colorful tattoos running up and down his arms were of a violent nature.  He wore a scraggly beard, and his brown hair was thin although he wore it long.  She remembered his snaggled front tooth and felt bad again for not insisting they get it fixed when he was a boy.  He kissed her demurely on the cheek, then stood back grinning nervously.  The grin, at any rate, had not changed.  He had used to be considered handsome.  Eleanor had no way of judging whether women would still see him that way.
            “Hola, Nelson,” she said.  “Como está Usted?”
            She had practiced the phrase for years but must be pronouncing it wrong.  He looked at her strangely.  “Got any eggs?”
            “I picked up a dozen three days ago.”
            “Good.”  He held up a plastic bag she hadn’t noticed.  “I didn’t figure you’d have bacon.  Will you cook me bacon and eggs?”
            It struck her as an unusual request, but she didn’t mind having something to do while she collected herself.  Nelson sat in his father’s recliner with his feet up and smoked a cigarette watching her cook.  Asking too many questions was never a smart idea with Nelson, but she couldn’t  help herself.
            “Are you back for good now, or is this just a vacation?”
            “I’m here to stay.”
            “It must have been interesting.”
            “Say what?”
            “The oil business, a different country.  Working in the jungle and whatnot.  You didn’t happen to marry a Venezuelan girl, did you?”
            He frowned.  She had crossed a line.  But watching him inhale his breakfast gratified her.  The boy had always been a healthy eater.  Now she watched with satisfaction as he downed eight eggs over easy, the whole pound of bacon, and a stack of buttered toast.  He drank four cups of coffee.  All the time he ate he kept a cigarette going, and the smoke irritated Eleanor’s eyes.  But she said nothing.  She had never expected to see her son again in this life and possibly not in the next.
            “Those tattoos,” she said.
            “What about them?”
            “You get them in Caracas?”
            “Yeah, Momma.  I got my tats in Caracas.”
            There were more important questions she needed to ask, such as why had he come home, how long did he plan on staying with her, and did he save up as much money as he said he was going to when he left in a huff?  Also, what was the Spanish word for ‘roustabout’?  But he was tired, and she put clean sheets on the bed in the spare room.  He took the longest shower known to man, came out wrapped in a towel with wet feet, and fell asleep hard.
            He was still asleep that evening when the bear came out.  For the first time the thought came to Eleanor that this was a different sort of animal.  She studied him through D.W.’s old spyglass, which had come down to him from his grandfather and had belonged, originally, to an ancestor who was a major in the 11th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.  Eleanor had no interest in Confederate keepsakes, and when her husband passed on she got rid of most of her his collection.  But a spyglass could be useful, and now it was.  Watching the bear pace, she was impressed by its regal bearing.
            It was harder than she would have expected, having Nelson around.  He didn’t talk much but took up a lot of space in the trailer, which was really only comfortable for one.  He slept late, ate big meals, and spilled cigarette ash wherever he went.  He borrowed her car and came back with a set of tools from the Wal-Mart.  He tinkered constantly with the motorcycle.  On television he liked the show about the fat people competing to lose weight, but not the dancing stars.  She found it difficult to tell him she had missed him.  Searching for words, she inevitably got tangled up in a rat’s nest of powerful feelings not all of which redounded to her credit.  She learned to approach matters indirectly.
            “What do you know about bears?” she asked him one afternoon the first week of June.
            He had parked the motorcycle under a big sycamore not far from her garden.  Under the tender green leaves he had plenty of shade.  He was sitting on a milking stool and startled her with how beautiful he looked, just then, tattoos and all.
            “They steal picnic baskets.”
            “There’s been one down by the mill.”
            “He’ll move on.  They don’t stay in one place.”
            “Kind of like you, I guess.”
            For a moment he was ferocious, but it passed quickly and he told her in a reasonable tone of voice, “I’m charging my batteries, Momma.”
            Sometimes he surprised her.  One day he took the car and came back with a bouquet of spring flowers from the Kroger.  He handed it to her without a word as if daring her to ask how come, which she did not.  Another time he washed the dishes with surprising care.
            “I guess you learned to look after yourself pretty well, all these years.”
            “Had to, Momma.”
            “What was it like?”
            “Work is work,” he said, “no matter where you’re doing it.  Listen, I’m sorry I wasn’t here for Daddy’s funeral.  My bad.”
            “I didn’t know how to reach you.  You never wrote, so I had no address to let you know.  I called around, but it turns out there are a number of oil companies in Venezuela, and I didn’t know which one you belonged to.”
            “Was he still mad at me, when he went?”
            “Your father didn’t know how to stay mad at another human being.  For better or worse.  Maybe that’s something you should have been able to guess.”
            He shrugged and lifted soapy hands from the dishpan.  Where other men wore a wedding band he had a chunky silver ring with a skull and crossbones on it.  The skull had ruby eyes.  “One of the seven million things I’m no good at.”
            Even though she did not know what to make of him, Eleanor recognized it was a good thing he had come home.  Anytime you thought things were through changing, they changed on you again.  She wished the bear would make an appearance once when Nelson was outside to see him, but that didn’t happen.  The situation was starting to worry her.  Not so much the bear himself as the effect he was having on her.  Her mother had died at seventy nine, her father at seventy six.  She did not expect to live forever.  Only intermittently was she afraid of dying, but she was bothered by the sense of something cockeyed about her life.  It took the visit of Lady’s Slipper and Peony from Mt. Pisgah Baptist to make what it was come clear.
            The onslaught was unexpected.  All these membership committees would have left her alone, more than likely, if she had stayed in the house in Mosby’s Branch.  But she had become valuable as an object of charity: poor Eleanor Winsomme, pushing eighty and living all by her lonesome in a white-trash trailer.
            Lady’s Slipper was dainty and sweet as sweet tea.  Peony had bushy hair and a distracted way about her.  They were fascinated by Nelson, who was working on his motorcycle under the sycamore.  Eleanor looked at her son with the eyes of these Baptist women and saw a thug, a hoodlum, a man you steered clear of.  But she forgave them their judgment because she suddenly saw what was out of whack.
            “Reverend Diggers,” she said suddenly.
            When they looked at her puzzled, she told them, “Never mind.  I appreciate your kindness, but my boy Nelson over there, he’ll take me when I want to go.”
            When they were gone she strolled over to the sycamore.
            “What was that all about, Momma?”
            “Church people, rounding up customers.”
            He grunted, and she told him, “I need to make my peace.”
            “You going to church with them?”
            She wished she could explain it to him.  He had been thoughtful since coming home.  Once or twice he had been tender, kissing her forehead or rubbing her back.  But he lacked the faculty for appreciating the insight that had been given to her.  An hour later he drove away on his motorcycle.  He came home late, drunk, and clumsy.  From her bedroom Eleanor could not help hearing the squealing of a woman as high as he was.
            Girl, it turned out to be.  She was still there in the morning, everything you expected a female who drank and came back to trailers on the back ends of motorcycles to be.  Dyed red hair like some sort of unnatural pelt, a ring through her nostril, witchy black eye makeup, and a careless way with cigarettes.  After he got rid of her, Nelson apologized.
            “Not my business,” she said.  “I’m going to take a walk down to the mill.  You want to come?”
            “My head is killing me.”
            “What about this Chavez character?”
            “Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.  I read in the paper, they say he’s a communist.  The new Fidel Castro.”
            “Well, I never voted for the man.”
            There was something wasteful and sad about the way the mill had been allowed to fall down.  The wheel was rusted out where it wasn’t eaten away.  Locust trees and vines choked the building on all sides.  A hole gaped in the tin roof.  Down underneath the mill, you could make out the machinery that used to run the thing, old pulley belts lying around like sick black tongues.  According to Morton Carwiller, copperheads nested under the mill.  She had no inclination to clamber down and find out.
            She sat on a smooth rock, out of the sun.  It was unrealistic to think the bear would show himself, and he did not.  But she had the impression he might be watching as she forcibly brought back the memory of Reverend Donald Diggers.  He only preached one Sunday at Twin Springs.  This was way back when, years before Nelson was born.  There was some trouble at the time with D.W.  Eleanor knew he was seeing a girl over in Drakes Branch but did not have a leg to stand on.  It was her fault -- D.W. thought so, and she agreed -- not to have given the man a son, or a daughter, either, for that matter.  So she was grieved in spirit, and shamed, sitting in church the day Reverend Diggers visited.
            Afterward, everybody was glad he was not their regular pastor.  He was too conceited, they said.  What they meant was that he was young, handsome, and well educated, and his sermon went over their heads.  But it made an impression on Eleanor that had never gone away, evidently.
            God was everywhere in His creation, according to Reverend Diggers.  In the innermost heart of every human being, of course, but also in the rocks and the trees, in foxes and starfish and steel beams, in the very air.  It was a mystery how He could inhabit the world He made and be above it at the same time, a mystery that was to be solved only with the agency of faith.
            The trouble was, Eleanor did not have the sort of faith her neighbors did.  Failing or fact, she had known as much when she was a teenager or maybe even younger, when her parents took her to a revival over in Prince Edward County and her stomach got queasy in the wrong way.  But Reverend Diggers’ explanation of God in everything had awed and even thrilled her at the time.  Now it helped her make sense of the bear.  If God was everywhere, in everything, it would be no trouble to collect Himself in one particular place or creature more intensely, with more force than normal, at any given moment.  He could shine the light of Himself on a black bear in the woods of Southside any time he wanted to.  Why, though; that was the question.
            She was still asking herself that question when she came back from the mill and found Nelson’s note, in pencil on a napkin on the kitchen table.  Lots of things I’m no good at, Momma, you know that about me.  One of them is saying goodbye.  Thanks for bacon and eggs, etc.  Your loving son Nelson.
            She hadn’t heard the sound of his motorcycle engine or might have guessed.
            She went to bed with a cool washcloth on her forehead and cried until her eyes burned and then fell asleep.  When she woke up it was dark and she wished D.W. were there.  Not for moral support but so they could have the conversation about Nelson she hadn’t known how to begin with him when he was alive.
            Two days later the deputy knocked at the door, early, when Eleanor was bagging dirty clothes to take to the laundromat.  It was interesting, the way being in a uniform changed a woman’s female shape.  Deputy Travers was redheaded and pretty and wore a black gun on her hip.  Her uniform was brown, with a darker stripe like seamstress tape on the trousers.  She was young and did not bully.
            “Mrs. Winsomme, I’m looking for Nelson.”
            “He’s not here.”
            “Do you know when he’ll be back?”
            “He’s not coming back.”
            “Do you know where he went?”
            “I’m sorry?”
            “What has he done?”
            “He missed a meeting with his parole officer.”
            Eleanor did not like showing what she felt on her face, but she must have because thirty seconds later she was sitting on the sofa and Deputy Travers was standing over with her with a glass of water.  It took Travers another minute to decide to answer Eleanor’s question about the crime Nelson had gone to prison for.  Armed robbery.  Though from all accounts he was a model prisoner, she added because she was new enough in the job to want to cushion bad news instead of just deliver it.
            Eleanor put off until she left the question of whether she had known all along.  In some ways her mind was like a rambling old farmhouse, with lots of rooms and stair passages and cupboards, eaves and dormers and an attic full of junk, so not all the inhabitants knew what the others were up to in other parts of the house.  In the end it didn’t matter.  He was her son.  She had cooked back and eggs for him.  He wrote even if he did not say that he loved her.
            The bear was the last thing on her mind when she stepped outside with two hamburger patties on a plastic plate and a jar of kerosene to light the charcoal.  Summer had arrived.  The redbuds were past their prime, green was thickening everywhere, and the air held its heat even when the sun went low.  It was low now, a remote but not unfriendly eye crying color across the clouds.  And there in mellow twilight stood the bear in the hayfield not thirty yards from the trailer.  He was old.  His fur was grizzled, his muzzle was gray.  One ear was torn and hung at a floppy angle.  The eyes were what you expected to see in the eyes of a wild creature at thirty yards when your own were none too good.
            He was there for her, she had no doubt about it.  She had no illusions.  Jesus was not coming back to earth as a bear, or not exactly.  It was more a question of a collection spot, the way a magnifying glass collected and intensified sunlight so you could burn a scrap of paper on a summer day if you were patient.  In just that way, God was collected in the bear.  The purpose was to help her think.
            That was the remarkable thing, as much as the apparition of the bear himself: how easily her thoughts formed into sentences that made sense as she spoke them aloud, quietly but firmly.  The animal’s head was slightly cocked.  He was listening.
            “I can’t be like the rest of them.  I’m not built the way they are.  There is a part of me I cannot surrender to the story of God the way they say you are supposed to.  I do not wish to be saved, I wish to see, and to know.  They tell me my pride is a sin but I don’t see it that way.  I see it as a gift.  A gift from God.  A gift to God and I believe He will appreciate it.”
            She said more, but not much more.  When she was done, they stood there, the two of them, for the longest time.  It was getting dark across the field, as if the whole earth were trying to catch up to the black bear’s deep shadow.  She did not move until he did.  She watched him turn around and amble back to the woods, one haunch rolling higher than the other as he moved.  She did not light the fire.  She was not in the mood to eat a hamburger.
            The cleansing feeling of having worked out something that mattered stayed with her until Deputy Travers showed up, two days later, to tell her Nelson had been arrested.
            “What did he do this time?”
            “Nothing serious, Mrs. Winsomme.  Shoplifting at the Wal-Mart.  The problem is he has a record, and then of course he missed that appointment with his parole officer.  I thought you’d want to know.”
            It was the deputy’s idea to drive Eleanor to the county lock-up, where they let her see Nelson in an ugly room with green walls, a high ceiling, and an air conditioner that moaned.  Her son was dressed in one of those horrible orange coveralls like the ones she had seen convicts wear picking up litter out on Highway 460.  His crying was an apology.
            “I wish you didn’t come, Momma.  It embarrasses me, you being here.”
            “What did you steal?”
            “That’s the thing, that’s the stupid damn worst whole part of it.  All’s I took was a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD, and I don’t even have anything to play it on.”
            “What’s going to happen to you?”
            “I’ll go back to prison.  There’s nothing I can say or do that’s gonna change that.  The only question is how long.”
            He snuffled, and she fished in her purse for a Kleenex.  He put his head down on the table between them, and she stroked his thin hair.  After a minute he didn’t seem to mind or notice that he was crying in public, not that this room was exactly a public place.
            “I’ll get you a lawyer.”
            “That won’t help.”
            “When they let you out, I’ll cook you a big breakfast.”
            She talked a little more soothing nonsense, without thinking, before coming to the important part.
            “You have to have pride, Nelson.”
            He heard the difference in her voice.  “Momma?”
            “It’s a gift.”
            “What’s a gift?”
            “Pride.  God put it into you when you were born so you’d have it when you needed it.  Now is the time you need it.  The thing to do is stand tall and face your facts.  You take your punishment, and then get out and live a proud life.”
            “You know what I’d do if they let me out of here tomorrow?”
            “What’s that?”
            “I’d go to Venezuela.  This time I’d really go.  Oil prices are high, and they’re only going to get higher.  I’m good at saving money, when I have any.”
            She nodded.  “That’s a good plan.  But I don’t want you to be taken in by that Chavez character.  He’s shifty.”
            “I won’t.  But I’ll go.  You wait and see if I don’t.”
            The rest of the twenty minutes they had left together was taken up with nonsense, but she drove away in Deputy Travers’ big Ford convinced he might just do it, he might learn how to stand tall and learn to be a roustabout.
            “You going to be okay, Mrs. Winsomme?” Deputy Travers wanted to know when she dropped her at the trailer.
            “I’ll be fine.  I’m old, I’m not helpless.”
            “I can see that.”
            “Does it feel different to you, when you put on that uniform?”
            The good thing about Travers was that she understood the question.  She had the milky skin of a redhead, and freckles everywhere.  “Yes, Maam,” she said.  “It’s different every time I put it on.  I’ll stop by now and again.  Not to check on you, just to say hello.”
            They shook hands, and Eleanor went inside where she collapsed in D.W.’s recliner.  She did not sleep but sat with her eyes closed, her hands folded in her lap, listening to the well pump run.  When she stood up she knew what she wanted to do.
            She took things from the refrigerator and loaded them into a plastic sack: hamburger patties, a stick of butter, half a chicken, most of a can of beans.  From the cabinet over the stove she took a jar of honey.  It was the middle of the afternoon when she carried it all down to the mill.  She did not expect to see the bear again, and she did not.  In today’s crowded world more than ever, bears moved on.  Morton Carwiller was probably right.  He’d be headed north, following the creek in the direction of the lake it emptied out in.
            But she laid out the picnic for him anyway, remembering to unscrew the top of the jar of honey.  The proper thing was to say thank you.  It was the right thing to do and bolstered the sense of confidence that had been with her since the bear stood behind the trailer listening to her say the important thing that had been on her mind for so many years.  If the bear didn’t eat the foods she brought him, some other creature would.
            She folded the plastic sack and put it in the pocket of her dress.  She started back across the field, where the grass was tall and clingy, toward the trailer.  That prickling sensation.  It began in the nape of her neck and spread south, all the way to the base of her spine.  She could feel it in her arms, too, the same strong feeling of being watched as she went.  It was a feeling worth sticking around for, just to see if it ever came back.

Mark Jacobs has published 80 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, and The Southern Review.  His fifth book, Forty Wolves, came out in 2010.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume 4 (2010): Emergence

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