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The Last Bear

by Arthur Vibert

That Sunday we all piled into the 4x4 to go to the zoo and see the last bear. Well, it wasn’t the very last bear. There were other bears, but it was the last grizzly bear. Once this one was gone that was it. No more grizzly bears.

Not everyone wanted to go. Ruth, who’s my mother, was determined. But my father wasn’t all that keen. Mostly he wanted to hang around the house. Maybe watch a little baseball, something like that. My sister Tess, who’s only ten, hates what she calls “nature stuff.” And I guess I didn’t really want to go, either. I thought I might be able to see Marie if I hung out at the mall for a while. The thing is, when my mother decides we’re going to do something, we usually do it.

The bear was on loan from a zoo out west somewhere. There had been an article about it in the paper which Mom had insisted on reading out loud over breakfast, but I wasn’t really paying attention so I didn’t know that much about it. I figured it was just going to be one of those “family” things I have to put up with every so often. It had actually been a while since I’d done anything with them, so it was time.

The expressway had a lot of traffic and it was hot and dusty. We had the windows open because the air conditioning was broken but it wasn’t much help. The air was still and heavy with humidity and we never really got going fast enough to get a decent breeze up. This made everyone cranky, except Mom. She was still reading from the article. “Ursus arctos horribilis, commonly called the grizzly bear, weighs up to 1,000 pounds and stands 9 feet high on its hind legs, making it the largest land carnivore in the world,” she read.

“This stuff doesn’t matter,” said Tess. “Once this bear is dead it won’t matter what we know about it. Because it’ll be dead.”

My mother stopped reading and looked out the window.

“Maybe the traffic’s so bad because everyone is going to see the bear today,” I said brightly, trying to defuse the mood.

“Well, if they are, we’re turning around and going home. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stand on line for some bear.” My father stared grimly over the steering wheel, jaw clenched. I think he was convinced that the only way his team could possibly win is if he were watching and personally willing them to victory instead of driving us to the zoo.

“That grizzly could bite off your head like a grape,” I said to Tess.

She ignored me and squirmed in her seat. “I’m hungry,” she said.

“We’ll eat when we get there,” my mother said firmly. She knew my sister could unleash a bewildering torrent of whining and complaining given half a chance and she was determined to cut it off before it really got going. Tess glared at her for a moment and then apparently decided that it was too hot to engage and settled back down into sullen torpor. I stopped trying to be clever and fiddled around with my iPod until we got there.

A large banner hung above the entry to the parking lot, suspended on steel cables between two flagpoles. “The Last Grizzly,” it said. There was a graphic representation of a grizzly bear reared up on his hind legs looking very ferocious. Like he was pissed off about being the last one, or something. Seeing the banner made us all perk up for a minute or two. At least until it became obvious that parking would not be easy.

My father was not happy about this. We followed slowly along behind families that looked as though they were returning from seeing the bear and were walking back to their cars, but it never really worked out. One family was just going to the playground that was off to one side of the zoo, and the other just kept walking until they left the lot completely. Maybe they came on the bus.

We ended up parking on the grass. We figured it was okay because we weren’t the first and no one had a ticket but you never really know. Maybe the cop was just waiting until there were enough cars there all at once so that he could ticket everyone and get his daily quota in one fell swoop.

It cost extra to see the bear and my father didn’t like that very much, either. As far as he was concerned the zoo should be happy that anyone was here at all. But he paid, and he almost smiled when he found out that Tess got in for half because she was under twelve.

The zoo was packed. We had to go to the concession stand and get something to eat first, because Tess had that look in her eye and mom had already promised her. That took half an hour, easy. I just got a drink because it was too hot to eat, but Tess had a hot dog and made mom hold her cotton candy until she was ready to eat it. Dad got a hamburger and a beer, but Mom just got a bottle of water she put in her purse for later.

The line was long, starting out by the giraffes and working through the tapirs until it went past the antelope, (African and American) and finally got to the bears. The grizzly was in the enclosure formerly occupied by the sun bear which had conveniently died shortly before the grizzly arrived. Some helpful but annoying person had put up signs along the line that told you about how much longer you had to go before you got to the bear. We started out at around ninety minutes.

The giraffes were kind of curious, but they’re shy so they didn’t really do too much. You’d just catch a glimpse of one watching you timidly from behind a tree occasionally.

“I hate zoos,” my father said. “It’s like being in a prison for animals. All concrete and bars.”

A big man, he stood slightly apart from us, scowling and sipping from his plastic cup of beer.

The wait seemed interminable. It was still oppressively hot, but now we were getting the pungent ammonia smells of animal urine on top of everything else. Ahead of us a little girl about Tess’s age started puking. A great gout of bright pink cotton candy vomit erupted onto the pavement and pooled there. The little girl had to stay where she was because her mom didn’t want them to lose their place. Tess looked green, so Mom told us to breathe through our mouths until we were past it.

I heard a roaring sound that I thought might be the lions, but then a jet passed overhead and that was all I could hear for a while. When the jet was gone the roaring had stopped, so I never found out for sure what it was.

We were getting close. Up ahead we could see where the crowd was clustered, peering over the railing. Tess started to show signs of life and even Dad’s usual glower was replaced by a look of mild anticipation.

Mom was the most excited, though. She’s only a small person, but sometimes she looks a lot bigger than she really is, and that’s how she looked then. I knew this meant a lot to her. I remember how once we went camping and when we were driving up to the campsite we hit a saw-whet owl with our car. Mom made us stop and she picked up the owl, which was still alive, and held it in a towel on her lap and made Dad drive us to the ranger station.

The owl lay there and hooted softly, looked around the car through pain-glazed eyes and died. Dad wanted her to toss the owl out the window so we would have time to get a good campsite but Mom said no, so we went to the ranger station with the dead owl. They thanked us and we still got a good campsite, right by the lake. I don’t know what they did with the owl. Maybe they stuffed him, or something.

We really had to elbow our way into the crowd to see the bear. Tess looked wide-eyed a few times, like she might disappear forever in the crush, but she held on and we managed to get up to the rail where we could get a decent view.

After everything Mom had read to us about grizzly bears, it was disappointing to actually see one. He just sat there with his back to us, facing the wall of the cage, motionless. His fur was matted, with places that looked like chunks had fallen out, leaving bald spots. He didn’t look very scary, or ferocious. People shouted at him, trying to get him to do something, but I guess he wasn’t in the mood.

Two boys had a bag of peanuts and they started winging some of them in there, trying to get the bear to notice. The peanuts bounced off him. You could sort of see his fur move when they hit, like when you touch a cat with a string or a feather and his fur kind of jiggles. So you could tell he knew what was going on, but he still didn’t do anything. The boys started looking in the bushes by the enclosure. I think they were trying to find something heavier, like a rock, that would really get his attention. Which is when my Mom got involved.

“What’s wrong with you boys?” She bore down on them, her tiny body stiff with anger. “Leave the bear alone!”

The boys were shocked. They paid their money. They waited on line. They should be able to see the bear do something. Touch his toes, maybe. Or balance a ball on his nose. Whatever bears do when they’re being entertaining.

One of the boys threw another peanut in, just to see what my Mom would do. She grabbed the bag from him, emptied the peanuts onto the ground and stomped on them.

By now everyone had lost interest in the bear, which wasn’t doing anything anyway, and watched my Mom.

“Hey lady, leave ’em alone. They’re just kids for Christ’s sake.” The crowd were all yelling at her to let the kids have their fun. My Dad had shaken off his scowl and was looking worried. He stepped up behind her, in case she needed protection, which she didn’t, but it was a good thing for him to do anyway.

Tess stood near them and looked like she was ready to cry. She also looked like she was ready to fight and I know from personal experience that she’s good at it. They could have taken on an army. I’d never thought about my family like that before and I was suddenly glad I was at the zoo instead of the mall. I moved closer to them.

In the cage the bear was still facing the wall but his head was turned around like he was curious about what was going on. He looked at me for a moment, right into my eyes. It was weird, like he knew what was happening, about him being the last bear and what my Mom was doing and everything. But that can’t be, right? I mean, he’s just a bear.

Someone shouted out, “Look! The bear moved!” and the crowd forgot us and looked at the bear again. He turned back towards the wall and stayed there, at least as long as I could still see him, anyway.

We walked back to the car and it was so hot everything seemed to shimmer, like in a desert movie. We didn’t get a ticket. Dad put on the radio to see how his team did and it turned out they won without his help after all. So that was good. Mom didn’t say much, for a while. She looked out the window. I knew she was thinking about the bear, and the kids, and what happened.

“I don’t think I can care this much,” she finally said. “It just takes too much out of me. I can’t do it anymore.” She went back to looking out the window.

Tess rolled her eyes and I took a calculated risk and elbowed her so she wouldn’t say anything. It worked. We all knew Mom was lying, but there was no point rubbing her nose in it.

Copyright © 2007 by Arthur Vibert

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