A black bear has come out of the hills to the highway. He lumbers along the shoulder and throws a great paw out. A gesture, not a plea. I stop and offer him a ride. He crawls, front feet first, into the cab, and sets there, smelling of undergrowth, of the banks of the Neosho River, of the dank cave he once called home, and stares through the windshield.
When I ask him “Where to?” he only sighs, his breath bright and musky with the berries and bark he last ate. “Tulsa then,” I say, and he swings his head slightly, in agreement or not, I’m unsure.
I nose the F-150 back onto the highway and press the accelerator pedal with the worn sole of my Justin. The way is still long, the turn westward onto the Will Rogers Turnpike through Cherokee Nation, across the roll and pitch of the land, the sparse yellow prairie grass laid like the back of a hand across the miles.
The roads here sweep and ribbon, the ones I usually drive at night. Eighteen-wheelers crush past. The sun climbs higher, pushing through the back window, reflected in the lower right corner of the rearview. The bear nods off.
I don’t think of the reason I drive in this direction, the reason I revisit old places, bad memories. The journey each time is enough. My father’s stare, my mother’s laugh, my brother’s shouts down a long-forgotten hallway.
The bear rests against the passenger door, his breath fogging the window. He’s a young bear and doesn’t take up but two-thirds of the cab. Burrs bristle tawny and gold against his belly. When he wakes, he may tell me of the hunters who chased him, who killed his mate, who made his lair and nearby streambeds and forested hills impossible to return to. And then, he may not.
I think how it is time for breakfast. How a coffee and a plate of eggs might do. How a shot of tequila might help the sun rise higher.
The bear shakes his head, maybe reading me, maybe not. He squints at the signs for the Broken Arrow Expressway. He waves a paw at the neon sign of a dancing bear. “My name. My game.” He turns his gaze to me and his eyes are sad and bloodshot. The boy’s got a burden, that’s for sure. Don’t we all?
Dancing Bear and I head for the old neighborhood, and the sun shoves us forward, straight into the wrestle of roads, the nodding surprise, the barroom brawl, over the tracks, inside the circle, the clutch, the uncertain embrace of Tulsa. Here once lazed the confusion of low-lying sameness, of homes ragged with chain link and too many cars and toys left out on lawns.
I search out the house, pale green, one-story, where once there was the breakfast of buttered toast, of home fries and bacon. The stiff-mouthed mama, the daddy with dirt under his nails, the brother running late from his morning paper route. The yard of sparse grass, an overturned Tonka jeep, pink and rusted, dirty fringe around its roof. “Surrey with the fringe on top,” my mama called it. “Yard junk. Keep it outside, baby boy.” And I did.
Dancing Bear hums now. Surrey with the fringe on top. I might think he’s mocking me. I might not. I know he knows the house is no longer there. He’s keeping quiet about that and I begin to like him even more. Sometimes it’s better just to understand things and not bother about them.
Things like a sky the color of dark laundry, dungarees my mama’d left on the line, like the smell of damp and soil and sorry, like hiding in the kitchen closet with the hot water heater, like my daddy yelling for my brother and my mama calling for me, like the sound of the roof opening up, the roar descending. Like silence.
Like stumbling outside, slowly. The neighbors’ houses flattened, ours still standing, the roof half gone. And in the yard, the toy Tonka in the exact same place, on its side.
We roll up the street, all the houses different now, trees lining the way. My friend drums his paws on the dashboard and chants, “Chick and ducks and geese better scurry when I take you out in the surrey, when I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top!” He smiles, wide-toothed, and drums a bit more. The day tips forward, the truck shimmies with Dancing Bear’s moves, and we drive on.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 9, May 1, 2014.