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August 9, 2018 Fiction

A Hungry Bear Does Not Dance

Austin Ross

A Hungry Bear Does Not Dance photo

This is later, after the White House, after he has returned to San Clemente. He has shed the name Nixon, that iron albatross around his neck, and instead now calls himself Milhous. He savors the sound of it on his tongue, rolling it around like a sculptor molding clay on a pottery wheel. He speaks it like an incantation. It does not sound like the past; it instead glimmers faintly with the potential of new life. Pat has divorced him. The final straw being Milhous’s sweaty and pajama-clad confrontation of their mailman, Oliver. Milhous had accused the man of being part of an FBI conspiracy to track him via the mercury in his dental fillings. Pat left soon after to live with her aunt somewhere in Boston. Milhous swears off TV afterwards, has in fact thrown out every such device from his home. Has cancelled all newspaper subscriptions, torn the guts out of his kitchen radio with an old paint-splattered screwdriver. He can no longer confront the world. Can no longer have it piped into his home to destroy him with radio waves and subliminal messaging. Inspiration struck him upon the taking of LSD. Three months ago, Dr. Lounds, his counselor since the divorce, had—during a session—deposited what looked to be a simple sugar cube into Milhous’s cup of coffee, and the edges of reality had curled inward like burnt paper. After, or perhaps because of, this epochal event, he grows his beard out. He has never seen his face with a beard—it comes in silver, sleek and sheen like an arctic fox. He is an old man now, nearly sixty-three. An age where second chances are no longer second chances.

He has put his property up for auction as-is and instructed his agent to wire the money to his bank account when it sells. He packs what few belongings he decides to keep in musty old cardboard boxes that now reside in the trunk of his car, a used station wagon with fake wood paneling that he recently paid for with cash from a man who lost one of his eyes in the Second World War. Milhous bought the car to retain humility, to get as close as he could to the monastic lifestyle. Over the past three months, he has surprised himself by finding great solace and inspiration in the writings of Gautama Buddha among others.

He calls his daughters—first Trish, the oldest. The phone rings and rings somewhere in DC. He hangs up, tries Jules. No answer. She and her husband had moved out near San Clemente to be near Milhous and Pat, but he had not heard from her in awhile. There are always sides to take, he realizes, and cannot fault her for choosing her mother. As he hangs up, the phone rings. He picks it up eagerly. “Hello?”

Laughter on the other end. Two men: Ehrlichman and Haldeman. “Why are you trying to run away?” Ehrlichman says.

“You know we’ll find you,” Haldeman says. “We always do.”

“One bullet,” Ehrlichman says. “It’s headed your way. That’s all it takes. We’re doing you a favor.”

Milhous hangs up and packs his things quickly. He must leave immediately. He drops by Jules’ beachside apartment complex, sits in the idling car to see if she and her husband David are perhaps sitting out on the communal front porch, or maybe taking a stroll in the late-morning warmth. He does not want to intrude on their lives. Simply wants one last glimpse before leaving. But it is as though no one lives in this complex; it is silent and still. The grass, in need of a mow, waves lazily in the summer wind. He recalls the days when Jules and Trish were young and they would play in the sprinkler, jumping across it and screaming with delight, their laughs infectious and tiny.

Salty mist, carried from the waves, fills his nostrils. He tries to focus on breath awareness and qi circulation to calm himself. It is something he has been learning about lately, this vital energy of all life. Wafted across the wind is the scent of funnel cakes, and with it the memory of a June day when he was seven. How his mother had playfully splashed him in the waist-deep water, then tickled him until he was breathless and wheezing. Afterwards, over a picnic of ham and Swiss sandwiches and bottles of milk that sweat in the sun, she told him the story of how he had been named after Richard the Lionheart, one of the great kings of England. He had nearly burst that day with pride.

He starts driving and does not stop. He finds that he cannot; the car’s energy courses through him, jolting his nerve endings with electric mania. He rolls the windows down in the mid-August heat and drives away from the ocean. It is a shedding of skin, he realizes. The sloughing of a cicada, freshly emerged from its seventeen-year slumber. Leaving behind its chitinous exterior. Something in the concept of going out west appeals to him, though he realizes the irony that he is, in fact, driving east. The mountainous, untamed region of Colorado comes to mind as somewhere where he might reinvent himself. He believes it to be forgiving of mistakes, of past lives, of false starts.

* * *

When he arrives in Denver, around three in the morning, he books a room at a cheap motel. The woman behind the desk is an older, slightly overweight Greek woman with frizzy gray hair and glasses that dangle around her neck from a string. Her name is Spyridoula; she says it means “spirit” in Greek. Milhous nods at this and smiles.

“How long you will be staying here?” she asks.

“I’m not sure. Perhaps some time.”

As Milhous leaves to go to his room, Spyridoula asks him, “You are looking for work?” and he says that yes, he supposes he would be, and she holds up a finger for him to wait as she goes into the office behind reception. She emerges with a pamphlet about a rodeo. She points at the back of the pamphlet, to a name and contact information: Alastor Pappas.

“It is my cousin,” Spyridoula says.

“And what does his name mean?”

“‘Avenging spirit.’” She flips open the pamphlet. “He is looking for workers. You are looking for money? You should contact him.”

Milhous glances at the pictures in the pamphlet—people riding bulls and horses, being tossed into the air as though they were as light as origami. They all wore the traditional garb of someone who could be a spokesperson for Camel. “I’m not a cowboy,” Milhous says, though the idea intrigues him.

Spyridoula shakes her head, clicking her tongue and saying something that sounds like “Ohee” over and over. She points to one of the pictures. There’s a man off to the side wearing oversized tan overalls and white and red makeup on his face. “Clown,” she says. “Is need for clown, not cowboy.”

Milhous laughs loudly; it’s been so long, he’s forgotten his laugh can sound like a bark. “I don’t think so,” Milhous says. “Thank you, though.”

“Is not easy to find job here,” Spyridoula says, squeezing the pamphlet into his palm. “Economy is not good.” She says something in Greek. “It means, ‘A hungry bear does not dance.’ If you are not paid, you cannot eat; if you cannot eat, you cannot dance.”

“What makes you think I’d want to be a clown?”

Spyridoula reaches for the glasses hanging from the string around her neck. She looks at him for a long moment.

“You have the face for it, I think,” she says.

* * *

Milhous dreams that night that he and Pat are merely separated, not yet divorced. In the dream, she buys a condo in Jamaica and lives with an obscenely buff man named JoJo with skin like roasted coffee beans. “JoJo the Jamaican,” she says and laughs like a waterfall. Milhous goes to Jamaica to try to win her back, but she makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with him, and as Milhous sits impotently in their kitchen drinking a cappuccino, she and JoJo make out in a very handsy and inappropriate way.

Milhous wakes in the dark of the motel room, fumbles for the bedside alarm clock. 6:13. He peers out the curtain at the crumbling parking lot. The first hint of sun is just now casting the dullest of light against the Rocky Mountains, which loom in the middle distance like an ominous cluster of mammatus clouds.

Spyridoula is alone in the lobby when he arrives for breakfast. They nod at each other wordlessly in mutual acknowledgement of the unpleasantness of mornings. There is some warm coffee in a glass pot by the waffle-makers. Milhous pours some in a shiny brown ceramic mug and crafts a plate of strawberries, half-bananas that have already browned on the exposed end, grapes, and one plain bagel. He sits at a two-person table in the corner of the room and eats in silence, wishing there were something to drown out the sound of his own chewing.

As he finishes the bagel, Spyridoula makes her way to his table. She is clutching a mug of her own with both hands as though trying to keep warm. “Maybe I join you?” Her voice sounds gruffer than last night.

Milhous shrugs and nods at the empty seat. “Weren’t you just on shift—” Milhous checks his watch. “—four hours ago? Did you get any sleep?”

Spyridoula chuckles and shakes her head. “I am old, I do not sleep. Something always happens. My bones ache, or I must piss every half-hour. It is as though my body is conspiring against me to make up for those wasted hours of youth spent sleeping. You look as though you have not been young for a very long time, perhaps ever. By that I mean you have old soul. You know what I am talking about, maybe?”

Milhous nods. Spyridoula reaches a hand across the table to cup his cheek and strokes it gently with her thumb. Her hand is warm from the coffee mug, and the warmth travels through Milhous’s face like the swell of the ocean.

“You are haunted by the ghosts of men,” she says. “It makes you very sad. But also very noble, I think, maybe.” Spyridoula laughs and breaks whatever their connection had been. “Working here, I meet a lot of people. You are different to them but also same. Same problems, same issues. Everybody same. You and I are same, under all this.” She cups her large breasts with each hand and, as Milhous blushes, laughs with real joy.

* * *

On his way to meet Alastor, Milhous considers the weight of his legacy. Perhaps this job as a clown is best for him. A kind of penance. There is a quote of Buddha’s, or maybe the Bhagavad-Gita, that he half-remembers. It flies from his mind. Something about trees and forests?

Alastor, perhaps five-four with thick gray eyebrows that threaten to spring off his face at any moment, meets him outside the enclosed rodeo. The place looks like an aircraft hangar—all sharp edges and corrugated metal. “Thank you so much for this opportunity,” Milhous says.

“What opportunity? This is not the glamorous lifestyle. You will work hard.”

Milhous nods. He is ready for this. He puts his hair back in a ponytail. “Is there any training I’ll need to do?”

“Training? For what?”

“A… The clown job. Rodeo clown.”

“Clown?” Alastor laughs. “What has Spyridoula been telling you, my friend? I am the clown myself. You will be a cleaner. You will do the odd jobs. But, if you like, you can be my assistant. But why you would want this I do not know,” Alastor says, running his fingers across his thick black mustache and gesturing behind him at the stadium. “No one wants this job. They fall into it, usually, from other failed years.”

The rodeo, Milhous discovers, is on the verge of dying. It has a skeleton staff of about fifteen—mostly farm-hands employed part-time to get some extra cash, but they do everything from working at the box office to preparing the arena for the next show to cleaning the bathrooms. It is in this crowd that Milhous finds himself most at home. There is a swift and silent camaraderie that accompanies hard physical labor. He learns their names through implication, never asking but remaining a keen observer. Their lives unfold in his mind like a surreptitious note passed in school: Josh, tall and lanky and just on the cusp of middle age, who washed out of the Air Force Academy about fifteen years ago and now lives in Denver with his girlfriend and her daughter; Miguel, the son of immigrants, who just wants to make enough money to take his next round of classes in biology at the Community College of Denver; Emilia, about fifty, has worked on farms her whole life and just likes the experience of working with animals. She works with the bulls and horses—huge, intimidating beasts, Milhous learns. They’re kept off-site at a local farm, tended to by the staff there (mostly Emilia and her husband and three sons) and are transported in as necessary.

“They can look scary,” she says the night before a show, stroking a horse’s forehead gently. “The whole deal is that we rile them up. They go crazy. They’re normally not like that.”

“Isn’t that inhumane?” Milhous asks. “To get them all angry like that for no real reason?”

“There’s a reason,” she says. “People pay money to see it.”

Later that night, Milhous begins his other job of shadowing Alastor, who plasters his face with pancake makeup and brushes his wiry silver hair with red dye. Once the job is done, and he has fully assumed his alter ego of Chocko, he will answer to nothing else. Milhous primarily spends this time fetching lots of beer for Chocko. Alastor had seemed to Milhous to be a temperate and restrained man when they had first met, but Chocko seems to guzzle the beer by the case with complete abandon, cracking one open before the previous one is even half finished. By the time he heads out to face the audience, he has somehow passed beyond drunk into a kind of perfect sobriety. He is smooth-motioned and quick on his feet, able to nimbly dance for the audience and away from the bulls. And he is funny. Milhous has to admit that. Even though Chocko says nothing at all, he is somehow still very funny.

On Friday, as they wait in the cramped dressing room for the show to begin, Chocko begins to speak in long strings of tangentially-connected statements and questions. His fingers twitch incesantly. His eyes are dilated, his skin flushed. From a cabinet in the corner he pulls out a sheet of blotter paper. “Lysergic acid diethylamide,” he says. “It is the full name. I have found it is good for everything.”

Milhous remembers the purity of the first time. Chocko hands him a tab. “There you are, my friend,” and he lifts up the tab in a mock salute. “To your health!”

The effects of the acid kick in soon after Chocko leaves for his portion of the show. The high feels pleasant at first, until the cream-colored phone in the corner of the dressing room rings.

“Hello?”

“I hope you enjoy our present,” Ehrlichman says. “We found you, you son of a bitch. You think we’re going down with you?”

Milhous slams the phone down and feels shards of ice slosh through his veins. He opens the mini-fridge and drinks beer to the sound of the laughing crowd—first just two beers, then another and another and another, until the warmth of alcohol flutters around inside his head, thick and buzzing like a swarm of bees making honey. He is able to forget about Ehrlichman and Haldeman, about Pat—is able, in fact, to simply exist. The world swims around him in a pleasant way, and he imagines himself to be a goldfish in an aquarium, and all of a sudden he no longer has legs but a giant fin that flaps around on the floor.

The door to the dressing room opens, and Pat walks in wearing a sexy little red-and-black number that Milhous remembers very well. Her arms are wrapped around herself as she leans against the doorframe. “Hello, Dick,” she says.

Milhous is dumbfounded. “Pat,” he says, straightening up in the chair. It is hard to gain traction now that his bottom half is all fish. He feels silly, talking to Pat, especially now that he’s realized his upper half has somehow, in the past few minutes, become covered in full clown makeup and dress. When did that happen? It doesn’t matter. He wants to apologize for not having called her, for all these wasted years, for why he is who he is, but all he does, all he can do, is reach up to his plastic nose and honk it at her sadly.

Somewhere in the distance, he hears a commotion, some screams. The sound washes away his scaly lower half, and the clown makeup, and Pat. Milhous, unsure of what’s happening, stumbles to his feet and out into the dark hallway that leads to the auditorium. He clutches the wall, still high, and as he walks he seems to become twelve feet tall, his swelling head nearly bumping into the ceiling. A cluster of people, wrapped around a stretcher, are heading his way. Alastor is on the stretcher. He has been gored in the right hip—all kinds of bandages are now soaked through with dark blood. It won’t stop bleeding. Alastor’s eyes look like milk-glass in the dim light of the hallway.

“Oh Jesus oh Jesus,” Alastor says over and over. It is not a curse but a prayer.

The sound of a murmuring crowd is unsettling—Milhous has experienced it before, recognizes the angry and confused voices that collectively sound like a disturbed wasp’s nest. Paranoia seeps into all of Milhous’s pores, fills his lungs like oxygen. He peeks at the crowd from around the corner and sees a man dressed all in black waiting in the rafters of the arena with a sniper rifle. He looks very much like Oliver, his mailman in San Clemente. The thought crosses his mind, then firmly lodges itself there, that Alastor had in fact not been gored but had rather been the victim of the attack Ehrlichman and Haldeman had intended for Milhous. All that makeup must have confused them, and they squeezed off a shot at the wrong target.

Milhous had always imagined his life would be transfigured by his own violent death at the hands of another. Assassination before one’s time sealed your fate as a figure of history. He grabs his belongings from the dressing room, decides to roll up the blotter paper and take it as well, and heads for the parking lot. He sits in his car, ducking low in the seat as the crowd—and the would-be assassin—shuffle out of the arena. His nerves calm over time like boiling water removed from heat.

* * *

That night, Milhous leaves, drives through the night, listening to nothing but the rush of wind through open windows. He does not stop for food. He does not even notice, not in any meaningful way, that time passes. When he does stop at 3:30 in the morning, it is because the car is low on gas. He pulls into a small self-service station somewhere in the flat of Nebraska that is surrounded by irrigated soy fields. He gives the cashier a crisp ten-dollar bill. As he puts the metal nozzle in his car and breathes deeply of the oddly satisfying smell of fresh gasoline, he notices that a young man, perhaps early thirties, has been staring at him from across the way at the diesel pump, his eighteen-wheeler truck towering over them both. Milhous feels a righteous anger at the man’s impropriety, and walks over to him.

“Excuse me,” Milhous says. “What are you looking at? What’s so interesting?” As he speaks, he clenches inwardly, preparing for whatever may come—not from the young man, but from within himself.

“Nothing,” the man says, confused. He has strawberry-blond hair, long and stringy like pasta.

Milhous’s fingertips are pulsing with energy now; the adrenaline surges through his body. This man knows who he is. Milhous is tense, taut like a pulled string, ready to throw a punch. His nose aches to be broken.

“Who do you think I am? Do you even know?”

“Look, I don’t want any trouble, man, I’m just—”

Milhous pulls his arm back like an arrow being notched and launches it into the young man’s temple. He doesn’t go down, not yet, but he stumbles backward, clutching his head.

“Jesus, man, what’d you do that for?”

Milhous shoves him to the ground, slams onto his chest with both knees and full body weight. There is the crack of bone and cartilage as his sternum pops loose. Ribs float rudderless in the man’s chest as he lies on the cold asphalt. Milhous stands over him like an enraged gorilla, dripping sweat, punching the man’s face and neck. He knows the only reason he is victorious is because of the element of surprise, the sucker punch.

The gas station attendant is on the phone, undoubtedly coordinating with Ehrlichman and Haldeman. Milhous fishes in his pocket for two crumpled fifties, throws them in the man’s direction. They roll on the asphalt limply in the wind.

“This never happened,” Milhous says.

Twenty minutes later there is the flashing of police lights in his rearview mirror. Milhous senses the noose being tightened around his neck, but they speed past him, cutting open the night like a scalpel.

* * *

Milhous’s property sells soon after he leaves Denver—for a less-than-expected three-hundred thousand—and his agent deposits the money in his account, allowing Milhous to continue to live as free as he wants for as long as he likes. Milhous knows the money is tainted—it must be—tracked by the FBI and CIA and maybe even the KGB. But he embraces its freedom, temporary though it may be—and so he takes to the road again, following its painted lines and cheap motels like the swell of the tide.

Eventually, the tide brings him to Boston. He has not gone there specifically to track down Pat, but once the idea occurs to him that he might be able to see her again, he finds himself unable to dislodge it from his mind.

He has grown thin in the months on the road. His ribcage pokes upward through flesh, his collarbone like a coat hanger. The night of his arrival in Boston, he stops at a pay phone and examines the phone book. There is one Pat Ryan, her maiden name, listed as living at 127 Knight Avenue. He buys a map at a drug store and draws the route with a pen.

Knight Avenue is a dark street—there are two streetlamps blaring into the night sky, one at either end of the long, suburban lane, but 127 lies somewhere in the middle, and Milhous slows his car as he looks for numbers on mailboxes and doorposts. Finally—there it is, a little one-story ranch house with a long cement walkway up to the front door and, at the end of a gravel driveway, a little detached one-car garage off to the side. There are a few lights on inside, casting shadows against thick canvas curtains. He parks his car on the opposite side of the street and waits.

He grabs some of the complimentary stationery he has taken from a motel room, and writes two letters, one to each of his daughters and their families. He apologizes for his absence, reminds them of his love for them and wishes them a happy and uneventful life. He would like to see them again one day, but understands if they would not want that. At the bottom of each letter, he signs “Dad.”

The front door of the house opens, and an older woman he recognizes as Pat’s aunt Sara emerges with a plastic bag of trash that she brings to the garage and deposits in a metal can, which she then drags to the curb. She glances around the street, at one point seeming to almost make eye contact with Milhous, but there is no recognition. In the night breeze, she lights up a cigarette, which seems to Milhous to be a signal to some unseen ally, an indication that he has been spotted. Behind him, a car’s headlights blare to life, and Milhous immediately leaves, tires skidding momentarily on gravel.

* * *

He stops only when he reaches Memphis; after booking a motel room under the name Alastor, his first act in this new city is to tear the letters to his daughters into tiny pieces and flush them down the toilet of his motel room. His family has been compromised, co-opted into this plot. Farewell, he thinks sadly as he watches the bits of paper spiral downwards.

That night, he orders pizza for dinner. When the driver arrives, Milhous instructs him through the door to leave the pizza on the ground and to take the money he had folded and placed under a rock just to the side of the bottom rail. He watches through the peephole as the driver leaves, and only emerges to take the pizza once he is satisfied the driver has actually left. Milhous finds he can only eat half of one slice before throwing it all back up.

As he cleans up the bathroom, the phone rings. He is unable to stop himself from picking it up.

“Where are you?”

It’s Pat’s voice. He is unsure if this is real—if any of this is real—but he says, “I can’t tell you.”

“I miss you,” she says. “We all do. Who are you? Who have you become?”

Milhous considers this. “Does it matter?” He hangs up.

He unplugs every electrical device in the room—the TV, phone, refrigerator, oven, lamps. He unscrews every light bulb, pops one in a kitchen towel and sprinkles some broken glass on the linoleum right outside the bedroom door. This would serve as a warning to him if anyone were to be standing outside his room, waiting and listening. He enters his room and locks the door, falls into a fitful sleep wherein he dreams that he is falling towards hell—tumbling end over end into a devouring blackness, and as he falls he passes a small, floating island of grass where he sees himself sitting at a wooden desk, clean-shaven and wearing a suit, muttering to himself, “I've had state dinners with those who hold power such that you can’t even imagine; I've seen world leaders rise up and fall into obscurity; I’ve seen the sun rise over this great nation; I went to China, for God’s sake…” but Milhous falls past himself, into ever-increasing darkness.

* * *

The phone calls stop in Seattle, when he meets Mary after a night of heavy drinking at Jason’s Tavern. “Mary,” he says as they walk to the parking lot at two in the morning. “Why did your parents call you that?”

“I don’t really know,” she says. “Never asked them. You? What does Alastor mean?”

“‘Avenging spirit,’” he says. “But Alastor is just a nickname.” He feels a safety and freedom with Mary, something he hasn’t felt in many years, perhaps ever. A compulsion to tell the truth grips him. Waves of deception seem to slip from his shoulders. “My real name’s…Richard.”

“Richard. I like that name. It’s a good name.”

“I was named after Richard the Lionheart,” he says quietly. “One of the great kings of England.”

“That’s really cool,” Mary says.

“It is,” he says as though realizing it for the first time.

From a thin metal case she produces hand-rolled joints and offers one to Richard. The two of them smoke in the light of the rising sun and talk. Later, she will tell him how she used to be a prostitute in New Orleans before winning a couple thousand in the lottery. She’d used the winnings to move with her young son to Seattle, where she now works as a bank teller. She will reveal to Richard over a shared bottle of wine how her father used to molest her, how her mother kept it a secret to protect the family. But all of that will come later. For now, in this moment, Richard feels suddenly protective of Mary, like a goose gathering its brood beneath its wings. He notices, as she walks, that she has one foot made of plastic. She tells him it’s due to a childhood accident involving her brother and a lawnmower. Despite this handicap, she has learned to carry weight on the foot now such that you couldn’t tell.

 

image: Mike McGowan


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