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December 9, 2014 | Fiction

Not This Town

Tina V. Cabrera

Not This Town photo

The fact that it happened at the town's polar bear research station is irrelevant. A polar bear didn't kill the child. The day shift station janitor just happened to have his pet bear with him that day. He happened to own a bear that he kept as a pet in his basement. One day – the day of the tragedy – Janitor Man's basement flooded and so he had no choice but to take Bear with him to work. Bear remained in the cage in the back of Janitor Man's van while he worked his shift.

But this story isn't really about Janitor Man or Bear, not even about the child who was killed. Child – the victim of the tragedy let's call it – cannot be adequately described because he died before the age of five, before the age of a stable, unique identity. In what psychoanalysts call the imaginary, he was not able to separate himself from Bear or any other object in the world. So we can assume that in a sense, when Bear consumed him, Child was already part of Bear and Bear part of Child.

Are you following? Think about it. It isn't lazy to refrain from offering a detailed description of a toddler who wobbles like all other toddlers and excuse the nomenclature – 'they all look the same,' eyes too big for their heads, drooling mouths more gums and lips than teeth. Already I go too far. 

This story isn't even about the polar bear research station that made the town famous by its advanced research capabilities, or how a simpleton like Janitor Man ended up working there. As hard as it may be to accept as coincidence, the fact that the station researches bears and that Janitor Man owned a bear really is coincidental. One might imagine that what drew him to the station in the first place is the residence of specimen bears, considering that he chose a bear as a pet; he must be drawn to all bears. Such reasoning would be similar to assuming that because I have children of my own, I will choose a place of work involving children in the work place, like a hospital or school, which isn't so. In fact, say I so dislike my job of raising children (I have two of my own), I have chosen (whether subconsciously or unconsciously) a career that for the most part, avoids the presence of any children at all. Say I work in a cubicle set off by twelve other cubicles by foldable walls for the state historical society, as say an assistant editor. My coworkers and I are not allowed to bring their children to work.

This is pure conjecture. I am the all-knowing narrator and thus do not own a stable, identifiable identity.

This story isn't about me either. This mini-narrative is about assumptions, as you might have guessed. The town with the renowned polar bear research station assumed the child was merely missing, rather than consumed. I know what you're thinking. The two are not mutually exclusive. That is, when one, like Child, is said to have been consumed, eaten and digested, one could also be said to be missing, in that one is simply not there anymore. Forgive me if my words form as grotesque a mental picture in your head as it does in mine, assuming of course that you're imagining Bear tearing in to poor Child's body – head first maybe, then neck and limbs, or another stage in the process, the end of it all where only bits and parts remain, kind of like road kill, only Child wasn't killed on the road. He was killed in the back of Janitor Man's van. Let me explain.

For this story to be complete, we need to return to the acquisition of Bear by Janitor Man. Assuming that this story has all the expected fixings. I the all knowing.

You'll say the notion of a man – or anyone for that matter – owning a pet bear and keeping it in the basement is a stretch of the imagination. If you've wandered around this world enough, you'll know that stranger things have happened. 

You're sitting at the hair salon inside Wal Mart, waiting to get 15 foils of blond highlights for the special price of $39.99. A fella who looks like he might be named Bubba strides in wearing a dirty football jersey and looking for LuLu. He asks D.J., the gal who's appointed to do your hair, where's LuLu? Bubba need a haircut bad. He's playing semi-pros tonight and he’s gotta look good. D.J. says LuLu isn't working a shift today on account of being sick. Shee-it! says Bubba, who come to find is named Travis after all. Me and LuLu go way back, Travis adds, hell we used to date. I need her to get her ass in here asap!  D.J. in her soft-spoken way says, well if you wait just a minute while I get this client going, I'll go on and give you her number, and you think to yourself, can one not quote a phone number while mixing hair paint? We go way back too, adds D.J. to Travis, known each other since we were 16. Well alright then, Travis says as he plops his big ass in that there chair, staring at you with 5 foils now attached to your hair. You allow your eyes to dwell on the page in your book longer than it takes to read a page of that length. You can feel Travis staring while he twirls around in the chair, kicking up his cowboy-booted feet. D.J. finally quotes LuLu's number, which makes you cringe, not because you care one way or another, but because D.J. ought not to have given her 'we-go-way- back' friend's number away so easily, to the first stranger claiming loyal friendship, the first Bubba or Travis to come storming in. Travis makes a show of it - dialing LuLu's number 949-822-1343. You repeat the number in your head rather than reading the same page you've been on for ten minutes. You wait to hear Travis curse because maybe he’s reached Pizza Hut instead, but apparently Lu-Lu has answered the phone and will be there in ten. Wow. So Travis brags, we go way back, she's my gal. She'll be here. Meanwhile, Travis repeats the fact that he plays semi-pro football in Arlington, Texas. Why do you have to say Texas, I know Arlington is in Texas, D.J. smart-assedly says. Well, says Travis, in his mock smart voice, you know there is an Arlington, Virginia. Really? D.J. says, and you're kind of amazed that there's a shade of intelligence in that looks-like-a-peach head. I have a game tonight, he says, either that or me and my buds will go gambling. Way to go Trav. The semi-pros mean so much to you. The stains on his shirt say he's already played. Or maybe he stuck in hand in his behind and wiped it on said shirt. The way his jeans sag down and show his big ass butt crack tells you that he might have pulled an all-nighter. Travis is loud, and he's scary. He's only waited for like two minutes and he dials LuLu again, get your ass over here girl, asap! Hey, D.J. says with a slightly raised voice, hold your horses. If you really know LuLu like I do, you know she will whip your ass for talking like that. Yeah right, Travis drawls, and you can't believe you're getting your hair cut inside a Wal Mart, with a guy who should be named Bubba staring at your hair, in flesh and blood, like a scene out of trailer-trash TV, too stereotypical or ridiculous to be reality. You're taking mental notes.

In comes LuLu in sweat pants and wet hair. I thought you was sick, says Bubba/ Travis. This won't be pretty. Hell Lu, what took you so damn long? Lu hits Travis upside the head and pinches his ear and tells him not to curse or swear. This is a fine family establishment. D.J. puts you under the dryer and gives you the eye, the one that says these people have issues, and then she says, these people have issues. 

In and out of consciousness of the place where you actually are, you learn that this town you live in really is small. You've been living here for only 3 months, and already you know that LuLu and Travis used to be a thing, that LuLu is now single two boyfriends later, the last one having shouted something on a street corner when LuLu ran after him, something like Later Bitch! You put two and two together and surmise that Travis and LuLu are probably not presently sleeping together, and that LuLu puts up with a lot of crap. You reason that D.J. and LuLu are likely better friends. D.J. stays at this lousy minimum wage paying job for LuLu's sake, who does not want to work here without her best friend. Something about Travis, who says he went and kicked the ass of some fella to a pulp. You don't know for what. You assume it didn't take much to light Travis' fuse. Something about some chick being a bitch because she smokes and drinks while being pregnant, even stalking men, at bars, bitch shouldn't be at bars. Well that ain’t no thing, interjects LuLu, after all this is small town Texas. Still, Travis hates that bitch. It occurs to you that one day you will probably run into Lulu, or D.J., or Bubba/Travis by pure coincidence in the town square. And you do. You recognize the bad haircut and jersey, which is now clean.

Stranger things have happened perhaps, yes. The latter story might meet the standard of a little less strange than stranger things, which means we're talking about range, the range of strange things. Janitor Man did not get his pet bear from a circus, which you might assume. He went camping one summer with a couple of buddies when they were attacked by hungry bears. Actually, I all knowing, there was only one bear, and it was a cub that came upon their camp with great hunger. Bear knocked down their sardine and beer cans, which made a ruckus in the dead of night, which woke them from their tents and sleeping bags. Janitor Man's buddies were not about to go and help him take the cub home, knowing it was illegal and all. I all knowing am not lazy. This part of the narrative counts as irrelevant. Let's just jump to the part where Janitor Man felt quite taken with Bear, whom he fed the last can of Black and Tan. They became instant friends, as Bear was as yet Baby Bear and not of the age to make a killing, of a large human being. Janitor Man named little bear, Bubba. That's how the latter story is relevant. For now on we'll call Bear Bubba. 

Admit it. You want to jump to the part about Bubba tearing into Child, who still has no identifiable name. This story isn't about Child; it's about the town and its assumptions. But since I cannot narrate the story of the assuming town without touching on what it is they assumed upon, I will tell you the parts of the Bubba/Child story that will elucidate they and their assumings. 

The day was glorious, in the way the sun – once it came up – stayed so sunny in the sky, shining on all those in the town. The breeze coming through the just-enough-of-a-crack in the back of the van windows stirred Bubba in the way only a Bear can be stirred. Bubba happened to also be hungry. As you might have guessed, Child was left unattended by his single-parent mommy who (against the station's rules) brought Child to work in lieu of leaving him at home, as babysitter called in sick with the stomach flu. How did Child get into the van? I all knowing happen not to know that part of the story. However, it's safe to assume that Janitor Man unwittingly left the door unlocked – no –

part way open, as Child was too small to understand that the door of the van was unlocked. But hanging partway open –  

Say Child managed to get in to the back of the van, and say inadvertently unlatched the door to the cage, which Janitor Man, in his hurriedness that morning left unlocked. Now Bubba is a bear, not a man, and as such must feed his hunger indiscriminately. Maybe Child would have survived if he had pooped his pants, because this species of a bear is not known to eat humans who smell of human excrement. But as Child was past the diaper stage and fully potty-trained, he smelled just like bacon and eggs, which is what his neglectful mother fed him that morning. The rest, well, I'll leave to your imagination.

Back to the town and its assumptions. Bubba in fact, ate all of Child, leaving not a trace, except for the nipple part of his pacifier. You'll say that earlier I led you to believe that bits of Child remained. Let me remind you that that was what I had imagined, and as you're well aware, we as human beings have the faculty of initiating mental images without any prior facticity. That's what I did, and what I assume you did, imagine the worst-case scenario. Which isn't to say that being completely devoured is worst or better than the other possibility. 

Once Child was nowhere to be found, and the allotted time of 24 hours passed, Child's mother and her kin and friends assumed that Child was only missing. That Child was mysteriously missing, from their sight, vicinity, from their very lives. They didn't jump to the latter assumption until much later, something like a year and two weeks. 

They and the town assumed the usual suspects - kidnapping, or wandering into the woods, where he’d eventually be found. Maybe the reason the town did not assume the truth, that in fact Child was eaten by Bubba the Bear, is because no one knew that Janitor Man owned a pet bear, which he took to work that tragic day. Even his buddies who watched him capture Bubba as a cub didn't know that Janitor Man made the tragic decision to have Bubba accompany him to the Polar Bear Research station, the only place where bears can legally dwell other than the state zoo. If only Janitor Man had asked his bosses permission to keep Bubba in a cage in one of the observatory rooms, perhaps Child would be here today, all grown into a fully formed human being with an identifiable name, part of the symbolic order, where bears sometimes represent man's kinship to the animal kingdom so well, depending on the context. This brings us to Janitor Man and his knowing. Relevant or not, you decide, he was the only one who knew that Bubba killed Child. He did not assume, he knew with the lucidity of someone in possession of all his faculties. The remaining pacifier gave it away, yes. But even if the thought crossed his mind that this was mere coincidence, he knew – as well as he knew the workings of a hungry bear, which is why he kept the horrid secret to himself. Why should Bubba pay the price for acting by pure instinct? Janitor Man knew that confessing on the part of Bubba would not bring poor Child back.

Even if the town found out that Janitor Man owned a pet bear, we can assume that the idea of Bubba the adorable brown bear consuming a 4 year old child inside a van on the polar bear research station premises, with no witnesses to speak of, would never cross their minds. All they do in this town is un-reflect. They mingle among one another passively in a state of banality, thinking upon matters not too terribly strange. So that even if the thought of a bear tearing into the body of a small child did in fact cross their minds, it would not remain and blossom there. Not there. Maybe it would in another world much stranger than theirs.

image: Tara Wray


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