Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Dogs Named Bear

The first dog I knew named Bear belonged to a neighbor when I was in grade school and had to pass that red house with the high hedge on my way to the bus. The branches in the hedge were thick as forearms; the whole green wall, impenetrable. Every day, Bear ran back and forth inside, barking his throat raw. I saw nothing of him except blurred brown, but sometimes I could hear his hard panting and heavy footfalls. Those were worse than his bark. I walked by as fast as I could, head down, but I dared not run. I was sure that if I ran it would wind Bear up so tight he’d sproing right through the hedge and knock me down and sink his teeth into my neck. This went on for three years, until we moved away.

Next came Little Bear and Big Bear. I was eleven and newly secure in my world. We lived among wooded hills and open fields in rural New England. The bus stopped at the end of our long driveway, and the most threatening thing I had to pass was a barbed-wire fence. Little and Big were sister and brother Newfoundlands, identical except for size. Their sweetness cured my fear of dogs. They drooled, but the only danger they posed was the rough joy in their large bodies. They could knock you down with love. I saw them all the time because they belonged to Suzie Dillinger, who was my best friend until we moved again.

Little and Big looked strikingly like the black bears that my parents and I sometimes saw ambling across fields or roads. The dogs were almost as big as real bears, which are smaller than most people think, and their thick black fur shone the way bears’ coats do. Which is why Suzie’s mom thought the hunched shape at the edge of the yard was one of her dogs. It wasn’t until the shape lumbered into the open and seized a chicken that she knew what it really was.

Black bears are naturally shy, and they avoid people altogether unless they think a cub is in danger. So Suzie’s mom thought something must be wrong with this brazen, chicken-stealing bear. She called the animal control people, and they said it was probably the same rogue bear that had been plundering gardens and garbage cans in the area. They said if it came back, she or her husband should shoot it. It would attack children or pets or small farm animals, given a chance.

Suzie’s dad was gone that week. He traveled a lot, and the dogs were instead of a gun. Suzie’s mom couldn’t have shot a bear if she’d wanted to, so she kept her children indoors.  There was Suzie, her seven-year-old brother, Ollie, and her baby sister, Katrina, who was three. The older kids were supposed to watch Katrina when their mom was in the basement doing laundry or had to run to the village for something. Suzie was twelve and very responsible, so it should have worked out fine.

But, a few days later, Ollie fell down the basement stairs and broke his ankle. He started screaming. Suzie’s mom ran to him and hollered at Suzie to call for help. In all the commotion, Katrina, who had a mind of her own, slipped outside, probably just because she could. That was when the bear decided to come back for another chicken. When he saw Katrina instead, he must have thought he’d won the bear version of a lottery. He zeroed in on her so fast, he never noticed Little and Big lying there in the shade.

The dogs did some damage to the bear and in return got only one clawed nose and one torn ear between them. Katrina was fine; she just sat in the dirt and cried until the dogs licked her all over and got her giggling. The paramedics arrived, saw the bear run off, checked Katrina, and set Ollie’s ankle. The bear never did come back to Suzie’s yard. It was finally shot a few weeks later by a nursery owner a mile away. He was allowed to keep the hide and make a rug from it.

We moved to an apartment near Boston when I was sixteen, and I soon met another dog named Bear, a Chow who belonged to Andy Schumacher, my first serious boyfriend. This Bear was unfriendly to me; he’d growl low in his throat when I joined Andy on his long dog-walks. Andy would jerk him up short on his leash. I didn’t like Bear any better than he liked me, and it didn’t help that his coat was the same brown I used to glimpse through that tall hedge as a child. We maintained our standoff for quite a while. I tried halfheartedly to befriend Bear, but he kept growling at me, and Andy kept yanking him back and saying, “No, Bear! Bad dog!”

Things warmed up between Andy and me a whole lot faster than with Bear. I had never done more than kiss a boy before, but Andy and I had a lot of opportunity to go further than that. He lived in the same apartment building I did, and all four of our parents worked full time. On days we didn’t have to work after school, we’d walk Bear and then go to one apartment or the other. We weren’t supposed to do this, but we figured we’d never get caught if we were careful not to be seen coming or going. We were careful, but we got caught anyway.

It was because we built a fire in Andy’s living-room fireplace. It was a bitter January day, with snow flying, and we felt frozen through by the time we got Bear home and wiped down his ice-crusted fur. We shivered in front of the fire for a long time before it threw real heat. When we were warm enough, we shed our coats and sweaters and lay down on some cushions. I took off my glasses, and Andy took off my turtleneck and bra and his sweatshirt. We kept our jeans on, but that didn’t keep us from coming, with all the rubbing we did.

Bear watched us. He still didn’t like me.

Finally, Andy and I cooled down a little and talked and laughed softly, there on the floor in front of the subsiding fire. I got chilly and reached for my clothes and a sweater and looked around for my glasses. Andy looked, too, but we couldn’t find them anywhere.

“Oh my God,” I cried. “My parents are going to kill me.”

“No they won’t,” Andy said soothingly. “Just say they fell out of your backpack or something.”

“You mean off my face!” I wailed. “I never take my glasses off. Ever, except to sleep. They’ll know.”

“Do you have an extra pair at home?”

I thought a minute. “Yeah, but they’re old. The prescription’s old.”

“Can you get by with them until you can afford new ones? I’ll help pay for them.”

This seemed a reasonable plan, especially since my old glasses looked a lot like the ones that had just disappeared.

I blamed Bear. I was convinced he had taken my glasses away in his teeth while Andy and I were making out. Where else could they have gone?

We soon found out. That very same night, Andy’s mom saw something glint in the ashes of our fire. She went over and fished out my charred frames. The lenses had fallen out and turned to blackened blobs. She reconstructed the make-out scene in a flash and confronted Andy and called my parents. As they turned their own bespectacled eyes on me, I suddenly remembered propping my glasses atop a stack of firewood on the hearth. That’s how out of it I was, how carried away by Andy’s hands and mouth on me. He must have reached over at some point, grabbed the first piece of wood he touched, and thrown it onto the fire without even looking.

Andy and I were forbidden to see each other for a month. We did get back together for a while, but something between us was banked down for good.

The last time we walked Bear was the only time that dog was ever nice to me. He even licked my hand when Andy and I kissed goodbye and promised we’d always be friends.

I think Bear sensed all along that if he waited patiently he’d have Andy to himself again.

Today I know another dog named Bear, a bookstore dog in the village who sleeps in an overstuffed chair and waits to be fondled by browsing customers. He’s a fuzzy black mutt, more cub-like than anything, except for the gray on his muzzle. He groans with pleasure when anyone scratches his ears, and he turns his belly upward for the same treatment. I’ve never even seen this Bear outside. Maybe he’s getting too old to run around much.

I have known, more casually, several other dogs named Bear. I think people name them after a larger, more menacing creature of another species for the same reason children love teddy bears: It’s all for comfort; it’s all a dream that nature and our own fears can be tamed like dogs.

Just try cuddling up to a real bear, though. Try understanding one, or, for that matter, try understanding a dog named Bear. Ask yourself if even a bookstore dog is really tame, is anything like the person it lives with. Try to see what dogs and bears are really like; do not be blinded by desire.

Kate Maloy is the author of a spiritual memoir, A Stone Bridge North: Reflections in a New Life (Counterpoint, 2002), and coauthor of Birth or Abortion? Private Struggles in a Political World (Plenum, 1992; Perseus, 2001). Her first novel, Everything Cold Can Teach, is currently under consideration by publishers. She is at work on her second novel, The Mothers.

Top photo courtesy of Nacu.
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A Stone Bridge North: Stories from a New Life
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