Mike Hancock is a former hunting guide and commercial fisherman. He spent seven years guiding elk, deer, and bear hunters in Montana, Idaho,...read more Wyoming and New Mexico. Prior to that he was a deckhand for two seasons aboard a factory trawler in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Now living in Dallas, Texas, he is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. He holds a B.A. in English Literature and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
"Ben the Bear" is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, "Fallen". This is a story of fathers and sons and of emotional bonds that transcend culture and time. Set in the looming mountains of Northwest Montana in 1870 and 1997, the novel chronicles the lives of Grey Bear, a distraught Piegan warrior in the aftermath of the Marias Massacre, and Calvin, a tortured young hunting guide, as they endure hardships and abuse, both seeking redemption in an untamed wilderness.
MY MAMA HAS BEEN BAD AGAIN. I know because he’s yelling at her. She is always bad on Fridays and Saturdays, almost always. He’s gone those days, like he is every day. Don’t matter if he’s working or not, Mama says, he’s gone, just leaves. But it’s when he comes back on those nights, in the middle of the night, when I wake to the breaking things, thumps against the walls and him yelling and my mama screaming, that I know she has been bad again.
I know that my mama says he’s my father and I know that he sometimes, on good days, calls me son. I don’t think he likes me too much most days.
He works all day during the week for my granddad putting roofs on houses, comes home to my mama and me when he gets done. Red face from the sun, sweaty, his eyes almost shut like it’s hard for him to see.
Supper’s always ready when he walks in, it’s his rule for Mama. The house smells of fried pork chops or tomatoes and roast beef. I don’t talk. I just go to my room and shut the door when he walks in. That’s my rule.
I always wait in my room, almost always sit in the chair Dad bought for me when he went to Mexico. Chair’s little and made just for me. With my TV tray pulled up, I like to look out the window at the squirrels playing in the big oak tree or watch Mr. Sheppard next door working in his yard. Sometimes I can hear him talking to himself and sometimes he doesn’t walk too good. He doesn’t much care for me but I still like to watch him.
My mama always brings me my supper. She likes to pet the top of my head before she leaves. I eat by myself. She said I can’t eat with them because he’s tired and he wants quiet. Mama looked like something was wrong when she told me that, like she had been stung by a fire ant. I was lonely at first because I don’t see her again until she takes my plate away, then later when she kisses me goodnight and tucks me in.
Sometimes Mama watches me sleep. Well, she thinks I’m asleep but I’m just pretending. She’ll open the door real quiet and watch. But one time I half-opened my eyes and it wasn’t Mama but my father. He had a smile on his face and then he shut the door. I think he wants to be good to me sometimes but can’t. Don’t know why.
But then one day Mama brought Ben the bear and now I’m not so lonely.
He’s a big bear, almost as big as me. He’s got chocolate brown fur all over. Friendly round face and little furry ears. I was eating one day in my room when my mama brought him in. Eating and humming a song that I heard watching cartoons. That’s what I like to do in my room. Not just hum, but I’ll sing too. Songs Maw Maw sings to me when I’m over there, or songs from Mama’s records she plays when she gets home from work, which is way before he gets home.
She brought him in, hiding him behind her back but it didn’t work because I saw the brown fur sticking out. Ben is a big bear.
“Hey, baby, got a new friend for you.”
She showed me the bear and I dropped my fork and ran up and hugged it.
“Thank you, Mama, thank you!”
“You’re welcome, sugar. What you gonna name him?”
“Ben! I want to name him Ben! Like Grizzly Adams, Mama!”
“Okay, Calvin, okay. Finish your supper and I’ll be back in a little bit.” And she left, closing the door quiet.
That was a long time ago, now me and Ben go everywhere together. When Mama goes to work she takes me and Ben to Maw Maw and Dad’s house. Maw Maw will take me to preschool and come pick me up, but Mama always gets me when she’s done working. To all the different places I go every day, Ben goes too.
I like Maw Maw. She lets me go outside and play with their dogs or with all the toys that Dad buys me. Me and Ben are never bored over there. They have a big backyard with a pecan tree. I set Ben up on a branch while I let Dusty, my favorite dog, out to play. He’s a fox terrier and follows me wherever I go.
I don’t get to see Dad a whole lot because he’s always working. He drives around and tells people what to do when they’re putting roofs on houses. He drives a brown truck with ladders on it, but he also has a big red dump truck with six wheels at his work. He always lets me sit in the cab when they’re not using it.
That’s another thing I do when I’m at Maw Maw’s. On days I don’t have school sometimes Maw Maw will take me to go see Dad. Me and Ben ride around with him all day. Dad says he really likes Ben because they have the same first name, and because brown is his favorite color.
Sometimes we’ll ride to Dallas to visit a house that’s clustered together with other houses and there’s people all over, and on other days we’ll ride out to the country where there’s woods and creeks, not like the creek by my house but way bigger. Dad says there’s bears in the woods by those creeks but not to be scared because I’m friends with a bear and the other bears will be my friends, too.
Dad is always smoking a cigar and telling me stories and talking. And we always, always go by and get ice cream after we’re done working. There’s a shop close to his house that serves all kinds of flavors, but he always gets a chocolate malt and I always get a double dip vanilla cone. Then he’ll take me home.
Only there’s a secret.
Mama says I should call Dad “Paw Paw” when I’m at home, and especially around my father. She says he won’t like it if he knows I’m calling my granddad “Dad”. I told her that I won’t do it at home, but I think it doesn’t matter much anyway. I don’t tell her that because she is worried about it and I don’t like when she worries.
All of these things happened a long time ago but tonight I wake up to the screams and I know that she has been bad again. I feel around in the dark for Ben and I find the soft fur of his back. He is on the edge of the bed and has almost fallen down, but I pull him back close to me.
I feel the cold button of his black nose on my face and his furry arm around my neck. Ben’s warm and he protects me. My fan is set on high like I like it, moving back and forth, humming in my ears. It’s a good sound.
Voices I barely hear through the walls.
Deep voice, then my mama.
Bad words, stinging words, tearing words. Hurt people.
“You remember when we played with Dusty yesterday, Ben?” I whisper to him.
Shiny black eyes looking back at me.
“It was fun, wasn’t it? Dusty’s silly. He wants to play with you but I think he would be too rough so I don’t let him.”
Glass breaking. Scream. Deep voice talking.
“Don’t mean to hurt you though, Ben. He’s a good dog.”
I hold Ben closer to me, brown fur on my cheek. The fan’s humming and I see it in the dark, moving back and forth.
He’s calling her the bad names again. Mama screams for him to leave her alone and then she calls him a bad name. I hold Ben tighter, find a place underneath him and the humming fan where the bad words won’t go.
Loud smack. I hear her cry. Different cry this time, a new cry, a new scared.
“Hiding place, Ben. Let’s go to the hiding place.”
I feel underneath the bed for the big chalkboard that I like to draw pictures on. I bring it out, dragging it behind me as I crawl with my elbows with Ben tucked under my arm. I get into the space under my desk and close myself up with the chalkboard, curl up in the corner.
I peek through my hiding place at the door, see the shine on the handle in the dark. Mama’s still crying through the walls. I listen for him but don’t hear him. Back of Ben’s head getting wet from my breath, wind from the fan coming in.
Then something happens on my insides. Never happened before on the Fridays and Saturdays, something different. A feeling. I felt scared before and I cried, but now I feel something more.
Mad at him and his hurting words. Him hurting my mama. I was scared before but now I have Ben the bear, and Ben will protect me, keep me safe, because he is my friend. Maybe, I think, maybe I’ll give Ben to my mama, just on the Fridays and Saturdays to keep her safe from him.
That’s what I’ll do. I’ll bring her Ben.
I bring Ben close to me. Got to get brave. Brave like Mighty Mouse. He’s little like me but that doesn’t stop him from getting the bad guys. Try to get up but scared, so scared but then I hear my mama crying through the walls and the sound makes me mad so I push the chalkboard away and crawl to the door.
Bumping into things, toys, my chair. I’m cold. I hear her cry, a long cry. Makes me afraid and so I hold Ben, hold my breath. Gotta keep going because Mama’s hurt and she needs me this time.
I stand up in the dark and my hand’s on the door knob now. Turn it slow and open the door. Mama’s just around the corner, just past the kitchen. No more walls now. My bare feet touch the cold of the kitchen floor. I try to be real quiet. Don’t make a sound. Lamp in the living room is turned on so I can see now even though it’s still dark in the kitchen.
I can see the couch but can’t see what’s in front of it. Don’t know where he is. Brave like Mighty Mouse. Got Ben so it’s okay. Mama needs him and he’ll make it better. Breathing too loud, gotta breathe quiet.
Mama’s stopped crying. Just sobbing now, not out in the open, but like her head’s in a pillow. See something move on the end of the couch. Her foot. So she’s lying down, resting. Maybe he’s gone.
He’s gone, and I’ll just put Ben the bear in her arms while she’s sleeping, and he’ll protect her. She’ll wake up and Ben will be there, and she’ll be okay. That’s what I’ll do.
No more cold kitchen floor, my feet feel the gray carpet of the living room. I’m warm from the gas heater and I don’t want to move anymore. This is the last safe place. One more step and I can see if he’s there. Don’t want to.
I sit down, quiet as I can, watching my mama’s foot, hear her breathing, sobbing. Funny smell, like cough syrup or the mouth wash Dad keeps on his bathroom counter. But different. And then I remember, because I smelled it before and my mama told me what it was. Whiskey, she said.
He’s not here. Gone to bed. Just me and Mama and Ben. She’s not crying anymore, just sleeping. Soft sounds of sleep. Good sounds. I stand up holding Ben, step forward, looking to see what was around the corner.
He leans over. I suck in my breath, hold it. He’s looking at me. Gets up from his chair.
I keep my bear between him and me. Ben will protect me because he’s my friend. Blue jeans, white t-shirt that’s not tucked in. Tear in his shirt at the collar. I look up at him and he’s staring at me. Eyes are red and they’re almost shut likes it’s hard for him to see. Hair messed up. I look down at his hands, big hands and they’re opening and closing.
“Why aren’t you in your room?”
Whiskey smell coming down at me, scary voice, nose hurting because of the smell. Try to talk but nothing comes out so I shake my head back and forth.
“Go to your room.”
Can’t look at his blue eyes gone red, not even with Ben. Then I hear myself talk, doesn’t sound like my talk, like somebody else said it.
“I want to talk to Mama.”
“Yeah? Well I want to talk to you.” He walks back to the coffee table. I see the big bottle, the whiskey, almost empty, just a little bit of yellow at the bottom. Next to it I see the regular stuff, papers and magazines and letters but I also see one of my things, my green tractor, one of my favorites. Mama’s still sleeping on the couch next to him and he picks my tractor up and looks back at me.
“What’s the rule about toys in the living room?”
He’s looking at me all quiet but then I see Mama wake up and she sits up real fast. She sees me and her face changes. She looks scared.
“Calvin, go to your room now,” she says, her voice different like my voice is different, sounding like she’s five like me. Her face is different, too. White, no color except around her eyes, red and puffy and one of them has purple around it. I want to run to her and put Ben in her arms because Ben will make it better, he’ll make her look like Mama again. But he’s in between us and I’m lost, don’t know what to do. Do what Mama says, I think, so I take a step back and start to turn.
I stop and look back, looking over Ben’s shoulders at him.
“No. You didn’t answer my question. What’s the rule about toys in the living room?”
Bad smell coming down hurting my nose when he talks. Mama scared looking at me quiet. My tummy doesn’t feel good, bad feelings, tears in my eyes. Hiding place. Need to be in my hiding place.
He takes a step closer to me, slow, leans down, staring at me with his red eyes, bad smelling whiskey in my face and hurting my stomach. I try to hide behind Ben, my eyes just looking over his brown fur. So scared and I feel something warm and wet down there, went to the bathroom in my pants. Not supposed to do that. Can’t breathe and I start to cry, try to hold it in.
“That’s right. No toys.”
Hands coming at me all blurry, fast like a snake. He’s got Ben now, holding him up, Ben the bear. Tears his head off, soft white cotton everywhere, Ben’s body falling to the table and bouncing off to the floor. Cotton coming down slow like snowflakes everywhere.
I drop to the floor and curl up, head between my arms and I cry, cry harder than I ever did. I see something move real fast and it’s my mama jumping off the couch, eyes mad.
“You bastard! Oh, you sorry mother fucking bastard! He’s only five years old!”
I see him turn with Ben’s head still in his hand and he hits her face hard and my mama screams, hits him back with her fists, again and again. He picks her up and throws her on the coffee table, magazines and papers everywhere, table legs breaking, Mama rolling off and onto the floor, blood now, blood all over her face and she crawls to the corner of the room and I cry louder.
He looks down at me and I curl up in a ball, tight as I can, so scared. I make a sound I haven’t heard before, high whining sound, don’t know why so scared. He kicks me in the ribs hard and I’m going sideways now, hurts so bad. Can’t see real good now, everything dizzy and spinning around me, can’t see no more cotton, no more magazines, no more Mama. Need Ben.
Behind me, picking up my favorite tractor, holding it in his big hands, looking down at me, red eyes and bad whiskey smell.
“Take your fucking toys to your room!”
His arm comes back fast and he throws my tractor and it hits me in the back and it hurts so bad I scream, scream make it go away, make it all go away. Gotta get up now, gotta go to my hiding place. Go to the hiding place. Running to my room, everything dizzy, slamming the door, crying, running in the dark, crawling to my hiding place, chalkboard up and I’m in my corner. Think about good things now, Maw Maw’s songs, think about Dusty and Dad and ice cream, good things. But those good things aren’t here, not here in my hiding place in the dark.