By most accounts, there are very few similarities between a dead frozen bear and a high school wrestler watching porn in the bathroom stall before a match. But as I gazed at the former, splayed in the frost, I couldn’t get the latter out of my head.
The woman who hit the bear with her car reported it herself. This was unusual. Typically, the Department of Transportation gets tips from commuters who have looked at the same roadkill for weeks. And in my three years working at DOT, nobody had ever hit a bear.
“It darted right out,” the lady said. “Don’t those cretins know there’s a highway?”
When I arrived on the scene, there was no sign of a collision except for a silver smear in the macadam. The Cadillac had launched the bear into rhododendron bushes by a creek thirty yards from the road. I decided to take notes, to name patterns. Something here reminded me of the disappearance of Kenny Pinto.
Even dead in the snow the bear unnerved me. Its cinnamon fur threatened to rise with each wind huff. Some hackle-raising mammal instinct said run! Instead I recorded how the river was the cruel color of Pepsi, where the car fender had indented the bear’s chest. Perhaps learning from this scene could quiet my obsession with Kenny’s mystery.
When I saw the mangled lunchbox caught in its teeth, I recognized the animal.
Kenny Pinto was my wrestling partner. We would practice weekdays from 3:00 to 5:30, shooting and sprawling with other wrestling pairs in orbit. The bacterial musk of the mat, the clammy traction of that PVC foam, impossibly, came rushing back to me as I squinted down the lunchbox-choked throat of Buddy the Bear.
Kenny and I had very little in common besides our weight class. I was squat and doughy with soft indoor skin, child of college professors. Ken was taut and tan, son of local wrestling legend Nate Pinto, and known throughout elementary school as “girl-puncher.”
I did discover one vulnerable cranny in Ken’s machismo. Whenever I fell on his stomach in practice, he’d let out a surprised squeak, info he’d have strangled me for spreading. So we ignored each other until 3pm.
And each tournament, Ken vanished like clockwork. “Fuck did he go?” Coach would ask. I knew. I’d hustle into the bathroom, passing stalls with puddled pants, rumbling toilet paper dispensers, and roily plops, until I found one (without fail) housing a fully-clothed Kenny, door unlocked but braced, porn playing on his phone.
“You’re on deck, Ken.”
So I’d wait, glimpsing different genres every week, as if he didn’t know what he was looking for. The baked moans and slow-pans of done-up bodies, in that room of emissions, pore squeezing, and ringworm, seemed anti-sexual to me. Not that Ken watched for pleasure. He’d heard somewhere that studying pornography increased testosterone levels, which “would help.” His humorless father attended every match, filming his son with an old camcorder.
Months back, a video titled “Buddy the Bear” went viral, featuring Buddy nibbling watermelon right out of a picnicker’s hand and then swallowing a Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox whole. This caused the park service to label him a nuisance bear that needed euthanizing. People joked about sheltering Buddy from the feds.
But nobody found him before traffic did. The pink lunchbox propping his jaws like a pig’s apple, spat up from blunt force, confirmed his identity. I decided to run home for my camera. The image was striking, a story of consequences, plus my brainstorm was failing to articulate his link to Kenny. When I returned at dusk, scavenger eyes shined in the photo flash, wispy night birds and weasels. Buddy’s own eyes had no glimmer left, picked-over and curled with cold.
In hindsight, Ken was sending us signals of some sort. During a brutal loss-streak, he started cursing and punching the floor after each match, contorting like a headless snake. Cautious refs had to talk him down.
Then, though sans friends, he clapped our backs and draped his elbows on our necks on the bench. Bluffing, shielding, masking something. He began asking me to drop him off at home, as if his dad weren’t twenty yards away. What did it mean?
On what was destined to be his fourteenth straight defeat, Coach asked him to wrestle up one weight class against the 185-pound state champion, Cougar Miles. Ken chugged six bottles of blue PowerAde on the toilet to make weigh-ins.
“He look tough?” he asked when I fetched him.
I eyed the blowjob buffering in his hand. “Yeah. His name is Cougar, so…”
Ken glared at the screen. Twenty minutes later, the state champion hooked Kenny’s ankle in a one-leg and slammed him shoulder-first, which produced a shrill murine whistle audible to all. My wrestling partner was pinned post-squeak, vomiting blue drink like a cartoon whale. It was the last time I saw him. Vanished.
Afterwards, I started seeking patterns. What caused what.
– Hikers recording the bear / Nate Pinto filming his son.
– The ingested lunchbox/PowerAde.
– Behavior unnatural for (Buddy/Ken), but nevertheless addicting, rewarding, all-consuming.
I chained Buddy’s paw to my truck winch. The pattern I was chasing came down to that chest dent. Such an impact must have generated a sound. The air in Buddy’s lungs went somewhere, after all. It would have been a thin noise, stolen in wind, yes, a cry of escape and unmasking and wrongness…followed by an ejection of all those internalized contents that didn’t fit, as if to say in his last moments this isn’t really me this isn’t me this isn’t me this isn’t.
Pretty much nobody would know what happened or where he went. Accepting that was part of it too. Still, a fixation is owed to my not-quite-friend. That’s the funny thing about tracking patterns—the mystery solved is never the mystery at hand.
JAMES CATO — James does environmental sampling work outside Pittsburgh. He has stories in Daily Science Fiction, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, JMWW, and Bending Genres, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction. He lives with a gecko, snake, and rat. He’d enjoy your company, I’d bet.
Art by AARON BURCH — Aaron is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body; the short story collection, Backswing; and the novella, How to Predict the Weather. He is the Founding Editor of Hobart and HAD. His first novel, YEAR OF THE BUFFALO, will be released in 2022. Find him online at www.aaronburch.net or on Twitter @Aaron_Burch.