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Now in paperback, the beloved humorist’s latest and funniest collection of essays ever—“McManus at his curmudgeonly best” (Spokane Spokesman-Review)
Patrick F. McManus’s wry wit has made him an American classic, his trademark outdoorsman’s humor endearing him not only to fellow wilderness enthusiasts but to anyone who enjoys a good laugh. In his newest collection of hilarious essays, he ponders the strange allure of the RV, a thirtieth-century hunting trip, the art of wrestling ...
Now in paperback, the beloved humorist’s latest and funniest collection of essays ever—“McManus at his curmudgeonly best” (Spokane Spokesman-Review)
Patrick F. McManus’s wry wit has made him an American classic, his trademark outdoorsman’s humor endearing him not only to fellow wilderness enthusiasts but to anyone who enjoys a good laugh. In his newest collection of hilarious essays, he ponders the strange allure of the RV, a thirtieth-century hunting trip, the art of wrestling toads, the existential implications of being lost, the baffling tendency of animals to outsmart hunters, the singular pleasure of doubling the size of every fish that gets away, and what happens when a bear named Pooky decides to hibernate in the attic.
Combining the curmudgeonly voice of Dave Barry and the clever insights of Garrison Keillor with his own keen sense of the absurd, McManus brilliantly captures the funny and strange in our everyday existence, while managing to evoke a childlike wonder at the natural world.
"Everybody should read Patrick McManus". —The New York Times Books Review.
"A style that brings to mind Mark Twain, Art Buchwald, and Garrison Keillor." —People
Bear In The Attic, The
The Bear in the Attic
The little girl rattled on ceaselessly and seamlessly, the lack of even the slightest pause relieving me of any need to respond or, mercifully, to listen. Mostly, she talked to the teddy bear that sat alongside her in the backseat of the car, strapped in with its own seat belt. In a moment of mild insanity, or possibly only laxity of alertness, I had been beguiled into baby-sitting the little girl while her mother and grandmother went shopping. Her name was Devon. She was a nice little girl, very pretty and I think quite bright, perhaps too much so. I felt sorry for her, having a grandmother and mother so irresponsible as to leave her in my care. That's the problem with women these days, no sense of responsibility. Their civility could use a bit of touching up, too, if you ask me. Well, I had predicted this eventual turn of events. Once they get shoes and escape from the kitchen, I said, they'll take over the world and ...
"Grampa! I'm talking to you!"
"Hunh? Oh, sorry, Devon. I was distracted there for moment. What is it?"
"I said Teddy and I really liked the pool hall. Can we go there again sometime?"
"Perhaps, darlin', perhaps. But we don't call it a pool hall, do we now? What is it we call it?"
"That's right, sweetheart, the library."
"I really liked that big black man who let me sit up on the counter and mixed me Shirley Temples to drink."
"Yes, Ernie's a very nice man. He's the head librarian. Now, why don't you tell your bear a story? I bet he would love to hear you tell him a story. I would, too."
"No! I want you to tell us both a story."
"Oh, I would much prefer that you told the story."
"But if you really want me to, I guess I could. What would you like the story to be about?"
"A bear! Do you know any stories about a bear?"
"A bear. Why, yes, come to think of it, I do. If you would just shut—be really quiet for a few minutes, dear, while Grampa concentrates, I'll even show you where the story took place."
It had been years since I'd driven out to Birchwood, partly because it made me sad to do so. Many of the fine old homes of the early timber barons had now been turned into apartment houses. The occupants of others had adorned the spacious lawns with an assortment of broken automobiles and discarded appliances, a style of landscape design I like to think of as North Idaho Gothic. A few had simply been abandoned to the whims and guiles of the weather. The majestic birches that gave the neighborhood its name were gone, too, cut down because of disease or possibly the need for firewood. Birchwood reminded me of a dog I'd once owned. As a puppy, he was completely white with a brown tip on his tail. When he grew up, the tip vanished, and so we were alwaysexplaining to visitors why we had named him Tippy. The present residents of Birchwood no doubt were forever making similar explanations about the name of their neighborhood. Birchwood didn't have a birch in sight.
At last we came to the mansion of my aunt Lucy and uncle Charles Winslow, which wasn't a mansion really but what had seemed like one to me when I was growing up on a tiny stump farm a few miles away. While my family raised essentially the same crop of stumps each year, Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucy wallowed in wealth, "wallow" being my mother's word for describing the affluence of her brother and sister-in-law. If some porcine connotation clings to the word, it was perhaps unintended on Mom's part. Indeed, the Winslows were more than generous with our family, the more so after my father died. Heaping charity upon us at every opportunity, they gave till it hurt, yet another innocent cruelty with which to afflict the poor.
Uncle Charles was an executive, perhaps even the president for all I know, of a timber company, by far the largest establishment in all of Blight County. I'm not sure whether Blight City ever produced a high society as such, but if so, Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucy surely must have enjoyed a lofty perch in it.
"Oh!" exclaimed Devon. "Is that it? Is that the house? It looks terrible! Is it haunted?"
If a ghost still resided in the old Victorian, it would have been the only inhabitant in a long while. Windows were broken out, the front door hung from a single hinge, and a squadron of swallows appeared to be flying sorties from a base in the living room. The attic window remained intact. I glanced at it, then quickly away, not wishing to glimpse anything behind its leaded glass.
"I personally saw only one ghost there," I told Devon. "I doubt it's still around. We could go in and see, if you like."
"No! Just tell the story!"
"Oh, all right. It's kind of scary, though. I don't want yourmother and grandmother yelling at me, because you refuse to go to sleep without the light on. Promise not to blab?"
"I promise. Now tell the darn story!"
"The story starts with my cousin Chucky," I began.
"I thought it was about a bear."
"It is about a bear. We get to the bear later. First, I have to tell you about Chucky."
As I explained to Devon, I must confess here that I personally did not witness all the events in this report. I was on hand for many of them, though, and have scrupulously maintained the highest degree of accuracy in reporting whatever I personally witnessed. Over the years I have also accumulated numerous firsthand accounts from various other participants and observers, many of whom had slipped into the grip of compulsive if not pathological reminiscence, usually an unbearable bore but in this instance quite useful. Eventually, all the recollections and bits and chunks of information reached critical mass and melded into the following account, beginning with my cousin Chucky, as I indicated to Devon.
Chucky must have been eight years older than I, because I had just finished doing a stretch in fifth grade when Chucky turned eighteen—draft age! It was 1942 with World War Two still accelerating toward full momentum. I loved that war. Well, I loved it after I became fairly certain we were going to win it. Years later, as I myself approached draft age, I began to see the folly of sending youth such as myself off to foreign lands to risk life and limb. At the time of this memoir, however, I was still enamored of war.
Now here's what I thought was so unfair. I loved the war, Chucky hated it, but he's the one who got to go, scooped up by the draft to be blown off to some great adventure in exotic lands. My cousin was a pale, puffy fellow, with sparse blond hair and fat red lips, the kind of pouty lips a girl might love, if they were attached to her face instead of his. It is my opinion that women did not find Chucky particularly attractive, hismother being an extreme exception. He was not simply the apple of Aunt Lucy's eye but the whole basket of fruit.
The night before he was to leave for basic training, I stopped by his house to cheer him up. He lay sprawled on his bed staring morosely up at the ceiling. Chucky had about the greatest bedroom anyone could imagine, and it was outfitted with every truly great toy ever made. I will mention only one: an electric train that ran all the way around the walls on a shelf just above the windows and doors, with little towns, forests and mountains, farms with cows grazing in pastures, sidings and trestles and even tunnels, one of which ran through my heart. Even though he had long ago lost interest in it, Chucky never let me play with the train, giving the excuse that it was for my own good, because he would have to break my arm if he ever caught me touching it. To look upon that train, so close and yet so far, was pure torture. On the plus side, Chucky was going off to war the next day.
I did my best to cheer him up, but without much success. "It's just so unfair, Chucky, that you're the one who got drafted," I told him. "You don't even like war."
"Tell me about it!"
I sighed. "I sure wish it was me going instead of you."
"I wish it was you, too."
That surprised me. Usually, Chucky didn't seem to care all that much about what happened to me. "Thanks," I said. "I really do think you'll like the war, once you get used to it, Chucky. Just think, a few weeks from now you could be charging a machine-gun nest in Sicily or some other neat place."
"Would you just shut up and go home!"
"But you'll be a hero!"
"Don't bet on it!"
"Of course, it won't be all fun, Chucky," I pointed out. "The part I'd hate most would be having to take showers with a bunch of other naked guys. Man, just think of having to getnaked around a couple monsters like the Scragg twins! Wheweee! The army should give medals for taking showers with the Scraggs!"
"Arrrrhhhh!" howled Chucky. "Showers with the Scraggs! I never even thought of that! I can't stand it! Arrrrhhh!"
That's when Uncle Charles called to me from downstairs. "Patrick! Stop trying to cheer up Chucky and come down here!"
"Okay!" I called back. "Anyway, Chucky, I'll be at the train to see you off tomorrow morning."
"Arrrhhh!" cried Chucky. "Showers with the Scraggs!"
When I got downstairs, Uncle Charles frowned at me over the top his newspaper. "Good job," he said. "You really improved Chucky's mood."
"The least I could do," I said.
Uncle Charles was almost as fond of war as I was. Sometimes he and I would discuss the latest battles at great length. We'd sprawl out on his den floor to pore over maps of North Africa, Europe, and the South Pacific and try to keep track of all the different battlefields. I wasn't supposed to mention the war around Aunt Lucy, though. She had been in a funk—my mother's word—ever since Chucky's draft notice had arrived. On this particular evening she sat across the room from Uncle Charles, rocking furiously back and forth, which wouldn't have been too unusual if she had been in a rocking chair. I could tell she had been crying.
"I simply can't understand, Charles, why the draft board can't get it through its thick head that Chucky is too sensitive for war," she said, completely ignoring me. "Surely, you can pull some strings, Charles?"
"Lucy, we've been through this ten dozen times. I can't get Chucky classified Four-F because he's scared! Besides, the army will make a man out of him, you wait and see. It'll be good for him."
"It will, Aunt Lucy," I put in. "It really will. Chucky willlove it, once he gets to shoot his rifle and throw grenades and starts doing neat stuff like bayonet practice and—"
"You stay out of this, you little warmonger!" Aunt Lucy snapped.
"Yeah, you're a big help, Patrick," Uncle Charles growled. "What would I do without you?"
I could see my opinion wasn't appreciated, so I stomped out the door and wandered off home.
The next morning I was up at dawn to see Chucky off on the train. That was something I wouldn't miss for the world. All of his aunts and uncles showed up to bid him farewell, along with about three hundred cousins, three grandparents, and one great-grandparent—old Marcus Winslow, one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.
Everyone cheered when Aunt Lucy and Uncle Charles drove up with Chucky in their spiffy black Hudson. It may have been jealousy on my part, but I got the impression Chucky had just been dragged by his heels out from under a bed. His clothes were ruffled and even buttoned wrong and his hair looked as if something had wintered in it. Uncle Charles smiled broadly at everyone, but he, too, seemed somewhat rumpled and out of sorts, as if maybe he had just dragged someone out from under a bed. Aunt Lucy looked a total wreck. At least she wasn't crying, but probably only because she had run dry. When it came time for Chucky to board the train, Uncle Charles practically had to use a tire iron to pry him out of Aunt Lucy's arms, although I wasn't certain who was clinging hardest to whom. Chucky seemed a little peeved at all the cheering, possibly because his many relatives seemed so happy to be sending him off to war. After boarding the train, he soon appeared at a window. He slumped into a seat and stared miserably out at the crowd of his well-wishers. Presently, two other inductees from Blight appeared at the window. Grinning broadly, one of them threw an arm around Chucky's neck and and the other gavehim a friendly knuckle rub on his scalp. Great-grandpa Marcus pointed and shouted, "Why, lookee there, Lucy! Chucky's already got hisself some compañeros. You won't have to worry about him being lonely now!"
Aunt Lucy smiled feebly "Yes," she said, waving her hanky at Chucky. "They do seem glad to see him."
Glad? I thought. Shoot, Lister and Bo Scragg couldn't be happier, having someone like Chucky to pass the time with.
After Chucky's departure, Aunt Lucy sank into an even deeper funk, a funk apparently without bottom. It appeared for a while that she might remain in the funk for the duration of the war, but then a weird series of events occurred.
A week or so after Chucky left for basic training, a Western Union messenger handed Lucy a telegram. It was from the army.
"Something's happened to Chucky!" Lucy cried. "They've already killed him!"
Charles snatched the telegram from her hand. It wasn't as bad as he had expected but bad enough. In essence, the telegram expressed the army's concerns as to why Chucky hadn't shown up for basic training. "Why, that little ... ," Charles muttered, using one of his famous interrupted curses.
Lucy was now practically beside herself with grief. Northing could convince her that the army hadn't done away with Chucky the moment he arrived. I tried to comfort her. "Maybe you would enjoy the sound of Chucky's train racing around the tracks upstairs," I suggested.
"Not a chance," she said.
A week or so after the telegram arrived, two FBI agents showed up at the Winslows' and asked Lucy if she had heard anything from Chucky. She practically went into hysterics, hopping up and down and screaming that the army had killed Chucky and that they should go ask the army what it had done with him, and did they think she was into psychic channeling with deceased persons, and so on. The agents were so shaken up by her reaction that they sat with her until shecalmed down. They showed her such kindness and understanding that Lucy finally asked them if they would like some tea. That would be nice, they said. Pretty soon they were on a first-name basis. The agents' names were Bill and Jack, or something simple like that, and they were both formerly country boys from Utah. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself had asked them to check into Chucky's disappearance, they said, or otherwise they wouldn't have bothered her.
When I heard the FBI had come looking for Chucky, I couldn't have been more proud of him. Here I had assumed Chucky would never amount to anything, as did most of his relatives, and now J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had sent two agents out to look for him. If Mr. Hoover thought he was that important, to use up the valuable time of two of his agents, why, Chucky must have been up to something pretty darned important. Mr. Hoover certainly wouldn't waste two agents to track down Chucky simply because he failed to show up for basic training. Anyone who knew Chucky knew he'd be totally useless as a soldier anyway and that the army would be a whole lot better off without him, unless it suddenly needed someone to lead a retreat. Chucky would be good at that. Even Uncle Charles said so. I figured the FBI had to be after Chucky for some other reason, maybe some particular talent nobody even suspected him of possessing. It didn't matter now, though, because I figured Aunt Lucy was right. Chucky had to be dead. And soon I would have proof of it.
One day after finishing my paper route, I decided to stay in town that night and take in a movie: Commandos Strike at Dawn. It was wonderful, my kind of movie, but it made me think about Chucky, and how if he hadn't gotten killed, he'd have had a chance to be a hero or at least maybe get to do some neat stuff like the commandos in the film. Because I had to sit through the film twice to make sure I hadn't missed any detail, it was nearly eleven o'clock when I finally staggered out of the theater dazed and stiff. The streets wereempty and silent and kind of creepy, with an eerie stillness hanging like a fog over the town. I decided my best bet for the night was to head out to Birchwood and slip into Uncle Charles's house for the night and sleep on the living room couch. It was only after I had pedaled all the way out to Birchwood that I remembered that Aunt Lucy had started locking the doors ever since Chucky had disappeared. Maybe she thought that if the army had murdered Chucky, it might sneak in and murder her and Uncle Charles next. I knew I could pound on the door until Uncle Charles came down and opened it, but then he would have to lecture me for half an hour and it wasn't worth the bother. Instead, I tried a few windows along the side of the house until I found one Lucy had forgotten to lock. Minutes later I was zonked out on the couch. Normally, I wouldn't have stirred again until Lucy started banging pots and pans out in the kitchen and yelling at me to get ready for breakfast. Scarcely had I settled into one of my favorite dreams, however, when something, a sudden chill, a stirring of air, something, nudged me awake. I rolled over on my back and shoved myself partway up on my elbows. Chucky's ghost was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, looking straight at me. Even in the dim glow cast through the window by an outside porch light, I could see every detail of his face, right down to his pouty lips and bad hair. The ghost seemed as startled by me as I was by it. For a second, I thought it was about to say something. Oddly, at that very moment something awakened Uncle Charles. He sprang out of bed and thundered down the hallway in his nightshirt, fumbling shells into his 12-gauge shotgun and shouting out some very bad words. My name popped up, a little island in a stream of profanity.
"Stop!" he shouted at me, as if I were the problem. "Stop that damn screeching, Patrick! What's wrong? Burglars? What? Speak!"
I told him what I'd seen, but he was too excited to comprehend it.
"Slow down!" he yelled. "Stop babbling! I can't understand a word you're saying!"
"Awsawanghostenkitchen," I explained, hoping he would calm down and stop waving the shotgun about.
"I'm standing right here, Patrick," he said. "You don't have to screech. Now what's this about a ghost?"
"I saw a ghost," I told him. "It was standing right there. It was about to speak to me. It was Chucky's ghost."
"Chucky's ghost?" Uncle Charles said, removing the shells from the shotgun. "First of all, Patrick, you were dreaming. Second, there's no such thing as ghosts. Third, Chucky isn't dead. No matter what Lucy thinks, he's hiding out somewhere. So he wouldn't have his ghost running around waking me up in the middle of the night, now would he?"
"What is it?" Aunt Lucy cried as she rushed up. "Is it the army?"
"No, it's not the army," Uncle Charles said. "It's nothing. Patrick was having a nightmare."
"I saw Chucky's ghost, Aunt Lucy," I attempted to explain.
"Chucky's ghost?" she said. "Hmmmm. Well, I'll go make us some hot cocoa. That will calm us all down, and maybe we'll still be able to get some sleep."
I for one didn't get any sleep the rest of the night. Shortly before dawn I thought I heard something on the stairs, but I had the good sense not to open my eyes. There are only so many ghosts a person can stand in one night. Later, though, I would do a lot of thinking about Chucky's ghost.
"I sure miss Chucky," I said to Aunt Lucy one day. "Everywhere I look, something reminds me of him. A few minutes ago, I was looking at his train and—"
"Not a chance," she said.
A couple of weeks later, I was finishing up my paper route when a car pulled up alongside of me. Bill and Jack, the FBI agents, got out.
"How you doing, Patrick?" Bill said.
"Fine," I said.
"We just happened to be in the neighborhood," Jack said. "Thought we might have a little visit with you, if that's okay."
"You bet," I said. It wasn't every day I got to visit with the FBI.
"You know, Patrick, we have talked with just about everybody who's ever known Chucky in his entire life, and there's not a soul has any idea where he could be hiding out. Now we know you're a sharp guy, get about town a lot, keep your eyes open, and we thought maybe a smart kid like you might have picked up a few clues. Any kind of a lead you can give us?"
"Well, I can tell you where you've gone wrong," I said. Right away I had their total attention.
"How's that?" Jack asked.
"You keep looking for Chucky to be hiding out somewhere, but he isn't. Chucky is dead."
"Dead?" said Bill.
"And how do you know that, Patrick?"
"I saw his ghost, that's how." If that didn't just about bowl both of them over right there in the street, I don't know what could have.
"You saw his ghost?" Jack said. "Where was this exactly."
"In my aunt Lucy's kitchen. I was sleeping on the couch and woke up all of a sudden and there was Chucky's ghost standing in the doorway to the kitchen. And then my uncle Charles came running down the hallway, making a terrible fuss, and when I looked again, the ghost was gone."
Jack and Bill seemed disappointed. "You sure you weren't dreaming?" Jack said.
"I know I wasn't dreaming," I said.
"Yeah, well," Bill said. "I guess we'd better be going. Thanks. Sorry to have bothered you."
"Anytime," I said. "Always glad to help out the FBI. Oh, wait a second, I just remembered something interesting."
"Like what?" Bill said, still moving toward the car.
"The ghost was eating a sandwich."
The agents stopped, looked at each other, then turned back toward me.
"A sandwich," Jack said.
"Yeah," I said. "A ham sandwich. A big slice of ham was sticking out the side of it. I could see it plain as day"
I could tell I had the agents' undivided attention, so I paused for a moment, to let the suspense build.
"Get on with it," Bill said.
"Now what I've been wondering is," I went on, "what kind of ham sandwich would a ghost eat? Would it be a real ham sandwich or would it be a ghost ham sandwich. If it was a ghost ham sandwich, that wouldn't be bad, but if it was a real ham sandwich, it would be kind of gross, because you would see it getting all chewed up and then going down into the ghost's stomach and ..." I didn't finish. The agents were already in their car and half a block down the street, still accelerating.
The very next day the FBI raided Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucy's house and dragged Chucky down out of the attic.
"Chucky!" Aunt Lucy cried. "Thank goodness, you're alive!"
Bill and Jack were rather cross with Lucy but said they doubted she would have to go to jail for hiding Chucky. They said it was pretty obvious that Uncle Charles had no knowledge Chucky had been living in the attic the whole time. Chucky had never even left town. As the train pulled out of the station, he had shaken loose from the Scraggs and stepped off on the far side of the tracks.
Lucy was pretty upset until she heard that Chucky wouldn't be going off to war for a while.
"The army probably won't be too hard on him," Bill told Lucy. "Probably lock him up in the stockade for a while. Maybe the war will be over by the time he gets out."
"That would be nice," Aunt Lucy said. "He's way too sensitive for war, you know."
"Shucks, Lucy," Jack told her. "He'll even have some hometown boys to keep him company in the stockade. You happen to know the Scragg boys?"
Later, I asked Uncle Charles if he knew how the FBI agents figured out that Chucky had been hiding in the attic all along.
"They said somebody tipped them off," he said. "They wouldn't say who."
"Well, I'll be a ... ," I said. "That dirty rotten, no-good ... !"
Aunt Lucy seemed greatly relieved to have Chucky out of the attic. "It was such a worry," she told me. "He'd come down and wander around the house during the day while Charles was working, and he'd even sneak down for a snack in the middle of the night. I just knew sooner or later he'd get caught, if not by Charles then by somebody else. The informant really did both me and Chucky a great favor."
"Yes, it's all for the best, Aunt Lucy," I said. "Every cloud has a silver lining. So now that Chucky's gone, what do you think, can I mess with his train?"
"That silly old train. Mess with it all you want. Chucky will never know. Oh, the silliest thing, Patrick."
"What's that, Aunt Lucy?"
"The FBI agents said what gave Chucky away was a single clue—a ham sandwich!"
"Weird," I said.
"Yes! Why, what with the meat rationing for the war, we haven't had a speck of ham in the house for over a year! Isn't that the strangest thing? A ham sandwich!"
"I was wondering about Chucky's bow and arrow," I said. "I guess it would be all right if I used that, too, hunh, Aunt Lucy?"
"So Chucky was hiding in the attic all along," Devon said. "Was there a bathroom up there? I hope there was a bathroom. I never heard of an attic with a bathroom."
"I'm not up on all the technical details," I explained.
"The house is right there. We could go check and see if the attic has a bathroom, if you're not bothered by spiders and bats."
"I guess not," she said. "When does this story get to the bear, anyway?"
"Right now," I said.
Uncle Charles was in his office at the timber company one morning when he got a phone call from one of his logging-camp foremen:
"We got a problem up here, Mr. Winslow. The cook shot a sow bear the other night, because it kept trying to claw its way into the cook shack. Next morning some of the men happened by the bear's den and heard a cub crying and they brought it back into camp. We don't know what to do with it."
"Let me think about that, Buck," Uncle Charles said. "Okay, how about this? Conk it on the head!" He hung up the phone. He thought that was the end of it, but a short while later Buck showed up at the office. He pulled the tiny bear out of his jacket pocket and held it out to Uncle Charles. "I couldn't bring myself to conk it," he said. "None of the men would do it either. It's just too cute. So I figured I'd let you do it."
"And you call yourselves loggers," Uncle Charles said. "A bunch of girls is more like it. Give it to me, Buck."
The foreman handed over the cub and backed off, cringing slightly. Uncle Charles had a reputation for being a very hard man, and Buck said later he expected the cub to get conked right then and there. Instead, Charles cupped the bear in one hand and held it up to the light to examine it. "Why, its eyes aren't even open yet," he said. The cub made a crying sound.
"Sounds just like a human baby, don't it?" Buck said.
"Yeah," Charles said. "It is a cute little devil." He cleared his throat. "Now, Buck, this is probably something you don'tknow, but cute is one of nature's devices for preserving its young. It doesn't apply just to animals either. Many a dumb and useless human being has survived and prospered for no other reason than the good luck of being cute. My wife comes to mind. Not that I think Lucy is dumb and useless, mind you. What I'm saying is, she would never forgive me if she heard I did the sensible thing and disposed of something this cute. All I can do, if I want a minute's peace ever again, is to take the cub home and let Lucy deal with it. That's the only reason I don't conk it right now, you understand. So I guess you know what to tell the men about this."
"It's your wife's fault?"
"That's the way I see it, Buck."
A short while later, Uncle Charles walked into the kitchen at home and handed Lucy a paper sack. "Here's a little something for you."
Lucy was not the kind of person to get excited over a gift presented in a paper sack. "What is it?" she said wearily. She was back in her funk. The letters from Chucky complained bitterly about life in the stockade, particularly having to shower with the Scraggs. She had written to the officer in charge and explained how Chucky was so sensitive, and asked him to do something about the Scragg boys. The officer hadn't yet replied. She peered listlessly into the sack.
"Even worse," Uncle Charles said. "A baby bear."
"A baby bear!" cried Lucy, brightening. "Why, it is! A tiny bear! If it isn't the cutest thing in the world! Its eyes aren't even open yet! Do I get to keep it? Of course I do!"
Uncle Charles was pleased with himself. This was the first time in months he'd seen Lucy emerge from her funk. "Sure," he said. "It's all yours. Of course, you'll have to raise it until it's old enough to support itself out in the wilds."
"I'll call Ed Barnes right away and find out what to feed it," she said, referring to the local veterinarian. "I bet it's half starved."
Two hours later Lucy had the bear wrapped in a baby blanket and was feeding it out of a nursing bottle the vet had given her. The cub made tiny mewing sounds as it slurped away. Rocking to and fro in her rocker, Lucy couldn't take her eyes off the bear.
"Well, I've wasted enough time," Uncle Charles said. "Got to get back to the office. There's a war on, you know." He headed for the door.
"Let's see," Lucy murmured. "What shall I name it?"
Halfway out the door, Charles stopped, turned, and stared at his wife. "Name it? Lucy, I don't think it's a good idea to name a wild critter. The time might come when we might have to, uh, deal with it, uh, rather harshly. See, it's like naming a steer, for example. The time comes you have to slaughter it, there's a big difference between knocking off 'the steer' and knocking off 'Old Ned.'" See what I'm saying, Lucy? This little guy will weigh three hundred pounds or more before long, have claws like meat hooks, teeth the size of railroad spikes and—"
"Pooky," Lucy said. "I'll name him Pooky."
"Cute," Uncle Charles muttered, shaking his head. "It'll get you every time."
Lucy thought he was talking about the bear.
When Pooky's eyes popped open a week or so later, they focused first on his new mother, a slightly plumpish lady with tousled blonde hair and the wide blue eyes of a person who seems never quite to have understood the question, whatever the question might be.
By the first day of summer, Pooky was the size and shape of a basketball, a shiny black hairy basketball. In no time at all, Lucy had him housebroken and trained to respond to his name. Every day she baked him pancakes or biscuits to go with his basic dog food. He also ate leftover mash potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, chicken and dumplings, tuna casserole, salmon loaf (one of his favorites), spaghetti, stew, peas, beans and spinach, and just about anything theWinslows had left over from breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lucy made sure plenty was left over. At the rate the bear was expanding in all directions, Uncle Charles said, he couldn't tell if Lucy was fattening him up with all the leftovers or inflating him with a tire pump. Still, Pooky seemed endlessly hungry. As soon as he had finished gobbling up his breakfast, he would go and sit by the refrigerator and cry like a baby, a sound that broke Lucy's heart.
"You'll never guess what Pooky did today," Lucy said to Uncle Charles one evening as he returned from work and flopped down in his favorite chair.
"I can hardly wait to hear," he said.
"He stood up on his hind feet and opened the refrigerator door by himself, just like a little man! Isn't that the cutest thing!"
Uncle Charles stared thoughtfully off into space. Presently he asked, "What's for supper?"
"You probably think it's some of those German sausages you had made up at Ye Olde Smokehouse yesterday, don't you? Well, it isn't. We're having baked beans on toast! Yum, doesn't that sound good?"
The next day Charles sent over a mechanic from the timber company shop. The mechanic put a latch on the refrigerator that the bear couldn't open. When Charles came home that evening, there were two refrigerators in the kitchen. "I bought one just for Pooky," Lucy explained. "I thought it would be nice if he had his own refrigerator. That way he can get a snack whenever he wants. Don't you think that is so cute?"
Uncle Charles stared silently at the refrigerator for a long moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was strained, raspy. "Next week I'm going to take Pooky out into the woods. Teach him how to tear apart rotted logs. Find grubs and bugs. And eat them. Like a real bear."
"Oh, Charles, don't be crude," Lucy said. "You know how I hate it."
The following Saturday, Uncle Charles fastened a thickleather collar around Pooky's neck and attached a chain to it. He dragged the cub skidding and whining out to the pickup truck, boosted it up into the cab, and slammed the door. Pooky clearly suspected something. Uncle Charles got in the cab and started the motor. The cub looked around frantically for a means of escape. It saw Lucy out in the yard, waving.
"Good-bye, Pooky!" Lucy called. "Have a nice day!"
"Maawmaaw!" cried Pooky, flattening himself against the window. "Maawmaw!"
Uncle Charles almost ran into a birch tree. He said later the bear's cry sent a chill up his spine. He said he knew at that moment that Pooky was going to be more trouble than he or anyone else had ever even imagined.
The outing was unsuccessful. As Uncle Charles said, you can never find a rotten log when you need one. He spent most of the morning dragging the bear through the woods and at last he found a log sufficiently decayed that he could kick it apart. It contained a rather nice helping of grubs. The bear sniffed the grubs, then looked quizzically up at Charles.
"Grubs don't taste as bad as you might think," Charles told Lucy that evening. "I think Pooky might have eaten some himself, if they'd come with gravy and a side of bacon."
By the time the first snow fell in November, Charles thought it was time for Pooky to start hibernating, just like a regular bear. "If he's hibernating, you won't have to worry about him feeding himself," he told Lucy. "He's got enough fat to last him the next three years. So I'm going to take him out to the den he was found in and stuff him into it. Next spring he'll wake up with a fine appetite and he'll darn sure figure out how to find some regular bear food."
"You'll do nothing of the sort," Lucy said. "Pooky can hibernate right here. I've already fixed him up a nice little cave in the attic. We'll leave a window cracked so he gets lots of fresh air."
Locked in the attic, Pooky cried for three days straight and nearly broke Lucy's heart. Finally, he crawled into the caveand went to sleep. The winter passed so peacefully Uncle Charles sometimes even forgot that he had a bear in the attic.
The next time Uncle Charles heard from Pooky was on April Fools' Day. As always, the cry sent a chill up his spine. "Maawmaaw! Maawmaaaaaa!" He couldn't be sure, but now he thought the cry was deeper, more mature, maybe even a bit threatening. He shuddered and went off to work.
When Charles returned that evening, Pooky was sitting in his favorite chair. "Get out of my chair!" he ordered. The bear gave him a blank look, faking incomprehension, or so Charles suspected. When Pooky refused to move, Charles tried to drag him out of the chair, but the bear dug his claws into the leather and cried out, "Maawmaaw! Maawmaaaaa!"
Lucy came out of the kitchen. "Charles, stop that! Don't play so rough! Can't you see you're upsetting Pooky?"
"He's in my chair and I want him out of it!"
"Pshaw! There are other chairs, Charles! Why make a fuss over that old thing? Now, for heaven's sake, stop antagonizing the little bear." She walked back in the kitchen.
Charles flopped down in a chair across the room from Pooky. The bear appeared to be grinning at him. It was leaner now, already maturing from cub into yearling, the bear equivalent of a teenager. The thought brought Chucky to mind. Now that was scary: a bear version of Chucky.
"Any word from Chucky today?" he called out to Lucy.
"Chucky. Your son."
"Oh, right. No, nothing from him."
The bear grinned at Charles.
As spring turned into summer, Pooky lengthened out and became leaner still, despite the twenty-pound bags of dog food Lucy poured into him. Powerful muscles could now be seen rippling under the shaggy fur as he padded out to the kitchen to check his refrigerator, his claws clicking ominously on the hardwood floors. The steady stream of visitorsthat once found the little Pooky so cute and amusing gradually diminished to a dribble and then stopped altogether.
I was once sitting in Lucy's kitchen with Great-grandfather Marcus Winslow, listening to him tell stories about his days as a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt. He lived with my aunt Dierdra, who had dropped him off for the afternoon while she went shopping. I assumed that he knew about Pooky.
"So there we was, moving up San Juan Hill, when Teddy says to me, Marcus, that's what he called me, Marcus, Marcus he says, you take some of the boys and—" At that moment Pooky walked in, stood up on his hind feet, opened his refrigerator door, studied the contents, finally selected one of the lunch sacks, grabbed it in his teeth, and walked out.
"What did Teddy want you to do?" I asked.
Grampa Marcus stared after the bear.
"Teddy Roosevelt," I prompted. "You were going up San Juan Hill, remember, Grampa?"
"Did you just now notice something kind of peculiar?" he asked.
"No," I said, for it was commonplace for Pooky to stroll out and get a snack out of the refrigerator. "Why?"
"No reason. Forget I mentioned it. So anyway Teddy he says to me ..."
More than one old person was startled by the sight of Pooky. Daffy old Mrs. Swisher lived several miles out in the country and each Sunday drove by the Winslow house on her way to church. Sometimes she drove by on Saturday or even Friday, thinking it was Sunday. One such Saturday Uncle Charles was sprawled out on the living room couch wearing only his shorts. He was reading the newspaper and smoking a cigar. Normally, he wasn't allowed to smoke cigars in the house, but Lucy was away somewhere for several days. It is the opinion of some members of the family that Pooky may have thought Charles was on fire, when he saw him blowsmoke out of his mouth. The bear got out of his chair and walked over to Charles to study him more closely. Charles and the bear stared at each other at close range for a moment, and then Charles blew a puff of smoke into the bear's face and told him to get away. Pooky sat down on his haunches and studied Charles even more intently, apparently trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. Charles blew more smoke in his face. The bear inhaled it. He seemed to enjoy it, the first admirable quality Uncle Charles said he had detected in the bear. Then he made the mistake of setting the cigar in an ashtray while he turned a page of the newspaper. In a flash, Pooky snatched up the cigar and raced out of the house.
"Come back here you little ... !" Charles yelled in one of his interrupted curses. "You've stolen my food, my attic, my favorite chair, and the affections of my wife, but you're not going to steal my cigars!" It's unlikely that Uncle Charles yelled that exact sentence at the time of the incident but instead worked it out over a period of several days before relating the event to some his friends. In any case there is reliable historic testimony that the bear raced out of the house with the cigar and shot up a slender birch tree next to the house. Under his weight, the birch swayed out over the house and the bear dropped down onto the roof. He then walked up to the ridge and sat his rear end down on the edge of the chimney. It was at that moment that Mrs. Swisher drove by.
Always quick to notice any suspicious activity on the part of her neighbors, in case they happened to be spies or saboteurs, Mrs. Swisher stopped by the sheriff's office and gave him a report.
"Let me get this straight," the sheriff said. "You saw Winslow out in his front yard wearing only his shorts. He was shaking his fist and swearing a blue streak."
"That's right, Sheriff."
"And there was a bear up on the roof?"
"The bear was sitting on the chimney?"
"Yes. He looked like a hairy little man, with his hands resting on his knees, just sitting there gazing out over the countryside, he was. It could have been a hairy little man, I suppose, but I'm pretty sure it was a bear."
"And the bear was smoking a cigar?"
Mrs. Swisher gave an affirmative nod. "So what do you think, Sheriff?"
The sheriff neglected to mention in his notes what he thought, but because he regarded our entire family with considerable suspicion it is likely he found Mrs. Swisher's story to be a credible account by an objective witness of a fairly routine occurrence.
Uncle Charles waited until the first huckleberries ripened in early July and then he hauled Pooky back out to his old den in the mountains. He slipped the collar off Pooky's head and while the bear happily gorged himself on huckleberries, Charles got in his truck and drove off. He spent the rest of the day fishing up Pack River. When he returned to the den in the evening, the huckleberry patch had been stripped bare of berries and there was no sign of Pooky. Uncle Charles smiled all the way home.
"I suppose it's just as well," Aunt Lucy said. "You just never know. Sooner or later he might have become a nuisance."
One evening in November, Charles and Lucy were seated in their living room, he in his favorite chair, reading the newspaper and listening to the radio, she in her rocker, knitting. "It's supposed to snow again tonight," he said.
"I'm not surprised," Lucy said. "It's turning awfully cold."
Charles studied her. "I guess you're not worried about Pooky then."
"Oh no," she said. "I'm sure he'll be all right. Bears know how to survive in cold weather."
"He's hibernating in the attic again, isn't he?" Uncle Charles said.
"How did you know?"
"Tracks in the backyard."
"He showed up at the door the other day, and I couldn't say no," Lucy said. "He's gotten awfully big. And his breath is terrible. He's not the least bit friendly, either."
"He'll be a lot less friendly when he wakes up in the spring," Charles said. "Bears have notoriously bad tempers when they come out of hibernation."
"He's not cute anymore, either," Lucy said. "You should do something about him, Charles."
Charles regarded her thoughtfully for several moments but did not respond.
Pooky woke up on the dot of April Fools' Day, just as he had the year before. He was, as Charles had predicted, in a very bad temper, with a raging appetite for something more substantial than dog food. Lucy and Charles hid in the bathroom until he was gone. A poodle, a Doberman pinscher, two cats, and a pet goat were later reported missing from the neighborhood.
"Why, that miserable, no-good ... !" said Uncle Charles.
Pooky would be a full-size adult bear come the following November. Maybe, Charles thought, he'll find himself a normal den, a regular bear's den, even though a regular bear's den doesn't have insulated walls, central heating, and free snacks in the refrigerator. So he wasn't greatly surprised when the day after the first snowfall the next November, he and Lucy heard something come thumping up the back porch and bang against the door.
"Don't answer it!" cried Lucy. "I know it's him."
"Maybe not," Charles said. "It could be the wind."
Then came a deep, rough, rumbling voice: MAAW-MAAAAW! MAAWMAAWWW!
"Holy ... !" said Uncle Charles.
Pooky was so big he could barely squeeze through the opening into the attic.
Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucy lay awake all that night, staring up at the ceiling, through which they could hear the hard clicking sounds of Pooky's claws as he paced back and forth. Then they heard him grunting as he squeezed back down through the attic opening. He soon appeared at the bedroom door, looking from one to the other of them. Lucy thought she saw him lick his chops. She pointed a finger at herself. "Maawmaawww!" she said. "Maawmaawww!"
Charles thought it rather inconsiderate of Lucy.
Presently, the bear padded down to its refrigerator, which Lucy had had to the good sense to stock with horse meat. Fully sated, Pooky returned to the attic, pausing only for a thoughtful moment before the door of the bedroom.
"You know Pooky's going to be totally lethal when he comes out of hibernation next April," Charles said.
"I know," Lucy said. "I think you should sneak up and shoot him while he's asleep, Charles."
"I'm not shooting anything named Pooky," Charles said. "I've got a better solution."
In January, Charles and Lucy moved to Tucson. Lucy wrote to Chucky to tell him the house was his, whenever he got out of the army. She warned him about the bear in the attic. Chucky in the meantime had been released from the stockade in time to distinguish himself in some of the fiercest battles of Europe. He often joked that combat was a piece of cake, after being locked up for a year with the Scragg brothers.
Chucky was surprised and pleased to learn the house was his, but he had no plans to return to Idaho anytime soon. He did manage to find a couple of renters, though.
"I don't get it," Lister Scragg said to his brother Bo as they prepared to turn in on their first night at the house. "Man, after all the fun we had with Chucky, he still rents us this palace for a measly twenty-five bucks a month. He must be nuts."
"Yeah, well, his old lady and his old man weren't like the sanest people in the world. I mean, take those two refrigerators in the kitchen. And the freezer is crammed full of beef steak! What kinda deal is that? And they left all this furniture and even a couple boxes of cigars. It's crazy, man."
"Maybe it's some kinda joke," Lister said.
"You suppose?" Bo said. "After all, tomorrow's April Fools' Day, ain't it?"
Chucky wasn't too surprised when the Scraggs started missing their rent payments. He asked some friends to check around, but the Scraggs had suddenly and completely disappeared, never to be heard from again.
The house remained empty over the spring and summer, but that fall there was a small but mysterious fire in the attic. The fire chief said it looked as if somebody had been trying to light cigars with kitchen matches. Probably some kids fooling around, he speculated.
Abandoned, the house eventually fell victim to time and the weather. No one ever lived there again, although every November when the weather turned cold and the snow began creeping down the mountains, daffy old Mrs. Swisher would stop by the sheriff's office with reports of her weird sightings:
"I tell you, Sheriff, I'm not imagining this. I've seen it peering out of that little upstairs window every fall about this time. You go check it out right now, Sheriff, and you'll see I'm right. There's a bear in the attic!"
Not being stupid, the sheriff never did check it out.
"What?" cried Devon. "The bear ate the Scraggs? Are you telling me Pooky ate the Scraggs? Gross! Gag!"
"Did I say that? Did I say Pooky ate the Scraggs? I did not! Now, here's your house. You better not tell your grandmother I said the bear ate the Scraggs, because I didn't. Otherwise, no more visits to the library with me."
She got out and stomped off toward her house.
"Wait!" I yelled after her. "You forgot Teddy! You forgot your cute little teddy bear!"
She went in the house and slammed the door. Women! I'll never understand them, not even the little ones.
Copyright © 2002 by Patrick F. McManus
|The Bear in the Attic||1|
|The Magic Tree||28|
|Skinny in Traffic||41|
|Incident at Fish Camp||52|
|Roughing It Over Easy||58|
|If I May Digress||69|
|Just Like Old Times||73|
|Comments I Could Do Without||80|
|The Last Honest Man||90|
|Ralston Comes Through||102|
|Trumped by a King||108|
|A Hunter's Breakfast||114|
|As the Ear Is Bent||119|
|Curly and Mo||122|
|Survivors of the Far Out||126|
|The Shooting Lesson||137|
|Of Fire and the Night||148|
|The Snow Cave||153|
|The Time Machine||166|
|What's in a Name||180|
|A Big Chill||195|
|In Judgment of Men||201|
|A Fish for Vile||210|
Posted December 26, 2003
If you're at all a fan of Mr McManus' work, then Bear in the Attic is a definite must-add to your collection. You really have to find out why there even was a bear in the attic.
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