Hello there, Story366! As you read this, I am actually at a Cub Scout camp with my boys, making wallets or tying knots or whatever it is I’m currently doing. So, this is a post that was written a day sooner, one I’m scheduling to be posted some time on Saturday—I hope it works. But yeah, Cubs Scouts, camp, etc., and I’m sure I’ll have tales to regale you with when I get back. All I know is, this year, it’s about sixty degrees outside, meaning it won’t be all that cold at camp in November, not even at night; last year, for this same event, it was eleven degrees when we went to sleep. I’ll take this year’s weather over last year’s, which will make this trip so much more enjoyable. Camp!
Oh, and since I’m writing this on Friday, before I head out, I also happen to be watching the Cubs’ World Series Parade and celebration in Grant Park. I know that yesterday I said I wouldn’t talk about the Cubs any more, but hey, it’s the World Series Parade! It’s happening, and I want to make note of that. I’ve broken down into tears a couple of times. FYI.
For today’s post, I read from Wendy Brenner‘s collection, Large Animals in Everyday Life, out from Norton (though it won a Flannery O’Connor Award and was originally out on the University of Georgia Press). I enjoyed the stories I read in this collection, for some reason focusing on the pieces that had animals in the title, “The Oysters” and “I Am the Bear,” and will write about the latter right now.
“I Am the Bear” sets up a fun premise, a grocery store mascot who has been accused of sexually harassing a model (there to promote some item), in the store manager’s office, getting taken down a peg. Our mascot, an unnamed woman in her mid-twenties, claims that she didn’t do anything, that it was all incidental, though the model claims her breasts were fondled by the big, leathery paw of this polar bear whose main job is normally handing out free popsicles to kids. The model was originally more upset, wanted to press charges, but when she found out our mascot was a woman underneath that furry mask, is willing to settle for an apology. Our mascot refuses, makes a case out of it—she’s been fired, in her mind, for bullshit reasons, from every job she’s had—and gets fired once again.
This is already a fascinating concept for a story, funny and full of possibilities, but Brenner takes it way beyond that. The title of this story, “I Am the Bear,” is more than just a casual remark or denotation of a job: From there, Brenner takes us deeper into the psyche of our (ex-) mascot, where things really start to get weird. Our narrator, after some introspection and flawed logic (she’s really unreliable by this point), starts believing that she is this polar bear, that when the model kissed her (in bear costume) on the face, embraced her for some promotional photos, that the model was kissing her, she and the bear one and the same. That doesn’t mean she groped her breast—if you believe what she says—but that’s her story and she’s sticking to it. We also get a backstory bit about her, at six, masturbating to the poster found on Large Animals in Everyday Life‘s cover (see below), one that features a horse undressing from a jockey get-up. So, yeah, that’s our narrator/protagonist.
Just when you start thinking that Brenner can’t make this story any more interesting, she has her protagonist make possibly the worst and most interesting decision yet: She tracks the model down and goes to visit her. That scene, at the model’s house, is as tense as it gets, as our bear knows that she’s the alleged groping bear but the model does not. Our bear, in human clothes, poses as a fan, bringing along a couple of magazines to have signed. As you might guess, that’s the crucial scene in this story, a woman who thinks she’s a polar bear who is enthralled by a beautiful woman who showed her, as the bear, some affection. What a congregation of ideas and immediacy and perfection this is. I won’t reveal anything else, but what a great way to end this story, for Brenner to end her collection.
I’m a fan of Wendy Brenner’s work, in Large Animals in Everyday Life (a line that shows up in “I Am the Bear”), and I want to read her other collection, Phonecalls From the Dead, too. I appreciate her style, how she starts with a clever premise, but writes so much more than a clever story, one with great depth, better than anything I can imagine.