I was on a bench in the park when he sat down beside me. The boards creaked beneath his weight. I felt his heavy breathing and heard him sigh. When I looked up, I tried not to panic.
It’s not within my usual daily experience to find a large brown grizzly bear sitting beside me on a park bench, or any bench for that matter. I comforted myself by remembering I never heard him approach since I was so absorbed in my book. If his object had been to hurt me, he already would have done so. Besides he didn’t look very threatening, just sad. I decided not to run away screaming, and casually turned the page of my novel to resume reading. He sighed again, the heavy hearted sigh of a bear in the midst of some deep trouble or other. The park was empty today but for us and he could have sat on any empty bench. Assuming he was lonely, I closed my book, marking my place with my finger, and cleared my throat. He turned his head towards me. His sad brown eyes looked briefly at me then turned to gaze mournfully over my head at the surrounding park.
“Good morning,” I said.
He didn’t seem to hear me, so I cleared my throat and repeated, “I said, good morning.”
He heaved another sigh and mumbled in a deep gruff voice, “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.” I eyed him curiously. After a few silent minutes he sighed again and slowly turned his head towards me. “I don’t suppose you have change for a dollar?”
I checked my pockets. “I’m afraid not. Just a dime and a five.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. “I might have guessed it.” He turned his mournful expression out over the park. We sat for a while, watching the leaves skitter and blow in the breeze before I spoke again.
“You seem to be in some sort of trouble.” He made a noise deep in his throat, but other than that made no reply. “Perhaps,” I said. “If you tell me what’s troubling you, I can be of some help.”
He grunted and raised his eyebrows. “I doubt it.”
“Well, would it hurt to try?”
He didn’t answer immediately, but when he did he pressed his paw to his forehead and messaged his temples. His deep rumbling voice made the bench tremor as he spoke.
“Well, it all started yesterday,” he began, his eyes roaming slowly over the empty park. “It began just like any other day. I woke up, made my bed, took a nice cold shower and brushed my teeth. I live on Acorn Street in an apartment above the fishmonger. I usually take a walk before breakfast, so I put on my rubber boots and headed out.” He paused and leaned his elbows on his legs. “I didn’t realize I had left the door open. My cat ran away.”
“Your cat?” I asked.
“Yup. Her name’s Sniffles on account of her allergies. She kept telling me she needed air, space, to chase butterflies. I didn’t think she meant it.”
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t see at all. This was the first bear I’d met with a pet cat.
He nodded slowly at me. “So I drove to the airport and flew my helicopter to Sweden. I beat her there by twenty minutes. She’d had a taste of freedom now though and said she wouldn’t go back. I tried everything. I offered her chocolate covered grapes, tickets to the movies, and even promised to bring her with me on my vacation to the Rockies next spring. She just shook her head and said she’d rather suck Cheerios up her nose then go back with me.” He flicked some lint off his leg. “Claimed she’s allergic to me.”
I had no response to this. It’s one thing for a bear to own a pet cat, but it’s another thing entirely for that pet to be allergic to him. He let out a long sigh, and as he exhaled, his shoulders drooped and slouched. Fearing he might begin to cry, I reached over and patted his shoulder.
“There, there,” I said encouragingly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Well,” he said. “I should have known. I’ve never been able to keep a cat more than three months. They all run away.” He turned his face towards me so his snout nearly touched my nose. “Or die,” he added.
If you’ve ever had a grizzly bear rumble the word, “die” at you while looking in your eyes, you would probably understand me when I say that it made me a little uncomfortable. I patted his shoulder again.
“So,” I said, after clearing my throat. “So you decided to take a walk then I suppose. That’s how we’ve come to meet?”
The bear shook his head. “No. Not right away. This all happened yesterday, you know. After she left me, I did what any bear would do.”
He raised his eyebrows at me. “Tennis.”
“Ah. Right. Tennis!”
“I stopped in at Stephen Harpers.”
“Stephen Harper?” I asked. “As in the former prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper?”
He nodded. “You know him?”
“Well, we play tennis on Tuesday’s. He’s a good listener. But then I accidentally landed in his wife’s rutabaga patch and she had a fit. She practically threw me into Lake Ontario.”
“So I gathered what was left of my pride and came home. I made myself some bran muffins for dinner, but they burned because I forgot my egg timer was broken. I barely slept all night for dreaming of unicorns and pancakes.” He looked forlornly at me. “And I hate pancakes.”
“Gosh, you’ve sure had a time of it.”
He heaved another broken sigh. “You can say that again,” he said. We sat in silence for a while, just listening to the breeze ruffle the trees. I know that the sounds of the park this time of day usually lift my spirits and the sun had come out of hiding from behind the clouds, casting vitamin enriching rays over the gloomy slouching bear.
Eventually he rose to his feet and turned a wan smile towards me, “Well, thanks for listening ma’am.”
“Rachel,” I said. “You can call me Rachel. And may I know your name?”
“Robert. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” A world weary half smile touched the corner of his mouth, giving more an impression of forced cordiality than actual happiness, as though he doubted I meant it. He nodded politely towards me and began to shuffle away.
I watched him for a minute, replaying our odd conversation in my head, when a thought struck me. Unsure if we should ever meet again, I called out to him before he had a chance to disappear. “Wait,” I said. He turned back to me. “Why did you need change for a dollar?” I asked.
“I wanted a coke from that machine.”
I turned towards the machine. From my seat, I could see it had one of those new fangled slots that took credit cards. I smiled to myself and turned back to him.
“Just hold on a sec,” I said. I ran to the machine, and, in the work of an instant, was jogging towards him with a soda in hand.
“Here,” I said, handing it towards him. There were tears in his eyes and his expression was the closest thing to a smile I’d yet seen. He looked down at the bottle and it was as though someone had cut his bungee chord and he now stood a fair chance of plummeting to his death.
“It’s pepsi,” he said with a soft choke in his voice.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, it was a pepsi machine. It’s all they had.”
He sighed again, shook his head, and said in a low gloomy voice, “I should have known.” He handed it back to me and left me standing alone in the park with the pepsi in my hand.
© Rachel Svendsen 2016