Just When You Think You Know Everything
One day I was listening to the AM radio, driving out the road in my dad’s half-ton Chevy on my way to meet Norman. Carole King and I were singing Smackwater Jack. I shifted down to third coming into the curve where black glacier rock rises up on the left and the ground drops off to the water on the right. The mist rose up like it usually did, from rainwater sheeting down the rock face, making rainbows you could drive through. The spray covered my windshield and I fiddled around for the wiper knob. And doesn’t everything happen just when you’re not looking?
I’m meeting Norman at Outer Point. I have the poles, and he has the herring and beer. Of all the boys I’ve kissed, Norman is the only one who hasn’t tried to unzip my pants. Though for him, I might. But he’s only interested in catching the next fish. Norman has his own boat, a Grady White. It used to be his Dad’s before he drowned two winters ago off of Kodiak. Norman’s brother Gunnar was supposed to get the boat but quit fishing after the accident. Today though, we’re casting from shore. We’re going to build a fire and wait for the tide to come in. Probably hook a few Dollies, maybe a Coho if we’re lucky. It’s too foggy to see the water. Just about everything is gray here—gray or green, or black—sky, trees, rock. Bear? A black bear is standing in the road, up on its hind legs, looking at me. I’m braking hard, thinking oh, it’s just a cub, though it was bigger, a yearling, maybe. Thinking Dad’s going to kill me if I wreck the truck, thinking I’ll be late and Norman will think I’m not coming. Somehow the Chevy slides past the bear, it’s moving, too, and I come to a stop and watch out the side window as the bear heads into the brush—blueberry, salmonberry, devil’s club. Skunk cabbage. If you’re a bear, what’s not to like?
A big ka-thump in the back of the truck bounces me in the seat. I look in the rearview. It’s another bear. It’s in the bed, in the fucking truck bed. Roy Orbison is singing, pretty woman, kind I’d like to meet, don’t walk away, hey. The bear’s backside fills the window. I lock the door. I can smell the bear. It reminds me of Lonnie’s shepherd, Jeb, washed up on the bank at Lemon Creek. Lonnie’s dog had gotten smacked by a porcupine. His dad pulled the quills but the dog went back after it every time he got loose, and limped home full of needles, and Lonnie’s dad said he’d had just about enough of that shepherd. When they got Jeb out of the water the quills spiked out from his muzzle like one of those old masks at the museum. I can smell my sweat, too, mixed with the bear stink. The bear’s turning around. It fits in the truck bed no problem, just another yearling.
There’s a back-to-school sale at Behrend’s, the radio announcer says. He says there’s seventeen days until school, says enjoy the sunshine, it’s going to be hot, maybe 75, says the sun’s going down at 10:03, two minutes earlier than yesterday. The sun hasn’t broken through yet. I have Dad’s old Army blanket for the beach, and a pair of cutoffs just in case. The smart bear is still in the brush, stripping blueberries. In the back of the truck the other bear’s breath is fogging the glass. Its teeth are really clean, yes and big, but so white. I can’t stop looking. It lifts onto its back legs and I’m staring at its belly, maybe it’s a girl, then it’s over the cab and climbing down, swinging its backside at me as it lumbers into the woods. My dad’s going to freak about the scratch marks on the hood. Gouges, I should say. No way I’m getting out to check the roof. I twist around in my seat. There’s an eye knocked loose on one of the salmon rods, but it’s not at the tip, we can still fish with it. I let the clutch out too fast. The truck lurches but doesn’t die—it’s foolproof, my dad says, and don’t pass anyone, he says, and be home by dark, and that’s not so hard in summertime and by next winter I’ll be seventeen and can stay out as late as I want, like my sister.
I pull over behind Norman’s VW minibus. He sleeps in it sometimes, when his mom and brother are fighting. He’s built the fire already. He’s sitting on a driftwood log, squinting at the smoke. “A bear jumped into the truck,” I say, handing him the good pole. “Yeah, right.” Norman says, and pulls me onto the log. “What happened to your pole?” I stand up again, even though I’m feeling kind of wobbly. “It did. I think it jumped off the waterfall rock. It climbed right over me. Did you know bears have really clean teeth?” Norman shakes his head, reaches for my hand. My teeth are chattering. “Bears don’t jump.” I pull him up from the log, drag him toward the truck.
“Holy shit,” he says. “Fuck. Are you okay?” We’re looking at the claw marks on the hood. My whole body’s shivering, and then I start crying. Norman dries my cheeks with his coat sleeve. We sit by the fire and drink some beer, watching a wavy line of pollen drifting toward us on the tide.
Jenifer Browne Lawrence is the author of Grayling, and One Hundred Steps from Shore. Awards include the Perugia Press Prize, the Orlando Poetry Prize, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Potomac Review poetry award, and a Washington State Artist Trust GAP grant. Her work appears in The Los Angeles Review, Narrative, North American Review, Rattle, and elsewhere. Jenifer lives on the west side of Puget Sound, and edits Crab Creek Review.