My father hopped down from the cab and said hello. He looked old. Tired. His hair was close-cropped, as if he had cut it himself looking at his reflection in the kitchen window. He’d had some health problems, including a small stroke the previous year, but after a few days, he’d hitchhiked home from the hospital. A blood clot in his leg was killing him, he said. He had a pronounced limp.
Pat was waiting for us inside. She was boarding three hunter brothers from Ohio. They slept in bunk beds upstairs but were now out stalking game on the state land. I heard gunfire ring out occasionally, bounce back and forth off the hills, and carom through the valley.
Over tuna sandwiches at the kitchen table, Buck started to tell the bear story. He produced some papers, which he said illustrated his claim of self-defense. The bear wasn’t his fault, he said. The bear was the bear’s fault. But I had a feeling that both of them were simply being true to their natures.
Buck told me he first saw the bear when it ambled down off the ridge by the house and helped itself to a garbage can full of cat food on the back porch.
In defiance of every known stereotype, my father is a cat man. The few times from my childhood when I can visualize him being still, he is sitting cross-legged in a ladder-back chair, smoking a cigarette and stroking a house cat, Godfather-style. Here in his kitchen I noticed he had at least two cats that periodically curled around his ankles.
After the bear had its fill of Friskies, my father told me, it scrambled back up the ridge and disappeared. It was a male. Young. Big. My father said he was a beauty. The bear had a tag pinned to his ear—this was not his first taste of kibble; he’d been caught and tagged before by the game warden. Buck had a feeling that this bear had been released into their back woods the previous week. The game warden had a habit of taking captured bears on tours of Boy Scout troops and schools before releasing them—Buck felt that this bear was particularly bold and was probably used to being around people.
He called the game warden, who came out, and together they baited a barrel trap with rotted meat and honey. The warden told my father to fortify his beehives.
Buck spent the morning installing fencing at his apiary. His biggest fear was that the bear would destroy or permanently disrupt his hives. As he told me this, he gestured out to the back field, where wooden trays of beehives stacked waist high were surrounded by a low electrified fence. It looked like a stalag in miniature. I imagined groups of worker bees smoking cigarettes and hanging around the prison yard, planning their escape from the queen.
After working on the fencing all morning, he and Pat went into town. On their way back to the house, a neighbor who kept goats flagged them down and said that the bear was back and had been lying in the road. The neighbor had to get out of his car and kick him out of the way. “That bear wasn’t afraid of anything. He was crazy,” my father said.
Buck raced back to the hives to finish the fence. He said the bear was watching him from the edge of the tree line.
That’s when my father’s instincts, running as they do toward the hair-brained, violent, and adventuresome, made him decide to take matters into his own hands, so he went and grabbed his 20-gauge shotgun.
When Buck got to this next part of the story, he started to sound wounded and practiced, like a man on the witness stand. He said he called the game warden a second time. Whatever. He got tired of the whole business.