There Are Worse Things Than Bears
By Jason Wallace
I used to think that my dad was a jerk. He could never shut up even when it was clear I didn’t want to listen to what he had to say, like at those moments when I’d say, “Dad, I’m not listening to a word you’re saying.” Every conversation we had included some sort of criticism about me or a critique about the way I did something, or he’d weave some story, some damn parable, into a simple thing like making a sandwich. Most of the time, they didn’t even make sense. “Y’know,” he’d say, “Whenever you leave the lid open on the mayonnaise jar while you’re making your sandwich, you’re inviting bacteria and larvae into the mayo. It’s common sense to put the lid on immediately after your knife comes out of the jar. You’re practically begging to get food poisoning. It’s not rocket science son, just common sense. The way you make a sandwich says a lot about the man you want to be. John Casteneggi, our gunner in Nam, knew how to make a sandwich. You could learn a lot from John Casteneggi. Saved our asses more times than I can count.” All my seventeen-year-old self wanted was a sandwich. And a mom.
My mom died in a car accident when I was seven. My dad never remarried. I don’t think he even went out on a date after she died. It was just me and him. Sometimes I can't remember my mom's face, but I remember her voice, and I remember her making me sandwiches after school. She'd ooh and awe over everything I did. She’d squeal in delight over all of the little things that would happen to me on any given day. The "Great job!" stamp on my math homework, my macaroni art, my tales of schoolyard heroics, even though most I made most of it up. She called me Bug and she'd laugh and say, "Bug, I am so proud of you. You are so smart. You’re my big, strong Bug.”
My Dad and I couldn’t even go fishing together without getting into a fight. He criticized the way I tied my lure onto the line, my cast, the way I got a soda out of the ice chest, opened a bag of chips (“Jesus Son, can you open a damn bag of chips without driving all the fish away?”). I thought the point of our fishing together was that we were doing it together, that fishing was supposed to be fun. But he saw fishing as some kind of holy rite, one that he needed to pass down to the next generation as if it was some kind of damn commandment or something. “Son, this is how you tie the knot. Thread the line threw the eye like this...when you cast, use your wrist; you’re over-exaggerating the arm...Jesus, that’s not how you do it! Don’t you understand that this skill might one day save your life? It could feed your family!” What’s funny about it, he wasn’t even that good at fishing. In all the times we went, we only caught five fish, and I caught four of them.
But the most annoying thing about my dad was his incessant line of questioning and demands whenever I wanted to go out with my high school buddies: Who, exactly, is going to be there? Will there be drinking? Are adults going to be where you’re going? I want to meet the parents first. I want you to call me once you arrive and then call me if you leave their house. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll drive around until I find you. And, when I find you, you'll wish you had called me. Of course, I’d ask why he didn’t trust me, remind him that I was getting decent grades, that I completed all my chores , that I held down a job and was never late or called in sick, all of those things that should have convinced him that I was a responsible adult and not an impulsive, irrational, testosterone-driven seventeen-year-old. “Jesus Dad, every time I go out it’s like you think I’m going to get eaten by a bear or something. I don’t even think we have bears in Eureka. Why can’t you ever trust me?” My dad would take a hard look at me at those moments, hold me in his gaze for a few tense seconds and say to me, “Son, there are worse things in this world than bears.”
Today I am a twenty-seven year old father of six-year-old twin girls. Their mother left a when they were two. She got tired of the domestic life. She met some tweaker where she worked and started doing meth and running with a wild crowd, her old high school friends from Fortuna. She and the speed freak ran off to Fresno together. She said she'd get settled and then send for the girls. I told her she’d have to kill me first before I’d send them to live with a mom like her. In the four years since she’s been gone, she’s been arrested twice for DUI’s, once for possession of a controlled substance and once for domestic violence. She’s gone through seven different boyfriends, works at a biker bar, and has seen her daughters twice. The last time was on their fourth birthday. They didn't recognize her. She got shitty with my dad and left before the cakes were cut. My dad had done the girls hair and bought two different cakes. A princess cake for Ashley and a unicorn cake for Amber. I told him to only buy one cake because he was spoiling them. He told me I should read a book on parenting “multiples,” that they are individuals and we need to support their individuality. “This stuff ain’t rocket science, son. Do some research.” I rolled my eyes and drank the rest of my beer in the garage so I could get a break from his lecture on parenting. But what mostly pissed me off was that he was right.
Every so often my ex will call, drunk and high, maybe feeling just a tiny bit of guilt, and tell me how wrong she was to run off and beg me to take her back. I don't say much. My throat gets tight. I hate her but hate myself more for wanting her to be a mom, for entertaining the idea that maybe we can work things out, that maybe I should take her back. My dad sure the hell wouldn’t. So I sit there with the phone in my hand, waiting for what I know is coming. She's long past rational thought or self-reflection. In her mind, I’m to blame for how screwed up her life has become. She'll threaten to come up to Humboldt and snatch the girls when I’m off at work. Or she’ll say she’s going to get one of her friends to come over and kick my ass and take the girls. “And if your dad tries to get involved, I’ll have them shoot his ass. That sonofabitch is always sticking his goddamn nose in other peoples’ business.” At least my ex-wife is right about that.
On the days that I’m not working, I take my girls fishing, usually to the same spots that my dad used to take me. I tell them it’s our “secret spot.” I’ll drive them inland to some small lake that’s tucked up into the hills, up out of the fog, and fish for bass. Or I’ll take them to the ocean and we’ll cast our lines into the surf. Usually, we end up running from the foam or searching for sand dollars and hermit crabs when the tide gets low. These are my best days. I feel proud and strong and that maybe I’m a good dad. It’s funny but whenever my dad goes with us, I never hear him criticize how my daughters cast their lines or tie their lures. He’s patient with them, gentle, and he never scolds. “That’s alright Ashley,” he’ll say. “Try it again.” One time Amber stuck him in the neck with her hook. It was one of her first times fishing and she had been casting wildly. I grabbed her by the arm and was about to give her a scolding. My dad told me to let her go. She was starting to sob, and he turned the entire episode into a big joke. He said, “Next time you want to catch a grandpa, use a net instead of your hook.” And then he fell on the ground and began flopping like a fish. The girls squealed and laughed. If that would have been me casting like that, he would have broken a tire iron over my head. It makes me mad that he’s so good with them. It makes me mad that I’m not.
Mostly, I don’t even have enough free time to take my girls fishing. I drop them off at my dad’s so that I can work. He is always there for us. Like death and taxes. On the way to his house to pick my girls up, I’ll drive to the jetty and check my illegal crab pots. I don’t do it to make money, just do it to put some food on the table. On the weekends I tend to a few pot plants on family land. Like our secret fishing spots, it’s a few miles inland, up in the hills and out of the fog. I sell it to old high school buddies who’ve stuck around town, guys I used to play football with. I don’t sell to strangers and I’d sure as hell would never sell it to high school kids. I also sell it to some of the guys at work. Construction workers always have aches and pains. If my dad found out about the plants, he’d be disappointed. But I hope he’d understand. I’m not selling the dope to buy a new Corvette. Sometimes I just need a little help with the bills. And the way my father raised me, I’m not one to ask for handouts.
Last Friday night I heard a noise outside my bedroom window. It sounded like someone was nosing around in our yard. I grabbed my baseball bat and tip toed down the hallway and into my daughters’ room. I stood by their window, raised the shade just a tad so that I could see outside. The moon was near full; I could see the backyard clearly. I stood there peering into the yard, one hand gripping the bat. I could hear my daughters’ steady breathing as they slept. Most twenty-seven year old guys I knew spent their Friday nights in bars, chasing skirt. I was spending mine sitting in the dark clutching a baseball bat. Watching over two little girls who were sound asleep, oblivious to the dangers of this world. In the morning they’d wake up to pancakes and cartoons. A cup of hot chocolate topped with whip cream from a can. Just like my dad used to make for me. My ex-wife was crazy and her threats were probably empty, but I stood there in my daughters’ room for much of the night just in case, awake and alert to any noise that didn’t sound right. Like my dad once told me, there are worse things in this world than bears.
Jason Wallace is a single dad, high school teacher, flat track motorcycle enthusiast, and a writer of short stories.