by S. Pihlaja
Gary the Bear was a hard worker. I can’t say that enough about him. A lot of people said a lot of things when I hired him, but as I look back, he’s still one of the best workers I’ve ever had. Even after he ate Juan Pedro, the line cook, I was hesitant to fire him. The floors were so clean. Louise, the night manager, was adamant that he go, pounding on my office door, shouting about Juan Pedro’s family. Maybe she just didn’t understand how hard it is to come by good workers, especially ones who could mop well.
Juan Pedro was uncomfortable when I first brought Gary the Bear into the restaurant. He said something like, “Either I go or he goes.” I begged him to give it a chance. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen, right?
Gary the Bear was great with a mop, it turned out. He could mop anything: the bathroom, the kitchen, didn’t matter. And he always worked so hard at it, furrowing his brow and really putting his back into it. Also, I could pay him in garbage.
Juan Pedro didn’t leave like he threatened to, and everything seemed to be working out well. Louise even started to like him. She said that he had hugged her one early morning before he went home. She said it was one of the best hugs she had ever received, entirely devoid of any sexual overtures. “It was just a hug,” she said, “A perfect, warm hug.”
The customers didn’t like having him around at first, particularly this guy, Bruce. “Come on, man,” he would say to me, “This isn’t a fuckin’ circus. You ain’t got no clowns. No midgets, right? What’s with the bear?” But I didn’t really have to make a defense for Gary the Bear. The floors spoke for themselves, did they not?
After a while, the other customers seemed to get into having Gary the Bear around. “Hey, Gary the Bear,” they’d say, “Show up your paws!” And Gary the Bear would stand on his hands and wiggle his hairy bear claws. It was a kind of fabulous joke to him and the customers loved it. “Great, Gary the Bear!” they would say. “Fantastic!”
And then, one day, out of the clear blue sky, Gary the Bear ate Juan Pedro the line cook. They hadn’t been arguing, Louise said, when I came in that morning. In fact, the day before they had gone bowling together. Juan Pedro had even lost. They hadn’t drunk much, and everyone knew that Gary the Bear could hold his liquor. “But it doesn’t matter,” Louise said, “You can’t keep him on. It’s not safe. What if he eats me.” I started to head towards my office, back behind the water boiler, but Louise followed me, “You can’t seriously be thinking of keeping him on, can you?” her voice getting louder and louder. “What about Juan Pedro’s family?”
I called Juan Pedro’s wife to apologize about the situation, and she was rather indifferent. It seems Juan Pedro had been bowling most every night anyway and she hadn’t really missed him. “Juan Pedro was a good man,” I said, “I’m really sorry that he had to go that way. But I do know Gary the Bear meant nothing by it. I’m sure it was just a small disagreement. These things happen.”
When Gary the Bear came to work that night, Louise hid in the ladies restroom and I confronted him about the situation. “You ate Juan Pedro the Line Cook? Why?” Gary the Bear didn’t look me in the eye (not that he ever did), just put on his apron and picked up the mop. “Look, Gary the Bear, I need answers. You can’t keep working here if you don’t explain what happened. Did he call you a bad name?” But Gary the Bear put the mop in the slop bucket with wheels and made his way to the men’s room. I shouted after him, “Answers, Gary the Bear! I need answers before you leave, or you won’t be coming back.”
I went to the office to put my feet on my desk and smoke a cigarette and think about what I should do. I couldn’t very well send Gary the Bear back to the woods, could I? He had developed such a taste for garbage, and besides, who would mop the floors? Not Louise, God knows she doesn’t have any talent for that. So I just thought it out.
Louise came back to the office some time later. “What’d you do? Did you fire him?” I shook my head and said, “I’m thinking. You gotta fill in for Juan Pedro, the Line Cook tonight.”
At about ten, I was still in the office on my fifth Lucky Strike. I had the window open and the air smelled so sweet. Like it was just about to rain. I remember thinking, This would be a perfect night if I wasn’t so worried about what to do with Gary the Bear.
Suddenly, there was some noise in the restaurant, a glass breaking and some raised voices. I ran out through the double doors of the kitchen to see what was going on. It was Bruce, shouting for Gary the Bear, holding a shotgun. “This is between me and Gary the Bear, see? Nobody gets hurt. I just want Gary the Bear.”
I assumed Gary the Bear was still in the men’s room, still mopping with the diligence that only Gary the Bear had. I tried to reason with Bruce. “What, are you crazy now? This isn’t right, this won’t solve anything,” but Bruce wouldn’t calm down. “Goddammit, where’s Gary the Bear!? Tell me now!”
The truth was that I didn’t know for sure. Maybe he had heard the noise and escaped through the window in the bathroom. Gary the Bear was quick thinking like that, always one step ahead of the game. But then again, the window was a little small to fit Gary the Bear, I thought. Could he be cowering in the second stall, waiting for Bruce to leave?
Just as I thought that, the men’s room door opened, and Gary the Bear emerged, looking calm and cool. He was only coming out because he had finished mopping, not because Bruce was shouting. There was no grin on Gary the Bear’s face, no trace of irony either. Just the diligence that made me love him in the first place. Nothing was going to get between him and his work, I remember thinking.
Bruce was surprised, it seemed, when Gary the Bear came out of the men’s room, like he wasn’t actually expecting to see him. “Well, well, well. It seems fate has dealt you quite a hand, Gary the Bear. Quite the hand,” he said, laughing and raising his rifle. “Here’s looking at you, Gary the Bear” and unloaded a round into him.
Gary the Bear had a solid body, but the shotgun blast really got him good. Really good. He went down hard, dropping the mop and falling over the top of the slop bucket with wheels. We all just watched for a second, not quite sure what to do. One of the customers, this fat woman in a yellow jumpsuit, was gasping like she might start crying. Louise was looking out from the kitchen with big eyes.
Why did Bruce shoot Gary the Bear? I said that, without looking at him, “Why’d you shoot Gary the Bear, man? What’d Gary the Bear ever do to you?” but Bruce just lowered his rifle and stared at Gary the Bear’s body. There was blood pooling underneath the slop bucket with wheels. It was really disgusting.
The few guys at the counter lost interest pretty quickly and started talking and eating again. Bruce didn’t shoot anything else, just turned around and walked out to his Ford pickup, throwing the gun in the back. I thought about calling the police, but then again, I wasn’t sure if it was bear season. Shooting Gary the Bear wouldn’t have been a crime then, right? Besides, there were so many things that might come up in a police investigation. I didn’t really want to say anything about Juan Pedro the Line Cook.
I cleaned up the body all by myself. Louise said she didn’t want anything to do with it. She just kept cooking. The fat woman in the yellow jumpsuit watched me like a terrified schoolgirl. Gary the Bear wasn’t that big so I was able to pick him up over my shoulders and haul him out back. I thought about just wheeling him out on the slop bucket, but there’s like five steps off the back of the restaurant. Plus it just didn’t seem right. I found a blue tarp in the supply closet and laid it out in the backseat of my Cutlass. I just barely got Gary the Bear inside.
Gary the Bear’s eyes were still open, wide open, and still completely void of irony. They were just empty like maybe Gary the Bear had forgotten the meaning of life right before he died.
I drove the Cutlass out of town for a while, smoking a Lucky Strike and trying to think about what to do. It was dark so I figured I could dump the body just about anywhere. I knew Gary the Bear and I knew he wouldn’t mind that kind of burial. No pomp for Gary the Bear. It just wasn’t his style.
The river seemed right. It would probably carry him down stream for a while and when he finally got caught up in some fallen tree on one of the banks, it’d probably be a couple of towns down and everyone’d just assume Gary the Bear got away from a hunter. I killed my headlights in the middle of the bridge, hauled the body out of the backseat, and heaved it over the rail. I didn’t think I was going to get it all the way over, but I did. It was really dark so I couldn’t see down into the water, I heard a splash and figured that was probably all I needed to do. I thought about throwing the tarp into the water too.
The rain started up a little bit, but I stood out there on the bridge, thinking about getting another cigarette. Nobody came over the bridge while I was there, which wasn’t really that weird because I was kind of far out of town. A couple of times I thought I heard something, but it wasn’t anything. Just me, the car, and the water underneath everything, rushing Gary the Bear’s body away, someplace new.
This story first ran in the Sep/Oct 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle.