In the kid’s freshman year of high school a coach named Jelnick made him wrestle a fat, hairy kid named Kenny-something in gym class, and turned the kid into a claustrophobe for life.
Ten years later he got married. A slim girl with almost no body hair but it turned out that not resembling Kenny-something was not the foundation for a lasting relationship, although admittedly it was a good start.
Four years passed and the kid who was now a man had taken a position writing features stories for a newspaper in Florida, and in the course of one such feature story a man named Tuffy Truesdale—all this was a while ago and possibly not the correct spelling—talked the feature writer into wrestling his bear. The bear’s name was Victor, and the spelling of the bear is correct. Tuffy was 50 or so and had been a professional wrestler himself and was much scarier than his bear, even if you imagined him fitted with a muzzle like the one Victor was required by the Palm Beach County Health Department to wear. A terrifying presence, which in no way prepared our feature writer for the persuasiveness of the philosopher beneath.
In any case, Victor and Tuffy traveled together across America doing auto shows, taking on all comers. Victor and Tuffy, and Tuffy’s red-haired, ex-showgirl wife. They crossed the country in a specially-made vehicle that was composed from two Chevrolet Impalas welded together, with a cage fitted into the large, back compartment, and a mattress back there, with a pillow. Most of the time Victor rode in the cage but sometimes if they had been on the road a long time, they all traded spots and Tuffy’s wife—who usually drove—snoozed in back and Victor sat up in front, sipping Ne-Hi grape sodas, tossing an occasional empty out onto the highway. Tuffy said the bear only did that to test the limits.
They traveled in this style from auto show to auto show, seeing the country, making friends—very likeable people were Tuffy and the former showgirl and the bear—usually staying in motels out on the two-lane roads, always asking politely if the establishment accepted pets. Motel clerks found it hard to say no to the little troop and after a long day in the Impalas they would walk the bear and fix a pitcher of martinis and read. Tuffy and his wife were compulsive readers and got through Dickens at a miraculous speed, all of Dickens, start to finish. Our writer could see that Tuffy and his beautiful wife were disappointed that he wasn’t more of a literary fellow himself, but were careful not to let it show.
And so Tuffy and his red-haired wife and our man had some martinis, and our man asked some questions, as he only did under duress, but by now he could see the interview was going poorly. First, there was Tuffy’s disappointment that the feature writer hadn’t read Dickens, and then the disappointment that he didn’t seem to want to wrestle the bear. The feature writer explained about his fear of smothering ever since that afternoon in gym class when Coach Jelnick sicced this fat kid Kenny-something on him, but somehow everything that Tuffy and his showgirl wife said was coming back around to the feature writer wrestling the bear. Tuffy often meandered off into deeper matters of philosophy.
For instance, the feature writer asked if anyone had ever come close to outwrestling the bear, and Tuffy said, “You know, I have found in life that nothing replaces the physical experience. Not that I am drawing some hard line between the physical and the intellectual, I only mean that so often, and excuse the cliché, but so often what you put into a thing determines what you get out…”
And in this way the subject of the conversation kept slipping, again and again, into the feature writer’s wrestling or not wrestling the bear, until finally it was clear to everybody that what was on the table here wasn’t so much a feature story anymore, but the feature writer’s manhood.
On the subject of which, the sparkle had rubbed off the marriage. The feature writer’s marriage. Tuffy and the former showgirl were still made in heaven.
So in the end the feature writer said, “All right, let me finish this …” indicating the martini the former-showgirl had fixed, “and then we’ll see about your bear.” Or words to that effect. The Truesdales by the way did not drink out of pickle jars, as you might think, looking at the automobile made of two Chevrolets, but had elegant glasses, and big, expensive olives in their martinis.
And then, in what seemed like a very short time, the feature writer saw the bottom of the elegant glass for the third time in an hour and—as Tuffy Truesdale might have put it—the time came in life to wrestle the bear.
It was that kid Kenny all over again, only Victor was twenty or thirty times as strong, but not as unpleasant to smell and exactly as hairy. Another reason to go home tonight and beg for forgiveness or mercy, or whatever wasn’t Kenny-something back in his life. Which led to a case of manic laughing—nothing healthy, nothing manly in the face of danger. Our feature writer was out of his head, hysterical. And somehow this noise infuriated Victor who began to make unfriendly sounds of his own.
You should perhaps be reminded that the bear had a muzzle, which did nothing to improve his breath, but which, as previously indicated, was better than Kenny-something’s breath back in high school.
The exact thought that set the feature writer off, by the way, was that he (incorrectly) believed this was the cherry on the cake for idiot ways to die, and once he’d started laughing he couldn’t get it to stop. And the more noise he made the harder Victor burrowed his nose into the writer’s chest—a bear’s nose six inches from the writer’s heart—making these noises that even the feature writer knew were not part of the usual show because something a little wild had come up by now out of Tuffy too, who was screaming at Victor to stop.
Victor wasn’t having it. Somehow, as they say, it had gotten personal.
Finally, it ended. Tuffy was forced to get violent, made a fist and hit Victor on top of the head, and the bear dug in one more time and then got off.
Tuffy could not have been more apologetic. “Look,” he said, almost begging, “I’m sorry that happened. You know I didn’t want that to happen…” It was embarrassing in a way, like being the third person in the room during one of the feature writer’s own domestic arguments. And you do understand that Tuffy was talking to the bear, right?
Victor was not the sort to hold grudges. He sat down on the stool in his corner, where he always went to wait for the next contestant, and Tuffy gave him an ice-cold Ne-Hi grape soda pop which the animal did not guzzle down as you might expect, but took in polite sips, waiting as the beverage settled into his stomach, issuing quiet little burps under his breath.