Ron Canby saw the bear first. On Saturday morning, he trudged up the driveway to collect the morning newspaper. In the quaint coastal village where he had spent the last three decades, traversing a driveway was the equivalent of a steep hike. Ron’s house perched on the side of a mountain. Cedar trees lined his property except to the west which faced the ocean. Ron wore the blue cotton pajamas his wife had given him the Christmas before she died. He missed Dot, but he did not mind being a widower. His new girlfriend lived in the city. Leona was a yoga instructor. She made him eat sushi.
Ron was not a tall man, nor was he distinguished. He walked with his shoulders rounded and his stomach protruding. His moccasins flapped against his bare feet, the leather heels long since worn. Running was out of the question, not that it occurred to him to do so. Until that morning, he had always fancied himself something of a risk-taker. He had researched bear encounters and envisioned how he would react on such an occasion. Appear confident. Make noise. Frighten said bear.
All plans vanished when Ron reached the top of the driveway. A black bear stood less than 10 feet away, its massive head lowered threateningly. The Saturday newspaper, bulkier than the weekday editions, rested in the open space between man and beast. Ron was out of breath. He clutched his pajama top as if to prevent a heart attack. He thought, I should lie on the ground and play dead. Then, I’ll fall on my face trying to get into position and the bear will maul me. Finally, I have nothing on underneath these pajamas. God! What was I thinking?
He eyed the newspaper, rolled and stuffed in a protective plastic bag, a feeble weapon not likely to withstand a swipe of the bear’s huge paw. One of Ron’s great joys in life was a leisurely perusal of the weekend edition while he sipped his morning coffee. In the slim event he survived the attack, the newspaper had better stay put.
As Ron considered his options, the bear opened its mouth and snapped its jaw. Ron’s heart skipped a beat. Unlike grizzlies, black bears often ate their victims. They also climbed trees, ripped apart cars and ran as fast as racehorses. These facts came to Ron in panicked bursts. Here was a life or death situation. Either he would survive with a thrilling story to relate or he would become a grim statistic on the evening news. Although he rather liked the idea of his photograph flashed across a television screen while his favorite news anchor said his name, the choice was obvious. He began a slow, terrified retreat. The bear watched him go. To Ron’s relief and disappointment, the animal did not follow.
Later that day, long after the bear had scampered up the mountain, Ron ventured outside to retrieve the newspaper. His next-door neighbor was busy washing his convertible. Ron called out hello. Phil Berdine nodded, gave him a non-committal wave and a vague smile. Ron persisted. “I saw a bear this morning,” he said. “Big male. Scared me half to death.”
Phil was not a man easily impressed. He played the stock market and made enough money to keep his wife clothed in Prada and Versace. Raised in a family of boasters however, he loved nothing more than a big fish story. So the old guy had seen a bear … Phil dropped the garden hose and crossed his arms against his chest. “Really?”
Ron smiled. He hurried onto the Berdine property where he told his story. Phil whistled under his breath. “You’re damn lucky. We heard the dogs barking, and we wondered what was up. My wife Shelley — she’s at the window, give her a wave — peeked out. I guess we just missed it.”
“Fortunately you missed it,” said Ron. He had never been this close to the Berdine house. In fact, he could not remember if he had ever spoken to anyone who lived there. They were a busy, working family. Ron had retired years ago.
“Well,” said Phil, “watch yourself. No berries up the mountain. It’s a bad year.”
Ron registered the dismissal and the tinge of disdain in Phil’s smile. “A bad year,” he agreed, and he cast furtive glances in the windows of Phil’s house as he backed away.
The next day, Ron lingered at the end of his driveway until he spotted Lindsay Kellerman leaving her house. “Had a bear encounter,” he said. “Scared the bejesus out of me.”
Lindsay planted her hands on her hips and nodded. “The big male? I’ve seen him.”
Ron frowned. “At a distance maybe, but —”
“I was walking my dogs and there he was not 30 feet away.”
“Thirty feet?” Ron hurried across the street. “That’s nothing. I could practically feel his breath on my face.”
“Kiwi, my old girl, barked like mad, and wouldn’t you know it, the bear lopes toward us.” Lindsay smiled. It was a good story, and she knew it. She had already emailed the relatives back east. “Ever had a black bear running toward ya, a full-grown male to boot? Not an experience I’d like to repeat.”
“What happened?” asked Phil Berdine. He had been climbing into his car when he noticed the two neighbors talking. Feeling sociable and not in the mood to attend his daily fitness session, he approached.
Lindsay touched her hair. The velour tracksuit was a bit much, but Phil had the bluest eyes. “I was just saying that the bear came after me and my dogs.”
“Ha,” said Phil. “Bet you’ve got streaks in your underwear.”
It was dumb joke, but Lindsay laughed loud and long. “Let’s just say I should’ve bought a lottery ticket because luck was on my side.”
“You ran,” Ron concluded.
“I did not,” said Lindsay. “The bear kept coming. Kiwi was barking, and I was sure we had a fight on our hands. I had nothing to lose so” — she paused for effect, smiling as the two men leaned forward in anticipation — “so I yelled.”
“What did you yell?” asked Phil.
Ron could not hide his sarcasm. “You yelled scat at a full-grown bear?”
“It worked,” said Lindsay, and to her delight, Phil chuckled. “Sounds good to me,” he said.
They were silent for several minutes, their eyes on the wilderness that loomed behind the Kellerman house. “I should probably report it to the village office,” said Ron.
“Oh, don’t bother,” said Lindsay. “I already did.”
Later that day, a live bear trap appeared on the Exton Road cul-de-sac. It looked like a giant blue oil drum turned onto its side with wheels on the bottom. A metal grate covered one end, a trip door the other. Lindsay took a picture of her dogs sitting in front of it. She had her head in the doorway, inspecting the quart of molasses put there as bait when Ron approached. She jumped when he spoke.
“What day did you see it?” he said.
“Saturday evening. Right after dinner.”
“Saturday morning for me. I guess I saw it first.”
Lindsay shrugged. She motioned to the molasses. “I expect we’ll find the bear in there by morning.”
“I expect so.”
“Do you want me to take your picture?”
With a quick glance at the wilderness that ringed most of the cul-de-sac, Ron stood in front of the bear trap. He smoothed his hair and regretted he had not worn a nicer shirt.
“That’s a bad place,” said Lindsay. “Step to the right. You’re covering the danger sign.”
Ron frowned, but he obeyed. He would frame the photograph and present it to Leona. He would tell her the bear was inside and mad as hell. She wouldn’t know the difference.
“Smile,” said Lindsay.
“It’s as good as I’ve got.”
“If you say so,” and Lindsay snapped the picture. “When it’s developed, I’ll drop by your house. You can make me a cup of coffee.”
She whistled for her dogs. The animals emerged from the bushes at a run. “I should go.”
“Me too,” said Ron.
They both stared at the danger sign, each noting the telephone number of the local wildlife conservation officer. “Guess it won’t be long now,” said Lindsay.
Ron nodded. He waited until she left before he inspected the bear trap himself.
Over the next few days, the trap sat in the cul-de-sac. Other neighbors inspected it, photographed it. Ron told them about his encounter with the bear. “I saw it first,” he said. “Scared the bejesus out of me.”
Every morning he checked the trap, but the bear did not reappear. The molasses attracted flies, racoons, and Lindsay’s dogs. To speed up the process, Ron took a jar of pancake syrup from his pantry cupboard and poured it around the cul-de-sac. He searched for animal tracks. Most belonged to Lindsay’s dogs.
To Ron’s chagrin, Phil caught him there one afternoon. Ron was on his hands and knees examining a strand of coarse black fur when he heard the car engine.
“Still waiting for your bear?” said Phil with a chuckle.
Ron scrambled to his feet. Since when had it become his bear? “I found something,” he said.
“This,” and he held out the strand of fur.
Phil raised his eyebrows. “Looks like a piece of Kiwi to me.”
“Her fur is lighter.”
“No. Don’t think so.”
“Anyway.” Ron crossed his arms against his chest. He gazed at the mountain, wishing Phil would take the hint and keep driving.
“Lindsay got her pictures developed.”
“You saw them?”
“Looking pretty tough there in front of that bear trap.”
Ron blushed. He uncrossed his arms and in doing so slipped the strand of fur in the car. Phil did not appear to notice. He adjusted his mirrored sunglasses and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Shelley got a kick out of it too. Said you looked like a real hillbilly.”
“Is that so?” Ron wondered when this gathering of neighbors had taken place.
“You’re out here a lot,” Phil continued, “waiting for that bear. Lindsay says you’re widowed.”
“Dot died two years ago.”
“Not much to do?”
“I keep busy.”
“You ought to ask Lindsay out.”
This was unexpected. To his horror, Ron blushed again. “She’s married.”
Nearby, a branch snapped. Ron gazed at the bushes hopefully. A raven hopped out, let out an angry caw, and flew away.
Phil laughed the laugh of man who understands women better than the rest of his sex. “She talks about you a lot.”
“I have a girlfriend,” said Ron. He tried to remember her name, but all he could think about was Lindsay’s absent husband.
“She didn’t mention that.”
“She wouldn’t. They’ve never met.”
“Right then.” Phil shifted gears. “Good luck with the beast.”
“You named the bear?”
“No. My girlfriend. Her name is Leona.”
“Right. Take it easy, eh.”
Ron stepped back as the car sped away. He noticed then that Lindsay had listened to the whole exchange from her front porch.
The next morning, it rained. Ron trudged up his driveway later than usual. Since the bear encounter, he always dressed before going out. When he reached the road, he found Lindsay standing in the cul-de-sac with her dogs. “It’s gone,” she said.
Sure enough, there was no sign of the bear trap.
Ron stooped to retrieve his newspaper, using the movement to mask his awkwardness. When he faced Lindsay, he kept his gaze averted. “Is that so?”
She moved closer. “It was me who called. That bear came right up your driveway and you didn’t even know it.”
“Is that so?”
“Officer Gordon said it was the biggest male he’d ever seen. He told me I’m damn lucky to be alive.”
“Well,” said Ron, “that’s something.” He tapped the newspaper against his thigh, at a loss for what to say.
Lindsay smiled as if she’d read his thoughts. “They spotted a mountain lion near the village two nights ago. I have the awareness brochure back at the house if you’re interested.”
Ron dropped the newspaper and hurried over to her. “No kidding?”