The Game of Bear

With apologies and thanks to dear Monty.

 

My old friend Ford was in Los Angeles on business, and as I had recently been rendered superfluous and essentially persona non grata at my job due entirely to the vehemence and churlishness with which I had objected to the absorption of the museum of which I had been an associate director into the better funded and distinctly inferior Los Angeles Museum of Art (thus becoming the Los Angeles Museum of Art, Design and Architecture), it was a relief to simply slip away unannounced and unmissed at midday and meet her.

I called her a friend, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the right word. We had been close in high school (which was a very long time ago now), and then had lost touch when she went to Syracuse and I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (she was a better student than I, although I eventually caught up once I found my métier). We had reconnected on Facebook, when that was still a thing people did. A divorce each and the concomitant moves of home (she from northern Virginia to outside Boston, I from Brentwood to Hollywood) and employment (for her; I stayed with the museum, building it up from an adjunct to an architecture school to the preeminent institute for the study and preservation of mid-century California architecture and design, getting nothing but a t-shirt and a very public fight with that ghoul who oversees LAMADA for my trouble, but that’s entirely off topic) had caused us to lose touch again. And then, out of the blue, she reached out to me on LinkedIn of all things.

She was working for a company that intended to jump in the moment Massachusetts legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, and was being sent out to California to connect with a large outfit based in LA that had hit the ground running and was looking for an east coast partner. She asked if we could meet up, and I said yes. It had been more than thirty years since we’d laid eyes on each other, but I said yes. And so it was that we found ourselves sitting at an outdoor table at two in the afternoon on a Wednesday, watching the traffic on La Brea, catching up on two adulthoods.

We worked backwards, me talking about my struggles and disappointments with the museum trade, and how I was hoping I could parlay my reputation and my published works into a teaching position at SCI-Arc, she about the way she was helping shape a company founded in 1893 as a dairy into a 21st century cannabis superstore. She was the mother of one 9 year old and stepmother of two who were already out of college. I wasn’t. I loved Los Angeles and never wanted to leave. She found Boston exhausting and was looking forward to three weeks on Martha’s Vineyard next summer. We talked about bands we liked, movies we liked, books we somehow found time to read.

And then she said, “I think I saw something once and I’ve never been able to shake it, and I want to tell you about it. I don’t think you’ll laugh. I think you’ll believe me. Do you know what a receiving vault is?”

“Yes. In fact, I wrote a monograph about the evolution-“

“Do you remember when Danny O’Malley died?”

It took me a moment. The name was familiar, but familiar the way the name of a long-gone brand of toothpaste or athletic wear is familiar. And then it came to me. “He was the kid who fell down the stairs at that party senior year, right? Went to Churchill Catholic. I didn’t know him.”

“Yup. That was him. I knew him. We grew up together. He lived around the corner. Did you know I was at that party?”

“I didn’t. I don’t think you’d ever mentioned it. Did you? I would have remembered that, I think.”

“No, I never told you. I…it…I saw…I saw him, and I saw something else.” Her face had turned from pale to ashen.

This is what she told me.

 

“I knew Danny from elementary school. When Churchill started bussing kids, which is when I met you, his parents sent him and his twin sister, Maureen, to the Catholic school. There was a lot of hysteria about how violent the public schools were, and I guess their parents bought into that hysteria.

Anyway, this was February of 198-. It was the weekend of Valentine’s Day. Danny’s parents were in Florida. His grandmother, his mother’s mother, had just died a couple weeks before, and his parents were in Clearwater because the old woman had a condo and some bank accounts down there, and they were…well, if I were being generous I’d say they were putting her affairs in order, but they were just down there scooping up anything with any value at all.

Grandma Callahan couldn’t have died at a better time. John and Mary had two kids about to go off to college, they had a second mortgage, they had debts spread across God knows how many banks and credit cards. Any way, the old girl went ass over teakettle down the stairs. Probably shouldn’t have been trying to negotiate that narrow staircase all alone in that big house on Cherry Street. She was frugal, although stingy is maybe a better way to put it. You remember how cold that winter was. Well, she refused to run the furnace and heat that mansion. She used a space heater in her bedroom, kept the taps in the house cracked a bit so the pipes didn’t freeze, and kept her money in the bank. She pretty much just lived in the bedroom and the kitchen by then, anyway.

The fall might not have done her in, either, but the police figured she’d taken that tumble as she dashed down to the kitchen after hearing the glass in the big window over the sink break.

So there she is, crumpled at the foot of the stairs, unable to move, unable to reach the phone hung up on the wall, while cold air and snow blows in. There was eight inches of snow in the sink when John found her the next morning. Eight inches of snow and one red brick someone had thrown through the window. You couldn’t think of a better way to kill a rich old lady if you tried. No one ever figured out who could have thrown that brick. The only footprints out back were John and Mary’s, and they hadn’t been anywhere near Grandma’s house until the morning they found her. They said so themselves.

Well, the ground was frozen solid, like a block of iron, that winter. I don’t think Churchill is ever going to see another freeze like that, with climate change and all, but back then. Well, you remember how cold it was that year. Anyway, this was also the year that the backhoe broke down at St Jerome’s, so they couldn’t dig a grave for Granny. O’Connor’s, the funeral home, wouldn’t keep her, not without charging for the service, so John and Mary did it the old fashioned way. They put her in the cemetery’s receiving vault, waiting for the spring thaw.

A couple weeks go by, and John and Mary head down to Florida. Danny and Maureen have the place to themselves, and when you’re 17 and your parents are a thousand miles away, you invite your friend over, and you have a party. There were maybe 20 of us packed into that house on Dartmouth St, there was a keg in a plastic trash barrel in the middle of the kitchen floor, kids hooking up in the bathrooms upstairs, smoking up in that little finished room in the basement.

Oh, that’s right, you’d never been in the house, had you? They had this good sized basement, half of it finished as a little room where Danny had his drums set up. It had a pair of windows right up at ground level that you could crack open for ventilation. This was over to the right of the stairs as you went down. To the left was the unfinished section. Water heater, washing machine, dryer, that kind of stuff.

So there’s a bunch of us all drinking and having a good time, and then Maureen says, ‘Hey, who wants to play Bear?’ Bear was kind of like hide and seek. Everybody would go hide, but one person was the bear. You’d pull a paper out of a bag and if you had a mark on it, you were the bear. If you were the bear, when the seeker found you, you had to roar and then the game was over. The object was to find as many people as you could before you found the bear. When we were kids, it was just a fun game. When we were drunk, horny teenagers, it was a way to get in the dark with some other drunk, horny teenagers.

Danny was the seeker, and we turned off all the lights in the house and we hid. I was in the kitchen pantry, right up near the top of the basement stairs. There was just room for two people if you squeezed in there, and I had hoped Tony Manfredi would follow me in there, but he didn’t.

A few minutes go by, and I can hear Danny moving around. He went upstairs and went from room to room, and then I could hear more people moving. He was finding people and no one was the bear yet. Then I heard him coming down the stairs and the door to the pantry opens. It’s Maureen, and she wriggles in next to me. She whispered that she wanted to hide in the basement but the door wouldn’t open so she had so scramble to find a place. More people start moving around in the house, and Danny still hasn’t found the bear.

Finally, we hear him moving around in the kitchen. He’d had a lot to drink, he’ shuffling and laughing. We heard him kick the barrel the keg was in and swear.

And then we hear the click of the basement door opening. I could feel Maureen turn her head at this, because she had just tried to open that same door like five minutes earlier and it wouldn’t budge.

And then what happens is we hear a scream, and we hear a crash. I know it was in that order. I know it. A scream, and then the sound of Danny going down those basement stairs. Well, Maureen tears the pantry door almost off the hinges and spills out into the kitchen. She turns and gets onto the top landing of the basement stairs and slams her hand on the light switch. I was right behind her, two feet behind her on her left. We look down and we see Danny, bunched up at the foot of the staircase. His head was turned away from us. The rest of his body was turned toward us. One of his shoes was off, and there was a red plastic cup on the cement floor with beer pooling around it.

Maureen screamed, and in the confines of that narrow stairwell, it was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. She whipped her head around, she couldn’t look at her brother lying there for one more second. She turned and ran right into me, but I was still looking down the stairs, maybe trying to put together in my head what had happened. And so I was the only person, out of everyone in that house, who saw the thing that happened next.

It only took, what, three seconds? How long would it take a grown adult to cross six feet of basement floor? How long would it take a hunched, stiff figure, wrapped in dingy gray vestments, to cross from the dark of the unfinished side of that basement through the open doorway to the finished room to the right? Like I said, it moved quickly, but stiffly, like it had not moved in a long time, and had to exert itself to stay upright and ambulant.

But I suppose it wasn’t completely thawed. It couldn’t have been in the house, out of the weather, out of that place in the graveyard, for long.

It left three wet footprints on the gray concrete floor as it passed by.

I guess I fainted, because the next thing I was aware of was the cops talking to me at the kitchen table. I think everyone else had scattered when they figured out what had happened. I told the police that Danny must have fallen down the stairs and broken his neck. I didn’t tell them about the thing, about the size of a withered old miser, that I saw in the basement. Maybe at the time I didn’t remember it. Maybe I didn’t believe my own eyes.

And now I’ve told you.”

 

I didn’t say anything for a long while. I blinked at the bright sky above. I looked in my old friend’s eyes. I suppose I looked horrified enough for both of us, because she simply looked relieved.

And then she said, “A year later, Maureen was pulled, dead and frozen, out of a snowbank in Boston. The report said she’d been drinking at an off campus party, passed out, fell into the snow, and froze to death. A year after that, her father went over the side of the Wagner bridge. The body wedged up against the back of the dam. They pulled him out when the river thawed.”

“And the mother?” I asked.

“Oh, she still lives in that house. Visits her mother’s grave every day. Brushes the snow off the stone when it storms. The whole family is in that one plot. All together now.”

We didn’t say much after that. I went back to my office, tried to sit at my desk for a few minutes, then picked up the phone and told the office manager I’d had a family emergency and was going to be out for the rest of the week. I drove home, packed a small suitcase, got on the 101 south to the 10 east, and drove out to Palm Springs. That’s where I’m writing this down, while it’s still fresh in my mind.

 

It’s 104 degrees out there. I’m relieved by that.