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The day he had gone to the JOB FAIR, that was when. He had ponied up the eight-dollar ADMISSION PRICE with little on his mind except to size up the varieties of dead-end positions with his name on them, never imagining his life was about to molt. Then, on AISLE 3, TABLE 4, at FIELDS VARIETIES, right between STRING AND YOU and A HARDWARE’S NIGHT, he had come across the nervous little man with more hair on his sideburns than on the top of his head. Bernard Fields, as he introduced himself, had been flabbergasted that somebody had actually stopped to look closely at his SMOKEY THE BEAR posters, key chains shaped like bear claws, and YETI YOGURT.
“How did you get into bears?”, he had asked Bernard Fields.
“My old man.”
“He sold things like this?”
“No. Bull things. You wanted anything to do with Chicago basketball, china shops, or old-time cops, you went to my old man. Was on welfare his whole life, and that meant my mother and me were, too. I vowed to myself never to go into the bull business.”
“Okay, no bulls. But why bears?”
Bernard Fields had taken forever to size him up, to be sure he wasn’t wired for whatever competition the man fantasized having. Finally, he had whispered: “Because one of them pinch-hit for me in a fight.”
It had been one of the strangest stories Morgan had heard up to that time; it still ranked in his TOP TEN STRANGE STORIES. As Bernard Fields had told it, he had gotten into a shouting match with a stevedore and his friends one night in a waterfront bar. Then the stevedore had invited him outside to settle their argument with fists. Bernard Fields had not wanted to go outside, but had seen little alternative with the stevedore’s friends threatening to tear him apart if he didn’t go. His compromise had been to order another shot before going outside to meet his doom, and this the sneering bartender had gladly conceded. Bernard Fields had downed the shot and then walked out the door. Whatever he had been dreading, it hadn’t been the sight of a brown bear tearing apart the stevedore.
“I couldn’t believe it!”, as he had exclaimed to Morgan at the JOB FAIR. “The bear wasn’t even doing your average one-two one-two. It was whack in the face, claw down the guy’s stomach, then a big roaring charge that sent the guy over a car. And then while this slug is getting to his feet, the bear looks over to me and grins. I don’t know how I knew what to do, but I did — I grinned back. And just like that, the bear vanished into thin air. I was so dumbfounded I wasted a few seconds before I remembered to go over and give the slug a kick in the balls that sent him down for good. All the other longshoremen bought me a drink! Turned out they never liked the guy anyway, said he was a know-it-all.”
Morgan hadn’t known what to say. At that moment it had still been nothing more than the strangest story he had ever heard.
“The guardian bears!” Bernard Fields had explained to his stupor. “They’re all over Scandinavian stories. Sometimes the berserkers, the warriors, slept in when they were supposed to be out fighting, so the bears took their place until the sleepyheads woke up, strapped on their armor, and got down to where the fighting was. Then the bears turned things back over to their humans and disappeared. It was my guardian bear filling in for me! How could I not go into the bear business after that?”
Donald Dewey has published 37 books of fiction, nonfiction, and drama for such houses as Little, Brown, HarperCollins, St. Martin’s Press, and Carroll & Graf. He has also had some 30 plays staged in the United States and Europe. His latest books, both published in 2014, are the biography “Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor’ and the novel “The Bolivian Sailor.”