He was burned
out behind the bar, tired of listening to other people’s
troubles. He had plenty of his own, but he knew his role
as bartender: he was supposed to listen, to hand out sympathy,
and otherwise keep his trap shut.
But every night
late, after the last drunk had shuffled out the door of Tavern
Tavern, Gregory turned the plastic Open sign in
the window to Closed, pulled down the shade, and
turned the key in the lock. He lumbered up the wooden stairs
to the little attic apartment over the bar that his employer
gave him as part wages, and remoted the TV onto his favorite
channels: food, nature, or adventure…whichever one was on
Then is when he
dreamed his dreams. Made himself a honey-nut sandwich on
9-grain and washed it down with a Stella Artois—only his
third of the evening, that was his limit when he was alone.
dream, which he would never confess to anyone in the world,
was to become a greengrocer. A produce guy.
It was the last
thing anyone would guess about him. He was large and clumsy,
one shirt button was always undone, his hair wouldn’t comb,
and he sometimes got a look from the Health Department inspector
like he, Gregory, might be cause enough for a B rating, even
though he kept Tavern Tavern spic and span.
He’d tried to
bring up his outward appearance to match his higher inner
self, but he just couldn’t manage it. It would take some
kind of a rebirth to get there. So he accepted what he was
on the outside but puzzled over why he was so different inside.
His inner man was tender, sensitive, caring. He liked people
but had been disappointed by them. But what never disappointed
him—it had been a passion all his life—were the fruits of
the earth: everything that sprouted from the ground or grew
on trees—plums, broccoli, rhubarb, grapes, pomegranates—you
name it. He’d tried introducing sliced apples and relish
trays—dishes he’d labored over himself— as bar snacks, but
his employer got upset. And if there was anything he didn’t
want, it was to lose the job he’d worked so hard to get.
His first job
after struggling through high school had been the only thing
his education seemed to qualify him for—pizza deliverer.
He did love pizza, especially vegetarian—mushrooms, artichokes,
olives, with cheese and tomato. And he saw opportunity for
advancement, maybe someday own the pizza shop himself. But
he’d always been so shy he had trouble making friends, and
he was lonesome. As he pedaled hopefully across town (pop.
59,000) with one or even several pizza boxes strapped across
the tail of his secondhand Schwinn three-speed, his heart
yearned for a word of praise (the pizza was still hot when
it got there), even for a little conversation. He would arrive
breathless, his heart opening at a smile on the face of his
customer. But the smile wasn’t for him. It was for his pizza.
He’d hand over the box, and get some wrinkled bills stuffed
into his hand and usually a tip. The door would close, and
that was it.
More and more
he wished for someone to talk to, some real contact. Then
one night he delivered a Margarita pizza—basil, cheese, and
tomato, the colors of the Italian flag—to a tall, stringy
girl who invited him in to share her dinner, and he married
her. It was a mistake, as all Irma really wanted was someone
to take her away from her dysfunctional family, and after
they were married she hated being alone all evening while
he worked. So they decided to have a baby to keep her company,
a baby that looked a lot like Irma and he didn’t have to
change her diapers or hear her cry all the time because he
was out delivering pizzas. Finally Irma had left with no
explanation other than a note saying, in her stringy handwriting: “I’m
tired of it. Going and taking the kid with me. Good luck.”
He missed them
both terribly and was lonelier than ever. Then his cousin
Arnold came through town on vacation. Arnold was a bartender
in another state and convinced Gregory bartending was what
he needed, because a bar was a place where people went to
talk to each other. Arnold escorted him through the Mr. Boston
bartender’s guide, drink by drink, and at age 25, Gregory
changed his profession. And that was how he fell in with
the local Hawgs, the Harley riders.
was a sometimes hangout for a small group of bikers. They
were rowdy and talkative, and Gregory’s heart swelled whenever
they came in the door because sometimes they included him
in their parley. For a loser, even a curse was conversation;
he couldn’t be offended.
What finally took
him down was a letter from his wife, Irma. When the divorce
was final in two weeks, Irma said, she was marrying a man
who owned a chain of pizza stores in Missouri. They would
run the business together and she could take the baby to
work with her. He hadn’t expected to see his family again,
but this made it final. There wasn’t much he could do for
his daughter anyway. It was better she had a real dad.
He tried hard
to think it really was for the best, because he could see
he wasn’t ready to be a family man. He had to find his own
way first. And at night in his little apartment over the
bar he found himself sitting later and later in front of
the television, nibbling on his sandwich or maybe some cashews
and letting himself have a fourth Stella. And some of the
time he wasn’t really watching the TV, he was thinking about
how his life might be OK if only he could have a little produce
store of his own.
He envied the
fun his Harley friends had on their motorcycles and decided
it would cheer him up to have a bike too. Why not? When he
told the Hawgs he wanted one, they laughed. But Striker helped
him pick out a Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle, silver, on credit.
Just looking at it made him feel pumped up and robust. Sitting
on it made him feel handsome, and learning to ride brought
out the inner bear in him, which he hadn’t known was there,
and he rode up and down the road in front of Tavern Tavern,
revving the motor.
having his V-Rod Muscle made him feel ready for an adventure.
He had some vacation time coming, so he talked Striker and
Rat into letting him tag along on a ride from Tavern Tavern
into the nearby mountains to another watering hole they’d
discovered last summer. If it started to snow, like the forecasters
said, they’d turn around and come back. But a couple of hours
out when snow began feathering down, his two buddies decided
they should wait it out somewhere and have a Bud or two.
They walked their
bikes pretty deep into the woods and found an old abandoned
cabin. The place had a few sticks of furniture and a picture
of Yosemite Falls on the wall. They all had a Bud or two
and it was snowing a little harder, so they huddled up in
their bedrolls to spend the night, their bikes along the
wall beside them. They’d head for home in the morning if
it was still snowing.
The next morning
Gregory woke up in his bedroll to see flakes still drifting
across the windows. And he made an odd decision. He told
Rat and Striker he wasn’t going back with them. He wanted
to tough it out here. When they saw he was serious, they
told him he was nuts. But they pulled the last six-pack out
of the snow, downed a couple for breakfast, stuffed the last
two cans into their saddlebags, and started walking their
bikes out without him, grinning and giving him the finger.
He was alone,
but somehow it seemed different from the lonely times he’d
spent before. He felt an odd and aimless spirit of adventure,
and spent an hour or maybe two just watching the snow fall.
It was coming down harder, and the old cabin was slowly getting
buried, and him in it. He’d never get out on his Harley now.
Not till spring.
He must be crazy.
If he didn’t start down the mountain right away, he’d be
in real trouble. But there was something he needed to do
here—like, something he was supposed to find out about himself.
Standing at the
window watching the snow, he felt chilly. The place had a
flimsy wood chair with a cane bottom, and he collapsed the
thing and stuffed it in the fireplace. He used up three matches
getting the fire going without kindling, and sat in front
of the fireplace to watch the flames, hunkered down on an
old black bearskin rug, minus its head and claws, poor guy.
The windows were
getting snow packed, and he couldn’t even tell what time
of day it was if his Timex didn’t say 2:30. A nice afternoon
for bears. He’d seen a thing on TV about brown bears hibernating
in the snow.
He’d never paid
much attention to snow before; it was just something to shovel
off Tavern Tavern’s walk. He’d heard that no two snowflakes
were alike, and he went back to the window and studied the
flakes as they stuck to the glass.
Such tiny things,
so feathery and delicate, lacy, even stars within stars.
They were as amazing as anything he’d ever seen, and they
looked to him now like the heart of a growing thing—like
what a tree must look like inside. Or himself! The feeling
swelled in him: If a snowflake or a tree was that beautiful,
how could he help but be that beautiful himself?
He felt dizzy
and leaned his hand against the wall to keep from falling.
As beautiful as a snowflake, as a tree! Who would have thought,
to look at him?
So this was why
he had stayed! To learn he too was a blossoming, growing
thing, like the apples and leeks and rutabagas he loved!
No wonder he wanted to make them his life!
But how could
a bartender get to be a produce guy, if that’s what he was
supposed to do? He had so much to figure out, and if he was
to get out of here he’d better leave right now.
He rolled off
the bear rug and knelt beside it, and it was old and dry,
and crackled as he tugged it over his shoulders. He and his
bearskin coat were going to walk right out of here. He’d
come back for the V-Rod Muscle later. He grinned, imagining
everyone’s surprise when he showed up at Tavern Tavern out
Man, this bearskin
rug was big and awkward on his back even without the missing
parts. He stuck his neck where the bear’s head should be
and looked around the place, like he imagined the bear would’ve
done if he was wearing the fur himself. He swung his body
around and lumbered across the room and put his shoulder
to the door, pushing it against the snow piling up on the
outside. As he shoved his body out the door he pulled the
rug through after him.
He stood, face
lifted in wonder at silent, feathery snowflakes floating
in front of his eyes. The crisp, wet air bit his nostrils.
He took a couple of steps, listening to the crunch under
his feet. He was thirsty and scooped snow into his mouth,
tilting his head back to let the stinging cold slide down
In the dim afternoon
light, through the falling snow, he made out the shapes of
the enormous trees he hadn’t paid attention to before. Before
he started down the mountain he needed a closer look at the
awesome giants. He struggled through the snow, and the bearskin
got tougher to hang on to and he didn’t need it anyway, and
he finally left it behind like the original bear had done
for a different reason. He wanted to reach the trees, put
his hands on them. By the time he got to the first one he
was creeping through deep snow on all fours. He reared up
and rested his hands on the trunk, leaning his face into
the bark. It smelled sweet, like vanilla. He felt his connection
to the tree and dug his nails into it and thought about climbing,
but something else called to him.
He flexed his
bulky shoulders, ripping the jacket and T-shirt, leaving
them in the snow. Flakes clung to his thick, hairy arms.
Dropping on all fours again, he began tunneling in the snow
against the slope of the mountain. His heart thumped with
joy and he dug with both arms, clawing more and more snow
out of the way, digging and packing, digging and packing,
till he had a hole big enough to crawl through and smelled
a dry, warm space opening ahead of him inside the mountain.
His clothes were too small and he clawed off the shoes and
pants and jockeys and slid his huge hairy body the rest of
the way through his snow tunnel.
He curled up inside
his warm cave. He thought about how drowsy he was and how
good it would be to sleep awhile, now that he was finally
The bear slept,
his furred chest rising and falling with long sighing breaths.
And in this dead of winter he dreamed of early spring. He
saw green shoots poking their heads through the snow, and
streams beginning to trickle through the forest. In a shaded
glen sat a wooden handcart with the name Gregory carved
on the side, ready to be filled with the first harvest of
spring fruits now wakening in the starlike hearts of their
trees. He imagined his handcart overflowing with apricots
and cherries, nectarines and figs. Later would come potatoes,
rhubarb, and sweet carrots.
The bear heaved
another gigantic sigh and drifted awake, thinking about his
dream. He smiled, remembering as he drifted off again, that
even now in the dead of winter, some of last summer’s berries
still clung to the vines, and the pine cones were fat with