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 that night.

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.

Gregory’s secret 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.

Tavern Tavern 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.

Something about 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 of nowhere.

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 his throat.

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 here.

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 nuts.

# # #

Gregory Finds His Way by Jenny Gumpertz
originally published in the Winter 2011 print edition



Jenny Gumpertz writes from the California desert, as a third career after early years in show business and nonfiction editing. She has been published in Big Pulp and Jane’s Stories, and in the 2008-2009 New Millennium Writings.

For more of Jenny's work,
visit her Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Winter 2011:
Interrogate My Heart Instead

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