Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over two-hundred online and print publications. His short story “Aliens” has been nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2021 Pushcart Prize. His collection of short stories Resilience is scheduled to be published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing and Short Stuff a collection of his flash fiction and drabbles will be published by Chapeltown books in 2021. In addition, Something Better, a dystopian adventure, will be published by Paper Djinn Press in early 2021. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
I’d been moved from the emergency area of the hospital to the recovery wing. My condition had been reduced from critical to serious.
“You aren’t out of the woods, yet, Ray,” Doctor Patel told me. “It’s pretty much up to you now. You have to decide, do you want to live or not? Yes or no?”
I could barely make her out through the eyes slits in the bandages wrapped around my face. She had the dark features of someone with East Indian blood, someone in the past I normally would have been skeptical of for all kinds of the wrong reasons. Now, however, she was the only person in my life that seemed to give a damn. I appreciated that.
I couldn’t talk and she knew it. She had just given me the facts and the message was received. I gave her the thumbs up sign with my bandaged right hand. My left hand, they’d told me yesterday, had been amputated. So much for being a hero, I’d thought at the time.
After the doctor left, I closed my eyes. I’d been sleeping a lot over these last what, four days now since the attack? Dreaming a lot, too. Dreaming about Randy, my best friend, and the times we’d had. The best times of my life.
I hear myself think those words, the best times of my life, and add to that thought, how pathetic can one person be? Well, if it’s me, someone who’s nearly fifty years old and doesn’t have much to live for, the answer is obvious – pretty pathetic.
Randy and I been childhood friends growing up in central Minnesota where flat farmland surrounded Willow Creek, a small town of three-thousand hard working citizens nestled near the creek of the same name. My dad ran the hardware store and Randy’s dad owned the grocery. We met in first grade and bonded over riding our big tire Schwinn coaster bikes together, and a love for being in the outdoors; hunting and fishing and trapping, along with generally messing around without our parents bothering us. We called ourselves The Dynamic Duo.
In the summertime we went skinny dipping in a deep pool on a bend in the Willow River a few miles outside of town, and we skated on that same river in the wintertime. We were average students, but we were likable and had friends, even girl-friends. We double-dated with the Anderson twins to our senior prom and both lost our virginity that night to them, me to Kathy in the back seat of his old Chevy, he to Karen in on a blanket in the sand down by the creek where we’d parked.
All in all, I would have to say that those first eighteen years of my life were as near to idyllic as they could be. But nothing good lasts forever as they say, a lesson I was about to learn firsthand because after graduation life got in the way, specifically the war in Vietnam.
The year we graduated from high school the government decided they needed more men, so they set up the 1970 lottery in July and picked our future out of a rotating plastic ball. My number was seventeen. Randy’s was thirty-five. Our fate as well as our future was sealed. We were going to war that next year.
Well, not quite. Randy decided to enlist early so he could choose ‘his poison’ as he called it and have some control where he spent his time in the military. But I didn’t follow him to the recruitment office in Cottonwood, the nearest big town. I was terrified of getting killed, so I took the cowards way out and made plans to go to Canada.
You’d think Randy would have hated me for that decision, but, no, he wasn’t that kind of a guy. “I wish I had your guts,” he said late in August that last summer we were together. We were sitting on the bank of the creek sharing a pall mall. Randy was plucking grass stems and throwing them in the water. We’d both watch them drift away in the current until they were out of sight, then he’d throw another one in and we’d watch it. Swallows flew overhead snatching bugs out of the air. I remember thinking there were the most amazing fliers I’d ever seen, like ballerinas in the sky.
He surprised me when he said, “I have to be honest, Ray. I’d like to go with you to Canada. I have no desire to kill anyone.”
I was shocked, but quickly recovered and said, “Come on with me, then.” I shucked him on the arm, our form of showing affection for each other. “The Dynamic Duo goes to Canada. That’ll be us.”
He grinned. Randy was a tall, string bean of a guy with sandy hair, blues eyes and a quick smile. No wonder Karen went for him. He turned to me, seriously, and said, “I would, but my dad…well, you know how my family is. Military all the way.”
Which was true. World War I for his grandfather and World War II for his father. It would have broken his parent’s hearts to have their son turn-tail and run from what they called, ‘His responsibility.’ Randy’s family had high standards for him and Randy had high standards for himself when it came to doing what his family thought was the right thing to do.
My parents felt the same way as his, but the big difference was that where Randy gave a damn about what his family wanted, I didn’t. Plus, like I said, I was afraid. I told myself I didn’t want to kill another human being, which was true, but mainly I was afraid of being killed. Pure and simple. I mean, I’ve met no one in my life who purposely set out to kill someone. Especially the guys I knew who went to Vietnam. Most all of them went because they didn’t have a choice; low draft number or no student deferment and bang, off you went. And that’s what Randy did. He went. He fulfilled his obligation to his family, his country and, ultimately, to himself.
At the end September he was to board a train, head off to Minneapolis and then on to boot camp in Virginia. I met him at the station, we looked anywhere but at each other, uncomfortable with how to say good bye.
“See ya’, he finally said.
“Yeah. See ya’,” was my response (so pathetic, in retrospect.) A brief shoulder hug and that was it. He turned and walked away. “When, you get back,” I thought to add as he headed for the train, just it fired off its whistle. I don’t think he heard me, but if he did, I wouldn’t know. He never acknowledged it.
And then he was gone.
The next day I left home for Canada, hitch-hiking on back roads all the way to northern Minnesota. It took two days. I crossed the border just west of International Falls in the back of a pickup truck driven by an anti-war pulp wood logger, hidden under a burlap tarp that stunk of wet dogs. I made my way to Toronto, lived there for nearly seven years and came back in 1977 when Carter pardoned all of us draft dodgers.
But Randy didn’t come back. He was killed by a tripwire and a bomb while out on midnight patrol in that first year after he enlisted. They sent his body back in a casket in the summer of 1971. My guess has always been there wasn’t much to send.
That July he was buried in the Willow Creek Cemetery on the bank near where we used to swim. At the time, I was working in a headshop on the outskirts of Toronto and mostly likely stoned out of my mind when they lay my friend’s casket in the ground.
After I left home, mom and I stayed in touch, writing back and forth and it was she who let me know about Randy’s death. It was also she who wrote soon after, I’m sorry to say this, Ray, but I don’t think you’d be welcome back, here, you know, if you ever wanted to come back, given the circumstances.
I understood what she was saying. But I still might have gone home except she died in 1975 when I was still in Canada. Honestly, with her death, I really didn’t have anything to go back to. So, I didn’t.
Randy’s death hit me hard. I missed him for sure, but I was more feeling sorry for myself that I’d been such a coward and not done what Randy had done. He’d given his life for his country and was considered a hero back home. Me, I’d run away and lived a pointless life in Toronto and was considered a coward in the town I’d grown up in. Even my father didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I felt like a failure, but instead of doing anything about it, like try to become a better person, I did the exact opposite. I went downhill.
After Carter’s pardon, I came back into the states through customs at Thunder Bay and began living in Grand Marais, a picturesque town on the shore of Lake Superior. I lucked out and got a job working in a hardware store, just like I’d done with my dad. I was paid by the hour and not really considered management material because I was nothing but a pot smoking, beer drinking, long-haired loner. I rented a small room in the Lakeview apartments, a few blocks from the lake, a more run-down excuse for a place to live you couldn’t image. For a number of years that was my life. Working, getting high, drinking and sleeping it off to do it all over again. A poor excuse for a human being if there ever was one.
In the beginning, when I’d first moved to Grand Marais, occasionally I’d drag my ass up to the hills above town and go for a walk on the Superior Hiking Trail. I still enjoyed nature and liked to be out in the woods, especially by myself, watching birds and whatnot trying to shake my hangover. I even bought a bird identifying handbook, some binoculars and a small day pack to carry them and some water with me.
Being in the woods started out being just another form of escape from the guilt I felt over Randy being killed doing something for his family and his country while I just ran off to Canada because I was afraid. But over the years it became a much-needed shot in the arm of something positive and clean and pure and gave me something more to do than continually abusing my body with pot and beer. It gave me a sense of purpose. You see, I went up there to talk to Randy. Yeah, sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s what I did.
My conversations went something like this, “Randy, I need you to know how sorry I am. You know what I should have done? I should have gone with you. Me and you, the Dynamic Duo, should have gone over to that damn war and I should have fought with you, and I just know we would have been fine. I’d have protected you, and you would have protected me, and we would have come home and gotten on with our lives. Maybe even started dating those Anderson girls.”
Oh, I’d go on, believe me, and you know what? I told him about living in Canada with other draft dodgers. I told him about my girlfriends up there. I told him about the letters Mom and I wrote to each other.
And I told him I was sorry. I spent a lot of time telling my friend I was sorry.
It felt good. Like I was in counseling or something, standing there among the pine trees in Superior National Forest, with Lake Superior glimmering in the distance like sparkling jewel.
Sometimes Randy would answer me back and say, ‘Hey, there, buddy, don’t beat yourself up too hard. What’s done is done. What you need to do is move on with your life and make something of it. That’s what the Dynamic Duo is all about, remember? Doing what’s right.’
Easier said than done, but I have to say that it felt good to talk to him. I quit drinking and only smoked pot a little and even got a promotion to evening manager of the hardware store, my boss telling me, “After all these years, I have to say, I’m glad to be able to do this, Ray. I used to worry about you, but not so much anymore.”
He didn’t have to spell it out. I probably should have been fired a hundred times over but for his kind and benevolent nature. I found out from the postman that he lost a kid in the war, and I guess he sort of adopted me. Who knew?
So, I was cleaning up my act. I’d been living in Grand Marais for twenty years. I was nearly fifty years old. I had a job. I wasn’t a drunken, drugged out loser anymore. And, I had a purpose in life; going up to the woods above Lake Superior to walk, observe nature, and, most of all, to talk with my best friend Randy.
Which is what I was looking forward to doing the day I ran into the momma bear.
I was hiking along the crest of the Aspen peak on the trail that day, listening to the call of a redtail hawk circling overhead and thinking about chatting up Randy. The sun was shining and the air was mercifully free of black flies. Things were going pretty good. But then all hell broke loose.
I stepped into a clearing. Ahead of me and to the right about fifty feet and not paying me any attention at all was a momma bear, her two cubs and a guy and his kid who I learned later was Jack Sorry and his ten-year-old son, Ethan. And they were up shit creek dealing with that bear, let me tell you.
The father and son were flattened against a big aspen tree with the momma bear snarling at them and rolling her head back and forth, standing on her hind legs then dropping to all fours and moving closer and closer until she stopped about ten feet from them. Agitated was putting it mildly. She was furious. One of the cubs was behind her and one of them had climbed into the tree the father and son were standing up against.
I found out later they had no idea the cub was there, but the mother sure did, and she wasn’t happy. She kept up with her threatening gestures, standing up on her hind legs, then dropping down, then standing up while Jack tried to protect his son by swinging a day pack back and forth at the aggressive animal. I knew right away it was the wrong thing to do because it infuriated her more. Finally, she raised up tall on her hind feet once more, extending herself to a height what seemed like twenty feet and then dropped to the ground, snarling and brawling even louder. She reached out her right paw and extended her claws. I was positive she was getting ready to attack. I needed to do something, but what?
I knew the woods. I knew about wildlife. And I knew about bears. She was moments away from charging so I didn’t hesitate. In my mind I saw myself in Vietnam with Randy. We were under attack and out of ammunition. From out of the jungle charged a single Viet Cong soldier with his rifle pointed at Randy and me. I knew exactly what I had to do. I stepped in front of that charging soldier and saved my friend.
And that’s what I did now. Except instead of a soldier, it was a bear. I ran at that momma bear waving my arms and yelling and screaming my head off, wanting to put myself between her and the dad and his son. What I said, I don’t know, but it must have had something to do with “Get the hell out of here” because that’s what the father and his son did. They got the hell out of there. Me? I was left with the momma bear; a pissed off, frantic wild animal wanting nothing more than to get to her cub up in the tree. I was in the way and I had to be dealt with. And, boy, did she do a number on me. As I fell to the ground under her massive weight was stared at her sharp teeth as they closed in on my face, I remember thinking this macabre thought, So, this is what it’s like to be eaten alive.
Thank goodness Jack and Ethen were able to find a forest ranger and get help.
I kept dozing in and out after Doctor Patel talked, but when I was conscious, I took stock of my situation. I’d been in the hospital for four days. I was wrapped in gauze to stave off infection and missing my left hand. And, frankly, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. I didn’t have Randy to talk to because for some reason he only visited me in the woods.
I was thinking about Doctor Patel’s questions, ‘Do you want to live or not? Yes or no?’ And I was leaning toward the “Not” and “No” end of the spectrum. Why not? I really didn’t have all that much to live for.
Then, I had a visitor. Well, two to them, actually. The father and his kid (which was when I found out they were Jack and Ethan.)
The stood at the foot of my bed and the father did the talking. “Hi, Ray. We thought we’d stop by and, you know, thank you for saving our lives.” He was an average looking guy, ten years younger than me. Slightly paunchy, slightly balding. He wore a red flannel shirt and blue jeans and boots. He seemed a little nervous, but that was okay because so was I. I wasn’t used to people making it a point to talk to me. I didn’t have much to say, anyway, but did appreciate the effort. I gave them the thumbs up sign which I think they appreciated. At least the boy did. He smiled at me.
They stayed talked to me about how much they enjoyed hiking in the woods. “Yeah, we live down in the cities,” Jack said. “We come here hiking as much as we can. We love it up here on the trail, don’t we Ethan?” He turned to his son who smiled and nodded like he meant it. I could sense a warmness there between them that was nice to see. As he talked, though, I got the feeling that there might have been troubles with the marriage because he never mentioned a wife. I don’t know, maybe I was looking into too much.
But it was amazing, really, incredible even, that as the minutes ticked by, I found that didn’t mind them being in the room and talking to me. In fact, I enjoyed listening to them. The boy even told me that he liked bird watching, which surprised me since he was wearing a Minnesota Wild hockey team hoody sweatshirt, making me think he was a jock. He seemed like a nice kid.
One thing led to another and pretty soon I felt myself fading and then fell asleep. I was exhausted from all the conversation even though I didn’t say a word. I did give the thumbs up sigh a lot though. I guess with Jack and Ethan’s love of the woods along with mine, we had a lot in common.
So, all in all, I’d had a good time. The last twenty years of my life, since I came back from Canada, I hadn’t been much of a talker. I didn’t talk much at work and certainly never away from work. In fact, the most talking I ever did was with Randy out in the woods, and some could argue that it didn’t count because he might have just been my imagination. But to that I’d say, “Ha, ha. No way. He’s real. I know it for sure.”
The next day, Doctor Patel noted in her chart I’d had my two visitors. “So, how’d it go?” she asked. I looked at her through my gauzy view of the world. She was kind of pretty. “It says they might come back again. Only if you’d like them to, though,” she said. “I don’t want to get you too worn out. You’ve got a lot of weeks left here for those wounds to heal properly. That momma bear ate you up pretty good.” She stood back, appraising me I’m sure, thinking, Is this guy really worth it?
I was, I decided. I was worth it. I enjoyed seeing the doctor and I especially liked Jack and his kid Ethan. She asked me again, “What do you think. You want those two to come back?”
I made a snap decision, one I hoped I wouldn’t regret. I gave her the old thumbs up sign. Gotta’ take a chance sometime, right? I’m pretty sure Randy would have wanted it that way and, besides, it seemed like the time was right. Just to be sure, though, I’m thinking that when I’m feeling better and can get back in the woods, I’ll touch base with Randy and we can talk about it. I’ll see what he says. I’m pretty sure he’ll be happy for me. I’m pretty sure he’ll say something like, ‘You know, buddy, it’s time to move on. You’ve repented enough.’
You know what? I think he may be right. I think maybe it is time to move on. Plus, Jack and Ethan seem like good people. Maybe we’ll go hiking together some time. I think I’d like that. I think I’d like it a lot.
“Do you think Ray will be here?” My wife Clare asked. “You know he’s got a thing about his face.”
“He’ll be here,” I said confidently, although, honestly, I wasn’t too sure. But, to make my point, I added, “He adores Blue.”
Which was true. My daughter was having her second birthday, the first one where we didn’t have to Zoom. She was part of that generation that is now and forever going to be known as the Covid Kids; children born in the year after the pandemic began. Thanks to the vaccine, social distancing was a thing of the past and Clare and I were looking forward to a small gathering at our tiny home in the hills above Duluth.
Ray was my best friend. The guy who’d save me and my dad from an attack by a momma bear nearly twenty-five years ago. He took on the bear while we ran, dad dragging me along as we crashed through the trees and down the steep cliffs off the Superior Hiking Trail. Fortunately, we met a game warden who was able to take over from there. In fact, Susan Bessimer’s quick action not only saved Ray’s life but set the course of my life as well. I’m now a game warden with the Minnesota DNR. I have been for ten years and I love it.
Dad and I became friends with Ray, driving up from the cities to visit with him while he recovered in the hospital in Duluth. It was a long process for him. The bear had pretty much eaten him alive. The doctors gave him little chance, but Doctor Patel, a wonderfully skilled and kind doctor a worked with Ray and helped bring him back not only physically but emotionally. She and Ray became good friend until she drowned a few years ago in a springtime kayaking incident in the fridge waters of Lake Superior near Agate Beach.
Ray was a loner, having fled to Canada in 1970 to escape the draft for the Vietnam War. He’s best friend enlisted and was killed in 1971 and Ray never got over it. He came back to the states in 1977 on the strength of President Carters pardon for those went to Canada and settled in Grand Marais just south of the border. He began working at Nimenen’s Hardware and still works there a few hours a week. The owner Klaus Nimenen lost his son to the war and sort of adopted Ray. Now his daughter and her son run the place. Ray’s got a home for life there.
Dad and I and Ray bonded over our love of the outdoors. We went hiking on the Superior Trail every chance we got. Ray was an excellent birder; he could identify them by their song and he enjoyed teaching Dad and I about the habits of the black backed woodpecker and the Merlin’s falcon along with nearly a hundred other species found in the northern reaches of the state. He was fun to be around.
His face didn’t bother Dad and I probably because we were used to it, but man let me tell you, if you weren’t…Well, let me just say, it could be a real shock. The bear had essentially chewed it all off. Reconstructive surgery took over two years and the end result was that Ray’s nose and lips and most of his chin were gone. His mouth a round hole about the size of a silver dollar. His face was a smooth mask due to all the plastic surgery. “Kind of like a soccer ball,” he sometimes joked. He still had one ear, though, and miraculously he still had his eyes.
He’s told me more than once, “Nathan, let me tell you, my boy. If that momma bear had blinded me, I don’t know what I would have done.” He said it tongue in cheek. He had a pretty good sense of humor. After all, after the attack they had to amputate his left hand. And to this day he still walks with a limp.
I was looking forward to seeing him for Blue’s birthday and had just talked to him on the phone the day before. “You’re coming, right? Blue would love to see you.”
Through zooming the two of them had gotten to know one another. Ray would send toys and we’d hold them up and show her to him on the monitor when she opened the package. It was fun.
But Ray had a thing about showing his face her. He wouldn’t do it. Instead, he wore his Covid face mask, saying, “I don’t want to scare the little kid.”
“Ray,” I told him, “You don’t have to do that. She could care less.”
“No. My mind is made up.”
And it was, too. Ray could be obstinate. I suppose that’s why he survived that bear attack. Nevertheless, I was still looking forward to seeing him and was in the kitchen stirring up some chili, a favorite of Ray’s, when from the front room Clare looked out the window and called out, “Ray’s here.” She was holding Blue. “Look,” she said to our daughter, “Your uncle Ray is here.”
I set the spoon down, wiped my hands off and hurried to join her. He’d driven his old Chevy pickup down from the little apartment he’d lived in for almost fifty years. I smiled. So did Clare. It was going to be good to see him.
“Let go greet him,” I said.
Clare gave me Blue. “You two go. I’ll wait. Give you three your time.”
I smiled at her. “Thanks.” She knew what I was going to do.
I went outside into the bright sunshine. It was the first week in April and apple blossoms were blooming and their scent was a reminder that life was going to go on no matter what, and that very though made me glad to not only be alive to have Clare and Blue and Ray in my life.
Ray sat in the cab, both hands on the wheel, looking straight ahead. He used to have long hair. He used to have an awesome beard. He used to have human face. Now he was bald and hairless and looked weird. I didn’t mind at all. I loved the guy.
I came up to the truck and he turned to me. He was wearing his Covid face mask and dressed in a clean blue flannel shirt. He was wearing thick framed glasses because his eyesight wasn’t the best anymore. But he was still my best friend.
“Ray!” I greeted him, “Glad you could make it.” I wanted to hug him but he sat stiffly, so I gave him a bro’ grip on his shoulder as a sign of affection.
He immediately loosened up, turned to me and tipped his baseball cap and smiled as only a guy who has basically no mouth can smile. It warmed my heart. “Hi,” he said. “Good to see you, too.”
It was hard for him to speak. His voice was muffled, like his mouth was filled with marshmallows.
I held up Blue. “Blue look who’s here for your birthday. It’s your uncle Ray.”
Blue peered into the cab. Ray looked back. She recognized him immediately. “Ray!” She exclaimed and started jiggling around in my arms.
“Take your mask off Ray. Let her really see you.”
He shook his head, “No.”
“Come on. Don’t worry. She won’t care. You’re family.”
Ray was quiet, watching little Blue. Who knew what was going through his mind? He’d been a loner his whole life. My dad and I were the closest he’d ever been to people. Well, Dad had died ten years earlier. Now it was just me. And Clare and Blue.
He made his decision. He opened the door to the truck and stepped out and walked around the back. We met him at the tailgate. He took off his face and tossed it in the back. Blue reached out her arms for him and I gave her to him.
“Ray!” She smiled as her took her in his arms.
“Hi there, little one,” he said. “I’m your uncle Ray.”
There were tears in his eyes. Tears of joy.
“Hi,” Blue said. And she kissed him, right where his cheek would have been.