by John Urbanek
Gutierrez began to dig the hole two months after Papa Bear’s wife died. It was a crude, nasty hole — no hobbit hole, indeed — measuring six feet in depth and nearly four feet in diameter. At the bottom of the hole were several well-placed wooden spikes jutting upwards like shark teeth. Gutierrez stretched nylon net over the hole, covered it with leaves, and patiently waited for Papa Bear to fall into it.
Normally, it would have pained Gutierrez very much to have a hole of this size in his garden, but the sanctity of the garden had been violated. Unclean hands had touched his tomatoes, coddled his cantaloupes, caressed his cucumbers. Some vile mouth had sunk its teeth into the flesh of his vegetables and then spat it back out maliciously. Gutierrez was rabid.
It was one night in early May, two weeks prior to the digging of the hole, that Gutierrez had discovered his enemy. Something had been in his garden the night before. Vegetables were missing. Gutierrez counted ninety-six okra in his garden the day before, but that morning there had only been eighty-six.
Gutierrez loaded his pellet gun and waited in a pecan tree in his back yard that night. Not long after midnight, a small white dog hopped out of a clump of grass and marched nonchalantly though the jalapeno peppers. Its bat-like ears twittered to and fro like fiendish little radar detectors.
As Gutierrez lifted the gun and lined the dog up in his eyesight, aiming for its small skull, he suddenly became aware that a much larger animal was stumbling into his garden. Gutierrez recognized the intruder immediately: he was a neighbor, a filthy drunk named Papa Bear who lived next door and never mowed his grass. Gutierrez watched in horror as Papa Bear, illuminated by an orange moon, leaned over and bit into a handful of unripened green beans.
Pillaged, raped, Gutierrez felt himself swooning and the pellet-gun dropped soundlessly out of the tree. His heart beat in his chest. It was as if the world had just let him in on some vicious secret. The garden had been a final retreat of a sort for Gutierrez, and now the white marauder had followed him even here. As far as Gutierrez was concerned, there was only one thing to do, and that was to kill Papa Bear.
Papa Bear would have to die slowly. He would have to die horribly in bowel-loosening terror. Gutierrez considered several options. He could shoot Papa Bear in the belly, he could strangle him slowly with an extension cord, he could burn him alive inside his house, he could poison him with Drain-O, he could slice him up like an onion. But all of these methods were too ordinary and would be over too quickly. Papa Bear deserved more.
Like an open grave then, terrible and majestic, the idea of the hole came to Gutierrez’s mind. It was the most primitive of traps, but of course, the most effective. The loathsome intruder would flap around like a speared fish and bellow and beg for his life for several hours. Nobody in the neighborhood would mind. And then, while he was still breathing, Gutierrez would bury him alive. Certainly he would be good fertilizer for the potato section.
* * *
Papa Bear had not always been Papa Bear. He used to be Raymond Mehevec. Papa Bear was the name his wife used to call him around the house. She was forbidden ever to use that name in public. But one night, in a moment of duress, when water from the toilet was flooding the entire house, the young Mrs. Mehevec called the local beer-joint and asked for Papa Bear. The bar fell silent. Several poorly disguised coughs, which were actually snickers, came from a backroom pool-table. Within two days everybody in town was calling him Papa Bear behind his back — even the ugly little paper boy.
Papa Bear wore his name through the years like a frayed collar around the sad neck of a beaten dog. Thirty years later, he sat in the same bar, on the same stool, with the same vanquished look on his face.
“Do you know what’s wrong with the world these days?” asked the man sitting next to him. His name was Merle. His face was red and cratered, like the planet Mars.
Papa Bear didn’t answer. His bright yellow eyes stared at an old beer calendar that was crumbling apart on the wall. He didn’t answer, mainly because he wasn’t listening.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” said Merle, a man quite used to carrying on a conversation alone. “You can’t trust your neighbors anymore. Most of the time, you don’t even know who your neighbors are.” Merle paused to spill half of a beer on himself. “I lived next door to a shade for a whole year and didn’t even know about it. You know why? He had a white family. Goddamn, what is—”
Papa Bear chewed an unlit cigar, still not listening. “Don’t worry about the wagon,” he said, remembering the punch line to some old joke, “just load the mule.”
The time was ten a.m. Outside the sun was beating down fiercely, pounding the earth like the colossal footsteps of some giant yellow devil.
“How’s your garden doing this year?” Merle asked.
Papa Bear turned to look at him as if disturbed from a dream. “What garden?” he said petulantly.
“I thought you was growing tomatoes,” said Merle.
“There ain’t no tomatoes.”
“That goddamned guy next door tromped them down.”
“Goddammit, how do I know?” Papa Bear said.
“There’s not a good neighbor left in this world,” Merle said. He noticed that his lap was wet. He wondered whether he had spilled beer or whether he had urinated on himself. “What’s this world coming to?” he asked himself and then shook his gnarled head.
* * *
There were a lot of things Papa Bear didn’t remember. For example, he didn’t remember stumbling out into his yard one evening to urinate and, in the process, falling down and rolling over his own tomato plants. Of course, the next morning it had seemed quite obvious to him that nobody but Gutierrez from next door could have committed this atrocity.
Papa Bear had been leading a lonely existence since his wife died that March. It was something of a comfort to know that he had a neighbor who had taken an interest in him and attacked his property. Revenge was a wondrous thing. It would give Papa Bear something to do in those wee hours of night after he woke from his afternoon drunk and was waiting to begin his morning drunk.
He crept out into the night, into Gutierrez’s garden, with his dog, a little white terrier named Mr. Fleas, and what he couldn’t eat, he smashed into the ground. Gutierrez was bound to catch him sooner or later, but Papa Bear was not concerned. He realized that what he was doing was both socially and morally correct.
A well-known philosopher and historian at the local bar, Papa Bear did not spend much time dwelling on matters of everyday concern. He existed far beyond the boundaries of Polite Society. One could almost say that he was not even a resident of the material world. Papa Bear’s own house, in fact, was not so much any sort of recognizable dwelling containing bedrooms, bathrooms, and the like, as it was a sort of dirty trail that led from the front door to the television set and then to the refrigerator.
The house was, more or less, a dank cave strewn with empty wine bottles and potato chip bags and festering cans of Milwaukee’s Best. Mr. Fleas, the house-dog, slept in a goat-smelling chair with Papa Bear and even his all-smelling nose had trouble relocating chicken bones buried somewhere deep in the rubble. Papa Bear’s daughter said that it was a shame to think that anybody could sink so low, but she was really not very surprised.
The daughter came by only occasionally to drop off a few bags of garbage next to the mailbox or to leave a half-eaten cake or pie. She brought over home-cooked meals too. She had the uncanny ability to tell within a few hours or so when a leftover dish would begin to turn rancid.
Papa Bear never saw his grandchildren. They thought of him as some strange creature who lived in a faraway place guzzling wine and beer everyday, which was mostly correct. The last time they had seen him had been at their grandmother’s funeral.
“Is Grandpa getting buried too?” one of them had asked at the funeral. That was sometime in late March, right after Grandma Mehevec expired in the hospital. As he stood at the graveside, Papa Bear had tripped over a floral arrangement and teetered off into the very hole that his wife was going to get buried in. Fortunately, he was too drunk to have broken any bones. A few relatives remarked later that this had certainly been an outrage and that a damper had been placed on the entire affair.
“Is Grandpa’s sheets in the wind?” one of his grandchildren had asked.
The daughter was livid. “You couldn’t even act dignified her last day above the earth,” she fumed to her father after the funeral was over. “My mother was the sweetest woman in the world, and you treated her like dirt!”
* * *
Gutierrez awoke to the thin sound of a dog barking. He rose from his pillow and sat up quietly in bed, listening intently. He could not tell if the barking was coming from next door or whether it was further down the street. Suddenly, the barking stopped.
Gutierrez slipped on a pair of house-shoes and flicked on the reading lamp next to his bed. His bedroom was spotless. The wooden floor was scrubbed to a dull, brown glow. The walls were white and bare except for several pictures of Jesus. Coughing quietly, Gutierrez picked up a flashlight and walked outside in his bathrobe.
The night was black and from the garden came the sound of someone moaning. It was a low, frothy moan — almost a gurgle. Gutierrez flicked on the flashlight and walked cautiously into the garden, slowly and stealthily, to the edge of the freshly-dug hole. Next door, Mr. Fleas — apparently locked in the house — began to howl. Gutierrez shone the light down into the pit. He could see the crumpled form of Papa Bear lying on his back, lanced once through the shoulder, twice through the abdomen, and in both legs. He was covered in blood and gore.
“Help me,” the old man begged, his voice filled with blood. His eyes were wide open and staring up at the sky where there was no moon. He flopped weakly.
Gutierrez stepped back, sickened. He wobbled over to his backyard and returned with a shovel, his legs trembling with fear and exhilaration.
“Help me, oh God, please help me!” moaned the voice from the pit.
Gutierrez made the sign of the cross and then bent down to shovel in the dirt. Clump. He said nothing but kept throwing dirt into the hole as the night became purple. Clump clump. The dirt landed peacefully, like black snow. Clump.
“Help me, God.” Clump. “Help me, Lord.” Clump clump.
Gutierrez was in his backyard barbecuing an onion one week later when two policemen came over to ask him if he had seen Papa Bear. He said no, shrugging. He pointed out that the old man was a drunk. He offered them a small grocery sack of tomatoes, but they declined. Two days later, a city detective came by and, after a brief conversation, he left too. No one else ever came.
Papa Bear’s house was ransacked by his daughter who placed most of his possessions outside, next to the mailbox, to be picked up as garbage. Mr. Fleas was taken to the Humane Society where he was adopted by a young couple. They gave him his own little bed and bought him a box of dog biscuits.
Two weeks later, he was run over by a beer truck.
Copyright © 2018 by John Urbanek