When I climbed into Charley Burchfield’s car, he said he had a surprise for me, something that had to be done right now, June, 1968, because he’d just enlisted in the Marines. We ended up near Youngstown where cars parked for a mile along the shoulder let us know that a crowd-pleaser was close. I expected Charley to drive past the open field that was parked full and find a spot a mile down the highway, but he pulled in as if he’d seen a spot open up. We wove through the cars, Charley’s fingers drumming on the steering wheel, the radio off as if he needed silence to see better. “Get out,” Charley suddenly said, and when I hesitated, he pointed at a narrow space we’d passed twice. He worked the car so close to the passenger side that I expected damage, and then he slid out and side-stepped to where I was waiting. “Our neighbor will just have to crawl across the front seat.” he said, and we were off to a carnival that looked so much like the one set up every summer in the abandoned strip-mall parking lot a mile outside of where we lived that I wondered why we’d wasted so much time driving to the same old rides and booths full of greasy food.
Charley walked fast and expected me to keep up. When he stopped, we were just outside a plywood fence decorated with bear head decals, every one of them with bared teeth. “Bear wrestling,” Charley said. “How cool is that?”
“You boys eighteen?” the ticket taker said, and we nodded, all the proof he seemed to need. “Enjoy,” he said, and we paid to pass through a thick curtain.
The bear wrestling cage looked small, a space where it would be hard to hide for very long. The bear, whose name, according to the sign was Max, was busy with a middle-aged fat guy in a Cleveland Indians t-shirt. Seconds later, the guy was down and out. Charley stared at the cage without talking while three more men paid $10 to see if they could last two minutes for a $100 payout. Big guys egged on by their drinking buddies. Guys who outweighed Charley by fifty or even seventy-five pounds. None of them lasted a minute. The bear just slapped them and wrapped them.
It was uncanny how well that bear was trained. It wore a muzzle and its claws had been trimmed down to fingernail length like people do with cats. Charley said, “Pussy” after each guy gave up, smothered under the weight and “pinned” according to the promoter’s referee. When he raised his voice, some heads began turning our way.
“Go ahead, tough guy,” somebody called out.
“Pussy,” Charley said, and it was unclear whether it was meant for the wrestler or the spectator.
“Fuck you,” the man said and Charley stood, looking from the man to the bear as if he was deciding who to fight.
“You want to go halves?” he said to me. “Fifty dollars when I win?”
Five minutes later Charley was in the cage with the bear and the handler. Charley didn’t circle and stall like the others. He charged that bear and hit it like a tackling dummy at football practice. Except he couldn’t wrap the bear up, and aside from a muffled grunt, the bear held its ground.
Charley plunged in again, but when the bear wrapped him up, he slipped down and out like some Bear Cage Houdini, and there were a few cheers and something like a small roar, even the beaten guys whooping and hollering when he rushed the bear again, this time swinging his fist. It was a strategy that caused Charley to end up with just one arm free when the bear wrapped him. He thumped it twice high up on its chest, and before anybody shouted another “Git ‘im,” the bear whirled Charley away with such force we could hear a bone break as Charley spun into the bars.
Charley’s face went ashen. His arm dangled. He snagged a bar with the hand on his good arm and tried to hold himself up as the handler moved in to calm things down. A minute later the handler explained that Charley, like everybody else, had signed a waiver about injuries, but I was so sure the whole thing must be illegal that I encouraged Charley to ask for money for medical expenses.
“It was fair,” Charley said.
“The bear always wins. There’s no fairness to that.”
“They’d put it down if I raised a stink.”
“Sure as fuck they would,” the handler said, which seemed to settle things. He gave Charley his ten dollars back and guided us outside. Charley used his good arm to fumble his keys to me, and there was nothing to do but work our way back to the car where Charley had to squeeze into the back because there was no way for him to crawl across into the passenger seat.
I drove and used the rear view to check on him, seeing him shiver and clench his teeth, his eyes set on the roof as if that might steady him. Forty minutes later I watched him walk inside where his father, for all I knew, would set that arm himself as if they lived in a wilderness where self-reliance was essential.
It turned out the break was clean. His arm would heal. The Marines and Vietnam could wait a bit, but two weeks later, when the original reporting date went by, Charley shifted somehow, always drunk when I met him at Ricci’s, where we’d been drinking underage for a year. As if he’d been sitting there alone for a few hours, as if the days that had opened in front of him needed to be filled with something besides waiting and healing.
Gary Fincke’s The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories will be published by West Virginia University in November. The Darkness Call, a collection of personal essays, has won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and will be published by Pleiades Press in early 2018.