After two days, the radio had switched off. I assumed it was safe to bathe. I slipped down the stairs from my room in the attic, towel in hand, and took slow, elongated steps over the creaky second storey hallway floor boards. I locked myself in, exhaled, turned on the faucet and had just barely begun to enjoy what I thought was to be my first full term, risk-free shower in three days when the door flew inward from the force of a kick, and I felt my body yanked from under the comforting flow of water, dragged across the bathroom floor and pushed halfway through the open window.

“I fucking got you, man!” Said Big Bear through a tearful laugh, as he dangled me by the ankles two floors above the snow covered ground.

Indeed, I had been got.

My Suge Knightesque roommate was a man named Andrew Big Bear. Big Bear worked nights for a shipping company. Four nights on, followed by three off. On his off nights he drank and blared Puff Daddy on his stereo. He was not in the habit of sleeping at any point during his non-work periods.

“Waste of a life, man,” he said, “to sleep when you ain’t work’n.”

I agreed, and though I have started many a new day by staying, rather than waking, up, I have never had the kind of endurance that would bring one into a third day. I couldn’t sustain the severity of the tugs upon lucidity that must be soldered to that experience.

Big Bear and I were at a party early in our tenure as friends and roomies. We were sitting on the couch across from a girl I was interested in, drinking beers, rolling cigarettes, engaging in the kind of small talk that people make in the early stages of flirtery. Avoiding the depthy subjects, resisting urges to let loose the more general theories about God and Government which never seem to impress their intended audiences, yet always seem to fanagle their way past the teeth at some point, usually around the time that the religious glow of fresh love dwindles itself into the sputtering candesence of a 40 watt bulb powered by a generator that’s running low on fuel.

That night conversation was in low gear: the origin of pomegranates, the best shade of green, favorite non-canonical instrument…

Big Bear looked a little bored. A little angry. I asked him what his favorite melon was.

“Honey Dew, you soulless fuck.”

I waited to see if he would release the jaws of the gaze he’d locked on me with a chuckle or a scowl, but he chose neither. It was me who looked back to the conversation in the awkward interval between recognizing the sincerity of his attack on my mortal soul, and arriving at the point of participating in a stare down. There are only so many seconds you can look straight into someone’s eyes without consequences, whether they be kisses, punches or tears.

This wasn’t the last time that he would accuse me of soullessness, which phenomena, I should probably mention, has always been a chief concern of mine… There was a moment in grade school when I was all but sure I’d sold the old soul to Satan in return for being the sweetest eighth-grade hoopster in the Chicago Catholic League. Despite the notably absent results (I was far from even the top ten sweetest players on my own second-rate, twelve-member team), I was pretty sure I’d dealt away the most prized of my possessions. Duped.

Strange that we think of the soul as something to be had, or for that matter, lost. Strange that we position it as a possession to be bought, sold, traded, prized, undervalued. Putting an exchange value on the immortal bits of human being points pretty directly to the bankruptcy (irony not lost) of our spiritual situation.

Big Bear, who was a Native American of the Winnebago tribe, started speaking angrily in his language. I didn’t understand the specific content, but got the general emotional gist which was in line with the spirit of his previous comment. It was somehow comforting that Big Bear was speaking from a native tradition. At the risk of forwarding Big Bear as a representative of his culture, a risk made especially grave by the stereotypes this piece is already dabbling in, it made it clear that this paranoia of separation from some essential self was not an exclusively western psychosis. That is to say, it was comforting to, rather than sentimentalize certain perspectives and peoples, to recognize that all of us humans are battling similar fundamental schisms.

Then again, it was me, not him who was soulless. Maybe rather than projecting, he was just particularly adept at noticing my phobias. Maybe the fact that I was thinking about it this way in the first place was why I was soulless.

Things didn’t go well with the girl.

On the walk home Big Bear continued to inform me about my soullessness, but mostly in the inarticulate and monosyllabic vein. “No.” He would say, before letting a few seconds pass. “Fucking.” A brief stumble. “Soul.”

I listened, terror creeping up from frozen toes.

In the park that we crossed on our walk home, we saw a boy asleep face down in the snow.

“Look at this fucker,” said Big Bear.

I looked. I was fairly sure I’d been that boy in that park on one or more occassions.

Big Bear approached him with slow stalking steps, leaned over him with tender eyes, and converted those same eyes into a brief scowl in my direction before snatching his shoulders like he was ripping a salmon from a river, flipping him around quickly and shouting into the boys startled face, “Do you wanna die out here in the fucking snow?”

The face of the boy, who reasonably interpreted this as a threat rather than emergency assistance, lost what color remained. He leapt like a freshly popping kernel of corn and was halfway across the park before I remembered to take another breath.

“Fucking kid,” said Big Bear. “Could’ve died out here.”

We walked home in the abbreviated steps that the snow demanded, Big Bear cursing me, or blessing me for all I know, in his native tongue.

I remember thinking that I probably would have left that kid right there in the snow. Maybe not, but probably.

A few weeks later, we had a party. Big Bear was working in the morning, though he’d been off for the last three days, meaning his senses were at their limits, but so was his need for sleep. We, the rest of us in the house, were twenty-one-year-old indie rockers who really didn’t give a shit about much besides ourselves, whatever bands were in town and our T-shirt collections, especially when we’d been drinking. Soulless maybe. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but in retrospect…

Big Bear usually wasn’t opposed to a party and I guess I missed the signals that he was not inclined that evening.

He came out of his room, eyes scorching whatever they met from behind a face that was as still as the moments before an earthquake. He approached me with steady measured steps,  hands behind his back.

“Beer?” I asked.

He nodded a head that showcased no little fury.

I reached into the the cardboard package and pulled out a warm bottle of La Crosse, but before I could hand it to him he charged me with a corkscrew in one hand and scissors in the other screaming, “I’m gonna kill you, you fuck’n Leprechaun!” I’m still not sure if that was racial slur or alcohol-fueled delusion.

I jumped behind the couch and ran across the room. Big Bear got to me, but his weapon-bearing arms were restrained, so all I felt was the weight of his body pushing against me, like a dolphin out of water trying to chest bump me to death. Someone called the police in the middle of all the hubbub, and they came and took Big Bear away.

No charges were pressed, and he was home the next afternoon. He’d lost his job because he had not shown up. He was angry, but he was sober, and therefore non-violent.

I’ve never felt guiltier in my life. I still feel guilty. I mean, attempted murder may be a bit of an overreaction to a party that’s running late, but I still feel as though the first crime, being inconsiderate of a roommate’s sleeping schedule, was my own, and that a man, dysfunctional and violent as he could sometimes be, had lost his job and gained another tick on an already marred criminal record.

I had recently bought my brother’s car for the price of a bus ticket when he suddenly had to return to Oklahoma after some romantic drama. Big Bear was going to Oklahoma now too. Back to the res. I gave him the car, hoping that somehow I was helping to buy back the soul I’d sold in the gymnasium of my Catholic grade school.

I’m not sure if it worked. I still can’t make a free throw. I guess that’s a good sign.

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Ryan Day is a writer who lives in Madrid. He runs The Toast Cafe, and Roll, restaurants that double as cultural spaces. His articles on arts and culture in Madrid can be found at Vaya Madrid.

17 responses to “Big Bear and the Infinite Drink”

  1. Mary says:

    If I were a dude, I would probably be a lot like Big Bear, but since I’m a girl, I’m usually just “that bitch you live with.” It’s hard to explain, but I think I know how Big Bear feels. No offense to you and your friends, of course. I hope the party was sweet.

    • Ryan Day says:

      This was quite a ways back, so no offense taken… Can’t say that I remember the party, or that I would care to. The idea here was more an apology for a soulless younger self…

      I would be surprised if you could relate to pulling a roommate from the shower and dangling them from a window, but if you can you definitely qualify as a scarey roomie…

  2. Free throws are for closers. You’re like Shaq and Wilt. Nothing wrong with that.

    Seriously, though, good stuff here. I should clarify it’s “Suge” Knight. I’m betting that dude has killed for less. I remember Suge talking trash about him and Diddy ending up on island (and Diddy getting the food and Suge eating it).

    • Ryan Day says:

      Suge is now in place, thanks for the heads up. Glad you liked the piece. I like the Suge interview in Biggie and Tupac, when he refuses to talk about the murder cases, but repeatedly refers to the very undefined work he plans to do with the kids when he gets out… I wonder how that ended up. I have a hard time imagining the Suge after school program.

  3. Amanda says:

    “Flirtery”! Very nice. And, much classier than its close friend and neighbour, “fuckery”.

  4. angela says:

    this was such an enjoyable read. love, “Honey Dew, you soulless fuck.” speaks volumes.

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    Ryan- the fact that this incident has stuck with you is, I think, proof-positive that you are not, in fact, a “soulless fuck.”

    • Ryan Day says:

      Thanks, Marni. The Big Bear sagas are actually pretty extensive, this being a small cross-section of a year of wacky violence intertwined with moments of pretty significant friendship. I was kind of worried that boiling it down to a thousand words might make it come across poorly. Thanks for the soul bolstering…

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Ryan,

    Anyone who would have this story in his head so long could not have left that boy face-down in the snow to die. No one believes you could have done that. You wouldn’t have handled it the same way as Big Bear did, but you would have handled it nonetheless.

    • Ryan Day says:

      I hope I wouldn’t have left him there, or handled it like Big Bear. Though, I will say that Big Bear’s adrenaline inducing method was VERY effective…

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    I will totally concur: “Honey Dew, you soulless fuck.” is one of the best lines I’ve read for a while.

    Ah, poor Big Bear. Sounds like a friendship that gave and took in equal amounts.

    • Ryan Day says:

      Suppose you could say that. He was at heart a really good man, who had clearly come up through some incredibly difficult circumstances that made it hard for him to integrate different parts of himself… like all of us to some degree, which is what I was (rather ineffectively if i do say so myself) trying to get at in this piece: That the idea of a soul and its cultural context pretty much screws all of us in one way or another… I miss the sober moments, and I will always be grateful that the window dangling was just a gag… That would have been one long, cold, naked drop.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I couldn’t agree more. In generalities, rather than specifics (not knowing either you or Big Bear) – cultural context and background can be a total bitch, sometimes.

  8. D.R. Haney says:

    You write:

    “Strange that we think of the soul as something to be had, or for that matter, lost. Strange that we position it as a possession to be bought, sold, traded, prized, undervalued.”

    This caused me to ponder the Faust legend. Just how old is it? Do all cultures have variations? I was specifically wondering if American Indians had, or have, their version of Faust.

    One thing is for sure: almost every culture has its version of the Prometheus myth, and Prometheus, who stole knowledge from the gods, seems to be a forerunner of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge.

    I like Nietzsche’s definition of the soul best. He called it a stomach. I also like that you weave ideas into a piece where others would present, simply, a story — even if you criticize the effort in your comment to Simon.

    • Ryan Day says:

      A stomach… I like that. I suppose you could say selling your soul for knowledge is the foundation of Christianity, too. I imagine most cultures do have some sense of that, clearly at least Little Bear had a solid notion of being able to lose yer soul, as he reminded me on a fairly regular basis. It’s just strange that it is soooo deeply entrenched an idea. Maybe it has something to do with dreams.

      A stomach…

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