The Quotable

When Bruce Was Eaten by the Bear

“Can a man be called a lousy lay?” was what it sounded like she said and I was almost too flummoxed to look up from my computer screen into her fresh, freckled, bespectacled face and ask if I had heard her right. By the time my eyes got there she was repeating herself, asking a man old enough to be her grandfather if that particular slur was gender-neutral.

Solemn as a priest, I told her, “No one can be called a lousy lay in The Town Crier.”

“Oh, no duh,” she said, or something such, and I wondered how that would be punctuated, if at all, or if it consolidated into a single word, or if, in print, it might be initialized in the manner of OMG and LOL. Having Issy as an intern made my brain wander.

“But that’s what Bruce Petty’s ex-wife called him,” she said, explaining why she asked.

“Bev’s a mean one,” I acknowledged. And since the woman was a niece of my late wife, I knew the brand of mean. “I guess divorce and Bruce being dead aren’t enough.”

“Still,” said Issy, “hers are the best quotes I got.”

“Most sensational,” I suggested.

“Best,” she said. “No one else could think of much to say about him.”

“Are you having trouble with this?” I asked, knowing she’d never say so. Isabella McCuller was anticipating a grand career in journalism; to be stumped by any assignment for The Town Crier was inadmissible.

Her mother had sent her down the road to be discouraged, calling me in advance to say that she and Issy’s father didn’t have money to waste on a college education for something with no future. “Just look at yourself,” she said.

That unkindness served her poorly. Besides which, I was past sixty-five when The Daily Register stopped printing. It was a shame for the folks in mid-career and the up-and-comers, but I didn’t miss the long commute and had no gripe about technology or a sour economy costing me my future. “I’ll give her the big picture,” was the most I promised Issy’s mother, but what I also gave her was a job. Not a paying one—there’s no money in the Crier; it’s just something I do because my wife and dog are dead and it occupies my time—but it was a chance for Issy to interview and write and maybe learn something from a fellow who once earned a living at what she wants to do. And now there’s more in it for me too—working in a room that smells like an apple orchard from the shampoo Issy uses on her honey-colored hair.

It used to be my dining room, with a table that was only there to be dusted and a hutch full of china no one ever used. Those things are in the basement now and, once a week, working at plywood desks, Issy and I get a new issue of the Crier up online and also send it as an email blast to the hundred and some folks who’ve asked for it that way.

In a small town, we can’t count on a lead story dropping into our laps every week. Last year, before Issy came, there was one of those rare hurricanes that blow up to New England. Two months later, we got a foot of snow while the leaves were still on the trees. Lots of big limbs came down; power was out for days. Those were good stories for the Crier. But Bruce Petty dead in his own backyard—that was the first big news in town since Issy was on the job. She took the call and jotted down the details. Then she turned around and told me, “Bruce Petty was eaten by a bear.”

“No, he wasn’t,” I said.

“Excuse me?” she asked, and I could see her eyes, green as baby pinecones, about to roll.

“Someone told you he was eaten by a bear.”

“That’s what I meant.”

“I hope so,” I said, “because we only have black bears in this state. They don’t eat people.” I watched to make sure she absorbed the lesson before I added, “Too bad about Bruce though. I guess the thing you know for sure is he’s dead?”

“Found this morning by a neighbor’s dog,” said Issy.

“Let’s take a ride.”

“I want this,” she said, grabbing the camera I might have forgotten.

“We’ll see, Brenda Starr.”

She had no idea who that was, but I knew she’d look it up later.


I wasn’t surprised to hear that folks didn’t have much to say about Bruce. I remembered him as a boy. I was a guest at his wedding. We nodded at each other when our paths crossed, sometimes even exchanged a few words, but I’d never have said I knew the man. Around here, the old stone walls are more than rocks dug out of the land.

I watched Issy tapping, not typing, on her keyboard, probably to whatever music she was hearing through the earbuds of her iPod. I watched her pull her long hair over one shoulder and flip it back, cross and uncross and cross her legs, reach around and tug the bottom of her short white t-shirt toward the top of her jeans.

From somewhere over my shoulder I heard my wife call the t-shirt inappropriate, which it wasn’t, and suggestive, which I didn’t like to admit because I knew that Issy wouldn’t have intended that.

“Do you want me to look over your notes?” I asked, and then I said it again loud enough that Issy turned and pulled the earbuds off and looked like I had yanked her from the verge of a perfect sentence.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

Little Miss Sass, my wife said.

“I could look over your notes,” I offered.

“No, thank you,” said Issy, replacing her earbuds, turning away.

You should see yourself, my wife said. And, of course, I did.

Sometimes—not then, but sometimes—I was sorry not to miss her. Something in me thought I owed her that. But what I missed instead was the children who never came and time misspent on loyalty or guilt.

When it got past five, I went to the kitchen and put a pot of water on for spaghetti. I emptied a jar of sauce into another pan, washed the dishes left in the sink and put them away. Back in the dining room, Issy continued tapping on her keyboard until I touched her shoulder and told her to go home. “Look at it with fresh eyes in the morning,” I suggested.

After dinner, after the heat of her was gone from her chair, I sat at Issy’s desk, read her notes and got to know Bruce better.

The first surprise, even with Issy’s forewarning, was Bev. Ten years divorced, remarried, she was still eager to confide to a high school girl that she always wondered if her dead ex-husband might be gay, to fault him for a puny stature and trouble holding on to a job.

She never should have married him, my wife said.

I guess I never paid attention to the man’s work history, never heard that Bruce jumped from job to job or knew that he’d lost the last one two years ago.

“It was the downturn,” his former boss said, but when Issy gave him the chance, he didn’t say that Bruce had been a good worker or that he’d been sorry to lose him.

“Kept to himself,” said Charlie Ford, who lived down the road from Bruce and was a cousin to his late mother. “His folks would roll over seeing the old house look like it does.”

“If I ever saw him I would have mentioned the bear,” said Bruce’s nearest neighbor, the old lady whose dog found him. “Maybe it was the same one that came by my house last week. Nothing to be done unless it sticks around. Then they’ll come and tranquilize it, drive it to the state line and shoo it into Massachusetts. That’s what I’ve heard.”

“I heard he was about to lose the house,” said Bev. “Inherited it from his family free and clear but he had to borrow against it.”

Dan Tuttle from the bank wouldn’t talk to Issy, but I’ve known Danny since grade school. When I called him at home that night he admitted—just between him and me, he said—that Bruce was in a fix. “Lots of people having a hard time now,” he added, as if he hadn’t just said anything particular about Bruce.


When I told Issy I’d read her notes, I thought she might draw blood biting her tongue. “Focus on the facts,” I advised.

“But I think there’s a bigger story,” she argued.

“There usually is,” I agreed. “I’m still waiting for the smaller one.”

She turned around to her computer and began to type. Forty minutes later, still pouting, she handed me her article and watched me read it.

“Fine,” I said, and I could see that she was disappointed in me and I cared enough about that to explain myself. “Speculating in print is not what we do. It’s not reporting.”

“You know,” she said, “there are only about two dozen reports of black bears killing people in the last century.”

I tried to sidetrack her. “And no reports of them eating anyone,” I said. Her eyes rolled and I wondered, not for the first time, why she’d chosen her wire-framed glasses or whether it was the fault of her thrifty parents that she didn’t wear contact lenses.

“You read my notes,” she reminded me. “You know what Mrs. Willoughby saw when she went after her dog.”

I did, and there was no way I was going to stop Issy from saying it.

“Chewed up. That’s what he looked like. No question it was a bear that killed him, but something else—raccoons, probably—got to him overnight.”

Listen to this one, said my wife. Isn’t she a hard frost? But I didn’t think so, not really.

“Just as well you left that out,” I told Issy. “I don’t need calls from people asking why I’d print something as nasty as that in a hometown newsletter.”

“The raccoons don’t matter,” Issy countered. “What’s missing from the story is why Mr. Petty is one of very few people killed by a black bear.”

“Do you have an idea?” I asked, admiring her determined curiosity and hoping, this once, it failed her.

“I know there were garbage cans outside his back door and that his porch light was out. But even if he opened the door after dark and didn’t see the bear right there, wouldn’t the bear have heard the door and run?”

“Has he had bears in his trash before?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Issy admitted.

“Because if it was a regular food source, I imagine the bear might be inclined to defend it.”

“From what I’ve read,” said Issy, “even if the bear acted like it was going to attack, Mr. Petty should have been able to scare it off. He had a broom and a shovel right by the door. If he grabbed one or the other and took a swipe, the bear should have run. Most times that would be enough.”

“Except a couple of dozen times,” I said, trying again to discourage her curiosity, failing her at the one thing she wanted from me.

We’d read the same internet files. We knew almost all the same details about Bruce. The only thing I had on Issy was fifty years of living.


I used to enjoy the dusk of any summer day as if it was a rest and sit in one of the Adirondack chairs I repainted every other spring and smoke a cigarette and watch the sky over the treetops where the sun would rise again tomorrow. But the old chairs finally rotted, I gave up the cigarettes and now dusk is nothing but the gathering dark. It took some years to see that morning is not the beginning of a day but the early middle of something that starts and ends in air as thick as ink.

Now, in the evening, I’ll sit in front of the television news, and maybe Jeopardy!, before heading upstairs to read in bed. The door across the hall from mine, the door to my wife’s room, stays closed most of the time. I go in every few weeks to run the vacuum over the carpet and dust the tabletops. I hardly notice our wedding picture on the bureau except to wonder if she put it there because the easiest things not to see are those right in front of us.

Age likes a schedule—as if rising by five and when I put the coffee on and when Issy bursts through the door guarantee what will happen again tomorrow and the day after that. But I knew that was a lie even before Issy broached the subject of whether she’d still be working for the Crier once school started, whether I’d want her and whether she’d have time.

Coverage of Bruce Petty being killed by a bear, run under Issy’s byline, was a lead story in the Crier. I thought Issy’s lingering dissatisfaction with the article might be a useful tool, a motivator. I didn’t expect what she finally said about it—that it should get her the editorship of her high school paper. I was almost near-sighted enough to ask why she wanted it and if what she’d already done wasn’t bigger than that.

By late September, no time at all, the bank put the Petty place up for sale. I took a drive over when I heard, parked the car, walked around the back and tried to remember what I’d seen my last time there with Issy. Bruce had already been taken away. The trash was overturned. Mrs. Willoughby’s dog, straining on a leash by then, was sniffing at a bloody patch of grass. And then I remembered the pictures. We’d never downloaded them. We looked at them on the camera and decided, for different reasons, not to use any—me, because the idea of a picture from the scene seemed too gruesome for The Town Crier; Issy, because we’d gotten there too late for something like a mangled hand slipped out from under the coroner’s sheet.

The camera was in its case, slung over the back of her chair. Frame after frame showed what I remembered—the scattered trash, the straining dog—and what I’d only guessed—the broom and the shovel, neatly upright against the peeling clapboard right beside the door.

I sat in Issy’s chair, waited for her computer to boot up and inhaled the air she still inhabited on Saturday mornings and on random weekday afternoons. Then I read again about black bears. How much more likely they were to run than to attack or, if they didn’t run, to do no more than paw the ground and snort and threaten. How much more likely a person was to survive if he threatened back rather than opening a door in the dark, ready to surrender.



James Pouilliard, a former business magazine publisher, lives with his wife in Harwinton, Connecticut. His short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Delmarva ReviewBest FictionOntologica and Temenos. He has published flash fiction in Boston Literary Magazine and at

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