We heard about the bears almost from the moment we arrived in the mountains. First from the family staying in the condo next to ours. Then there was the chatty couple at the Dixie Stampede and later the old man on the Doppelmayr as we coasted up the side of Mount Harrison. It happens every year, they told us, after the spring thaw. A wayward bear, still groggy from cave hibernation, wanders into someone’s backyard, assaults a garbage can, and demolishes lawn furniture, before finally hulking away to the nearest water source.
“They’re so dangerous,” our waitress at the pancake house said, “and adorable too—it’s really very confusing.”
Our first night we peered out the second-story bedroom window at the conifers bristling in icy moonlight and the spaces of blue-black sky between them. No sign of wildlife anywhere: no feathered-owl dance, no opossum trundling through, no bear.
“Where have they all gone?” Reed said. He was a New Yorker; he had expectations.
“Dolly Parton,” I said. “Maybe she collects them.”
“I’d feel better if we saw one.”
I went to brush my teeth, and when I came back, he was still staring out the window. Our suitcases lay scattered about the floor, clothes exploding from them. I picked up a sock and threw it at him.
“Hey, you,” I said. “They’re not coming.”
“Imagine just walking up on one. Eating or something. No fence to separate you. Just you and the bear, and each of you looking into the other’s eyes.” He paused. “Nature.”
I turned out the lamp beside the bed and got under the covers. Soon, I felt his warm body beside mine, and we lay on our backs, breathing, not sleeping, knowing the other wasn’t sleeping either.
“For the story alone,” he said. “If we saw one.”
“I’m already tired of bears.”
“You’re not taking this vacation seriously.”
I leaned up. “Who takes a vacation seriously?” But he didn’t say. He had already turned over.
Our trouble had begun long before Gatlinburg.
It started in Columbus, Ohio, the night we first met, at a Christmas party thrown by a mutual friend of ours. Both of us, the only two gay men at the party, had misread the invite, thinking the host had encouraged his guests to wear ugly sweaters, and we had arrived clad in hideous ruglike things: mine festooned with ribbons and cats, his a dense shag the color of vomit. “Perfect,” I said, my first words to him. “We both look horrible.” And he didn’t laugh.
I guess I should have seen it then: trouble.
Or the night, sometime later, when he took me to the observatory on campus where he teaches astronomy. “Let me show you some things,” he said, as I gazed through a large telescope, Reed standing behind me, his hands perched on my hips. He named the constellations I sighted: Canis Major and Minor, Cassiopeia, Taurus. He spoke of the magic of black holes and string theory, the sound of his voice a waterfall emptying onto smooth rock.
“Your accent,” he said. “It comes on strong with certain words.” He leaned in close. “I like it.”
“You smell like butter.”
“Butter,” he repeated. “See? I can hear Mississippi in that word.”
What followed came easily enough, as everything else did in those early days: using our coats to soften the floor of the observatory, undressing each other, folding our socks into our sneakers’ sagging mouths. Beside us, an old spiral staircase leading up to the telescope room squeaked like a frenzy of bats as he worked himself inside me for the first time. The noise kept up for as long as we did: So this, is this your life? So this, is this your life? the staircase asked. Again the trouble, you see, even in the language of things we didn’t care to listen to.
“We fell into something like love anyway, our bodies becoming familiar and, as it were, difficult to give up.”
And afterward, that same night, back at his apartment— here too: We had showered and were huddled close to each other in his twin bed. He told me about his childhood riding the subway, hurtling underground from one place to another, Manhattan his backyard. He traced along the scar on my back, and said, “What’s the story here?” and I said, “Oh, you know.”
But he didn’t, and I refused to elaborate.
We fell into something like love anyway, our bodies becoming familiar and, as it were, difficult to give up. The trip came about after almost a year of our trying to learn how to speak the other’s language and failing, time and again, but still managing to be together. Parting ways seemed harder to do than whatever it was we were doing instead. The trip was a gift from Reed’s mother, a successful real estate agent in Manhattan. A grateful client had offered her a couple of weeks in the Smoky Mountains as a thank-you for securing his mistress a reasonably priced apartment in Brooklyn.
“It’s sure as shit not Colorado,” she said. “But free is free. And yours if you want it.”
Initially, I didn’t want it. I’d not stepped foot in the South since I came out to my family in Vicksburg. The Smoky Mountains aren’t technically the South, I know, but to me, it was close enough. Reed said the change in scenery would do us good. “Please,” he said. “We need this.” He looked at me, and I saw the truth: He needed this.
The day after we arrived, we drove through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, down trails just wide enough for my hatchback. Around lunchtime, we parked beside other vehicles along the roadside and followed a footpath to a small wooden cabin half hidden in a cranny of sumac and sunflowers.
Families and hikers milled about in the tall grass, eating Tupperwared lunches, making small talk. The cabin itself was shabby but clean. Well-kept. In front of it, an important-looking sign was planted in the ground, detailing how the cabin had once served as a schoolhouse, educating the mountain children in one large room with only a small fireplace to keep them warm during wintertime.
The inside smelled of black pepper and pencil shavings. No furniture to speak of. Just a scuffed-up plywood floor, notched walls, a forgotten hearth. Clear light fell from one of the open doorways, electrifying the dust motes swimming in the air. Reed stood in the doorway, his hair made fluorescent, his shoulders glowing. He stepped out onto the back porch, not hearing me when I said his name. It echoed back to me from the high-flung ceiling: Reed.
I said mine then, and the old room cupped my voice and sent it back to me as before, as someone else’s.
I said, “Motherfucker,” and was pleased with how that sounded too, the treble of it: “Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.”
We were sitting on the back steps of the cabin sharing a granola bar when a band of rowdy children in over-large Dollywood T-shirts came galloping through. A flurry of footsteps, great hoops of laughter. They burst onto the back porch and leaped over and around us, then circled back to do it all over again.
“Wildlife,” I said.
They came through again. And once around the corner, they shouted to one another. “Got you!” a girl screamed. “I’ve got you now!”
Reed shut his eyes as he chewed the last of the granola. “Does it remind you of home?” he said.
“I mean everything.” He gestured to the weeds, the scrub of trees and bushes three feet to our left. “The people, the land.”
“I’m from Vicksburg. There are no mountains in Vicksburg.”
He knew that, but it meant nothing to him, or it didn’t seem to, which struck me with a pang of sadness.
“So what you’re saying is,” he said, “same church, different pew.”
Sometime later, a park ranger came out of the thicket brandishing a megaphone.
“Attention,” she called, the loudspeaker crackling her voice.
Everyone froze, even the children.
Very calmly, the park ranger asked us to return to our vehicles.
“A bear has been tracked into the vicinity,” she added. “A large sow.”
Reed rose from the steps. “Goddamn,” he said, and rushed off toward her. When I reached them, they were already in a full-throttled conversation.
“You can’t predict what any wild animal might do,” she was saying, all too happy to talk bear. “This one’s been acting scary for some time now. Ever since her cub got mowed down by a Camry a week back. Damn thing went rogue.”
“Rogue?” Reed said. “How radical.”
She told us the animal would most likely have to be put down. “Mama bears hold grudges,” she said. “Won’t do for her to run up on someone.”
All of a sudden, the park ranger’s walkie-talkie buzzed. “Okay,” she said into it. “Over.”
There was more static, a voice, a command.
“Will do,” she said, her face serious. “Over.” She smiled at us, her cheeks large and shiny. “Like I said: unpredictable. Appears she’s gone another way.”
On our way back to the car, Reed said, “We were close. Damn close.”
I said, “Too close.”
It was almost evening, and sunlight lay chandeliered in the treetops. A ruddy haze fell over us, tinting everything sepia. Bone-colored rock jutted up from the earth, and the Fraser firs were so green, they looked like gaudy cartoons of themselves. We left the trail to inspect a moss-laden fir he’d spotted and claimed was very old. “It could predate European settlement.” He placed his hand on the crimpy moss, then I did.
“Feel that?” he said. “The tree pulse?”
“Nope,” I said. “I have to pee.”
Behind us, somewhere, something moved. Heavy footfalls. A shuffling.
“The wind,” Reed said.
We hurried back on the trail, not looking behind us. “Vindictive bears,” I said, huffing as we walked.
Again, there came the noise. We picked up our pace, thinking the same thing, the only thing. The bear was coming for us. It happened a third time, the noise, and we were sent running down the trail at full tilt.
We sidestepped the parked cars as we came upon them, and once inside our own, we slammed the doors shut, locking them. Heaving, I cranked the hatchback, turned up the AC. Cold blasts of air hit our wet faces. Reed looked down at his crotch; he was pale, shaking.
“You see him?”
“Who? A bear?” I looked around. “No, the man in the truck.”
“Here.” I shifted my air vent toward him. “Cool down.”
He slapped the vent closed. “You are not hearing me, Eric.” He pointed to the Dodge Ram parked a few yards up from us. “Him—you didn’t see him?”
“We picked up our pace, thinking the same thing, the only thing. The bear was coming for us.”
I told him I hadn’t. Which only seemed to make him more red-faced. Slowly, he told me what he’d seen. As we were loping toward the car, the man in a truck we passed had fashioned his hand into the shape of a pistol and pretended to knock us off one at a time. At least this was what Reed had seen. “He was smiling about it too,” Reed said. “Jesus, it looked like his son was in the cab with him laughing about it.”
“Why?” I said. “How would he know?”
“Two grown men don’t normally hold hands while they run,” he said.
“Oh.” I had no memory of our holding hands and this was a shock. “Maybe you misunderstood.”
“Maybe you misunderstood,” he said, mimicking my accent.
I placed a hand on his leg, but he wouldn’t let it stay there long. He guided it back to the steering wheel. “Drive,” he said.
Meanwhile, the truck had already vanished. Gone quietly back down the mountain.
Reed’s mother phoned my cell back at the condo while he was in the shower.
“What happened?” she asked. Something was wrong, she told me, because Reed had stopped responding to her texts. I went outside on the balcony and slid the door closed behind me. I filled her in about the man in the truck.
“Of course,” she said. “I should have known.”
“Nothing else happened. We’re okay.” I wanted to say how I thought he was overreacting, but I didn’t.
“But you’re from there,” she said, almost as if she’d read my mind. “Sweetheart, you’re used to it.”
She’d been throwing a rooftop party when Reed took me to meet her for the first time. We lived in Ohio but were spending a weekend in New York. For the entire night, she trucked me around to all her guests, showing me off like an artifact. “This is Eric,” she had said. “Reed’s friend. He’s from Mississippi—isn’t that adorable? Just wait till you hear him speak.”
She was now insisting she fly us to New York. “Tonight,” she said.
“I’ll ask him,” I said. I heard the shower cut off and asked her if she’d like to speak to him.
“Oh, no! I don’t want to bother. You know how he can be. By the way, how are things—between you two, I mean. Any better?”
“Slowly but surely.”
“Good! I’m keeping my fingers crossed you come back renewed—is that the right word? Renewed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay! Off to dinner! Let me know if you need rescuing.” The line went dead.
Reed was wearing a towel around his shoulders when he came out of the bathroom. He was thirty-five, almost a decade older than I was. Still, he had the better body. A tight waist, a well-shaped chest. I had fallen in love with his body a little at a time. Starting, I think, with his toenails, how well he kept them trimmed. Then his eyes, his shoulders. The rest of him followed, even the less glamorous parts: the bald spot, the gray tooth, the ratty tuft of hair trailing down his back.
“Hey, sailor,” I said, lounging on the bed. “Want to get drunk, fuck around?”
We locked eyes in the mirror as he rubbed lotion into his neck.
“You and Mother have a good chat?”
“She tried calling you.” I told him about her offer to fly us to New York.
“How can we?” He slipped on underwear. Adjusted the crotch. “When I’ve not seen my bear yet.”
I rolled over, burying my face in the comforter.
He cut on the blow-dryer, and suddenly I was very tired and, somehow, dozed off.
I woke up a few hours later to find him sitting in a chair in front of the window.
“You’re obsessed,” I told him. “You know that.”
“Do you think people know? Generally speaking.”
“Anyone. The general public. Residents of Gatlinburg.
The man in the truck. If you hadn’t grabbed my hand, would he have known?”
“So I grabbed your hand?”
“I just mean it seems easier for you to take . . . what happened.”
“It upsets me too.” But that wasn’t entirely true. Really, I was more alarmed we’d been holding hands without my realizing it. And the more I thought about that, the more wrong it became.
He came to bed, sat cross-legged on top of the covers so our bodies barely touched, the palm of his foot resting on my kneecap.
He turned on the lights.
“Why don’t you ever talk about it?”
“The stuff that happened when you were younger.”
“The scar,” he said, and fiddled with a loose thread on the bedsheet.
I felt it then, my scar, blazing down my lower back, roughly the shape of California, so easy to forget except when it wasn’t.
Reed was looking at me, waiting, his mouth hanging open.
“We bled and spat and cried out together, almost in unison—a terrible sort of intimacy, maybe the sort he’d been longing for this whole time.”
“Stop gawking,” I finally said, and laughed a little. “I’m not a bear.”
“Okay. You’re right. Okay.” He was nodding as he turned the lights back off and settled onto his side of the bed.
I lay on my back, thinking. We are running, the two of us, the sun blazing. One hand reaching for the other’s.
“And for the record,” I added in the dark. “You grabbed my hand.”
Our last night in the mountains, we took the ski lift over Gatlinburg to a little resort area on the bluff above the city. At the top, our ears popped, and we ambled aimlessly in the streets before spotting a store called Three Bears.
“Oh, we have to,” Reed said.
We paid three dollars apiece and were escorted by one of the staffers to the third floor of the store where, behind a sheet of plexiglass, slept three skinny bears. Their tangled bodies were one large bundle of matted fur that undulated.
“Wow,” Reed said. “Here they are.”
“Yep, in all their glory.”
He knocked on the glass; nothing happened.
“This is, you know, depressing,” he said. “I think I should feel depressed.”
“Do you, though, feel depressed?”
He dragged a finger across the glass. “No,” he said. “Something is missing.”
Afterward, we sledded on a long plastic tube down the side of the bluff. At the end, one of the attendants told us it was much faster in the winter. “You’ll have to come back then,” he said.
Reed smiled at him, and said, “Probably not.”
He wanted to buy something for his mother, so we stopped at a gift shop on the way back to the car. Every gift shop in Gatlinburg, it seems, has a specialty. Some claimed the best fudge; others touted the finest pottery. The one we found ourselves in held the market on snow globes. Glistening orbs on every shelf, each one capturing a rustic scene: snow-laden rooftops, various animals with stoic stares, pancake houses. I made my way to the discount table in the back, where there sat a large one featuring a heavyset woman inside, buttoned in flannel, a hatchet in her hand. Behind her, a felled tree the size of a cigarette. I picked up the snow globe and shook it, the snowy confetti inside coating everything in a brief blizzard. Defiant Pioneer Woman, it was called. Something about it, I don’t know what. I returned it to the table, shaking, a lump lodged in my throat.
“Faggot,” I said.
At the front of the store, someone screamed. Glass shattered.
I heard Reed’s voice then, shouting.
By the time I arrived, the fight had already been broken up. Reed was pinned against a counter by a large man with bulging eyes, a plastic bucket of metal washers had turned over and were scattered at their feet. There was another man prone on the floor, clutching his nose. Blood oozed between his fingers. A crowd of onlookers had gathered.
“You simmer now,” the man holding Reed was saying. “Just you simmer some.”
Reed’s eyes found mine. “That’s him,” he told me. “The man.”
A boy was crouching beside the man on the floor now. The boy touched the blood leaking down the man’s face. “Wow,” the boy said, examining the tackiness on his fingers. The man, presumably the boy’s father, wore a lime-green polo and had whiskers in his ears. He looked bewildered, frightened. A woman helped him up from the floor, maybe his wife, and took him to another part of the store, out of sight.
Only then did the large man release Reed. “I don’t want any more trouble from you,” he said to Reed. I had moved beside him and was touching his wrist.
An elderly woman appeared behind the cash register, toting a broom. “You boys might want to use the exit,” she said, and so we did.
Reed didn’t speak until we were in the parking lot, an open square of concrete poorly lit and alive with the sound of crickets.
“That was him,” he said. “The fucker. That was him.”
“You know it was.” He kicked my car’s fender.
“Careful,” I said. “My car’s had a hard life.”
“Give me the keys.”
I scratched my shoulder. “You need to calm down.”
Then came his fist, slicing past my face. I shoved him against the trunk, and we were at each other like animals, falling to the ground, gravel snapping in our ears. We snatched hair, raked our nails against whatever exposed skin we could find. He put a kneecap in the small of my back; I elbowed his ear. We bled and spat and cried out together, almost in unison—a terrible sort of intimacy, maybe the sort he’d been longing for this whole time. He straddled my shoulders, locked me to the ground. He panted.
“You don’t know anything,” I said.
He covered my mouth with his own, the salty taste of him; I bit his lip, drawing more blood. We pulled apart, both of us shaking between the parked cars. Now other people were in the parking lot, we realized. We heard them. Footsteps. Doors slammed shut; an engine turned. There was a flash of headlights. We hid behind the hatchback until the car was gone, and then we slid into the back seat. Reed shoved my pants down and pushed himself in. It didn’t take long for him to finish, and while he was still inside me, recovering, I told him about the scar.
“My cousins,” I said. “Battery acid.”
“What?” he said. Then, remembering: “Oh.”
I pushed my face into the seat cushion, wishing for his hand to find the back of my skull and hold me there until the urge to scream had left. Instead he lifted my shirt and put his lips, briefly, against the mark on my back.
In this way, we said our goodbyes.
From Sweet and Low. Used with permission of Blue Rider Press. Copyright © 2018 by Nick White.