Hunting Polar Bears
As I popped out of a dream and lay luxuriating in that timeless dimension between waking and unconsciousness, the awareness that it was Saturday oozed through my body like warm chocolate. A sound like someone filing wood, slowly and rhythmically, signaled that my pregnant wife was still sleeping, entwined in the sheets like a freshly interred mummy. During pauses in her breathing I detected another sound, but decided in the serenity of late morning that it was merely some distant pothole being repaired, or a snow blower clearing a sidewalk into perfect suburban symmetry. I wasn’t going to allow that tiny irritant to intrude on my bliss. All I needed to make my day transcendent was to empty the liquid from my bladder, and I could do that without opening my eyes and be back in bed before emerging from Neverland.
I allowed a pinhole-sized section of eyelid to peer out and establish my bearings for a quick dash, but what I saw on my bed blasted a shock through my system as violent as one that threw me across the kitchen two years earlier when I tried to fix the toaster with a butter knife.
On the other side of the slumbering heap that was my wife lay an old, rather sick-looking man.
While I leapt to my feet with my heart battering at my chest, the hot chocolate in my veins transformed itself into Drano. What I saw wasn’t merely a trick of the light, the gunk in my eyes, or the lingering ghost of a dream. The man was real, and he lay on his back watching me through half-closed eyes. His head was nearly bald, with only a few white strands clinging to the dry, mole-encrusted skin. Several days’ growth of white whiskers bristled from his hollow cheeks, and he held a thin sheet over himself with knotted fingers.
“Honey!” I pulled at my wife’s foot. “Diane, come on! Wake up!”
Diane stirred. The man continued to watch me.
“Honey, come on! There’s a man in our bed! He’s lying right next to you! For God’s sake, honey, there’s a man in our bed!”
She smiled. “Finally, a real man!”
“I’m not kidding around, come on . . .”
“So who is this man you think you see?”
“If you’d get the hell up out of there, you’d see for yourself! Come on, Diane, this isn’t a joke!”
I tugged at her leg until I nearly dragged her onto the floor, and at last a white arm emerged to unravel the packaging. The old man closed his eyes.
Diane raised the wad of sheet around her hand and pushed open a hole barely large enough for her to peek through. “Oh, this is just great.” She twirled in the sheets and stood up.
“Is that all you’ve got to say?”
“What do you want me to say?”
For several moments we stood frozen. “All right, who are you, anyway? And what the hell are you doing in our bed? Come on, grandpa, time to rise and shine! Let’s go!”
I yanked the dark blue blanket off the man and realized that I had never seen that blanket before, which raised a new flood of questions. “Come on, whoever you are, let’s move.”
The man lay as serene as a slumbering cat. He wore a wrinkled gray tweed suit that was too large for him, and a fat blue tie was loosely knotted through the collar of his white shirt. His feet, however, remained bare, and long nails curled down from the tops of his toes. I stared at those white, smooth feet, mentally picturing the next step, which was for me to grab them and slide him off the bed.
“Diane, come on. I could use some help. I’ve got to get him out of here.”
“So get him out.”
“What if he breaks a hip or something? Hey, come on, mister! Wake up! Say something, for Christ’s sake.”
The man either ignored me or didn’t hear.
“Diane, I think he’s sick or something.”
“What is it you want me to do?”
“Come on, you’re not that pregnant yet.”
“I’m really tired, honey. I haven’t been getting much rest lately, and this is my only day to sleep in. Please, take care of this.”
Cringing with revulsion, I tapped the old man’s feet with my hand. “Come on, wake up. You’ve got to get going. Get up. This is our house―you need to go.”
“Oh, to hell with it. I’ve got to take a leak.”
I stomped to the bathroom, where I relieved myself while my head pulsed like an infected boil. Then I pulled on the jeans and sweatshirt I left hanging on the doorknob the previous night and returned to the scene of our bizarre emergency. After staring at the man while my brain spun helplessly, I stormed into the kitchen.
“Might as well get something to eat before I start tossing around members of the geriatric set. Can’t very well do that on an empty stomach, can I? No, before you start breaking people’s hips and hurling intruders around on a Saturday morning, it’s always a good idea to have a hearty, nutritious breakfast, right?”
“Honey, could you keep it down a bit?” Diane called to me from the bathroom. “I’m not feeling very well today.”
Spurred by adrenaline, I lunged into the bedroom determined to rid our house of our visitor. But when I saw that gray face I had to pause. His mouth was hanging open, revealing a handful of what were once teeth jabbing up from red, swollen gums. His chest rose and fell while his body trembled. A twinge of compassion prevented me from rolling him onto the floor. “Honey, I really think he’s sick.”
I tossed his blanket back over him, then retreated into the kitchen to have a bite to eat and organize my thoughts. “I can’t believe this,” I said aloud as I poured Raisin Bran into my red cereal bowl. “Here I am fixing breakfast while some sick old geezer is in my bed! How the hell did he get in here?”
I dropped two English muffins into the toaster and switched on the coffee machine. I should call the police, I thought. They’d take care of the situation. Still, they might ask how the man got in and ended up in our bed. How could I explain that?
I couldn’t. I hated to admit it, but the thought of getting someone else involved was embarrassing. Maybe he really was sick and would drop dead if we kicked him out. Maybe he was senile and simply wandered into the wrong house after his morning walk. Maybe we could go around the neighborhood and ask if anyone was missing one old man. Maybe . . .
“I see you’ve come to terms with the situation.” Diane glided into the kitchen in her pink bathrobe, her blond hair a mass of tangles.
“Lot of help you were. You seem to like the old coot. Like a pet, isn’t he?”
“Ease up on the sarcasm. And you really should put on your glasses and stop screwing up your eyes. They’ll freeze into that expression, and it isn’t very attractive.”
“So what do we do now?”
She snatched the freshly emerged muffins from the toaster and placed them on a plate. “I think you’re right; he doesn’t look well. I don’t want to move him. Maybe he needs to get some rest. But we really should call the police. Somebody’s probably wondering where he is, and we can’t keep him.”
“So first we’re going to let him rest? In our bed? How did he get in here? Should we charge him by the hour or by the night? Did you notice that he brought his own blanket?”
She spread butter on half a muffin and handed it to me. “I just checked and the front door was locked. Maybe we left it unlocked and he locked it behind him after he came in. After he lost his marbles my grandfather used to go into the wrong house all the time and make himself at home. Should we call the police now?”
“I thought of that. But how would we explain it? They’d think maybe we were nuts, or up to something. Oh, this is just freaking great.”
“I say we just let him sleep for a while and see what happens. Maybe he’ll feel better. He isn’t well.”
“I know, I can see that. So what I’m wondering is, how come you didn’t scream when you saw him? You’re taking this pretty well.”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
Diane sat in the living room checking her email while I went outside to shovel our walkways clear of snow that had fallen that morning. I noticed that no footprints had been left anywhere around our house, so the old man must have arrived before the snow, unless he was a ghost or wraith or some other supernatural being.
I then knocked on doors up and down the street asking if anyone was missing a sick old man. I wasn’t surprised to learn that nobody was. The snow started up again, thicker and more intense than earlier. By the time I got back home, it had already reclaimed the walkways.
Inside, the old man still lay on his back in our bed. “Damn, this is just too much,” I said. “We’ve got to call the police. Or better yet, an ambulance.”
Diane placed her head on his chest, then felt for a pulse on his wrist. “I think he’s dead.”
I checked his pulse and breathing. She was right. He was gone. I tried CPR, though I hated to even touch the man, but it was too late.
“Oh my God, this is terrible!”
We called 911, where the woman who answered said they had a lot of calls and might have some problems getting to our house because of the snow. We waited in the kitchen, wondering what to tell them. The truth seemed too ridiculous. I paced back and forth, cursing. “Why in the hell did that frigging lunatic pick our house to sneak into? How did he get into our bed? Who’s going to believe the truth? God, why did we wait so long to call somebody?”
“Come on, dear, I’m sure this sort of thing happens to people around here all the time,” said Diane in a soothing voice. “It’ll be fine. When this is all over, let’s try to get some sleep. I’m not feeling very well.”
“Yeah, I don’t feel well either. It’s like a flu coming on or something. Same with you?”
“Yes, something like that. Must be all this, you know, with the old man.” She patted her swollen belly. “I hope the baby isn’t picking up on any of this.”
“Let’s not sleep in our room tonight. Not after all this. We can stay in the guest bedroom.”
When the paramedics finally arrived, we led them immediately into the bedroom. The old man was no longer there. “This doesn’t make sense!” I cried, exasperated. “He was here this morning. He was here this afternoon. What in the hell happened to him? He just vanished!”
The policemen who followed the paramedics calmed me down, searched through the house, then offered the explanation that the old man hadn’t really died, but finally woke up and made his way home. Their version of what might have happened didn’t seem right to me, but in spite of my protests they left, promising to look for the old man who, they said, might still be out wandering around in the snow.
I had a sudden thought. “Did you see any footprints outside? If he left, he had to leave footprints, right?”
The two policemen looked at each other. “No, not really,” said one. “But it’s been snowing pretty hard. Hard enough to cover footprints. He can’t have gone far in this mess.”
“It’s all right, dear, it isn’t our problem anymore,” said Diane after they skidded off on streets clogged with snow. “It isn’t our problem.”
The next morning when I woke up, my skin was hot and damp, and I was afraid to move for fear that I’d vomit. When I glanced beside me, I saw that Diane had already gotten up. “Diane!” I moaned. “Honey, where are you?”
I heard no response, so I fell asleep again. When I woke a second time, Diane still hadn’t returned to bed and the house was silent.
In a panic, I leapt up to look for her. Diane was nowhere to be found. I was half delirious and my stomach twisted rebelliously. On my way to the bedroom, I opened the front door. The nausea in my guts rose when I saw a set of footprints leading from the door and disappearing into the blowing drifts of snow near the sidewalk. “Now where is she off to?” I wondered. “I wish she’d at least tell me what she’s up to.”
The power of my fever finally dragged me back into bed, where I fell into a swoon to toss and swirl through a series of deranged dreams. In one dream I thought I saw the old man and Diane dancing in my old high school, then flew into a dream in which I was lost somewhere near the North Pole.
The flat horizon around me was rimmed in pink and orange as the sun sank behind the vast fields of pure snow, and a razor-sharp wind slashed the exposed skin on my face and feet. I was running, running, struggling to make it through the waist-high powder of new snow. Although they were camouflaged, I could still detect the movement of polar bears following me. They stalked me from a distance, but as darkness grew that distance grew shorter. My heart pounded and I gasped in heaves because I had to get away from them or they would eat me.
On and on I waded through the snow in a desperate search for shelter. I began to realize that I was that old man and he was me. The snow burned into my feet while faces and voices drifted in and out of my perception, but on I slogged, struggling to stay ahead of the polar bears, until at last I spied a warm light ahead, and picked up my pace toward shelter.
C.B. Heinmann ,,,