This Side of The Door
The first thing the headlights picked up was the yellowy-brown spill
in the center of the road; it looked like a puddle of melted butter. Which
in a way, I found out soon after, it was. Almost butter.
My car skidded just a bit as the tires went slick from the oily
patch, then they caught traction on the asphalt again, and I was safe, clear
of it. But a second later, my lights swept for a playful moment across the
source of the spill. It was a pickup truck on the right shoulder, and it had
been towing a chrome popcorn booth on wheels. Both were on their side. The
rear wheels of the truck still turned slowly. Dark green garbage bags full
of pre-popped corn had burst open and fallen through the shattered glass of
the carnival booth, sprayed popcorn like packaging peanuts everywhere.
I slowed to a stop behind the wreck and got out. It was a warm
spring night on a lonely highway somewhere south of Lamesa, and the smell of
melted butter was in the air. I wasted a little mental energy silently cursing the Texas cell phone coverage (which, like Texas justice, is famously
spotty). There was no phone, there was me. That's the hand that had to be
played, and complaining about it wouldn't change it. At least, not in my
experience. So I ran to the truck, and that's when I saw the other half of
the accident. The little truck had hit a bigger one, ridden right up the
tail of a kind of modified Airstream mobile home. The back of it was torn
open like a TV dinner. I was reminded of the Jiffy Pop comes-in-its-own-pan
thing, but I'm not sure whether it was the look of the mobile home or the
overpowering smell of popcorn around me.
As my mind tried to chase down everything it had ever learned about
artificial respiration and CPR, I poked my head in the shredded back of the
thing and caught another smell: wet dogs, lots of dirty wet dogs. My eyes
watered, I wrenched my head back into the night. A man was crawling out of
the front of the Airstream. "My God, are you all right?" I asked, even
though I could tell he wasn't. His face was covered -- absolutely slathered
-- with blood. He had a handlebar mustache that was so blood-drenched it
looked like it'd been used for a paint roller. The impression was of a
walrus involved in some particularly nasty fraternity hazing. "My... bears.
You help me find them," he said, voice heavy with Eastern European accent,
throat choked with Eastern European blood. "My bears."
I pointed to the wreckage behind me. "We have to --"
The man cut me off. "I check. Victor is dead."
"You knew him?"
The man nodded gravely, the blood turning tacky in the folds of his
neck. "We were to getch up with the others. In Midland." As I started to
respond, a Jeep roared past, startling me. The driver didn't even slow down,
let alone offer to help. When I turned back from the road, the man from the
mobile home was walking briskly toward my car. He reached it before I could
catch up with him; he opened the passenger door and climbed in. I went
around to the driver's side and slid behind the wheel. "Are you sure your
friend..." The man nodded solemnly: Dead.
But what did he know; old, adrenaline-addled, and a carny to boot?
When I came back from the other vehicle, I said, "Okay then,"
starting my car. Two little words were all I could muster in acknowledgment
of the first dead body I'd ever seen that wasn't done up by a funeral home. I
hadn't trusted the old man's assessment of the situation. It was as if I was
asking the butcher if he was sure the meat he was handing me was dead. What
I'd just seen, it was as closely related to a living animal as hamburger.
"We have to get you to the hospital," I said.
He looked at me, this large and rapidly dying Czech or Slav, and
said, "Mister, I have the two bears, my bears, I kep' 'em in the trailer.
After the accident, oh, they run away. I saw them, jus as I wake up. Gina
and Pamela. They took handfuls of the popcorn -- oh, they love the popcorn
-- and they left me."
"Ya, my bears. We hafta find them, please." His voice was
rimmed with a hopeless sorrow.
"We have to go to the emergency room," I said calmly. "You need some
doctors, you understand?"
"Please, Mister. They coun'da gotten very far."
I shrugged, dropped the car into gear and pulled onto the highway.
"You can look for them on the way to the hospital."
It was just like ten seconds later -- we'd only driven about thirty
feet -- when the man shouted, "Look!" He pointed to the right side of the
lane. We passed a few stray kernels of popcorn lying by the side of the
"Your bears gonna stick to the road?" I asked, slightly annoyed. The
man was bleeding on my upholstery, the time I'd been making to Odessa was
getting shot to hell, and I was more than a little spooked. "The wind took
'em," I explained. "They just blew over here."
But the man just started staring out the window, quietly saying the
two words over and over: Gina, Pamela, Gina, Pamela. And sure enough, a
moment later, another three popcorn kernels. "There!" the bear man said.
"Look, tell me what your name is." Because this is the way you deal
with crazy people, building a trust, calling them by name, calming them down.
Otherwise, no telling what they'll do.
"Sten," he told me, his nose still pressed against the passenger
window. He was leaving little streaks of blood on the glass.
"Sten, your bears aren't walking along the side of this road. Think
"There, again," he shouted with glee: another tiny scrap of popcorn.
The trail, subtle as it was, continued. Bits of popcorn would appear
every time I started to think that was the end of it. And there wasn't any
wind. "How did you name them, Sten?" I asked, trying to keep him talking,
keep his airway clear of blood.
"From after my two favorite movie actresses," he said proudly.
"Gina? That's Gina Lolabrigida?"
"Pamela Sue Martin."
I thought a moment. She'd played on a TV show thirty years ago, a
junky little thing for kids. "Nancy Drew?" I asked tentatively. Is that
what they were showing in Romania or Bulgaria or Hungary these days?
We'd only been driving a few minutes when I caught a pair of break
lights up ahead. A car, pulling over. I slowed down, cautious. Sten was
busy staring down the asphalt, searching for traces of popcorn. He didn't
see it, then; only me. Now only about seventy-five feet ahead on the
shoulder, in the spill of a sodium arc highway light, I saw the Jeep that had
passed us back by the accident. The driver reached across the front seat and
pushed the passenger door open. I made out the silhouettes of two bears
climbing in. The door closed somehow and the Jeep pulled in front of us,
accelerating fast. "Sten!" I shouted. He turned to me, white eyes in sharp
contrast to the raw meat of his face. "That Jeep!" I pointed. "It just
picked up your bears."
"Oh, Gina and Pamela would never take a ride from stranger."
"I doubt any other bears around here are wearing tutus." I pointed
through the windshield. "Right up there! The guy in that Jeep has them!" I
hit the gas pedal and sped up, flashing my brights at the vehicle in
question. It sped up, too. I tried to close the distance between us, but my
speedometer leveled out at seventy and I started to lose them. I would've
thought the weight of two bears would slow a Jeep down, but my Hyundai
couldn't keep pace.
"Getch up!" Sten yelled. "Make them stop!"
"I can't!" I shouted back. Sten groaned as the Jeep's tail lights
winked out over the crest of a hill. I looked over, scared. "Forget the
bears, Sten. You're gushing blood here." He waved a dismissing hand at me.
His bears were in the forefront of his mind -- everything else, even his own
life, took a back seat. "Look," I tried, "I don't know where you're from,
but here, when your face is all bleeding, you go to a hospital."
"Where I am from," Sten said proudly, "the family comes first."
Bears -- two enormous brown bears -- his family. I followed
somewhere behind the Jeep. I couldn't see it, but we hadn't passed an exit;
there was nowhere for the guy to turn off. I drove straight for a while,
Sten moaning all along, and I was going so fast that I almost went right past
the exit ramp. Exit 23A, the sign read; underneath there were the
stick-figure icons for food, gas, accommodations. The ramp went off to the
right and hit Route 11, which ran perpendicular to the highway. Right there
a little neon sign buzzed and twitched -- Panhandle Motel. It was a long
one-story building with doors facing the dusty parking lot. The lights in
the end unit were on, and the Jeep was parked in front of it. "He's at the
motel," I said, pulling the wheel hard and skipping onto the ramp far too
fast. The tires squealed like they were alive, and Sten's head hit the
window, left a red blot.
Still, he pushed me on with his last bits of energy. "He got my
I pulled in behind the Jeep and helped Sten out of my car. He was
very weak now. "Look, maybe we should just call the police," I suggested.
Sten grabbed me with both fists, by the front of my shirt. He leaned
into me with all his weight, spoke through clenched teeth. "You know... the
police shoot my bears. You know that."
"This guy's a kidnapper --"
"I've seen this before. Here in America, you believe me. Right or
wrong, this does not matter. Fear will make the decision, they will be
afraid of Gina and Pamela."
"This guy isn't," I said, nodding toward the motel room.
"I've seen this before," Sten repeated.
I think he would've explained that, if I'd asked. But I had an
unsettling image of cops with Plexiglas riot shields and rifles shooting
syringes of cyanide, like Kent State transplanted whole and kicking to Jungle
Land Safari. I didn't want to hear. We went up to the door, gravel
crunching under our feet. I could see shadows swirling around behind the
curtains in the window on the left. Sten rapped on the door. I could hear
the tinny music of a motel radio, anchored into the face of the nightstand.
Playing swing. After some time, the door opened about two inches. A young
man stood peering through the crack, all wickedly receding hairline, wearing a
stained V-neck undershirt, a pair of beaten Levis and mud-caked workboots.
The chain was taut across the gap, and the man's eyes ran over us, suspicious
and hateful. "What." Behind him, in little snatches, I could see the two
bears, pirouetting with their paws clasped daintily over their heads.
"I come for the bears," Sten said, his voice harsh but imploring.
"Don't know what you're talkin' about," the guy spit. "Go 'way."
"Come on, buddy," I said. "I can see 'em from here. God's sake, I
smell 'em through the door."
Sten snaked a hand around the door jamb. "Gi-naa!" he cried. The
guy in the room smashed the door against Sten's knuckles. He fell back with
a scream and the motel door slammed shut. Inside, the muffled swing music
came up louder.
I sat down next to Sten on the concrete slab that ran the length of
the motel. "You all right?" I asked again, still the same ridiculous
"Only a matter of time," Sten muttered. "Gina and Pamela, they are
trained to kill, to maul, at only a single word."
"Sic?" I guessed. "Attack?"
Sten shook his bloody head disapprovingly. "No, nothing like this.
This, this word..." He leaned in closer to me and dropped his voice so I
could barely hear. "This is nothin' nobody would suspect. Who would say
'attack' to a bear?"
I nodded. He had a point; you use a word like telephone, or diaper.
It could be anything. "Maybe you oughta warn him," I said. "Maybe he'll
let you have the bears if he knows."
"He won't believe."
Of course he wouldn't. You'd have to be on this side of the door to
We sat for a moment, just listening. Gene Crupa, I think. The
gentle soft-shoe shuffle of the pads on the bears' hind feet. V-neck wasn't
talking, or he was talking low.
I looked at the old man. "Don't you wonder..." I started to say it,
but let myself trail off.
Sten looked at me blank-eyed, unable to anticipate what I was getting
at. He never questioned why the stranger would even want Pamela and Gina for
himself. In Sten's dimming world, who wouldn't want them?
"Sten, I... I can't wait here, watch you like this." He continued
staring dully as I checked my cell phone again. I could feel his eyes on me.
Looking For Signal, the screen read. I wandered out into the
parking lot, eyes glued to the LED as if it were a divining rod and I needed
water. In the upper left-hand corner, an icon looking something like a
martini glass winked into existence. A moment later, several black bars
appeared in formation next to it. Entering Service Area.
I dialed for the state troopers and was in the middle of trying to
explain the situation to the emergency operator when I saw Sten collapse flat.
"The Panhandle on Route 11," I shouted as I ran out from under the
invisible umbrella of cellular coverage, "send someone!" I cradled Sten in
my arms. His head lolled, gravity's plaything.
"...he never gonna say it..." Sten's voice was wrapped tight with
mucus and blood. Faint, reed-thin, already gone really. I pushed myself to
his lips just to hear what was left, felt the wet mustache tickle the
orechetti folds of my ear. "...you hafta say it..."
He nodded, gurgled a word to me, something sounding like, "gaalglyd."
The frustration gripped my temples. "I don't understand."
One more time, "groogones" this time around, and that was it. The
carny died, right in my arms. And something in me died, too. I almost
regretted calling the police in that moment. I'd started as a good Samaritan
but the feelings welling up inside told me I'd ended up some kind of avenging
Sirens rang in the distance. Almost the authorities' problem now. I
didn't care; it was my problem first.
"Garbage!" I shouted at the door. Nothing happened. "Gangrene!"
V-neck clambered over to the door. I think I was scaring him, the
random words much more disturbing to him than solid threats would be. "Shut
"Leave me alone!"
"Goldtone, gemstone, gristmill, GRASSLAND!"
"What the hell's wrong with you, man?"
I stopped, waited. Tried to think my way out. What exactly would
someone say if they were in this position. You steal two bears, you need
them to cooperate. The trainer knows that, sets the trap he knows you'll
walk into. I looked down at what used to be my new friend Sten. There was,
my hand to God, a grin plastered on his face.
For you then, Sten. For you.
"Good girl!" I shouted at the door. "Good girl!"
It had a certain symmetry to it. Technically two words, but it had a
certain symmetry to it.
From the other side the door, I thought I heard the sound of four
front paws touching down on the floor. Ballet over now.
I waited a little bit longer, waited to hear the sounds of the big
Stuart Connelly is a novelist and screenwriter. Drawn to the seamier side of human nature, his focus in fiction has always been thrillers, where his feelings of betrayal, revenge, bitterness, greed, paranoia, jealously and madness find a socially acceptable display case. One of his stories once made Tobias Wolff laugh so hard the reaction resembled a seizure.