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by eric ristau
Merelda’s Place had been there forever. It was one of few things we were able to count on. Dusty antlers from a few unlucky ungulates encircled the bar. Pelts from lynx, beaver and wolf hung from nails pounded into century-old logs. A pair of small “bear proof” windows were in the front on either side of the heavy door. Each of them held a flickering neon sign, “OPEN” and “Budweiser.” Not that the bar needed windows though. The majority of all substantial debauchery which takes place on these squeaky floorboards happens during the winter’s perpetual darkness, six months out of every year.
The pickled ham-hock fell into pieces as Merelda, the leathery bartender, handed the pile of odd meat over the bar on a vinegar-saturated paper towel, “do you want ketchup or mustard?” she asked.
“Um... no it’s fine how it is,” said Arney, licking the vinegar-meat juice from his fingers. Arney was my friend and drinking partner. He was good guy, but he definitely had a few screws loose. He once mentioned something about his platoon getting misted with Agent Orange in Nam right before becoming a yearlong prisoner of the Vietcong, but he doesn’t talk about it. I never knew him prior to that, so I can’t say for sure if that’s the reason for his eccentric nature, but it must have contributed.
He once killed a polar bear with his truck while driving home from Merelda’s one night. Upon climbing out to inspect the damage to his rig and check to see if the bear had made it, he discovered the sow was dead, his truck was totaled and the polar bear was a mom. Arney felt responsible, so he raised yhe bear cub like his own child until it destroyed his cabin and ran away with a year supply of jerky. Arney’s bear used to haunt this place.
“Now that is absolutely repulsive,” I said, “no matter how many times I’ve seen you eat those damn pig ankles, it still makes me want to gag. I bet you’re the only one in this whole town who eats that shit.” Merelda took her eyes off her soap opera long enough to give me a smirk and nod in agreement. “See, even ol’ Merelda agrees with me.”
Arney and I used to come down to Merelda’s Place at least every Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but more often when we get depressed or when we needed to discuss an immediate matter.
Often when at Merelda’s, Arney was just trying to stay away from his common-law Athabaskan wife, Ipoodme. She was well respected in the community for her hard work, but she had a wicked temper. Arney used to tell me that occasionally things got a little rough behind closed doors. They both drank like fish and now and again got into crazy fistfights with each other, or “lover’s quarrels” as they called them.
This particular day happened to be a Wednesday and Arney had told me earlier that he needed to talk about on something urgent. So, being the good friend I was, I abandoned my work, and was at Merelda’s by noon to let Arney buy me beers. I already knew what Arney wanted to talk about, and this time it wasn’t his wife.
“You know what today is?” asked Arney taking a huge gulp of beer.
“Yup,” I said, “I think everyone in town knows what today is.” Merelda looked away from her TV and shot Arney a look of disgust.
“Look, it’s really not my fault that this happens every year,” said Arney, shrugging his shoulders, “I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. How was I supposed to know the bastard was going to turn on me and make a tradition of terrifying the shit out of everyone?”
“Arney, you know that eventually you’re going to have to deal with the problem,” I said. “Everyone in this damn town is getting really sick of this, and it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt.”
“I know, but I don’t know what to do. How am I supposed to chase off a giant polar bear?”
Merelda walked over to Arney and grabbed a fistful of his long beard. “God dammit, everyone knows what you need to do,” croaked Merelda, “ you need to ante up and take responsibility for the problem you’ve created.”
“Alright Merelda, calm down,” I said, “I’ll talk to him about it while you get us a couple Lucky Frostbite Whiskeys please.”
The single day out of the year that made Arney especially unpopular around town was here. Since the day Arney’s polar bear ran away with some thirty pounds of jerky, five years before, it returned the same time each year to pay the town a “visit.” The massive bear would stroll into town emerging from the darkness, bringing terror and leaving only mayhem. Usually on its first stop, it would completely trash Arney and Ipoome’s place, often killing at least one of their dogs and shitting on their doorstep before ambling on down the road smashing down front doors and shattering car windows as it went. Arney was always baffled as to why his “pet” would do such a thing. I made the suggestion that perhaps the polar bear acts the way it does, not only because it’s the largest, most viscous, man-eating terrestrial predator on the planet, but also I told Arney it’s important not to overlook that he did in fact kill the bear’s mother.
In the north, January is the heart of the dark season. The wicked cold bites at exposed flesh like a rabid Lhasa Apso. Snow falls heavy upon everything, silencing the world beneath, creating a brittle, dead-zone above. During the few daylight hours, perpetual gray skies cast a depressing funk over the frozen landscape. But up there, it’s not the skin freezing temperatures, the deep snows or the disheartening gray skies that become a problem. It’s the goddamned dark. Nights in the north are long, so long they last into most of the day as well. It is this inky blackness, worthy of an Egyptian tomb, which drives some folks over the edge.
Each year, newcomers move up there “to get away from it all.” They really enjoy themselves through the fall, but like clockwork, right before the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, they quietly would pack up and slip out of town. Where they went nobody knew, but probably back down to California or Texas or where ever they came from to begin with. For most who stuck it out, true Seasonal Affective Disorder didn’t set in until their bodies became deficient of Vitamin D from lack of sunlight exposure. This sometimes would happen after a couple months, or sometimes it even took years or decades for true “cabin fever” to set in. Everyone who lasted in the north accepted the dark and dealt with SAD differently, but for most of us reasonable folks, we just drank.
Merelda fished around in the yellow formaldehyde with a pair tongs before she securely grabbed onto one of the gray, frostbitten toes. Lucky Frostbite shots were a long-standing tradition at Merelda’s. At least once a year someone would freeze their feet and need a couple toes lopped off. And since the only doctor for two hundred miles lived directly behind Merelda’s Place, she got them at the black-market price. “Remember,” she said pouring whiskey over the reeking toe into the shot glass, “don’t swallow the toe or I’ll have to charge you extra; we reuse them.”
“Here we go,” said Arney as put the glass to his lips, “I could really use a little luck about now.”
“Arney don’t swallow the toe, just the booze,” I said patting his shoulder. Arney swallowed hard and his eyes widened. “Just the whiskey man, now spit the toe back into the glass.” Arney sat still, eyes watering, just staring at me. “Oh shit Arney. You swallowed the fucking toe didn’t you? Arney…? Where’s the toe?” Arney sat pale faced just staring at me.
Merelda rapped Arney on the knuckles with the greasy toe tongs,
“Arney, god-dammit, I told you...that’s five dollars extra, you hear me?” Merelda put the lid back on the jar. “You cursed us, everyone knows not to swallow the toe. Something horrible always happens. What the matter with you?”
“It’s hard to swallow just the booze without the toe, god-dammit!” shouted Arney, as he slammed his fist on the bar, now a little drunk. “Nothing bad is going to happen, that’s a crock of shit!”
Suddenly, the door burst open and Ipoodme barged in tracking snow everywhere. Arney shut up and turned his now greenish face to look at his wife.
“Arney! You sonofabitch!” she yelled, “your god-damn bear is back and it already ate everything and killed two of your dogs!”
Everyone in the bar turned in horror, staring at Arney. He knew what he had to do. It was obvious the only thing the bear wanted was revenge. There would never be peace as long as the bear and Arney coexisted and everyone knew it. He pulled his flask out of his coat pocket and chugged the rest of its contents. Without a word he stomped outside into the snow to retrieve his deer rifle from his truck. The bar emptied out into the cold night and everyone watched as my crazy friend Arney walked down the frozen road into the darkness towards his cabin, towards his polar bear. That was the last time anyone ever saw Arney, or the bear, ever again. It was only two in the afternoon.