Black Bear by Carla Smale; for more information, visit
https://www.etsy.com/shop/carlascreatures

Ursus Americanus Floridanus: or, Bears & Beer

by Shannon Burrows, Matt Forsythe, and David Smith

Last month, on my afternoon stroll through Wekiva Oaks, a black bear fell to the ground from a magnolia, not twenty yards away. It was a decent drop—ten, maybe fifteen feet—but he shook it off and lumbered into the woods behind the subdivision.

In my neighborhood, the bears are falling from the trees. Literally.

He didn’t tumble like you might expect, not like Wile E. Coyote, hitting each ledge in the canyon. Not this Yogi: swoosh, thud.

Who knows why the dumb bear picked a magnolia, snubbing the limbs of our namesake oaks. One moment I was enjoying my walk, and the next, three hundred pounds of Florida bear had materialized at my feet, beamed to earth like something out of Star Trek.

***

That wasn’t my only encounter with ursus americanus floridanus, not by a long shot. Last July, when summer break ended for Billy and Hannah, my parents drove over from Mount Dora for a cookout. As we watched Moana for the 27th time, my father sat up, walked to the kitchen, and gestured for me to join him, concerned.

“Rosie, something’s in your garage.” Through the door, we could hear bottles clinking. I took a knife from the sink, and Dad grabbed the bat from the corner. He yanked the door open and shouted, “Hey! Get out! Go on, get!”

A black bear was lapping at a puddle on the concrete. It glanced at us and headed for the exit, leaving a filthy streak down the side of my white Pathfinder. With a swipe, it snatched a to-go bag of trash.

Then it was gone, a literal thief in the night. A debris field testified to its visit: a shredded box of leftover pizza, a handful of Capri-Suns, and the overturned recycling bin. The real loss was the beer—not the Miller Lite in garage fridge purgatory, but the cans of Florida Cracker, now crushed and punctured and leaking their smooth Southern nectar. I picked up a fallen soldier and fingered the jagged aluminum.

As we cleaned up the mess, my father spotted an untouched pack of bacon and laughed at our friend’s peculiar taste.

In my neighborhood, the bears ignore the bacon and steal your beer.

***

That night, as I washed the knife and pictured its feeble defense, I chided myself for leaving the garage open. Our development backs onto Wekiva Springs and the St. John’s River system—half a million acres of prime habitat. Thousands of bear call our state home, so it’s no surprise when they slip into our subdivision. Young males wander the river corridor, kicked out of the nest, with a nose for beer that could rival a college freshman.

Not that different from my own story, I suppose. After the divorce, when DeLand became hostile territory, I moved the kids upstream to the A-rated schools of Seminole County. We claimed a new habitat of our own.

***

Last fall, Hurricane Irma tore through the neighborhood, uprooting oaks and cutting our power for a miserable week. Bags of trash ballooned with the fetid remains of freezers and refrigerators. The stench was overwhelming.

With collection delayed, our streets became an All-U-Can-Eat, curbside buffet, and a bear claimed our block as his own. This 400-pound beast was featured in group texts on a daily basis: Goliath’s back! Stay inside!

He popped the bags and aired my garbage across the front lawn like rotten confetti: putrid chicken, rancid milk, more containers of cream cheese than one family needs, and enough empty bottles from our hurricane party to confirm the rumors about my drinking habit. Billy and I donned latex gloves and rebagged our trash, gagging and retching and cursing the bear. As I dropped the carcass of a rotisserie chicken into an open bag, our neighbor Richard passed us on the street.  He didn’t stop, turn his head, or ask how we were doing.  Instead, he yanked on the leash of his Pomeranian and doubled his pace.  Later, I hosed down the driveway with bleach, knowing it wouldn’t mask the odor or keep the bear away.

Sure enough, the greedy bastard returned. Our garage was raided again—live and don’t learn, that’s me—only this time he stole Scooby’s food. I know, I know: It’s a stupid name for a stupid dog, whose overpriced food is made from organic unicorn. Goliath dragged a full bin to our side yard for a midday snack, leaving nothing but a single tooth mark in the plastic. I watched him from the kitchen window and called Wildlife Management for advice.

A magnet, that’s what they sent me. A fucking magnet. Apparently, they won’t dispatch a trapper unless someone’s in danger, as if you have time to chat when you’re getting mauled.  Instead, they recorded my location for a bear-tracking database and mailed me a magnet, with steps to follow during a bear encounter and the pointless reminder that “Florida is Black Bear Country!”

***

I didn’t always hate wildlife. In fact, it was once a signature appeal of Wekiva Oaks. I liked the idea of living near the river, listening to songbirds, and sipping my morning coffee like a Disney princess as deer frolicked in the yard. But this version of Snow White was filmed by David Lynch. I fall asleep to the shrieks of rabid racoons, while the tick-infested deer spread Lyme disease, eat my hibiscus, and shit on the lawn.

***

The text came from my neighbor: Big Bear in Tracy’s yard!

It was spring break.  I was celebrating the lull in chauffeur duties with a party for one on the patio.  As I stood up to check the garage and warn the kids, I scolded myself for drinking on an empty stomach.  It was past time to start dinner, but I didn’t feel like cooking.  Frozen pizza counts, right?

I did a quick check—garage closed, beer secure—but the Xbox was oddly quiet.  The kids were outside.

I sprinted across the empty lawn and into the middle of the road, still clutching my drink. “Hannah! Billy!”  Near the end of the street, where an open lot sloped to the river, two bikes lay on the curb.

As I raced down the hill, I could hear their shouts and the sound of water splashing. “Hannah! Billy!” I repeated. “Come, now!” They groaned, and each threw one more rock. I grabbed Hannah’s arm, harder than I intended, and told Billy to follow us.

He started to protest, eyeing the beer in my hand.  Then he gasped and pointed to the top of the rise.  “Mom!”

A huge bear stood at the crest—not Goliath, but almost as big. It shifted its weight and grunted.

We froze. Hannah let out a quiet whine, like a balloon leaking air.

“Don’t. Move.” I recalled that ridiculous magnet: Appear large. Make noise. Back away.

“Hey, stupid! Stupid bear!” I tried to be funny, to keep the kids from panicking. The bear swung its head and grunted again, a warning. My stomach dropped, but I waved my free hand and half-sang, half-shouted the first thing that came to mind: the chorus to “Sweet Caroline,” our family road trip fave.

It didn’t move, so I sang louder.  Billy joined in, adding the call back to Neil Diamond’s classic.  I pushed them behind me, sloshing beer, and Hannah began to cry.

I couldn’t breathe. Every part of me wanted to run, the same way I always did.  But I looked at the beer in my hand.  Enough was enough.

The can flew through the air, tracing an arc toward the bear.

It missed its head by a foot.

The bear sniffed, lifted the can with its teeth, and turned for the woods, crashing into the brush.  In the distance, a dog barked an alarm, far too late to be useful.

I gathered my children into my arms.  In my neighborhood, a mother defends her cubs.

***

Streetlights flickered on. Neighbors stepped onto their porches, sipping drinks and lighting citronella candles. They listened to the spring night, the call of a sandhill crane, and the lingering echo of “Sweet Caroline,” a mother and child duet, a memory that lay just beyond their reach.

About Shannon Burrows, Matt Forsythe, and David Smith

Shannon Burrows lives in Sanford, Florida, with her husband and two children. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have been published in Dwellable and Wordhaus.  She recently graduated from Rollins College, where she majored in Psychology and minored in Creative Writing.

Matt Forsythe is an Assistant Professor of English at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His writing has appeared in Mid-American ReviewFiction Southeastthread, and War + Ink: New Perspectives on Ernest Hemingway’s Early Life and Writings.


David Smith recently graduated from Rollins College, where he majored in English and minored in Creative Writing. A Scotsman who emigrated to the Sunshine State, he loves Scrabble, camping, birding, and swimming in the natural springs. He is currently undertaking a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies.

This project was undertaken as part of the Rollins College Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship program. We would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their generous support of this program: The John R. and Ruth W. Gurtler Fund; The John Hauck Foundation; and the Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Fund.