The Last Teddy Bear
“Watch for the mail; your sister has a surprise for you.”
by Rob Hunter
“You’re different and they can’t get a handle on it.””
The home pregnancy test turned pink, and the test strip’s opinion was confirmed by Frankie Jelinek’s gynecologist. Thereafter Frankie was always at her husband’s elbow, picking up, following him around. Steve Jelinek’s wife seemed intent on erasing any trace of his passages through the fabric of their life together. How long had she been doing this? That Frankie had not always been a follower and straightener, Steve wondered. He set out a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jam―the house brand smooth from the pantry and strawberry preserve, also no-name, from the refrigerator―went to slice some bread, and when he turned back to the condiments they were gone, back to their stations in the pantry and the refrigerator. This was the first apostrophe. Steve’s and Frankie’s lives were subsequently invaded by a series of apostrophes―hills and valleys that, while not life-threatening in the day-to-day fight for survival, were speed bumps.
“Oh, sorry darling, I thought you were through.” Frankie was refolding the newspaper he had been reading.
“I went for a beer. I’m back now.” Steve Jelinek saw his life receding in diminishing perspective down, down and away, slicing a shaft to the center of the earth.
“How was I supposed to know?” Frankie flared. Seemed reasonable, but doubt gnawed in his stomach. He was in the way. Steve made a conscious study and noted the times she was there, straightening, picking up, when he turned around. Every time. “Steve, have you seen...? Oh, there it is.”
“Mister Jelinek? This is Sherry Waldvogel at Pineview? I’m Martha’s new caseworker and I’m calling to introduce myself and bring you up to speed on how your sister is doing.”
That the new caseworker in a stream of caseworkers―retired, burned out, moved on―should actually call him was something new. This was fresh blood―bright and eager her voice suggested, her diploma still wet.
“Hello, Sherry. Call me Steve.”
“Mister Jelinek, we’re excited about Martha’s progress on the new job.” Evidently “Steve” was out for the duration. Sherry wanted to show she was a pro. Sherry sounded young. There might have been the threat of a lawsuit by an unhappy guardian in the past year. Maybe Human Services had issued a directive.
“New job? Has she been transferred?”
“Oh, no. We are still working with Piney Woods Sheltered Workshop. Watch for the mail; your sister has a surprise for you.”
“A surprise.” Caseworker Sherry went quiet. There must have been something about the way he said “surprise.” His sister did not handle change well. Steve imagined the wheels spinning in Sherry’s head as she retooled for a potentially difficult family member. “A surprise...” he prompted. He wondered about Mattie’s medications.
“Your sister is doing just fine and she’s sent you her very first bear. A Bayberry Bear. The kids are doing bears now and they love it.” Sherry was rolling right along―up, bright and positive. She had just had to get on the right page. Steve was happy for her. The “kids” was a slip. Steve liked the new caseworker.
“Bears? Oh―stuffed toys. I get it. Are you sure she’s up to it? Sounds complex.”
“When Martha stuffs her teddy bears, they simply bubble with personality.”
“Bayberry Bear. We’ll look for it.”
“Don’t forget a thank you note. The kids live for letters.”
“Right, Sherry. Thanks for calling.”
Bayberry Bears were new. New meant trouble. Old and familiar was The Sister’s comfort zone.
Three months before the arrival of the Bayberry Bear Steve paced tight circles around his wife’s ladder. Frankie was wallpapering the ceiling of the baby’s room—Henry, a name carefully picked to be from neither of their families.
“Frankie, just look at the crap they’re feeding her, ‘anxiety agents.’ Chloral Hydrate, that’s a Mickey Finn.”
“Steve. Don’t. You’re making me dizzy.”
“And Traxene. Isn’t that the stuff they dope horses with at Aqueduct? Plus Thorazine? Jesus Christ!”
“Steve. The baby.” Frankie held a hand over her burgeoning belly, as if to cover young Henry’s ears.
“Check this out,” he handed her up the form.
“Psychotropic Medication Informed Consent,” read his wife. “Well, you’re her guardian; you’ve been informed and you’ve gone psycho. Now all you’ve got to do is sign the damned thing to go three for three. Mattie will be alright.”
Steve Jelinek waved the fistful of papers at his wife. “‘Temper tantrums and agitation.’ Agitation? Damned right, I’d be agitated, too, if they were force-feeding me on horse dope.”
In Steve’s daily grind as a software engineer, when called on for specifications as to family and their networking availabilities and/or potential, general health, status and type of business, Steve would say, “A sister. Retarded. Adult retarded.” The “adult” part he added to place himself at a remove, among the grownups. Of course his sister would be an adult. Steve was. He wanted to say “head-banger” or “hobbit.”
The Bayberry Bear arrived before the baby. Frankie and Steve named Henry’s new teddy-to-be Gandolfini after an actor in their favorite television show, The Sopranos. The teddy bear, Gandolfini, came in the mail toward the end of Frankie’s third trimester.
Steve and Frankie were snuggled in front of the television, watching the continuing story of a Mafia tribe in an upscale New Jersey suburb. James Gandolfini, an actor, was the star of the series; he had won an Emmy. The premium cable channels were a stretch on their tight budget, and they consequently watched a lot of TV to make good on their investment.
“Prenatal influences are important.” With the birth of a first child on her horizon, Frankie’s tastes in home entertainment were changing.
“Tony Soprano is the definitive alpha male,” said Steve Jelinek, his hand in a bag of taco chips.
“Sorry. Tony’s grotesque, no matter Alpha, Beta, whatever. All the violence. That poor woman.”
“You mean Carmela, Tony’s wife. She knows what she let herself in for. She goes to confession.”
Frankie reached for the remote. “It’s gross. And the language.” Steve Jelinek held the remote above his head just out of reach.
“Tony Soprano is an influence,” said Frankie. “I don’t want my kid to end up running numbers in Jersey. I saw where...” There was a line of self-help books arranged by size and the colors of their spines across the top of the TV cabinet. Frankie and Steve had at least flipped the indexes of the parenting poundage that had piled up over the past months: prenatal, postnatal, nutrition, natural childbirth, induced childbirth, Lamaze, midwifery, teaching toys. Some, such as Dr. Spock, they actually read cover-to-cover.
Steve stuffed the remote under the sofa cushion and plomped himself down firmly on top of it.
“Steve, you’re sitting on the remote,” said Frankie. She rose to turn off the set.
“Come and get it. If you’re woman enough.”
Frankie cradled her belly with both hands. “I was woman enough for this...”
“Like I said, come and get it.”
Frankie Jelinek launched herself at her husband. Steve fended off Frankie’s attack and they wrestled together, both protective of young Henry. Frankie pulled the remote from under the cushion and tucked it into her waistband. “Wait up a second,” said Steve. He lay back at full length and grabbed his pregnant wife with a full, two-armed hug.
“Was that a grope?” said Frankie. “I distinctly felt a grope, you old letch.”
“Nope, just protecting my choice of viewing material.” He recovered the remote from Frankie’s pants and pressed Record. Steve’s hand was now under Frankie’s blouse. “We can watch it later.” They adjourned to the bedroom. Inside the darkened TV, The Sopranos continued on without them.
On the DVR, rolling silently under the flashing blue digits of a clock that neither Frankie nor Steve bothered to set, Tony Soprano stalked a wandering bear at his swimming pool. It was night; there were lights. The bear was surprised. He was there for the bird feeders. Tony was likewise surprised by the bear and carried an AK47 assault rifle. Wrong place, wrong time, mayhem to follow: the wild and the tame on a collision course at a New Jersey McMansion.
As babies will, young Henry duly made his appearance. As mothers will, Frankie Jelinek glowed. Steve hovered and danced attendance on mother and child; Gandolfini was a hit. Young Henry developed a rash. First, fearing an allergy to plush, the new parents laid the much loved bear just out of reach of Henry’s curious, clutching, exploring fingers.
3:00 AM and Frankie crawled under the covers after nursing Young Henry. “Steve?”
“Steve. It moved. Gandolfini, the bear. He moved.”
“Maybe he’s looking for a better neighborhood.” Steve gave his wife a sleepy kiss and rolled over. Supernatural phenomena were not in the baby care books. Yet...
The next night, while Frankie dozed in front of the television, Steve slipped into young Henry’s room to check the teddy bear with a mirror. The mirror didn’t steam up under the black satin nostrils. No breath. Gandolfini’s shiny black shoe button eyes looked wise but wary. Feeling foolish, Steve came back and nudged his wife. “Let’s go to bed, Okay?”
By the next feeding, 3 AM, Steve tiptoed in to move the bear to the far end of the crib. Gandolfini was in young Henry’s arms. Henry was fast asleep. Steve plonked the bear on Henry’s bassinette and fetched his son off to Frankie’s breasts.
In the morning, another feeding and, freshly diapered, freshly burped, Henry was replaced in his crib. The bear lay in the warm depression where Henry had been fifteen minutes before. The bear had moved or been moved from the bassinette to the crib. The bear was alone in the baby’s room at the time. Frankie, Steve and young Henry had been attending to feeding chores. There were no witnesses.
“Where is the bear when the bear is not where the bear should be?” asked Steve Jelinek with sweet reasonableness. “Ever think about that?”
“No,” said Frankie, “I don’t. Wherever teddy bears go. Maybe a picnic.” Frankie made cooing mother sounds over her baby. Her husband was dismissed. Steve went off to raid the pantry.
“Hiya, Tony,” said Steve, finding Gandolfini the bear between the Maypo and a box of Cheerios. Black shoe button eyes glistened.
In far Wisconsin, The Sister had taken Steve’s call telling her that she was going to be an aunt.
“Mattie, honey... Frankie is going to have a baby. She’ll be the mother, I’ll be the father and since you’re my sister that makes you a real, grown-up relation.”
“Steve...” clingingly. Mattie Jelinek’s speech slurred and her conversation wandered depending on how unruly she had been the day before, depending which meds had been applied from Pineview’s armamentarium. Evidently they had a big medicine chest.
“Frankie is having a babeee...” a hint of a whine, obvious and unattractive, The Sister being subtle. The addition of Frankie to her brother’s life had been bad enough, but a new baby, well...
Steve came to envy Mattie her Thorazine and plush toys as the apostrophes piled up into a revetment rising between Steve and his wife, between Steve and Life, Liberty and a flat-lined credit balance.
The second apostrophe.
Steve was fired from his job as a software engineer. Unemployment brought free time for spontaneous romance. For a while Frankie and Steve enjoyed his being on call at all hours. With the mail came obligatory notifications of training programs and indoctrination seminars―he’d better show up or face a benefits review.
As Frankie’s pregnancy blossomed and before their child was born, Steve Jelinek discovered enough free time for solitary reflection. He took a week off to visit his sister in Wisconsin. “You’ll be OK with this? With the baby?”
“I’ll be OK.” Mattie had been reassuring on the telephone.
Flying to Wisconsin ate up time and money. It now was five years since the last trip to Wisconsin and The Sister.
Visiting The Sister meant spending a whole week in Wisconsin with all the relatives, beer and bratwurst with the uncles, aunts and cousins. With cousin Jack Larson. Jack and Steve had been close as kids.
“Let’s go to the Farmer’s,” said cousin Jack. The Farmer’s Home was the bar in town where men went to escape their women. Some beers and a blurry TV football game later, “It’s not that they don’t like you. You’re different and they can’t get a handle on it.”
“My sister is different.”
“Not that different. And we understand her. And she didn’t move away.”
“She couldn’t move away.”
“It’s your attitude. You think you’re better than us.”
“Not better, I just moved.”
“You couldn’t stay.” Real people stayed.
He hadn’t stayed. He was the Normal One and they never let him forget it. In the city he felt disconnected from the burden of being normal. Steve flew back to Brooklyn without seeing his sister.
“Hiya, baby sister.” Steve called Mattie every week.
On the phone, confidences poured out of the earpiece―all the gossip, all the happenings, real or otherwise―in a stream without any cognitive thread to bind them together, to make sense and sequence. Steve had learned to decode The Sister’s burblings for danger signs concealed in the barrage of happy talk. “Harold Blazek’s got a license. He’s going to take me for a ride,” here, a fit of giggles. All clear, the usual stuff. A reticent sobbing would mean a call back to the daytime supervisor.
Steve had once cheered his sister across the finish line in the fifty-yard dash at the Special Olympics. Her wobbly knees-in gait slowed her down but she was single-minded. “Steve! Steve! See me now!” She fell once and got right up instead of only sitting there and having a crying fit. Steve was proud of her.
Chubby arms, ordinarily white and flaccid now mottled pink and sweaty with exertion, had encircled his waist. “Steve, I love you.”
“Me, too, honey.” And he meant it.
“Don’t ever leave me.”
“Never.” At the moment he meant that, too. At MacDonald’s with the other hobbits and family members for the victory dinner, she didn’t throw up once, scream or pout over not getting the surf and turf or crown rib advertised on the Denny’s billboard across the street. He still had the t-shirt she gave him, her third place trophy. Then he left her, home to Brooklyn and Frankie. The weekly telephone calls deteriorated into snot-filled snuffling for a year.
“When are you coming to visit me? We could ride the rides, see the zoo. You could bring... Frankie?” There was that pause, the accusation; he had found someone else, someone normal.
Then the announcement of young Henry’s imminent birth and the snuffling began again. The Sister was jealous of the new baby, the new wife, the distance between them. Everything.
The third apostrophe.
Steve became preoccupied with the headlines of supermarket tabloids. There must be a period of interest stretching from avidity and total involvement to apathy and amnesia, Steve thought, just long enough for the readers’ minds to leak sufficiently to need a refill.
Well Boy Hero Rescuers Trapped In Shaft.
A priest peered down a hole. The grainy well-side picture showed a black-suited man with an open black book. The man’s dog collar helped confirm his clerical calling. Without the collar he could be any man, anywhere, near a hole in the dark. His left hand held a length of neatly coiled rope; help was on the way. The splash of lights from idling emergency vehicles gave the shot a chilling morbidity.
Long Island Family Eats Dachshund for Thanksgiving Dinner. Cannibalism, scattered body parts, children in holes, alien insemination and cute pets, the headlines rotated with the dependable regularity of a missed car payment.
Homeless Man Eats Central Park Swans.“Tastes like Chicken!” The checkout tabloids all shared Very Fat People Trapped in Their Homes and the Nostradamus issue.
Three Die Saving Well Boy.
The bubble babies in their aseptic cocoons, the President’s wife bearing the child of a space alien, were for a few weeks again acceptable fill as folks forgot the well boys.
Priest Delivers Last Rites to Well Boy, Lowers Teddy Bear.
Henry Jelinek’s teddy bear’s plush shone like the glossily styled hair of a cover girl, auburn with orange highlights. This bear had never been down a well, alone or with the comfort of the church. And wherever Frankie wandered, there would be the teddy bear waiting for her to pick it up and carry it back to nestle at young Henry’s side.
“I swear to God, Steve, Gandolfini moved half a foot last night.” Frankie held a sopping wet teddy bear at arm’s length. The child was dry while the bear was, well, moist. It was all in the stuffing, they supposed, that the child was where the bear had been and the bear was where the child had been. What could it hurt? Henry was pink and healthy as a barrel of new apples. So the bear moved, big deal. Steve blamed coriolis forces, the earth’s axial offset.
“Eppur si muove,” said Steve, remembering Galileo after Copernicus, “Nevertheless it moves.”
The fourth apostrophe.
“Hiya,” a hand extended, palm moist.
The newcomer’s eyes did a rapid up and down like vertical tennis. Ah, he’s reading my name tag while maintaining eye contact. Smooth.
While he had been a software engineer, there were the obligatory company get-togethers. Steve would hold a can of beer, feeling it slowly warm to his hand. He was good for an hour and then he would leave. He did not drink the beer. He used The Sister to escape close talkers who after too many frozen daiquiris felt they recognized a kindred soul.
“So, Steve, how’s the family? You’re from the Midwest, right?”
“Oh. Got any connections in media back there? We’re doing a product launch in Chicago...”
“Chicago is Illinois.”
A shrug, “Uh-huh. We’ll be at the O’Hare Hilton. We used to get a suite at the Palmer House, but things are tight...”
“I have a retarded sister. She drools and blows bubbles.”
Conversation over, likewise any shot at upward mobility. Steve was happy where he was.
The fifth apostrophe.
Brooklyn Bear Gets New Name.
By Henry’s six-month birthday Frankie slept in the bedroom while Steve lumped up on the couch. “I hardly know who you are any more, Tony,” said Frankie. “I mean Steve.” Being unemployed nobody cared what his name was.
The strangeness of being someone else took a while to settle in but eventually Steve was comfortable as Tony. There were some mix-ups, trouble once at the Seven-Eleven during a credit card transaction. Steve glanced as the clerk swiped his credit card through her magnetic reader and experienced an amnesiac epiphany Whodat? at the passing letters of his name. He scratched out Steve and signed Tony.
He wondered if Gandolfini the actor was experiencing similar problems. Probably not, Steve had read that James Gandolfini the actor had recently died. Anyway stars had personal assistants to go to the Seven-Eleven to buy disposable diapers for them.
“Hiya, Steve,” said Steve Jelinek to Gandolfini, the bear.
Henry gurgled a baby gurgle. The bear, silent and motionless, looked on approvingly.
The sixth and last apostrophe.
“Mister Jelinek? Steve?” Ahh, Sherry Waldvogel had at last entered her own comfort zone. The job was working for her. That was good news.
“Hiya, Sherry. What’s up?” Asking to be called Tony Soprano would only complicate things.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
His marriage was gone to hell. His son was the hostage of a cursed teddy bear. What next?
“My sister’s medications?”
“No, Martha is doing just fine. Kuala Lumpur,” said Sherry Waldvogel.
“Koala what?” said Steve.
“The Bayberry Bears. Bayberry Bears are no longer being imported. The parts, that is. They stitched the shells in Malaysia?” said Sherry. “Watch for a package in the mail.”
“Uh-oh,” said Steve.
“There’s been a revolution or a shift in the exchange rate or something,” Sherry hurried on. “And the kids were so attached to their bears. Martha was heartbroken. We did Dandy Lions for a week. But Piney Woods has a new contract for dragons and prehistoric flying reptiles.”
“Cuddly,” said Steve Jelinek as Gandolfini watched, button-bright, from atop young Henry’s bassinette.
“Cuddly and stitched in Korea, Steve. Patty Pterodactyl and Her Dragonland Pals―they are absolutely adorable and the kids just love working on them.”
”Absolutely adorable.” Was it his imagination or were young Henry’s teddy’s eyes dimming? A trick of the light.
“Martha is so enthusiastic; she insisted we send her nephew the very first dragon she stuffed. It’s blue.”
“A blue dragon,” said Steve Jelinek.
“I’m afraid Little Henry’s first teddy bear will be his last teddy bear,” said Sherry.
Sherry. No problem.”
Steve returned from the couch to his marriage bed and Frankie who now called him Steve. Gandolfini returned by stages to predictable stuffed toy ways. Steve took the bear out of Henry’s sleeping arms and placed it in the pantry between the Maypo and the Cheerios. The bear was there, unmoved, the next morning.
Steve Jelinek pondered blue dragons and waited for the mail.
copyright 2009, 2020 Rob Hunter
The Last Teddy Bear was first published in the July 2009 Noctober, edited by Rebecca Weybright.