“Have you seen that big ole bear?”  Earl’s lip curled in a smirk.

It was the second time I’d seen him since arriving at the cabin for my writer’s retreat. Earl lived at the bottom of the mountain in a small wooden structure that at one time might have been tidy but had long since begun to sprawl into clutter.

First there was the broken-down lawn mower he left alongside the dirt road, then the washing machine, and later his truck with the hood perpetually propped up. My father would shake his head when he drove by on his way up the steep windy road to the cabin. Still, he and my mother took pity on Earl. The death of his wife had started his slide into hoarding. When my parents learned Earl’s son in Texas was out of a job, done with his marriage, and eager to return home, they sold Earl an acre of bottom land significantly below cost so his son could build there. They imagined the two men keeping one another company. Little did they know Earl Junior planned to put a trailer on the acre. That itself would have been fine, but he got the thing stuck on their secondary road in the process and never managed to move it. So, there it sat along with the lawn mower, washing machine, and busted truck. Eventually Junior defaulted on the loan he’d procured to buy the acre. Earl never told my parents. The next thing they knew, the bank owned the property that had once been theirs. At least the “repossession” resulted in the removal of the trailer.

The ordeal soured my parents’ feelings for Earl, but only slightly.  They believed he kept watch over their place when they were away. 

I knew he never climbed the road to their cabin.  His knees were shot.  He could barely make it down his driveway.  So when he caught me at the bottom of the hill and asked about the bear, I suspected he was just trying to scare me.

“Oh yeah, there’s a big old black bear up there,” he said.

“Have you seen him?” I had my doubts.

“Seen him and seen what he done.”  Earl stared right at me, trying to gauge my reaction.

“What’s he done?”

“Oh, he got into the trash cans down at the Yancy’s.  Made such a racket I thought it was World War Three.”

“But, you’ve seen him?”

“Big black bear.  Must weigh a ton if a day.”

I really had my doubts now. 

“Good to know.  I’ll keep an eye out for him and let you know when I see him.”

“Oh, you’ll let me know alright.  You’ll be hollerin’ from here to that home of yours in Missouri.”

I could still hear Earl laughing as I headed back up the mountain with my groceries.  At the same time, I tried to remember all the things my father told me about black bears, about how shy they are, about how I shouldn’t worry.  

What must Earl think, I wondered, of a middle-aged woman from Missouri living in that cabin up there by herself.  Would he understand that I was writing a novel?  Did he understand that it was men like Earl who made me more uneasy than a phantom black bear?

As I returned to my Kyoto mystery, I found my attention being sidetracked by my next novel, set in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee.  It would start with the shocking discovery of a man found murdered in his ramshackle house.  A woman from Missouri would be the prime suspect, though in fact, she is innocent.

Top Photo by Jack Charles on Unsplash

Second image by Tiffany Bailey from New Orleans, USA, CC 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons