The truck lurched into a field, the trucks and trailers lined up in a makeshift parking lot. Gerry swung the truck around so the back end faced a cage set up there. Choking dust rose up around them as they got out. Bo pulled his rucksack onto his back, felt the soft thump of the camera against his spine. Gerry spoke to two men, gave them some instructions and the keys to his vehicle, and then put his arm around Bo’s shoulder and spun him around to face the barns. People milled everywhere.
“Let’s go look around, Bo Jangles. You ever been to a county fair? ” And when Bo gaped back at him, Gerry said, “I didn’t think so.”
The tour of the animal barns never felt like more than a diversion, but just the same Bo enjoyed the stench of animal droppings, hay, oats, and straw, and he loved the costumes some of the handlers wore. The stockyards near his house were the closest he’d come to this, but there was nothing bucolic about the yards, just the baying of beasts sensing some awful approaching truth. He would return to the city, he would tell Orange, and maybe Emily if she would listen; he fantasized about this, smiled.
Eventually, Gerry led him toward a ring set in a grassy field, around which a large group of people had formed. Their chatter wound up to the sky. Bo couldn’t hear a word, just talk-noise and the occasional sputter of laugh- ter. A man in a striped jersey grinned in the corner of the ring—the referee. Beside him, a man in a silky house- coat hopped on his toes and then loped around the ring, gesturing to the crowd and roaring.
“Wolfman,” said Gerry, squinting into the middle dis- tance, something—love or respect—softening his face.
Wolfman beat his chest, and some of the people in the crowd—adults!—beat their own chests back, laughing, mocking. The fighter ripped his housecoat off his shoul- ders and let it hang from the tie at his fat waist, and there was his massive bare-naked chest, black hair already matted with sweat, and a belly round and hard. Downy hair started at his neck, went down across his back—he was so like an animal.
“Where is she ?” Wolfman roared, spit f lying. “I’m in a fighting mood.” His housecoat unwrapped and fell as he pranced about, and he kicked it out of the way.
The crowd cheered, and Gerry said, “The thing to remember, Bo Jangles, is that all the world’s a stage, and wrestling is no different.”
Everything Gerry said seemed to have some laughter in it, some deep-down joke Bo did not get. He smiled in spite of this. He rummaged in his rucksack for the camera, thinking to take a picture of Wolfman, but Gerry saw him and tapped his arm and said, “Wait for it, kid,” and pointed. Bunting decorated the outside of the ring, and a wide temporary ramp led up to it on one side, kitty-corner from where Bo and Gerry stood.
Bo wondered only briefly what that might be for, before the two men from the parking lot, now clad in shiny red underpants and wearing shiny red and silver masks, yipped like dogs to get the attention of the crowd. They stood in front of a cage and sprang the door open. And then Bo saw it poking out—a bear, its eyes alive and seeking.
The sparkle he had noticed cowering at the back of the darkened cage in Gerry’s truck.
Gerry watched him, his grin cracking dimples in his cheeks. “That’s it, Bo. Now you begin to see.”
The beautiful creature came out scenting the air, its nose sky high. Bo’s first bear. And what a fine thing. The creature was three and a half feet or so at its back, he figured, and up to his own neck. It took its time lumber- ing out of the cage, stopping to scratch itself—a place on the rump rubbed raw to the skin. The wrestler was not so hairy after all, for between the matted fur of him, Wolfman’s awful pink skin showed through. Bo felt sud- denly repulsed at the vulnerability of that skin—it was miserable, miserly even, compared with the bear’s coat, its shagginess, the refined swirls of hair along the beast’s muzzle and down its chest.
“Wow,” Bo said. He watched the bear through the lens of Teacher’s camera, struggling to find the perfect frame, while she moved, and shook herself out, and moved again. That ripple of fur when she shook. Bo tracked her beauty. “That there’s Loralei,” said Gerry. “Girlfriend to many, lover to few.”
“Loralei,” repeated Bo. The name sounded like a song. He shifted as close to ringside as he could and snapped another picture. The bear turned to face him. He let the camera hang from its strap and just watched. She rubbed and rubbed at the outside of the cage and seemed not to notice that anyone else was there. And then, she bounded directly up the ramp and into the ring. People began tossing drink cups, fistfuls of dandelions, anything they could grab. The referee yelled down at them and held up his hands. And then it was like in church, that stillness that can come over a crowd looking up.
“Usually the trainer is required to hold her by a chain,” said Gerry. “Just in case. But Wolfman is special, see ?” Gerry rolled his eyes. “His courage knows no bounds.”
The announcer now repeated this exact same thing through the crackle and feedback bleat of the cheap microphone, and Gerry said, “Now you watch carefully and earn your ten dollars.”
Wolfman circled Loralei, taking time here and there to throw the garbage out of the ring and make fists at the crowd. “Don’t mess with my bear,” he yelled, and, “Leave my girl alone! ” Loralei was nosing a weed someone had thrown at centre ring when all at once Wolfman bumped his chest against her side and grunted.
The bear rose onto her back legs and settled on her haunches, twisting about to take in the view, the smells. Gerry waved to her, his hand partway up and the wave noncommittal—a signal maybe, thought Bo.
“Howdy, Lora,” Gerry whispered.
Loralei came to her full height and Wolfman reeled back and fell, from the sheer shock of it, it seemed to Bo. And down she came over him, the skin f laps at her arm- pits stretching like wings. The great stench of her wafted out into the audience as she worked to pin Wolfman.
People reeled, the magnitude of her body odour hit- ting them in waves. But the referee leaned in close.
Under the bear, Wolfman squirmed and bellowed, making jokes the whole time: “Let me on top, girlfriend! How is this polite ? This ain’t right.”
Bo felt he would need a lifetime to sort out all he was seeing and feeling as he watched this.
“Look at her now,” said Gerry. “She’s smelling us, and everything else—french fries, wieners, that nice lady there.”
It was hard to believe the bear could smell anything over her own stench, but Loralei rolled her head back and around, taking in the scents the crowd gave off, her body rocking a bit as Wolfman tried to slip out from under her, and when that failed, tried to buck the huge creature off.
Bo recalled his last fight with Ernie. Feet, Bo thought, feet, but it was too late. Loralei shifted to the side, her front paw now holding Wolfman, and sniffing, always sniffing. She rotated so that now she was back to front, pushing her great dreadful butt into Wolfman’s neck. The crowd went wild.
Wolfman was struggling for breath. His arm was caught against his own chest, which meant he was surely not choking from much but the odour—he had built a bit of space between himself and the bear. The crowd was now laughing hysterically, and Bo saw Wolfman’s face show astonishment then indignation then fake pleasure. What was this?
“A show,” said Gerry.
Bo moved so he could see better what the crowd was laughing about. Loralei had pulled back, her great paws on either side of Wolfman’s legs and her face nestled in between them, the pink of her tongue curling in and out of her mouth as she licked his crotch.
“It’s honey,” Gerry whispered behind Bo, then leaned in. “Loralei has a penchant. She loves honey.”
“Yeah, he’s smeared down there with it. The crowd loves it.”
People sobbed from laughter, tears streaming. Wolf- man’s eyes rolled up in his head. The great bear licked and licked, would not stop licking, her leg muscles rippling whenever she dug in for more sweet. Bo supposed a bear would lick anything covered in honey, so what was so funny about this? He frowned—Gerry caught this.
“Come on,” he said. “Not so serious, okay.”
Bo shrugged. He felt sorry for the bear, who had no idea what was going on and was just enjoying the sweetness.
Gerry heard him thinking so hard, and said, “People laugh at whatever makes them uncomfortable. It’s the surprise of it that makes them laugh. See the referee, Bo? ” The referee had made his eyes big and was jerking his face up and down, to the action, to the audience, appar- ently incredulous at what he was seeing, and also apparently completely incapable of stopping any of it.
“Barry Gillis, a has-been and an also-ran. Bit-part actor, can’t get a job for love nor money these days so he plays the circuit. Crap in the movies, but look at him. Lord, just look at him.”
Bo did. Barry had taken on a tortured look, as if the bear were doing to him what she did to Wolfman. Lora- lei had now grabbed the edge of Wolfman’s underpants between her teeth and was suckling on them.
“Stop,” Wolfman yelled. “Geez, stop her, ref.”
Gillis stood up, faced the crowd, shrugged. He mimed that he had no idea what to do.
Excerpted from All the Broken Things. Copyright © 2014 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
KATHRYN KUITENBROUWER is the author of the novels Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner, which was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and the short-story collection Way Up, which won the Danuta Gleed Award and was a finalist for the ReLit Award. Kuitenbrouwer’s short fiction has been published in Granta, The Walrus, Numéro Cinq, Joyland and Storyville. She is an award-winning instructor with the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.