The next morning, Maureen goes to see her baby bear, and finds her walking about slowly outside her enclosure, which is still half full of snow and ice.
In Victoria’s left eye is a big hunk of gunk, a souvenir from her three-and-a-half-month nap. She has lost weight and she is weak, but she perks up as Maureen approaches the enclosure and opens the gate to go in. Victoria greets her, then starts pacing back and forth and grunting and making clicking sounds. Maureen says this is her worried noise, and she says it is because of the change to her view. During the winter, they have been doing some construction on a drainage system just outside her pen, and there is a big ugly pile of dirt blocking her view of part of the show ring.
The idea that the bear still wants to go into the show, and the idea that she is sitting right outside the ring every second of every day watching other bears be in the show, stresses Maureen. She brings it up constantly. And it usually ends with her crying about her father.
After Victoria was retired, Maureen’s father sat next to the bear to watch each show. Murray Sr. had been retired, too, by a stroke. The proud showman for decades, he was a real frontiersman who came home from the war with his brother and took over the amusement park from their parents and built it into what it is today. The brothers got some bear cubs to act as a “stopper” to draw traffic, but Murray was a natural showman and he taught the bears to perform with him. They created little gags and stunts, but the big trick was always that there was a human in a ring with a bear, armed only with an ice cream cone and a spoon.
When Victoria went to the bench, the two of them would sit there, aged stars, a man and his show bear, and watch Pemi and Echo, the younger bears, do the tricks he used to do with Victoria. And he would say, over and over, “Victoria wants to go in. She wants to be a part of the show, too.” Maureen always knew he was talking about himself.
When Murray Sr. died, a couple of years ago, Victoria was left to watch the shows by herself. Each time Maureen looked at her, she would feel pain. So much of Maureen’s existence was tied up in this one small space, this small ring. She never had children of her own. Victoria was her baby. And now her father was gone, and her baby had aged past her.
A surprise for a bear
All during the spring, Maureen has been working on a plan. Winter comes in stages for Maureen. The first stretch is depressing. The bears go to sleep and she feels unneeded. She will travel a little bit as the winter goes on, do the things she cannot do when the bears are awake and need her. But her mind never really leaves the bears. This winter, she gave a lot of thought to how she might be buried with Victoria. And she thought about helping Victoria live out her years as a starlet.
With spring, she began working on a surprise to make that happen for Victoria, but it wasn’t ready until the last possible minute, the morning of the first bear show of the season, on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It’s always crazy right before the season opens — there is a huge extended Clark family running the entire park — and while the surprise is being installed in her enclosure, Victoria has spent the better part of the week in the deluxe retirement home behind Maureen’s cabin, pacing, upset. When Maureen brings the bear back to her pen to see the surprise, Victoria has made herself lame from all the pacing.
In the pen is a wooden ramp leading to a raised platform above her den. The platform is oriented to a walkway that runs along the back of the bleachers, and together they create a stage and a natural theater for people to stop and meet Victoria after the show. The crowds may not come to see an old bear struggle through tricks, she thought, but they might watch an old bear lay happily in the sun.
When Victoria arrives, though, she is stressed and tired from the pacing and worrying. Maureen coaxes her up onto the new platform with some black-raspberry ice cream, but she is dragging her left leg. Maureen leaves her alone in her enclosure and dashes off to get ready for the show. The train is coming back. Murray, Maureen’s brother, puts on his safari hat and his microphone. He is the showman, the heir to his father. Maureen is still the bear helper. Next door to Victoria, Pemi and Echo get rowdy as they wait for Maureen. The Trading Post has sprung to life and there is music and smells everywhere. They splash aggressively in their pool, throw toys around, stand up and growl at each other as they get ready to go into the ring. Victoria goes to her favorite corner and falls asleep.Continued...