about my tenure as a bear

I turned off the TV as soon as the end credits began. I stretched in the La-Z-Boy™ I grew up in, pushing its back until I lay horizontal, feet slightly elevated. I stared at the light, at the bugs silhouetted inside it. I relaxed, thought about sleeping in the chair with the light on. I decided against it, pulled the lever to pull the chairback up and the footrest down, stood up, went around the corner, turned off the light, stripped to my underwear, and got in bed. I made sure my alarm was set for 8:00 and lay face-up in the dark. Eventually I slept.

I still consider this to be the best summer I ever had, in terms of my sleep schedule. Every night I went to bed at midnight, after Stewart and Colbert. Every morning I woke up at eight, took a shower, ate my Frosted Mini-Wheats™, and brushed my teeth. I took my time because I didn’t have to leave for work until 9:30. My shift at Dollywood started at 10:00. It was my second summer there—I worked as Larry the Cucumber™ mostly, though sometimes I would pick up the shift for one of the official Dollywood mascots when they had their day off.

I went outside when the wall clock read 9:32. The day was already beginning to warm up. I walked across the road to my car, a Saturn®, my first, started it, pulled into the road, and looked up at my window, the only one on the second floor of my house. I said “So long” in my head to my room, the house, and my two sisters still sleeping inside, and drove down the road.

My morning commute was rural, through farms, creeks, hills, and hollows; past tourist cabin resorts and used Christian bookstores; nearly getting to Pigeon Forge but stopping before any of the Strip was visible. Like Las Vegas, Pigeon Forge has a Strip; it was second only to Vegas in terms of marriages performed; it was first in the country including Vegas to feature two Cracker Barrels®. I went into Pigeon Forge only if I couldn’t help it, which was rare; usually it was only if family from out-of-state were visiting, or the one time I and two friends went to the Buy-One-Pair-Get-Two-Pair-Free Boot Store and got a deal.

I turned left before I got to any of Pigeon Forge, into the employee entrance of Dollywood. I drove down a small road: to my left a hill covered in kudzu; to my right a fence past which I could hear people riding The River Rampage™ or Rockin’ Roadway™. I turned left again, drove past HR and the Dollywood doctor’s office, and checked for parking at the bottom of the hill. There wasn’t any, so I drove up the hill, found a parking spot, and got out of my car. I thought about waiting for an employee shuttle until I realized it was 9:55, so I trotted down the hill and past HR. I crossed the road in front of the gazebo, walked down a little path, and met Tim the security guard as I was crossing the main road. He asked to see my ID, which I had ready for him. I showed it to him, he looked me up and down (I wasn’t in costume, usually a no at Dollywood, but since my costume was green, expensive, and required at least two people to put on, I didn’t have to wear it onto the park), and finally let me through. I walked through the employee entrance and clocked in at 9:58.

I had only figured out how to clock in my second summer. The first summer I worked at Dollywood was also the first summer I worked a job, and due to the placement of the Atmosphere Characters in the hierarchy of Park management we got paid by the day. This confused me into thinking that I didn’t need to clock in and out, especially since I still got paid. My confusion deepened when I walked onto Park one day with Chance, who also worked Veggie Tales™, and he clocked in, but this was midway through the summer and I was too nervous to ask anyone about what I should do. I was worried that if I started clocking in it would cause suspicion, and I was terrified that my not clocking in would be caught and punished somehow. For about a month I lived in mild terror each morning and afternoon, avoiding my coworkers as they entered or left so they wouldn’t see me walk past the red time clocks, each day wondering if the hammer would fall. I found out later that my manager Charlie had been paying me based on the days he’d scheduled me, clocking me in and out himself from his computer. He said it wasn’t a big deal but to clock in next summer, this summer. So I clocked in and out every day, and these short sessions with the red time clock became favorite moments.

I walked onto the park, past Jukebox Junction™, over the bridge, under the rope that disallowed guests to visit the area until the Park opened at 10:00, down Showstreet, and into the back of Showstreet Palace Theater, where we characters shared a dressing room with the Veggie Tales™ actors. Our “dressing-room” was a part of backstage partitioned off by curtains, where the empty shells of Bob the Tomato™ and Larry the Cucumber™ lay, inside-out so the sweat inside could evaporate, between shifts. I grabbed my off-brand UnderArmour™ “slicks” from the laundry basket and went to the bathroom to change.

After I changed I came out of the bathroom and knocked on the women’s dressing room door, to see if Nina or Stacy were in yet. Nina opened the door. “Hey Case,” she said. “How’s it going?” “I’m good. Am I Larry today?” I had been off the day before, so I wasn’t sure of the rotation. “Yeah I think so,” said Stacy, putting on makeup in the mirror. So she was handling with Chance, while Nina and I were the vegetables. I liked this arrangement; I preferred to be Larry™ because I didn’t have to talk to anyone, and I could make faces in the costume while families took pictures. Nina preferred the same thing, although she was slightly too tall to fit comfortably inside Bob™. Stacy actually preferred to handle; her personality was bubbly and talkative; I don’t think Chance liked any part of the job, really, and handling was less hot than being in the suit.

“When’s our first run?” I asked. “Well, the first show is at 10:20, so we were thinking about 11?” I nodded. “Where’s Chance?” “I think he went out back to smoke,” Nina said. “I’ll go with you.” The actors for the Veggie Tales show were coming in to use their dressing room, so we left Stacy with them. We walked through backstage, behind all the curtains, and through the side door into a sort of garage with ratty couches, a refrigerator, and an old TV mounted high up on the wall. Chance was sitting, smoking, and watching Jeopardy while thumbing through a magazine. “Hi Chance,” I said. “Hey guys!” he flicked his smile, always somewhere between genuine and mocking, at us.

“Think it’ll rain today?” he asked, indicating the direction of the sky. It wasn’t really visible from within the garage, due to the high fence keeping the guests on the path toward Timber Tower™ and Mystery Mine™, and the tree just outside the garage. “I don’t think there’s a cloud in the sky,” I said, but walked out of the garage and looked up to be sure. There were wisps of cirrus like stray brush strokes on a blue canvas, but that was all. “I think we’ll have to do all of our runs today.” “Damn,” said Chance, and stubbed out his cigarette. We watched Jeopardy in silence for a few minutes. Chance checked his watch. “It’s 10:19,” he said, “we should get inside before the show starts.”

We went back to the dressing room, behind the curtains backstage, past the skins of Larry™ and Bob™, their feet, and their battery packs, past the water fountain where I drank, and into the women’s dressing room. Stacy had finished applying her makeup and was already in overalls, flannel, boots and cowboy hat. Seeing her, Chance said, “I’d better go put my outfit on.” He left and came back, costumed. We killed time. Nina turned her wrist and looked at her watch. “It’s 10:50,” she said, looking at me and jerking her head toward the door. “Let’s get ready.”

We went out and down the hall. The Veggie Tales were singing about Mr. Nezzer™ loving the bunny. Nina went to Bob™, and I to Larry™. We set to work pulling them right-side-out. When this was done we put on the backpacks that served as interior shells for the characters and held the battery packs. As Nina pulled on Bob™‘s legs, I pulled on Larry™’s. I put my shoes in Larry™’s feet—a concession made to the forms of us humans inside the suits (Bob™ and Larry™ on the show had no arms or legs). We clipped each other’s batteries into the packs. We put our hands through the vegetables’ arms. At this point, the vegetables’ faces were sagging from our waists, like deflated balloons. We waddled over to the hallway outside the dressing rooms. Chance helped me put Larry’s hands on, which were three-fingered like a cartoon, although in the cartoon the Veggie Tales characters don’t have hands. He snapped them onto the arm. He helped me pull the head up and over my pack, and clipped the battery to the fan inside the suit. He zipped the back zipper, and the suit started to inflate—Bob™ and Larry™ were inflatable to cut down on their weight. Stacy had done the same with Nina and Bob™. She asked, “Ready?” We said, “Ready.” Chance got ahead of us, opening the door. I had to push my hands into my chest to deflate the suit so it could fit through the door. We stepped into the dappled sunlight of Dollywood.

The first few minutes of the run were fairly peaceful. A few families walking by saw us and walk over, forming a small line for their children to say hello, get a hug and a picture. One of the kids, about three, got about five feet from me, pass some sort of magic barrier, and suddenly become terrified. She screamed and run back to her parents. I tried to get eye-contact (it was hard to tell exactly where Larry™ was looking, since his eyes were about a foot above my head and were fixed forward), get small, and hold out my hand, but she had seen quite enough. She shook her head and hid behind her mother’s leg. I waved with my fingers and stepped back to receive the next child.

Sometimes, doing this job, I felt like a priest giving some sort of communion. Sometimes I felt like a celebrity, especially when children asked for an autograph (this happened fairly often, and Chance had to guide my hand with the Sharpie™ in it). Sometimes I felt like Santa Claus, or some other mythical creature come to Earth. Mostly, I felt a little hot and slightly bored. The boredom crystallized into stress when the Veggie Tales show let out.

Showstreet Palace held something like four hundred people, and for a show like Veggie Tales, around half were children. For this run our post was around the side of the theater, so we didn’t get the full press of the crowd, but there were quite a few people streaming out of the side door, fresh from seeing Larry™, Bob™ and friends performing in a show. Of course they were excited to see them giving out hugs in the street. Chance and Stacy became busy trying to form the crowd into some semblance of a line while I and Nina were hugging children, trying to take our time with each but painfully aware of the next in line. This was the worst part of the job—I felt like I was on a factory line gluing widgets onto a product all day. I was always looking ahead, always at the next kid, barely noticing what the ones old enough to talk were saying to me, trying to show me. I felt callous and aloof from humanity, and a deep unease passed over me.

With all of this on my mind, of course I didn’t see the teenager running toward me from my left. Chance and Stacy can’t be blamed; they were busy with crowd control. I don’t know what happened to the kid afterward. All I know is what happened to me: suddenly a great weight on my left side, the hiss of air being forced out of Larry™, me almost falling over. The weight fell off. I turned around, too stunned to yell, though Chance had caught it out of the corner of his eye. “Hey! Don’t do that!” he said, his eyes on the fallen teenager. The kid was maybe fifteen, tall, with a white T-shirt and dark hair. He had an indescribable look on his face—surprise, satisfaction, and something else I couldn’t identify. Before Chance could reach him he ran off.

“You okay?” he turned to me and asked. I said in a low voice, “Yeah I’m fine.” “We’re going in,” he said to Stacy. She checked her watch, said, “Yeah, it’s been twenty minutes.” To the crowd: “We have time for just two more pictures!” A wave of disappointment went through the people there. Most stayed, hoping for an extension of the rule, but we took two more pictures, turned around, and began walking inside. Some family tried to follow us in; Chance hollered over his shoulder, “I’m sorry folks, we have to go in. Bob™ and Larry™ need a break.” The father asked, “When will you be back out?” “After the next show,” Chance said as Stacy opened the door.

I deflated Larry™’s face again, to get in the door, and was safe in the darkness of the hallway. Chance unzipped me, allowing real, cool air to wash over my body. Nina and I waddled down the hallway to peel the vegetables off ourselves, and to repeat the process of waiting, dressing, and standing again.