If you put in quarters, the bear robot juggles plastic eggs to the tune of “Teddy Bear Picnic.” When the music cuts out, he freezes and drops the balls. The first one to drop falls down the machine’s chute into the tiny chamber under the quarter slot. You take out the egg, crack it open and read your fortune. That’s how it works. The bear wears a party hat.
I frequent this machine the first of every month. I do not know how I would feel if I did not do it because I always do it. Maybe it wouldn’t feel any different. There is really no reason to ask stupid questions. It’s 50 cents and when I get home, that is when the egg may be opened and thrown away. The fortune is push-pinned to my bulletin board beneath the previous month’s entry and the ritual is over until next time. This is month twelve. Today is December first. I have received my fortune. I am not pleased.
Allow me first to share with you the previous eleven:
January: Bear says, better to save your money!
February: Bear says, today is a lucky day!
March: Bear says, patience is the best answer!
April: Bear says, play outside!
May: Bear says, friends are the best medicine!
June: Bear says, follow your dreams!
July: Bear says, better sleep on it!
August: Bear says, better be honest!
September: Bear says, take time to look at the clouds!
October: Bear says, always wear your seat belt!
November: Bear says, kind people are the best people!
They are all inane sayings. They are the basic stuff that somebody writes with the assumption that young children will read these and be bolstered morally by the paper scrap that has been doled out to them. That’s why I like them. It feels vaguely parental and benevolent. In a world that no longer gives any fucks about me, I have this robotic bear and his printed words that come home with me and stay on my bulletin board.
I don’t really have any friends or family. I work evenings washing dishes at Trina’s Grill and I live in a cheap apartment that I can’t afford. When I go out, I steal as much toilet paper from the public restrooms as I can, even if it means meticulously unwinding it and rewinding it into a new roll inside my purse.
This bear is the only thing that says anything worth hearing. This bear is the only thing that acts like I should do something other than commit suicide.
It’s December 1 and I am sitting in the kitchen chair at my table that sits under the bulletin board in my studio apartment. My neighbors are screaming at each other and it is making their seemingly endless number of dogs freak out and bark. My grilled cheese is getting cold on the plate in front of me.
December: Bear says, our resources will run out. There will not be enough food and water. As a result, many will die in agony.
Why does Bear say this to me? Who is the prankster? I don’t want to pin this on my board. I am eating the sandwich and trying not to cry.
I go back to the mall; I walk past Trina’s grill with my eyes down because I don’t want to be spotted and I walk back up to the bear machine. I put in the two quarters. I would like to open the egg immediately, especially since this is already a violation of the pattern. Maybe I should buy surplus eggs? But it is a fortune. You don’t just keep trying until you get the one that you like; that’s not right. I watch the little lights behind the bear start flashing and the furry arms start juggling; the music plays loudly out of the polka dot speaker holes. He drops the balls and a blue plastic egg appears as my prize.
I exit the mall and start walking home. Once I get to the Discount Liquor, I stop in and buy a six pack. Then, my face burning in the cold and my hand numbly holding the beer, I trudge home. My other hand is in my coat pocket, fingering the egg. It’s about a mile walk. It’s not normally a big deal, but tonight is cold and the sidewalk is slick in spots. My boots lose traction and I slip without falling. It happens again and again. Is thirty-two young enough to not break bones?
The apartment complex used to be a motel, but they changed them a bit in the seventies and turned them into a two-story series of studios. Once inside, I sit down at the table. I take out the egg before unzipping my jacket. I look at the pleasant translucent blue shell and its seam across the center. The smallest squeeze pops it open and the folded scrap falls free onto the table. It is the usual paper and I can see the hint of red ink through the folds. I open it.
Bear says, there is no god to forgive you. Choose wisely.
I call Dan and he agrees to come over. We have never hung out, but he washes dishes at Trina’s too. When he comes in and he looks at my tits, I realize that he thinks it’s a date, or worse, a booty call. His hair hangs into his eyes and something about the blondness and the greasiness makes me think of French fries.
“Your hair looks pretty,” he says. “I never saw it down before. You know, because of the hairnets.”
“Right,” I say and I instantly regret calling him at all. “Dan, I don’t want this to be a date or something. I just. Something weird happened and I feel like I need to tell somebody and I probably can’t afford counseling and you seem like a decent human being.”
“Oh,” he says.
His eyes look tiny behind his glasses and somehow that makes them harder to read. His eyebrows look normally positioned; I take this as a cue of emotional stability.
“You know the bear machine outside Trina’s but still in the mall?”
“The fortune thing.”
“Right,” I say. “That’s what I want to talk about. Beer?”
“Cool,” Dan says.
I open my refrigerator and hand him a PBR. He glances at it with a certain amount of disdain.
“I don’t have any craft beers or microbrews or whatever. Just drink it.”
I scratch at the eyelid that has eczema. Dan takes a long swig and belches. I explain the bear fortune machine. I show him the bulletin board. Then I show him the rejected December entries that are still on the table. Dan reads the last one and laughs hard enough to fart without apology. Next thing I know he is in the bathroom, peeing with the door open and calling out to me.
“So some teens jacked your machine, huh? Waste of your fifty cents anyway. Maybe you can start putting that money into your ‘I buy shitty beer’ fund.”
“But I need it to say the reassuring things,” I answer. My voice shakes a little, someplace between angry and sad.
“All those things were bullshit anyway,” he says and reappears at the table. “Why don’t you just call up your boyfriend and get laid or hit up some club with your girlfriends and dance or something?”
“I don’t even have any friends and I don’t have a boyfriend.”
Dan perks up slightly and smoothes his hair back in the opposite direction, making him look like a lion.
“You look nice in purple,” he tries.
My hoodie is purple. He looks at my tits again. I am uncertain that I ever look nice in anything, so this is vaguely pleasant to hear despite my lack of interest.
“I need the bear to say the reassuring things. Whoever did this, they are ruining my life. Can’t you see that?”
I start to cry and to my relief Dan does not try to touch me. He sighs and his eyebrows reconfigure into sad eyebrows.
“Why do you need a toy to say all that stuff? Why don’t you have any friends?”
He scans the apartment with a sort of dismayed look. There isn’t much in the place and he is obviously noticing the lack of personalization.
“Maybe you should buy a goldfish or something,” he says. “That might help.”
But then it starts happening. The thing that always happens. It’s a kind of closing up feeling. I start regretting talking to Dan. I start realizing that now there is a person who knows something about me. There is a person who I have explained the fortune machine to, further ruining it for myself. I do not want to be close to Dan. I do not want him to know me. He seems bigger than the whole apartment now. He seems like a reeking odor that I will have to burn endless incense to purge. I do not want this.
“Please go,” I say.
He looks hurt and is saying something, but my ears are ringing loud and I cannot hear him. I keep screaming, “leave, leave, leave” until he does.
I touch each fortune and read it aloud. I keep rereading all of them except December. When I am finally calm, I put on my boots, coat, hat and scarf. I can still make it to the mall. I take all of the quarters from my laundry stack. I will open as many eggs as I have to, but something good must remain in one of them. I have to find the reassuring things or I will never make it through this December.
I step out into the cold air and my feet are so tired, so tired.