"Oh dear! Oh dear!" The little garishly yellow bear with green eyes waddle-ran through the twists and turns of the maze – dozens of new twists and turns had appeared since it last had been alone except for the blonde Raggedy Andy doll it clutched in it's stubby arms. "Oh dear! Oh dear!"
It's amazing how fast life can change in a matter of seconds. Mike at 14, who went by "Mickey" thanks to there being three other Mikes in his class, whose biggest problem at the time he found his grandfather face down on the horn of his pickup truck after a massive stroke, was: primer red Krylon? Or primer black Krylon? There were two half-cans in the toolshed out back of the farmhouse: these things mattered.
Mickey's Krylon dilemma was triggered by the new girl, Mary Lou Rehagen, the pretty, and very tall blonde daughter of the new beautician who worked at his gramma's beauty parlor, "Katie's Kut 'n Kurl". Realizing in his wooly-headed adolescent way that his first idea, to run up to her with his tongue hanging out while waving his arms and screaming, "I'm tall! You're tall! Let's make tall babies!" was a very, very bad one, Mickey'd been hard put for a way to express his feelings for her. He'd just finished two days in ISS for being one of three guys recently caught about to flush a cherry bomb down one of the boy's locker room toilets just to see what would happen. Such loud PDA on his part juuuuusssssstttttt might be enough to get him suspended at school and grounded at home.
Still, if it was worth feeling, it was worth writing down.
For the entire world to see.
On the ultimate venue: the town water tower.
At two in the morning.
But in which color?
How-EVER in a town of 1200 (give or take a few dogs and new babies), "Mickey loves Mary Lue Lu! Loo! LUE!" in flat red or black spray paint letters three feet high, would be enough to bust him without the town's only full time cop putting much effort into it.
Worth the risk? Yeah buddy!
Potential legal, no DEFINITE legal consequences aside, Mickey'd shaved (First time!) right after school after chores as part of his preparations for his grand romantic gesture, seven stragglers: six on his upper lip, one off to the side like a broomstraw, all bright red (Which was ate up! He was blonde… and what the hell? The patch on his chest straggling down across his belly to his... his… BLUSH! was red too). Reeking of granddad's Old Spice, Mickey jogged across the farmyard to tell granddad to cut it out for gramma because she couldn't hear the evening news on the radio while she made dinner with all that racket.
Only to reel back, breathing hard against the beat-up Ford 150s bed on the driver's side once he'd reached the truck and found out why granddad's truck horn wouldn't stop.
Gramma, hands stinking of chopped onions and royally pissed because the noise hadn't stopped, found Mickey slumped on the pea gravel of the driveway, back against the truck, arms around his knees, rocking, face buried in his arms, the Ford's horn like a tornado siren cutting through the cool April evening and the neighbor's complaints.
For a big ol' grown ass boy of fourteen, Mickey sure could have used "Pooh" about then.
"Oh dear! Oh dear!" The little bear's stubby legs propelled it through the maze, trying to find Mike. Things had gone very badly, oh so very badly and the little bear, whom Mike had found in his first trip through the maze as it built itself behind and around him with every ichor dripping step he took, had lost its way in the new twists and turns. "Very bad, very much bad! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" it squeaked, "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry, I got lost!"
It had fled into the maze on the trail of Circus Baby after it broke programming: biting down on and killing a child no thanks to a crowd of teenage boys who didn't belong backstage who put the child's head in the little yellow bear's mouth in the middle of a reassuring sentence.
Wired to love and please children, to seek them out and comfort them, something had snapped in the little yellow bear, a spark, a flare, a whatever: for the first time it understood the concept of "guilt", of "failure" and when it realized it was to be deactivated and destroyed as a safety hazard, it realized a third concept: "death".
It didn't want to "die".
"I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!"
It wanted to "please", it wanted to "interact". It wanted to be "complete".
If you are" dead", you are "incomplete".
The thing that had once been the boy "Mickey", the man "Mike", now a swirling collection of circuits, nightmares, memories, pain and regret, knew this, and affectionately called it "Pooh" after the ragged toy that had been found with him as a baby in an East St. Louis motel room, and let it "live".
Leading to a fourth and then a fifth new idea: "gratitude" and "love".
"Oh dear! Oh dear!"
One of Mickey's earliest memories was "Pooh". "Pooh" was garish. "Pooh" was cheap. "Pooh" was gross, chewed on, sticky, and very, very grubby.
But when the only friend you have at the age of one is chewed on, sticky, and grubby and smells of dirty diaper and rancid formula, and you don't have much to talk about anyway, you don't mind.
No, not at all.
"I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" The little yellow bear with the mismatched green eyes tumbled over it's own stubby feet with a crash, dropping the boy doll and losing its little top hat. "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" It clumsily pulled itself upright, placed the hat back on its head and then fumblingly picked up the doll, stroking its matted yellow yarn hair while rocking it like a baby, "Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!"
"Pooh" came from one of those vending machines with a claw in it that you see at big box stores and truck stops. You drop in a coin, grab the joystick, push it this way and that way and the claw hesitantly drops down from the top of the glass box it before vaguely groping at a lot of really cheap knockoff versions of more desirable toys piled up in the glass box.
Sometimes it actually grabs something before the coin runs out, and the excitement of actually getting it to grab something, ANYTHING initially outweighs the actual value of what was grabbed.
"Hooray!" the little yellow bear was running again, heading towards the erratic flash of a broken neon sign in the darkness. "Hooray!"
"Pooh" was one such minor victory, easily discarded once the thrill wore off – the garish yellow little plushie wound up Mickey's only companion after his mother pulled it out of a roadside park trash can and handed it to him to quiet him while negotiating with a long haul trucker the price of a bed in a nearby cheap motel, McDonald's for breakfast, with lots of sweaty fun and games for the trucker.
Later that evening, Mickey and "Pooh" killed time sleeping in a closed motel dresser drawer like always as Mickey's mother and the trucker engaged in business as previously arranged. It was nice to have company other than Gideon's Bible in the confined, stale pot-smelling darkness.
Even after Mickey's mother got busted for solicitation and possession, "Pooh" and Mickey were still inseparable companions: "Pooh" came with him when the social worker delivered him to his gramma and granddad two hours south of St. Louis in the Missouri Bootheel.
Granddad and gramma, who had no idea Mickey even existed until a few days before, learned to live with the (ahem) fragrant "Pooh" because Mickey screamed inconsolably when gramma took the nasty, smelly yellow thing away and dumped it in the burn barrel out back. In the face of such violent heartbreak, gramma settled for dropping "Pooh" into the washing machine with some old towels and a LOT of Clorox and Tide, holding the sobbing Mickey in front of the little glass window so he could watch his friend go "Wheee!" 'round and 'round in the whirling suds.
Mickey only quieted when the much worse for wear plushie came out all hot, fragrant, and a whole lot brighter from the dryer two hours later.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!"
Though "Pooh" went through several eyes, Mickey eventually had to learn to do without "Pooh" for hours at a time; Kindergarten was rough without "Pooh" even if it waited patiently on Mickey's bed in Mickey's little room at the back of the six room farmhouse at the edge of town four years later. As to the thumb-sucking, well, getting teased about it cleared that up pretty fast.
"Darn my short legs!" the little yellow bear pattered toward the light. It had followed the being, the collection of thoughts, dreams, pain and blood runes that had rescued it from the scooping room, mingling with the souls of unwanted children that Mike attracted and collected. In it's devoted loyalty to the tin soldier, it never questioned the blue bunny girl when it allowed her to hide a chip within it's hollow head, telling it that Mike would want it that way. That Mike whom it loved very much needed the little yellow bear to hide it from Circus Baby, who wanted to hurt Mike with it. "Sorry! Sorry!" it exclaimed, toddling past the empty stool by the door to the Bronze. "I can't keep up! I can't keep up!"
Eventually "Pooh" spent more and more time on Mickey's bed as Mickey started to ease into the life of the little town his mother abandoned forever at the age of fourteen. When he wasn't at school, he was sweeping floors at gramma's beauty shop for candy money or riding beside granddad in granddad's big rig in a car seat watching the world go by every summer, with granddad picking him up every year on the last day school in his freshly washed big rig in the bus line (Always a great big, "Wow." Of envy and awe on the part of his classmates), maybe heading for Oregon, or how about Texas or Maine? In between there was 4-H, Boy Scouts, Pop Warner Football, or wandering around town with a gang of cousins, whom he now towered over, looking for trouble and fishing worms when there wasn't ice to break on puddles or Sunday school followed by pot roast.
"Pooh" was patient. "Pooh" was always there, needed or not.
"Wait for me!" The boy or was it the rag doll that looked like a boy started to appear to the little yellow bear as soon as it swallowed the chip.
The little yellow bear didn't care. The boy kept it company in the dark even if sometimes it asked the little yellow bear questions it couldn't answer, and the rag doll, which was never around when the boy was, likewise.
At the age of 11, Mickey needed "Pooh" again when the woman who was his mother was found naked and dead on the side of an East St. Louis highway. Mickey didn't remember her; as far as he was concerned, it had always been Granddad and gramma.
But "Pooh" was there, before, during, and after the funeral, which was just him, gramma, and granddad in a place somewhere in St. Louis and a preacher he didn't recognize and never saw again. After that Mickey realized that people stared at him, frowning, muttering, "God help those two if he turns out as bad as her!"
"Her" being his mother, the woman whose face Mickey only glimpsed before they closed the casket and lowered it into the ground one blustery January morning where the sound of ice on the Mississippi River grinding against itself distantly echoed on the wind, gramma and granddad's faces blank.
They had taken Mickey to McDonald's, a rare treat usually savored, afterwards, "Pooh" sitting on his lap after riding in the pocket of his winter coat on the ride up from the Bootheel.
Now little more than a floppy body and a frayed head with two mismatched buttons from granddad's old workshirts for eyes, "Pooh" was hidden in Mickey's school backpack or jacket pocket within easy touching distance until a twelfth grader snatched it away and started teasing Mickey about it on the school bus ride home one afternoon while the other kids laughed.
Mickey broke the big boy's nose and gave him two black eyes, gaining OSS for a week, which is quite an accomplishment when one is only in the fifth grade.
"Pooh" disappeared not long after that, possibly along the line of of "big boys don't cry". Anyway, what does an eleven year old big enough to pass as fourteen need with a ratty stuffed yellow bear with most of the fuzz wore off?
The little yellow bear clutching the boy rag doll paused at the doorway of the Bronze, processing what it saw, chirping. "Where is Mike? Where is Mike?"
At the age of fourteen, after finding his granddad in the truck, Mickey really, really needed "Pooh" when suddenly he found himself being passed from household to household to household, his letter jacket, his FFA jacket, his Scout uniform with all the badges he and granddad had worked so hard together to earn – his football awards, his fishing tackle, his guitar, his baseball cards, the ribbons he'd won for showing calves in 4-H, disappearing one by one by one with every move until one night he found himself in a group home in Poplar Bluff with only a few pictures of his grandparents and one of his mother at the age of fourteen and the clothes on his back at the age of sixteen (big boys don't cry), passing as nineteen (big boys don't cry) so that years later, the collection of random bits and pieces, the raggedy man, that had once been Mike, Mickey, let the little yellow bear follow him while vaguely remembering the comfort that a cheap yellow ragged plushie can bring a child when things are horrible.
"I see him! I see him!" the little yellow bear joyfully exclaimed to the rag doll it cradled, "There he is! I see him!" as it toddled onto the crowded dance floor of The Bronze.