The Results of Polar Bear Research
A tender, ribald story about relationships, THE RESULTS OF POLAR BEAR RESEARCH takes the reader to Lake Summit in the mountains of North Carolina, where college students spend the day water-skiing and the evening socializing. John Dawes secretly rues the day he has to graduate from college and enter the adult world. To John, adulthood is a wilderness of blowhards and judgmental hypocrites. The little insight he possesses, he gleans from nature and architecture, his favorite subjects.
Harriet Smiley whom everyone calls "Harry" seems to be a wish come true for John. She charms him with large, vulnerable dark-green eyes and a trembling voice, the very picture of innocence. Their relationship will teach him something he could never learn from a textbook: only children have real innocence. In someone his age, it's probably something else.Buy Now
Harry tilted her head back as she came to the surface in front of John. "I saw you watching me!" Water streamed down her glistening face and hair, and she spewed water from her mouth as she spoke. "Your head was submerged." She wiped her face. "So your skin turned sort of pasty or floury."
"Think of that," John chuckled.
"I should already know your name, I realize. "You--"
"Dawes," he said.
"That's right. I should have remembered, but I was under pressure . . . . Cynthia shouldn't say I was impulsive," Harry said. "I didn't do anything impulsively. Three is a crowd in our little boat. Those guys shouldn't needle someone they don't know well." She beamed at him. "Have I met you somewhere?"
John could hardly keep a straight face.
"Does this lake freeze over during the winter?" she asked.
"Yeah, it does sometimes. Lakes higher up do a lot."
"You mean at higher elevations?"
"Yeah. Some guys I was talking to said they'd climbed up Mount LeConte during the winter and liked to froze."
"They did?" she grinned.
"Yeah, they didn't have any business fooling around up there if they couldn't, uh . . ."
"You guys always say 'fooling.' We say it for a different reason in New England." She hinted cutely at the reason.
"They were wearing cheap old fiber-fill jackets that will hardly keep you alive if they, uhh . . ."
Harry frowned at the missed opportunity.
". . . Take what?" John asked. "Take geting criticized?"
"Sure, if professors take a position on something, but it isn't personal criticism. I was on the debate team at my school."
"So was my friend Bill Rawls," John told her. "When Bill debated, he'd pick up a pencil and wave it at you or shuffle some papers. I'd keep forgetting what Bill was talking about. He's a bad one to argue, though, and if you don't--"
"That's not exactly what Dad does."
"Yeah, Harry, I realize that. Like last summer, I wanted to see a place when we went hiking. He'd say he wanted to see another place just to argue about it."
"Hmm." Harry still took issue with John. She pressed the tip of her index finger into the groove of her upper lip.
John had kissed those lips. She actually kissed him back the first time. The sensation filled him with hilarious yearning. He needed another beer like a hole in the head.
"There's a difference between someone who is argumentative for its own sake," Harry stated, "and someone wanting to resolve an issue. The solution may require listening to different points of view. I also believe a person gains self-confidence if he or she can argue a position."
John nodded, but he did not like arguments. He had never talked seriously with a girl, let alone argue with one.
". . . Harry ever tell you about the time they tried to take her in a bar?"
"Take who in a bar?"
"Man, get Harry in it. The guy checkin' her ID asked her how old she was. She says, 'Twenty-one.' Hell, the guy laughed. He knew she wudn't any twenty-one."
John hated to think anybody laughed at Harry. It was easy to do. "Sure would pay to be a polar bear," he said. "Dave got lost looking for her place, and she's believing I'm going to get lost."
"What's bein' a polar bear go to do with it?" Mel asked.
"I was reading about 'em."
Mel eyed John, slouched in his chair.
"These scientists were tracking a bunch of polar bears and trying to find out what they do during the mating season."
"A lot of humpin' is what they do."
"They wanted to see how far the bears went before they found one another."
"How far they went?"
"Yeah, after they stop eating and sleeping. They're fighting so much of the time; by the time they reach the place, their coats are hanging on 'em loose. Some of 'em don't even make it."
"Goddam," Mel exclaimed bitterly. "Maybe they can't even get it up now."
"It's tough, no joke. When they finish, they go back to hunting seals and living a normal life."
"It sounds like a pain-in-the-ass life to me," Mel said. "Damn if that dudn't kill the joy of livin'." He shook his head in a feigned lament. "It can't be too awful terrible being a bear. He's got fur to cover his member. Dudn't he get to mess around?"
"I doubt it."
"Buddy, people are goin' to believe you've got religion. You're interested in churches; stands to reason." Mel held his cigarette near the floor and flicked ashes on the rug."You got to mess around some," he said. "It's how you find the right bear."
"How serious are you being, Mel?"
"You ought to live more," Mel said simply.
". . . Do you ride a bicycle, Gina?"
"At the beach, I do, like to and fro the house."
"Gina sounds like the biggest slouch. Harry, do people in New England ride much?"
"They do, Cynthia. Groups cycle together in Vermont and New Hampshire. Entire classes go on overnights."
"Have you done it?"
"On several occasions. Once, our journey lasted for three days. It was great fun." She was looking at John wide-open, then bent her head bashfully.
"Where did y'all go?" he asked.
"Our guides mapped the most scenic route. It was not the most strenuous we could have taken. Most of us sat on the limbs of a neat sugar maple to eat our lunches. It
was so large, there was room for plenty more of us. Farmers have tilled around trees for generations, rather than removing them. The area immediately around the tree was a bowl-shaped depression."
"That's interesting, Harry."
"You didn't get any chigger bites?" Gina asked. "You sure can't sit in a tree in the sunny South."
"Ohh, you guys, it was such a cool tree, like being inside a green globe. We were loony just from being there. It was such fun." Harry kept looking at John right in the eye.
Then her face closed as if giving up. Boy he was tired of this.
"I drove off a diving board on a damn bike," Mel groused. "It was three years ago . . ."
"Mel, Harry was saying--"
". . . The last time I was on one."
"It doesn't sound like your favorite thing."
"I wanted to leave it down there."
"In the pool, baby. The folks that had it, though, were comin' home for Christmas. I had to dive in that friggin', cold-ass water and haul it out. Gawd, I liked to froze!"
"Oh, dear," Cynthia said, laughing.
". . . Hampshire College is in New Hampshire?" John asked.
"No, it's in Amherst."
"Isn't that where UMass is? Wow."
Mrs. Smiley stared thoughtfully at her dinner plate.
"It's what we often talk about during meals," Harry said to John. "They were opposed to David's choice."
"We're not fundementally opposed to anything you guys do," Mrs. Smiley scolded her. "How silly of you to say that."
"Yeah, but you raised the roof when I supported him."
"We do have reservations. It's in the purview of a parent to be concerned. Now it remains to be seen if he can finish what he started."
"Instead of transferring? He'd just have to start over at another school. Is it such a big deal?"
"It's a pain in the neck. He may need an extra semester to recover his lost credits."
"It's a new-fangled sort of place, John, where our son is enrolled."
"Have you heard of Hampshire?"
"Naw, I sure haven't."
"My employers at UMass and three other institutions created it and incorporated all five colleges. David can take any course they offer. It's a buy-one-get-four-free gimmick."
"Cheepers, you're so disparaging. Dad is more optimistic usually."
"Trying to run that administrative circus is easier said than done. If they succeed, they deserve medals."
Mrs. Smiley tucked in her chin. "Hear, hear."
The girls spread their towels and lay down, Julie on her hip and Harry on her stomach, her back arched and her backside prominent. "The sun is intoxicating," she sighed.
John shuddered over how good they looked; but after just a few minutes, the girls began to talk silly, then dived into the water and swam to the platform. If they had offered
themselves to Slade and John, the boys had sure missed their chance.
"Where did y'all get the platform, Harry?" Slade asked.
"It's not ours. We don't know who brought it here, but no one uses it except me."
"What holds it up?"
"Drums," Julie said, gazing between the slats.
"There's a platform at the camp where Mel's old girlfriend worked," John told them. "It was tilting because a hole was in the drum, and it was full of water."
"This should tilt, too, like the house."
"We already told you, Julie, the house isn't askew; it's only the name for it."
"If you lay a marble on the floor, I bet it would roll to one end."
"So? I bet your place in Vermont leans more than ours."
"The rough-looking caretaker came chasing us," John said, "hollering at us. You never saw people leave so fast; but Ginger said he was just an old mountain guy who wouldn't hurt a flea."
"Norman Rockwell painted a picture of boys skinny-dipping where they weren't supposed to be," Harry said, "and had to flee before they could put their clothes back on."
She smiled at John, then turned away dejectedly. John would lose his mind if she did not stop doing that.
The most dazzling thing at the party was Harry, herself. John could not take his eyes off her. She wore a yellow sundress that was very short with thin shoulder straps.
Her nubile figure, outlined delectably in the sundress, unnerved him.
"Come on, you guys," Harry said. "Help yourself to some refreshments." She greeted John in passing, then went inside. He just waited for her to come out again. When she did, she introduced him to the other guests just to be rid of him, more or less as Charlotte had done at her party. He could not bear for her to do that.
"Don't be unsociable," she chided him. "Other people would like to meet an interesting guy like you." Harry did not bother to sound interested herself.
Seeing how familiarly she socialized with the marina boys, John wished he had never laid eyes on her before now, so they could begin a relationship without any unhappy memories to depress them.
"Harry, with that dress on, you remind me of a honey bee," Joe said. "You goin' to the nest anytime soon?"
"Harry, you really think Southerners talk slower?"
"It shore dudn't mean they think slower."
"Well, Renny," Retta said, "don't you say 'they.' You're a 'we.'"
"Everyone in New England zips through conversations."
"What do they zip, though? I don't know y'alls customs too well."
"Guys from the South are so sociable."
"Demonstrative, too," Renny added.
"Mummy said she ate at a restaurant with my dad when they toured Acadia National Park. The waiters and waitresses were all Southerners because they're more courteous to the guests."
"Are New Englanders uncourteous? Is that why y'all got the Southerners working there?"
"New Englanders are Puritans, right? The Pilgrims?"
"There aren't so many Puritans in New England today."
Harry glared at him. "Make it snappy. People are waiting for me."
"Did you make it with that guy?" John could hardly believe he asked.
"It's none of your business."
She was right. The truth was he really did not care now. As he turned to leave, she blurted, "Since you have the nerve to ask, no."
In the curious pause that followed, John wondered if she was being truthful.
"We engaged in a lot of foreplay," she admitted.
John stared slack-jawed. This girl was really something. He had never known people from New England before and had no idea what they were like. His Leemer relatives
had said they visited Boston for the Bicentennial. Cousin Lamar had idly watched the girls and noted in wonderment, "Some of 'em don't got on any underwear."
At least Harry wore hers, if kind of visibly.
Everyone made a circle at the behest of a stooped man with slicked-up blond hair, who yelled directions in a whiny singsong voice over the music of a bluegrass band.
John, Mel, Cynthia, and Gina lined up on one side of the gym. John could see Harry on the opposite side with Julie and the marina crowd. She tuned him out, never once looking his way.
At first, dancers held hands in a circle, then the caller split them into quartets and finally pairs. Often John did not know his partner--from stocky, middle-age women to little girls in starched, lacy dresses--but everyone at the dance was either a summer resident or a local, and the differences between them were plain to see.
The local boys had sallow faces, wiry bodies, and skulked rather than walked. Many wore plain undershirts, blue jeans, and boots with taps for a harder hitting surface on the wood floor. Their stern, mopey faces seemed out of place with the frenetic cadence. Older local women wore big hairstyles and red or black outfits. Younger women wore jeans with flannel shirts and conversed raucously.
In general, the people from the lake were young and wore coordinated summer casuals. The boys were healthy, impudent, and bossy. Harry, Sarah, and Retta wore skirts and blouses. Cynthia wore dark-red jeans, Julie gold corduroy.
John was thrill when he was paired off with Harry. He whirled her around, excited by the touch of her body, but she did not make eye contact, just behaved like a pleasant stranger.