Barely Human
by Al Sandine
1—Scary Guests
It was bear delivery day in North Beach, and I watched some people up the street get theirs. Bears are supposed to be big, I know, but I hoped maybe ours wouldn’t be as big as theirs. The government lady had said that ours would show up between noon and one, and it was almost one. I’d taken a little something before I came downstairs, but I guess it wasn’t enough, ‘cause I was nervous as a rabbit on the freeway, waiting out in front of the building on that—what do they call it?—faithful day. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like a rabbit, either.
Well, pretty soon here they come, rolling up to the curb in this big white panel truck. Even though I was totally expecting them, it was still kind of weird to see two bears squirming out of that van. Real bears. They had to be ours.
The male sauntered up to me. “I’m Jimmy,” he said. He held out a paw and I touched it with my hand. “And you must be . . . ”
“Charlie Higgins,” I said. I was hoping he didn’t smell the booze, so I kind of held back.
Jimmy looked as rugged as a defensive tackle and he was maybe twice the size. I bet nobody ever called him James. He wasn’t wearing anything but a red beret, which was cool with me, of course. He wrinkled his big black nose. I could only guess what that meant. Ursula, who was the smaller one, had on this super-size blue and white dress. It was kind of cute, the way she also wore a blue and pink scarf around her ears. As I was signing for them, she laughed at my little joke about giving the driver a racetrack tip—“Blue Boy in the eighth.” Nobody else ever laughs at that.
Jimmy was a little harder to read.

We’d done the paperwork six months earlier. We were hella pumped by the thought of making friends with members of another species—or getting to know them pretty well, at least. Isn’t that why people have dogs and cats? But bears! Rhonda felt the same way I did. Maybe floating around in the back of our heads, or my head anyway, was the notion that making such a major household change might jump-start our relationship up. Like some young couple that decides to have a kid because they can’t get along. She still turned me on. Problem was my boozing turned her off.
It was so unfair. I’d never made a peep when she used to get herself tore up. All the times I had to drag her off from a party, or haul her ass out of a bar and into a car, and then put her to bed. But that was years ago, before she started meditating upside down, sucking up the wheat germ, and worshiping a three-eyed god or whatever that thing was that she kept in a corner of her room. Also before the government offered to pay people for taking in bears. And before anybody knew what bears could do.
I had a lot of respect for Rhonda though, the way she’d raised a kid from scratch all by herself and worked her way through nursing school, too. She was a good person, even with her oven turned off to me. And we had a pretty solid arrangement, too. I paid for the condo, she did a lot of the chores, she didn’t bug me much, and I got lots of close-ups of her dark good looks. If nothing else. I probably should’ve given up, but I always thought there was still a chance.

Months went by until we almost forgot about the big decision we’d made. Then the letter came. They were assigning us two black bears, a boy and a girl. They used a shitload of words to say that these bears could live with us and be our guests for as long as it all worked out. Plus we’d get the stipend on the same day every month.
We had the extra bedroom and the bath. We also had the killer view of the bridges and the Bay, but that wasn’t going to do them any good ‘cause bears can’t see worth a damn. That’s what I always thought. But they’d only been with us a few minutes when Ursula was standing at the big picture window, giving Jimmy a tour of the scene.
“And that’s Alcatraz over there and that bigger one . . .”
“I don’t perceive a bigger one.”
“ . . . is Angel Island.”
She said it was “a rich man’s view.” That embarrassed the hell out of me. I wasn’t into being anybody’s “rich man.”
Settling in with the bears was kind of awkward at the start. Rhonda tried to break the ice by kind of snuggling up to Jimmy, who was crushing the end of the couch. She was trying to stay uphill, but she kept sliding down almost into his lap. That was being too much of a friendly host, I thought, but Jimmy just looked at me and gave a wink and went back to what he was reading.
“What was it like in the camp?” I asked, busting the silence.
Jimmy looked at Ursula and she looked back at him.
“Let’s see the kitchen,” she said at last.
I showed her all the food we’d bought for them. We’d stowed it away in cabinets and crammed the fridge with stuff. When I started to give instructions for the stove, she said,
“Just show me where you keep the pots and pans.”

Just because we’d ordered bears didn’t mean we had no fear of bears. I’ve always been kind of chickenshit when it comes to wild critters. When we went camping, we always hung our food from the high branch of a tree or let it dangle over the side of a cliff. Not forgetting to add the toothpaste, of course. Bears love toothpaste. That’s what people always said. Then it would get to be the middle of the night, and I’d be curled up like a ball of wire, ears catching every random little nighttime sound. That snuffling at the edge of the tent could be a hungry bear! Rhonda likes to tell people that I got so scared one time I wet my sleeping bag, and the “bear” outside the tent turned out to be somebody’s little black and white dog. I sure as hell don’t remember that. My sleeping bag had needed a trip to the cleaners for a long time. But I admit my fear of bears kept me awake at times.
Now we’d invited bears to come right in and live in our “tent,” so to speak. To eat our food and share our toothpaste, too, until they could get some of their own. Which they soon did. I admit it was a challenge in the beginning to sit across the table from one of these big furry beasts without losing my chill. Standing, Jimmy towered over me, and I’m about five ten. I tried not to disagree with anything he said. I mean, could we trust the government to send us super tame bears?
Ursula was shorter, more my size, but a lot heavier. But both those bears had big sharp teeth and long-assed claws. Goes with being a bear, right? A dustup with one of them would not have gone down well for the likes of us. Those first few nights were the worst. As I went to bed, I’d think, what if I wake up next morning and there’s no more Rhonda? Only one of her feet maybe, stuffed into the recycle. Poor Rhonda, I’d think, and what’s it doing in there? Then I’d probably throw up. But what about me? I could be the one to land in someone’s stomach, half-digested like. I knew that assimilated bears hardly ever did anything like that, but still.
Or I’d wake up in the night with my bladder holding a gun to my head. You better get up, it’d say. I’d go along—what choice did I have?—but I was afraid that padding to the bathroom down the hall, just feeling my way along because I hate to use the light because it wakes me up too much, I might run into one of our guests. What if it was Jimmy and he was sleepwalking or something and he threw a bear hug on me? What if he used his claws to rip me open or his teeth to take out half my head? Even if our bears didn’t do something crazy like that, could I stifle a shriek? I worried about that. A shriek would embarrass the hell out of me. Even a loud gasp. And as I got back into bed and lay awake, I’d remember that in order to qualify as bear hosts, we had to sign a statement saying we didn’t have any kids or dogs or other pets. Now there had to be a reason for that.
The one time that I did meet one of them in the hallway in the night, the moon was flooding in through the skylight, and I could see that it was only Ursula, just coming out of the bathroom. All the same, my heart still lost the beat, and I cut loose a silent fart that didn’t get by her.
“Digestive problem, Charlie?” she asked.

The bears were full of surprises. Since they were “humanized,” we thought they’d act like people. Like us, I mean. I remember an evening, soon after they arrived. We were all in the living room when we heard somebody use a key to let herself in the front. That had to be Mollie, Rhonda’s kid. She used to spend the night with us sometimes.
“Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” we heard from down the hall.
“Wasn’t that supposed to be your line?” Jimmy said to Ursula.
Her mother sure as hell must’ve told her about our guests, but Mollie must’ve forgot. That girl was wired to a techno beat. Rhonda went off to explain, while the bears tore little Goldilocks apart. Jimmy called her “an obsessive-compulsive engaged in a kleptomaniacal frenzy.” He mimicked her in a bear falsetto: “’This one’s too hot, this one’s too cold, this one’s too lumpy, this one’s too frumpy.’” Ursula pretended to be grabbing things.
“I have to admit that that fairytale is a nice turnaround,” Jimmy said.
“A turnaround? How’s that?” I asked.
“For once, the home invader is a human.”
“Right. Instead of a hungry bear,” said Ursula.
“But the story typecasts bears as homeowners nouveau who don’t have sense enough to lock the door.”
“Yeah,” added Ursula in a tough-guy voice, “tame and lame.”
“Wait a minute,” I finally busted in. “You’re finding stuff in it that isn’t there. It’s just a kid’s story.”
“And an artifact of human culture that reveals far more than it intends.”
Mollie and Rhonda came in, and her mother introduced her daughter to the bears.
“Are you mollified now?” Jimmy asked her. They all laughed at that.

Turns out our guests didn’t have a thing for toothpaste. They didn’t get into my wine or liquor either. They cooked big meals, but they didn’t leave a mess, and they even chipped in on expenses, as best they could. Ursula got some housecleaning gigs, and Jimmy took a job as a street sweeper in a special program for unemployed bears. He complained that his work was as boring as watching snails breed.
“Have you done much of that?” Rhonda asked.
“Well, yes I have,” he said, “since that’s pretty much in line with my sexual preference.”
“Too bad,” she said.
When he told us that street sweeping was a respectable job but a “considerable remove” from what he was used to, we didn’t picture him sitting at a desk or standing in front of a class. We assumed he’d got some training in assembly or fast-food work under the Ursine Assimilation Program. At the most, we thought he missed the chance to rummage through people’s things in search of weapons or drugs as an airport security bear. He didn’t say anything to correct us on this. Turns out Jimmy had been kind of famous for a while around our area as the first of his kind to go to Cal—a real Cal Bear. But the government’s description just said “2 bears, male and female, educated, very tame.” I thought “educated” just meant high school. For Ursula, that would be about right, but for Jimmy, that was way off. Mollie said he was an “intellectual.” I thought that was stretching it some. I mean, Jimmy used a lot of big words, but get real, he was only a bear.
Anyway, whatever his work had been like before—before the Trouble Period, I mean—the only thing he was qualified to do now, he said, was to work in a chocolate factory’s quality control. I told him that a job like that could be kind of hard to find.
“Oh, I’m well aware that jobs like that are scarce as frog’s teeth.”
Hold it, I thought. Frogs don’t have teeth. Or if they do, they’re tiny small. But I let it go.

We got used to the bears, but there was a lot they didn’t share with us. For example, were they a couple? We’d given them the twin beds. But maybe they were siblings. A mother and son? Best friends? They both had the same ginger-colored fur.
“We’re just a pair of refugees,” Jimmy said.
“And survivors,” Ursula added.
“Do either of you have children?” Rhonda asked. A mom will ask that every time.
“Not me,” said Ursula. “I use birth control that time of year.”
When I put the question to Jimmy, he said he’d left a passel of little ones in Chicago.
“Oh?” I said.
“Yes, indeed. You must have heard of the Chicago Cubs.”
I had heard of the Chicago Cubs, of course. But wouldn’t their parents be the Chicago Bears? My little joke.
Another time I made the mistake of asking Jimmy if he missed the forest.
“The forest?” He swung his head around, all confused like.
“You know, the woods.” I still thought of him as first generation.
“Miss inhabiting a wilderness when I can live inside a house? Surely you jest.”
“I thought it was an okay question.”
“Well, it’s certainly that,” he wheezed, “and it’s also quite revealing. It appears that you don’t know the first thing about me, Charlie. I could be a man inside a bear suit, for all you know.”
“Yeah, sure.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Do you want to see the real me?” He reached for his throat like he had a zipper there. My eyes were probably bugging out of my head.
Ursula gave him a look. “Jimmy,” she growled.
“No,” he said, “I’m afraid you couldn’t handle it.”
Getting a grip, I called his bluff. “Don’t worry, I can handle it. Let’s see what you’ve got under there.” But he’d picked up the sports section and seemed to be using his magnifying glass to study the baseball stats.

I might’ve forgotten this incident, but a few days later I heard the buzzing of what sounded like an electric razor coming from the bathroom. I’d heard that sound before, but what was it? Unless he was a “shaver,” one of those bears that try to make themselves look more human by shaving off all their fur, he’d have no use for such a thing. Wasn’t he a real bear? The question made me think I was getting some serious mileage on my brain.
I liked the bears, but as the weeks went by I still didn’t find them all that easy to know. Especially Jimmy. Old Jimmy wouldn’t even watch the Bertram show. Found it embarrassing, he said. I thought everybody loved Bertram Bear. The two of us went down the hill to a coffee house one day. I’d seen that caffeine kind of opened him up.
“So Jimmy,” I asked him when we’d found a table and were blowing on our drinks, “What’s it like to be a bear?”
“Hmm. What’s it like to be a bear? I don’t know. Why don’t you ask our barista?” He gave a nod in the direction of the counter.
I didn’t expect to see a shaver there. Most of them worked in funeral homes and real estate.
“What can he tell me? He doesn’t even want to be a bear.”
“So ask him what he’s running from.”
But the furless one had gotten hip to our attention and was giving us the sour-eye. I made a show of looking all around the room for someone else.
“Well,” said Jimmy, “if you don’t want to talk to him, why don’t you ask a wild bear?”
“You gotta be kidding, right?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, for starters, a wild bear can’t talk.”
“What do you think he would say if he could? Would he talk about his heightened sense of smell, his excellent hearing, his superior size, and his propensity to look for things to eat?”
“I’m damned if I know. I mean he might.”
“So you think that he might. And if he did, wouldn’t you want to know, compared to what?”
“Jeez, Jimmy. Why can’t I just ask you?”
“Because it’s like my asking you, what’s it like to be a human? Could you answer that?”
“Uhh . . . I could tell you what it’s like to be me. Sort of.”
“Right, but I’m getting a sense of that.”

“Ursula and I are going to Sacramento on Wednesday for the anti-bear-hunt rally,” said Rhonda one fine day. “You two are welcome to come along.”
A lot of us thought it was fucked that at a time when bears might be on the edge of getting citizenship, some people were still hunting and shooting the last of the wild ones. The annual bear hunt meant that so-called humanized bears—those that weren’t stuck in the security camps—couldn’t go outside this time of year.
“Any takers?” Rhonda asked.
“?xw ?ou???á,” said Jimmy.
“Oooh,” squealed Rhonda. She loved it when he said something in French, but she went out of her head when he said something that reminded her of her Greek grandmother.
“Which means I’m busy. I have to go to work. Besides, how are you going to stop people from shooting bears when they’re shooting other people with such stunning regularity?”
“But that isn’t okayed by the state,” said Rhonda. “They don’t issue licenses to people to gun other people down.”
The woman was killer smart.
“That Sacramento rally may have merit, but I think I have a better idea,” Jimmy said.
“Oh, yeah, what’s that?” I said.
“I was thinking that I might apply for a hunting license.”
“What? You want a license to hunt bears?” Rhonda said.
“Not at all,” Jimmy said. “What I said was that I might apply for such a document. They would surely turn me down, and that would raise an issue of discrimination. I could file suit. Think of the publicity that might attend such a simple and creative act.”
Ursula let him know what she thought: “Brother bear, get serious. What you’re saying is beside the point, which is that humans hunt bears.”
“When it should be the other way around? Am I missing something here?”
“Jimmy-y-y . . . .”
“Will you two stop playing,” said Rhonda. “Look, we all have to do what we can. What about you?” She was eyeing me. “You coming?”
“Uh, I’m also kind of busy,” I said. The truth is, and this is something I hate to admit, while I’ve never had a problem with the smell of one or two bears—one or two are cool, no problem—the thought of that crowd of maybe ten thousand bears, some of them grizzlies, and a few hundred of their human supporters in the sizzling Sacramento heat was a real downer for me. Plus the noise and confusion that a few thousand bears can make. I didn’t even want to think about it.
“Busy, huh?” she huffed. “What do you have to do that’s so important?”
I just shrugged.
“In any case,” said Jimmy, “how do you know there are still some bears in the woods?”
“Jimmy, you know there are, and some of them are your own cousins,” Ursula said.
“Distant relatives perhaps.”
“And you don’t care if they’re killed? Every year we hear about hunters getting their limit,” Rhonda said.
“And that’s what? Maybe one or two each?” He was making a kind of snickering sound through his teeth.
“Jimmy, those are one or two bears you’re talking about,” flared Ursula.
“Adds up,” I said.
“What are you, a mathematician?” said Jimmy, turning on me. “And what are you doing tomorrow that’s more important than minimizing the slaughter of innocent bears? Don’t try to shrug this off.”
“Well, for one thing I was going to drive you to work.”
“Ha, I can take the lovely bus.”
“Last time they shut the door in your face.”
“Perhaps I should have been wearing a jacket or shirt.”
“Or maybe some pants,” shouted Ursula.
“A bear is wearing all the clothes that he will ever need at birth.”
“Fine with me,” Rhonda said.
My ace in the hole was that I’d done my part by taking them in. I didn’t do it for the government money either. Rhonda seemed to read my mind.
“Sometimes being Mr. Nice Guy isn’t enough.”
I thought of the smell of ten thousand bears in the Sacramento heat.

Rhonda and Ursula were gone several days. An email told us that while they were at the Sacramento rally, they signed up for a bear “accompaniment program” and joined some brave but maybe suicidal others on a bus that took them up to Trinity County to try to find some wild bears and protect them from hunters. I was kind of worried, and with Rhonda gone, it was all too easy for me to elevate my nipping and sipping. To change the music maybe, Jimmy asked me to teach him how to drive. I was surprised he didn’t know how, ‘cause so many of them used to drive for a living. I had my doubts as to whether he could learn at this late stage, but I finally gave in.
I drove us out to a residential area where there were hardly any other cars on the road. Jimmy crammed himself behind the wheel of my battered old van, and I could see that he was one happy bear. But I was one scared man. We hadn’t gone more than a couple of blocks before I had to tell him that his driving put me in a nervous state.
“Where’s that, Alabama?”
I knew he’d say something like that.
“No,” I said, “and it’s not Minnesota either. It’s the state of you-can’t-see-worth-a-damn. I want my van to be in one piece, I don’t want to get us killed, and I shouldn’t be doing this.”
He admitted that his eyesight wasn’t nearly as good as most black bears’ but said he had something in the works that would remedy that.
“In any case, I can smell anything approaching from a thousand feet away.”
“Oh, yeah? Can you smell that sign right there? It says stop!” He hit the brake just in time.
“I recognized it by its octagonal shape.”
“You recognized it? What about next time doing what it says?”
I wondered whether he could really sniff a hazard from a thousand feet away. If he could do that, wouldn’t he be taking in the smells of everything in every direction from a thousand feet around? I could understand that smells behind us would get weaker as we moved away, but what about all the rest? Was his nose like a smell-gun he could aim down the road to zero in on what was ahead of us? I felt like I was taking my life in my hands, and there were other people’s lives to think of, too. But I can’t say that I gave them a lot of thought, because all of a sudden, by our second practice drive, Jimmy’s driving got a lot better. He was making all the stops, including for pedestrians, and all the turns and lane shifts, too. I was blown away.
“Maybe it has something to do with these corrective lenses that I’m wearing now.”
I don’t know how I could’ve missed them. They looked like swimming goggles. I mean, instead of the usual plastic frame, they were held together by an elastic band that hugged his head. Later, I remembered how wigged out Rhonda had been when she saw him reading with a hand-held lens. She’d said something then about an appointment with an eye doctor, and it looked like he’d gone to that exam.
“These are for distance,” Jimmy said. “I have another pair for reading.”
What I never did understand was how he could wedge his bulk behind the wheel and keep it there for hours at a time. But I learned not to open my mouth about every hazard on the road. He could see them as well as I could. As Jimmy put it,
“These things have taken all the fuzz off the visual world. Now I want to see as much of it as I can. I haven’t owned a pair of glasses since the Trouble years.”
It was also a new world for me. I was starting to have a bear for a friend. And with Jimmy at the wheel I wasn’t at risk of getting another DUI. I couldn’t afford one of those. Now I could have a belt or two before we took off and maybe another one after we got going. Not that I keep track. But we were still busting the law. Jimmy didn’t have a driver’s license, and he wasn’t going to get one either. Not unless they changed the licensing set-up. Jimmy didn’t do multiple choice. Multiple choice was unprofessional, he thought. He said it was only for humans and rats. He was ready to write an essay or help grade written tests, but no multiple choice.

Rhonda and Ursula were gone for over a week. When they came home, they didn’t seem to want to talk about what had happened to them up north. It finally came out that hunters had fired some shots at them. They had to crawl off through the brush, which was full of ticks. That right there was enough to creep me out, and I was more than glad I didn’t go. It didn’t seem to matter to the men with guns that Ursula and the adolescent bear that they’d run into had a human friend with them. I told them over dinner that they were real heroes. They passed a look back and forth.
“Not really,” said Rhonda, looking at her plate.
“What do you mean? You might’ve saved the life of that wild bear.”Jimmy was away at work at the time, and all of a sudden it seemed there wasn’t room at the table for the three of us. Because it looked like Rhonda and Ursula were a couple now. The looks they traded and the little touches that they gave one another said it all.
Rhonda had mentioned years ago that she was bi, but I’d forgotten just what that meant. As for the cross-species thing, what the hell, I’m no prude. But look, for all I know they were only like . . . chums. I was glad to see Rhonda happy anyway. Also relieved. I’d kind of thought that it was just a matter of time before she announced that she was pairing off with Jimmy. Because it was clear as vodka that she really dug the critter. You could see that from day one, the way she always laughed at his stupid jokes. I even had the notion that she might suggest a swap, in which she and Jimmy would only be like 50 percent. I was ready to put the kibosh on my part of that. Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of respect for Ursula, but there were still some lines I wasn’t willing to cross.
As for me and Rhonda, I couldn’t lose what I didn’t have. We’d never had a lot in common. Later was always better than sooner, to my way of thinking, while she was the kind that would grab up a plate while the last bite of food was still on its way to your mouth, hustle it to the sink, and give it a scrub. She liked Masterpiece Theater and MSNBC. Give me a ballgame or a fight in the octagon arena any day. We had the glue of good sex, at least at first, but that ended when she wouldn’t party with me anymore. So by the time she and Ursula returned from up north, our relationship had already chilled down to just about the iceberg stage, as far as the sex. But maybe I’d get me a new girlfriend, too. The idea didn’t cause me any pain.
That evening, when we were all in the living room, Ursula made a little speech. The gist of it was that Rhonda was different from other humans she’d known.
“She respects me more. She really listens to what I have to say, and she takes me seriously, too. She doesn’t try to bully me or suck up to me either. I hate that special treatment that I get sometimes.”
Then she and Rhonda announced that they were thinking of looking for their own place. They wanted to know how Jimmy and I felt about it. I thought that was damned considerate of them, looking to us for an okay, but I had my own room, I didn’t see the need, and I immediately began to trip on all the extra housework I was going to have to do if they moved out. Because I knew that Jimmy wouldn’t do squat. Oh, he liked to take the garbage and recycle out, but that was about it. I couldn’t even get him to turn off lights. So I’d have to hire somebody to come in every other week or so to keep the place picked up. But the condo was all paid for, at least. I get these insurance checks, and I could easily afford to have them move out.
I wanted to ask Jimmy how he felt about the two of them, but neither of us ever brought it up. If he was suffering some kind of loss, he didn’t say anything about it to me. And what do you know but Rhonda and Ursula didn’t move out. So it looked like we had ourselves a new normal. But you never know. If somebody had told me then that I was about to take a long-assed journey to some places where I’d never been before and that I’d come back by myself and have a hella different look, I’d have said, boy, what’s that you’re putting in that pipe?

Read Chapter Two of Barely Human

If you want to contact me about the book, I can be reached at alsandine (at)