1—Big Furry Guests
We ate a lot of pork once the bears moved in. Bacon, pork roasts, baked ham, barbecued ribs, pork stew, pork sausage, fried pork chops, you name it. But even though there were the four of us living in the flat, there were only the three of us at the dinner table. Yours truly, Charlie Higgins, and the two bears. Because of all the pork, Rhonda wouldn’t eat with us. She thought pigs were cute. If she could’ve had a baby pig on her lap, she would’ve been as happy as a spotted pony. There were only baby pigs for her, and she couldn’t stand the thought of eating them and adding to their cruel slaughter. In fact, she was a stone vegetarian, except for fish. I’d gone along with this for a number of years, only eating veggies and once in a while some seafood. But that gets kind of old. With the bears, if I didn’t eat the same as them, I’d have to fix a separate meal for myself. And if I have to go to all the trouble of shopping and preparing food that goes into cooking a big meal, I’m only going to cook one meal a day. And I was going to cook what bears love to eat. Which was mainly pork. Jimmy said so when they first moved in.
I remember that day so clearly now. It was spring and there were a lot of sails on the bay. I was so excited to meet the bears we’d been assigned that I waited for them out in front of the building. They showed up in the kind of big black van they use to shuttle people from the airport to their hotel, and they were right on time. I guess the delivery was part of the program. Jimmy was bigger and darker than what I was expecting him to be. And he wasn’t wearing anything but a red beret. That made him seem a little less scary, I think. Ursula was kind of cute by comparison, and she was funny, too. We hit it off right away. Jimmy was a little harder to read.
I asked them what they liked to eat, and Jimmy said, “Pork,” or “Pork makes my day,” or something like that. I remember it instinctly. I admit I may have been a little juiced up at the time, but not so much I don’t remember him saying that. Okay, it’s out. I like my alcohol. Sometimes too much, and then I take myself off the stuff. I can go for weeks, even months, without a fucking drop. They say it’s a disease, but I don’t feel sick. I feel great, especially after a nice tall cool one. Hey, I’m just messing with you like.
With the bears and me eating all that pork, Rhonda started eating most of her meals at the hospital. Then if she was home at dinnertime, she’d just make herself a little snack and eat it in her room. I didn’t see any way out of this food problem. I mean, we’d done the application part and got accepted for the bears to live with us, to be our guests for as long as it all worked out. We had the extra bedroom and the bath. We also had the gorgeous 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.
Rhonda was off on a nursing shift a lot of the time. Meaning that before the bears, I was alone too much and didn’t have enough to do. It wasn’t good for me. By around two o’clock in the afternoon, after I’d finished all my little tasks, I’d have nothing better to do than to take a little nip. The all-day solo was not a major part of my act. Not after almost getting sent to Vietnam. I’ve never really gotten over that.
Anyway, the bears were our guests, and we had to feed our guests. We also had to have the kind of food around that they liked. It’s what you do for guests, right? It was only a lot later that we discovered that pork was just one of the hits in their top foods parade. What they really loved was salmon, just as anyone who’s spent much time on the animal channel already knows. Rhonda was way ahead of me on this, I have to say.
“Why aren’t we having salmon? Isn’t that what they like to eat?”
It was late at night, right after they’d arrived, and I remember how the moon was lighting up the living room.
“Ssshhh!” I whispered. “They can hear things we can’t.”
“What are you talking about? You can hear them snoring!”
They were in a room down the hall. We hadn’t thought about the nighttime sounds our guests might make. Why would we? We were hung up on 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 about this. It was kind of scary but exciting, too. Maybe floating around in the back of our heads, or my head anyway, was the notion that making such a major household change might jumpstart our relationship again. Like some young couple that decides to have a kid because they’re fighting all the time. Well, instead of an improvement, the smell of all that pig meat I was cooking gave Rhonda a big old headache. She complained that it stunk up the whole flat. Which I knew wasn’t really true because I snuck into her room one afternoon when I was cooking a roast and she was out. I sniffed around in there and didn’t smell anything. No cooking smells anyway. Not with the door closed, the way she always had it.
Anyway, she kept bugging me to substitute salmon or shellfish or something else our guests could eat. Salmon would’ve been more expensive, but that wasn’t a biggie for me. The real question is, why didn’t I agree to a broader diet? I still don’t get it. It was like I’d gotten hung up on something that happened years before in Madrid. I’d ordered salmon and a smirking waiter served us ham. Now this mix-up could’ve been a language fuck-up. When I said “salmon,” the waiter maybe thought I said their word for ham—“jamón.” But I thought the guy was trying to rip us off. Maybe trying to dump some surplus pig meat on us. Every bar in that town had a crowd of hams hanging from the ceiling. Not that we went to every bar, but we did have a helluva time over there. Rhonda and I used to always have a good time. But then she quit drinking, and everything started to slide downhill and roll on out the door.
Anyway, Rhonda remembered this, too, and she connected the same little dots. “You’ve turned into that Spanish waiter and now you’re only serving ham.”
I guess I was just being stubborn. She said that, too, and more than once. She also spanked me with something she must’ve Googled.
“Black bears mostly eat vegetation and insects,” she announced one day. “They’re practically vegetarians, like me.”
“When they’re in the wild, you mean.”
“That’s their natural diet. You’re overfeeding them with all that meat.”
“Oh, I hope they didn’t hear that, Rhonda.” The bears were watching TV in the next room, and I was kind of ready for this. “The fact is, número uno, I always include a vegetable dish.” I was counting rice and bread, but she didn’t have to know that. “Number dos, Ursula and Jimmy are not wild bears. And three, they eat everything I put on their plates. And then they look around to see if there’s any more. Maybe you’d like to be the one to ask them if they’re getting too much to eat.”
“Too much meat, Charlie. Too much pork.”
I naturally played my high card then, which was that pork was what Jimmy said they most liked to eat. She trumped that by reminding me that pork cooking was what she least liked to smell. So we were up against that cooking thing again. Finally, we came up with a compromise. I did anyway. The deal was that I’d feed our guests a lot more takeout. I had to admit that all that cooking was starting to wear me down. I can’t be on my feet all day.
“It sounds good, Charlie,” Rhonda said, “but if you’re going to give that up, you’d better find something else to do with yourself. I don’t want to come home at four o’clock in the afternoon to find you already smashed. I can’t do that anymore.”
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 out of a bar and into a car and then put her to bed. I’d do it again, if she needed me to. 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 cool arrangement, too. I’d bought the condo, she did a lot of the chores, she didn’t bug me much, and I always dug her dark good looks. I thought there was still a chance.
But I was starting to tell you about our guests and how they changed our lives. That stuff about Madrid, that happened years before anybody knew any bears and before people knew what bears could do. I think it was the mountain missionaries that were the first to find out that if you give a bear all it wants to eat, you can teach it practically anything. That’s including human language. With proper training, bears can understand what people are saying. They can make the necessary sounds to speak to us, too, if they want. Soon they let a few of them into certain schools and occupations, bears that showed a bit of promise and were already used to folks. Jimmy’s mom and pop were in that first batch, though we didn’t know that when we said we’d take him in. Turns out Jimmy was kind of famous for a while around where we live as the first of his kind to go to Cal—a real Cal Bear. He even got some kind of higher degree. But the government’s description of them just said “educated.” I thought that meant high school. For Ursula, that would be about right, but for Jimmy, that was way off the mark. Mollie, Rhonda’s kid, claimed he was an “intellectual.” I thought that was stretching it some. I mean, Jimmy used a lot of big words, and I didn’t always know what he was talking about, but what the hell, he was only a bear.
It took the manufacturers’ lobby and the fast food giants to give the politicians the kick in the butt they needed to pass the Ursine Assimilation Act. That led to the Ursine Assimilation Program or UAP. Suddenly employers could hire bears to do what they called “routine repetitive tasks.” They only needed a little more training than humans and sometimes none at all. The taxpayers paid for a lot of this, of course. Bears would work for very little, too, and you better believe the bosses went for that. Bear labor was sometimes cheaper than automation, plus it didn’t have the upfront costs of a new machine. Bears could compete with workers in Bangladesh and Honduras, places like that, so employers got credit for hiring American workers. Bears weren’t allowed to organize or join a union, though. That was in the new law. So the bosses loved the UAP, but fast-food and other low-wage human workers, they hated it. You just knew what was going to happen next. Remember the reports of bears being attacked and getting their noses slashed? Some got trapped in assembly shops and fast-food joints, afraid to go outside. And when humans went too far with one, and the bear fought back, and somebody got hurt—maybe hurt bad—it was always reported as a bear attack. Bears call this the Trouble Period.
What with the vigilante attacks on bears and all the nasty publicity that went along with that, the politicians wouldn’t okay any more funding for the UAP. They shut the program down and put a few thousand bears out of work. A lot of them were packed off to the special camps. For their own protection, is what the politicians said. But the camps couldn’t begin to hold them all, and some of them went back to work as security bears. You could see them on downtown corners and in all the big stores. That also put some low-paid humans out of work and caused a stir. But a lot of people said they felt safer having a security bear around. The luckiest bears got jobs as the kind of security types that used to rummage through people’s luggage at the airport, back before they came to depend so much on the x-ray. These security bears weren’t too well liked, of course. Seeing those long claws digging through people’s neatly packed clothes turned travelers off big time.
Then a crew of security bears at the Boston airport caught those guys with the carpet cutters, and everything changed—until it boomeranged and changed some more. We were told that they’d foiled a plot by Muslim terrorists to fly a plane into some skyscrapers in New York. Like a lot of other people, I have my doubts. I mean, take over a plane with a few carpet cutters? I don’t think so. But the media ate the story up. Those bears became heroes—the Ursine Six. They couldn’t do enough interviews, TV appearances, photo ops, all that kind of stuff. Then it came out that one of those hero bears had taken a bite out of the leg of one of the carpet cutter guys. The kind of bite that would keep someone from running off. He should’ve just held him for the police, of course. But the guy’s leg got infected and had to be cut off. This plugged right into the kind of fear that people always have of bears. People, especially people that watch Fox, were already seriously uptight about all the bears in our midst. It was coming up on elections and some politicians were even slamming assimilation. Send them all back to the wild, they howled. The bear that used his teeth got sued by the family of the guy without the leg, even though the government was calling their son a terrorist. That bear was also hit with a felony. I don’t know if he was convicted, but he naturally lost his job. His employer lost the airport contract. And the other security bears lost their jobs, too. Bosses sent the street-corner and department-store security bears packing, with only the uniforms on their backs. You can still see them sometimes, mostly in bear homeless camps. You just have to imagine that those khaki rags they’re wearing now were once a new-pressed uniform. And they were proud to wear that uniform. Bears loved being guards.
Thrown together in the city and in the camps, bears got over their natural tendency to go their separate ways. They talked to one another. They all felt cheated and ripped off. They pooled their money and rented meeting rooms, which they filled up for their speeches and discussions and whatever the hell else they did in there. At the end of a meeting, they’d come pouring out into the street to march on city halls, crowd into hearing rooms, wave their placards, scare the shit out of bureaucrats, battle with the cops, and go to jail, too, many of them. Even the joint. Once they were organized, bears banged on the walls of the establishment in a way that workers hadn’t done in a long time. There must be a ton of books and online articles on this by now.
Finally, the government got the picture. Cracking down on bears was only making things worse. They asked people to take bears in until they could get back on their feet. They’d give them money for it, too. Homeless people’s champions went nuts. “Homeless people first,” they screamed. But there wasn’t any movement to back them up, and their little blaze soon fizzled out.
It didn’t surprise me any that not many people opened up their homes to bears. Rather see them blocking traffic with their outlawed marches, I suppose, or have them tucked away in overcrowded camps. Eventually, a few people came to like the idea of making a little extra money by taking in a bear or two. Or maybe they liked the excitement. Rhonda and I had the extra room we didn’t really need, like I said. So we filed the application and, in time, the bears came to live with us. Just as an experiment like. As for all the thousands of bears that didn’t get adopted by people, what can I say? The winner bears among them have gotten to be entertainers, even famous. Their faces are everywhere, and everybody knows their names. And knowing them by name, seeing them up on billboards and screens, people got over their fear of them. Many people anyway. They learned to love the celebrity bears. In what the professors call “inherited memory trace,” some of the jobless bears that didn’t get to be rich and famous dusted off Old World dance routines. This threw them into competition with the regular buskers in the underground transit stops and on the street. But I’m just talking here about the luckier ones that had some talent. Most of the bears that were in the UAP are still in the security camps where Jimmy and Ursula had been. Then there are the bears who’ve tried to make themselves more human by shaving off all their fur. The “shavers,” as they’re called. They don’t want to be called bears anymore. A lot of them have gotten jobs in funeral homes and real estate agencies.
Once we got over the pork diet issue, our domestic arrangement went off just fine. Not that Rhonda and me became sweethearts again, but we had the thrill of having bears. But first we had to stand up to our own worst fears. When I was a little younger and I used to go on camping trips, I’d always bring along the notion that a bear might break into the tent in the middle of the night. Lying there with only that thin fabric between me and the nighttime world, my imagination would go rocketing off. A snuffling at the edge of the tent could be a hungry bear! I was sure it was. I’m thinking of that time at Yosemite when the “bear” turned out to be somebody’s little black and white dog. Funny, huh? Rhonda loves to bring that up with guests.
We naturally went to the trouble of hanging our food from the high branch of a tree or letting it dangle over the side of a steep ravine. Not forgetting to include the toothpaste, of course. Bears love toothpaste. That’s what people always said. 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 and not lose my chill. Standing, Jimmy towered over me, and I’m about five ten. Ursula was shorter, more like Rhonda’s size, but a lot heavier. The bears had big teeth and long claws. Goes along with being a bear, right? A violent run-in with one of them would not go well for the likes of us. For the first few weeks, I had this worry that padding down the dark hall to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, just feeling my way along because I hate to have to use the light, I might run into one of our guests. Would he or she act on instinct and attack? Even if it didn’t, 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 remembered that in order to qualify as bear hosts, we’d had to sign a statement saying that we had no kids or dogs or other pets. Now there had to be a reason for that.
Turns out our guests didn’t have a thing for toothpaste. They didn’t get into my wine or liquor either. They didn’t leave a mess, which was just the opposite of what people said they did. 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 teased.
Rhonda seemed to have a fondness for Jimmy right from the get-go. At least a fondness. But like I said, we didn’t know about his university background at the time. 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 missed the opportunity to rummage through people’s things in search of weapons or drugs. He didn’t say anything to correct us on this. The only thing he was qualified to do now, he’d say, was to work in a chocolate factory’s quality control. I told him that a job like that wasn’t going to be easy to find.
“Why not?” he said. “I sent my application in.”
“Oh, you have to follow up on that.” I thought I was giving him some good advice.
“Indubitably,” he said, “but jobs like that are scarce as frog’s teeth.”
Wait a minute, I told myself. Frogs don’t have teeth. Or if they do, they’re really small. But I let it pass. What the hell would a bear know about amphibians?
Jimmy said that something else—the microwave, I think it was—was as useless as “balls on a priest.”
I waited for Rhonda’s reaction. She’d never let me get away with anything like that. “Why are you thinking of another man’s testicles?” she’d probably ask. Or “What have you got against the Catholic Church?” But she just laughed. Anything Jimmy said was okay with her. He followed up by saying, “In point of fact, a priest might have many uses for his balls. We needn’t imagine all of them. Let me amend my simile: as useless as kindness at a cockfight.” At that it looked like Rhonda was about to do a backflip.
We were sitting in the living room one afternoon when we heard somebody use a key to let herself in the front. It 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. Her mother must’ve told her about our guests, and Mollie must’ve forgot. Rhonda went to explain.
“Wasn’t that supposed to be your line?” said Jimmy to Ursula.
“Oh, I hate that story!” she burst out.
“But you have to admit that it’s a nice turnaround.”
“A turnaround? How’s that?” I asked.
“For once, it’s a human that does the home invasion,” Jimmy said.
“Right. Instead of a bear,” added Ursula.
“But don’t you just love her presumption? This prepubescent human female comes into the bears’ empty home and proceeds to assert ownership claims. The house is hers because there’s no one else inside. She’s like Columbus, claiming and naming every island he encountered in the Caribbean. But instead of merely naming things, she tries them out. The home of the bears becomes an island to be plundered . . . ”
“Right,” joined Ursula, “and by a little human blondie.”
“Yes, and with nobody at home, there’s no one to dispute her wild claims. The young lady seems positively compelled to acquire other people’s things.”
“Since when do you defend private property?” Ursula asked him.
“Since bears acquired some of their own, if only in a fairytale,” he rumbled. “Moreover, the story stereotypes bears as homeowners nouveau who don’t have sense enough to lock their door.”
“Yeah,” added Ursula in a tough-guy voice, “tame and lame. And this Goldilocks . . . ”
“Is an obsessive compulsive,” Jimmy finished for her. He mimicked Goldilocks 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 was pretending to be grabbing things. “Our immature protagonist might soon have grown grumpy if the bear family hadn’t interrupted this kleptomaniacal frenzy. She’s someone who will never be satisfied.”
“Maybe, Jimmy, but I think she’s just spoiled,” Ursula grinned. “I can just see her going to law school and becoming a corporate hack, speeding around in her little red Porsche.”
“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.”
We sure as hell didn’t know our guests were gonna carry on like this! Mollie and Rhonda came in, and her mother introduced her to the bears.
We got used to them, 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 mocha-colored fur, but that didn’t really mean anything. The government notice had only said “2 bears, male and female, educated, very tame.” But any questions about how they were connected seemed to put them off.
“We’re just a pair of refugees,” Jimmy rumbled.
“And survivors,” added Ursula.
“Do either of you have children?” Rhonda asked. A mom will ask that every time.
“Not me,” said Ursula. “I use birth control at that time of year.”
When I put the question to Jimmy, he said he’d left a passel of little ones in Chicago.
“Oh?” said I.
“Yes, indeed,” said he. “You must have heard of the Chicago Cubs.”
I had heard of the Chicago Cubs, of course. But didn’t that make their parents the Chicago Bears? My little joke.
Another time I made the mistake of asking Jimmy if he missed the forest. “Am I Mr. Forrest?” he asked. He swung his head around, all confused like. “No, I think you’re mistaking me for another Jimmy—one of those distinguished old tenor players.” He’d found the turntable and the collection of jazz on vinyl my old man had left, and I guess that’s where he was coming from.
“What I said was do you ever miss the forest? You know, the woods.” I still thought of him as first generation.
“Miss inhabiting a wilderness when I can be 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.”
“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 warning look. “Jimmy,” she growled.
“No,” he backed off, “I’m afraid you couldn’t handle it.”
Getting a grip, I called his bluff. “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 studying the baseball stats. When he looked up, he gave me a big old wink.
I might’ve forgotten this incident, but a few days later I heard the buzzing of what sounded like an electric razor coming from our guests’ bathroom. I’d heard that sound before, but what was it? A bear—a real bear, I mean—would have no use for such a thing. And wasn’t he a real bear? Of course he was. The question made me think that I was starting to get some serious mileage on my brain.
Whatever it was that made the noise, the bears had no use for gadgets. Not as a rule. Which was just as well, as they were helpless with most things made for human hands. That’s what we thought anyway. But just because they weren’t what you’d call deft didn’t keep them from wanting to play cards. Hearts, spades, casino, gin rummy, crazy eights: they thought that every card game was a gas. The problem was that for them to play, we had to play, too, and hold the cards for each of them, as well as our own and, at the same time, try not to see what was in “our” bear’s hand except when it was “our” bear’s turn to play. As hard as it is to describe, the action itself was crazy difficult; almost impossible, in fact. I mean, dropped cards were only the half of it. These games always came to an end with somebody rolling on the floor, we all laughed so hard.
Either I or Rhonda would’ve sworn that any skills involved in flipping salmon from a stream were useless when it came to shuffling, dealing, drawing, holding, or discarding cards. And we would’ve been wrong. Because one day Rhonda caught them playing cribbage when they thought they had the place all to themselves. They were doing just fine, even with the little pegs that you have to keep plugging into the holes on the cribbage board. I don’t know if they were clumsy to please us or what, but if they were running some kind of game on us, it did seem pretty harmless. So we just went along, pretending to think they were hella klutzy.
Rhonda was more into head games. I remember one time she wanted each of us to use two words to say who or what we were. She started with “skilled nurse.” Ursula went with “always learning.” I used “drinking buddy.” As for Jimmy, he couldn’t find anything in English that would do the job, I guess. His was “bon vivant.”
Besides Jimmy’s liking for old jazz and Ursula’s for pop, they liked to listen to the one CD they had. It featured some Middle Eastern cat by the name of Nusrat Ali Khan. His chanting seemed to bliss them out. They’d want to play it over and over until one of us would beg for something else. Anything. “What’s the matter, Charlie?” Jimmy asked. “Surely you’re not afraid of a little Sufism.”
“Sufism? What the hell’s that?” I must’ve asked.
“Oh, nothing much,” said Jimmy. “Just the answer to all your spiritual needs. But we might play something else, if you had some J. S. Bach.”
Like most people, the bears liked to watch TV. They especially liked the nature programs. Once in a program on the bears in Yellowstone Park, Jimmy claimed to have spotted someone he knew. Ursula shook her shaggy head at this. “Jimmy,” she growled.
“I know, I know,” he chuckled.
Jimmy had a library card, and we got used to seeing him with his nose inside a book. He had a lens that he’d train on smaller print. One time I asked him what his book was about.
“It’s about a bored housewife who becomes a bit of a tart. Men,” he rumbled, using an announcer’s voice, “you had better teach your woman how to entertain herself at home, if you’re not going to lock her up or make her take the veil!”
When he was out of the room, I took a look at his book. It was in another language—French, it looked like to me. The author was one Gustave Flaubert, a name I’d heard before. Jimmy’s recap of the plot put a bug up Rhonda’s nose to talk to Ursula about another book on bored housewives.
I liked the bears, but I didn’t find them easy to know. Especially Jimmy. One day he and I went down the hill to a coffee house. I’d noticed 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 shaver behind the counter.
“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 he didn’t like it. I had to make 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’ve 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 limited eyesight, and his propensity to look for things to eat? 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 human? Could you answer that?”
“Uhh . . . I could tell you what it’s like to be me. Sort of.”
And that was the end of that.
When the bears moved in we got a mixed response from the neighbors. Katie, in the building next door, wanted one to move in with her, too, but she was only a renter and her lease said no bears—or as she put it, “no bimbos, bozos, or bears.” Once they’d seen the bears, the people across the street acted like something was going to happen to their kids, their cars, or the value of their property. If they’d had a garden or a lawn, they’d have been worried about that, too, I guess. And the looks we got! You’d think we’d taken in the Hells Angels. One neighbor’s dog barked for twenty-four hours. Actually, that was our bad. I caught Jimmy making growling noises right next to their fence. He was doing it softly, but he was growling. And he was down on all fours. He told me later he was just clearing his throat. Fact is, we could never go for a walk with him or Ursula either one without putting a charge into every neighborhood dog. Even when we went by in the van. As for the homeowners’ association . . . forget it. We liked to say that we didn’t really give a damn what anybody thought. But everybody says that. And that was before Ursula got a scarf.
She wouldn’t say how old she was; bears don’t keep track of that. But she let slip that she was having a birthday. July 22. (I remember stuff like that.) She tried to play it down, but Rhonda insisted on organizing a little get-together for her. She invited a couple of her friends from the hospital, and I went to an Italian deli and picked up a lot of stuff to eat. Cheeses, olives, salami . . . the usual load of snacks. Rhonda brought home a massive birthday cake—German chocolate, I think. We told the bears that they should feel free to invite friends and relatives of their own, but Ursula told us that their surviving friends and relatives were still in the camps.
“Or scattered to the winds,” added Jimmy.
But humans came, including Jack and Alicia and their kids from downstairs, and my buddy Gary, and everyone had a good time. I had too much of a good time myself. The last thing I remember was falling down while I was dancing with Celine or Cyrene or somebody with a name like that, and pulling her to the floor with me. I don’t know what happened after about the third time. Nobody would even look at me next day. Maybe I said the wrong thing. But getting back to Ursula, people gave her some presents, including a beautiful blue and red silk scarf. Rhonda gave her that. Ursula was so pleased, but instead of tying it around her neck, she put it on over her head. Maybe to cover up her ears. She’d told us more than once she thought they were too big. They looked like regular bear ears to me. But that’s how she wore it, and she loved to wear that red and blue scarf.
I guess for someone else maybe that scarf was different like. Because within a couple of days, we found this note on our door. It was neatly typed but unsigned. It read: “THIS NEIGHBORHOOD ISN’T BIG ENOUGH FOR MUSLIM TERRORIST BEARS.” It wasn’t a burning a cross, but by local standards it was plenty ugly.
But Jimmy had a different take on this. He brought the note into the kitchen’s light, held it as far from his eyes as he could reach, and declared, “I find nothing wrong with the syntax or the punctuation, although for ‘terrorist’ as an adjective, I think I might substitute ‘terroristic.’ You live in quite a literate end of town, if this note is representative. Good bond paper, too.” Then he held the note up to his nose. “What about knocking on people’s doors until we can sniff the author out?” I told him I didn’t think the person who left the note would come to the door, and if he or she did, what then? He just softly growled.
“You’d better not be knocking on any doors,” Rhonda warned. “If they shoot trick-or-treaters on Halloween . . .”
“They’ll have target practice on a bear,” finished Ursula. She had on her scarf. Jimmy kept growling to himself.
“Which reminds me,” said Rhonda. “Ursula and I are going to Sacramento on Wednesday for the anti-bear-hunt rally. 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 in their backwoods lairs. The annual bear hunt meant that so-called humanized bears were stuck in security camps or crammed in with us humans. They wouldn’t go outside. But they should’ve been able to go wherever they wanted. Am I right?
“∑xw ɗouλϵιá,” said Jimmy. “Which means that I’m busy.”
“Oooh,” sighed 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. She’d have hated it if I’d answered her in anything but English, but since I didn’t know anything but English, my English was enough to get her riled up.
“I have to work,” added Jimmy. “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 sanctioned by the state,” figured Rhonda. “They don’t issue licenses to people to gun other people down.”
The woman was killer smart. But the government issued uniforms and weapons to off people in wars. Wasn’t that a kind of massive hunt?
“That Sacramento rally may have merit, but I think I have a better idea,” Jimmy announced.
“Oh, yeah, what’s that?” somebody asked.
“I was thinking that I might apply for a hunting license.”
“What? You want a license to hunt bears?” asked Rhonda, amazed.
“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 flow from such a simple and creative act.”
Ursula let him know what she thought: “Brother bear, get serious. What you’re proposing is beside the point, which is that people hunt bears.”
“When it should be the other way around? Am I missing something here?”
“Jimmy . . . . ”
“Will you two stop playing,” chided Rhonda. “Look, we all have to do what we can. What about you?” She was staring at 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 sun was, for me, a real downer. Plus the noise and confusion that a few thousand bears can make . . . . I don’t even want to think about it.
“Busy, huh?” she huffed. “What do you have to do that’s so important?”
The question had a barb on it for anything I might say, so I just shrugged.
“In any case,” added Jimmy, “how do you know there are still bears in the woods?”
“Jimmy, you know there are, and some of them are your own cousins,” scolded Ursula.
“Distant relatives perhaps.”
“And you don’t care if they’re killed? Every year we hear about hunters getting their limit,” argued Rhonda.
“And that’s what?” sniffed Jimmy, “maybe one or two each?”
“Those are one or two bears you’re talking about,” flared Ursula.
“Adds up,” I put in.
“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 a 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. It was a card I kept under my cap, hoping I’d never have to spring it into play. 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.
“Yeah, Mr. Nice Guy,” jumped in Jimmy. “When’s the last time you even handed out a flyer?”
What did that have to do with anything? These days, with all the online organizing, I must’ve clicked “send” for a tailored message to my political representative about as many times as anybody else. I wanted to pour myself a drink, but no one else was juicing and I held back.
“It’s not enough to be an Old Red,” needled Jimmy.
I had no idea where he was coming from. Oh, I suppose I’d mentioned my work as a union organizer, but that was so stuck in the past it had mothballs on its feet.
“This is really weird,” I said. “Here I am being red-baited by someone who was recently accused of being a terrorist.”
“That was Ursula,” Jimmy pointed out.
They were really ganging up on me, and just then Rhonda’s daughter Molly came bouncing in. She had this mass of red hair and she was wearing these little green shorts that barely came down to her legs. She was on her school break. Though she was real smart, she’d never really cared for me.
“You know, Charlie,” Jimmy was saying, “I think you’re Stalin.”
“Stalling? Why should I stall?”
“I didn’t say ‘stalling.’ I said ‘Stalin.’”
“Not only that,” broke in Molly, “but from what I hear, he wants to be a restaurant crew’s chef.”
“Excellent,” said Jimmy, and he touched his paw to her outstretched hand. They were cracking up, Rhonda was smiling, Ursula was looking puzzled, and I was pouring myself a bourbon and soda, without the soda. I couldn’t figure out what had just gone down, but I know when someone’s putting me on. Was it something in bear DNA to set me up like this? Ursula never pulled such pranks. Maybe I was just a patsy for ornery bears and young ladies in shorts. I’ll tell you this—I wouldn’t work in a restaurant for a million bucks.
Rhonda and Ursula were away for several days. An email told us that while they were at the Sacramento rally, they signed up for a wild bear “accompaniment program” and joined some brave but maybe foolish others on a bus that took them up to Trinity County to try to find bears and protect them from the hunters. We didn’t know until they got back that hunters had fired some shots at them. Our friends had to hug the ground until they could crawl off through the brush, which, they told us more than once, was full of ticks. It didn’t matter to the hunters that Ursula and the adolescent bear that they’d run into had a human friend along. Every bear, even Ursula in her red t-shirt and her red and blue scarf, was fair game, and Rhonda could easily have become what they call “collateral damage.” They were lucky to come back in one piece.
Once they returned I could tell that something had changed. Rhonda’s hair looked different, for one thing. That’s always a sign. Ursula sure seemed to like the way it looked. Or maybe how it felt. She kept stroking it with her claws when she passed by Rhonda’s chair. Jimmy was away at work at the time, and the three of us were sitting in the living room, admiring the view of the bridge and the water, when all of a sudden it seemed that there was one of us too many in there. Because it was obvious that Rhonda and Ursula had become an item. They didn’t have to say anything for me to get the picture. The long simmering looks they traded and the little touches that they gave one another made me think their sex life was a fireworks show.
Rhonda had mentioned years ago that she was bi, but I’d forgotten just what that meant. As for the interspecies thing, what the hell, I’m no prude. I was just glad to see her happy for a change. Glad and maybe a little sad. But mainly relieved. For one thing, 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 day she really dug the critter. You could see that from day one in 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 50 percent of it. I was ready to put the kibosh on part two of that. Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of respect for Ursula, but there were some lines—a few at least—that I wasn’t willing to cross. Not then anyway.
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 my 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 anytime. We were held together by good sex, at least at first, but that’d 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 almost to the iceberg stage, as far as sex. But maybe I’d get a new girlfriend, too. The idea didn’t cause me any pain, I’ll tell you that.
That evening, when we were all in the living room, Ursula made a little speech. I don’t remember her exact words, but 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.”
She was looking right at Rhonda when she said all this. 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 that. 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. I mean, if I couldn’t get him to turn off lights. . . . So I’d have to hire somebody to come in every other week to keep the place picked up. But the condo was all paid for, at least. I could easily afford to have them leave.
Well, what do you know but Rhonda and Ursula didn’t move out. Except for the fact that they spent a lot of time together, things went back to normal, pretty much. 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. But that normal that things went back to only lasted for a little while, before the weird and the wacko got to be routine.
If you want to contact me about the book, I can be reached at alsandine (at) aol.com.