Chapter One

1—Scary Guests

I was waiting for them out in front of the building, feeling nervous as a chicken on the freeway. Like what if they don’t show? But what if they do? Well, pretty soon here they come, rolling up to the curb in this big black limo, the kind they use to shuttle people from the airport to their hotel. And even though I was totally expecting them, it was still kind of weird to see these bears getting out. Real bears. They had to be ours.

Jimmy sauntered up to me. “I’m Jimmy,” he said. “And you must be . . . ”

Charlie Higgins,” I said.

He held out a paw and I touched it with my hand. He looked bigger and darker than what I was expecting from the photo. And he wasn’t wearing anything at all but a red beret. Ursula was kind of cute in her super-size blue dress. She had a pretty blue and red scarf over her ears, and she was funny, too. We hit it off from the get-go. Jimmy was a little harder to read.

We’d done the paperwork six months earlier. Weeks went by and then we got the letter. They were assigning us two black bears, a boy and a girl. They used a shitload of words to add 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 Ursula could see just fine. They’d hardly been with us an hour before she was giving Jimmy a tour of the scene out the living room window.

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.”

Since the bears were our guests, we had to feed them. I’d looked forward to that, because I kind of like to cook for folks. But what they liked to eat became an issue from day one. When I’d asked them what they liked, Jimmy said, “Pork,” or maybe “Pork makes my day.” I don’t know, I may have had a heat on at the time. But I wasn’t so juiced up I don’t remember him saying that. Okay, it’s out. I like my alcohol. Sometimes too much. Then I take myself off the stuff. Hell, I can go for weeks, even months, without a friggin’ drop. They tell me 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 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 one and adding to the cruel slaughter.

Why aren’t we having salmon? Isn’t that what they like to eat?”

It was late at night, soon after they 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 the 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 good, 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 up. Like some young couple that decides to have a kid because they’re fighting all the time. ‘Cause she still turned me on.

 

Black bears mostly eat vegetation and insects,” said Rhonda, one morning when we thought we had the kitchen to ourselves. “They’re practically vegetarians, like me.” I bet she Googled that.

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 in the TV room, and I was kind of up for this. “The fact is, number one, I always include a vegetable dish.” I was counting rice and bread, but she didn’t have to know that. “Number two, 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 anything else. 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 old food thing again. Ursula ambled in. She must’ve heard something of what we said, because she asked if she could make a suggestion.

Jimmy and I would like to have some take-out for a change, and we can help out on the cost.” They’d seen so many interesting-looking restaurants in the neighborhood, she said.

Hell, yeah,” I said. “Pick out what you want and I’ll be glad to cover it.” I have 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 told me later, “but if you’re going to give up the cooking, you’d better find something else to do with yourself. I don’t want to come home in the afternoon to find you already destroyed. I can’t do that anymore.”

It was really 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 the car, and then put her to bed. But that was years ago, before the government offered to pay for people to take 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’d bought 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 always thought there was still a chance.

 

The bears were full of surprises. Since they were “humanized,” we thought they’d act like real 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. Her mother sure as hell must’ve told her about our guests, but Mollie must’ve forgot. She was kind of a head case. Rhonda went to explain.

Wasn’t that supposed to be your line?” Jimmy said 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, the home invader is a human,” 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 nobody inside. She’s like Columbus, claiming and naming every island he encounters in the Caribbean. But Columbus didn’t stop at that and neither did she. 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.

Since bears acquired some of their own, if only in a fairytale,” he rumbled. “Moreover, 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. 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.”

Mollie and Rhonda came in, and her mother introduced her daughter to the bears.

 

Another time the Bertram show was about to come on, and we were in the TV room, all eyes on the big screen.

Ursula,” said Rhonda, “would you tell Jimmy that the Bertram show is about to start.” He was somewhere down the hall, puttering around in the kitchen probably.

Oh, he won’t want to watch that.”

Why not?” asked Rhonda. “Everybody loves Bertram Bear.”

Not Jimmy though,” said Ursula. “He’s embarrassed by him.”

Embarrassed? Why should he be embarrassed?”

Well, he thinks Bertram is a clown. Or clone or something. He thinks Bertram stereo-tapes bears and makes us look like fools. Like we don’t know anything.”

Stereo-taping, yeah! I like that word,” I said.

I’ll ask what you think of Bertram during the break,” Rhonda told her as she turned the volume up. We’d never known anybody who didn’t like Bertram Bear.

 

Once we got over the pork diet issue, our home life perked along just fine. Not that Rhonda and me became sweethearts again, but we had the thrill of having bears. But before it could be much of a thrill, we had to stand up to our own worst fears. I’ve always been kind of chickenshit when it comes to big animals. When we used to go on camping trips, we always went to the trouble of hanging our food from the high branch of a tree or letting it dangle over the side of a cliff. Not forgetting to include 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 anything like 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.

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 like Rhonda’s size, but a lot heavier. But both those bears had big sharp teeth and long-assed claws. Goes along with being a bear, right? A dustup with one of them would not have gone down well for the likes of us. For the first few weeks, I had this worry that padding down the 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. What if 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 neck? 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 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.

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 fart.

Are you ill, Charlie?” she asked.

 

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 start.

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, Rhonda’s kid, 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 wouldn’t 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.”

Hold it, I thought. Frogs don’t have teeth. Or if they do, they’re tiny small. But I let it go. What the hell would a bear know about amphibians?

 

We got used to the bears, but there was a lot they didn’t share with us. For example, Rhonda wanted to know what it had been like living in the camp. They didn’t want to talk about that. Also, 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, but that didn’t really mean anything.

We’re just a pair of refugees,” Jimmy would say.

And survivors,” Ursula would add.

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?” said I.

Yes, indeed,” said he. “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 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 using his magnifying glass to study 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? 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? Of course he was. 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. 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 counter.

I didn’t expect to see a “shaver” there. Most of them had gone to work in funeral homes and real estate offices.

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 a sour-eyed look. 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 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 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.”

And that was the end 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 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 that time of year. But they should’ve been able to go wherever they wanted. Am I right?

Any takers?” Rhonda asked.

“∑xw ɗouλϵιá,” 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 that 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. But the government issued uniforms and weapons to off people in wars. Wasn’t that kind of a 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?” said Rhonda.

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 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,” scolded 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 sun was a real downer for me. 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 come up with, 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,” said 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 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, and I didn’t do it for the government subsidy either. It was a card I kept up 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.

 

Rhonda and Ursula were gone several days. An email told us that while they were at the Sacramento rally, they’d 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 worried, and with Rhonda away, it was all too easy for me to elevate my nipping and my sipping. To change the music maybe, Jimmy asked me to teach him how to drive. I had my doubts, 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 perched beside him on the passenger seat, I was one frightened 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 shape,” he rumbled.

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 turn fainter as we moved away from them, 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, and doing it with ease. 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 came around 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. It looked like he’d gone to that exam, though he hadn’t said a word to me.

These are for distance,” Jimmy explained. “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 quickly learned not to open my mouth about each driving hazard on the road. He could see them as well as I could. As Jimmy put it,

These glasses have opened a whole new world to me, and now I want to see as much of it as I can.”

It was also a new world for me. 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 driving 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 others’ written tests, but no multiple choice.

We didn’t know until Rhonda and Ursula got back that hunters had fired some shots at them. They 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.” We were lucky to get them 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, 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 looks they traded and the little touches that they gave one another made me think their sex life must’ve been 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 a highball glass 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 like 50 percent. 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 that 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 almost to 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, 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. 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 could easily afford to have them go.

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 lengthy journey to some places where I’d never been before and that when I came back I’d 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) aol.com.