2—Our Odyssey Begins
The human couple, Charlie and Rhonda, was extraordinarily generous and kind, but I needed a change, something that might engage my mind and lead to some form of proud independence. I thought I might visit the campus, poke around the old department, plant a conversational seed or two of the kind that could sprout an adjunct position. Even an assistantship. Something in my field. The chances of my generating such a restoration were, of course, remote. The proverbial snowball might have had superior odds for success. Still, I had nothing better to do than to give it a try. But something has happened that put paid to all such possibilities and created some new ones in their place.
It began with Charlie’s coming home fairly late one night. He found us—Rhonda, Mollie, Ursula, and me—in the living room, where we were focused on a film classic. Loudly and without preliminary greeting, he urged us to go downstairs and discover what was in the street. We reluctantly complied, beholding Charlie’s new vehicle, not new in the sense of meaning recently made but new in that it was not the old van. In fact, it was a Chevy Suburban, greenish-brown as it appeared to me, previously-owned but seemingly in good condition, and huge. Naturally, I got behind the wheel, finding that this SUV had “tons” more room than its ancient predecessor. Charlie said that he had gotten it in a trade for the van. I have to think he must have supplemented his end of the bargain with a good deal of credit or cash.
“It’s about time you got rid of that old wreck,” said Rhonda. “I thought you were attached to it by an umbilical cord.”
“It seems the van was not the mother of the man,” quipped Mollie.
Charlie only frowned. Then he drew me aside. He wanted to know if I would accompany him on a “road trip.”
“A ‘road trip’?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’ll be fantastic. Are you okay with giving up your job?”
I told him that I thought I could always find a job like that. The economy was simmering, and there was an abundance of low-paying, low-status jobs of the kind that only bears used to get—“gigs,” as I believe they’re now called. To really goose the economy, of course, they should put more money in the pockets of bears, who would quickly put it back into circulation by the purchase of long-desired commodities. Whether we needed them or not, just like humans. But Charlie seemed to have no interest in my economic analysis. He seemed distracted in fact. He said that we had to be off the very next day.
“Tomorrow? Why the urgency?”
He said only that he was feeling “super antsy” and that this was a chance to put my driving lessons to the test. “I want us to get into that vehicle and just head east.”
“Destination what?” I asked.
“Let’s just find out where the big car wants to go.”
“Wow,” I exclaimed. “We are such a free spirit! But I’m going to have to sleep on this, Charlie. I’m not ready to make such a decision right now.”
“Really?” he said. He looked crestfallen, but he didn’t say I had no choice. For all I knew, I had to accompany Charlie wherever he went as a condition of the bear adoption regime. I’d never fully understood the program’s rules.
My impulse was never to rush. And a road trip with Charlie would mean putting those musty dreams of a return to academia back on the dusty shelf. Yet as I mulled the matter over while preparing for bed, I found that his proposal had a certain shine. Driving east would mean penetration of the American heartland, with all its colorful contradictions. My notes might become a kind of Democracy in America for the twenty-first century. If nothing else, I could compile another Travels With Charley. But Steinbeck’s companion contributed nothing to the cost of the trip, whereas my Charlie would have to pay for everything if impecunious I came along. I went to sleep thinking I just might.
Next thing I knew the man was waking me from the deepest of slumbers. The clock said almost 4:30. The darkness ante meridiem.
“Charlie, what is the meaning of this outrage? Why have you risked your life by shaking me awake? I smell no smoke.”
“Look,” he said, “If we leave now, we can beat the morning commute.”
“Beat the commute? Look, Charlie, I haven’t even decided to go!”
“Jimmy, I hate to rush you like this, but I really need your help. That means getting in that SUV out there and heading east. Do this for me, man, and I’ll never ask you for anything else as long as I live.”
“Let’s hope that that’s a long time, but . . . ” I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t like it, but considering all he had done for us, I didn’t see how I could refuse. He was a human, after all, and needed to get his way to feel good about his standing in the cosmos. Besides, floating at the end of the trip like a little pink cloud was that vision of a published manuscript.
“Okay, Charlie, but I wouldn’t do this for anyone else. I assume that we have time for the usual morning . . . repast?”
“No, we don’t. We’ll stop for breakfast on the road.”
“Well, we’re getting off to a nasty start.”
He kept getting in my way, bumping into things as bears are thought to do, and looking out the window as he jammed my shirts into a travel case under the head of helping me pack. All in all, our Charlie was as nervous as a catchphrase on an icy fence. I looked outside to see what he was watching for. There was no one on the street but what looked like a pair of large bears. Males, I would guess. The streetlight showed them just mounting the stairs to Coit Tower. They were going to have to wait awhile for the view.
Though Charlie had hammered and yammered for an early departure, I was waiting for him downstairs with the SUV when he finally emerged from the building with his suitcase and gear.
“Why are you wearing those dark-tinted glasses, Charlie?” I asked. “As you can perhaps see, it’s still dark.”
“Then I got nothing to lose by sporting shades.”
Non sequitur, at best, I thought, but I kept it to myself. Not only was Charlie wearing “shades,” but in place of his usual Giants’ cap, he had his head in a big white cowboy hat. I might not have recognized him on the street. Might have taken him for Tom Mix or another of those old radio cowboys that my grandpa used to describe. But maybe that was his aim. Not to be taken for Tom Mix but not to be recognized. He was casting furtive glances up the street where those bears had been. Did he think they were after him? Why would he think that? Perhaps our Charlie was becoming paranoid. Paranoia in human males can be dangerous, as I recalled from dipping into the literature on human psychology. The real question, then, was whether Charlie had become a danger to himself or others. How could I even consider going on a so-called road trip with a paranoid Charlie Higgins, yet here I was, behind the wheel of his big new car, about to drive into the great unknown with him. Had I become the big stupid bear or what?
Rhonda and Ursula came down to see us off, as it was getting light. Rhonda said she’d miss me. She even gave me a kiss, directly on the mouth, which is seldom the safest token of affection one can grant a bear. Ursula advised me not to do anything stupid. There was that word again. Like a grammar obsessive, I wondered if she shouldn’t have used the adverbial form—“stupidly.” I suggested that she, too, ten cuidado. “And you, too,” they told Charlie, but he had pulled his hat down low and was studying a map. I naturally expected him to confer with me as to our route, but when I looked over his shoulder, he folded the map and said, “I’ll tell you where to go.” He looked at me, threw his hat in the back, and I started the big car.
“We’ll be back,” shouted Charlie out the window as we pulled away. They signaled goodbye, looking more than ready to return to bed. Would we be back? I wasn’t sure.
The geography of northern California led me to suppose that we would stay on I-80, the major east-west route, at least as far as Sacramento. Instead, before we had gone thirty miles, Charlie had me exit onto a lesser-used state road. I was looking for a place to stop for breakfast—looking somewhat desperately, I must add—and I asked no questions at the time. But I couldn’t help noting that the dreadful commute traffic that had compelled us to begin our trip in the middle of the night, was crawling west, not east. We had been speeding, while they had been almost parked. Finally, we came to a roadside café. We settled into a booth with a view of the parking lot. As we waited for our orders, I asked Charlie why we had gotten off the Interstate. “We’re not going to make very good time on this two-lane country road.” He looked rundown, rumpled. I could smell his hangover.
“Well, I thought it might be nice to take a long, slow country drive,” he said.
“But you were in such a hurry to leave.”
“Yeah, I was.”
“Charlie, are you running away from something?”
“Yeah, I kind of am. And with your help.”
“Shouldn’t you be telling me what you’ve done and what we’re running from? I’m in this, too, you know.” He excused himself and shambled off to the Men’s. While he was gone, our orders came. When I had finished with my eggs and put a considerable dent in my pancakes, I reminded Charlie that I was waiting for an answer to my question.
“Yeah, I know,” he nodded, sucking coffee. “I should tell you what I’m running from. And later on, I will. But for now, Jimmy, the less you know, the better off you are.”
“You think my ignorance is going to protect me? That’s not how it usually works. What if I were to turn us around and take us back the way we came?”
“Jimmy, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t do that. I know it’s not fair. It’s just something that I have to do right now. I’ll make it up to you. I promise. Anyway, we’re on the road. We got some beautiful scenery ahead of us. Turn around now and you’re gonna get us in a big old traffic jam. We’d just be sitting there with all those other cars. Going east there’s hardly any traffic.”
“Charlie,” I said, “I’m not your cub chauffeur, and if you get me deported to the wilderness, I am going to be one angry, starving, and vindictive bear, and you will no longer be my benefactor or my friend.”
“Dude, I totally understand, but I really need you now to help me out. If I don’t explain, it’s ‘cause I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“Hmm,” I said. I let that “hmm” sink in, because I really didn’t know what to do. Clearly, I was operating on the basis of insufficient knowledge. Could I refuse my human sponsor’s travel plan without landing back in the camps? Did I have any rights at all? This was something that I should have researched but hadn’t. I hate small print. And beckoning now was the prospect of a long-distance drive and the chance to document my impressions of the American heartland.
Charlie paid the bill, and we went out to the car. He waited for me to get in on the driver’s side and unlock the passenger’s. I got behind the wheel, but I didn’t start the car. No doubt a smarter animal would have turned us back the way we’d come, but Charlie was right: that would put us in the parking lot of I-80’s westbound lanes. I turned the engine on, maneuvered us out of the café’s lot, and turned us toward the sun. Charlie expelled a sigh of relief.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “I owe you big time.”
“I haven’t forgotten that we’re running away.”
“Just don’t break any traffic laws and everything’s going to be okay.”
Country roads meant nights in cheap motels, as Charlie didn’t want to camp, which was fine with me. I would park the car around in back, and Charlie would go to the office to book our rooms. Motel managers could get grumpy when they discovered—via the complaints of a maid or my subsequence appearance perhaps—that they had rented a room to a bear. But by then we were usually ready to move on. A lot of the humans in the small towns where we stayed seemed never to have seen an assimilated bear, much less heard one talk. Some of them would turn out to be friendly—or curious, at least. Some of them would act like I wasn’t really a bear, falling all over themselves to become one with the nonindigenous animal in the scholarly glasses. But we got a lot of ugly looks, as well. Especially from humans seated in the safety of their trucks and cars. “You ain’t about to take over from us,” shouted one unpleasant fool. Another showed us that he had a firearm.
“Just let it go,” Charlie whispered, “let it go.” I wasn’t intending to do anything but record the incident.
I asked him again what we were running from. He mumbled something, and I had to ask again. He said that he had hurt someone “back there.”
“You hurt someone.”
“I’m afraid I did.”
Pale yellow fields, fallow, I suppose, were racing by on the sides of the road. What may have been a donkey in a doorway flew by in a brown and white flash. Long shadows striped the road ahead.
“Well,” I said, interrupting the silence, “I hope you’re not going to say you had to defend yourself. That’s such a tired excuse”
“No, it wasn’t self-defense.”
“Okay, tell me this, was it something that you otherwise needed to do?”
“Hell, no, Jimmy. It was the last thing I needed to do.”
“Gosh, Charlie, it sounds like you might have committed an acte gratuit—in fact, a gratuitous crime. Like Gide’s Lafcadio.”
“No, there wasn’t any Jeep involved. I hit somebody with the van. Somebody that was in the street. In the dark under a bridge. And I’d had a few drinks. With my priors, I could get some prison time for that.”
“Maybe you need to be in prison. You’re a dangerous fellow.”
“That’s just what I can’t let happen. Do you know what happens to guys like me in there? Guys that aren’t real rough and ready to rumble?”
“I don’t know. I suppose they have devil of a time finding something good to read. And they also have to develop a taste for institutional food.”
“That’s not what I mean! Guys like me get bullied and fucked over. They get fucked in the ass.”
“Some men fancy that, I understand. Are you sure you wouldn’t mind?”
“YES, I’M SURE I WOULDN’T MIND!”
“I’m right here, Charlie. You don’t have to shout.”
He seemed rather agitated, and we said no more for a while, as I got us by a string of slow-moving trucks. That SUV could fly on a level road.
“So,” I asked at last, “what happened to the van?”
He described the damage to its front end, then went into some detail in recounting how he stripped the vehicle of identifying features and left it at an abandoned area near the Bay. He lingered over this part of his confession, relishing the minutiae until I had to ask him to stop.
“Charlie, taking pride in getting away with a crime is generally regarded as evidence of criminality. Take Dostoyevsky’s treatment of . . . ”
“Look, I don’t need any treatment, because there’s not gonna be another crime. I only did what I did because I was driving juiced, and I promise you I’m through with that.”
“What did you just say?”
“I said no more drunk driving, never again.”
“Really? Do you think I’ll always be around to take you where you want to go?”
“Hell, no, Jimmy. I know better than that. I’ll drive again and I’ll probably drink again, but not both at the same time. That’s out.”
“I hope you’re serious, my friend. I count on it, in fact. But the enormous question in my mind is what happened to the person or the persons that you hit?”
“Well, uh . . .”
“Charlie, did you kill somebody with the van?”
“Pretty much, yeah, I kind of did.”
We had pulled into a motel parking lot, and Charlie was starting to get out, but I held him back.
“So you ‘pretty much’ killed somebody. Charlie,” I said in my sweetest voice. “Did you just happen to run over A BEAR?”
“Not over, no. More like into.”
“You hit and killed a bear.”
“Well, it was dark and it could’ve been a deer or something else big enough to stove in the front of my van. It might’ve survived.”
“But you didn’t remain at the scene to find out.”
“Nope. There were these, uh, other bears, trying to stop the car, and I was just too fucked up and scared.”
I let him get out and waited in the car, pondering what he had said and what it meant for me. Later I told him that I didn’t understand why we were running away.
“Do you think they’re going to launch a big investigation over the death of a bear?”
“I don’t know. They could. Just remember, you don’t know a thing.”
The problem of knowledge, yes, but what good is it when you’ve become the get-away driver of a bear killer? What I was doing went beyond journalism or memoir. Without meaning to, I was aiding and abetting a criminal—and without any criminal gain. My old mum would not have been proud.
After driving a few hours, we would stop for coffee. Charlie would insist on getting it to go, so that we could drink it in the car. The attention we would get inside such a place would render him twitchy and distracted. He remained convinced that I might do something that would bring us to the notice of the local authorities, who would then confer with their counterparts in San Francisco, and we would then find ourselves behind bars. Besides, sipping our drinks in the car gave Charlie a chance to add a little something alcoholic to his coffee drink. He liked to top it off with a dollop of whipped cream.
So we sat and sipped, and I might ask my friend the kind of question that was often on my mind, “Why are humans afraid of me? I know I sometimes make the uncaring remark, forget to flush, step on someone’s child that I didn’t scent, or leverage my way to the head of a line when I didn’t even know there was a line. I can understand that such a physical lapse might elicit human concern, but why fear? I’m aware that I am twice as large as anybody else. That being the case, one is sure to dominate or offend others. But I assure you I intend no harm. And I’m not afraid of them. But I should say ‘you.’ That would be the appropriate pronoun here. ‘I am not afraid of you.’ Don’t look at me that way, Charlie. I’m just giving my grammar a little romp. Did you never have a grandma that liked to romp? You’re probably wondering if I’m aware of the fallacy of thinking that because I’m not afraid of you, you shouldn’t be of me. I can assure you that I am. In any case, while I don’t fear humans in general, your cars and guns pose a distinct threat to my physical well-being. In brief, my life. And that of other bears, as well. But why am I telling all this to you, the slayer of a bear?” Caffeine always renders me verbose.
The expression on Charlie’s face suggested discomfort. A stomach ache perhaps.
“As a character in Anna Karenina casually remarks, it doesn’t take strength to kill a bear. Even a child can do it. He doesn’t have to add, ‘with a gun,’ because that’s obvious. And if he doesn’t add ‘with a motor vehicle,’ it’s only because there weren’t any cars in nineteenth-century Russia. So tell me this, Charlie. Why should humans have such deadly contrivances as cars and guns while the rest of us do not?”
“Well,” he said, with a nervous look around, “people need cars to get around in. Like we should be doing right now, if you’re rested up.”
Soon we were tooling along in the trough of a valley, stuck behind a watermelon truck at forty miles an hour in the midday heat. Three cheers for air conditioning.
“Humans needed weapons because we didn’t have claws or poison fangs or long sharp teeth. We needed them to protect ourselves against creatures that did.” He seemed pleased with himself for figuring this out.
“Creatures like me, you mean.”
“Well, uh, if the shoe fits . . . .”
“I assure you that I will never wear a shoe of any size. Over and above that, if every animal were to get what it required for self-defense—well, just think of it. The mouse might qualify for a nuclear device. A dirty mole might build a dirty bomb.”
“What are you saying, Jimmy? A mole with a WMD?”
“Maybe bears should have their own special weapons, too.”
“Well, like I said, you got your teeth and claws.”
“Not to mention our great physical strength. But we have nothing to compare with guns and their capacity to kill and wound at distance. The question is, if we did have our own special weapons, would we have the right to bear arms?”
“Hey, Jimmy, why have you taken your eyes off the road and why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because you’re not laughing.”
“Why should I laugh?”
“Never mind, Charlie, never mind.”
Speaking of weapons, one day we came to a town where everyone seemed to have a rifle on his shoulder or a pistol on her hip—or both.
“Hey, Jimmy, why are we turning around?”
“Because I want to have another look at that sign we just went by.”
I did and discovered that it was mandatory in this town for everyone over eighteen to carry a loaded weapon, “except where otherwise prohibited, in the privacy of the home, and on the advice of a physician.” At the bottom was an ordinance number, showing that this was not just a whim.
“How can they possibly justify all these guns?” I wondered out loud. “It appears we’ve wandered into a war zone or a political cartoon.”
Charlie thought that with everybody armed everybody could feel safer. “I mean, you’re not about to pull a gun on me if you know I have one, too. The gun rights people think that this should put an end to gun violence.”
“Ha,” I exclaimed. “Everybody ‘packing heat,’ as they say, doesn’t make me feel one bit safer.”
“That’s because you’re not packing, too.”
“Hmf. Was the Old West pacified by universal ownership of guns? Notoriously not.”
We drove in silence, as I weighed the probable human reception for a bear with a gun. The roadside stands we were passing advertised strawberries, grapes, melons, corn, and more. We’d stop and buy something from time to time, but even with my appetite and fondness for all things sweet, we could only eat so much fruit before I got a craving for le fromage bleu.
“Getting back to the question that you asked the other day . . . ”
“Which question was that?” I asked.
“Why are humans afraid of bears?”
“No, I asked why humans were afraid of me.”
“But they’re afraid of you because you’re a bear.”
“Do we really know that?”
“What? That you’re a bear?”
“That they’re afraid of me because of my bearishness. At least some of them may be afraid of anything that moves.”
It seemed he didn’t know what to say. As far as I knew, he hadn’t had a drink in the last few days, and I considered letting him drive. I needed a nap.
“So you have an answer now?” I finally said.
“Yeah, I do, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it either. Humans are afraid of you because you’re a bear. Definitely. Because bears sometimes kill and eat people. That’s been going on for a long time now.”
“Excuse me, but would you care to guess how many more bears have been killed and eaten by people than people killed and eaten by bears?”
“I don’t know, how many?”
“Three million, four hundred and sixty thousand, and one forty-one. Got that? Three million, four hundred and sixty thousand, and one forty-one. As of the first of the month. We call that the Bear Mortality Margin.” I gave him a friendly bear nudge. “Ouch!” he said.
“Did you Google that or what?”
“No, I didn’t Google it.”
“How do you know it then?”
“I intuited it,” I used what’s called the growl profound to tell him that.
But Charlie seemed determined to provoke me. “Some people say that a male bear will kill and eat any cub it finds, and that’s why mama bears are so fierce about protecting their young.”
I had to hit the brakes to keep from driving into a fence. “That’s a preposterous lie!” I roared.
“Okay,” he said, “but it’s something I’ve heard more than once. Why would anybody make up something like that?”
I had pulled the car off the road, and I was taking deep breaths. “Oh, Charlie,” I managed. “Sometimes your light burns so dimly. Don’t you see that this is propaganda put out by the bear hunters’ lobby? They want to be allowed to shoot more big males like me. We’re their trophy animals.”
“Gee, Jimmy, you’re usually so mellow.”
“And here’s another thing, Charlie. These people have the audacity to claim that by killing off male bears, they’re increasing the bear population. Increasing it! Can you imagine?”
He didn’t respond, and we drove in silence for a while. But I wasn’t ready to quit this subject. “Humans have also been known to kill and eat their own kind. The historical record includes many, many human followers of Saturn.”
“Saturn? Isn’t that the one with the rings?”
“Not Saturn the planet, Saturn—aka Chronos—the god of classical antiquity. He devoured his own children. With my people, that’s something only a grizzly would do.”
Charlie hadn’t explored the literature of anthropology, of course, but I thought he must have seen cartoons of white explorers in the tropics, simmering in a pot and cracking jokes. But he produced a more obvious example of human cannibalism.
“I guess that people stranded and starving in the mountains in the winter, like that Dinner Party, might eat somebody from their group, if they were stuck there long enough without any other food.”
“A nice fat infant perhaps?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me none.”
“Let’s just hope we never become that hungry.”
“Or go to that kind of party.”
Charlie turned the radio on, tuning in a car commercial. I guess we were both getting a little bored with the driving and wanting to stir things up. He said something.
“I can’t hear you, Charlie, with that radio on.” He turned it off.
“I said, I’ve also heard that a grizzly will kill and eat a black bear.”
“Abysmal grizzlies. And our government wants to award protected status to the ones still in the wild, too! They’re not real bears. A real bear would never eat of a brother or a sister bear’s corpus. As far as I’m concerned, the grizzly is only half a bear.”
“You think the rest is what—a shark?”
“The rest, my friend, is human.”
“Half-human, huh? What about all that fur and those big white teeth and claws? If that’s not all bear, I don’t know what is.”
“It isn’t their secondary characteristics that I’m talking about. It’s their aggression. A grizzly would just as soon kill you as look at you. Especially if you happen to look at him.”
“Jeez, Jimmy, I didn’t know you were so hung up on this grizzly thing.”
I told him that the “grizzly thing” wasn’t a “hang-up” with me but an existential threat.
“Anyway,” I said, “for all you know, we bears eat human flesh as a sacrament.” I was looking at him, waiting for his reaction, and he thought he had to grab the wheel to keep us from drifting into the path of an oncoming truck. “Those that get a taste of this sanctified flesh can thereby slough off the mask of everyday life and become as one with the mighty spirit in the sky. As for the so-called victims of the sacred feast, they go straight to the great beyond where they can eat anyone or anything that comes their way for the next six months. And they never risk being eaten by anyone else again. Forever, amen.”
Charlie snickered, finally catching on. We had watched a program on the Aztecs at a motel a couple of nights earlier, and my riff was based on that. Charlie said that he had always thought of human sacrifice as an example of religion jumping from the 31st floor.
We were on a mountain road of sudden steep grades, hairpin turns, and a flock of sharply-angled sheep when I asked Charlie a question that had become an irritant in a far corner of my mind. “Charlie, why don’t you have to work for a living like most people your age?”
He held up his defective hand. “It’s my major, too,” he said.
“All right,” I said. “You’ve got an injured or malformed hand. You’ve shown me before how you can barely tie your shoes or peel a potato. You can’t do heavy work. I suppose it would be indelicate for me to suggest that it may be hard for you to even masturbate. But I don’t mean to make light of your impairment. It’s just that your limitations don’t explain how you can afford the condo on Telegraph Hill or this SUV or how you can pay for all of our expenses on this trip.”
“Well, I . . . ”
“Now, Charlie, please don’t repeat that story about an agency that sends you a check every month. This isn’t Norway. I appreciate your generosity, but I can’t help wondering, did you win the lottery or what?”
“Well, uh, Rhonda helped pay for the condo. Some anyway.”
“And? What else? Is Rhonda paying for our trip?”
“Look, Jimmy, this is something I just don’t want to get into right now, okay? Maybe some other time.”
“Sure, no problema, mi hermano. I was just curious and thought that curiosity injured only cats. No offense, I trust.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“There’s just one more thing I have to ask. When you . . . did what you did back in the city and thought you had to run away, why didn’t you just book a flight to Europe or South America? Isn’t that what wealthy criminals usually do?”
“Well,” he said, “to fly you have to have a destination. I just wanted to get away. And I thought that you might like it, too. I mean, being on the road and all.”
“Ah, the eternal attraction of the road. And you thought that I might like it, too. Not bad for an adult human male.”
Since we were heading east, the summer sun was mostly at our backs. No one would say that we were racing across the continent, as we were masters of the late start. Then we would drive for a few hours between a late breakfast and lunch, linger over coffee, get back in the vehicle and resume our journey until the light began to change. Then we would look for a vantage point from which we could look back at the road on which we had come, unspooling itself below until it became a thread and then a tiny distant crease to mark our starting point. Gadget phobic to the core, we had no use for GPS to find our way. Instead, we would spread a road atlas across one of the beds when we got to the motel, reading the names of places that appeared to be a day’s drive east. We weren’t so naïve as to assume that a Pleasantville on the map would be a pleasant place to stay, but if we had to choose between a Pleasantville and a Grizzly Pass, let’s say, there was no contest as to our next destination. A site that had a river running through it, a public pool, or a nearby park got extra points.
One evening when the reds, yellows, and purples in the rearview glass were in a tie to win a beauty contest, we noticed a lot of cars up ahead, some wooden stands, and a bright green, white-striped parallelogram whose shorter sides contained a gleaming set of goalposts. It appeared that a high school football game was about to start. I remembered games I’d watched at Memorial Stadium and felt a surge of excitement in my chest. I suggested that we stop and watch. Charlie was willing, but he thought he had to warn me about something.
“Of course they’re not going to let me play,” I said with more than necessary emphasis. “Nor will they you.”
“I wouldn’t if they begged me to,” he said. “Not with my bad hand.”
We found a place to park, but as we were making our way up into the stands, people greeted us with some hard looks. We also heard some repellent remarks. I didn’t feel altogether welcome at this football game. Our presence might have been exceptional, in any case, because, unlike most of the spectators, we weren’t wearing red. Having huffed and puffed our way up the stairs of the stands, we were just settling down when this fellow in a blue and yellow cap came bounding up to thank us for our support “in this hostile environment. And, sir,” he said to me, “that’s a wonderfully lifelike bear get-up.”
“Much obliged,” I said, “and you look almost human yourself.”
Smiling nervously, he gave a nod and scurried back down the stairs. I tried to follow his progress, but I’d left my distance glasses in the vehicle.
“What was that about?” I asked my human friend.
“I don’t know,” said Charlie, “but it looks like he’s going down to the end of the stands. Oh, I get it. He’s with the people who’re rooting for the visiting team. They’re all in blue and gold. They have their own cheerleaders, too.”
Despite the myriad other sounds that I was picking up, I could just make out their chant: “Go, Bears. Beat’em, Bears!” The visiting football team was called the Bears, I grokked. Charlie’s thinking that he had to explain all this inspired me to play the stupid bear.
“So the ones in blue and yellow garb down there must be the Bears. Just like at Cal. What are they wearing under their shirts?”
He explained about the shoulder pads, and I asked him about the “totem” of the home team. “Not the hunters, I trust.”
“No, they call themselves the Red Dragons.” Dragon pictures were ubiquitous, and the crowd was chanting, “GO, RED DRAGONS, GO!”
“A beast of both Chinese and European legend, if I’m not mistaken. I think that the bear should be more than a match for an animal of mere myth. GO, BEARS, GO!” I suddenly rose to roar in my basso profundo. The heads of a hundred Dragon fans swiveled round to see this devil in their midst. They squinted nastily at me.
“Is that a real bear?” asked a boy a couple of rows away.
“No,” I barked. “It’s a pit viper!”
Charlie was fidgeting like the dysenteric patron of a horror show. Had I been a betting bear, I might have bet good money that he was wishing he had a drink. He muttered that his “stupid flask” was in the car. I thought of retrieving it for him, as it would be a chance to get my glasses, too. But there were notices throughout the area forbidding the use of alcohol.
“Yeah, I know,” he said when I pointed this out.
Without my visual aids, events on the field made their way to me as rumor or confusion. “What just happened?” I would ask. “I’m getting whiffs of a human pile-up.” More people turned around to stare.
“It’s called a goal-line stand,” yelled Charlie into my nearest ear. “The Bears are making a goal-line stand,”
“GO, BEARS!” I roared. “TU VINCAS!” But the bears were evidently not about to conquer. Everyone around us had gotten up. We couldn’t see, and they were cheering as if for the invention of food and drink.
“The Dragons made a touchdown, a goal,” Charlie explained.
At that point, I gave vent to impulse, rose up out of my seat, and began to chant, “DRAGONS EAT BEAR POOP, DRAGONS EAT BEAR POOP, DRAGONS EAT . . . ” It was no worse than the invective that Dragon fanatics were hurling at the Bears.
“No, Jimmy,” begged Charlie, trying to pull me down. “I think maybe we’ve seen enough.” He was treating me like a five-year-old who’s had too many Cokes. I sat down and he got up to go, foolishly trying to pull me with him.
“No, no. Let’s stay,” I pressed. “This is wonderful.” To hell with Guy Debord, I thought.
“Somebody’s had too much to drink,” said someone in back of us.
“If only,” muttered Charlie.
From another nearby source, I distinctly heard the word “police.”
“He’s just a bear,” Charlie explained.
“What’s that?” a guy behind us asked. “A real bear?”
A woman shrank back, her arms around her kids. “How can it talk?” her little girl wanted to know. But by then I was making my way down the wooden stairs and out of the stands. People gave me plenty of room.
“Jimmy, wait up!” Charlie yelled.
I felt shamed. “Just a bear?” Subjectivity had bled right out of me, but what was left? Was I a large omnivore of temperate forest regions? No, my grandmother was that. Was I something more than that? Something less? My advocacy of the Bears may have gone a step too far, but I needed to sort out my reaction to Charlie’s reaction to the pressure of a human crowd. Sometimes I wish those mountain missionaries with their mania for teaching bears to speak had never set foot in the woods.
I was running away on all fours. If someone were to take me for a wild bear, so much the better. Just so he didn’t shoot. There was a stand of firs lining the school’s parking lot, and I ducked into it. Charlie had tried to keep up with me, and I could hear his distant cry,
“Jimmy, like I’m sorry. I’m only human,”
That’s exactly the problem, I thought.