Jimmy was bugging me to teach him how to drive. I had my doubts, but I finally gave in. Cramped behind the wheel of my battered old van, he was one happy bear. But perched beside him on the passenger seat, I was a frightened man. We were in a residential area where there were hardly any other cars on the road, but 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 fact that 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 the greatest but claimed to be able to smell what was coming 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 recognize it by its shape,” he rumbled.
“You recognize it! What about next time doing what it says?”
I wondered whether he could really smell 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? Did he have like a smell-gun in his nose that he could aim down the road to zero in on smells 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 noticed that some other bears were wearing them, too. I remembered how freaked out Rhonda had been when she saw him reading with that 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, while we were stopped for a light. “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 every 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.”
Besides the fact that not driving beats the hell out of driving, as far as I’m concerned, 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. It’s not like I plan these things. But we were still busting the law. Jimmy didn’t have a driving license. 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. Multiple choice would put him in a funk. He said it was only for humans and ants. He was ready to write an essay or help grade others’ written tests, but no multiple choice.
“There’s a car right behind us with an array of flashing lights,” Jimmy announced one day. We’d been about to exit 880 in Vallejo for a visit to the wine country.
“Oh, shit, a cop. You have to pull over and do exactly what he says. When he asks for your license, just say you left it in your other pants.” I’d stashed my bottle under the seat.
But the cop turned out to be a highway patrol bear—maybe the only one on the force—who let Jimmy off with a couple of warning growls. Mock-angry like. We’d been pushing the speed limit, he said.
Something really gnarly has gone down, and I need Jimmy to help me get the hell away before I get locked up. Everybody knows what happens to dudes like me—dudes that aren’t real big and bad—when they get put in prison with a bunch of hardened criminals. Do I have to spell it out? They get raped! In the ass! I don’t even want to think about what that would be like. Some guys get off on it, I guess. Not me though. I’d rather die. So I can’t let them lock me up.
I shouldn’t have left the scene. I know that. But it seemed like I had no choice. I mean, here I was with my prior DUIs, and here was this little green Subaru with its side stove in where I’d run into it. I guess I missed a stop. The couple inside it weren’t hurt, as far as I could tell, though the dude was plenty pissed. Who wouldn’t be? But he couldn’t chase me with his front wheel all busted in, and I gunned it the hell out of there. I caught a glimpse of him in the rearview. Looked like he was writing something down. That had to be my license number. I mean it sure as hell wasn’t any song lyrics. Shit, I thought. With that and the new dents and the bumper hanging off my front end, they wouldn’t be needing any bloodhounds to track me down. I hated to, but I was going to have to ditch the van.
Sobering fast, I drove out 3rd and then along the Bay until I was the only car on the road. The only sign of life out there were a few makeshift tents and lumps of homeless folks. Dark buildings here and there, scattered trash, and that was about it. I had to keep an eye out for the broken glass. Finally, I was in a totally deserted spot, right next to the Bay. I stopped and used a screwdriver to take off the plates. Then I threw them out into the water as far as I could. (Add polluting the environment to the drunk driving and the hit and run.) Then I pulled as much of my stuff as I could carry out of the thing, all the stuff with my ID, but I had to leave a shovel and some other stuff. I let the air out of two of the tires, just to make it look more abandoned like. There was nothing I could do about the VIN, but I was hoping they would take the engine, too. I left the hood propped up. It didn’t feel good to ditch the van like that. We’d known some good times. But my freedom had to come first. I said good-bye to it with a pat or two on the steering wheel. Then I had to walk a long ways in the gloom of dusk. It was kind of scary, but not nearly as scary as getting caught for my crimes.
If the law comes knocking at my door, I can’t be home, I thought, as I made my way along, and whoever answers can’t know where I am. The thing is, do I tell Jimmy why we have to hit the road, or only that he gets to drive? I can’t be behind the wheel anymore. Not after today.
It was late when I got over to the East Bay, but not too late for me to grab a cab and shop around and lease the biggest non-commercial vehicle I could find, a Chevy Suburban, kind of greenish-brown. It had some miles on it, but except for some ugly scratches, it seemed to be in pretty good shape. So I drove it home, where for Jimmy, it was love at first sight. He climbed into the driver’s seat and put a paw out for the keys. I let everybody think I’d traded in the van.
“It’s about time you got rid of that old wreck,” Rhonda said. “I thought you were attached to it by an umbilical cord.”
“It seems the van was not the mother of the man,” cracked Mollie, who was spending time with us.
“Are you okay with giving up your job?” I asked.
Jimmy said that he could always get a job like that. I couldn’t argue with that. The region’s economy was starting to bubble up, and there were lots of crummy jobs around. Jimmy liked to say that if they wanted to see a real economic take-off, they should put more money in the pockets of bears. Bears would quickly put it back in circulation by buying things. Whether they needed them or not, just like us. He fancied himself a kind of economic sage. But he was more than game for going on a road trip.
“But what’s the rush?” he asked me when I said we had to leave next day. I almost told him why—it was only fair—but what if I told him and he didn’t want to go? I needed him to drive me, and I knew that with him along the trip would be a lot more mellow and a lot more fun. So, I just told him I was feeling super antsy.
“This is a chance to put everything I’ve taught you about driving to the test. I want us to get into that vehicle and just head east.”
“Let’s just find out where the big car wants to go.”
“Wow,” he howled. “We are such a free spirit!”
We left the car in an overnight garage down the hill. I hardly slept that night. I was all primed to sprint down the back stairs, if anybody came to the door.
Next morning, God only knows how, we managed to find a parking spot right in front of the building, where it was easy to load the SUV with all our stuff. Rhonda and Ursula came down to see us off. Rhonda said she’d miss me. She even gave me a kiss. She gave Jimmy a smack, as well. How big a smack I don’t know, because I wasn’t paying any attention to what was going down with them. I had my head in a map. Ursula told Jimmy not to do anything stupid—“and you, too,” she said, meaning me. I didn’t tell her it was kind of late for that. They must’ve been glad to have the house to themselves for a change. Jimmy thought so, too.
“We’ll be back,” I promised. I wondered was that one more lie.
We got under way, and it was good to be on the road, starting to put some distance between me and the scene of my crimes. I told Jimmy where to go, which was east on state roads.
“Say, Charlie,” he asked me after fifty miles or so, “why have we gotten off the Interstate? We’re not going to make good time on this two-lane country road.”
“Well, I thought it might be nice, some long, slow country drives.”
“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?” He was starting to do that soft growling thing he did when he didn’t like something.
“Yes, I should. And later on, I will. But for now, the less you know, the better off you are.”
“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, but what the hell, we’re on the road. Just look at those fields and orchards that we’re going by.”
“Charlie, I’m not your cub chauffeur, and if you get me deported to the wilderness, I am going to be one angry, starving bear, and you will no longer be 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 you to get in trouble, too, like me.”
“Hmm. I must admit that I like the idea of a long-distance drive. Perhaps I can do some eyewitness research in unfamiliar parts.”
“Just don’t break any traffic laws and everything is going to be okay.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time after that, and he didn’t turn the car around.
Taking country roads meant we had to stay in cheap motels, as neither of us wanted to camp. It meant small towns where people had never even seen an assimilated bear, much less got up close to one. Some of them would turn out to be friendly, some of them would act like Jimmy wasn’t really a bear, but a lot of the looks we’d get from people in their nice safe cars were kind of nasty like. When we’d park and get out of the car, some people would stop and stare and some would simply turn and walk away. A lot of times people rushed off when they saw us coming. But whether they were going to hide under the bed or get a gun or had some important business they had to get to, we never knew. I wasn’t surprised to see Jimmy scribbling things down in that little notebook of his.
I did tell Jimmy why I had to leave SF, but not before we’d been on the road a few days.
“Well,” he grumbled, “I assumed that it was something like that. But why didn’t you just book a flight? Isn’t that what middle-class human criminals usually do?”
“I just couldn’t take the chance that they might be expecting that. Anyway, remember: you don’t know a thing.”
“The problem of knowledge, yes. What can we really know and how can we know it? Hmm.”
One late day when we’d been driving for hours and had stopped to get some coffee, Jimmy asked me, “Why are people 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 know there was a line, but why should this elicit fear? When one is twice as large as anybody else, he is bound to offend. But I intend no harm. I’m not afraid of them. But ‘you’ would probably be the more 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. And, yes, I’m well aware of the fallacy of thinking that because I’m not afraid of you, you shouldn’t be of me. 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. 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. Now why do you suppose humans have such deadly contrivances as motor vehicles and guns while the rest of us do not?”
As a passenger, I was captive to all kinds of stuff like this. “Well,” I said, “people need cars to get around. Like we’re doing right now.” We were tooling along in the trough of a broad valley at the time, stuck behind a truck at 40 miles an hour in 90-degree heat. “And I guess people 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.”
“Creatures like me, you mean.”
“Well, uh, if the shoe fits . . . .”
“But if every animal were to get what it required for self-defense, the mouse might qualify for a nuclear device. A dirty rat might build a dirty bomb.”
Not too long after this, we went through a town where everyone seemed to have a rifle on his shoulder or a pistol on her hip. I thought I’d seen a sign as we were coming in that said it was mandatory here for everybody over a certain age to carry a loaded weapon, but we were going by it at a pretty good clip, and I wouldn’t swear that that’s exactly what it said. But something like that.
“How can they possibly justify all those guns?” Jimmy wondered out loud. “It appears we’ve wandered into a political cartoon.”
I explained that with everybody armed everybody could feel safe. “I mean, you’re not about to pull a gun on me if you know I have one, too. That’s the argument anyway. The gun rights people think that this should put an end to gun violence.”
“Ha,” exploded Jimmy, “Everyone ‘packing heat,’ as they say, doesn’t make me feel one bit safer.”
“That’s because you’re not packing, too.”
“Hmf. I can just about imagine what humans would do to a bear with a gun. As for everyone carrying a gun putting a stop to gun violence, was the Old West pacified by universal ownership of guns? I believe not.”
We drove in silence for a while. The roadside stands we were passing had signs for strawberries, grapes, melons, corn, all kinds of stuff like that. We’d stop and buy something from time to time, but even with Jimmy’s appetite, we could only eat so much fresh fruit without some problems, you know. Anyway, there was something scratching at the backdoor of my mind. It was that question Jimmy had asked. Why are people afraid of bears? The answer couldn’t have been so clear if it’d come to me in blinking lights. “Getting back to the question that you asked the other day . . . ”
“Which question was that?”
“Why are people afraid of bears?”
“No, I asked why people were afraid of me.”
“But they’re afraid of you because you’re a bear.”
“Do we really know that? At least some of them may be afraid of anything that moves.”
I didn’t know how to answer this.
“So you have an answer now?” he asked.
“I’m not so sure I even have a question anymore, but yeah, I do. And I’m not going to sugarcoat it either. People are afraid of you because you’re a bear, and bears sometimes kill and eat people, and that’s been going on for a long time.”
“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?”
“Exactly 3,460,141. Got that? 3,460,141. That’s how many more.” He gave me a friendly bear nudge, the kind that can leave a bruise.
“Did you Google that or what?”
“No, I didn’t Google it.”
“How do you know it then?”
“I intuited it,” he growled.
I could see that Jimmy was getting kind of steamed up, and I probably should have kept my mouth shut, but I just had to mention something super-ugly that I’d heard. “Some people say that a male bear will kill and eat any cubs it finds, and that’s why mama bears are so fierce about guarding their young.”
Jimmy had to hit the brakes to keep from driving into a fence. “That’s a preposterous lie!” he roared.
“Okay,” I said, “but it’s something I’ve heard more than once. Why would anybody make up something like that?”
He’d pulled our vehicle off the road, and he was taking deep breaths. “Oh, Charlie,” he managed, at last. “Sometimes your light burns so dim. 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?”
I could more or less imagine how that might work out, but I wasn’t about to say anything. We drove in silence for a while, but Jimmy wasn’t through with this. “Humans have also been known to kill and eat their own kind. The historical record includes many, many followers of Saturn.”
“Saturn? Isn’t that the one with the rings?”
“Not Saturn the planet, Saturn the original Greek god. He devoured his own children. With my people, that’s something only a grizzly would do.”
“Yeah,” I must’ve agreed, “I guess under certain conditions, people—I mean the kind of people they used to feature in the National Geographic—will sometimes eat their own kind. They’ve been known to.”
Jimmy was nodding like he was mulling what I said. Or he might’ve been somewhere far away, inside that shaggy head of his. “Also, people stranded and starving in the mountains in winter might eat a certain member of their party, if they were stuck there long enough without any other food. Maybe a nice fat infant. Okay, I accept that. Whether a grizzly will also eat its own kind, I’m damned if I know, but I’ve heard that a grizzly will kill and eat a black bear.”
I guess we were both getting a little bored with the driving and wanting to stir things up a bit.
“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 bear is only half a bear. The rest is human.”
Jimmy was really hung up on this grizzly thing.
“Half-human, huh?” I said. “What about all that fur and those big 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.”
“And you put humans in the same category?”
He used a bear grin for an answer. “Anyway,” he snorted, “for all you know, we bears eat human flesh as a sacrament. That’s right.” He was looking at me, waiting for my reaction. I had to grab the wheel to keep us from drifting into a truck in the other lane. He continued in a preachy tone. “Those that get a taste of this sanctified flesh can thereby slough off the mask of everyday life and become as one with the great invisible 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 they might like for another fifteen years. And they never risk being eaten by anyone else again. Forever, amen.”
Our conversation was taking on a creepy edge. Then Jimmy snickered, and I had to crack up, too. We’d been watching a program on the Aztecs at a motel a couple of nights before, and his riff was coming straight from that. Our Jimmy was one sharp bear. Did I understand the meaning of human sacrifice? Hell, no. The whole thing had always seemed to me to be a case of religion jumping from an upper floor.
We were on a mountain road by then with lots of steep grades and hairpin turns and sheep grazing at sharp angles. Jimmy had his focus back, and he handled the vehicle with ease. Made me proud of the way I’d trained him. After a silent hour or so, he said he had a question for me.
“Charlie,” he said, “I was wondering. Why is it that you’re not required to work for a living?”
“Well, Jimmy, you know I’ve got this bad hand.” I lifted it from my lap and wiggled it a little. I couldn’t wiggle it a lot. “It’s my major hand, too.” I’m not going to get into my medical history here or show you the x-rays or make a list of what I can and can’t do with my messed up hand. You just have to take my word for it.
“All right,” he said. “You’ve got an injured or malformed hand. You’ve shown me before what it can’t do. But that doesn’t explain how you can afford to buy this large vehicle or a condo on Telegraph Hill or pay for all of our expenses on this trip. I appreciate your generosity, but I can’t help wondering whether you have an exceedingly generous disability pension or you won 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, 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,” I said.
Since we were mostly headed east and never seemed to get an early start from one day to the next, the sun was mostly at our backs. Late in the day, we’d sometimes drive up to a high spot, just to look back at the sunset and see the road we’d been on unspooling itself below until it was just a thread that fuzzed off where we’d been some hours earlier. Then at night, we’d get out our road atlas and talk about where we’d go next. If one of us wasn’t excited by a destination—by the name, anyway—we wouldn’t take that route but head for somewhere else. Wherever it was, when we got there it was never what we’d imagined from the map. That was how it was for me anyway. Being with Jimmy was like having both a kid and a parent along.
One evening when the reds and yellows and purples in the western sky were having a beauty contest, we saw that we were driving by a high school football game. Jimmy wanted to go. I thought maybe he thought they’d let him play, but when I told him we could only watch, he growled, “Any fool knows that.” He still wanted to go. He knew that American football was filled with action and, in my opinion—though Rhonda disagrees with me on this—Jimmy always went in for action. Which maybe didn’t jibe with his love of books, but what do I know?
We parked with the other cars, but as we were making our way up into the stands, we got some hard looks. We also heard some rude remarks. Wow, I thought, these people really don’t like bears. But even if Jimmy hadn’t been a bear, we’d have stood out by the fact that we weren’t wearing red. Well, we got up to some seats, and we hadn’t been sitting there more than two minutes when a fellow in a yellow cap came bounding up to our spot to thank us for our support “in this hostile environment. And, sir,” he said to Jimmy, “that’s a wonderfully lifelike bear get-up.”
“Much obliged,” growled Jimmy. “You look almost human yourself.”
I watched the dude go back to his seat at the other end of the stands. That’s where the visiting teams’ cheerleaders were, trying to electrify a little cluster of fans. I could just make out their chants: “Go, Bears. Beat’em, Bears!” they piped. I grokked that the Bears must be the visiting football team. I ran down the situation to Jimmy, but he was skeptical like.
“The ones in the blue and yellow, you mean? Huh, just like Cal. But they don’t look like any species or subspecies of bears I’ve ever known. What are they wearing under their shirts?”
I almost thought that he was putting me on, but I explained about the shoulder pads. He wanted to know the “totem,” as he called it, of the home team. “Not the hunters, I trust.”
“No, they call themselves the Red Dragons.” Dragon pictures were everywhere, 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 bears should be more than a match for an animal of mere myth. GO, BEARS, GO!” he began to roar in his amped-up bass. This attracted a hundred craned necks and a lot of nasty stares.
“Is that a real bear?” asked a boy a couple of rows away.
“No,” barked Jimmy. “It’s a pit viper!”
I was really needing a drink, but I’d left my flask in the car, and the signs said no alcohol in the stands. Jimmy had also left something in the car—his distance glasses. What was happening on the field seemed kind of like a mystery to him. “What just happened?” he would ask. “I’m getting whiffs of a human pile-up.” People kept turning around to look at us.
“The Bears are making a goal-line stand,” I yelled into Jimmy’s ear to get above the noise. “It’s called a goal-line stand.”
“GO, BEARS!” he roared. “And why are they so happy now?” he asked a little later. All the people around us had got up out of their seats and were cheering like mad.
“The Dragons made a touchdown, a goal.”
Jimmy stood and started bellowing a sing-song chant, “DRAGONS EAT BEAR POOP, DRAGONS EAT BEAR POOP, DRAGONS EAT . . . ”
“No, Jimmy,” I begged, trying to pull him down. “I think maybe we’ve seen enough.” I was treating him like a five-year-old that’s had too many Cokes, but what else could I do? I thought he might get us killed. I started to get up.
“No, no. Let’s stay.” he pressed. “This is wonderful.”
“Somebody’s had too much to drink,” I could hear a woman say. I wished she was right and it was me. Other people were muttering stuff I didn’t want to hear. “Maybe we should call the police,” someone said.
“He’s just a bear,” I murmured.
“What’s that?” the guy behind us asked. “A real bear?”
A woman shrank back, her arms around her kids. But Jimmy was making his way out of the stands, and people were giving him plenty of room.
“Jimmy, wait up!” I yelled, heading after him and feeling like a jerk. I knew I’d said the wrong damn thing. When I caught up with him in the parking lot, he pulled away. “Get away from me with your ‘just a bear.’”
“Jimmy, like I’m sorry. I’m only human.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” he flung over his shoulder as he hurried off into the darkness of a stand of firs on the edge of the school’s parking lot. He’d gone back to walking on all fours.
I spent the next few days and nights out of my head with worry over Jimmy, not to mention me. Because I really didn’t want to drive. If a cop stopped me for anything at all and found out that the SF cops had put a hold on me, I’d wind up behind bars, sure as shit. But without Jimmy, I had to drive ‘cause I was stuck out there in Nowheresville. No taxis, no Lyft, no buses, no airport, and no train. I couldn’t just walk to someplace else. As for Jimmy, he could’ve got himself shot around there. Could’ve been turned into a rug on someone’s floor. And it would be my damn fault.
Besides being in a panic over Jimmy, there was the motel room. I’d forgotten what it was like to be alone in a place like that. Say what you will, alone in a motel is really alone. With Jimmy I’d booked separate rooms, but we’d spend our evenings together watching TV or strolling around outside our rooms, even if we didn’t get much farther than a turn or two around the parking lot. I hadn’t noticed how noisy the people in the next-door rooms could be. The stupid fucks. But I probably wouldn’t have slept much if I had the place all to myself. I was so uptight, I started biting my nails again, something I hadn’t done since I almost had to go to Vietnam.
Daytime I drove around, hoping to catch sight of my friend. It took getting lost a time or two, but the area soon became about as familiar to me as the taste of a Bud. I mean, there wasn’t really much to see. I kept going back to that football field parking lot. I knew it didn’t make sense, but it was the last place I’d seen him, and I thought maybe that’s where I’d see him again. I’d sit there in the car, close my eyes, and pretend that when I opened them, why there he’d be! But about the third time I did that, I heard another car. Instead of Jimmy, it was a county sheriff’s vehicle. He was slowly cruising by, a deputy, I guess, just giving me a look. I pretended I was using my phone, but my hand was shaking like the picture on an old TV. I’d been calling their office every day—the sheriff’s, I mean—and the same person, sounding more and more wasted, would say each time that no, they weren’t holding any bear, “and by the way, this isn’t bear country here.”
“I know, I know.”
It was the same thing with the hospital. I even called the area’s vet. Jimmy would’ve gone psycho if someone tried to take him to a vet. I mean, you wouldn’t want to be that vet. I couldn’t think of anything else to do but hang around and keep an eye out. Once I checked out of the motel and drove off, we might never re-connect. I couldn’t have felt more stuck.
One afternoon, when I couldn’t stand the situation anymore, I went into town and got me a quart of Johnny Walker Red Label and a couple of six-packs of beer. It wasn’t that I was dying to get hammered. I just wanted to make my situation a little more tolerable like. But I wanted to do it right. So, after dropping off the booze at the motel, I drove back into town, parked just off the main drag, and hiked the mile and a half or so back to the motel. I knew I couldn’t trust myself not to drive, not after a drink or two.
The air was ripe with desert smells and the sun was hot, even though it was already balancing on a distant purple peak in what must’ve been the west. Birds soloed from the brush beside the road, and it felt good to walk. It’d been a while. I reached for my phone before remembering I’d locked it in the vehicle. I wanted to avoid the usual thing that happened when I got fucked up, which was to phone some pals and gals who wouldn’t really want to talk to me. Not nearly as much as I wanted to talk to them. Likely as not, the first person that answered would tell me I should stop drinking. Who needs that crap? Worse than waking up and remembering those calls and hoping I didn’t really say what I probably did was hearing what I’d done. Then it was like: Oh, no, please say I didn’t do that.
There was a phone in the room, of course, but it didn’t have my friends’ numbers on it. Never before, I think, had I put so much calculation into getting smashed. I even had a bite to eat before I opened the Red Label. As always, I started out slow. Just a sip here and there while watching a game. Then at some point, I got that familiar feeling of being back in the groove, able to feel all the stuff inside of me, the joy, the pain, and everything in-between. Then I kind of got into it with the people in the next room. I guess I had the TV on pretty loud. I know I went for a little walk. Then I couldn’t get into my room again, because I didn’t have the key. (Wait, it gets worse.) I’d forgot my room number, and I was trying to get into somebody else’s room. And it was late. There was a big fucking hubbub, and I think that somebody—more than one person, really—wanted to punch me out. Lucky for me, the manager jumped in to keep the peace. I tried to square it with him by giving him some cash. How much cash? I don’t even want to think about it. But why am I telling you all this junk?
I woke up in what felt like the afternoon. I suppose it was the next day. I had a monster hangover and a bum right knee. I must’ve taken a fall. Sure enough, there was a tear in my pants leg. How trendy, I said to the bleary-eyed mess of a fellow staring back at me from the full-length mirror. A long cold shower helped a little. Several cups of motel coffee helped a little more. A beer that’d managed to survive the blow-out by hiding in the back of the fridge nearly helped me out too much. A couple more of those would’ve really set me up. But there weren’t any more, and that was just as well. As I limped back into town, there was that old sun again, firing up the mountain range, just about where it’d been the day before. You’d think the world had gotten stuck in one place.
I was scarfing up some scrambled eggs in a café that advertised breakfast all day, when I saw a car pull into a parking spot across the street. A man and a bear got out, followed by a little girl. They chatted at the curb, the humans hugged the bear, they got back in the car without the bear and slowly drove away. I watched the animal put up his nose to sample the smells, but by then I was dodging a car to get across the street.
“Jimmy! Are you okay?”
“Yes, Charlie, I am okay. How are you, and how did you know that it was I and not some other bear?”
“I’d know you anywhere,” I lied. In fact, I hadn’t been absolutely sure it was him until I was almost up to him. Good thing for me it was. I mean, you don’t want to get mixed up on your bears.
“Let’s go back over there,” I said. “I left my dinner on the table, and I bet you’re hungry, too.”
“Not at all, Charlie,” he said. “My new friends have been plying me with food until I’m stuffed.”
“A stuffed bear, huh? Ooh, bad joke. Well, I want to hear all about it,” I breezed. We settled into opposite sides of the booth, but Jimmy was in no hurry to tell me where he’d been or what he’d done. He just sat there watching while I ate the rest of my meal. He seemed to have a grin on his face, but it wasn’t a real bear-grin. Bears will look like they’re smiling when they’re really not. You have to listen for their growls to figure out what’s really going on with them, if you ever do. I know I haven’t.
Jimmy finally got around to telling me that after leaving me in the football field’s parking lot, he’d like ambled off, then circled back. “Where else could I go?” he asked. “Even if I’d had some decent camping gear. That parking lot includes the only strip of woods around. The rest is scrubland, and it’s fenced with barbed wire. This is not a milieu for a bear of any kind.”
“So you came back to the parking lot . . . ,” I cued him.
Jimmy threw a few more crumbs of story at me, until I had a pretty good idea of what’d happened. It seems that he was skulking around the parking lot as the game came to an end, while I was waiting for him in the SUV, facing the wrong way. People surged around him, trying to get to their cars. The guy who’d come into the stands to welcome us spotted him. He said he taught high school in Barleycorn, the rival town, and introduced himself as Johnson. Then this Johnson dude asked if he could give Jimmy a ride someplace. Jimmy had to admit that, for the moment, he didn’t have any place to go. Why not spend some time in Barleycorn as his guest, bugged Johnson. Jimmy said he didn’t want to impose, but . . . Johnson said that they could go in his car or he could get him there on the Barleycorn Bears’ team bus.
“That isn’t a bear suit you’re wearing, is it?” queried Johnson.
“No, I’m afraid they didn’t have my size. Would you like to see my great big teeth?”
“No, heh-heh. I’m convinced,” Johnson said. He thought that because they’d gotten their butts kicked on the field, the boys might get a charge from being around a real bear. One thing led to another, and Jimmy became the guest of honor on the team bus.
“I have to say that those football players really ‘dug me,’ as you like to say. I couldn’t growl enough for them. They even wanted to feel my claws. I think they would have elected me president if they’d had the chance, or even made me their king. More glorious, for me, would be to lead them onto the old gridiron, as I believe it’s called. The youths had the same idea.”
It seems they wanted to suit him up for their next game. Jimmy was definitely down with that, even if they couldn’t come up with a uniform his size. But the boys got in an argument over whether to put him in the backfield, where he could serve as battering ram for their running back, or on the defensive line, where he could terrorize other teams’ backfields. Finally, the coach spoke up. Jimmy wasn’t a student, he pointed out, and having a bear on the team was probably illegal. “Next thing you know,” he said, “other teams will be fielding tigers, wolves, and elephants.” This comparison didn’t sit too well with Jimmy, I’ll tell you that.
When the bus got to Barleycorn, this Johnson dude was waiting for him. He put him up in his home. And didn’t they dote on him there. “Little Chrissy cried and cried when her mom said that she couldn’t sleep with me in her bed.”
“How old is this Little Chrissy?”
“I even got along with their collie. And we had salmon almost every day.”
“Salmon?” I sputtered, choking on my coffee. “I thought you liked pork?”
“Pork is superb,” said Jimmy, “but pork is not salmon.”
“But I’d swear I once heard you say . . . something else.” When I thought of all that pork we used to eat, it damn near made me want to throw up. Which I was on the verge of anyway. “So why didn’t you just stay with them, if you were having such a great time?” I hope I wasn’t sounding like a jealous sister.
“As a matter of fact, they wanted me to. Johnson thought he could get me work around the school. But unlike us, they weren’t going anywhere, and I didn’t want to be a school janitor. To tell the truth, I doubt that Barleycorn and I would have proven a good match. I don’t mind getting some attention when I’m in a restaurant waiting for a menu, but the attention one gets as the only bear in town, especially from small boys, can be overwhelming for an introvert like me. I can only stand it for about . . . ”
“Wait a minute. You, an introvert. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I don’t think you’re one of them.”
“Besides, I left stuff at the motel, important papers and the like.”
Important papers? I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I let it ride. “How come you didn’t have them drop you off at the motel? Did you think I’d bail and leave you in this godforsaken hole?”
“I didn’t know what you might have done,” he said. “I had to ask myself, would Charlie take a chance on driving the vehicle himself? I didn’t really think you would. Plus, I didn’t think you could find yourself another bear companion in the land of the Red Dragon. Also, I felt safer here in town. In any case, you found me here and here I am.”
Did he seriously think my traveling buddy could be just any damn bear? I hoped not, as that’d mean that Jimmy had me pegged as some kind of funky bear junkie. I decided he was just messing with me, and I told him I was really sorry about what I’d said when we were in the football stands. He was swiveling his head around and kind of rumbling, in a slightly pissed-off kind of way. Bears have feelings, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t mean they like to talk about them. The closest he came was to pat me on the back as we were going out the door of the café. I have to admit that I was a little leery of his pats and taps. But maybe it wasn’t a friendly pat, at all. He might’ve been reaching for the exit door and just bumped into me like.
We took off in the Suburban and grabbed our stuff at the motel. I paid the bill, and we were on the road again. My skull was exploding, never mind how many cups of coffee I’d soaked it in, and I was hella glad I didn’t have to drive. As for Jimmy, he seemed happy to be back behind the wheel.
Over the next few weeks we saw a lot of small-town USA, and it wasn’t always a pretty picture. Boarded-up store fronts, second-hand shops, empty sidewalks, and plenty of room to park. The commercial action was at the edge of town in the big boxes. That’s where people parked their cars, anyway. But we had some times that stick in mind. For one, there was the hot air balloon. We’d seen the ads along the road. Then, as we came around a bend, we saw this big ball rising in the air. It was red, white, and blue, just like the flag, and it had an ad for a car dealer on it. Jimmy wanted to go up in the balloon, and that meant going to the local county fair, which was just where everybody else around there seemed to be heading, so we just followed the crowd. After a lot of looking, we found a place to put the SUV, hiked through the parking lot to the fair entrance, bought tickets, pushed past all the food vendors except for the pie booth that pulled Jimmy in, and took a place in the back of a very long line. This was for the balloon.
Well, there was this family in front of us, and the boy asked a man I took to be his pop what was in the balloon to make it go so high. It wasn’t our fault we could hear what he answered him: “Hot air from politicians’ speeches.”
I could tell by the way he cleared his throat that Jimmy wasn’t about to let this go by. I gave him a nudge, with the aim of telling him to chill, that the guy couldn’t possibly be serious. Jimmy gave me back a nudge that damn near knocked me off my feet. He touched the boy on the shoulder to get him to turn around. That was a mistake right there, because the kid jumped back, terrified. I doubt he’d ever had a conversation with a bear before. Jimmy explained to him that the balloon was filled with hydrogen or helium, some kind of gas that was lighter than the air. He had to roar this information to be heard above the crowd noise. The boy’s dad wasn’t having any part of this.
“No it isn’t,” he shouted. “Those politicians have been making speeches at a campaign stop not five miles down the road from here. They bring the hot air here by truck in a big canister. We see it every day. Don’t you know this is an election year? But I don’t guess you’re from around here.” The thing is, instead of saying this to Jimmy, he was kind of aiming it at me.
“Yeah,” joined the mother, taking her turn. “And if there’s anything left in the tank in the evening, they release it in that big open field over there.”
“And you better not light a match,” put in a man in back of us. Jimmy had a paw over his maw, holding back a laugh.
“We got stuck in the traffic hold-up yesterday,” said someone else.
Then, as if he was up in front of a class, Jimmy started to explain that the “hot air” of politicians was just a figure of speech—“in fact, a metaphor. It isn’t something that can power a balloon.”
People couldn’t seem to accept that it was Jimmy they were hearing this from. “What is he,” asked somebody in back of us, “a ventriloquist?” He meant me. Like Jimmy was a dummy sitting on my knee. And the boy’s father didn’t like me, Mr. Ventriloquist, correcting him like that. He seemed to think a metaphor was something like solar panels, because he laid his finger on my chest and said, “What are you, mister? Some kind of environmento-ist?” He spat the word out like it had a worm in it.
“Fella maybe wants to kill our jobs,” put in a thuggish looking dude.
“You’re in fracking country here,” someone boomed. We hadn’t even gotten off the ground, and our balloon trip was fast blowing south. Jimmy was growling softly. I knew what that meant. I’d once seen him make a mastiff scurry off like a little spaniel bitch. He was the only one of his kind around there, and we were getting unwanted attention by the mega-dose. I put a hand on him that couldn’t possibly have slowed him down if he’d wanted to put a serious hurt on this human line. A man came up to us. He had a belly on his belt, a smile on his mouth, a frown on his face, and a pistol on his hip “I think you two better take your little show on out of here,” he said.
“Get that furry creature out a here!” shouted someone from the back of the line.
“Well, we don’t need this,” I sniffed. “Let’s go up in the balloon another time.” But Jimmy was going on about the money I’d paid, and I was shaking in my boots, thinking this could lead to an arrest. I had to kind of drag him off to get us out of there. The fat man was right on our heels.
“Oh, you’ll get your money back,” he said. “I don’t know where you come from, but this here’s America, and it’s only right. You come along with me.”
Back at the entrance, he told the ticket lady, “Give these two their money back. They don’t belong at this fair.”
“Yessir, Mr. Carter,” said the ticket lady as she counted the bills into my hand.
“I’d give the local hospitality a D-,” shouted Jimmy as we walked away.
Jimmy later said that if that balloon was filled with anything besides hydrogen or helium, it was the local animus toward strangers.
“’Animus?’ Is that a kind of animal?” I asked.
“It means ‘hostility,’ something else that won’t get a balloon off the ground.”
“Oh, they’re hostile, all right. And primitive. I bet they’re still afraid of the bogeyman around there.”
“Well, I’m curious about that, Charlie. Tell me more about this bogeyman. Is he large, for example?”
“Hella big, if there is such a thing.”
“And furry perhaps? With big claws and teeth to rend the terrified little human into the smallest possible parts? Would he be something like that, my friend?”
“Jimmy, I can see where you’re going with this, but I don’t believe in the goddamn bogeyman!”
One day we stopped in a larger town where we could buy a major newspaper. We were taking some rays, me on a chair that I’d dragged out of the room and leaned against the motel wall, and Jimmy on his back on top of the SUV. He called it his “al fresco moment.”
“It says here,” I read to him, “that in South Africa they’ve discovered a cave that’s full of the bones of early ‘humanoids.’ Little human relatives, it says. They were small-brained people and they buried their dead. There’s no more of them left now. Just the bones.”
“Hmf,” said Jimmy. “I can assure you that there are still a lot of small-brained people around. But you may be interested to know that humans aren’t the only animals with missing relatives. Investigate a cave around here and you might just come across the skull or other remains of one of the giant short-faced bears that used to roam the forests of the Western Hemisphere. Some of them weighed over three-quarters of a ton.”
“I saw something on that. Didn’t they die off about the time that a lot of other big critters bought the farm?”
“Charlie, I can assure you that no ancestor of mine ever bought a farm, but the giant bears did become extinct some ten or eleven thousand years ago, which was shortly after the arrival of—can you guess?”
“No, not mosquitos. Humans. Coincidence? Not likely.”
“I’ve heard that some people think they might’ve died off because of climate change.”
“I don’t find that credible,” Jimmy scoffed. “After living through dozens of ice ages? A much more likely scenario is that those now-extinct giant animals—bears, mammoths, mastodons, sloths, and many other so-called ‘megafauna’—trusted the killer apes that came down from the north with their spears and deadly arrows, and their constant trickery. We had no reason to be afraid of you, at least at first. And so we became ‘fair game’ for your organized hunts and stampedes.”
“Hold it,” I said. “You weren’t around ten thousand years ago. Nobody really knows what happened back then.”
“No, I wasn’t around, but it is part of my job, a small part really, to set the record straight with regard to human complicity. If you seriously doubt that humans were to blame for the great die-off of ten thousand years ago, you might at least consider what happened, not ten thousand years back but just a few hundred years ago, in New Zealand. We know what happened there.”
“Well, what the fuck did happen there?”
“I just hope you’re not going to accuse me of making this up.”
“Come on, man—uh, I mean, bear. Why should I do that?”
It was after mid-morning, and people were loading up their cars and driving out of the motel parking lot. But we were in no hurry to go anywhere. Jimmy told me the story of the moa, a giant bird, nine feet tall, that was wiped out in about the time it takes to say ‘extinction’ when humans finally made it to those far-off islands. The moa had no reason to be afraid of humans, and humans caught and killed every one of those big birds for its several meals of meat.
It wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to drag the conversation back to where it started from. I told him that while humans might’ve killed off the giant birds, there wasn’t any reason to think that humans had wiped out those little cave guys we’d been reading about.
“Is there some reason to think they didn’t?” Jimmy asked.
“The experts say they didn’t,” I said, hoping it was true.
A little later that same day, when we’d gone out for lunch and come back to our rooms, we got into something kind of heavy.
“Say, Jimmy, let me ask you something. Like a big question.”
“Knock yourself out, as you like to say.”
“Uh, maybe later for that. But here’s my big question. What do you think it is that makes the human all that different from the bear? Now that he’s learned to talk and ride the bus and all.”
“Really? Humans have learned to talk and ride the bus? You people are really catching up.”
“I was talking about bears.”
“So bears can ride the bus. What about drive the bus? We can do that too, you know, though a lot of people think a bear driving a bus must be a man in a bear costume. But we still can’t vote, can we? Nor serve on juries or run for elective office. And if anyone accuses one of us of a crime, the cops reach for the stun gun. Then they helicopter him or her up to the mountains where he—let’s say—has to fend for himself without even a water bottle or any other survival gear. Your authorities don’t care about the fact that most of us have lost our original survival skills and that people have polluted all the streams and lakes in the last remaining splinters of what you like to call ‘the wilderness.’”
Jimmy was really into these bear issues, but I was stuck on my question of how humans were different from bears. Aside from the way we look, of course. Bears were supposed to be clumsy, but I’d seen that notion knocked down a time or two. Anyone who thinks bears are clumsy should’ve seen Jimmy dance. Basie tunes, funk classics, blue grass, zydeco—it didn’t take much at all to get Jimmy out on the floor. And there was nothing klutzy in the moves he made. And don’t forget, Rhonda had seen him shuffle cards. He was never going to be able to text, of course, even with his claws clipped back.
“What else does your newspaper say?” he asked.
I found the page again and read to him that unlike those other “humanoid lines” that started up around three million years ago, homo erectus, who was standing in the line that led to humans, became “a creature not just adapted to its environment but able to apply its mind to master it.”
“It led to being human, eh. I hate to be so negative, but it seems to me that being human is being too damned human. Give me a gorilla any day. She eats her wild celery, she hides from tourists, and she minds her own business. Except for having babies, that’s essentially all she does and all she needs to do. And you think that you’ve become the master of nature? Some master. Look around you.” He flung open the door and gave a roar that would’ve scared the shit out of anybody who happened to be standing nearby. “Tell me what you see?”
“I can’t see anything out there. You’re in the way.”
He got out of the way, and I came to the door. I let my eyes drift over the nearly empty parking lot and out onto the busy street. Cars, some of them cool and some of them not, were stopped at the light, and others were making a turn. Across the street there was a gas station with a convenience store, and back of that some shrubs that looked like they were trying to hide the fence that separated the strip mall we were on from the major highway we’d come in on the night before.
“What do I see? Just the usual,” I said.
“See any living things?” Jimmy asked.
“There are people in those cars,” I said.
“Are you sure they’re not self-driving vehicles?”
“No way, dude. And there’s that guy over there filling up his tank. I also see those crows up there.” They were on the power line. “And there must be people in that plane.”
“Is that it? Representatives of only two species?”
“Oh, hell no,” I said. “I bet if we looked around under those shrubs, we could spot a mouse or two. We’d see some other birds, I think. There’s also that hedge and those little trees over there. And hear that dog? That’s another animal.”
“That’s just what my ancestors used to warn their cubs about. If you hear a dog, it’s time to move on. When you see crows or rats, or hear the bells on goats or those bilious sounds cows like to make, you’ve got about five minutes. And when you can hear a chainsaw or a car engine or the sound of hammering, it’s way too late. Your habitat has disappeared, and you will soon be hunted down.”
“Wait a minute,” I countered. “You weren’t born in the wilderness. How do you know all this?”
“I know what my mum used to say, what they told her as a cub.” He swung his head around toward me. “Look, Charlie, you humans have won. It’s your world now, but you’re turning it into a world where only cockroaches, ants, and microbes can survive.”
“Well let’s just wait a damn minute here,” I went. “Humans have built a great civilization. No other creature has done that.”
“A great civilization, huh? Adding up to what? ‘Two gross of broken statues’ and ‘a few thousand battered books.’ That’s how one of your premier poets described your civilization. Is that what distinguishes your kind?”
“There’s a lot more to it than that. I mean, look at that Chevy Suburban sitting there. And look at this.” I whipped my phone out of a pocket. “Besides, do you really think you can speak for all the nonhumans of the world?”
“Indeed I can,” he replied. “Even the fleas. I was elected spokes-creature in 1966 and I’ve been serving ever since, surviving electoral competition from elephants, foxes, and even a . . . ”
“You weren’t even alive in 1966. Anyway, I think it’s a little more complicated than you’re making it out to be.”
“Oooh,” he moaned, clutching at his heart. “Too complicated for a bear to understand. I admit I’m leaving out the mathematical formulae and computer modeling. Is that what you want?”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said.
“God, you’re hard to please.”
“Look,” I said, after a while. “We need to get out.”
“What? Get out of town? Is someone else after you?”
“No, I mean if we’re not going to check out of this place, we ought to go for a walk, stretch our legs. The paper says it’s gonna rain this afternoon.”
“Oh, oh, rain. τί χρίμα! What are we going to do?”
“Well, by the time it starts to rain, I think I’m gonna be back in this room and maybe having me a nice little drink.”
“Are there drinks that aren’t nice?” Jimmy asked.
“The first one or two are great, excellent.”
“Well, if there are any more, they might only be necessary, after those nice early ones.”
“Ah, poor Charlie. I wish that all your drinks were nice.” He came over and gave me a peewee bear hug. I mean the kind that didn’t leave me short of breath. As we started to go out, Jimmy asked me if I thought he should wear pants.
“Yes,” I said, “I think you better put some on.”
The thing is, Jimmy wouldn’t go anyplace without putting on the XXXL coveralls we’d found for him in some burg in Nebraska. They came in orange and a bright green. As if being a bear wasn’t enough. I think he wore the green that day.
I know it doesn’t add up, what with computers they can use to track you down, but the farther east we got, the more relaxed I felt. Sometimes I even forgot why we were on the road. Then one morning I heard something that really put me uptight. It was that weird buzzing sound again. It was coming from Jimmy’s room next door. It was about time to check out and maybe a good time to get to the bottom of this strange buzzing thing, too. I rapped on Jimmy’s door. No answer, so I knocked again. The door slowly opened, but instead of Jimmy, a guy in a white shirt, black string tie, and dark shades was standing there. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stick up. Like a bear’s, I thought. I must’ve had the wrong room.
“What’s the matter? Oh, I guess you’re not used to seeing me without my suit.”
The gravelly voice was Jimmy’s, but it didn’t seem to be coming from the pale, skinny dude who was standing there in front of me. He’d mouthed the words, but the sounds and face were out of synch. Then he covered his mouth, bobbing at the waist to keep from cracking up. I knew I’d seen this cat before. Jimmy came out of the bathroom with an electric toothbrush in his paw and a smear of toothpaste on his maw. “Oh, I wish I could have seen your face,” he chortled.
“Very fucking funny,” I replied.
I felt double-crossed. I watched him hand the man a five-dollar bill as he went out. It came to me that he’d been behind the registration desk the night before, this dude. I pointed to the toothbrush. “So that’s what’s been making the sound I hear sometimes. Sounds like some industrial model. How come you have it on so long?”
“The better to brush my great big teeth,” he said.
“You didn’t have an electric toothbrush when you came to live with us. I mean, it wasn’t on the inventory.”
“My god, what a memory. Do you think I found it on a motel sink?”
“Matter of fact, I took it from a store where I had a brief career as a guard. It was a salary supplement, you might say. Call me a sociopath.”
“Damn, Jimmy. You get caught for something like that . . .”
“Yes, I know, tranquilizer in the hip and transportation to the wilderness to scrounge for backpackers’ scraps. But am I the only one around here that has to be concerned about getting arrested?”
It might’ve been that night at another motel, we watched a football game. I noticed Jimmy didn’t have a problem following the action on the tube when he had his goggles on. Fact is, he seemed to know more about the game than I did.
We were on the outskirts of Cincinnati when the changes started. I tried not to trip on the clumps of extra hair that were sprouting up in more and more locations on my body, but they were starting to freak me out. And then there was my constant craving for food. I mentioned it to Jimmy, and he said, “Just give in to it. I have your back, as you people like to say.” So we drove to a supermarket and got all stocked up. What looked good to me—to both of us, really—were the candy bars, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate creams, and ice cream, especially the butterscotch. But really every kind. We left that store with a truckload of munch-ables, including salted nuts, jars of honey, strawberry jam, peanut butter, and about ten kinds of crackers to pile it on. Then we holed up in our rooms for the next few days, just eating and turning our brains over to the TV. By the end of that binge I must’ve put on forty pounds. But I didn’t seem to be getting any taller.
“Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?” Jimmy asked.
I had, about ten times a day, and though I was feeling kind of powerful, I was scared. I seemed to be turning into a bear. But not a healthy, good-looking bear like Jimmy, with his ochre streaks in brown fur. Instead, the fur I was sprouting came in gray clumps, and I was still bald on the top of my head. I looked at myself from various angles in the bathroom mirror. I didn’t think I could pass for a bear, and I sure as hell couldn’t pass for an ordinary man. My fingers were turning into claws, my ears were growing fuzz and moving up toward the top of my head, and it felt as if there wasn’t enough room in my mouth for all my teeth. I tried a roar.
“Welcome to the species,” Jimmy said, looking up from his book.
“I’m afraid I’m not quite there.”
“Well, you look like a bear with a serious illness.”
But I could suddenly smell things I’d never smelled before. Even through the door. Most of them didn’t smell any too good. And my eyesight was going on the blink. The shrubs of the motel parking lot were just green blobs. I thought of going to the store to get more grub, but no way in hell could I drive. I was afraid to even go outside. Jimmy had been taking one of his forever showers. When he came out and started using up all the towels, both from my room and his, he told me I was going through my own version of a famous transformation in literature.
“Oh?” I said. “What got changed into what?”
“A troubled young man into a large insect.”
“Well, I’d rather be a bear than a bug, but not like this! A five-year-old could draw a better bear than this!”
“Maybe so,” he said, “though you might pass for a Dubuffet.”
We’d flown too close to the sun of interspecies contact, Jimmy said, and somebody had gotten burned.
“Not ‘somebody,’” I shouted. “Me!”
“Me got burned?” he came back. “I really don’t like that construction.”
All I really wanted to do was eat. We made another trip to the supermarket. Jimmy called it a pilgrimage.
Of course, I was a lot better off than that guy Jimmy mentioned, that dude that turned into a bug and could hardly manage to come out from under the bed. But I was still screwed. I couldn’t use my credit card anymore, because my photo ID didn’t go with my appearance. At least I could still get cash from ATMs. Feeling insecure as a redheaded stepchild, I phoned my accountant. (Yes, I have an accountant.) He assured me that unless I started buying houses in San Francisco or New York City, there was enough in my accounts to keep us going for a good long while. Knowing that made me feel a little better. “But what’s happened to your voice?” he wanted to know. I said I had a cold.
Then I phoned Rhonda. After exchanging phone messages a few times, I got hold of her and explained that I was turning into a bear.
“You’re what? Did you say you’re turning into a bear?”
“That’s right,” I said. “A very ugly bear.”
She wanted me to come home, saying that she and Ursula would help me “transition.” I asked her if she’d “transitioned” herself.
“Maybe spiritually, I have, but no, I’m not growing fur and craving sweets.”
“Well I am!”
But it wasn’t just me. Apparently, it was happening to other people who spent a lot of time with bears. “Don’t you watch the news anymore?” she asked.
What could cause such changes? She said that the MDs and other brainiacs had no idea. She asked if Jimmy and I had had sex. “Hell, no,” I said. But when I thought about it, I remembered that a female bear who cleaned the room had really turned me on.
“No wonder,” said Jimmy, when I told him. “That lady bear was in heat.” He was chuckling to himself.
“So why didn’t you go after her yourself?”
“Well,” said he, “it’s a little complicated. You see, no matter how ready for sexual congress a female bear might smell to you or me, unless she’s ready in her own mind, she’s going to tell you no, and she may underline that no with all of her claws and teeth. If she’s actually ready, she’ll let you know. But I’ll explain all this in greater detail when you get a little older as a quasi-bear.”
“Thanks a lot,” I sneered. I asked him more than once what he thought could cause the kind of changes I was going through, and every time his answer was the same:
“Everybody really wants to be a bear.”
Jimmy offered to help me learn to drive again, but my head had grown too wide for my old glasses, and I didn’t think that I could ever learn to drive by scent. In a phone call, Rhonda recommended that I sell the car or just give it to Jimmy, if he wanted to stay here, and catch a flight home. I could buy the tickets on the phone, as she reminded me. No one would have to see my out-of-whack ID. She said I had a ton of mail, but nobody had showed up at the door for me. She wanted me to join her and Ursula in pushing for some legislation that would give bears equal rights. “Trans-bears, and every bear, must have the same rights as men and women!” But I was no way ready to become an ursine activist. I just wanted to get back into my own body. After that, maybe someone else’s, like that room cleaner’s. If that wouldn’t be too weird.
The next time I talked to Rhonda, I was at the airport, bundled up with a scarf around my “muzzle,” waiting to catch a flight back to the West Coast. She told me there might be a market solution to my problem. A clinic had opened in Boston that offered electrolysis for the fur, surgery for the paws, a nose job, dental replacements, the whole cosmetic shebang for something like $550,000. She thought the price would come down with competition. So far it wasn’t covered by insurance, but maybe I could benefit from the magic of the market. Or as she put it, “Leave it to capitalism to come up with something for a price.”
I had the money, I have to admit, but I was looking for more of a magical solution to the problem of how I looked. I mean, something that didn’t involve any blades. Besides, what would Jimmy think if I went to all that trouble and expense to keep from looking like a bear?
If you want to contact me about the book, I can be reached at alsandine (at) aol.com.