We ate an extraordinary amount of pork when we moved in with the human couple, Charlie and Rhonda. Why so much? We had no idea, but it was delicious. Now Charlie has been perhaps even more generous, setting me up in this suburban apartment here in the midst of Middle America. I really don’t know how he does it. Literally, as the one time I asked him how he manages to spend money without seeming to earn it, he mumbled something about his hand injury and changed the subject. A hand injury should result in less income, not more, or am I missing something? Well, yes, I’m probably missing a lot of things. Who isn’t? Even an educated bear can’t know everything. Maybe Charlie robbed a bank. Or a series of banks.
As I drove him to the airport, he was rattling on about how guilty he felt about “ditching” me. And when he wasn’t rattling, he was telling me that flying made him nervous as a cat in a dog park and how he wished that he had brought along something for his nerves. I tried to explain to him that that you don’t leave someone in a ditch—i.e., “ditch” him—by having him drive you to the airport. Then he worked himself into a panic over the possibility, however remote, that the police would be waiting for him when he arrived at SFO. I started to point out that on the basis of his present appearance . . . but before I could finish my sentence, he had grabbed the rear view mirror to make sure that his appearance hadn’t reverted to its former state. I’d needed that mirror to make a lane change, too. None too soon for me, we rolled up to the “Departing Flights” curb, and Charlie said again, “Remember, I’m only a plane ride away. Only a phone call or an email. I’m leaving you the laptop with detailed instructions for email.”
“I know how to do email.”
“Oh, yes. We used it all the time when I worked at the brokerage house.”
“You worked in a brokerage house?”
“That’s right,” I snickered. “Why do you think they called it Bear Stearns?” Sometimes I just can’t help myself.
“Very fucking funny. Do you think you’re Groucho Marx? Look, Jimmy. I, uh, don’t suppose you have a little bottle of something in your . . . . Ah, never mind. I can get it inside. I think I have time. What time is it?”
“Why don’t you look at your watch?”
“Oops. Here comes the guy in the monkey suit to say we have to move along.” He stumbled slightly in his transfer to the pavement. “Bye, Jimmy! Look for my messages.”
“Okay, chief,” I shouted after him. “Es no problema.” Thus did Charlie leave me in a ditch of cozy wintering.
I am back at the apartment now, reclining on the purple striped sofa I’d admired when we were first shown the place. It can almost accommodate my bulk. As I slump here at my leisure, I go over everything again and conclude that Charlie did indeed overreact. What had happened to him, after all? He had managed to grow a few extra hairs on his chest. His voice had crashed to the Johnnie Cash register. What else? Oh, yes, he’d gotten a serious case of what our cannabis-using brothers and sisters call “the munchies,” putting on a few extra pounds of weight as a consequence. With such bare hints as these, he decided that he was turning into a bear. Though I’ve sometimes thought that he was turning into a bottle, I would not have thought bear. But what can be wrong with turning into a bear? The bear gets to sleep a lot. If he’s fortunate, he gets to eat a lot. And he can throw the fear of god into any human that makes the mistake of getting in his face. If he’s lucky, he might spawn a whole baseball team. All good stuff. God, it’s great to be alone for a change.
What would really be scary would be to turn into a human. To have to bundle up for a trip to the store. To be afraid of bears and get pushed around by crowds. And to go on thinking for the rest of my life that I was such a special animal that I wasn’t really an animal at all. Whether elephants or gnats, animals would be everybody else. And here’s another thing. The human has no real teeth. None to speak of. Yet he may say, as Charlie once did, “You don’t have to bite my head off.” He was talking to another human at the time, another being with barely enough teeth to masticate corn flakes. Steak? He approaches it with a sharp knife. But let me get to the point, which is that a human is incapable of biting off the head of another human. I’m guessing that the origins of this figure of speech lie moldering in the grave of prehistory, when humans had to contend with the kind of savage beasts that could bite off their heads. Beasts like me, more or less, that humans have by now all but killed off. However, as representative of both the extinct and the vanishing beasts, I am charged with being fair. And so I give humanity credit for its greatest accomplishments: the table service, the public library, and Count Basie. Plus, of course, the atom bomb. Oh, you superior humans.
But as you like to say, you have your hands with their opposable thumbs, which are even more useful than paws, in some respects. Though you may whine about them being cold, you will have a cellular gadget in one of those hands of yours, and you will stare at it and fondle it incessantly, as though it were a magical thing. The fact that everybody has one means that it is not. But, admittedly, I am only a bear and can only see and smell you from the outside. I can no more know what it might mean to be fully human, than I can know what it might be like to be Bugs Bunny or Pinocchio—or any other facsimile of a human.
I am, in fact, an enormous hypocrite. Though undesirous of becoming a human myself and though casting a jaundiced eye at major portions of the human enterprise, I’m quite stuck on the comforts of middle-class human life. I really believe that I have the best of both worlds, as they say. I get to be a bear, a creature of mere appetite and superior taste, who was born into a world of overstuffed larders and big fat beds.
Aside to the reader: Isn’t it sweet that my opportunity to put a leash on the narrative has followed Charlie’s? This means that I could write a corrective to his version of what’s transpired since our association began. But only if I were so inclined. Don’t worry, I’m not. For one thing, I’m rather lazy. Besides I haven’t the time. That said, I feel compelled to set the record straight on one particular. I did not—repeat did not—shout anything as crude as “dragons eat bear poop” at that high school football game. What I chanted was, “Tu vincas!” (“You triumph!”). This with regard to the brilliance of a Bears’ defensive back in sniffing out a screen pass. Had Charlie even a drop of Latin in one of his drinks, his translation could not have gone so far astray. But it’s beginning to snow outside, which is another thing that makes it inappropriate for me to start tinkering around under the hood of Charlie’s narrative.
Not that Charlie’s writing isn’t good to go. He has come up a phrase or two, at least, that won’t fall down a flight of stairs. Or if one did, it would hop back up, brush itself off, and go its merry way. But I don’t want any sentence of mine or even any clause to put itself at such risk. I’m making my sentences use the handrail and avoid treadless footwear. And if, despite such precautionary measures, one of them gives you a problem, let us know and we’ll send you a form. Please remember to fill in every blank or it will be returned unread.
I’ve been stocking up on groceries and eating all-day meals, just as prescribed by the ancient DNA. I don’t like to brag, so I’m just putting this out there for the future researcher. In the last few hours I’ve eaten, among other things, though not necessarily in this order, a big steak, two legs of turkey, and vat of roast turkey dressing. (Well, maybe not a vat, but a considerable amount.) I’ve also tucked away a lot of salmon teriyaki, a liter of buttered mashed potatoes, and a box of jelly doughnuts. I can’t think what else, but by human standards, I’ve eaten a lot. Thus do I ready myself to settle down for the annual coma.
I read somewhere that certain zoologists have come up with the notion that bears don’t really hibernate. We only go into “torpor.” Our body temperature doesn’t fall like that of a skunk or hedgehog, for example, and we can be awakened, though anyone attempting such a trick will quickly come to grief. Nor would I recommend rousing a skunk. But “torpor” or “hibernate”? Such abstractions make no difference to the rank-and-file bear. We can sleep for over seven months without food or drink and—I’ll say this as though addressing a child—without peeing or pooping. Can you do that? I think not.
Now I’ve turned off the heat and lights, unplugged the phone, and crawled into bed. But I’m surprisingly alert and awake. Too much caffeine, I suppose. (Add a quart or two of coffee to the above list.) Speaking of Charlie, I got an email from him as I was about to shut down the machine. He said that his “condition” had started to clear up. He also said that when he got home, Rhonda had seemed more physically attracted to him, more “turned on,” than she had in a long time. The question is, why would he want to tell me that? Has he considered that if she’s attracted to him because he’s more like a bear, she might really go for me, as I am more or less the real thing. Bizarre, but is that what he wants? The truth is that, among human females, Rhonda isn’t my type at all. She’s a forthright, friendly person, but she lacks a single feature, a single reminder, of the human female of my dreams. Yes, there is such a person, and she may still exist outside my dreams. We used to meet at the same time every day. I had to share her with about thirty other eighth-graders, but there were times in that middle-school classroom when she seemed to give me a special look, and I would look at her, at the same time catching hints of her gardenia-laden scent, and it would seem that she and I were the only animals in the room. I could have been bolder, I suppose. I could have lingered after class, the way some other students did, could have put myself at the end of a very short line of students wanting a special word with teacher. Soon would have come my turn, and we might for once have really been alone. But I was afraid of what we might have done in that intimate after-school conference. What I might have done. You see, I wasn’t some little human eighth-grader. In terms of physical development, I was way ahead of my human classmates. I was a mature male bear—and still am, in the main. But she was a goddess, and I was only a young bear. And so I practiced self-restraint and never let myself get within hugging distance of Ms. Wilkins. But she has remained my own little pilot light, however wavering and remote. For all I know, she might have had three husbands and seventeen kids by now. She taught English Composition, and I loved that class.
From Charlie not one word regarding Ursula, except that Rhonda doesn’t seem to have his allergy to bears. I take that to mean that Rhonda and Ursula are still entangled and that their relationship remains benign. He suggested that I sell the car, get on a plane, and come out there where I can have my own place. They can “absorb” the cost, he said. But I’ve got everything I need right here, where it’s way too late to think of going someplace else. I’m ready for the big sleep.
Still no visit to the Land of Nod. I hate it when this happens. It makes me feel like what? Well, like ripping this pillow to shreds. I applaud myself for not attacking the pillow. It appears that I’m going to have to use the sleep device that Charlie got me many months ago. It goes on the head like this, then around here like this, and when you turn it on you hear what the brochure describes as “pulsations” that mimic the rhythm of . . . .
I don’t know how long I’ve been unconscious, but when I plunged into the heavy surf of sports channels just now I found that the boys and men with the swollen shoulders and the shiny helmets on their heads have had their day. I assume that they’ve been put back in the box from whence they came. There were some people in brightly colored shorts and numbered tops that were trying to throw a ball through a hoop or, conversely, to prevent their opponents from performing such a feat. In other words, playing basketball, men and women both, though not so indiscreetly as to play together on the same channel. As yet there is little in the way of bear basketball, though a fellow once recruited me to play bear rugby. I told him, of course, that I would not be interested in violent interactions with anyone approaching me in size. I mention this while finishing an appetizer of lasagna. It was here in the freezer all the time that I was out.
Myself, I could have been a fullback, if only Barleycorn H. S. had had my size. But that was in the fast receding past. Instead of shoulder pads, I now wear shades of longing, having loitered in the memory of Ms. Wilkins way too long. These have proven such an excellent fit that I can barely keep from laughing out loud. Vesti la giubba.
Outside continues white with snow. But I don’t have to go out. I’ve ordered more food. I can pass for a human male on the phone. Oh, I have to repeat myself at times, but that doesn’t tire me. I just give them the number on the plastic card, and Charlie pays the bill. I can’t think of a better arrangement.
Incidentally, I thought of something I could add regarding torpor and hibernation. Something else I read. What bears do in winter isn’t really sleep. Nor is it a substitute for real sleep. Which is why just now we crawl back into bed.
The snow is gone outside. In my unrefracted mind’s eye, I see a daily calendar with pages flying off of it, as in a film of sixty years ago. But when I am in the false sleep of hibernation, time doesn’t exist. To find further evidence of its passage, I revert to the big screen. I watch young men in long pants trying to hit a rock or something with a stick. Baseball, as it’s called. They let me hit a slow pitch when I was a Cub. Knocked it way beyond my foremost feet. Time to get up and get out, and most urgently, it is way past time to eat. Frozen dinners heating up make me feel almost frisky. Not quite but almost. The sky looks a lot less frenzied than it did the last time that I looked. Rising in the distance are what resemble wooded hills. Perhaps they are wooded hills. Without my distance goggles, which are in the SUV, I can but speculate. I never noticed any hills before my “torpor.” I wonder if they have any bears in those real or illusory woods. What would it be like to be in the illusory woods? Would there be illusory odors? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this. This place smells as if a bear’s been living in it. Truly.
Having eaten my fill of defrosted hot food, I take the elevator down to the garage, where I discover that something is wrong with the blasted car. It doesn’t look like anything that gnashing my teeth and roaring “Fuck!” a number of times is likely to fix. In sum, the SUV won’t start. Charlie showed me how to drive, but he didn’t tell me what to do if one’s vehicle wouldn’t start. I could call him now, of course, if I were in the vicinity of a working phone. I could buzz him up. But what if we made contact and he said something like, “Did you try the key?” Wouldn’t that make me feel like a stupid, ignorant, wooden-headed bear? Actually, I don’t think I want to talk about this. I give you here my petulant side.
What if I just left a message? But if he should answer—oh, get over it, bear! There is just no point in being a creature of instinct and enormous charm if I’m going to have to prioritize activities in a sensible manner and bite somebody’s bullet. Right now I need to get out and romp around a bit. So I’ve abandoned the apartment to its savage smells and taken myself off for a little ramble.
Except there’s really no room for a bear to ramble. Nothing but a narrow strip that hugs the traffic lane. Cars tear by, drivers honk, and kids goggle at me through the rear glass. Have they never seen my like before? Perhaps not alone and walking on all fours. I have on my orange coveralls and I’ve hooked the red beret over an ear. This clownish garb aspires to get me noticed by human drivers. I have no need of their attention when they are out of their cars, but here on the margin of this wretched road, I don’t want them using their vehicles as sledge hammers or clubs because they didn’t notice me. And so, I play the unrepentant extrovert. But I refuse to ambulate otherwise than on all fours. To balance step by step on two is to play the biggest fool of all. If I’m going to do that, I might as well be wearing bells. Still, this more “natural” means of ambulation puts my nose a little nearer to the fossil fuel fumes.
What’s this? I’ve come to an enormous parking lot surrounding what looks to be a jumble of giant boxes, all of short stature consistent with the landscape. They come in soporific colors: white, grey, and beige. I know what this place is and what it serves—namely, the shopping fetish and the consumer culture in which it finds expression. But I’ve never been in one of these places before. I’m going in.
I was premature in saying I was only walking on all fours. I’ve had to get up on my hind legs to negotiate a path through the parking lot, as there were vehicles coming at me from every point on the compass. People that might have been housewives seemed intent on running me down. I don’t know why. Perhaps to entertain their children. Make the little dears laugh until they go down for their naps or wet their nappies. A bear at the wheel of any of those vehicles could have sniffed me out a hundred yards away. I say this not to draw attention to the way I smell. To another bear I don’t smell half-bad. I think not anyway. But there is no other bear in the vicinity, which means that there isn’t another bear around to catch my scent and avoid running over me. I head for a big beige beast of a store.
I’ve made it through the parking lot, and I am ready to be “malled.” Which is clearly not the same as being mauled. A bear can maul a man, but a man cannot easily maul a bear. He doesn’t have to, considering that he can shoot, trap, run over, poison, cage, tame, or train a bear. He can even create a small, cuddly likeness of a bear and give it to his little girl or boy. But the thought of Teddy in his cutified millions is somehow soothing. My breathing returns to normal.
“Good morning, sir,” said the uniformed greeter. The look he gave me suggested a different message: “No masterless bears.” Confronting me were miles of clothing racks, bins of jewelry, tiers of cosmetics . . . but I imagine you know the scene. There was a scattering of shoppers and a number of people whose job it seemed to be to glare at me and creep along after me on what they thought were silent feet. They were like lint on the back of my coveralls, and only by passing the invisible line into the next store could I shake them off. Then some new ones would attach themselves. One of these attachments was a shaver bear. His face looked alarmingly thin, and there was a manufactured component to his scent. Although I raised my nose to him, he failed to acknowledge this basic bear greeting. But for all I know, my motley pursuers were wholly benign. Perhaps they only wanted to find out where I’d bought the stunning red beret or wanted a selfie with me or hoped for my autograph but were just too shy to ask.
Since everything smelled of dyes, perfumes, machine oil, and more than a stale trace of human sweat, everything smelled about the same, and I quickly lost track of where I’d been and how I’d gotten to where I was. I began to wonder how I could find my way out of this labyrinthine place, to regain the great outside where I could breathe, if not the air of freedom, at least the carbon overhang of the parking lot.
Well, I’ve gotten out, but I’ve been plucked from the mall and shoved into a cruel trap. Let me summarize. Following my nose, I suddenly stumbled out of the shopper’s paradise and into a food court. Feeling quite at ease in this environment, I got into a line and in a moment I was piling a couple of trays full of salads, pastas, roast beef, seafood, soups, and various desserts. I ignored the usual looks and nasty whisperings until I reached the point where you have to pay for what you’ve put on your tray or trays. I refer to the cashier. That’s where the devil jumped in and went right up somebody’s yellow dress.
I knew that I was going to have to charge my purchases to Charlie’s credit card. But anyone could see that I could not be Charles F. Higgins. I was a bear. My surname had to reflect this brute fact. In the event, the cashier lady didn’t even look at me. She rang up $185.66 for the food, looked at the card, and asked me to produce some additional “ID.” What had worked like a syllogism for buying things over the phone would not work here.
I temporized, pretending I didn’t know what she was talking about. “ID?” I blustered. “Would madam be zo kind as to spell zat for me?” But the lady in the yellow dress appreciated neither my accent nor the comedic coloring of my query. I thought to engage her in discussion of some of the larger issues of identity. Did she know who she really was? The question implies the presence of a clandestine self that pulls the strings of action from a hidden perch and hints at its true nature only as one sleeps or stumbles on a word. This per Dr. Freud. But this paragon of cashiering vigilance lacked interest in such larger matters. She insisted on additional ID, and the grumbling of a line of wannabe diners in back of me was setting up an accusatory din.
As I headed for an empty table with my crowded trays, I pretended not to hear the squawks of “Sir, you can’t do that!” Perhaps there was another sir engaged in some verboten act. Sitting down, spreading my napkin as instructed in the long ago, I’d just taken a substantial bite of shrimp salad when these security gentlemen began to try to snatch away my food and wrestle me to the floor. Someone has surely captured the resultant melee and put it up on YouTube. For all I know it’s gone viral, infecting millions of viewers.
As a result of this unfortunate imbroglio, I now sit in a cell facing charges of assault, mayhem, disorderly conduct, attempted theft, resisting arrest, and . . . I can’t read the rest of this small print, even with my reading goggles on. A very busy woman from the public defender says she hopes to get me off with just some time in the county lock-up instead of “involuntary re-wildernization.” Rewilding could be a death sentence for the likes of me, who has never been very wild to begin with. What I mean is that while I can hold my own in an argument and perhaps even distinguish myself in a brawl, the mere idea of snakes or spiders is enough to send their imaginary representatives creeping down my back or slithering across my nether paws.
Yes, once more I could call Charlie, but then I become the humanized bear that couldn’t retain his freedom without human help. To that I say no thanks. But they’re starving me in here.
I had some visitors earlier. The turnkey brought them right into the cell, then stood guard while we talked. I thought for a minute I was playing the prisoner in a Hollywood western. The bespectacled older chap had a dark suit on his long weedy frame and a small, grey rodent tucked under his tight little mouth. I suppose he called it a “beard.” But I describe his appearance only as a warning to unwary others. He introduced himself as Professor Somebodyski—this is as close as I can come to his real name. His partner was a geeky little fellow with curly blue hair and a phony smile peeping out of a black turtleneck. I think he mentioned some corporate affiliation. One of them, the little geek, I think, made a joke about the fact that at least I didn’t have to be out in the bad weather they were having. Subtext: I am one lucky bear.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I broke in, “but can we skip the credits and go right to the opening scene?”
The professor asked me if I understood the gravity of the charges against me and what was likely to happen if those charges were made to stick.
“I talked to the public defender.”
They asked me how I thought I’d do in the wild.
“Well, I’ve never lived in the wild and I fear that I might starve or be hunted down, perhaps by you or your friends.” I can’t say that I liked laying bare my fears to these human strangers, but the lock-up system had me by the front paw, and I was going to need some help to get myself out of this trap.
“We might be in a position to offer you something better than a wilderness survival test, Mr. Bear,” the professor said, launching hope in me. “That would, of course, depend on your interest. Also the outcome of various medical tests.”
I said I’d listen to what they had to say.
They smiled at one another, as if I’d handed them a generous amount of cash. Then they sang a duet: “Would you be willing to make a very important contribution to science?”
“You came in here to hit me up for a contribution?” I snarled, incredulous.
“No, no,” they murmured, “we’re not asking for any money. We’re offering you a chance to participate in an incredibly exciting experiment. According to recent polling, bears like excitement.”
“Well,” I hedged, “we all want to contribute to science, but I can tell you right now that I draw the line at any life-shortening medical experiment. I won’t agree to anything like that.”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” said Mr. Turtleneck. “No surgery and no funny pills. But first we need to confer with your legal representative.” I told him he should see the public defender, and they said they would and hoped to see me again before long.
So maybe, just maybe, I will soon be able to bid this place a not so fond farewell. In the meantime, though terribly underfed and slowly dying of hunger, I am catching up on my sleep.
The scientists came back in a couple of days. It seems they had a bit of the long claw with the jailers—a little pull, you know—because instead of us talking in the cell or through a plastic barrier, we went to an office in another part of the building, and the guard left us alone in there. All but choking on the smoke of their opening chatter, I broke right in to ask,
“Just what are you gentlemen proposing?”
The professor cleared his throat, while his companion waited bug-eyed for my reaction. “Our company plans to send a vehicle into outer space.” He gave that a chance to penetrate my bearish brain.
“Outer space,” I gasped. “You mean above the earth?” I was more than willing to let them think my head was filled with the missing dark matter. But their looks said maybe I’d gone too far.
“Way above the earth. Above the moon. Above Mars. Beyond the Asteroid Belt.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I intervened. “Astride whose belt?”
“Uh,” went the prof, “it’s not really a belt.”
“Well, what is it then?”
“We want to send a probe to outer space,” jumped in the geek, “And—”
“Are you fellows from NASA?” I asked to slow down the delivery.
“No,” the professor said, “We represent a private company. If we wait for NASA—”
“Might take forever,” his buddy chimed.
“So what’s this got to do with me?” I asked.
The geek, one Conrad by name, explained that humans aren’t “designed” to travel in space. “We require too much electrical energy—for heat, for light, for recycling water, and for recycling our own waste.”
“You can’t just dump it out the window, I suppose.”
“No, we can’t do that,” he guffawed. “The point is that when it comes to space travel, humans are energy intensive. We use a lot of it.”
“That means we’d need a big vehicle with a really big payload,” put in the prof. “Something with a lot of power to get us up to anything approaching the kind of velocity we’d need to really get us anywhere.”
“But bigger means less velocity, less speed, absent some distant technological breakthrough,” added little Conrad.
I was beginning to see where they were going with this, but I wanted them to spell it out. “I’m asking again, what does all this have to do with me?”
“Excellent question,” said the prof, looking at Conrad, who looked at the wall. He flicked an eye in my direction, saying, “As an intelligent, humanized bear, you’re the ideal candidate for the Deep Space I project. While hibernating you metabolize stored up fat. Thus, you don’t require any food or water. And you don’t produce any waste.”
“In short,” the professor said, “your need for electrical energy is minimal, which means that we could send you aloft on a much smaller and faster ship. We’re already calling it a ‘bearship.’”
“Does this mean you’d send me up in winter? Would I come back down in the spring?”
“No,” said Conrad, “you won’t have to leave in winter. We believe we can induce the hibernal function chemically.”
“And prolong it, as needed.”
The two of them were like a wrestling tag team, trying to get me into the ring. I had to assume that they were unfamiliar with the bear hug. But one of them said something then that yanked me right out of this bellicose fantasy.
“Of course, you’d have the opportunity to eat—”
“Excellent food including everything bears like.”
“Right. Salmon and other seafood dishes, roots like potatoes and carrots and yams, greens, mustard blossoms, honey, seeds, cinnamon, and various sweets. You could eat to your heart’s content.”
“Before ever setting foot in the bearship.”
“What about jelly doughnuts, enchiladas, beef stroganoff, and salade niçoise?”
“Certainly. We could include such items. Anything you like.”
It sounded very enticing, but the question on my mind was would I have the opportunity, once out of jail and well fed, to escape this dubious enterprise? More immediately, could they really get me out of this place?
“Oh, and another thing about your being a bear and not a man,” Conrad was saying.
“Gravity,” said the professor, right on cue.
“Right,” exclaimed his counterpart. “Traveling in space means you don’t weigh anything. There’s an absence of gravity.”
I wondered whether gravity had an excuse for this absence, a note from a doctor perhaps.
“ . . . weakening human joints and bones to the point that when we do encounter gravity again—”
“Say by landing back on earth.”
“We can’t even stand up.” They chuckled fondly, as though there were nothing in the world quite so endearing as humans falling to their hands and knees, unable to get back up. “But a bear . . . ”
“Let me guess,” I said, “A bear doesn’t have to stand up. He walks best on all fours.”
“Right,” said the prof. “You catch on really fast.”
“Thanks, pater. I thrive on your praise.” If he had dared to try to pat my head, he might have lost a hand. “What I don’t get,” I said, lowering the volume a bit, “is why you need somebody in your ship. The probes I’ve heard about went up unwomanned and unmanned.”
“Yes, they did,” Conrad replied, “And I’m glad you’re up on this. And such a feminist, too. But our probe is intended to extend beyond radio contact with the earth. We can design the ship to do certain things on its own, but we can only do so much.”
“Which is where you come in,” the professor said. “At some point we’ll need to have you wake up, observe certain readings, and activate certain controls.”
“You will, of course, be trained to perform these tasks.”
At this point came a knock on the door, and one of the jailers poked his head in. “Two minutes,” he told us.
“Okay,” said the prof, “our time is almost up today, but there’ll be plenty of opportunities to answer any questions you might have. Meanwhile—”
Conrad had produced some kind of document. “If you would just sign this contract here and here . . . .”
“You must be joking. I’m not signing anything without having read it,” I declared.
“Well, as you can see, there are several pages here, and it’s pretty small print,” Conrad said.
“Defining your relationship with the company, resolving various contingencies . . . ”
“I’m not signing it without reading it, and I may not sign it then.” I was digging in my hind claws, as my dear old mum used to say.
They looked at one another as if they didn’t know what to do. “Okay,” said Conrad, “we’ll leave a copy of the contract with you . . . ” He offered me a pen, which I let drop. They weren’t the only ones who knew a thing or two about gravity.
“And hope to see you again in a few days.”
No doubt they also hoped that I’d be picking up that pen and using it. I guess they thought that they could wait me out. I didn’t know if they were seriously crazy or what, but they seemed to think I was. However, if they could get me out of jail . . . .
Since I had nothing else to read, I spent most of the next couple of days trying to understand that contract. The print was small, the light was dim, and I had to go over parts of it several times, making the kind of effort that I hate. But it was something to do when I wasn’t asleep. By the next time those two showed up and the jailer took us to the little room, I was ready for these “scientists.”
I opened by asking about the hazards of space travel that were mentioned in the small print—the radiation, the cosmic storms, the meteoroids, and the dust particles that can have the impact of bullets. All the risks that were named and unnamed and then left uncovered by the contract. “As I understand it, any injury caused by any of these or other space hazards is my problem and not the company’s. Is that right?”
“Well, you’re really one smart bear,” the professor sang.
“Where did you learn to read so well?” burbled the geek.
I felt like giving each of them a smack. But they were still my key to exiting the cell. “The nuns taught me the nouns,” I slowly explained, “the birds taught me the verbs, and my grandma taught me grammar. The state levies a sin tax, and the question is, DO I TAKE ON ALL THE RISKS?”
The scientists jumped back. “Not really,” the prof said when he regained his amour propre. “The company and its shareholders risk substantial investments of time and money.”
“But what about the hazards that I named? The contract says they’re all on me.”
“Well,” said Conrad, swallowing hard, “that’s pretty much the case.”
The two of them had a look in their eyes I hadn’t seen before. It was time to dumb me down again. “And what’s all this about the hazards also being the problem of my hairs?”
“Uh, I think you mean ‘heirs.’ That refers to your descendants, your children and their children and your children’s children’s children—or cubs, as it were,” intoned the prof.
“How do they come into it? I’m a single bear. I don’t have any—what do you call them—‘heirs?’” I sensed that it wasn’t a good time to bring in the Chicago Cubs. I saw the look that flashed between them, but I didn’t know what to make of it.
“By the end of your journey into outer space, you’re likely to have some descendants, at least a few. And they may have descendants, too,” cooed the prof.
“We’re not sending you out there alone, you see,” Conrad stuck in. “You’ll have a female companion.”
“Unless there’s some reason, of course—we don’t have to go into details—why you couldn’t—”
“Mate and have children. I mean cubs.”
“What are you suggesting?” I barked, no doubt sounding like an anxious human male. “Yes, I like lady bears and, yes, I think I can produce—how do you say?—hoff-spring. But why would I want to do that on a trip to outer space? A litter of cubs and me and the missus, crammed into a barrel in outer space? Unless a few of us could wait outside . . . ” They chuckled at that, but I was thinking of another “unless.”
“Unless the trip is going to outlast me . . . ” I could smell by their reaction that I’d hit the mark. Perhaps I’d won a kewpie doll that I could give the lady bear.
“How long a journey are we talking about here?” I finally asked.
“We want to get you to a nearby star system,” Conrad said. “At presently anticipated speeds—”
“That could take a very long time,” the professor finished for him.
“Very long? How long? How many months?”
“Let me put it this way,” the professor said. “Light travels faster than anything else in the universe. It takes light eight minutes to reach us from the sun. It takes something over four years for light to reach us from Alpha Centauri, the nearest star beyond the sun, which is where we hope to go.”
“Four years, huh. I think I could handle that, if I wanted to and had hands.”
“Mr. Bear,” piped little Conrad. “I don’t think you understand. At this point we don’t have a space vehicle that can travel anywhere near the speed of light.”
“We’re not even in the ballpark,” added the prof.
“So, no home field advantage?”
These scientists had no evident interest in sports.
“It sounds as if we’re talking about a one-way trip for me with only my ‘heirs’ having a chance of coming back.”
“Yes,” the prof was quick to say, “and that brings up another advantage of using bears. To avoid what biologists refer to as a ‘genetic bottleneck’ caused by too small a gene pool, we would need a crew of maybe six hundred humans, if they were to participate instead of bears.”
If “they” were to participate. Not these two. But the thought of hundreds of humans, trapped in a space vehicle, changing diapers by the dozen and trying to remember what it was they were supposed to be doing out there after umpteen years in deep space, really tickled me in the ribs, and I had to grab a paper towel to wipe my eyes and nose. “And why not six hundred bears?” I asked when I had caught my breath.
“Bears have had more time to evolve,” the professor solemnly said. “Your kind has been around since the Miocene.”
The Miocene? It sounded like a skin remedy. There was a nasty smell to some of this, but I was in no position to do competing research. I put a paw over my nose and tried to attend what Conrad was saying. It seems I would not be expected to bring my own date, as they would make arrangements for the female companion. The man was grinning as though he was about to hand me the key to a certain party address. I imagined a bevy of hostesses, bears and humans too, opening a hidden door.
“. . . maybe even two female companions,” the prof was saying. I wondered how far they might go with this. Were we at the low end of their bargaining range?
“What? Only two? What about more the merrier?”
“Only two,” he pronounced.
“Okay,” I affirmed. “Two it is. But do you offer this little bonus in case something happens to one of them? What if something happens to me? I’m only going to last so long, and you still haven’t assigned a number to all those many months or years of flying to the stars.”
“You know, Mr. Bear,” parleyed the prof, “it’s only a question of time for any of us, whether we journey into outer space or spend our time here on earth.”
The logic was inescapable, if you happened to be a rock.
“As for replacements, the bearship has a limited capacity.”
I tried to imagine Ms. Bear 2 waiting patiently for promotion to Ms. Bear 1. I would just have to team up on them, whatever that might mean. But what if there weren’t enough of me to go around? About here the jailer broke into my reverie to return me to the cell. It occurred to me that I had at least one paw out the door. But not out the door and into their little monument to human arrogance. I didn’t intend for a pedal part or any other part of me to get locked into that rocket ship of theirs. If I could just string them along a little more . . . .
Our final meeting has taken place. This time they added some sugar to the deal by bringing along a young female bear. I liked her buff-colored coat and nutmeg smell, but I could gain no sense of what it might be like to have an extended conversation with her or even a brief chat, as the scientists did all the talking. Thus, I gained no idea of who she really was, much less what it might be like to spend the rest of my life with her in a claustrophobic cylinder that I was resolved never to enter anyway.
The professor and the geek were making their final pitch. It had four parts. One, if I went along with them, I’d get a chance to eat a lot of “really great meals” before the take-off. Like the condemned criminal in his last hour, I could order anything I liked. Two, I’d become famous, “the Christopher Columbus of outer space.” The name of Jimmy Bear would be on people’s lips a thousand years from now. “On the maws of bears, as well,” amended Conrad. Three, I’d be out of jail. And four, the curveball in the bunch, I guess, was that I might live a lot longer than any bear ever had before. I liked the first of these. The second—lasting fame among bears, et al.—dumped cold comfort on my head. The third, getting out of jail, was the only one that mattered. And the last was a mystery. How could space travel keep me alive longer than my peers? I should probably have taken an introductory physics course.
“At the kind of speed we hope to reach, time expands,” the professor explained.
“Relativity,” Conrad breathed.
“You will age more slowly than anyone on earth.”
Anyone? That could put me in a race with Brer Giant Tortoise to see who finished last. How could going fast slow down time? Being stuck in jail slowed down time, but I doubted I was getting any younger from it. Before I could squeeze more information out of them, they had slithered onto something else. It seems they wanted me to help publicize the venture. Or as Conrad put it, “We want you to be the face of Deep Space I.” They would do the talking, they said, but they wanted me to come along on a pre-flight tour. Really? A tour? They could hire somebody in a bear suit for that. But that might be my exit cue. They seemed to have forgotten all about the unsigned contract. I guess they thought that no one else would ever read it. Which was fine with me.
“ . . . like this costs a lot of money,” Conrad was explaining, unbidden by any question of mine. “We have to buy materials, pay the engineers and technicians, rent a site . . . ”
Again, I was starting to smell something rotten in this. “Wait a minute,” I crowded in, “I thought we were about ready to blast off.”
“Uh, we’ve done a lot of preliminary research . . . .”
“We’ve designed the ship and taken steps to get the appropriate permits.”
“We’re close,” Conrad said.
I began to wonder whether they had gotten any financing at all for their lunatic endeavor.
“Now, if you have no further questions . . . ,” the prof began.
“I have one,” I said. “At least one.”
“Why are we doing this? What’s the point of trying to get to a super-distant star?”
“Well, there’s human curiosity,” the professor said, “the desire to learn as much as we can about the universe in which we live.”
“But I’m a bear. I don’t need to understand everything about the universe. My head is usually near the ground.” Or in a book, I could have said. “Can’t we just be curious and leave the pretty stars alone?” They chuckled.
“Someday mankind is going to need another home,” Conrad tacked on.
“An extraterrestrial colony, at the least.”
“What? What’s this you’re saying?”
“The earth is under threat. Computer projections show our planet becoming less and less habitable, what with climate change, resource depletion, unstable financial markets, the so-called population bomb, the ongoing threat of nuclear war . . . .”
“Nobody can put that genie back in the physics lab.”
“We’re a two-planet species, in terms of survival needs.”
“Two at least.”
“Hold it right there,” I said. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What this boils down to is that since you humans have all but destroyed the earth, you have to find a home on another planet, so you can ruin it, too. Well, if that’s the idea, I want no part of it, and if that means they dump me in the wilderness to survive as best I can, so be it.”
“Don’t be too hasty, Mr. Bear,” the professor warned.
“You may want to think this over,” put in his pal.
The female bear smelled somewhat relieved, and I wondered what they had on her to make her think of spending the rest of her life floating around in a tiny chamber with a big old nasty male bumping up against her all the time.
“Nope. That’s it for me.” I pounded on the door to rouse a jailer to take me back to my cell. But what had I done? The trip to outer space that they were holding out to me might represent the only chance I was going to get to get out of jail and avoid the savage wilderness. I’d thrown it away like a peach pit. But their rationale for flying into outer space had gotten me seriously riled, and I knew I wasn’t going to take back what I’d said.
The Deep Space I people showed up to try to talk to me again a couple of times, but I wouldn’t see them. I couldn’t pretend to want to help save humankind, even to get out of jail. Let them find another planet on their own and leave this one to the rest of us. Meanwhile, the public defender lady, who didn’t smell half bad for a human but was always in a hurry, said she was trying to get me sixty days in what she called “the county facility.” With the time I’d already served, I’d be out in what? Not the slow time of outer space but soon. The alternative was exile to the wilderness, where I’d have to learn to make a living by scaring campers into abandoning some of their food. She let slip that she liked to camp. I was reassured to know that, like me, she had a personal reason to resist the wilderness deportation of any more bears that weren’t afraid of humans. She looked a little like Ms. Wilkins around the eyes, but her eyes were usually hopping around on the documents that, one after another, she pulled from her battered briefcase. Ms. Wilkins’ eyes used to look at me sometimes. I don’t know why I’m such a one-woman bear.
One morning the jailers took me for a walk and put me in a bigger cell with seven other prisoners. Two of them were grizzlies. For anyone who has forgotten how fierce and intimidating the grizzly can be, I recommend a visit to Yellowstone country, via The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Needless to say, these huge, sociopathic beasts do not inspire an atmosphere of sans souci. But fortunately for me and for the other black bears in that lockup, the grizzlies had a couple of humans to play with.
“Hey, bitch,” one of the g-bears would boom. “That’s right, talking to you. Is it true your mother was an orang-u-tang?” Or I would hear, “Hey, little human criminal. You got way too much food on your tray. Give me some of that.” The rest of us might make a show of being otherwise occupied, but we couldn’t help following the action of this theater of cruelty. Except for the TV—and I’ll get to that in a minute—there was precious little else going on in that cell. The bully show started early and went on into the night. The upshot for us black bears was that the grizzlies didn’t bother us. As for the men, their eyes would flit around the cell, up to the low ceiling and down to the floor in front of them, landing everywhere but on their tormentors. And they kept their mouths shut tight. Responding to grizzly verbal jabs would only make things worse. The men could only sit there, hugging their knees and shivering in the air-conditioning that was about right for us bears. I asked myself what I would do if one day the g-bears went too far. But they were going too far every day. And what could I do? I was only an unarmed black bear. Was it my responsibility to protect humans? For what?
A couple of the black bears were scary customers, too, but I’d covered myself in criminal credibility early on when asked the inevitable question: What’re you in for?
“Second degree murder, the D.A. says.”
“And what do you say you did?” one of the grizzlies asked.
“I say I committed an act of justice and self-defense.”
“Oh, justice. Right. We’re gonna have to hear about that.” He gave his brother g-bear a wink. But they showed no further interest in me, and there was never a need to retail the drama I’d been rehearsing in my mind about an act of rightful vengeance in a mixed-species marriage. If I weren’t so lazy, I might someday turn this unused narrative into a film script or libretto. In any case, the bully bears were having too much fun with the humans to be badgering me. And thank god there were no badgers in there with us, too.
Every few days a jailer would call a name and let one of us out, whether to go to a hearing or trial, or to get released back into the buzzing world outside, was something we never knew. But the empty bunk would soon be filled by someone else, and the basic mix of prisoners stayed about the same. Which was fine with me. Just as long as they gave us a human or two on whom the g-bears could sharpen their claws. But one day we got something new. An intimidated human was replaced by a man with a super-defiant look on his face. But not just his face. I could smell defiance all over him, as they shoved him in with us. The other humans looked to the defiant man with hope and fear, as the tension in that cell got tighter than a hangman’s noose.
He was only with us for about an hour though. That’s all the time the g-bears would allow before they tried him out. I can’t remember what they said, but we all heard what the defiant man said in response:
“You the bitch.”
What followed happened in the twitch of a whisker. Then we saw that where the brave but foolish man had once enjoyed a good right arm, there was now a blood-spouting stump. He’d tried to throw a punch, I guess. His blood was making a dark and quickly expanding pool on the floor, and someone screamed for the so-called “turnkey.” The guards came bustling in to carry out the bleeding man, his pride presumably in better shape than his body. There could not have been enough of them to take the g-bear out by physical force alone, if he had wanted to resist, but he let them shackle him and walk him out. Someone picked up what was left of the arm, and someone else came in with a hose and mop. All of us were breathing hard, as though we’d been in a race. Within a day or two we had another grizzly prisoner and another human sacrifice, as well.