3—Nowheresville and Beyond
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. But not just that. Being there without Jimmy, I felt kind of naked. And Jimmy 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. He’d say, why did you leave me here, Charlie? And I’d say, sorry, buddy, I guess I really screwed up. And he’d say, that’s okay, dude. No big deal. Let’s go get something to eat. But say, I bet you could use a drink. Well, yes, Jimmy, I certainly . . .
At this point my little fantasy was shot in the back by the sound of another car. 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. 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 even though it was already balanced on a distant purple peak in what must’ve been the west, the sun was hot on me. 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 I remembered that 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 want to talk to me half 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 planning 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 person who was 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, back-lighting 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 said 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, and 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 kind of 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 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, said 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 off on 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. 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. “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 I used to cook, 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.
“In point 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 some things at the motel, important notes and such.”
Important notes? 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 think you would. Plus, I didn’t think you could find yourself another bear companion in the land of the Red Dragon. But 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 I was a little leery of his pats and taps. And maybe it wasn’t a friendly pat, at all. He might’ve been reaching for the 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 glad to be behind the wheel again.
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 usually at the edge of town in the big box stores. That’s where people parked their cars, anyway. But we had some times that stick to 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 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 at 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, and 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 leak a lot of hot air, and they bring it 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 to smother 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 in a cowboy hat 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, “Jeanie, give these two their money back. They don’t belong here.”
“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—I mean, bear. Why should I do that?”
It was 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 tackled for a loss. Anyone who thinks bears are clumsy hadn’t seen Ursula dance. Funk classics, hip hop, blue grass, salsa—it didn’t take much at all to get her out on the floor. And there was nothing klutzy in the moves she made. And Rhonda had seen Jimmy shuffle cards like a dealer. 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.
“Well,” I said, opening it up, “there’s something here about bears making people sick. ‘Bears sicken some,’ it says.”
“More bear bashing, I suppose. Will they never let up? Let’s hear more about those early humanoids.”
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.”
“So homo erectus found the right line and waited in it long enough to become human. I hate to be so negative, but it seems to me that being human means being altogether too human. If we must have primates, why not let the gorilla serve as your leading exemplar? 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. Instead, we’ve got the clever ape that invented Las Vegas and manufactures t-shirts and threatens to drown the earth. You think that you’ve become the master of nature? Look around you.” He flung open the door and gave a roar that would’ve scared the crap 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. There were cars stopped at a light and others making a turn. There was a gas station across the street and back of that some greenery that looked like it was trying to hide the fence that ran along 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 can also see some crows.” They were on the power line. “And there must be people in that plane that’s making so much noise.”
“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. If we waited awhile, we’d see some other birds, I think. There’s also those little trees over there. And hear that dog? That’s another animal.” I could kind of smell him, too, though I didn’t know where he was. Weird, huh?
“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 all but 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 wait just 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 our 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 have me a nice little drink.”
“Are there any drinks that aren’t nice?” Jimmy asked.
“The first one or two are great, excellent.”
“Well, if you’re gonna get fucked up, you might as well get all fucked up. That’s what I always say.”
“I’m curious, Charlie. Have you ever considered a more fashionable addiction? OxyContin, something like that?”
I must’ve been standing there with my mouth open, because he came over and gave me a peewee bear hug. I mean the kind that didn’t leave me short of breath.
“I hope you know I jest,” he whispered to the top of my head.
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 Colorado. 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. I mentioned this to Jimmy, and he said,
“Well, why not? It’s not as though you knocked off Roland Barthes.”
“Oh, just somebody else who got run down by a van. In your case, it was only a bear.”
That had a sting.
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, and it had never seemed so loud before. It was about time to check out of the place 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, there was this skinny little creep in dark shades standing there. I noticed he had on a black string tie, the kind you hardly see anymore. 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, Charlie? Oh, I guess you’re not used to seeing me without my suit.”
The gravelly voice was Jimmy’s, but it wasn’t coming from the dude who was standing there. 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 felt double-crossed. I watched him hand the guy 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 who needs to be concerned about past crimes?”
We were on the outskirts of Cincinnati when I couldn’t ignore the changes anymore. I mean the clumps of extra hair that were sprouting up in more and more places on my body. 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 couple bags of such stuff and 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 cinnamon coloring. 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 edging up the sides 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 hearing was better, too. When I complained about the argument in the room next door, Jimmy said that that was coming from three rooms down the hall. I wanted to go to the store to get more grub, but 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, 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 said. “I really don’t like that construction.”
All I really wanted to do was eat, and 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 the way I looked. 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. I remembered the newspaper article that we didn’t read.
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 mentioned it to 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 teeth and claws. 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.”
Rhonda recommended that I give the car 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 that 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 $700,000. 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. 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? The dude has feelings, too, even if they’re not like ours.
Looking kind of like a bear while traveling was a real downer. First there was the super uptight dude who refused to sit next to me. Like I was going to bite him in the ass or some damn thing. And they couldn’t get any volunteers to take his seat. The plane was full, and someone had to sit on someone else’s lap, for all I know. Then there was the stewardess—excuse me, “flight attendant”—that wouldn’t serve me any more drinks. All I wanted was a reasonable explanation of why everybody else on that flight could drink like a fish, but not Charlie H. Well, I guess my question came out in a roar, ‘cause next thing you know they were threatening me with an unscheduled landing. People were complaining, babies were bawling, and I was thinking what a bunch of crap. But when I finally did get to SF, guess what? Some people couldn’t resist my bad new look.