Jim watched as the plane filled up. It was a pretty tightly stacked flight, but last time, coming into Houston, he had watched as every seat filled except for the one on his left and the one on his right. He had hit the jackpot that time, no row mates. That made it comfortable, having all that knee and elbow room.
He had the middle seat again, an empty seat to his left and one to his right. He sat there hoping there would be the amazing repeat of the time before.
A couple of big guys, sweating and puffing, were moving down the aisle, and he thought, Yep, they’ll be the ones. Probably one of them on either side. Shit, he’d settle for just having one seat filled, the one by the window, so he could get out on the aisle side. Easy to go to the bathroom that way, stretch your legs.
The big guys passed him by. He saw a lovely young woman carrying a straw hat making her way down the center. He thought, Someone has got to sit by me, maybe it’ll be her. He could perhaps strike up a conversation. He might even find she’s going where he’s going, doesn’t have a boyfriend. Wishful thinking, but it was a better thing to think about than big guys on either side of him, hemming him in like the center of a sandwich.
But no, she passed him by as well. He looked up at her, hoping she’d look his way. Maybe he could get a smile at least. That would be nice.
Course, he was a married man, so that was no way to think.
But he was thinking it.
She didn’t look and she didn’t smile.
Jim sighed, waited. The line was moving past him. There was only one customer left: a shirtless bear in dungarees and work boots, carrying a hat. The bear looked peeved, or tired, or both.
Oh, shit, thought Jim. Bears, they’ve got to stink. All that damn fur. He passes me by, I’m going to have a seat free to myself on either side. He doesn’t, well, I’ve got to ride next to him for several hours.
But the bear stopped in his row, pointed at the window seat. “That’s my seat.”
“Sure,” Jim said, and moved out of the middle seat and out into the aisle, let the bear in. The bear settled in by the window and fastened his seatbelt and rested his hat on his knee. Jim slid back into the middle seat. He could feel the heat off the bear’s big, hairy arm. And there was a smell. Nothing nasty or ripe. Just a kind of musty odor, like an old fur coat hung too long in a closet, dried blood left in a carpet, a whiff of cigarette smoke and charred wood.
Jim watched the aisle again. No one else. He could hear them closing the door. He unfastened his seatbelt and moved to the seat closest to the aisle. The bear turned and looked at him. “You care I put my hat in the middle seat?”
“Not at all,” Jim said.
“I get tired of keeping up with it. Thinking of taking it out of the wardrobe equation.”
Suddenly it snapped. Jim knew the bear. Had seen him on TV. He was a famous environmentalist. Well, that was something. Had to sit by a musty bear, helped if he was famous. Maybe there would be something to talk about.
“Hey,” the bear said, “I ask you something, and I don’t want it to sound rude, but…can I?”
“I got a feeling, just from a look you gave me, you recognized me.”
“Well, I don’t want to be too rude, sort of leave a fart hanging in the air, though, I might… Deer carcass. Never agrees. But, I really don’t want to talk about me or what I do or who I am… And let me just be completely honest. I was so good at what I do… Well, I am good. Let me rephrase that. I was really as successful as people think, you believe I’d be riding coach? After all my years of service to the forest, it’s like asking your best girl to ride bitch like she was the local poke. So, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I never intended to ask,” Jim said. That was a lie, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
“Good. That’s good,” said the bear, and leaned back in his seat and put the hat on his head and pulled it down over his eyes.
For a moment Jim thought the bear had gone to sleep, but no, the bear spoke again. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you want to talk, we can talk. Don’t want to, don’t have to, but we can talk, just don’t want to talk about the job and me and the television ads, all that shit. You know what I’d like to talk about?”
“Poontang. All the guys talk about pussy, but me, I’m a bear, so it makes guys uncomfortable, don’t want to bring it up. Let me tell you something man, I get plenty, and I don’t just mean bear stuff. Guy like me, that celebrity thing going and all, I can line them up outside the old motel room, knock ’em off like shooting ducks from a blind. Blondes, redheads, brunettes, bald, you name it, I can bang it.”
This made Jim uncomfortable. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex with his wife and here was a smelly bear with a goofy hat knocking it off like there was no tomorrow. He said, “Aren’t we talking about your celebrity after all? I mean, in a way?”
“Shit. You’re right. Okay. Something else. Maybe nothing. Maybe we just sit. Tell you what, I’m going to read a magazine, but you think of something you want to talk about, you go ahead. I’m listening.”
Jim got a magazine out of the pouch in front of him and read a little, even came across an ad with the bear’s picture in it, but he didn’t want to bring that up. He put the magazine back and thought about the book he had in the overhead, in his bag, but it was the usual thriller, so he didn’t feel like bothering with it.
After a while the flight attendant came by. She was a nice-looking woman who looked even nicer because of her suit, way she carried herself, the air of authority. She asked if they’d like drinks.
Jim ordered a diet soda, which was free, but the bear pulled out a bill and bought a mixed drink, a Bloody Mary. They both got peanuts. When the flight attendant handed the bear his drink, the bear said, “Honey, we land, you’re not doing anything, I could maybe show you my wild side, find yours.”
The bear grinned, showed some very ugly teeth.
The flight attendant leaned over Jim, close to the bear, said, “I’d rather rub dirt in my ass than do anything with you.”
This statement hung in the air like backed-up methane for a moment, then the flight attendant smiled, moved back and stood in the aisle, looked right at Jim, said, “If you need anything else, let me know,” and she was gone.
The bear had let down his dining tray and he had the drink in its plastic cup in his hand. The Bloody Mary looked very bloody. The bear drank it in one big gulp. He said, “Flight drinks. You could have taken a used Tampax and dipped it in rubbing alcohol and it would taste the same.”
Jim didn’t say anything. The bear said, “She must be a lesbian. Got to be. Don’t you think?”
The way the bear turned and looked at him, Jim thought it was wise to agree. “Could be.”
The bear crushed the plastic cup. “No could be. Is. Tell me you agree. Say Is.”
“Is,” Jim said, and his legs trembled slightly.
“That’s right, boy. Now whistle up that lesbian bitch, get her back over here. I want another drink.”
When they landed in Denver the bear was pretty liquored up. He walked down the ramp crooked and his hat was cocked at an odd angle that suggested it would fall at any moment. But it didn’t.
The plane had arrived late and this meant Jim had missed his connecting flight due to a raging snowstorm. The next flight was in the morning and it was packed. He’d have to wait until tomorrow, mid-afternoon, just to see if a flight was available. He called his wife on his cell phone, told her, and then rang off feeling depressed and tired and wishing he could stay home and never fly again.
Jim went to the bar, thinking he might have a nightcap, catch a taxi to the hotel, and there was the bear, sitting on a stool next to a blonde with breasts so big, they were resting on the bar in front of her. The bear, his hat still angled oddly on his head, was chatting her up.
Jim went behind them on his way to a table. He heard the bear say, “Shid, darlin’, you dun’t know whad yer missin’. ’Ere’s wimen all o’er ’is world would lige to do it wid a bear.”
“I’m not that drunk, yet,” the blonde said, “and I don’t think they have enough liquor here to make me that drunk.” She got up and walked off.
Jim sat down at a table with his back to the bar. He didn’t want the bear to recognize him, but he wanted a drink. And then he could smell the bear. The big beast was right behind him. He turned slightly. The bear was standing there, dripping saliva onto his furry chest thick as sea foam.
“Eh, buddy, ’ow you doin’?” The bear’s words were so slurred, it took Jim a moment to understand.
“Oh,” he said. “Not so good. Flight to Seattle is delayed until tomorrow.”
“Me, too,” the bear said, and plopped down in a chair at the table so hard the chair wobbled and Jim heard a cracking sound that made him half expect to see the chair explode and the bear go tumbling to the floor. “See me wid dat gal? Wus dryin’ to roun’ me ub sum, ya know.”
“Les’bin. The’re eberyware.”
Jim decided he needed to get out of this pretty quick. “Well, you know, I don’t think I’m going to wait on that drink. Got to get a hotel room, get ready for tomorrow.”
“Naw, dunt do ’at. Er, led me buy ya a drank. Miz. You in dem tidht panss.”
So the waitress came over and the bear ordered some drinks for them both. Jim kept trying to leave, but, no go. Before he knew it, he was almost as hammered as the bear.
Finally, the bear, just two breaths short of a complete slur, said, “Eber thang ’ere is den times duh prize. Leds go ta a real bar.” He paused. “Daby Crogett killed a bar.” And then the bear broke into insane laughter.
“Wen e wus ony tree … three. Always subone gad ta shood sub bar subware. Cum on, eds go. I know dis town ligh duh bag ob muh ’and.”
They closed down a midtown bar. Jim remembered that pretty well. And then Jim remembered something about the bear saying they ought to have some companionship, and then things got muddled. He awoke in a little motel room, discovered the air was full of the smell of moldy bear fur, alcohol farts, a coppery aroma, and sweaty perfume.
Sitting up in bed, Jim was astonished to find a very plump girl with short blond hair next to him in bed. She was lying face down, one long, bladder-like tit sticking out from under her chest, the nipple pierced with a ring that looked like a washer.
Jim rolled out of bed and stood up beside it. He was nude and sticky. “Shit,” he said. He observed the hump under the sheet some more, the washer in the tit. And then, as his eyes adjusted, he looked across the room and saw another bed, and he could see on the bed post the bear’s hat, and then the bear, lying on the bed without his pants. There was another lump under the blanket. One delicate foot stuck out from under the blanket near the end of the bed, a gold chain around the ankle. The bear was snoring softly. There were clothes all over the floor, a pair of panties large enough to be used as a sling for the wounded leg of a hippopotamus was dangling from the light fixture. That would belong to his date.
Except for his shoes and socks, Jim found his clothes and put them on and sat in a chair at a rickety table and put his head in his hands. He repeated softly over and over, “Shit, shit, shit.”
With his hands on his face, he discovered they had a foul smell about them, somewhere between workingman sweat and a tuna net. He was hit with a sudden revelation that made him feel ill. He slipped into the bathroom and showered and re-dressed; this time he put on his socks and shoes. When he came out the light was on over the table and the bear was sitting there, wearing his clothes, even his hat.
“Damn, man,” the bear said, his drunk gone, “that was some time we had. I think. But, I got to tell you, man, you got the ugly one.”
Jim sat down at the table, feeling as if he had just been hit by a car. “I don’t remember anything.”
“Hope you remembered she stunk. That’s how I tracked them down, on a corner. I could smell her a block away. I kind of like that, myself. You know, the smell. Bears, you know how it is. But, I seen her, and I thought, goddamn, she’d have to sneak up on a glass of water, so I took the other one. You said you didn’t care.”
“Oh, god,” Jim said.
“The fun is in the doing, not the remembering. Trust me, some things aren’t worth remembering.”
“My wife will kill me.”
“Not if you don’t tell her.”
“I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“Now you’ve started. The fat one, I bet she drank twelve beers before she pissed herself.”
“Come on, let’s get out of here. I gave the whores the last of my money. And I gave them yours.”
“I asked you. You said you didn’t mind.”
“I said I don’t remember a thing. I need that money.”
“I know that. So do I.”
The bear got up and went over to his bed and picked up the whore’s purse and rummaged through it, took out the money. He then found the other whore’s purse on the floor, opened it up and took out money.
Jim staggered to his feet. He didn’t like this, not even a little bit. But he needed his money back. Was it theft if you paid for services you didn’t remember?
As Jim stood, in the table light he saw that on the bear’s bed was a lot of red paint, and then he saw it wasn’t paint, saw too that the whore’s head was missing. Jim let out a gasp and staggered a little.
The bear looked at him. The expression on his face was oddly sheepish.
“Thought we might get out of here without you seeing that. Sometimes, especially if I’ve been drinking, and I’m hungry, I revert to my basic nature. If it’s any consolation, I don’t remember doing that.”
“No. No. It’s no consolation at all.”
At this moment, the fat whore rolled over in bed and sat up and the covers dropped down from her, and the bear, moving very quickly, got over there and with a big swipe of his paw sent a spray of blood and a rattle of teeth flying across the room, against the wall. The whore fell back, half her face clawed away.
“Oh, Jesus. Oh, my god.”
“This killing I remember,” the bear said. “Now come on, we got to wipe everything down before we leave, and we don’t have all night.”
They walked the streets in blowing snow, and even though it was cold, Jim felt as if he were in some kind of fever dream. The bear trudged along beside him, said, “I had one of the whores pay for the room in cash. They never even saw us at the desk. Wiped down the prints in the room, anything we might have touched. I’m an expert at it. We’re cool. Did that ’cause I know how these things can turn out. I’ve had it go bad before. Employers have got me out of a few scrapes, you know. I give them that. You okay? You look a little peaked.”
The bear ignored him, rattled on. “You now, I’m sure you can tell by now, I’m not really all that good with the ladies. On the plane, I was laying the bullshit on… Damn, I got all this fur, but that don’t mean I’m not cold. I ought to have like a winter uniform, you know? A jacket, with a big collar that I can turn up. Oh, by the way. I borrowed your cell phone to call out for pizza last night, but before I could, I dropped it and stepped on the motherfucker. Can you believe that? Squashed like a clamshell. I got it in my pocket. Have to throw it away. Okay. Let me be truthful. I had it in my back pocket and I sat my fat ass on it. That’s the thing… You a little hungry? Shit. I’m hungry. I’m cold.”
That was the only comment for a few blocks, then the bear said, “Fuck this,” and veered toward a car parked with several others at the curb. The bear reached in his pocket and took out a little packet, opened it. The streetlights revealed a series of shiny lock-pick tools. He went to work on the car door with a tool that he unfolded and slid down the side of the car window until he could pull the lock. He opened the door, said, “Get inside.” The bear flipped a switch that unlocked the doors, and Jim, as if he was obeying the commands of a hypnotist, walked around to the other side and got in.
The bear was bent under the dash with his tools, and in a moment, the car roared to life. The bear sat in the seat and closed the door, said, “Seatbelts. Ain’t nobody rides in my car, they don’t wear seatbelts.”
Jim thought: It’s not your car. But he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. His heart was in his mouth. He put on his seatbelt.
They tooled along the snowy Denver streets and out of town and the bear said, “We’re leaving this place, going to my stomping grounds. Yellowstone Park. Know some back trails. Got a pass. We’ll be safe there. We can hang. I got a cabin. It’ll be all right.”
“I… I…” Jim said, but he couldn’t find the rest of the sentence.
“Look in the glovebox, see there’s anything there. Maybe some prescription medicine of some kind. I could use a jolt.”
“I…” Jim said, and then his voice died and he opened the glovebox. There was a gun inside. Lazily, Jim reached for it.
The bear leaned over and took it from him. “You don’t act like a guy been around guns much. Better let me have that.” The bear, while driving, managed with one hand to pop out the clip and slide it back in. “A full load. Wonder he’s got a gun permit. You know, I do. ’Course, not for this gun. But, beggars can’t be choosers, now can they?”
“No. No. Guess not,” Jim said, having thought for a moment that he would have the gun, that he could turn the tables, at least make the bear turn back toward Denver, let him out downtown.
“See any gum in there,” the bear said. “Maybe he’s got some gum. After that whore’s head, I feel like my mouth has a pair of shitty shorts in it. Anything in there?”
Jim shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Well, shit,” the bear said.
The car roared on through the snowy night, the windshield wipers beating time, throwing snow wads left and right like drunk children tossing cotton balls.
The heater was on. It was warm. Jim felt a second wave of the alcohol blues; it wrapped around him like a warm blanket, and without really meaning to, he slept.
“I should be hibernating,” the bear said, as if Jim were listening. “That’s why I’m so goddamn grumpy. The work. No hibernation. Paid poon and cheap liquor. That’s no way to live.”
The bear was a good driver in treacherous weather. He drove on through the night and made good time.
When Jim awoke it was just light and the light was red and it came through the window and filled the car like blood-stained streams of heavenly piss.
Jim turned his head. The bear had his hat cocked back on his head and he looked tired. He turned his head slightly toward Jim, showed some teeth at the corner of his mouth, then glared back at the snowy road.
“We got a ways to go yet, but we’re almost to Yellowstone. You been asleep two days.”
“Yeah. I stopped for gas once, and you woke up once and you took a piss.”
“Yeah. But you went right back to sleep.”
“Good grief. I’ve never been that drunk in my life.”
“Probably the pills you popped.”
“Pills. You took them with the alcohol, when we were with the whores.”
“It’s all right. Ever’ now and again you got to cut the tiger loose, you know. Don’t worry. I got a cabin. That’s where we’re going. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you. I mean, hell, what are friends for?”
The bear didn’t actually have a cabin, he had a fire tower, and it rose up high into the sky overlooking very tall trees. They had to climb a ladder up there, and the bear, sticking the automatic in his belt, sent Jim up first, said, “Got to watch those rungs. They get wet, iced over, your hand can slip. Forest Ranger I knew slipped right near the top. We had to dig what was left of him out of the ground. One of his legs went missing. I found it about a month later. It was cold when he fell so it kept pretty good. Wasn’t bad, had it with some beans. Waste not, want not. Go on, man. Climb.”
Inside the fire tower it was very nice, though cold. The bear turned on the electric heater and it wasn’t long before the place was toasty.
The bear said, “There’s food in the fridge. Shitter is over there. I’ll sleep in my bed, and you sleep on the couch. This’ll be great. We can hang. I got all kinds of movies, and as you can see, that TV is big enough for a drive-in theater. We ain’t got no bitches, but hell, they’re just trouble anyway. We’ll just pull each other’s wieners.”
Jim said, “What now?”
“I don’t stutter, boy. It ain’t so bad. You just grease a fellow up and go to work.”
“I don’t know.”
“Nah, you’ll like it.”
As night neared, the light that came through the tower’s wrap-around windows darkened and died, and Jim could already imagine grease on his hands.
But by then, the bear had wetted his whistle pretty good, drinking straight from a big bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He wasn’t as wiped out as before, not stumbling drunk, and his tongue still worked, but fortunately the greased-weenie pull had slipped from the bear’s mind. He sat on the couch with his bottle and Jim sat on the other end, and the bear said: “Once upon a goddamn time the bears roamed these forests and we were the biggest, baddest, meanest motherfuckers in the woods. That’s no shit. You know that?”
“But, along come civilization. We had fires before that, I’m sure. You know, natural stuff. Lightning. Too dry. Natural combustion. But when man arrived, it was doo-doo time for the bears and everything else. I mean, don’t take me wrong. I like a good meal and a beer,” he held up the bottle, “and some Jack, and hanging out in this warm tower, but something has been sapped out of me. Some sort of savage beast that was in me has been tapped and run off into the ground… I was an orphan. Did you know that?”
“I’ve heard the stories,” Jim said.
“Yeah, well, who hasn’t? It was a big fire. I was young. Some arsonists. Damn fire raged through the forest and I got separated from my mom. Dad, he’d run off. But, you know, no biggie. That’s how bears do. Well, anyway, I climbed a tree like a numbnuts cause my feet got burned, and I just clung and clung to that tree. And then I seen her, my mother. She was on fire. She ran this way and that, back and forth, and I’m yelling, ‘Mama,’ but she’s not paying attention, had her own concerns. And pretty soon she goes down and the fire licks her all over and her fur is gone and there ain’t nothing but a blackened hunk of smoking bear crap left. You know what it is to see a thing like that, me being a cub?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“No, you can’t. You can’t. No one can. I had a big fall, too. I don’t really remember it, but it left a knot on the back of my head, just over the right ear… Come here. Feel that.”
Jim dutifully complied.
The bear said, “Not too hard now. That knot, that’s like my Achilles heel. I’m weak there. Got to make sure I don’t bump my head too good. That’s no thing to live with and that’s why I’m not too fond of arsonists. There are several of them, what’s left of them, buried not far from here. I roam these forests and I’ll tell you, I don’t just report them. Now and again, I’m not doing that. Just take care of business myself. Let me tell you, slick, there’s a bunch of them that’ll never squat over a commode again. They’re out there, their gnawed bones buried deep. You know what it’s like to be on duty all the time, not to be able to hibernate, just nap? It makes a bear testy. Want a cigar?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“A cigar. I know it’s funny coming from me, and after what I just told you, but, we’ll be careful here in my little nest.”
Jim didn’t answer. The bear got up and came back with two fat, black cigars. He had boxed matches with him. He gave Jim a cigar and Jim put it in his mouth, and the bear said, “Puff gently.”
Jim did and the bear lit the end with a wooden match. The bear lit his own cigar. He tossed the box of matches to Jim. “If it goes out, you can light up again. Thing about a cigar is you take your time, just enjoy it, don’t get into it like a whore sucking a dick. It’s done casual. Pucker your mouth like you’re kissing a baby.”
Jim puffed on the cigar but didn’t inhale. The action of it made him feel high, and not too good, a little sick even. They sat and smoked. After a long while, the bear got up and opened one of the windows, said, “Come here.”
Jim went. The woods were alive with sounds: crickets, night birds, howling.
“That’s as it should be. Born in the forest, living there, taking game there, dying there, becoming one with the soil. But look at me. What the fuck have I become? I’m like a goddamn circus bear.”
“You do a lot of good.”
“For who though? The best good I’ve done was catching those arsonists that are buried out there. That was some good. I’ll be straight with you, Jim. I’m happy you’re going to be living here. I need a buddy, and, well, tag, you’re it.”
“You heard me. Oh, the door, it’s locked, and you can’t work the lock from inside, ’cause it’s keyed, and I got the key. So don’t think about going anywhere.”
“That’s not very buddy-like,” Jim said.
The bear studied Jim for a long moment, and Jim felt himself going weak. It was as if he could see the bear’s psychosis move from one eye to another, like it was changing rooms. “But, you’re still my buddy, aren’t you, Jim?”
“Well, I’m sort of bushed, so I think I’ll turn in early. Tomorrow night we’ll catch up on that weenie pull.”
When the bear went to the bedroom and lay down, Jim lay on the couch with the blanket and pillow the bear had left for him, and listened. The bear had left the bedroom door open, and after a while he could hear the bear snoring like a lumberjack working a saw on a log.
Jim got up and eased around the tower and found that he could open windows, but there was nowhere to go from there except straight down, and that was one booger of a drop. Jim thought of how easily the bear had killed the whore and how he admitted to killing others, and then he thought about tomorrow night’s weenie pull, and he became even more nervous.
After an hour of walking about and looking, he realized there was no way out. He thought about the key but had no idea where the bear kept it. He feared if he went in the bear’s room to look, he could startle the bear and that might result in getting his head chewed off. He decided to let it go. For now. Ultimately, pulling a greased bear weenie couldn’t be as bad as being headless.
Jim went back to the couch, pulled the blanket over him, and almost slept.
Next morning, Jim, who thought he would never sleep, had finally drifted off, and what awoke him was not a noise, but the smell of food cooking. Waffles.
Jim sat up slowly. A faint pink light was coming through the window. The kitchenette area of the tower was open to view, part of the bigger room, and the bear was in there wearing an apron and a big chef hat. The bear turned and saw him. The apron had a slogan on it: If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy.
The bear spotted him, gave Jim a big-fanged, wet smile. “Hey, brother, how are you? Come on in here and sit your big ass down and have one of Mr. Bear’s waffles. It’s so good you’ll want to slap your mama.”
Jim went into the kitchenette, sat at the table where the bear instructed. The bear seemed in a light and cheery mood. Coffee was on the table, a plate stacked with waffles, big strips of bacon, pats of butter, and a bottle of syrup in a plastic bear modeled after Mr. Bear himself.
“Now you wrap your lips around some of this stuff, see what you think.”
While Jim ate the bear regaled him with all manner of stories about his life, and most were in fact interesting, but all Jim could think about was the bear biting the head off of that hooker, and then slashing the other with a strike of his mighty paw. As Jim ate, the tasty waffles with thick syrup became wads of blood and flesh in his mouth, and he felt as if he were eating of Mr. Bear’s wine and wafer, his symbolic blood and flesh, and it made Jim’s skin crawl.
All it would take to end up like the whores was to make a misstep. Say something wrong. Perhaps a misinterpreted look. A hesitation at tonight’s weenie pull… Oh, damn, Jim thought. The weenie pull.
“What I thought we’d do, is we’d go for a drive, dump the car. There’s a ravine I know where we can run it off, and no one will see it again. Won’t even know it’s missing. Excuse me while I go to the shitter. I think I just got word there’s been a waffle delivery called.”
The bear laughed at his own joke and left the room. Jim ate a bit more of the waffle and all the bacon. He didn’t want the bear to think he wasn’t grateful. The beast was psychotic. Anything could set him off.
Jim got up and washed his hands at the sink, and just as he was passing into the living room, he saw the gun they had found in the car lying on a big fluffy chair. Part of it, the barrel, had slipped into the crack in the cushions. Maybe the bear had forgotten all about it, or at least didn’t have it at the forefront of his mind. That was it. He’d been drunker than a Shriner’s convention. He probably didn’t even remember having the gun.
Jim eased over and picked up the weapon and put it under his shirt, in the small of his back. He hoped he would know how to use it. He had seen them used before. If he could get up close enough—
“Now, that was some delivery. That motherfucker probably came with a fortune cookie and six-pack of Coke. I feel ten pounds lighter. You ready, Jimbo?”
In the early morning the forests were dark and beautiful and there was a slight mist and with the window of the car rolled down, it was cool and damp and the world seemed newborn. But all Jim could think about was performing a greased-weenie pull and then getting his head chewed off.
Jim said, “You get rid of the car, how do we get back?”
The bear laughed. “Just like a citizen. We walk, of course.”
“We’ve gone quite a distance.”
“It’ll do you good. Blow out the soot. You’ll like it. Great scenery. I’m gonna show you the graves where I buried what was left of them fellows, the arsonists.”
“That’s all right,” Jim said. “I don’t need to see that.”
“I want you to. It’s not like I can show everyone, but my bestest bud, that’s a different matter, now ain’t it?”
“Well, I don’t…” Jim said.
“We’re going to see it.”
Jim had a sudden revelation. Maybe there never was going to be a weenie pull, and as joyful as that perception was, the alternative was worse. The bear was going to get rid of him. Didn’t want to do it in his tower. You don’t shit where you eat… Well, the bear might. But the idea was you kept your place clean of problems. This wasn’t just a trip to dump the car — this was a death ride. The bear was going to kill him and leave him where the arsonists were. Jim felt his butthole clench on the car seat.
They drove up higher and the woods grew thicker and the road turned off and onto a trail. The car bumped along for some miles until the trees overwhelmed everything but the trail, and the tree limbs were so thickly connected they acted as a kind of canopy overhead. They drove in deep shadow and there were spots where the shadows were broken by light and the light played across the trail in speckles and spots and birds shot across their view like feathered bullets, and twice there were deer in sight, bounding into the forest and disappearing like wraiths as the car passed.
They came to a curve and then a sharp rise and the bear drove up the rise. The trail played out, and still he drove. He came to a spot, near the peak of the hill, where the sun broke through, stopped the car and got out. Jim got out. They walked to the highest rise of the hill, and where they stood was a clean wide swath in the trees. Weeds and grass grew there. The grass was tall and mostly yellow but brown in places.
“Spring comes,” the bear said. “There will be flowers, all along that path, on up to this hill, bursting all over it. This is my forest, Jim. All the dry world used to be a forest, or nearly was, but man has cut most of it down and that’s done things to all of us and I don’t think in the long run much of it is good. Before man, things had a balance, know what I mean? But man…. Oh, boy. He sucks. Like that fire that burned me. Arson. Just for the fun of it. Burned down my goddamn home, Jim. I was just a cub. Little. My mother dying like that… I always feel two to three berries short of a pie.”
“Aren’t they all? Sorry. Boy, that sure makes it better, don’t it. Shit.” The bear paused and looked over the swath of meadow. He said, “Even with there having been snow, it’s dry, and when it’s dry, someone starts a fire, it’ll burn. The snow don’t mean a thing after it melts and the thirsty ground sucks it up, considering it’s mostly been dry all year. That one little snow, it ain’t nothing more than whipped cream on dry cake.” The bear pointed down the hill. “That swath there, it would burn like gasoline on a shag carpet. I keep an eye out for those things. I try to keep this forest safe. It’s a thankless and continuous job… Sometimes, I have to leave, get a bit of recreation … like the motel room … time with a friend.”
“Do you? The graves I told you about. They’re just down the hill. You see, they were bad people, but sometimes, even good people end up down there, if they know things they shouldn’t, and there have been a few.”
“Oh,” Jim said, as if he had no idea what the bear was talking about.
“I don’t make friends easily, and I may seem a little insincere. Species problems, all that. Sometimes, even people I like, well … it doesn’t turn out so well for them. Know what I’m saying?”
“I … I don’t think so.”
“I think you do. That motel room back there, those whores. I been at this for years. I’m not a serial killer or anything. Ones I kill deserve it. The people I work for, they know how I am. They protect me. How’s it gonna be an icon goes to jail? That’s what I am. A fuckin’ icon. So, I kinda get a free ride, someone goes missing, you know. Guys in black, ones got the helicopters and the black cars. They clean up after me. They’re my homies, know what I’m saying?”
“Let me nutshell it for you: I’m pretty much immune to prosecution. But you, well … kind of a loose end. There’s a patch down there with your name on it, Jimbo. I put a shovel in the car early this morning while you were sleeping. It isn’t personal, Jim. I like you. I do. I know that’s cold comfort, but that’s how it is.”
The bear paused, took off his hat and removed a small cigar from the inside hat band and struck a match and took a puff, said, “Thing is though, I can’t get to liking someone too good, cause—”
The snapping sound made the bear straighten up. He was still holding his hat in his paw, and he dropped it. He almost made a turn to look at Jim, who was now standing right by him holding the automatic to the bump on the bear’s noggin’. The bear’s legs went out. He stumbled and fell forward and went sliding down the hill on his face and chest, a bullet nestled snuggling in his brain.
Jim took a deep breath. He went down the hill and turned the bear’s head using both hands, took a good look at him. He thought the bear didn’t really look like any of the cartoon versions of him, and when he was on TV he didn’t look so old. Of course, he had never looked dead before. The eyes had already gone flat and he could see his dim reflection in one of them. The bear’s cigar was flattened against his mouth, like a coiled worm. Jim found the bear’s box of matches and was careful to use a handkerchief from the bear’s pants pocket to handle it. He struck the match and set the dry grass on fire, then stuck the match between the bear’s claws on his left paw. The fire gnawed patiently at the grass, whipping up enthusiasm as the wind rose. Jim wiped down the automatic with his shirt tail and put it in the bear’s right paw using the handkerchief, and pushed the bear’s claw through the trigger guard, and closed the bear’s paw around the weapon so it looked like he had shot himself.
Jim went back up the hill. The fire licked at the grass and caught some more wind and grew wilder, and then the bear got caught up in it as well, chewing his fur and cackling over his flesh like a crazed hag. The fire licked its way down the hill, and then the wind changed and Jim saw the fire climbing up toward him.
He got in the car and started and found a place where he could back it around. It took some work, and by the time he managed it onto the narrow trail, he could see the fire in the mirror, waving its red head in his direction.
Jim drove down the hill, trying to remember the route. Behind him, the fire rose up into the trees as if it were a giant red bird spreading its wings.
“Dumb bear,” he said aloud, “ain’t gonna be no weenie pull now, is there?” and he drove on until the fire was a just a small bright spot in the rearview mirror, and then it was gone and there was just the tall, dark forest that the fire had yet to find.
"Mr. Bear" was originally published in Blood Lite (Simon & Schuster). It was later included in the Lansdale short-story collection Bleeding Shadows, published by Subterranean Press. "Mr. Bear" © 2009 By Bizarre Hands, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
I love stories that are absurd, yet somehow believable. I’m not sure what inspired this story, but I’m sure being asked to write for a humorous anthology was the main impetus. It alerted my storytelling machine and it went shopping for ideas, without me even knowing it. Anyway, like a lot of my stories it hit me fast and hard, and I went at it, hammer and tongs.
The story came out in a book titled Blood Lite. This humorous anthology was primarily promoting the works of best-selling horror writers, primarily those that wrote about vampires. I think it attracted those fans and put off readers who wanted a broader approach to horror. Actually, the book was broader than that, but the way it was marketed you wouldn’t think so. Most of the comments I saw on the book were that they read one story by their favorite author and didn’t care about the others, or didn’t care about short stories, which wasn’t exactly a perfect situation for those of us who love short stories and were buried in a book with a somewhat deceptive marketing campaign. The title and cover led most readers to think it was strictly a vampire-story collection, which I think was their plan. A story about an angry bear sort of got lost here, which I thought was too bad. I think it’s one of my best, and a personal favorite.
There were comments I saw here and there on Internet reviews that tickled me. One complaint about my story was that bears couldn’t fly on airplanes. No shit, Sherlock. And there aren’t any vampires either.