Ursus vs. Pygamalion

by C. W. Johnson

The professor produced his charts and diagrams, but the colonel was unconvinced. "So you think a snip of DNA makes that much difference in civilized behavior?" the professor asked. "Next thing you'll be telling me 'anatomy is destiny.'" Penniwick started to protest, but as usual Hedgecock allowed him not a word. "This is the kind of thinking that back home lost me---very well then. Hmm. Very well," he said staring off into space. After a moment he spoke abruptly: "How about a grizzly?"

"A grizzly bear?" said the startled Penniwick. "I was thinking more of--Good lord, a grizzly! I've hunted them. They even eat their own young. The most ill-tempered and ferocious---"

"Yes? He'll fit all the better then, into your 'civilization.' You'll see, Penniwick. The fellow will be a Congressman or a Wall Street tycoon in a year."

"Or in prison," muttered Penniwick.

"And have written a best-seller on his experiences, in that case," Hedgecock smugly predicted.

The bear, which Hedgecock named Elias, came from the isolated central tioga forests of Alaska. He was small for a specimen of ursus arctos: only six feet tall standing on his hind limbs and weighing three hundred pounds. Hedgecock had the claws removed and the teeth filed down--"A little bit of biological determinism we need not encourage," he quipped. And then he set to work, incanting the arcana of rat-running behaviorialists. After ten weeks Elias had tea with Hedgecock and Penniwick; and although that nearly ended disastrously over the honey jar, the bear's progress impressed Penniwick. After ten months Hedgecock declared his work to be finished and presented Elias to the Colonel in a suit, a bow tie, and a bowler hat. The bear bowed and growled something.

"What did he say?" Penniwick whispered to Hedgecock.

"'Have a nice day,' I believe. Don't worry. A lot of Americans mutter, don't you find?"

Penniwick frowned. "Are you really intending to insert him into society? Even here in the States? I hope he won't stand out."

"I daresay, since his hair's not in purple spikes, people will find him quite a relief and view him as a solid citizen. And I've already obtained Elias a job."

The job was in construction: Elias' great strength made him an asset, and his taciturn growls earned him begrudging respect from coworkers. Soon he was going out nightly for beers with the boys. "Splendid!" said Professor Hedgecock, receiving Elias in his study. The bear stood patiently, hat in hand. "Soon, my lad, you'll be a great success here." The Professor leaned against the window, looking out on the concrete forest of the cityscape, and sighed. "This will prove me," he muttered, as he gripped tightly the blinds. To Elias he said, "Then we'll return to England! Oh, you can't imagine it, Elias. Even the beer there is better." Hedgecock glowed with the thought of his imagined glory.

"B-bowling," growled Elias.

"Eh? They want you to go bowling? Marvelous. Wonderful opportunity to improve your coordination. Penniwick could give you some pointers---a talented chap, he is, in all sorts of odd areas---but he's off to South America on a hu-- on an expedition." The Professor smiled widely. "There's a good lad, off with you now. I have to prepare for a meeting with the dean. Why do deans always ask so many pesky questions? I'd hoped the ones in this country would be more complacent but..." He shrugged, fished out a handkerchief, and mopped his shining forehead with it. As Elias walked out, Hedgecock called after him, "Oh, and good luck bowling!"

The captain of the bowling team was a man named Max. Max was balding and had sloping shoulders and skinny arms and legs, but his belly protruded out unexpectedly as if he had swallowed, well, a bowling ball. Although Max worked at Elias' construction site, he had ceased to do any actual physical labor years ago and was now some sort of union functionary. "How'd'ya do, Elias," he said, pumping Elias' paw vigorously, "gladja came, gladja came." He explained the rules to Elias, gave him some pointers, and cheered when Elias' ball stayed out of the gutter.

"You know," Max said after the game, "I've been hearing some good about you, and I think you got a future. Why don't you come over sometime for dinner with me and the little woman?"

Max had a luxurious twelfth-floor apartment, with wall-to-wall white shag carpeting and mirrors and chrome and sleek black furniture. Max's wife Maylene was a slender brunette, taller than Elias expected. "It's nice to meet you," she said softly when they were introduced. "Max has told me about you." They sat down at the dinner table. Maylene told Elias she had made lasagna, "my mother's recipe. Oh! And I forgot to ask Max: you're not a vegetarian, are you? You do eat meat?" Elias stared at her for a moment, then nodded vigorously. "Good!" Maylene flashed a brief white smile at Elias, then went to the kitchen, her high heels clicking on the linoleum, to fetch beers. Leaning over to Elias, Max said, "Isn't she great? I just love her. And she goes to aerobics three times a week. What a body!"

"Now boys," said Maylene, returning and placing an opened bottle of Bud in front of Elias, "no fair talking behind my back."

Over dinner Max held forth on the role of unions in society and how they "make up a democracy and not a buncha commies. Anyhow, communism is dead, right? Looka the Russians, turning capitalists faster than you can say Karl Marx." He waved his bottle of beer at Elias, took a last swig, and stood up. "Get you another, Elias?" He went out to the kitchen, somewhat unsteadily.

"Max really likes you," Maylene said from across the table. "And I think I do, too." Elias felt something rubbing against his leg. It was a foot. He looked up at Maylene, who smiled broadly at him.

Then Max returned. "Here's another cold one for ya, buddy!" He plopped himself down in his chair. "My friend," he predicted, raising his bottle in a toast, "I have a feeling that you are going to go far!"

"To Alaska?" Elias growled hopefully; but the hope died as Max and Maylene laughed.

Before a week had passed, Max's prediction came true. Elias was promoted to assistant foreman.

"Toldja!" Max exclaimed, shouting over the noise at the site and clapping Elias on the shoulder. "Listen, I got some things to do, but why don't'cha meet me at George's, it's a nice bar on Fifth, we can celebrate, okay? Sixish."

That evening as he waited for Max at the bar, Elias read. He had taken to reading Bare magazine because he found Hedgecock's education sketchy in many areas, not the least of which was spelling. Contrary to Elias' expectations, the articles focused on relationships with women. The advice sounded much like that from Max, only with better grammar.

"If a woman starts in on a serious topic that makes you uncomfortable," stated the column titled Advice for Men, "make a joke of it; if she accuses you of avoiding the issue, accuse her of having no sense of humor. Women are very defensive of their sense of humor." The column leapt breezily from topic to topic, including women psychologists ("Avoid like the plague; they think they understand you"), menstrual periods ("Danger, Will Robinson! When she tells you this is a 'bad time of the month' it's time to get out of town") and ironclad excuses for ending tiresome relationships ("There's just no chemistry").

Elias turned a few pages, past several pictures to an article on social interaction. Hedgecock had encouraged Elias to practice interacting with people. Looking up from the magazine he spotted a tall, slender, auburn-haired woman in a dark blue dress sitting alone at the far end of the bar. Elias slowly lumbered over to her.

"You must be a dancer," he said.

The woman turned and looked at him. "What?" she asked. Elias repeated himself. "I'm sorry," said the woman, "I still don't follow you." Finally, in frustration Elias pointed at the article.

"How to pick up chicks," the woman read aloud. She glanced at Elias. "A novel approach, to say the least."

Elias slid into the seat next to her. "Don't talk too well, I guess," he said dejectedly.

"Honey," she said, "I don't mind if you don't talk. Actually, I kind of prefer it." Her ex-boyfriend, Fred, had been a talker, one who intellectualized and agonized over everything. He had winced every time she had complimented him. "Don't say that," Fred would say. "It's not true." The woman, whose name was Renee, went on to tell Elias how Fred not only was a talker, he was a droner and a cold fish: a lean, bony, pale fish. Elias imagined him flopping by the side of a stream or river, his gills flexing in and out. (Later, when he finally saw a picture of Fred, Elias was taken aback. No fins? he wanted to ask.)

"I don't plan on having children," Renee said abruptly. "I just want that out front, because Fred accused me of hiding it from him when we started dating, and I don't want to hear it from you."

"Oh," said Elias. "Have we started dating?"

"No," Renee said, "but soon. Give me a call sometime." She stood up, scribbled her number on a coaster, and slid it over to him, then walked out of the bar. By this time it was nearly eight and no sign of Max. Leaving the bar, Elias discovered he didn't have enough cash left on him to take a taxi home. With reluctance he descended to the subway. He disliked the crowd, the pressing flesh, and the stink of humans; and when the train lurched into motion he felt terrified. He had never liked moving vehicles---admittedly most of his previous experiences had occurred with a tranquilizer dart in him---and the subway seemed worst of all.

At the next stop a group of about seven white boys, all in their mid-teens, swarmed onto the subway car. They had pasty-pale faces and damp, stringy hair, long dark coats, pressed white shirts and thin black ties. They looked like a gang of underage outlaw accountants. One by one they accosted the other passengers on the subway car, begging for money. The passengers looked away and hunched their shoulders closer. Finally one of them turned to Elias, holding out an open hand. "Spare change, mister?" Elias growled at him. "Ooh," the boy said to the others, "looks like we got a live one here," and the rest immediately circled around Elias like a wolf pack in for the kill---except, thought Elias, a real wolf pack would have gone for the elderly woman on the bench and not a bulky guy hanging from a strap. Though he had seen some pretty stupid young wolves, come to think of it, whose careers had been cut short by a kick in the head by a caribou hoof. "Your money, asshole," said the tallest and thinnest of the boys. When Elias did not respond, only stared at him, the boy flicked out a silver switchblade, shielding it with his body from the view of the other passengers.

Elias growled and with a backhanded blow knocked the switched blade out of the boy's hand; the knife skittered across the floor and came to rest next to the orthopedic shoes of the old lady, who looked away from it determined to not notice its existence. The boy staggered back, grasping his wrist.

Just then two transit cops shoved open the door at one end of the rocking subway car and entered. "Hey, what's going on here?" one demanded. All the boys evaporated through the far end, except the boy who had pulled a knife on Elias; cradling his arm, the boy called out, "Help! Help! He hit me!"

Elias goggled at the boy in disbelief. But the two transit cops swiftly surrounded Elias. "All right, buddy, put your hands up against the wall," one of them said. Elias did not want to, but they had guns, and while it takes a big caliber to down a grizzly Elias decided to play it safe. One cop said to the other, "Shawney, take the kid in for a statement. I got this one."

Elias was led to the local police precinct, where he was booked for assault. "Phone call?" growled Elias. The sergeant sighed and pushed the phone towards him. "All of you, lawyers. Make it quick." Elias clumsily dialed Professor Hedgecock's number but got no answer, not even the answering machine. Normally Elias found the answering machine disquieting---how could it be the Professor's voice when he wasn't there?---but now he missed its staticky message.

The cops put Elias in a concrete holding cell that stank of piss and despair. The other men, mostly bearded, tattooed, and with missing teeth, booked for robbery, rape, and assault, took one look at Elias and moved to the far side of the cell. Predators recognize each other. Elias sniffed the air and eyed the other men in the cell. It wasn't their piss, he realized. It wasn't their territory. It must be the cops, he decided, and he imagined a policeman coming in weekly to mark the cell.

Elias, of course, had no money for a lawyer. He was assigned to a public defender named Raquel, a petite, brassy-blonde woman who favored short dresses and black high- heeled pumps. Despite her small size, in Elias' imagination she always seemed to loom large, until she towered over him. On their first meeting she swept into the cramped holding tank, flipping through the file. "You're my eleven o'clock? What are you in for? Robbery? Rape? I see--assault." She sat on the edge of the table and read the file. "Oh, the bastards," she hissed. "I know this kid--'cause I got him off not two months ago on an assault case. What happened?" Haltingly, Elias told her. Raquel said, "Frankly, I think you taught him a lesson he deserved. It's clearly a case of self defense." And she looked at him searchingly. Her eyes were the turquoise-blue color of lakes opaque with glacial silt. Elias slowly nodded. Raquel slammed shut the folder with a bang! that made Elias jump. "Don't worry, Elias, I can clear you. I know the judge. He's a friend of mine. I'll have you off in a day, maybe two. You got someone to bail you, in the meantime?"

In fact that afternoon Max arrived to bail Elias out. "Jeez, Elias, I'm sorry it took so long. But my lawyer, Bernie, he's going to fight this." Elias tried to explain he already had a lawyer, a very nice one he thought, but Max waved him off. "No, no, you need a pro, not some bleeding-heart lady lawyer. Bernie's the toughest in he biz. He'll tear the balls offa anyone gets in your way." Max and Elias stepped out through the big glass doorway of the precinct and Elias blinked in the bright morning sun. Max hailed a cab and rode uptown with Elias, talking the entire time while Elias looked out of the window of the cab at the buildings whizzing by and the hunched people scurrying along the sidewalks.

As they passed through the financial distract, Max said, "You know, when I was a kid, I wanted to work on Wall Street. Make all that money. Or maybe be a lawyer. They wear nice suits, drive great cars, get a lot of action if you know what I mean. But I don't have that ruthless instinct, that 'eat or be eaten' thing. You ever think about being a lawyer?" Elias shook his head. Max said, "What am I saying? You're just too nice a guy, hey?"

When they arrived at the professor's brownstone--Elias still vividly remembered the long sessions in the gleaming basement laboratory---they found the door unlocked and the inside empty of furniture, books, carpets, everything. Elias wandered around in the basement, with its white ceiling and white-tiled floor and fluorescent panel lights and stainless-steel sinks, until the memories curled his stomach and he wearily walked up the stairs. Max said, his voice echoing in the empty living room, "Don't appear to be nobody here. Lemme call the university." But when he got off his cell phone, Max shook his head. "He's gone. Split. Got fired from the university, I guess, although they wouldn't say much. Don't have an address or phone number for him." And Elias realized he was all alone.

Seeing the expression on Elias's face, Max clapped Elias on the shoulder. "Aw, don't worry, You'll find a place to stay. Didn't you tell me you met some broad?"

Renee was surprisingly complacent when Elias showed up at her apartment unannounced. She shrugged and said in a tone lacking affect, "Sure, why not. You'd end up moving in eventually anyway. Why fight it. Least you got a job. You still got the job, right?" Elias nodded.

Actually, work was progressing in a different direction. Max took Elias from the construction site and put him to collecting payment on 'personal loans.' "You see, some of these people don't have much of what you'd call an ethic. These people, they're in a jam, so some of my friends and I help them out, loan 'em some money. Then the lousy nancies don't pay back the money. I tell you, is that fair? I'm a nice guy--we're both nice guys, you and me--but these people are taking advantage of my good nature." Max wiped his nose and looked thoughtful. "But you, well, you're a good listener, and I think if you go and ask people about the money, they'll realize it would be a good thing to pay it back, along with the interest. If they don't, well, just tell 'em they ought to do it. Lean on 'em a bit. You're a big, hairy guy---no offense, Elias, but it's true---I think they'll see it our way."

So Elias embarked on a career collecting loan repayments. At first he had difficulty "leaning" on people, until Max explained it wasn't meant literally. As he learned his ways around the streets and back alleys and steam grates and looming concrete-and- glass buildings, Elias began to feel more comfortable. Just a different kind of forest, he told himself. He enjoyed the hunt, sniffing out people, and if they ran he loped after them down alleys and over (in his case, through) fences, and he found fire escapes much easier to climb than pine trees. He liked making a lot a noise when threatening people, bashing around garbage cans and kicking down doors and punching holes in walls; he even liked a little judicious batting around, but that quickly got boring. Most of his 'clients' were elderly, in ill health, or unemployed, and at the first blow they fell to the floor and curled up in a fetal position, sobbing and pleading for mercy. And while Elias understood well the principle of separating the weak and the sick from the herd, that was for the hunt. Beyond a little roughing up he found it difficult to seriously attack anyone when he had a full belly from lunch or breakfast; a remnant, perhaps, of Professor Hedgecock's conditioning.

Renee taught him how to cook his own breakfast. "At least you can be taught," she said. "Most men---well, Pavlov's dogs learn quicker than most men." Elias took pride in the confluence of two opposite poles in his life, food and fire, in the little gas jets in Renee's stove. When cooking sausage Elias loved to crouch down and watch the little blue flame dance as the sausage sizzled. Conquering fire to improve the taste of food---he had to admit that this was an accomplishment to be proud of. The rest of civilization gave him doubts.

Renee, who was business manager for a couple a small chain of uptown quasi- ethnic restaurants, typically slept in late, and Elias would slip out of bed at dawn to go to the kitchen. One morning, while he was at the stove, flipping pancakes, over which he loved to pour sweet sticky syrup, she wandered into the kitchen in her nightshirt, with bare feet and a pale face. "I had a dream," she said. "I dreamed I came home and found you sitting at the table over a greasy plate with a guilty look on your face. The apartment was absolutely silent, and I realized you had eaten my baby."

Elias thought about this for a moment. "You don't want to have children," he pointed out.

Renee continued: "You said you were hungry. You said it was part of nature: Eat or Be Eaten."

"Like Wall Street?" Elias asked, remembering Max's comment.

But Renee burst into tears. "Here I am," she sobbed, "telling you my dream, which clearly is my subconscious trying to tell me something about our relationship, and all you can do is make fun of me! This is not a good time to make fun of me!"

She stared at him red-eyed, as if expecting a reply. Frantically, Elias searched through his memory for a response. "Is it your period?" he blurted.

Renee ran and threw herself on the bed and cried. Elias followed and stood in the doorway, watching her for a while. "I'm sorry," he said, and while she sobbed he talked about his home. About the frigid Arctic wind twisting through the pines and the rocks of the land beneath your paws, the cunning of the wolf and the determined isolation of the cougar. That he had understood. And even the jagged beauty of the mountains on the horizon had worked their way into his dim consciousness. And then--a sting in the butt, you feel sleepy, and you find yourself in a cage in a room with bright lights and a man with a clipboard looking down his nose at you.

Renee lifted her head from the bed. "What?" she asked. Her tears had stopped and she dried her face on the sheets. "You know, I didn't understand a word you said," she said, pushing herself up. "If you're going to bother to rationalize your actions, you might as well enunciate clearly."

Elias hung his head. "Sorry," he said.


Elias started to repeat what he had told her, but Renee cut him off and swept out of the room. "Why do men always mumble?" she asked. In the kitchen she threw the pancakes, which were hard black disks smoking in the pan, away, and began to wash the dishes. Elias tried once more but she told him she didn't want to hear it. "Maybe you need to go to therapy," she said. "My therapist says that mumbling is a way of hiding feelings, especially for men. You probably just do it because your father mumbled. My therapist says we learn these scripts from our parents and we just parrot them later in life, and often that's all we hear, too, we don't even really listen to someone else but just overlay our scripts onto their words. You can mouth nonsense syllables and people hear what they want to hear. So there's no point in saying anything; I'll just hear what I want to hear. I'll just hear you tell me you're going to eat me up." She paused at the sink, her hands covered with suds, then turned fixed him with a sudden stare. "So when are you going to eat me?" Before he could answer she turned back to the dishes. "It's like you said, honey, in the dream. Eat or Be Eaten. It's you or me. That's the way between men and women."

And from then on, whenever she was in a black mood, when he tried to cheer her up with a kiss she would spread apart his jaws and put her head in his mouth. "Come on," she said. "Bite down."

Max and Maylene took Elias to a party in a rented restaurant on the upper east side. They picked him up in a taxi. "Hey, you look great," said Max, and Maylene nodded. Elias frowned. When he looked in the mirror he saw what looked like a hairbrush jammed into a suit. He hated the tie around his throat, and wondered if there was a radio transmitter attached to it.

"Very handsome," Maylene purred, putting a hand on his sleeve as the three of them jammed into the back seat of the taxi.

The taxi took off like a rocket, pressing Elias back into the seat. He felt the springs strain under his weight. Lights from other cars and buildings flashed by through the windows. "Listen, Elias," said Max, leaning over towards him, "I'm a little concerned. I'm afraid, well, that you're going too easy on your clients. Last time you delivered only half the money you were supposed to." Elias started to slowly explain that the old man was ill, but Max cut him off. "He's just playing you. Elias, you're a good guy, but a little naive. These nancies, they'll make up any excuse to get outta paying you back."

Elias wasn't so sure. The old man hadn't smelled too good; he had smelled of illness. Elias wasn't hungry, he wanted money, and while he felt he hadn't fully mastered the concept of money he thought it would be difficult for the old man to get money while ill. But he said nothing to Max.

"Now, don't take this the wrong way," Max said, as the taxi careened around a curve, barely missing a pedestrian. "You just gotta get tougher with the nancies, okay? Because I see big things for you. In fact, I'm going to make you a partner. It's all in here." He passed a bunch of papers and a pen over for Elias to sign--"a formality, my lawyer says we gotta do that, you know how lawyers are--"

"Eat or be eaten," Elias growled.

"Huh? Oh, yeah." Max shrugged. "Well, Bernie says you gotta sign."

The light was poor and Elias did not read too well to begin with, but he was ashamed to admit this, so he signed without asking any questions. Max glanced at the scrawl on the page. "You coulda been a doctor," Max joked, "with that signature."

An entire restaurant had been rented for the party. Max led Maylene and Elias up the steps of the restaurant, where some jowly men with dark, slicked-back hair greeted Max warmly, slapping him on the back. Max said to them, "This here's my buddy Elias--- he's a real killer, so watch out!"

"Gawd, he's hairy. What's he do, fuzz 'em to death?" asked a short, stocky man. "Heh heh. Just kidding, pal. Pleased to meetcha."

The restaurant was crowded with people, the air full of strange smells and hot and humid with human perspiration. Elias' stomach crawled at the odor, but he figured he had to go through with this. He took a small paper plate and stacked it high with meatballs, then stood in the middle of the room munching the meatballs one by one as the buzz of conversation swirled around, never quite touching him. He tried to make the meatballs as long as he could, which was about ten minutes. Max had told Elias they'd be there at least two hours. Elias hoped the meatballs didn't run out soon.

Back at the buffet table, Elias reached for meatballs when he collides with a woman's hand. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, pulling back. It was Raquel, the public defender. "Oh, hi! How are you doing?" she said, and added, lowering her voice conspiratorially, "And why are you stuck here at this drone of a party?"

"My friend Max." He pointed through the crowd. "Partners. We're partners." "Jeez, him? Boy, you sure know how to pick the bad apples. Listen, Elias, take some advice from someone well-acquainted with the dregs of the legal system. He may seem like one of your friends now, but later...." She shook her head. "Of course, you'll ask why am I here. Unfortunately I have to do it, if I expect to move up or join a private firm. All the movers and shakers and shake-down artists are here. Jesus. I always feel dirty after a thing like this. But it's the kind of thing you have to do to survive." Elias nodded. "Eat or be eaten."

Raquel laughed. "Say, Elias, it's too hot and sticky in here. Should we step outside, get some fresh air?"

Elias was grateful for the suggestion and followed her to the balcony in the back, which overlooked the river. There Raquel took out a cigarette and flicked on her lighter. Elias stared at the flame. Raquel said, "You don't mind, do you? Or are you one of those anti-smoking Nazis?"

Elias hated the smell of smoke, but it was better than the crush of people inside. He shook his head.

Raquel lit her cigarette and took a few long drags. "If you want your two-bit lawyer's advice, if you got any other career options, you should take them," she said. "I should have been a doctor," Elias said, remembering Max's earlier comment. Raquel made a face. "I hate doctors," she said with a edge of nastiness to her voice. "They are so arrogant, and so cold and mechanical and impersonal. My father was a doctor," she added, like an afterthought.

She stubbed out her cigarette. "Listen, Elias, I have to go. I made my appearance, showed my cleavage off to the right DAs and judges and drooling senior partners, and I'm tired. You want to get together sometime?" She looked at him again with the glacial-blue eyes. "I hope you don't mind me being this forward. Being a woman defending all those low-lifes has made me a bit direct. But you seem a step above the scum I usually date--- and I mean my fellow lawyers, not the crooks---so why miss a chance? I have tomorrow afternoon off. Meet me at Cafe Bar None, oh, about two o'clock."

And she went back inside, weaving through the crowd.

As Raquel went in, Max came out, carrying a couple of beers. He gave one to Elias. "Hey, I saw that blonde you were talking to. What a dish!"

Elias said, "But Renee...."

Max shrugged. "Listen, you and me, we're men. And a guy's gotta have a little on the side. Women are different. It's the whole evolutionary thing, back in the caveman days when we were fighting saber-toothed tigers and cave bears." Elias pricked up his ears. "A guy's gotta spread his genes around, but a woman, she's tied down with the kids, she wants commitment. It's all natural, just survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten, you know." He nudged Elias with an elbow. "But a chick like that, you can't pass up. You seeing her again?"

Elias nodded.

"You're the Man, Elias. You're the Man!"

Raquel took Elias to the circus. "I used to love the circus when I was growing up in Wisconsin," she told him. "It seemed so exotic. Of course, now, the sidewalks of the city are a three-ring act. But still, the circus takes me back to my childhood, like comfort food."

Elias chuckled at the antics of the clowns and was impressed by the aerial act--- balancing on that fine wire, spinning through the air like a bird--since he had never even been able to climb a tree except when he had been very young. But then the animal trainer led out three bears, with pointed hats and clown-collars, raising Elias' hackles. The bears tumbled and played dead and Raquel clapped and said to Elias, "You know, it's amazing how they can train dumb animals like that."

Afterwards, as they walked along the street, Raquel said, "You're awfully quiet. Anything on your mind?"

Elias shook his head.

Raquel stopped. "Listen--you're not married, are you?" she asked, tossing her hair back like a flame.

"No," he said. Technically, it was true.

"Because I'd hate you if you were. Married men are such jerks."

Elias swallowed and thought he ought to get around to mentioning Renee. But he never did. That night, when he lay next to Renee as she was sleeping and muttering in her dreams, he would look up at the ceiling in the dark and the guilt ran through him like a muddy, roiling river. He tried the broach the topic with Renee, saying maybe he wasn't the best guy for her. But she cut him off short. "There are," Renee said firmly, "worse men. Like Fred. He always criticized me, probably because of his low self-esteem, because he couldn't stand a compliment himself. My friends never liked him. For years my therapist tried to get me to break up with him. And he would talk too much. You, of course, hardly talk at all. Sometimes that drives me crazy, especially the way you just growl an answer. My father used to growl like that at me, just before he'd wallop me. I wish you wouldn't growl like that. We're not animals, you know. That's what my father would say, when he would complain about my table manners. 'We're not animals, missy!' he'd growl, in an animal-ly sort of way. So would you mind not growling so much?" Renee leaned her head against his chest and nuzzled. "But at least you're a good listener. I'm glad I can open up to you talk like this. Fred and I, we never talked, he never listened, he just jabbered at me. I also like that you have a job. Fred kept getting fired from his jobs and I kept supporting him. I kept praying he'd get a good job out of town, because that'd be the only way I'd have the courage to break up with him. You do still have that job, right? How's it going?"

Actually, the job, such as it was, was becoming increasingly irregular. Elias would go days without seeing or hearing from Max, and when he did Max was harried and out of breath. "Listen, Elias buddy, I don't want you to panic, but there's a little teeny snag. The IRS is breathing down my neck, it's nothing, just the feds making trouble for the little guy. As usual. But, because you're on the papers as my business partner, they might try to talk to you. Say nothing to them, just refer 'em back to my lawyer, Bernie. He's smoothing everything else, it'll all be taken care of in a few weeks. Ah, they're just a buncha pricks. Don't worry about it, Bernie's taking care of it. "

Despite assurances of Bernie's help, Elias began to get notices of "tax liens" in the mail. He envisioned the IRS leaning on people the same way he did; his spelling had not improved much. Renee said, "Why wait for this Bernie guy? Maybe you should get your own lawyer."

So Elias called Raquel.

"What?" she breathed heavily into the phone. "Listen, it's a zoo here. Three guys skipped bail this week, another tried to kill himself in his cell... This is not a good time to be calling me." Elias decided not to ask her if it was her period. "And I'm not that kind of lawyer, not a tax lawyer. And I--Oh, boy. Elias, I have to go. How about we meet Thursday afternoon? I'm free then, we can do something."

At Cafe Bar None, before they even sat down, Elias tried to bring up the subject of tax liens again. Raquel put up a hand to stop him. "Elias, it's been an exhausting week, and I really don't want to talk shop. And I told you, I'm not a tax lawyer. I just want to go out and have a good time. It's been a real rat-race this week."

Elias thought about this. "Rats aren't very fast," he observed.

"That's it, just dump on me, why don't you!" Raquel snapped at him. "Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, can't you see I want a little relaxation, want some friendly support, not to be the butt of your asinine jokes. If you were at all sensitive, you would see that. That's the problem with you men, you so block out your own emotions that you are oblivious to what's right in front of your face!"

Elias ducked his head. "Sorry," he muttered.

Raquel stood in front of him, hands on her hips, her face red with anger. "All right, let's just calm down here. I actually had a nice afternoon planned for us. How about...the zoo?"

"You want to show me your office?" Elias asked.

Raquel smiled a little. "Okay, you got me on that one."

At the zoo, Elias looked at all the animals in their cages, not only the bears but the lions and tigers and koalas and giraffes and pumas and lemurs and penguins and aardvarks, kept away behind iron bars like at the jail. And he could smell the loneliness and listlessness and despair wafting from the cages. "What are they in for?" he growled. "Robbery? Rape? Assault?"

Raquel laughed as she stood by the railing at the lion pit, waving her cigarette around. "Elias, you really got a wit, you know that?" She fixed her blue eyes on him, and grinned. "You're staring."

"I am?" asked Elias.

Raquel nodded. "I know why you're drawn to me."

"You do?"

Raquel took a deep drag on her cigarette. "You're drawn to my strength. It fascinates you, and yet terrifies you. That's why you'd never be able to commit to me."

She took another puff and leaned against the railing. Elias stared at the angry red end of the cigarette. In truth, what really terrified him was the fire in her cigarette. And he never recalled the subject of commitment coming up before.

"Listen," she said, "I got tickets for the Met for Friday next week. It's Cosi Fan Tutte, and, okay, I do object to the misogyny of the plot---Mozart was such a pig. That and the fact that these women are too dense to see through such a thin disguise. But the music is divine. Or are you one of those blue-collar I-ain't-going-to-no-opera type?"

In order to get away to the opera Elias had planned to tell Renee he had a dinner meeting with Max, even though he had not seen Max for two weeks. But she came down with a bad flu and he felt guilty for abandoning her, especially to go with Raquel to the opera. Late that afternoon when she sent him down to the drugstore for medicine-- "Remember, I like the yellow stuff, not the red stuff"---he decided to stop by a pay phone and cancel the date. He didn't like calling Raquel from the apartment, not when Renee was there. But the phone at the corner by the drugstore was broken and Elias starting walking.

A few blocks later, he spotted coming out of a bank a tall brunette in a fur coat, which he found particularly appealing. Then, with a slight shock, he recognized her. "Maylene?" he said.

"Oh--Elias!" she said, her voice hard and tight. She was holding a bulky shopping bag. "How, uh, are you?" He was dreamily remembering the feel of her bare foot against his leg under the table, when she stepped off the curb and hailed a taxi. Elias started to move closer to speak to her, but she slammed the door closed and the taxi shot away, leaving him to choke on a black cloud of exhaust.

Elias glanced at his watch and realized he had to hustle back to the apartment. As he went he tried to think of an excuse to get out of the apartment again to call Raquel. But on the landing half a flight below Renee's apartment two men in long gray coats met him. "Treasury agents," one said, flapping a shiny badge at Elias. "You're in a lot of trouble."

The charge of tax fraud didn't make much sense to Elias, especially the part about owing five years back taxes. He tried to explain that he had been in Alaska for most of that time, but since he had not had an address or any proof of that, and they had his scribbled signature on dozens of documents, he found himself at a loss. He vaguely understood this was tied in with Max, but Max had never explained it to him, or he hadn't been listening when Max had. Finally he growled, rather plaintively, "Phone call?"

"I told you I'm not a tax lawyer," Raquel said, sitting across from him in the visitor's pen, "but anyone can see a frame-up like this. Holy Mary, how'd you let yourself get suckered into this? Are you really the big back-country hick you make yourself out to be, really that naive?" She flipped through the xeroxes of the documents with Elias' signature on them. "Your friend Max---what did I tell you? He's vanished out of town. Cleared out all of his bank accounts and then some. Gone to Belize, I hear." "B-bernie," Elias growled.

"There is no Bernie, for God's sake," Raquel snapped at him. "He just made that all up." She pushed herself away from the table and stood up. "Look, I know a judge, I can fix this. We're quite close."

It took nearly a week. Meanwhile Renee came to visit twice. "Yeah, I believe you're innocent. Most of the guys I've gone with, especially Fred, no way, but you, I believe. Don't take this wrong, but I don't think you got the smarts to try to outsmart the IRS. I don't think it would even occur to you to try. You're a real nice guy, Elias, but you aren't exactly a rocket scientist." She pressed her lips against the thick glass in a faux kiss. "I gotta run, honey. Um, some stuff to do."

The next morning Elias was released; Raquel was waiting for him triumphantly. "I told you I would get you out. There's still some details to be worked out, but even the densest Neanderthals on this can see it all stinks to high heaven. And my friend the judge, well, he asked a little more than usual, but we came to an agreement." Her hair was slightly disheveled and her perfume was extra strong. Elias decided not to sniff any closer. He didn't want to know. Raquel asked, "Shall we go for breakfast to celebrate?" Elias liked that idea; he had hated the jail food and had hardly eaten all week. Unfortunately Raquel picked a trendy, uptown, upscale "healthy" breakfast place with macrobiotic wheat germ and not a single sausage to be found. Elias had been looking forward to a large stack of sausages and had to content himself with a very elegant, and very small, serving of blue corn-quinoa pancakes with a thin sorghum syrup.

They had barely ordered when someone called out Raquel's name. She turned around, brushing her hair back with one hand, and greeted enthusiastic a young couple she introduced to Elias as Colin and Celine. "We've just ordered, care to join us?" Raquel asked them. Elias hoped they would decline---he gave them a look he hoped clearly meant "We want to be alone"---but they accepted.

They were British ex-patriates, young and liberal but yet in manner Elias felt they were all too similar to Hedgecock and Penniwick. Raquel and Colin and Celine immediately launched into a long and detailed discussion about the state of Marxism. "You remember George?" Colin said to Raquel. "He actually said to me that Marxism was dead. Even in Europe. And he's been to the Continent, he should know better. He was so utterly provincial." Elias said nothing. He had nothing to say. The only words he spoke were to the waitress. Once or twice Raquel broke away from her conversation to ask Elias how was his breakfast, always when his mouth was full, so that he could only nod and make sounds of approval. Whereupon the discussion, which by that time had proceeded to disapproval of American foreign policy, resumed.

As they left the restaurant after breakfast Colin said, "Glad to have met you, Elias." He actually sounded sincere. "Yes, very much so," added Celine. Then they linked arms and walked away down the street, leaving Raquel and Elias standing somewhat apart on the sidewalk under a gray sky and in a cold wind.

Raquel looked up at him. "Elias," she said. "Elias, we have to talk." He nodded. He had thought she might first apologize for breakfast but apparently that had to wait. She started walking and he followed her, until she came to a park bench and sat down. He sat down next to her as she lit a cigarette.

"I--I can't see you anymore," Raquel said, not looking at Elias. The words shot through his heart like a hunter's bullet. I should have seen it coming, he thought. "You're a nice guy, but..."

"The chemistry isn't there?" he growled bitterly.

She shook her head. "I want you to know..." she said, then stopped. After he said nothing, she continued: "I'm getting married."

The bench creaked under his quarter-ton weight, and yet he felt small and shrinking by the second. "Well," he managed to wheeze through his dry, constricted throat. He swallowed. "Congratulations."

"Thanks." She threw a wry smile at him. Then the smile faded from her face and her eyes. "Actually, that's not true." He sat still, waiting and wondering how much worse it could get. "I already am married." Another pause. "For seven years."

"Oh," he said.

"I thought it wasn't going to work out. With my husband, I mean. I was planning to leave him. But, well, I think it's best this way." Her voice curled up at the edges, like the smoke from her cigarette. "I just couldn't do it. I've been with him for so long." And she poured out the story of her life to Elias, as he sat there, feeling smaller and more numb by the minute, until he could hardly feel his body at all. The only thought he had was to tell her about Renee, to try to hurt her back with the information that he, too, had been with someone else. But he couldn't do it.

And when Raquel was gone he walked the long, wind-filled streets home, the pavement hard and unforgiving beneath his feet. Pricking up his ears, he hoped to find in that wind a faint echo of conifers whispering to each other, of the howl of the wolf and the cry of the caribou. But he only heard the rumble of traffic and the distant, strained and sad voices of the people in the street and in their gray buildings.

Dear Elias, said the note pinned to the front door of his apartment, and even though he knew what the rest of it said, he went on reading, I've moved in with Fred. He just needs me now, you know? Hope you understand. Friends always, Renee. P.S. The lease on the apartment runs out next week. You can stay here until then.

Descending, as his heart was, into the depths, Elias boarded the subway. It still frightened him, but he needed that fear now to wash away all his deeper fears. He closed his eyes and clung to the strap as if it were his life, and felt the rumble of the subway as it went on and on through the bowels of the city.

Someone nudged him. "Your money," said a boy's voice. Elias kept his eyes closed and ignored the presence of the boys, instead concentrating on the swaying motion of the train. "Your money, asshole," the voice insisted. Another one, higher pitched, broke in. "Hey, it's the hero. Hey, hero!" The voices jeered at him. He savored the pain and the fear in his mouth; the boys were just insects hovering around him. A hand lightly touched his pocket and pulled away his wallet.

Opening his eyes, Elias saw the .22 pistol in the hand of the boy, the same one who had pulled a knife on him before. Elias did not even stir; he did not care; but the boy's face turned white and he pulled the trigger, four times. Elias felt the bullets pump into him before he heard the bangs.

Then he was on the floor of the subway car, on his back looking up in to the gray, slightly curious faces gazing down on him. "Nine one one," he said, feeling proud of his calm.

"When we reach the next station," said a pinched-face man. "Is that okay? It'll be easier for the ambulance to get to you, I'm sure."

"And easier for you to catch another train," a thickset woman said sarcastically.

"No," snapped the man, "I mean it, really, if we stop here, right in the middle of the tunnel, how are they going to get to him?..." The argument continued but Elias closed his eyes and ignored it and waited for events to transpire.

As the doctors at the hospital worked over him, one leaned close to his face and said, "You're going to be just fine."

Elias thought about this for a while. He had been shot with a .22 caliber pistol. It takes a lot more than a .22 to bring down a grizzly. "No," Elias whispered. There was Renee, and Raquel, and Max, and Hedgecock, and all the rest. "I'm not. I'm not going to be fine at all."

Years later Colonel Penniwick went on a fishing expedition in Alaska. When he and his taciturn guide came upon the weathered bones of a bear, Penniwick said, "You know, I used to hunt bears like that. Until I met one that---well, you're not going to believe me---but one who had been trained to talk and drink tea and wear a suit. It was awful. I don't know what happened to him, but I never could pull the trigger on one of the chaps after that."

The grizzled, hirsute guide coughed politely, and as Penniwick stared at him recognition suddenly fell into place. "Elias?" he whispered.

The bear nodded sadly. "I couldn't take it in the city. Too cruel."

"But, but..."

"And when I returned home, the other bears refused to have anything to do with me." Elias sat down heavily on a cold granite boulder. "I had the stink of humanity on me." He sighed and looked up at Penniwick. "What ever happened to the Professor?"

"Hedgecock? Him?" Penniwick sat down on a boulder too. "Tragic end, really," said Penniwick, tears welling up at the memory. "Got shunted aside by the system. Grants denied, forced to teach dead-end freshman courses. He'd been kicked out of England originally, you know, for his radical ideas on behavior modification of prisoners. Well, he ended up in some dreadful wealthy California suburb, living in a dreary duplex, trying to teach reading to 'troubled teens' strung out on Prozac and Ritalin. Had a heart attack and drowned in his bath." Penniwick shook his head. "I saw the bath. You had to draw up your knees to sit in it. Hard to believe he could drown there. Hard to believe he's gone..."

Elias cleared his throat and fixed Penniwick with a weary look. "There are," he said with a sigh, "worse ends."

Today there are still vast uninhabited stretches of land in the Alaskan interior, far from the noise and smog of the city. Often the only pathways are rough gravel roads ending in deserted campgrounds. Being so far from civilization, as it is called, a visitor might be startled to find a telephone booth at the campgrounds. Even more startling would be the sight of a grizzly bear standing upright in the booth; he would be speaking to someone named Renee, or maybe Raquel, saying, "I don't mean to be bothering you, I just needed to talk for a minute or two. Hear your voice." He'd pause for a moment. "You should see the tioga forests. They're so beautiful, so vast. And sometimes so empty. But I'm doing okay. Really, I am. I just wanted you to know that." And then, reluctantly, he'd hang up, drop back down to all fours, and wander back into the forest.

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