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The bear ignored me. He clawed half the centerfold out of the girlie book and stuffed half of that half into his mouth.
An especially tall woman in bearskin boots and a wide-brimmed black leather hat loomed on my Chevy's right.
Bears Discover Smut
by Michael Bishop

I had no business in that corner of Snooky's Newsstand pawing through its raunchiest offerings. So when another late-night customer sidled in, nervousness and guilt made me drop the magazine in my hands, incriminating centerfold up. That the new guy stood four inches taller than I and stank of the contents of a fast-food dumpster did nothing to ease my nerves. And it really didn't help when my first clear look revealed that he was no homeless bum in a ratty fur coat, but one of the gene-tweaked black bears that our Bureau of Wildlife Labor Management had franchised to do menial jobs after our last sweeping deportation of illegal immigrants.

Take a deep breath, I advised myself.

I did. It worked. (What do bears know about the morality of erotica, anyway?) I knelt, closed the covers on my girlie book, and reshelved it. It glistened there like a recruitment poster for Old Nick's pitchfork brigades, as did the sleazy titles around it, all of them addictive goads to sin.

"Pardon me," I whispered, but only an eavesdropping gossipmonger could have heard me.

The bear grunted.

I should have turned and left. My wife and children awaited me at home, but this secret bondage to my animal side, and to the knee-weakening adrenalin surges attending my every trip into Atlanta, had short-circuited my logic centers and my soul. Sinning, I trembled. Trembling, I burned. Burning, I exuded a glow—God forgive me—akin to the renegade Lucifer's.

Besides, that smelly bear had begun to crowd me. With his stiff-wristed paws he pulled Big Girls Bimonthly down, braced it on his forearms, and, with his prehensile lips, opened it to the centerfold. He squinted. Even genetically jiggered bears don't see too well, and unless their augmenters have given them color receptors, their vision consists of light and dark dapples, a shadowy paste. Anyway, this shaggy guy didn't see what I saw, and maybe his poor eyesight caused him to bump me.

Words that should never pass a minister's lips passed mine—"Out of my space, ursey!"—but I belonged in Snooky's about as much as any Top 40 number belongs in the Cokesbury hymnal, so I didn't regret blurting them out.

The bear ignored me. He clawed half the centerfold out of the girlie book and stuffed half of that half into his mouth. His breath reeked of spoiled lettuce, spoiled grease, spoiled chicken skin. Heedless of his feelings, I pinched my nose. He didn't care. He tongued the slick photo out of his mouth and returned it, crumpled and saliva-coated, to the magazine.

"Hey, ursey," Snooky said from the register. "You'd better buy that now, or I'll have to call a cop."

The bear shuffled over to Snooky carrying the girlie book and dropped it with a splat on the counter. He dragged a heretofore-invisible fanny pack around to his belly, fumbled its Velcro tabs apart, and dropped the pack on the magazine. He made a gulping noise and a self-effacing "Eh, eh, eh, eh," indicating that Snooky should take out the cost of his purchase.

Snooky did. "Have a blessed evening," he said, handing over the fanny pack and the magazine. (His hypocrisy on behalf of commercial gain rivaled mine as an ordained Testifier and a girlie-book ogler.)

The bear, when he turned around, fixed me with an appraising stare. He could see me just fine, whether in crisp black and white or muddy color. The stare didn't seem disapproving so much as calculating, but I still felt as if an invisible hand had reached in and squeezed one of my gut coils. Staring among omnivores and meat-eaters frequently means a pending attack. But even though urseys risk termination by agents of the Bureau of Wildlife Labor Management for "crimes" as rinky-dink as peeing on a potted shrub or jaywalking, this guy's manner suggested that he had few self-image issues and no fear of authority. After taking my measure for what seemed a minute (but may have been only seconds), he shuffled out into the muggy night.

"Well," said Snooky, "looks like bears have discovered cheesecake."

"Smut, you mean."

"Call it what you like. It keeps me in beans and grits." Snooky shook his head. "I just never thought a dumb beast would stoop so low."

· · · · · 

I drove my pig-waste-powered Chevy home the fifty-eight miles to Hebron, in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains, and found Sandi waiting up in our living room. A colicky Simon fidgeted in her arms. Tabitha snoozed on a pallet with her tiny butt up in the air and a filament of drool staining her pillow.

The digital clock on the TV set blinked 1:37. Although I had phoned two hours earlier to report that a crisis at Peachtree Court Pastoral Counseling Institute (PC2I) would delay me longer than I had figured, Sandi shoved Simon into my arms and sprayed me with eye-bullets.

"You promised this wouldn't happen again."

"And you knew when you married me that my work would require sacrifices on both our parts."

"Oh, Tommy Kyle."

"What?" I answered stonily.

"Your 'sacrifices' get you out of the house when I could use your help. They sap your time and strength for ministering to this family."

"Which is why I've got to depend on you so much, Sandi." I shifted Simon to my other arm and touched his angry-looking forehead with a fingertip. Tabitha murmured on her cushion but didn't wake up.

Believe me, I thanked God that I was a Full-Gospel Testifier rather than a Roman Catholic. My denomination spared me the recurrent shame of confessing my lies and addictions to a priest, and nothing but my conscience—which had a glitch in it—required me to confess them to Sandi. I had a ministry in the city all right, but not a twice-weekly job as a counselor to troubled married couples. No, I evangelized the short-short-and-tee-shirt-clad waitresses in all Atlanta's Upper Deck restaurants. (I really slaved when they needed lovelorn advice or a wardrobe adjustment.) Sandi had the number of the chain's central office, but she assumed it belonged to the Pastoral Counseling Institute and never phoned it anyway, primarily because I had told her that interrupting me could derail a potential counseling breakthrough.

Despite the late hour, Sandi and I talked. (A husband who comes home late had better talk.) From this powwow, I learned that Sandi's foul mood stemmed in part from the arrival in Hebron that afternoon of an ursey construction crew.

Her brother Angus, a vet who'd lost an arm in our ongoing foreign war, had also just lost his job as a drywall finisher to a member of this hairy bunch: a burnt-cinnamon Tremarctos ornatus, or spectacled bear, from the Birmingham Zoo. This development stank because Angus would soon start "self-medicating"—Sandi's delusive euphemism for moonshine bingeing.

"Spectacled bears don't even hail from this country," I said, trying to reassure her. "Spectacled bears are native to the Andes. By law, an American man can't lose his job to an undocumented alien bear."

"Listen to me," Sandi said. "This bear hails from the Birmingham Zoo."


"He was born in Alabama. He's a citizen, like the urseys born and raised here in Georgia. And just like them, Tommy Kyle, he's undeportable. Even better, if you're his boss, he'll work for June-bug grubs."

I gave Simon back to Sandi, who rocked him, and thought about this news. After a slew of mass deportations (Hispanics, Asians, Arabs), the wholesale genetic tweaking of Ursus americanus (American black bear), and the approval of a bill abolishing labor organizations (Universal Disunioning Act), almost all menial work in the US had fallen to unpaid or poorly compensated native animals.

Black bears got special treatment under the Disunioning Act owing to a clause championed by President Shallowford. He loved the creatures. When he was a young man, a female bear in the Tennessee hills had wrapped her body around his for three straight winter nights, sparing him death by hypothermia. The president's opponent in our last election, Senator Bright, tried to score points by noting that Shallowford had wandered away during a fraternity keg party, at the advanced age of thirty-two—but the American people rejected this attack and returned Shallowford to the White House. One week after his third inaugural address, a joint session of Congress exiled Senator Bright to the barrens of the Arctic National Petroleum Dig.

Today, black bears—but not polar bears or grizzlies—constitute an overwhelming majority of construction workers, truck drivers, sanitation laborers, domestics, hotel and motel employees, rock-show roadies, and carnival roustabouts. Although not many can read, they have voting rights in presidential elections and use touch-screen monitors with scent dispensers geared to the elephant and donkey symbols of the two major parties to make their choices. They exercise this franchise in percentages that put us, their human superiors, to shame.

"Well?" Sandi said, summoning me back to the present.

"An ursey can't legally steal an honest-to-God human citizen's job," I told her. "Angus has to fight."

"That's just it, Tommy Kyle. You and I both know he won't."

Exasperated, I said, "A person has to take some responsibility."

"Like you do around here?" Which was a really cheap shot and a deflection of the issue at hand.

Simon wriggled in Sandi's arms. Tabitha stuck her pink legs out, rolled over onto her back, opened her indigo-blue eyes, and wailed. I should have soothed her with kisses and baby talk, but I couldn't. I simply couldn't. I belonged nowhere near her. For that matter, I belonged nowhere near Sandi, or Simon, or the intransigent problems of my one-armed brother-in-law.

"You soulless phony," Sandi said.

"Don't," I said, pointing at her. "It's these damned black bears that have no souls. They're taking over the country. They're ruining it."

And shedding my coat and unknotting my tie, I reeled off-balance down the hall to my study.

· · · · · 

Unmolested, bears can live thirty to forty years. When they pass on, their bodies decay and, I suppose, dematerialize. But they don't go to Heaven or Hell, because they have no souls. Their spirits—the instincts and the primal smarts that make them bears—cease to exist. If God had wanted it otherwise, He would have ensouled a bear in Eden, or up on Brasstown Bald, when he blew life into Adam's lungs and baby ego. He would have made black bears and human beings coequal spiritual twins. But He didn't. Bears die forever and probably deserve to.

If not, the Bible lies about our dominion over them, and President Shallowford has erred in urging our legislators to preserve even the shortened hunting seasons meant to thin their growing ranks. You can't hunt bears in the city or in any other populated area, of course, nor can you shoot a bear wearing a scarlet neckerchief—but you can shoot a grown naked bear in the woods in the fall, and many people do, for the meat, for rugs, or for trophy heads. Clearly, the president's sentimentality about bears runs no deeper than it should—in emphatic refutation of those who accuse him of shielding his pals against any comeuppance, warranted or not.

But why do I digress this way?

Well, on Sunday morning, Angus Showalter, my brother-in-law, came to church—the First Full-Gospel Testifying Church of Hebron—bringing along the burnt-cinnamon bear that had taken his job.

The bear sported its red immunity bandanna—out of season—like a tie, most likely in honor of its aberrant churchgoing experience. (I would have bet that Angus had knotted that inept tie.) Conspicuous beige markings encircled the bear's eyes, giving him an absentminded-professor look.

On the top step outside the sanctuary, I said, "I'm sorry, Angus—we don't allow urseys in here, even if they've got prosthetic opposable thumbs."

"You don't?"

"It doesn't do them any good. They don't have the necessary spiritual equipment to benefit from either God's word or the Church's sacraments."

Angus glanced at the ursey standing patiently at his elbow. "It might do me some good, Tommy Kyle. I told Specs"—nodding at the bear—"that if he came this morning, I'd forgive him for snaking my job."

"He can't come in, Angus. This is a house of prayer, not a stinking zoo."

Angus's brow furrowed. "Preacher Whitlock over to the Baptists blesses animals. Puts his hands on heifers' heads and horses' flanks and outright blesses 'em. Birddogs and housecats, too. And I've heard you stand up at Christmastime and sing 'The Friendly Beasts' as loud as loud can be."

"This isn't Christmas, Angus, and blessing an animal isn't the same as trying to save its soul." Congregants had begun to back up at the foot of the steps. The Manley family—Bill, Mamie, and their three girls—gawped at us from the end of the sidewalk, awkwardly frozen in their Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes.

"Oh." Angus had finger-combed his hair and put on a clean wrinkled shirt. "I guess we'll try elsewheres." He and Specs trotted down the steps, the ursey swaying on all fours and shaking his massive head.

I learned later that no other church had let them in, either. (The clergy in Georgia still have some sense.) So they had perched on a picnic table outside the open windows of an African Methodist Episcopal church on Frye's Mill Road to listen to the singing and the hallelujah shouting …

· · · · · 

I love my wife. I love my children. But Satan and our fun-worshipping society—deviltry and greed in evil cahoots—have conspired to drag me sinward, and that summer I often stumbled toward it.

For several months after our marriage, I surfed erotica on our home computer, always late at night or early in the a.m. while Sandi slept. She has more techno-savvy than I do, though, and finally caught me just by attending to her business as an online commodities broker. I admitted to nothing more twisted than conducting research on reprehensible internet filth—so I could better combat it for God's faithful. And if I had appeared to sneak about this task, I'd done so only out of respect to Sandi's sensibilities as an upright Testifier woman.

"Don't do it anymore," she said.


"Research. It's contaminated our machine, Tommy Kyle. Besides, if you can't just imagine the boring outer limits of pornography, well, you have serious shortcomings as an imaginer."

This remark bowled me over. It implied that Sandi, once my cherry sweetheart and now my lawful bedmate, could envision stuff that I had to see firsthand if I hoped to file it in my mental data banks. Even worse, Sandi thought such imaginings not so much disgusting as boring, whereas I, when Satan led me to indulge them, always did so with a heady psychological rush and thrilling tides of guilt. Her remark gave me even more evidence that men and women are wholly distinct species, with out-of-synch transmitters and receivers.

Anyway, I obeyed her. I stopped visiting triple-X sites. I fetched my shoebox collections of erotica out of their hole under the bedroom floor and put them in a metal storage unit outside town. And I laid plans for a ministry at the Upper Deck eateries by creating phony paper and electronic trails to the Peachtree Court Pastoral Counseling Institute. Sometimes I couldn't tell if the Archangel Gabriel or a lizard monster in my id was prompting my behavior.

Sandi didn't catch on to these moves (or didn't tell me if she had), and Tabitha and Simon appeared in our lives, one after the other, as if Sandi and I not only loved each other but also understood each other's deepest longings and fears. Of course, to remove myself from this lie, I started driving to Atlanta two nights a week as a traveling marriage counselor for PC2I—yet another complicated lie.

· · · · · 

On the Tuesday after Angus's attempt to bring Specs to church, I paid my cover and entered Rapscallion's Lounge, on a revitalized stretch of Cheshire Bridge Road. This gentleman's club is known for the beauty, class, and high-energy dancing of its mostly au naturel exotics, but I couldn't sign off on these claims without a look-see of my own. Besides, I'd done just about all I could at the Upper Deck eateries (none of which serves a decent hero sandwich, anyway), and some of the girls plying their trade at Rapscallion's could stand to hear—again—the testimony of a convicted believer.

Well, because of the darkness and the crazy placement of the booths and tables, I stumbled going down into the pit. I stumbled again paying more heed to my hostess's sequined posterior than to the mazy aisles, but at last I settled in, ordered a nonalcoholic beer, and did my duty estimating the level of sinfulness of the pole huggers performing on stage. (If you ask me, their serpentine moves pretty clearly showed their allegiance.) I estimated for a long time.

A waitress wearing little more than a thong and mascara slid me another O'Doul's and a dish of beer nuts. Belatedly—and I wasn't even tipsy—I laid my palm over my wedding ring. The waitress said, "Relax, Teddy Bear. Seventy-five percent of the dudes who come in here have wives and kids. 'S no big deal."

"It's Tommy Kyle, not Teddy Bear."

"Sure. How long have you and the missus been hitched?" Techno-disco-country-western-calypso-hip-hop made it tricky to hear.

"Seven years."

"Ah, it's itch-time. Kids?"

"A couple. They're both under four."

"Right. You had to get out of the house—to reassert your sense of self." I didn't reply to that. She said, "May I sit down?"

"Is that allowed?"

"Actually, it isn't." She sat down anyway.

I uncovered my wedding ring and sipped my "beer."

"But I don't care what bubba don't allow, gonna quiz my client anyhow." She patted my wrist. "My name's Minerva, Tommy Kyle." (I had blurted out my real name, preempting any chance of foisting an alias on her—a bad beginning.) "Relax," she said again. "Just call me Min. How often do you stay home and help Missus T.K. take care of the cubs?"

"Almost never."

"Why's that? Are you allergic to dirty diapers? Or to sticky little paw prints on your face?"

"No, I—" My voice failed me.

Min said, "Relax," her favorite command. "Look over there." She nodded at a booth cattycorner to my table, beyond the stage. My chin bobbled. A black bear in a red neckerchief sprawled in that booth staring my way and sniffing the liquor-, sweat-, and makeup-scented air for tattletale pheromones. Then, registering my notice of him, the bear glanced aside and raised a radiant blue cell phone to one of his erect Mickey Mouse ears. Never mind that almost all ursey utterances—whimpers, moans, grunts—depend on face-to-face meetings for their decipherment. This bear reminded me of the buttinski at Snooky's Newsstand last Thursday night. In fact, you can forget the canard that all black bears look alike: I definitely knew this guy. "… He's probably a daddy too," Min was telling me.

I started. "What?"

"Male bears play virtually no role in raising their cubs," she said. "It's not that they have no paternal feelings. It's just that sows with offspring need a certain amount of territory to feed the kids in. Papa Bear instinctively knows better than to trespass on that territory. Evolution in its wisdom—"

"How can you credit wisdom to a supposedly blind force like evolution?" I said. "Grant it to God, to Whom it belongs."

Min cocked a kohl-lined eye. "Okay, T.K., you got it. God—in His wisdom—designed Papa Bear to hightail it after the consummations he so devoutly wishes and to stay out of Mama Bear's, and Little Baby Bears', space until Mama can wean the little suckers to get by on their own. If Papa hung around, he'd just muck everything up. So he's an absentee daddy by"—Min paused to read my mood—"intelligent design." Then she winked and rubbed a smut of mascara out of her eye.

I put my elbows on the table. "How do you know all this ursey-oriented gobble-gook, anyway?"

"Like half the girls here, I work at Rapscallion's to pay my way through college: We've got girls going to GSU, Tech, Emory, Oglethorpe, Moorhouse, Agnes Scott, you name it. It's a cliché, I guess, but clichés take root in realities, T.K., which is more than I can say for a lot of God talk I hear." Min added that she was majoring in social work and minoring in ursine studies because one day she hoped to score a job as a caseworker with DABBS, the Department of Augmented Black Bear Services. "Anyway," she said, "running out on the missus and kids is a very bear-y thing to do. Come to DABBS some time, and I'll see what I can do to get you a little more intelligently designed for Homo sapiens fatherhood."

She rose, finger-saluted, and sashayed away. Three pole-hugging ladies writhed in imperfect unison in the purple fog, but the bear I had first seen at Snooky's, well, that mysterious galoot had vanished. I squinted through the haze to find him. Had he left on his own just now, or had a bouncer somehow managed to toss him out?

Question-plagued, I made my own way to the door.

· · · · · 

Despite the hour, I couldn't bring myself to drive back to Hebron. I ambled past several lewd-talking men in the parking lot and walked down Cheshire Bridge Road past a darkened studio where amateurs, for a nominal fee, could take photos of either lingerie-flaunting young women or chained urseys. On another day I would return with a cohort of the faithful to picket the place.

But that must have been my fake beers talking, for the police or outraged citizens had already shut it down. It was Snooky's that needed picketing, or Rapscallion's, or the storage unit housing my shoebox porn.

I kept walking. Crap-mobiles, rickshaws, and sail-bikes huffed and clattered by like the crippled ghosts of fancier vehicles. Coyotes howled on the decrepit interstates. Maybe I had a death wish: I angled off the sidewalk and down a cracked embankment to an underpass pocked with shadows and littered with glass. A gang member could shank or sodomize me. A renegade ursey could lay me out with one blow and plunge his snout into the steaming pudding of my bowels. I didn't care. Either God would watch over me or He wouldn't, and, shamefully, I deserved Him not to.

A trio of figures in silhouette occupied the far end of the underpass. Near them, a small black oil drum flickered with the fire they'd built in it—not for warmth, given the season and the suffocating humidity, but for light. I half expected one or all of them to recite "Double, double, toil and trouble" or "When shall we three meet again?"—but, as I approached, they merely shifted from foot to foot. Eventually, the two smaller bears dropped to all fours and scampered up the embankment to the top of the overpass itself. There they clung like good-sized patches of lichen. I kept walking and halted only about twelve feet from their upright mama bear, who, swaying suspiciously, high-sniffed my unwelcome presence.

"Evening, ma'am." My courteous-cowboy imitation.

Mama Bear gulped and uttered several variable-length moans. (If Min had come along, she could have interpreted.) She wore no bandanna. A patch on her chest showed gray-white skin rather than fur. Above us, the eyes of her cubs glittered warily.

"Huh, huh, huh, huh!" grunted Mama Bear. To me, it sounded like "Beat it!" or "Get lost!" I would have, too, except that I made her face into something human and took offense at the "stink-eye" she was giving me. Nobody—no mortal being—told the Rev. Tommy Kyle Kidwell what to do. Besides, the sow looked old and bedraggled, and I couldn't run out on her, even to ease her motherly dread.

I rummaged in my pocket. That afternoon, Sandi had given me a small plastic bag of dried apricots. I waved it in front of the sow. Then I pulled out an apricot and pitched it to her. She swatted it into the oil-drum fire but sniffed her paw and then slow-licked it to identify the smell. She moaned and gestured. I poured the apricots into my hand, set the bag on the underpass floor, scattered apricots atop it, and backed up. The sow dropped down, ate two or three of the fruits, and, gulping and grunting, summoned her cubs. The cubs tumbled to her, wrestling demonically. Mama sorted them out and made sure they each got more than a taste.

I thought, Unto the least of these, and hiked back to Rapscallion's without further incident.

· · · · · 

At first my daily schedule fretted, and then peeved, and finally infuriated Sandi. I sympathized, but a Testifying minister's priorities flow from the headwaters of God to his parishioners, his family, the unchurched, society at large, and, last, the self, and not the other way. Sometimes I erred in ordering these priorities, but almost always owing to satanic attack instead of malice aforethought.

Even so, Sandi had reason to grouse: "Fridays and Saturdays, you write your weekly sermons. Sundays, you preach. Mondays, you visit members and teach your rotating Bible classes. Tuesdays, you do Deep Prayer, post-seminary study, and pastoral counseling in Atlanta, which you also have on Thursday nights. Wednesdays, you go from shop to shop making yourself visible here in Hebron—as a Testifier to the faith, of course, not as an ad for Tommy Kyle Kidwell personally. Thursdays—well, enough. I only see you for a hectic hour every morning and whatever minutes before bedtime you get home on Institute nights."

So as I walked to the parsonage door, I braced for attack. The porch light burned accusingly, and the living-room curtains glowed, I thought, with the pent-up wattage of Sandi's indignation. Well, I deserved it: Why couldn't I shake Old Nick's grip on my libido?

But when I stepped into the house, Sandi hugged me. She put a glass of iced tea into my hand. By this time, I had seen her brother Angus sitting on the sofa wearing a thick white bandage on half his face, sort of like that loony Dutch painter who sliced his own ear off, except Angus's bandage was bigger and uglier.

He had his hand—his only hand—on top of his head, as if to keep the pressure inside it from blowing his skull into fragments. Sometimes he liked to say that if anyone knew the sound of "one hand clapping," it was he, Angus Showalter, but tonight, or this morning, he looked clueless and hangdog—no match for a knock-knock joke, much less a Zen Buddhist stumper.

"I had to stand him bail," Sandi said. "After they took him to the clinic, I mean. I couldn't let them put him in a stinking cell with Duane Fuqua, the wife beater, and Willie Brownlee, the weed-eater thief."

She told her story in fits and pieces, bits and starts. Since Sunday, Angus's even-temperedness about losing his job to a bear had disintegrated. Around quitting time that evening at a construction site outside Hebron, Angus approached Specs as the ursey left a brand-new starter house with several other workers. He challenged the ursey to fistfight him.

"A fistfight to the death," Angus put in from the sofa.

Specs had seemed confused. When Angus swung at him, he blocked the blow, roared, and stepped aside. Angus called him a coward and pursued him around the yard: an obstacle course of supplies, equipment, and tools. Because he couldn't land a punch, though, his frustration mounted.

"I always have to fight with 'one hand tied behind my back,'" Angus broke in. "Try it some time, Tommy Kyle."

Sandi explained that Angus finally picked up a sledgehammer and, reaching out with it, slammed Specs in the right upper thigh.

"A sledgehammer?" I said in amazement.

"There's nothing in the rules of free-for-all fistfighting that sez you can't have something useful in your fist," Angus replied.

I had never realized that free-for-all activities came furnished with rulebooks, but I kept my mouth shut. Sandi hurried to say that Specs had struck back with a paw swipe to Angus's face—hence the bandage—but hadn't dropped down and mauled her brother to death, probably because of the V-chip that Wildlife Labor Management had planted in his hippocampus.

Meanwhile, called by Angus's old boss, who now had five or six bears working for him, Police Officer Wrangham arrived and put Angus under arrest. The crew chief had decided to press charges as a warning to other disgruntled employees who planned to scapegoat his urseys. Wrangham stopped at the health clinic to have Angus's wounds bandaged and telephoned Sandi to tell her to meet them at the jail.

The bail procedure was expedited owing to Angus's wounds and his kinship to the late Autry Showalter, a mayor who had raised money for the Police Benevolent Fund by auctioning speeding-ticket passes and get-out-of-jail chits at the halftimes of Hebron High School football games and at every junior-senior prom. Anyway, as a result of this dispensation, Angus now occupied the sofa in our parsonage rather than a jail cell. And probably would until our next local court session.

I didn't mind. Angus's presence had distracted Sandi from my absence. And she was prepared to stay up all night with him to insure that the bear's sudden wallop to his head didn't lead to a coma. She would count his pulse, monitor his eye movements, and periodically wake him to forestall catalepsy or paralysis.

"And it might keep me from having a repeating-loop dream of the same stupid Three Stooges sketch," Angus added helpfully.

I had no objection. I felt kindly toward Angus. He had spared me another guilt-stacking midnight heart-to-heart with his sister.

I rustled up some apricots in the kitchen and popped them with a glass of milk and a Restoril. Then I slept until 9:17 A.M., almost like a hibernating bear.

· · · · · 

On Thursday evening, back in Atlanta, I checked in with my unknowing abettors at PC2I. The institute now had a paunchy black bear serving as a security guard. To my surprise, I spent twenty minutes counseling a pair of newlyweds suffering from birth-control fears and a total ignorance of the ovulatory cycle. They also shared the bizarre conviction that the security guard wanted to violate the bride. I helped them understand a hunch of my own: that the bear's attention to her signaled infatuation, not lust, and that if she and her hubby prayed together before their next intercourse, whatever resulted from it would occur with God's blessing.

After this strange session, I cruised the city, biding my time. The announcer on Crossroads Radio reported that the decapitated heads of seven urseys had shown up that afternoon on the eighteenth hole of Augusta National Golf Course, home of the Masters. Also, in Yellowstone National Park, President Shallowford had addressed an audience of augmented Ursi americani, promising immediate deportation of grizzlies and Kodiaks to set-aside habitats in Canada. The Canadians were cooperating, mostly to keep the US Congress from declaring their nation off-limits to American tourism. Meanwhile, black bears on the four-lane medians in Alberta had united in a protest, complete with smoky pine torches, demanding secession from Alberta and annexation to the brand-new union of bears in Wyoming …

Finally, my methane mobile cruised into a neighborhood where a mixed menu of women in seven-inch heels and thirteen-inch skirts minced along a dim street flaunting their carcasses. An old blood-borne hum droned in my ears, and my heart leapt. Other cars patrolled the same street, slowing and hiccupping forward again when the women signaled their drivers: harlots on parade, Babylon sisters for sale. Where were the cops? Where were the vigilant people of Neighborhood Watch?

An especially tall woman in bearskin boots and a wide-brimmed black leather hat loomed on my Chevy's right. The padded sheath around my steering wheel had grown really damp. In my rearview mirror I counted seven beads of sweat on my upper lip. I needed to talk to this gal. I needed to ask her if parading jauntily here would in any way ready her to saunter the sidewalks of the City of God. I would pay her for this info. The godly ends of a godly researcher justify almost any outlay. And so I eased alongside the woman and powered down the passenger window.

She saw me. She approached. She removed her hat and leaned down to stick her head into the car. Her neck cords and sunken eyes gave me pause—was she an honest-to-God woman?—but her crooked smile had an odd girlish sweetness, and so, as Min had kept urging me at Rapscallion's, I relaxed.

Too soon!

The car behind me—a refitted taxi of uncertain make and year—plowed into me with a loud bang! crash! tinkle! My seat belt kept me from flying into the windshield, but its wrenching grab bruised me from chest to hip. The tall harlot vanished, but the taxi, after backing up several feet, flashed its biting halogen headlamps two or three times, as if threatening to run into me again.

A prophetic voice in my reptile brain said, "Better get your holy butt out of here, Tommy Kyle."

More lights flashed around me, but the taxi's headlamps switched off. I looked back over my shoulder. The driver wore a small felt cap of some sort and a loose light-colored cotton vest. On the passenger side, though, sat a hairy figure with a long muzzle and a dark bandanna. Surely, he couldn't see me any better than I could see him, but the mere suggestion of his identity led me to put my car into gear and hit the methane pedal. The Chevy drove, granted, but items both metal and plastic fell from its rear as I wrestled it out of that Pit of Dissipation.

· · · · · 

This abrupt end to my researches could have allowed me to get home even before Sandi expected me. But I had the car checked out at an all-night service center and drove back to the Counseling Institute to make sure that its new security guard hadn't tailed me on my unsuccessful junket. No, the guard was positively a different bear. But having this reassurance disturbed rather than calmed me, and I took a side trip to my storage unit outside Hebron to retrieve my three banished shoeboxes and to soothe my nerves by their repossession. So I again got back to the parsonage after midnight.

When I crossed its threshold, an ax swept down.

Sandi hit me with hard evidence of my ungodly obsession and deceits: an issue of the in-house newsletter of the Upper Deck restaurants showing me partying with several waitresses; a copy of Big Girl Bimonthly with my fingerprints all over it; digital photos of me estimating levels of sinfulness at Rapscallion's Lounge; and video of my abbreviated trip, that very evening, to Alley Cat Row.

The bear responsible for these articles of my impeachment sat on the sofa, where Angus had sat two nights ago. He didn't make eye contact. He didn't even add a blame-laying snort. His presence so deeply shocked me that I never even thought to ask him to produce his private investigator's license. I had never considered the possibility that a bear could enter that profession. I had never considered the possibility of Sandi's asking a PI—and certainly not an ursey PI—to put me under surveillance.

"Never say 'research' to me again," Sandi said. "You've lied and lied, Tommy Kyle. You have a serious problem and need serious help. So do I, but first I choose to take Tabitha and Simon out of this den of lies and leave you here to mull your sickness. Eventually, I'll get back to you, or my attorney will, to end this humiliating fiasco of a marriage. Good-bye."

· · · · · 

Not long after our divorce, the First Full-Gospel Testifying Church of Hebron fired me. I now live in a rented doublewide in East Hebron and support myself doing talk therapy with my walk-in clientele. Ironically, I moved in with the bear who exposed my secret life. He conducts his PI business out of the other half of the doublewide and styles himself Silent Sam Ellijay.

Angus Showalter rooms with me, on my side, and fetches my kids from Sandi's on my visitation weekends. Specs and a young honey bear room with Detective Ellijay. I gave the bears my shoebox collections to prevent Tabitha and Simon from coming upon them over here and warping their outlooks on male-female relationships and the viability of modern marriage. Sometimes, the urseys paw through the boxes maniacally, placing a postcard or two in their mouths to distill the perfume from the scented pasteboard. Their take on smut totally bewilders me.

It's a weird arrangement, I know. A year ago, I could not have imagined sharing a mobile home with three bears, augmented or otherwise. As for Angus, he harbors more bitterness toward Specs and Detective Ellijay than toward me, although who knows why? Every day, he takes one-armed target practice with an old 30.06 rifle, a Showalter family heirloom. Hunting season's coming up again, he says, and licenses are readily available from the Bureau of Wildlife Labor Management.

The End
—for Terry Bisson

© 2005 by Michael Bishop and SCIFI.COM