By Joshua Shaw
Someone calls Parks and Wildlife about a rampaging bear. “You want it, Hopewell?” Sullivan asks.
“Maybe not rampaging. More loitering. It’s hanging around the dumpsters at the middle school. Police don’t know what to do. They may shoot it.”
“Fine,” Hopewell says. “I’ll take it.”
At the school, patrol cars surround the cafeteria dumpsters. Police aim pistols and duck behind their cars’ open doors. Kids gape from windows.
“Who’re you?” asks a policeman with a megaphone.
“Parks and Wildlife,” Hopewell says and shows him her badge.
“Oh,” he says and hands her the megaphone.
The bear’s all apologies on the drive to the forest.
“I’m sorry,” it says, “I don’t know what got into me.”
The bear is mortified. Just mortified.
“It’s okay,” Hopewell says, “You’re a bear.”
She sets the radio to country music, songs about cheating hearts and lovesick drinks.
“I like this song,” says the bear.
“Me too,” says Hopewell.
At the forest, it’s standing room only. Hopewell’s never seen so many bears. Dozens lounge beside the dirt road. Bears play dominoes. Bears stand in a circle and kick a flaccid soccer ball back and forth.
Hopewell visits the ranger’s station. She hooks a thumb in the bear’s direction. “Where do you want this bear?”
The park ranger shrugs. The forest is full.
“Blame it on urban expansion,” the ranger says.
“So, what am I supposed to do with this bear?” Hopewell says.
Back at her apartment, Hopewell drapes a clean sheet over a sofa. She hands the bear a pillow and a folded-up quilt. She shows him how to use the remote.
“Don’t get comfortable,” she says. “It’s only for a few days.”
The bear nods. “Thank you so much,” it says.
Hopewell puts on pajamas and pours herself a glass of Moscato. She drinks it in bed while watching reality TV on her tablet: competitive cooking, competitive dating. Blue light from the living room TV flickers under her door.
The next day, she returns home from work to find spaghetti and meatballs waiting for her, garlic bread dripping with hand-grated Parmesan, an uncorked bottle of chianti.
“Mm,” says Hopewell.
“It’s the least I could do,” says the bear.
The bear nods at a photograph on the refrigerator, tamped under a magnet, a stern-faced square-jawed marine.
It’s her son, Kevin. Lives in Michigan. Just out of the military. Starting a hydro jet cleaning business with his best friend, Ronnie.
“Oh,” says the bear.
“This spaghetti is really good,” says Hopewell.
Weeks go by. Hopewell calls nature preserves. She calls conservation centers. She calls zoos. No one has room for a bear.
Eventually, she stops worrying. It’s nice: having a bear around.
She and the bear watch reruns of Law and Order: SVU in the evenings. Sometimes, she falls asleep on the sofa and wakes to find her legs draped over the bear’s lap. The bear massages her calves, pats them gently. The room is dark. “Time to hit the hay, cowgirl,” the bear says.
One day, the bear kisses her. They’re in Hopewell’s kitchenette, doing dishes. Hopewell washes. The bear dries. The bear leans over and touches its muzzle to her lips.
Hopewell’s arms hang slack. Dishwater drips from her fingertips.
The next day, the bear says, “I need to show you something.”
It crooks its neck. It shows Hopewell the zipper.
She’s flabbergasted. How could she miss it? Seriously, there’s nothing subtle about the costume’s zipper.
The bear unzips its mask, removes it.
“Hi,” says the man underneath, “I’m Wendell.”
Wendell is younger than Hopewell, early forties. He has shaggy sandy blonde hair. A few grey whiskers fleck a neatly trimmed beard. He wears circular wire-framed glasses. He looks like a folk musician. Like John Denver, Hopewell thinks.
“So, what’s with the bear costume?” she says.
“I’ve just always felt like a bear,” Wendell says.
Hopewell and Wendell fall into routines. Hopewell works. Wendell tidies up the apartment. Dinner is always waiting when she returns. On pizza night they argue about who has the best pie in town.
“Stevie Z’s,” says Hopewell.
“Peppino’s,” says Wendell.
On summer evenings, they visit an ice cream shack at a public park, and bring bananas to make their own splits, which they eat while strolling beside the park’s listless river. Turtles sunbathe on mossy logs. Hopewell and Wendell try to identify trees.
That’s White Oak.
That’s Paper Birch.
That might be Scotch Pine.
Wendell installs a thermometer outside the kitchenette window, next to the bird feeder. He calls Hopewell at work each day to inform her of the temperature.
“It’s thirty-six degrees,” he says.
“Wow,” she says, “That’s cold.”
Kevin visits for the holidays. He and Wendell do not hit it off. Kevin grunts standoffishly when Wendell tries to spark a conversation about hydro jet cleaning. He gets testy when Wendell asks about his military service. Did Kevin kill anyone in Afghanistan?
Kevin leaves early to go drinking with high school buddies. Wendell sulks with a book about The Battle of Gettysburg.
Weeks later, Hopewell comes home to find dirty dishes piling in the sink. The apartment is empty. Wendell doesn’t return until after she’s gone to bed. She hears him fumbling with the lock.
“Where were you last night?” she says.
“Out,” he says.
A few times she asks him to wear his costume again. For old times’ sake? Didn’t he tell her that he always felt like a bear? Wendell hasn’t done anything bearish in ages.
Wendell doesn’t say “no.” He says, “What kind of ice tea is this?”
Then, one Saturday, when he is at the library, Hopewell retrieves the costume from the dresser drawer where he keeps his few possessions.
She takes off her clothes. The costume’s interior smells like old coins.
She growls lumbers around her bedroom. She bounces up and down on the bed, growls. She catches Wendell out of the corner of her eyes, standing in the doorframe, watching her.
They don’t talk about it.
Hopewell dreams of a bear. She’s confident it’s Wendell but can’t, for the life of her, spot his costume’s zipper. The bear wanders around her apartment evaluating her possessions. It lifts her toaster oven. It sniffs her pillows.
“This ficus is too droopy.”
“This spoon is too shiny.”
“This shower is too hot.”
“This bed is too cold.”
Hopewell suggests that Wendell may want to move out. Maybe it’s time he found his own apartment? At first, she’s not sure if he hears her; his face wanders to a distant place.
“I don’t see where this is headed,” she says. “I think it’s best to move on.”
Hopewell loans Wendell a carry-on. He fills it with his toiletries, a jar of instant coffee, and a paperback he borrowed from the library, Sibley’s Guide to the Trees of North America.
It doesn’t take long to pack.
He stands at the door in his bear costume. His mask is tucked under his arm.
Hopewell is surprised by how little it stings. No one calls her at work to tell her the temperature.
One night, Kevin calls to vent. His girlfriend is being a real pain in the you-know-what. Ronnie is a major disappointment.
“I hate to break it to him,” Kevin says. “But hydro jet cleaning is no place for dullards and layabouts.”
Hopewell mists the houseplants as she listens. Later, scooping freshly-cut tomatoes into a saucepot, she notices her trembling hands. The apartment is too quiet. The kitchen clock is too loud. She blinks.
When she opens her eyes, the kitchen is a disaster. Tomatoes everywhere. Crockpot overturned. Sauce drizzles onto the floor.
She cleans up. She calls it a night.
At work, a call comes in about a bear. It ate all the kibble from a bowl some homeowners left out for a stray cat. It toppled their barbecue grill. It won’t budge from their porch no matter how many pots they clang from inside their home.
“This bear complaint…” Sullivan says, “Who wants it?”
Hopewell pretends that a memo on her desk demands her total attention.
Hopewell meets a dental hygienist named “Russ” through an over-fifty dating site. A teetotaler. Plays keyboards in a soft rock band for a nondenominational church that operates out of a cineplex.
Russ is big on holding hands and keeping-it-real, not holier-than-thou, Christ-wise.
He offers to teach Hopewell how to salsa dance.
She breaks up with him.
On Hopewell’s birthday, Parks and Wildlife orders cupcakes and throws an office party.
It’s a crazy day. Phones ring off the hooks. Bear attacks left and right.
A bear mauls a teenager who tried to cut in line at the mall.
A bear causes a scene on a bus, shouts expletives at a mother who is too busy gabbing on her phone to parent a misbehaving child.
Bears gather outside a sporting goods store to protest gun violence.
Whatever’s happening, it’s beyond Parks and Wildlife.
“Call in the National Guard!” Sullivan says before hanging up on the mayor’s office. “Now, someone get me a cupcake!”
Hopewell volunteers to drive one of the arrested bears to a newly constructed detention center in the forest. So far, she’s seen only pictures on the news: holding cells, chain-linked fences.
The bear slumps in the backseat. Restraints bind its paws. Hopewell studies it in the rearview. Scrawny. Scabrous. Honestly, it doesn’t even look like a bear. A sickly coyote maybe?
She considers asking about Wendell. Ever heard of him? Ever cross paths? She contemplates other questions she could pose, unanswerable but large enough to fill silence.
She thinks of the odd thrill she felt when she tried on Wendell’s costume.
This bed is just right, she had wanted to say.
Behind her, the bear’s stomach rumbles. Hopewell rolls down a window so she can listen to her car’s wheels on the forest’s dirt roads. The smell of the pines seeps in.
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor who began writing fiction mid-career. His stories have appeared in Booth, Split Lip Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and Cleaver. More information about him can be found at https://sites.psu.edu/joshuashaw/fiction/.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.