The train rocks and shadows inside the dimly lit carriages are divided by slowly sliding patterns of weak light from the lonely lamps the train passes as it chugs steadily uphill and deeper into the darkness. The man cannot sleep. In the neighboring compartment, there is a party going on. “These rednecks,” he says, tossing about in the flimsy bedclothes, “drinking and carrying on like they were the only people in the world.” He finally gets up, determined to confront his neighbors.
The sliding door of the next compartment is open and the man sees a group of bears cramped around the little table in the center. The floor is littered with bottles, but there are fresh ones on the table. They notice him.
“Hey, it’s the neighbor,” one bear says. They all turn to him. Their faces are hung with stupid, cross-eyed grins. Several bears have their arms around each other.
“C’mon in, have a drink,” the bear says. He produces a glass and fills it with a generous portion of the clear booze they’re drinking.
The man sees that the situation is hopeless and decides to take the drink. “What the heck. I’m not going to get any sleep anyway.”
They make room for him on the bench. A bear offers a toast to the health of their new guest. The tall, slim man is no slouch and he tosses back the glass in a smooth, experienced gesture. The bears look at him, all googly-eyed stares and smiles. “You’re all right,” another bear says and they fill up his glass again. A big claw shoves a large plate of oily fish towards him. The bears resume their talking and jokes.
“So, you’re not from around here,” says the first bear.
“Nope,” says the man. “I’m here on business.” He tears a hunk off a loaf of bread lying on the table and dips it in a dish of watery honey.
“You like our country?” There is no sharpness to the question, but the man, knowing that they are bears, is cautious in his reply.
“Yes. I’m enjoying myself.”
Two bears have been conferring in sloppy whispers, and one of them leans awkwardly across the table a touches the man roughly. “You like the women?" he smirks grotesquely. His partner makes an obscene pumping gesture with his hands.
“I’m married,” the man says, showing his ring. He knows to smile, part of the ritual. He pulls out some brochures from his pocket and puts them on the table. “Here, these are for you guys.”
“Whassis?” the first bear picks up the pamphlet and examines it, but can’t seem to read well on account of the alcohol and semidarkness.
“Have you guys ever heard of Smokey the Bear?” the man announces.
“Oh God no,” says the bear across the table, “not another damn missionary…”
The train lumbers further up the mountain pass and the sound of breaking glass tinkles into the night.
Sunday, September 9, 2007