Charles turned into a bear overnight; it was because his wife died. Not one of those big Harley riding guys with tattoos and a Viking helmet, but a real bear. A black one. Somewhere along the way he acquired a cub that followed him everywhere. I didn’t know what to do with a friend who decided to become a bear and a cub who went along with him, so I headed down to see Paul.

Paul owns the bar I hang out in, he was this old homeless guy who used to do odd jobs for the owner. He’d shovel the walk or clean out the place for a few bucks. Then, one day, he owned it. No one knew how he got the money or what happened to the old owner, one day the bar was named one thing and the next day it was named Paul’s. Only, instead of being dark and warm, he’d decided to paint it all white, it looked like the diner in Happy Days. It wasn’t ever very crowded anymore and it was empty this morning. Paul was clean-shaven now but he still had those small sad and wrinkled eyes of someone who knows too much about street life. His tight lips and look of resignation told me he knew why I was there. He knew the look of someone who wants help, someone who doesn’t know where to turn except to ask the guy who sells him his beer. His look said, I understand, but I can’t help. I almost left, instead, I ordered a beer.

I told him Charles was outside, he was a bear now, and how the cub didn’t know enough to wait in the strip mall parking lot instead of coming inside; I had to push him away and close the door right in his face. I told him I was worried that someone would call the wildlife guys and they would come and kill Charles and the cub. I didn’t know what to do. There was a dance school in the strip mall and I’m pretty sure all those dance mothers wouldn’t know the bear was really Charles. Paul wanted the whole story.

It was at this party for a Grandmother everyone hated. She was a retired English teacher, a real pain in the ass about grammar, we only put up with her because she was known to change her will daily. Her lawyer was on speed dial, and if you annoyed her at all, you were written out of the mini mart money and only got back in if she got pissed at someone else. It was last will and testament roulette. Her third husband owned a bunch of mini marts and committed suicide; such was life with a grammarian.

So, there we stood, on a porch filled with unopened boxes of plastic mini mart coffee mugs. All the ex-wives were there, as were all of us ex-husbands. The ex-wives stood in a line in front of the English teacher, who was resplendent in white makeup and red hair, the Grandchildren were singing for her. They sang her favorites, The Sound of Music and the Tennessee Waltz. Then one of the ex-wives seized the moment and sang Old Cape Cod. It was all going as well as can be expected in a room full of enmity and politeness until one of the ex-husbands glared at his ex-wife and growled,

“Why don’t you sing about them condoms you got piled next to your bed, you slut.”

“Those condoms!” said the Grandmother and he knew he was out of the will; again.

Everyone decided it would be a good idea to give the present now and that’s when Charles was called in from the driveway. The mini mart boxes were stacked to form a sort of easel and Charles got to unveil the portrait commissioned by one of the ex-wives. He was introduced as a soon to be famous artist and barely got the cover off the painting before the ex-wife started to go on and on about the remarkable likeness Charles had painted, something that would always remind everyone of her (and the person who commissioned the painting). The grammarian smiled, looking as gracious as she could, knowing that her wig and makeup hid many flaws. Thank God for the mini mart money.

Charles got a phone call and instantly turned white. He was a short, nervous guy, with long curly black locks, he looked like a mad man normally and at this moment he looked possessed. “She what?” “Is she going to be?” “She is DEAD?” he screamed. I offered to drive him to the hospital, knowing I might get written out of the will again for leaving the party early.

There wasn’t much we could do. She was dead. We went back to his empty apartment, full of brushes, paint and her things and tried to make a list. Charles asked me to write for him, I didn’t think anything of it, but his transformation had already begun. We fixed some cans of salmon for dinner and called it a night.

The next morning, Charles was a bear.

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