The Bear

June 27, 2017

It was 6:30 in the morning, and the bear was in the kitchen eating Jello out of the fridge. It was red Jello with chunks of pineapple in it. Ray hated red Jello with chunks of pineapple in it, but it was the last thing Sharon made before she left and he had been saving it.

He pointed his gun at the bear and said, “Get out of my house.”

The bear stood up on his hind legs and put his paws in the air. He was a black bear with a long snout and round ears that stuck out from the top of his head like a couple of satellite dishes, giving him a comically confused expression. There was a piece of pineapple on the end of his nose.

“Good morning,” said the bear.  “I didn’t know you were awake.”

“Well, I am,” said Ray. “And I want you out of my house.”

“Of course,” said the bear. His claws clicked awkwardly on the linoleum. He was small by bear standards, but he was still a large animal. Ray cocked the gun. The bear took a step backward. “Okay, okay, let’s not get carried away,” said the bear.

Ray snorted. “You break into my house and eat my food, and I’m the one getting carried away? I don’t think so. A man’s got a right to protect his family.”

The bear cocked his head. “But you don’t even like Jello with pineapple in it.”

“That’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point?”

“The point,” Ray sputtered, “is that you’re trespassing. This is my home. Do you understand that? My property. I own it and I have a right to privacy.”

The bear’s long tongue whipped out of his mouth and snatched the piece of pineapple off his nose. The bear chewed thoughtfully. “Well, to be fair, the bank owns the house. Isn’t that right, Ray? How far behind are you on the mortgage payments? Four months? Five?”

Ray clenched his jaw. “How did you know that?”

The bear looked down at his feet. “To be honest, I go through your trash. Just for table scraps, of course, but sometimes there’s mail in there and I can’t help myself. I like to read while I eat.”

“Jesus,” Ray said. “Is nothing sacred? Yeah, we’re a little behind. So what? This is still my property. I have every right to defend it. I could shoot you right now and no one would blame me. Hell, they’d probably give me a reward for stopping the killer bear.”

The bear rolled his eyes. “Killer bear? Please. At best, I’m the trespassing bear, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I’ll admit I’ve overstepped here, but your reaction is a little extreme. You know this is why Sharon left you, right? Your anger issues. All this toxic masculinity. It makes you difficult to live with.”

Ray’s face turned red. “Toxic what?”

“Masculinity. It’s a result of the pressure put on men by society to adhere to various masculine stereotypes, like violence and risk-taking. You’re a classic example, Ray.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

The bear chuckled. “You’re right. I’m off topic. Listen, all I’m saying is that you should learn to relax a little bit. Don’t try to solve everyone’s problems. Maybe see a therapist.”

“Right,” Ray mumbled. “Relax. Calm down. Be the cool guy who does yoga and eats kale. Maybe I’ll grow a ponytail. Meanwhile, I got some twenty-year-old kid riding my ass at work because I don’t know how to use the new computer system, I’m dipping into our 401(K) to pay the bills, my wife moved out, and a bear just ate the last thing she made for me!”

Ray began to cry. He tried to fight it, but that only made things worse. The sobs came in short bursts, accompanied by flying saliva and snot.

“Oh, man,” said the bear. “Oh, shit. I’m such a dick. I should have realized you wanted to save it. Ray, I’m sorry. I’m always doing stuff like that. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Ray sniffed and wiped his face with his sleeve. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I mean, you’re right. I hate  Jello with pineapple in it. I really do. The flavors don’t blend well together, and the pineapple leaves little pulpy bits in your teeth. She knows I hate that stuff. It was like her final ‘fuck you’ before she left. So in a way it’s probably good it’s gone.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it right.” The bear lumbered over to Ray and put his arms around him. “Come here, big guy.” Ray buried his face in the bear’s chest. It was warm and soft, and he could hear the enormous heart beating deep inside his rib cage. The bear smelled like dirt and pine. Ray wanted to stay there forever.

Finally, the bear let go. “I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you come live with me for a while?”

Ray laughed. “Shut up.”

“No, I’m serious. You have a ton of camping gear in the garage. It’s spring, which is like…oh, man, you should see the woods in the spring, Ray. It’s awesome out there. It’s all just foraging and swimming in the river and catching salmon. You’d love it!”

Ray looked out the patio door. The property was in a suburb next to the mountains. There was the back deck, a covered swimming pool, a hundred yards of cleared land, and then the woods. It went on for miles, dark and damp and silent.

“Are you messing with me right now?” said Ray. “Because you know I’m in a fragile state.”

“You know I wouldn’t do that to you. This will change your life. I promise.”

“Isn’t it dangerous out there?”

“Not if your best friend is a bear, stupid. Come on. What have you got to lose?”

Ray slowly turned around, taking in the whole house. There was the kitchen island with the keys to his Subaru on it. There was the stainless steel sink with the dirty cereal bowl that had precipitated his last fight with Sharon. There was the chicken-themed potholders and decorative towels. There was the IKEA furniture and the Rothko print hanging on the wall. God, how he hated that painting.

“You know what? Let’s do it. I’ll go get my tent.”

“Yes! That’s what I’m talking about. Get some beef jerky, too.”

Ray started for the garage, but the bear stopped him. He nodded toward the gun in Ray’s hand.

“You know we can’t take that with us, right?”

Ray looked down at the gun. He suddenly realized how tight he had been gripping it. The muscles in his arm were strained, and his tendons felt like they would snap. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to put it down.

“But what if we get in trouble?” Ray said.

The bear put his paw on Ray’s shoulder. “That’s always a possibility. We’ll have to take our chances.”

Ray nodded and put the gun in the sink next to the dirty cereal bowl.

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Jesus Camp

May 21, 2017

When I was a kid, every summer my parents would drive four hours to Estes Park and drop me off in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of strangers.

During the day Camp Como was like most youth camps. We swam in dirty lakes, ate charred marshmallows that had been roasted over open fires, and rode tired swaybacked horses around in circles. At night, however, we gathered together in the central cabin to sing praise songs and listen to sermons. It was a summer camp for Christian fundamentalists, but for the most part it was pretty tame. We didn’t burn  witches or nail anyone to a cross.

The camp counselors were twentysomething-year-olds in bible college. They had long hair and tattoos on their muscular shoulders that said “Got Jesus?” or “John 3:16.” Several were in a band that did Jesus-themed covers of romantic pop songs. The Bryan Adams hit “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was a popular one, as well as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” For the most part they were just excited young adults who enjoyed working with teenagers.

However, there was one counselor who was a bit more intense. His name was Gary and you could tell he was serious because he had a mustache. Gary was a marathon runner, and every day he awoke at 5 a.m. to run ten miles and puke. He never smiled and he did not often speak. Mostly he stood in the background with his muscular arms folded in a manner that made his biceps bulge. There were several rumors about Gary. One was that he was a Vietnam vet. The fact that the year was 1988, and Gary was like twenty three made this impossible, but his demeanor suggested he was suffering from PTSD of some kind. It was also suggested that Gary grew up in one of those liberal homes where the mother smoked dope all day and the father participated in various Satanic rituals. There was no evidence of this; it was just something we read in his mustache.

One night it was Gary’s turn to give the sermon. Gary clomped up on stage in a sleeveless t-shirt and combat boots. He stood up there for a full two minutes without speaking. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats.  Finally, Gary said, “Who wants to be in the Army of God?”

We all looked at each other.

“I don’t think you heard me,” Gary barked. “Who in this room wants to be a soldier in God’s army?”

We tentatively raised our hands.

“I don’t believe you,” said Gary.

We raised our hands higher.

I happened to be sitting in the front row.  Gary pointed at me and said, “You get up here.”

I stood up stepped onto the stage. My father was a preacher, so I was familiar with religious theatrics. This was a common form of play acting. You call someone up to the front and challenge their faith in front of the congregation to demonstrate what it’s like to publicly assert your religious beliefs.

“So you want to be a soldier in God’s army?” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

He looked me over with disappointment, like I was a poorly cooked meal he planned on returning to the kitchen.

“I don’t think you’re really committed to Jesus,” said Gary. “I don’t think you have what it takes to be a soldier for Christ.”

“I’m a soldier!” I insisted.

Gary’s mustache twitched. “Nah, I don’t think you’re ready. When Satan challenges you, I think you’ll just run away.”

My face turned red. “I won’t run away! I’m a soldier!”

Gary took a step closer. “Run away!” he yelled. “Go ahead! Run! Run from Jesus!”

“No!” I yelled back. “I’m a soldier!”

That’s when Gary reached inside his jacket, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at my chest.

“I. Said. Run.”

I gulped. The crowd was silent.

“No,” I whimpered.

He cocked the gun. “Run.”

“No.”

We stood for what seemed like an hour but was probably about thirty seconds.

Finally, Gary grinned. He took out the gun clip and showed everyone it was empty. He patted me on the back and said, “You did great. I’m proud of you.”

I thanked him and excused myself to the bathroom to throw up.

Austin (Grey) Gardens

May 18, 2017

We moved into Austin Garden Apartments at the suggestion of two friends who already lived there.  “It’s cheap,” they said, quickly adding the local mantra: “Well, it’s cheap for Austin.”

It was a small, cluster of buildings set behind a steel fence, like a mansion in an old movie where some long-forgotten actress watched silent films in her living room and held funerals for pet chimpanzees in the backyard. There was a cracked swimming pool scuzzy at the edges with algae and the dumpsters were fortified by stained mattresses. On one side of the fence there was a mechanic/salvage yard and on the other a pawn shop with a handwritten sign out front reading “Cash for Guns!” Feral cats roamed free and at night you had to slow down as you drove through the parking lot or risk making a mess out of a waddling opossum.  The laundry facilities were cheap and always contained a stack of ragged romance and mystery novels for you to peruse while you waited for your underwear to dry.

It was perfect.

The lady who managed the place was a chipper fiftysomething-year-old with the requisite short permed hair and flowery frocks that covered her ample body. She fed all the feral cats, and when a new one arrived in the Austin Gardens domain, she coaxed it into a carrier, drove it to the vet, had it fixed, and then brought it home to live on the property. It was unknown whether the owners knew of her activities, but even if they had, it was doubtful that they would have questioned Sandy. She ran the facility with efficiency and aplomb, processing leases and maintenance requests so quickly you’d have thought she had a ten-person staff at her disposal. But no. It was just Sandy and her cats. Several months after we moved in, there was a big storm during the night, and the next day there was a chicken wandering around the facility. No one knew where it come from, but we figured it got blown out of someone’s backyard and into Austin Gardens. Instead of getting rid of it, Sandy bought some corn and put up a chicken-crossing sign in the parking lot. We named her Drumstick. The cats were fine with it. Everything was great.

And then it happened.

One day we received a note in our mailbox saying the property had been purchased by a new company. The mysterious writer of the note promised nothing would change. Everything was fine. Nothing to be concerned about.

The first thing to change was the name. You don’t want to get too judgmental in situations like this, but when you suddenly have to make your rent checks out to “Gold Standard Asset Management,” that’s usually a red flag. After that, it was the laundry room. Suddenly the romance novels were replaced by glossy copies of Forbes and Entrepreneur. They put up cutesy signs on the walls with stupid puns. “Laundry is LOADS of Fun!” The opossum disappeared. So did Drumstick. Another note showed up in our mailbox asking us to please not feed the stray cats and threatening a monetary penalty if we did so.

Sandy left soon after.

She was replaced by a series of pretty twentysomething-year-old women who dressed like lawyers in a bad movie and were constantly trying to get better cellphone reception. Maintenance requests were received first with confusion and then hostility. The front gate broke. The hot water was inexplicably shut off for days at a time. The pool was drained and a sign placed on the gate denying entry.

Meanwhile, the new staff spent its time putting balloons out front and repainting the office in some kind of postmodern sorority girl motif. After this, they decided it was only fair to increase the rent by thirty percent.

Most of the cats were chased off, but a stubborn black male named Jack remained. He had a crooked tail and there were ugly bald patches all over his body. His right ear had been chewed away, and he had a festering sore on his neck that was always oozing pus.

At night Jack stood outside of Sandy’s old office and yowled mournfully at the door. A door that now read “Welcome to Your New Home!”

It’s a phrase I’ve  heard repeatedly in recent weeks from conservative Christians: “I disapprove of gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean I hate gay people. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s a useful rhetorical position to take because evidence of its authenticity can only be found in the heart of the person using it.

I used the phrase often when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, during the heights of the AIDS scare. My father was (is) a small-town fundamentalist preacher who insisted the dreaded “Gay Disease” was a plague sent from God to punish homosexuals for their sins. When it was discovered that AIDS was not restricted to the gay community, he broadened the scope of God’s wrath to include adulterers, communists, fornicators, pornographers, feminists, and Democrats. There were enough sins in America to go around.

At the time, I had never met a gay person. Actually, let me rephrase that: at the time, I had never met an openly gay person. Surely there were men and women in my hometown who preferred their own gender, but they would never have admitted as much. I don’t believe any physical harm would have come to them, but they certainly would have been socially shunned, and in a town of 2,000, that can be personally and financially devastating. There were rumors, of course. Why did two male bachelors own the only video-rental store in town? What was up with the women’s volleyball coach? But these were questions whispered behind closed doors.

So I never had to look someone in the eye when I said that I loved them but hated their sin. I never had to explain how that dichotomy worked. It was philosophical exercise at best, and one the rest of my community agreed with. It fit perfectly with my beliefs as a Christian. Jesus loved everyone, but he did not tolerate every action. He socialized with thieves, prostitutes, and tax collectors, but he did not condone their behavior. I was following his example. Every sin was an abomination in the eyes of God.

But homosexuality was different. I would have never admitted this at the time, but it repulsed me in a way that, say, stealing or lying did not. Even murder. When I was in high school, the local newspaper reported a stabbing in a nearby town. The perpetrator was a man I’d met once, an uncle of a friend. He was sent to prison, and although it shocked me to know that he had stuck a knife in another man during a bar fight, I found it easy to pray for his forgiveness. He didn’t seem like a bad guy.

But homosexuality…that was where I drew the line. It was unforgivable. Why? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew the reason had to do with sex.

Sex was a problem I struggled with, the primary source of sin in my life. I wasn’t having sex, of course–I firmly believed in abstinence until marriage–but I was thinking about it constantly, and that was the same thing. I was sinning in my heart. And not just once or twice. In school, in church, at the dinner table, during basketball practice, at the grocery store, in the shower. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew nothing about sex. My father had removed me from the only Sex Ed class our high school offered because he said he’d already given me all the education I needed on the topic: don’t do it. I didn’t consider sex a biological imperative, I didn’t know about hormones, that it was physically impossible for me to stop wanting sex. It was a test, and I kept failing. I wasn’t supposed to masturbate, so instead of actually touching myself (which would have been a conscious transgression) I humped things. All kinds of things. Pillows, couch cushions, car seats, chairs, tables. I would rub up against just about anything. It sounds funny now, but at the time it was not. I developed rashes and infections. My groin burned constantly. Still, I would not use my hand. After climax, I was devastated. Every time. I had broken God’s laws. I cried. Not crocodile tears. This the real thing: head bowed, rocking back and forth, clenched fists, snot everywhere. Sometimes I would slap myself in the face or pinch myself on the leg so hard it bruised the skin. There was something wrong with me. I needed to be punished. I knew that sex was a beautiful thing inside the confines of marriage, but it was a dirty thing inside my own fantasies. I struggled to understand how that worked. I prayed for forgiveness. I promised never to do it again. But of course, in the end I was not strong enough to uphold that promise. I let God down. I sinned. I was a sinner.

Homosexuals disgusted. me. This was a form of sex I was allowed to openly despise. They were gross. They were unnatural. I focused all of my own self-loathing on them. I called them “homos” and “faggots” and “fags” and “dykes.” Not in church, of course. Just in my head and sometimes in school. In church, I called them “sinners” and I prayed that they would be healed by God’s love. But even though everyone in the church claimed to love gay people, I could tell by the looks on their faces it took a special kind of effort. These people were disgusting. These people were an abomination. This sin was worse than the others. And somehow the idea that they could love one another was even worse than the idea of them having sex. How dare they claim to have deep, lasting, committed relationships. How dare they claim to be like us.

I have never been able to figure out why I was so repulsed by gay people–the issues are buried deep in the slippery waters of the subconscious–but I do know it had something to do with my own self-loathing and sexual dysfunctions. I feared the very idea of them. Their existence was a direct assault on my faith and my definition of self. These feelings felt right at the time. Intuitive. Natural.

I was a homophobe. There’s no justification for it. It wasn’t the totality of who I was, but it was a part of me.

Things started to change when I went to college. Not right away, but gradually. I met openly gay people for the first time, people I never would have guessed were gay, people who were so very…normal. I asked questions. I had conversations. I made friends. I discovered it was impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin. There was no sinner. There was no sin. There was a person. I could no longer reduce someone’s existence to a bumper sticker. It took a long time. I’m still dealing with the weedy roots of my homophobia today. It was planted when I was young, and it runs deep.

Not all Christians understand my experience. I have friends and family who have always supported the gay community, others who have discovered paths of acceptance within their faith. There’s hope in the younger generation.

But there are many more who still believe they can divide people into neat compartments, that they can love someone while simultaneously despising a core aspect of that person. It’s impossible. You can’t keep hate separate from love. It will find a way to get out. Despite all the pop songs, love is not as strong as we want it to be. The hate will win. For the most part, these are good people. I don’t share their faith anymore or many of their political views, but I know they are kind, caring, funny, giving, weird, happy, wonderful human beings. I have eaten pie with them. I have watched The Princess Bride with them. I have listened to Johnny Cash with them. They volunteer at homeless shelters and bake casseroles for the elderly. They go to their children’s t-ball games. They curl up under blankets on rainy days with giant bowls of popcorn. They are good.

But the thought of two men getting married fills them with anger. They see pictures of a wedding, and they cannot contain their rage. They post awful things on social media and then do incoherent philosophical somersaults to justify themselves. They cannot see the recent Supreme Court decision as a long overdue civil rights victory that upholds the core fundamentals of freedom that this country was founded upon. They probably don’t understand why they are so angry. I know I never did. It’s the hate they tried to separate from the love. It cannot be contained. It has no logic. It has no reason. It is the true sin.

That’s a great question, Hypothetical Reader. Here are a list of places where you can order the book in its physical and ethereal forms:

Amazon (physical)

Amazon (Kindle)

Monkey Puzzle Press

Google Play and Google Books

Smashwords (Nook, Kobo, Sony, Apple, pdf, epub, etc.)

And if you are so inclined, it would be ENORMOUSLY helpful if you could review the book on Amazon. It doesn’t have to be a good review. Be honest. I’m a big boy; I can take it.

Justice, Inc: savvy, somewhat savage short stabs.

A review of Justice, Inc. by the one and only Rowena Hoseason.

“There are certainly moments where it appears Bridges is being an A1 smart-arse simply because he can and that’s part of the delight of this anthology.”

Wonderful. Thank you, Rowena.

I honestly don’t understand the purpose of book trailers (why the hell are we making movies to encourage people to read books?), but my publisher says they help indie authors reach larger audiences. And since I need all the help I can get, I agreed to make one. So I downloaded some free video-editing software, and set up some shots in my living room. I have to admit it was kind of fun, although I’m not sure the end result is going to help us sell books. However, if anyone besides myself gets a chuckle out of it, I guess it was worth the effort. I call this book trailer Hello, Dolly. Enjoy.

Snapshot 1 (5-21-2014 6-51 PM)

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