Barely Human

by John B. Rosenman


Since childhood, Josh had deeply loved his grandfather, and he took the old man’s illness hard. Every time he visited him at home, or more lately in the hospital, it killed him to see what “Peppy” had become. Cancer was a cruel disease that invaded the body’s citadel and reduced it to a withered ruin. Once Peppy had been gruff and hearty, a grin always on his lips. Now he was a shriveled mockery of what he had once been.

When the phone rang during a business meeting, Josh expected the worst, and he was not surprised. His mother’s voice cracked with emotion. “Josh, it’s over.”

“I see.” He swallowed. “Did... did he suffer?”

“Oh no. It was so peaceful.”

He reached in his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped his eyes. “That’s good,” he managed. “Mom, you don’t have to worry. I’ll... I’ll make the arrangements.”

There was a pause at the end of the line. “Arrangements?”

“Yes.” He sniffed, remembering how Peppy had used to carry him on his shoulders. “The funeral arrangements,” he explained gently.

Another pause. “But Josh,” his mother said, “I didn’t say he was dead.”

* * *

His mother met him at her front door, joy warring with sorrow in her face. “Josh, I’m so glad you’re here!”

He embraced her, wondering why she had insisted on going home from the hospital. “Oh, Mom.” He kissed her cheek. “Now what do you mean, he’s not dead? Are you feeling all right?”

“Of course, dear. At least, as well as can be expected.” They entered the house and she led him through the living room and toward the kitchen. “Do you remember those cases in the news about what’s started to happen to people? You know, after they die?”

He searched his memory. “You mean that new medical procedure—”

“Yes. They don’t know why it works sometimes. But, thank God, it has!”

He blinked. “You mean...”

“Yes!”

He tried to take it in, cope with it. Peppy was, after all, her father, and Josh had no doubt she loved him every bit as much as he did. “I... I’m glad, Mom,” he said.

She stopped before the door leading to the garage. “Thank God, it was covered by your grandfather’s health plan.” She held up what looked like a hospital form. Josh glimpsed the words, “THIS IS NOT A BILL... DO NOT PAY,” and saw a long row of zeroes.

Her eyes lingered on his face. “It’s important for you to realize how happy this makes me,” she said. “The thought of living without him...” She sighed. “If you only could have missed that business meeting and been there to see it. Oh, Josh, it was so wonderful! One moment your grandfather was gone. The next...”

“I should have been there.” He looked at the door, feeling a surge of guilt. Ever since he’d been made a vice-president, it seemed his job was the only thing he had time for. “So... he’s in the garage?”

“Yes.” She sighed, her face wrinkled and strained. Suddenly he realized how much she had aged since Dad’s death two years before. In a way, her father’s illness had been even harder on her.

Josh made himself smile. “Well, let’s, uh, go see him.”

She smiled back and opened the door.

He followed her out into the garage. After three steps, he stopped cold, unable to believe what he saw. He stared.

“Thank heaven, I was able to get a cage from the zoo,” she said.

Josh continued to stare.

His mother cleared her throat. “I thought I might need something to, uh, keep Daddy in.”

The words fell like lead weights on his brain as his mother prattled on. Though stunned, Josh knew with crystal clarity that the cage itself did not matter. What concerned him was what was standing in the cage. At eight feet tall and perhaps 700 pounds, it was hard to ignore.

“Doctor Sargon said that so far this is the most common form,” his mother continued. “But sometimes it’s different. A lion or gorilla. Even an extra big warthog.”

Josh moved forward, feeling as if he was floating. In the cage, the huge bear grunted and turned to look down at him. Though its fur was a dark brown, he noticed a white patch on its head that resembled the one in his grandfather’s otherwise dark hair.

“I’ll be back in a while,” his mother said. “Perhaps you two can get reacquainted.” She closed the door softly behind her.

Josh stared at the bear. The bear stared at him.

It was enormous and hairy and had deep brown eyes that reminded him of his grandfather’s. He sighed and looked about at the ordinary, everyday bric-a-brac of the garage. A green hose looped over a hook, a metal toolbox he had often used, a battered old croquet set. The cars, he realized, she had parked outside to provide room for the cage.

He braced himself and turned back to the impossible being inside it: his grandfather. It was hard to believe that just a few hours before, this had been Peppy. The old man Josh had always loved, a man who had smoked cherry blend, rooted for the Red Sox, and told him wonderful bedtime stories. How many times had Peppy stooped down so he, Josh, could climb on his broad shoulders and be carried upstairs to bed?

He bit his lip and went to the cage.

Only when he stood before the bars did he wonder if he was safe. Yes, the close-set bars were made of steel, but look how huge this bear was! What if it jabbed out with its jaws or claws? It could take off his head before he knew it.

Supposedly, though, Peppy was still there. He remembered hearing that the original human personality appeared to survive, though who could tell? Such transformations were still new. If the trend continued, perhaps they would have some answers.

He inched closer, right up to the bars. The bear smelled... well, like he guessed a bear should. He inhaled a rank heavy mustiness, but found not a hint of cherry blend. Nor, when he peered up into the bear’s bright brown eyes, did he detect a scintilla of his grandfather’s soul. Despite the white, Peppy-ish patch on its head, it was only a bear. A bear.

The bear grunted.

Josh stepped back in alarm. He gazed up at the bear.

“If you are Peppy,” he said, “give me some sign. Anything.”

But nothing happened. He was still waiting when the door opened and his mother returned.

“Hello, Josh,” she said merrily. “How are my two men doing?”

He looked at her. “What?”

She giggled, her wrinkled cheeks dimpling with the need to have everything all right. “My two men. I hope you’ve started to chat about old times.”

Josh blinked. Chat? “Mom, it’s a bear!”

“Oh, not just a bear, Josh,” she said. “A very special one.” She walked to the cage and waved at its occupant. “He’s a grizzly, Josh. See the long white hairs on his back and shoulders? That’s why they call him a grizzly.”

“Mom...”

She laughed. “See his round ears? His nub of a tail? I think they’re awfully cute, don’t you?”

He stared at her. His mother was mad, mad with the grief of her father’s death, and this was how she was trying to cope. He went to her, putting his hands gently on her shoulders. If only his father were still alive!

“Mom,” he said, “what are you going to do with it?”

“‘It’? It’s not an ‘it,’ Josh. He’s my father, and your grandfather.”

No, it’s not! “Mom, how are you going to feed him, give him exercise?” For a moment he imagined his mother walking this behemoth on a tiny chain. He leaned toward her. “Mom, I don’t want to sound, uh, indelicate, but what’s he going to use for a bathroom?”

“Bathroom?”

“Yes. And won’t he have to have shots? Won’t we have to register him? Get tags?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Josh. He’s not an animal, you know.”

“Mother, didn’t they discuss any of this with you?”

She shook her head in confusion.

He kissed her cheek gently. “Come on,” he said, “I think you should lie down for a while.”

* * *

Hours later, his mother asleep, Josh returned to the garage. The bear stood where he had left it, looking like the big dumb beast it was. He met its stony stare and took a deep gulp of his fifth glass of Scotch.

“If you’re Peppy,” he said, “give me a sign. It doesn’t have to be much. You don’t have to do a tap dance or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Just do something to show you remember.”

The bear farted, a sharp sound like a whiplash.

“Exactly,” Josh said. He finished his drink then drunkenly held out his glass. “Hey, Mr. Bruin, how about a refill?”

The bear moved along the bars and butted the cage door. It opened.

Josh gaped. The door... His mother hadn’t locked it!

The bear shambled out and lumbered toward him on all fours. Then it stopped, sniffed, and headed off, trailing a stream of urine.

Suddenly he’d had enough. He ran to the garage door, stooped, and rolled it up. “Get the hell out!” he shouted. “You aren’t Peppy! You’re just—”

The bear rose on its hind legs, staring down at him.

Gazing up, Josh wished he’d had a few more drinks. “You could kill me,” he said, pointing at a lethal claw. “One swipe oughta do it.”

The bear sniffed, then dropped to all fours and lumbered outside.

Bon voyage,” Josh called after it. “Don’t forget to write!”

I’m acting as crazy as Mom, he thought. Hell, I’m even worse. I’ve just unleashed a 700-pound bear on the neighborhood!

True, it wasn’t much of a neighborhood. His mother lived nearly in the country, on the fringe of a forest he had loved to explore as a boy. Still, there were half a dozen homes here.

Hearing a scream, he took off in pursuit, just in time to see the bear’s massive rump barrel through Mrs. McGillicuddy’s prize-winning petunia garden. She stood on its edge, her mouth wide open as brightly colored petals flew like confetti.

He stopped beside her, panting heavily. “Sorry,” he gasped.

“Bear,” she shrieked, pointing after it with a bony finger. “B-B-Bear!”

“I know. It’s, uh, a houseguest.” He patted her shoulder and ran on.

Rounding her house, he saw the bear making a beeline for the forest. He headed after it, aware its pace had increased. “Hey, wait up. Stop!”

Just before the tree line, it did so. He stopped, then slowly approached, wondering what he was going to do when he reached it.

He halted a few feet away. The bear hesitated, then snuffled forward and rubbed gently against him.

“Look,” Josh said, “we have to go back.”

He waited. The bear raised its head and gazed at him. Then it rose, towering over Josh like a mountain. Oddly, he was not afraid anymore, partly because it had finally dawned on him that the bear was acting strange. Did grizzlies keep standing up on their legs like this? Weren’t they too heavy for that?

The bear dropped to all fours again, then nudged Josh’s thigh with its nose. Forty years fell away like dust.

Hop on, Josh boy!

No, it couldn’t be! But how many times had his grandfather knelt and made just such a gesture, then invited him to hop on for the nightly ride?

He stepped back. Crazy. He was worse than his mother!

The bear moved forward and poked his leg again, then gazed directly up at him. Hop on!

Josh felt joy bloom inside him. Was it possible? Could it be?

He turned and gingerly swung his leg over the bear’s neck, then straddled his enormous shoulders.

The bear’s paws gently took his ankles. Slowly, he started to rise.

Up they went, and up.

Finally the bear stood on two mighty hind legs. Josh clung tightly to the bear’s head.

Ahead, the forest waited for them.

“I was recently promoted, Peppy,” Josh said. “I’m now a vice-president. Remember how much I always wanted that?”

The bear grunted.

“Well,” Josh said, “I don’t want it anymore. Job takes too much time, time I can use for better things, like being with my family.” He raised his hand and patted the white patch on the bear’s head. “Like going for a walk with you.”

The bear snorted and started forward.

Just before they entered the forest, Josh laughed. “You know something, Peppy?” he said. “I wouldn’t have liked you much as a warthog.”


Copyright © 2016 by John B. Rosenman

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