Doug walked into the staff kitchen of the tourism board, where Tippy and Celine from his department were discussing Randi, from Shipping, again.
“She has this voice,” said Tippy. “Well, let me just say that you want to put as much distance between you and that voice as possible.”
Celine nodded. “She has the worst voice ever.”
“And she believes everything she sees on the internet.”
“Hi, Doug,” said Tippy.
“Hi, Doug,” said Celine.
Doug was their boss.
“Hi, Tippy. Hi, Celine,” he said, eyeing the fridge.
His cubemate, Brick, had the door open and was scanning the shelves, looking hopeful.
“Hi, Brick,” he said.
“Hey, there’s potato salad in here.” Brick held up the container and inspected the label. “Yep. Potato salad. I thought Dave ate all the potato salad.” He opened the container and peered inside. Then he heaved a sigh and replaced the lid. “That’s not potato salad, it just says potato salad.” He returned the container to the fridge, one shelf lower than before. “It’s macaroni.” Brick turned to Doug. “Anything new and/or exciting? ”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s it. Right there.”
“You said it.” Brick retrieved a paper sack from the third shelf and closed the fridge. “You coming outside? ”
The guys at the tourism board liked to eat their lunch at the college up the street, on the tarmac where the massage therapist trainees assembled to smoke.
“Sure,” said Doug, but only after checking that Tippy and Celine had left.
The story about the bears was all over the news by the time Doug got home.
His wife, Vicky, was in front of the TV. She patted the empty part of the loveseat for him.
The two senile polar bears at the zoo were called Steak and Eggs, and they were the pride of the community.
They were old, and their fur had yellowed so much that the only snow that could have offered them camouflage was the kind used by too many dogs.
Steak and Eggs held court in a tank that attempted to simulate their Arctic heritage. They could swim in a murky, blue-tinted soup if they wished, or they could lounge on the chipped Fiberglas iceberg if they just wanted to lie there, which was most of the time.
They were both toothless by now, and at feeding time they were given buckets of foul-smelling seafood paste; the odour was known to cause migraines on humid days.
Apparently, the night before, two tourists camping nearby had gotten into a bottle of local hooch they’d picked up at a rummage sale, and decided to stagger to the zoo for a look-see.
As usual, the security was pretty lax—the guards liked to get in a few rounds of Yahtzee before the animal noises lulled them to sleep—so the boys strolled through the gates unmolested.
The tourists found their way into the indoor exhibits, where the polar bear tank was located. At that point, mistaking the tank for a pool, they decided to undress for a dip.
One of the young men was interviewed from his hospital bed. He claimed that Steak and Eggs had been out of sight, underwater.
The boys didn’t stand a chance.
The feeble-brained bears hadn’t seen live prey in a while, but they’d recognized the flailing limbs with an instinct that years of fish pabulum couldn’t erase.
One of the boys, the one they interviewed, lost an arm. His friend wasn’t so lucky; Eggs’s claws had aimed lower than Steak’s.
Somehow, though, they managed to get out of the tank alive; when the commotion woke up one of the security guards, he found them lying naked and bleeding on the concrete.
“I radioed back to base and reported that two young boys was dead, one with his arm tore off and the other one missing his man parts,” the guard said on camera.
“But they weren’t dead,” said the reporter.
“No, they weren’t. I was surprised, is all. There’s not many you’d expect to survive that kind of damage to their privates.”
“We’ve been told he’s on the waiting list for reconstructive surgery.”
“Surgery to reconstruct what? From what I saw there wasn’t much left to put back together. I seen them grow human ears on mice on TV, but not all the ears in the world could make that boy right again.”
The general consensus at the tourism board was that the boys had gotten what they deserved, as it was widely believed that these were the vandals who had defaced the town’s beloved figurehead, the Big Fancy Fawn.
The oversized plaster animal had already been showing signs of wear and tear, but the spray-painted proclamations of love and hate that had recently appeared on its flank had united the community in anger and disbelief. Such an outrage, they reasoned, could only have been perpetrated by outsiders.
“They asked for it,” said Tippy.
“Serves them right,” said Celine.
“They had it coming,” said Brick.
“It’s hubris,” said Stacey, from Accounting, the man with the girl’s name.
“What? ” said Brick.
Stacey went away.
Unfortunately, the mauling of the two young visitors threatened to leave a stain on the town’s tourism industry, and so, as minister of foreign relations, it was Doug’s job to put a positive spin on the zoo incident.
He didn’t know how he would do that.
“Buttons,” said Vicky over dinner that night.
Doug blinked at her over their jar of pearl onions.
“With pins on the back. People believe things they read on buttons.”
He nodded slowly. “Like a slogan.”
“Like a slogan,” said Vicky, reaching for the jar.
Vicky was a freelance designer of temporary tattoos, and was always full of ideas.
Doug sat up straight. “How about, ‘STEAK AND EGGS WERE ONLY JOKING’? ”
Vicky nodded and scooped some onions. “That sounds nice.”
Her support was unwavering, thought Doug, feeling a rush of gratitude for the woman seated across from him who was lining up condiments like jewels on her plate.
The button campaign caught on fast. “It was a great idea,” said Tippy, who was wearing two buttons on her ribbed cardigan.
“A super idea,” said Celine, who was also wearing two buttons on her ribbed cardigan, but arranged in a slightly different pattern.
“Look at this E-mail Randi sent us,” said Tippy, clicking on her in-box.
Doug looked. The message that Randi had written at the top of the E-mail read, “IT’S REAL!!!!”
Tippy opened the attachment and a photo showing a farmer holding up a giant tabby for display, his arms stretched wide so as to properly showcase the cat’s exaggerated proportions, filled the screen.
“No cat is that big,” said Celine.
“No real cat,” said Tippy.
The story about the bear was all over the news by the time Doug got home.
Vicky was perched on the arm of the loveseat this time, only half-watching the TV. Doug could tell she was thinking so he sat down quietly.
Apparently, Steak had escaped from his tank some time around noon.
As usual, the security was pretty lax—the guards liked to spend their lunch hour at the massage college down the street—so the polar bear strolled through the gates unnoticed.
Goaded by a yearning for tall grasses triggered by the recent blood sport, Steak made his way to the town limits, where the community’s newly graffiti-free mascot stood proud and true, decorated from antler nubs to hoof points with “STEAK AND EGGS WERE ONLY JOKING” buttons. At that point, the bear decided to attack.
The town’s pastor, returning with his wife from one of their monthly “love thy neighbour” jaunts to a suburb with a good Chinese buffet, witnessed what happened next from his four-by-four. In his interview, he claimed that Steak “was like an avenging yellowish-white God going to town on a false idol.”
The Big Fancy Fawn didn’t stand a chance.
Steak attacked the statue with twenty years’ worth of pent-up predator know-how, his reflex to separate the weakest from the herd reactivated in his kernel of a cerebellum.
When it was over, all that remained of the town’s prized totem was a hoof, a few doilies, and the buttons.
The sheriff, who along with his deputies and a handful of concerned citizens had swarmed and clubbed the bear to death shortly thereafter, said into the reporter’s microphone, “It was for the best.”
“How? ” said the reporter.
“That bear ate a lot of plaster. Plaster’s not good for a bear.”
Doug turned off the TV and looked up at Vicky. “I think I need more than buttons this time,” he said.
“Cupid,” said Vicky, and then her eyes widened and she jumped off the loveseat. “I have to write that down!”
She was conceiving a new line of romantic body art to pitch to newlyweds and had been spending a lot of time listening to inspirational music.
“Roses and doves!” she shouted from down the hall, and when Doug heard the saxophone start up he knew she didn’t have any ideas to spare.
“What you have to realize is that we’re dealing with very volatile subject matter here,” said Doug’s boss the next day.
“Yes,” said Doug.
“It’s not just the kind of thing where you can say, ‘Oh, well. It’s not our problem.’”
“Because it is. It is our problem.”
“Sympathy is key. If people don’t sympathize it’s all over. But look who I’m talking to. I’m talking to the guy who did the Cake City pamphlet.”
The Miniature Cake City had been the brainchild of an enterprising but short-sighted municipal councilman. A small, fenced-in compound was erected, containing seasonal foliage and scaled-down replicas of skyscrapers and condominiums carved out of stale cake donated by the local bakeries. In the winter the upkeep of the park was minimal, but in the warmer months it got to be a nuisance, as the buildings were eaten by scavenging birds and animals and had to be regularly replaced. After awhile, people from surrounding counties started calling the attraction “Miniature Crumb City,” and attendance dwindled dangerously.
The Cake City pamphlet had turned it all around.
“You made people sympathize with cake,” said Doug’s boss.
The pamphlet had won awards.
The pamphlet had been Vicky’s idea.
“I took it to the printers,” was what Doug wanted to tell his boss, but all he said was, “Thank you.”
“What about a billboard? ” Doug said to Vicky over dinner that night.
She shook her head. “‘STEAK AND EGGS WERE ONLY JOKING’ worked on buttons. It’s too much on a billboard.”
“But why? ”
“Big pink lips!” said Vicky, sitting up. “A heart with an arrow through it!”
And she was gone.
Doug held a meeting with his staff the next morning.
“A billboard’s no good,” said Tippy.
“Tell me why,” said Doug.
“How should we know? ” said Tippy.
“You’re the boss,” said Celine.
“Just do another pamphlet,” said Tippy.
And they were gone.
At lunchtime, Doug waited for Brick to finish offering a light to a thick-limbed student masseuse, then said, “But a billboard. Where the statue was. So when people drive in they’ll see everything’s O.K.”
“Bad idea.” Brick made a vehement slashing motion with his hand. “Didn’t you do that pamphlet last year? The pamphlet was a good idea.”
“If I had a lot of money,” said Brick, watching a class set of broad shoulders empty out of a nearby portable, “I’d buy a lot of statues.”
Doug blinked at him. “Why? ”
His co-worker shrugged. “I just like the way they look when they’re standing there.”
The story about the bears was all over the news by the time Doug got home.
Vicky was out meeting with an engaged couple she’d schmoozed at the Diamond Depot in the mall, so Doug settled onto the loveseat alone.
In the absence of a proactive tourism board campaign such as a pamphlet, the pastor had taken it upon himself to organize a funeral for the felled bear.
Eggs was the guest of honour, fitted with a papier-mâché crown made by the public school’s kindergarten class, shot full of barbiturates, and seated in the front row next to local dignitaries and the zookeeper.
The service proceeded smoothly enough, but when the pallbearers moved into position around the Dumpster that was serving as Steak’s coffin, a switch flipped on in Eggs’s brain.
Powered by a thirst for vengeance that negated the sedatives’ effects, the bear rose up on his hind legs to reclaim the flesh-rending impulse bred out of a long line of caged ancestors.
The mourners didn’t stand a chance.
Reinforcements were called in from surrounding counties to blast Eggs into oblivion, and after some discussion with the pastor’s widow, it was decided that no funeral would be arranged for the second bear.
The mayor was interviewed from his cot in the survivors’ area of the triage the paramedics had set up outside the funeral home.
“If this is a bear’s idea of a joke,” he said, wincing as he adjusted the bloodied sling on his arm, “then I’d say those creatures have a pretty sick sense of humour.”
“We’re going on a spa retreat,” Tippy told Doug the next day.
“We need to get away,” said Celine.
Doug noticed they were no longer wearing their buttons.
Tippy nodded. “‘Breathtaking, stress-free beauty,’ the pamphlet says.”
“It’s a great pamphlet,” said Celine.
They had both downloaded vacation-scene web shots for their screen savers. Doug stood by and watched the pretty scenes unfolding.
“They rub salt on your body, if you want them to,” said Tippy. “They lay you down on a table and get out the salt. It’s supposably good for the skin.”
“Supposably,” said Celine.
A towel spread out on a white-sand beach. Change. A hammock strung between two majestic pines.
“What it does is it zaps the free radicals.”
“But not when you eat it.”
Doug walked back to his desk and sat down.
“They say too much salt in a diet...,” said Tippy.
“...is no good,” said Celine.
Taking a deep breath, he slid one of Vicky’s CDs into his computer.
“But it’s so good on macaroni salad,” said Tippy.
“Well, you need it on macaroni salad,” said Celine.
“You do. But how often do you eat macaroni salad? ”
“You’re right. It’s a treat.”
Doug clicked up the volume.
“What’s that playing? ” said Tippy.
“Saxophone,” said Celine.
“Well I know that. I know it’s a saxophone. I mean who is it.”
“You said ‘what.’”
“Never mind what I said.” There was a pause. “What was I saying? Before, I mean.”
“It isn’t working,” said Doug.
“What did he say? ” said Tippy.
“I don’t know,” said Celine. “You were talking about macaroni salad.”
“Right. They should serve macaroni salad at the spa.”
“They probably do.”
“But with the mayonnaise? And the salt? ”
“Yes, maybe without those.”
Doug skipped ahead a few tracks, and waited.
“Then you might as well not have it,” said Tippy. “Because what’s macaroni salad without the mayonnaise and the salt? It’s just macaroni, and nobody likes that.”
“They should smarten up, these spa people.”
“Serve something people like.”
Last song. Still nothing.
“You are pampering yourself, after all,” said Tippy.
“That’s what the pamphlet says,” said Celine.
“It’s a great pamphlet.”
Doug pressed Eject.