“Here’s one for you,” the driver said as soon as the taxi door had closed. “If you’re standing in a house, and every window faces south, what color bear are you looking at?”
I was caught off guard; it seemed to me late in the day for riddling. The last time I’d taken a cab, the driver (who had grown up in an orphanage, was getting into amateur theatrics and whose comedic work had been compared to that of Art Carney) had asked me to name the five flags that had flown over Texas. Which I did. But that had been early morning -- I had been chipper, punchy, full of beans.
I stifled a sigh and marshaled my meager resources.
If you’re standing in a house, and every window faces south, what color bear are you looking at?
I know next to nothing about geography, but it seemed clear that the riddle dealt with a geographically anomalous zone. Probably a pole. Which meant…
“A polar bear?” I suggested.
“What color bear?” he repeated, clearly disappointed.
“Oh. White.” I said. He sighed, deflated.
“Yes.” He said, and we drove in silence for a few minutes.
“What have you eaten in the way of exotic meats?” he asked after a while.
“Let’s see,” I said thoughtfully. “Ostrich, alligator, elk, bison…I guess venison doesn’t count, does it?”
“Oh, it counts all right,” he said with suppressed violence. “I count it. So you’ve never had bear? Moose? Bear?!”
“No,” I said. “Is it good?”
“Bear?” he barked. “It’s the worst damn thing I’ve ever tasted! That is,” he amended. “Grizzly bear is. Tasted like it was raised on garbage. Brown bear, now, isn’t so bad. It’s greasy, of course, but I grilled it up and it wasn’t so bad. You have to grill bear,” he added instructively.
“I guess Indians ate a lot of bear,” I ventured.
“You bet!” he said. “You bet they did! I’ve had lots of animals. Squirrel, muskrat, bear, elk, bison….oh, just about everything you can eat, I guess.”
“Raccoon?” I asked.
“No, I’ve never had raccoon.” He sounded deflated again.
“Well, talk about tasting like garbage!” I said helpfully.
“You’ve had raccoon meat?” he asked resentfully.
“Well, no, but I see what they eat. The raccoons get into our garbage all the time. Do you hunt?”
“No, I don’t. The fishing shop where I buy tackle sells exotic meats. I tell them, ‘I’ll try whatever you get in!’ And they save some for me.”
“Oh. Well, you certainly have had a lot of meats,” I said. We lapsed into silence again.
“Ever had whale?” I said after a while.
“No,” he admitted, “but I have a friend who has,” he added hastily. “It’s illegal to eat it, but he used to eat it when he was a kid. Said it’s tasty – firm, like tuna, you know? A little rubbery.”
“That sounds about right,” I said. “I guess once the blubber’s been scraped off, it’s really fairly lean.”
“Maybe,” he said.
I wondered about grilling whale. I was hungry.
“I’ve been cooking a lot these days,” he volunteered.
“Do you enjoy it?” I said.
“Well, I don’t have much choice,” he said. “My wife passed away six months ago. I was doing the cooking, the housework, for about six months before that, too. I like it all right now. I’m experimenting a little bit, now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah, well,” he said. There was a prolonged silence.
“Did your wife …enjoy different meats?” I said tentatively.
“She liked the venison,” he said, “and she ate, you know, beef and chicken. Veal. I think she tried the wild turkey. She wouldn’t try the bear, though.”
“From what you tell me,” I said generously, “that was a smart move!”
“What?” he said blankly.
“Not eating bear,” I clarified. “You said it tasted like garbage.”
“I said grizzly bear tasted like garbage,” he said.
“I hear you can get meats now on the internet – clubs, that send you different kinds.” He told me as we pulled off the parkway. “I’d do it if I were you. Nice to get something in the mail. My wife used to order from…Home Shopping Network. QVC. Dolls, all kinds of things. You know?”
“I do,” I said.
“A doll came in the mail yesterday,” he said. “Real fancy. Lace, pearls, everything. I thought it was meat for a second there,” he added. “But it was a doll. Nice to get packages, you know?”
“’Brown paper packages, tied up with string,’” I ventured lamely. He ignored me.
“Gives you a little something to look forward to,” he said.
When I arrived at the reading the bookstore was almost full. I could see Adam Rothstein Kurtin, the wunderkind author, milling around near the podium, talking to some organizers. I craned my neck to get a look at the crowd, and waved and smiled to a couple of college literati I knew and one very earnest girl in my Shakespearean Theory class. Lots of late-middle aged neighborhood types carrying library tote bags, a few professors.
Adam Rothstein Kurtin was small. He was wearing a dark suit. I studied him covertly, wondering idly if I could get him to fall in love with me. Adam Rothstein Kurtin went to the podium then, smiled in an ingratiating fashion and started talking in a rather urbane way.
“So, the publisher gave me all these shirts,” he said in a self-deprecating way, displaying a tee shirt with “Little Circles” written on it and the words “A masterpiece!” in quotations.
“Obviously, I can’t wear this,” he said, indicating the quotation to general laughter, “so I’m trying to think of creative ways to get rid of them. Here’s the deal: if anyone asks me a question I refuse to answer, you get a shirt. I give you fair warning, this has only happened twice – but there are things I won’t talk about!”
Well, that wouldn’t be too hard, I thought irritably. He probably won’t talk about how much money he’s made, or something. And maybe his love life. But who wants that ridiculous shirt, anyway? In the grand tradition of free shirts, they were all enormous.
“So, I’m going to read a little bit for you,” he said, “but only a little bit, and then we’ll talk – that’s what I really enjoy.”
He read three very long passages: a funny part, a sad/ heartwarming part and some other part of indeterminate characterization. His reading was only okay, not how I’d imagined it when I read Little Circles. I was reminded afresh of what I thought didn’t work about the book.
“I just sort of put in the humorous part to entertain people – it’s not really where my heart is,” he parenthesized at one point. What nonsense, I thought. The funny parts were the best thing in the book. The rest of it, while written with technical skill, seemed to me trite and easy. It was pre-approved morality and flights of courage that might have been courageous and taboo fifty years ago, but had been the currency of sentiment for as long as I’d been around.
When he had finished reading, everyone applauded and some hands shot up immediately. An elderly woman asked something about his approach to his craft.
“I regard writing merely as a means of transport,” he said. “The process of writing is to me incidental. The vessel, as it were. It could be painting, or acting, or any form of self-expression. The point is to reach the destination of moral clarity.”
The girl from my Shakespeare class, quivering with earnestness, demanded to know whether he regarded his work as meta-fiction, and what were his opinions of meta-fiction as a genre?
He responded with, I thought, inappropriate irritation.
“My work is not meta-fiction,” he replied coldly. “And I don’t feel competent to comment on meta-fiction.” He turned his attention away abruptly, and the girl looked crushed.
“The cover of your book looks like the Yin and the Yang,” said a moron. “Is it supposed to look like that, and what are your opinions of eastern philosophy, and what do you think about world peace in our lifetime?”
He laughed a little bit, but more at the enormity of the question than its stupidity. No, the cover had not been intended to evoke the Yin and the yang, but he liked that people could see different things in it. He was no student of eastern philosophy, but he found it fascinating and hoped to get into it in a big way. He couldn’t predict world peace with any kind of authority (and this government was doing its best to prevent it – applause), but he devotedly hoped that with mutual understanding and respect things could improve, and such-and-such an author had just written an amazing anti-war tract we should check out. He was much nicer than he had been about the meta-fiction question, and I was annoyed. Really annoyed. In fact, I hated him. My hand shot up.
“You, in the glasses,” he said, pointing to me.
“Building off of the last question,” I said coolly, and wishing he hadn’t referred to me that way, “If you’re standing in a house, and every window is facing south….what color bear are you looking at?”
“Excuse me?” he said blankly.
“If you’re standing in a house, and every room faces south,” I said more loudly, beginning to feel an ass, but brazening it out, “what color bear are you looking at?!”
“What color bear…?” he said again. There was silence.
“Give her the shirt!” someone shouted, and several voices added their endorsement.
“No, hang on,” he said. (“Give her the shirt!” said the same voice.) “I said questions I wouldn’t answer, not riddles that stumped me.”
“All right, what color bear?” he finally asked, in irritation. A bunch of people shouted “white!” and I didn’t have to say anything. I tried to look jaunty.
The worst part, of course, was that I’d already bought my book, and I figured I had to get it signed for my friend David, a Little Circles enthusiast. My tension mounted as the line shortened. When it was my turn, I handed him the book and said, “to David, please.” At least he would know it wasn’t for me! Adam Rothstein Kurtin bent his head over the book, and he looked very young.
“I…I’m sorry about that bear question,” I said timidly.
“That’s okay,” he muttered, without looking up.
It was very clear he was not in love with me. Now I was broke, and I took the bus home.