Smokey the Bear Has the Matches

Fiction by Scott Gould

TJ drove without lights on. His girl Treecie was all but in his lap, a hand wedged between her legs. Both of them all drunk up or stoned, her worse off than him, which could have been something to take advantage of, but she was relatively safe except for TJ’s finger walking up her thigh.           

I had out my Blue Tips, those long, strong wooden matches that don’t break when you strike on them. I was waiting for TJ to hit the bridge and head back up the bluff and toward the old rundown deer camp above the floodplain. 

I heard too many frogs from where I laid back in the lounge chair TJ kept in his truck bed. Big brown ugly dudes. I could almost see them sitting white-bellied and proud at the edge of the water, wondering, I bet, what that noise was rattling down the road out there in the dark without lights on. I stuck my nose up like a pointer. Out there smelled like the inside of a magazine. Jasmine and honeysuckle clouds. If TJ knew I thought about flowers, he would more than likely beat me up. 

The hump of the bridge bounced me up in the lounge chair. Treecie gave off a yelp, and I imagined the bump rubbed her a little on TJ’s finger. The truck machine-gunned over the bridge spacers then hit the other side of smooth asphalt.

I pulled out a Blue Tip, rolled the working end between my fingers. No shape in the world like the end of a Blue Tip. I stuck it up my nose a little ways. Smelled like a bomb getting ready to go off, like a science class I had back before I told high school adios. Smelled like the end of the damn world as we know it.

TJ slowed down and swung off the paved road, worked the truck into a lower gear. He didn’t like driving on dirt because he had to keep shifting through the curves or when he went up the bluff away from the river. Took two hands. I told him one day that he should just get him a truck with an automatic transmission, and that way he wouldn’t have to keep pulling his hand out of Treecie’s crotch every time the RPMs dropped. He said goddamn if he’d let a fistful of poon tang decide what kind of pickup he drove. “You probably would though,” he said.

We reached the swamp. Stunk like a nasty fart that never blew away, hanging in the thick air and tangling up in the trees. We were rolling under the tree tunnel that stole the sky away on this part of the road, a little bit of a hill under us, the truck drumming on the washboard ruts. I hummed and listened to my voice vibrate like an old man’s. Treecie banged her head against the back window of the truck, and I knew she was fixing to have a big one. The road was probably helping him out.

We came up on the first big curve, and TJ let off the gas. He didn’t go for the gear shift because Treecie was still banging her head against the back window and flopping on the seat like a fish on a dock. The truck lurched from lack of power.

“Shit!” TJ yelled.

“Damn you,” Treecie yelled back when his hand reached toward the shifter.

He hunted for second gear and ground some metal trying to find it. The truck caught gear and jumped around the curve. My lounge chair slammed against the side of the truck.

“I’m not done,” Treecie whined.

“Told you to get an automatic transmission,” I hollered.

Treecie didn’t like me much. She slapped the window. “Shut up, you peeping tom.”

“You shut up,” TJ yelled back to her. “I got another good half mile before I got to shift again.” And he went back to where he was, all in and amongst.

We hit another bump, and I dropped my Blue Tip somewhere in the truck bed. I didn’t like wasting one of my little disciples like that. Took another from the box and rubbed the end with my middle finger, the magic finger, bird-shooting finger, probably the same finger TJ had on Treecie. I stuck the end of the Blue Tip in my nose again, and Treecie started banging her head against the window. I knew she was coming. Treecie sang the Birthday Song every time she started to come. I’ve never heard her make it to “happy birthday to me” before she gives out of air. 

She had her moment, and TJ drove like a moonshiner, sliding around curves and gunning the engine until I thought it was going to explode. I smelled somebody lighting up a joint. It glowed inside the cab right behind my head. We left out from under the tree tunnel, and we got the stars back. I started counting them and made it to fifty when Treecie knocked on the window. “Hey, homo,” she yelled.

She had one of her titties pressed up against the glass of the window like an easy-over egg. I shot her a bird with my magic finger. TJ smacked her on the shoulder and said something I couldn’t make out over the wind noise and the cicadas that for some reason had begun to whine in the trees.

We pulled in to the old hunt camp, only one building still standing and it looked like a brown ghost, when TJ turned his headlights on it. He walked around to where I was lying in the lounge chair, a bottle in his hand.

“You want you some?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure if he meant Treecie or a joint or a drink, so I said no to cover everything. Treecie scared me. I’d had nightmares about her breaking my neck.

“We just gonna drink it up all ourselves, unless you help.”

“You going inside?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. I got her all revved up. My turn now.”

“I’ll be out here,” I said.

“Well a course you will.” TJ smiled. “Doing what you do.”

“C’mon, TJ,” Treecie yelled from the porch of the building. “I don’t have all night. I have to get home.”

“Like anybody’s worried where you are,” TJ said under his breath. When TJ walked on the porch I could see how little Treecie was standing next to him. He ain’t changed his whole life. He’s always been tall and thick and strong enough to live forever, I thought. Treecie was tiny and mean like those little dogs nobody likes but everybody has got one of.

“Hey, turn off the truck lights,” Treecie screamed at me. “We don’t want a dead battery.”

I did and left them in the dark in the building where there wasn’t anything but a mattress and a flashlight and a roll of paper towels for cleaning up. TJ didn’t want an accident. Treecie’s husband would probably wonder what baker it was stuck a bun up his wife’s oven.

I laid my Blue Tips on the side rail of the truck. Daddy’s little soldiers. The mosquitoes found me. They buzzed my ears and lit on my hands and on that pulsing place on my ankle. They were going crazy, sniffing out blood. I finger-rolled Blue Tip number one, then stood it on the launchpad, the bomb end against the striker and the other end pressed hard against my fingertip. Then I flicked with my other finger. The match sailed through the air like fireworks and landed twenty feet off in the woods, in among the pine straw. Flick flash fly. Again and again. I imagined the ants on the ground watching the balls of fire dripping from their sky. I was god, raining down hellfire and brimstone on the ant world. I was vengeful and spiteful. They’d learn. One day, they’d learn. I was a feared man in the ant world. 

Fifteen minutes later, I was out of matches, and Treecie and TJ walked up to the truck, scaring me. I was off somewhere else, in my head. Treecie laughed, “Earth to idiot…did you miss us?”

“Stop teasing,” TJ said. Treecie stuck out her tongue.

I looked around the truck at the brush under the trees. I saw a few of my little soldiers working away brightly on their own. My little disciples. Spreading the word of the vengeful god. Bringing vengeful news. I could feel a hundred mosquito bites on my body. Blood of my blood.

“My work here is done,” I said. “Let us go forth.” Treecie rolled her eyes and climbed in the driver’s side, then slid over and waited for TJ.

The judge floated in like he was flying, flew right into his chair, his black coat trailing wings behind him. He started in on me.

“So you, young man, are telling this court that you indeed deliberately set these fires, that you wantonly and maliciously burned up half my county?”

He stopped, and I kept my mouth closed.

“Don’t let me put words into your mouth, son. Truth be told, what you are saying is absolutely nothing. Is that correct? You aren’t saying you did, but you aren’t saying you didn’t either.”

The judge mixed his eyebrows together with his fingers. The whole room was the brown color of weak chocolate and almost empty. No TJ. Of course, no Treecie. A couple of old people, who didn’t seem as lonely here as they would out on the street, sat on the back row. One of them had a sandwich in a plastic bag. 

“Mr. Lawrence?” The judge spoke to the table across from me, where a man sat with a bored expression that fit him better than his suit.

“Yes, Your Honor?”

“Let me tell you what we got. Since you are the only lawyer here, I’ll talk to you. This human over here isn’t talking.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“What I have here, Mr. Lawrence, as you may or may not be well aware, is that this young man is accused of setting the fire. Arson. He isn’t talking, though. There is no evidence he set the fire other than the fact that he was in a pickup at some point near the scene of the conflagration. He is not denying his complicity in the crime. I have a woman who swears on the graves of her unborn children that this mute set the fire. This woman, who upon first examination seems quite upstanding, may in fact be of dubious character and wishes to remain anonymous because she was actually at the scene throwing off sparks of her own with another gentleman, who is the pickup’s owner. In a separate affidavit, this gentleman swears on the graves of his paramour’s unborn progeny that this young man did not—I repeat, did not—set any fire of any kind. This gentleman is quite willing to appear in front of me and testify to this fact. Whereas the woman, hoping to keep her spouse from discovering her nocturnal dalliances, is doing everything possible to keep out of a public venue. Have I got this correct so far, Mr. Lawrence? Am I telling you anything you do not already know?”

“Yes, Your Honor. I mean, no, Your Honor.” Mr. Lawrence shuffled around inside his suit. It was so big on him, the cloth didn’t move.

“To continue—and don’t you go eating in my courtroom, you hear me, Gladys?”

The woman in the back had that sandwich out. Egg salad, I think it looked like, smeared across the side of her mouth. I made a little motion with my hand, a little signal to tell her she had something hanging onto her face, and she smiled back at me. She saw me and wiped with the back of her hand. Then she shoved that sandwich into the bag and mumbled something at the judge he couldn’t hear.

“Now, Mr. Lawrence, I have a dilemma. I personally think that side of the river where the fire occurred needed a good burning to clear out the underbrush and make the quail hunting a little better next fall. But what I think doesn’t amount to a hill of legal beans. You, sir, have no physical evidence. Your circumstantial evidence is about as thin as the smoke from this fire we’re talking about. I can’t really put much faith in the testimony of your witnesses. What am I to do, Mr. Lawrence?”

The way he worked those eyebrows with his fingers, it was a wonder he had any hair left in them. I wasn’t sure where I stood, but I knew the judge was having trouble coming to a decision. I wanted to open my mouth, but TJ had told me not to say anything unless I absolutely had to. And cry if you can, he told me.

“Your Honor?”

“Yes, Mr. Lawrence?”

“The county would be quite happy with some sort of community service arrangement that would—”

“Mr. Lawrence, sir, you are a mind reader. A medium. Just what I was thinking myself. You could have a career telling fortunes long after the law is done with you.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Here’s what I propose. I have a brother-in-law who works for the state, an employment decision that succinctly illustrates his mental powers. He is a forester. A tree hugger. In addition to his many useless duties, he is in charge of the Smokey the Bear costume, and, as I well know, he searches constantly for people to assume the identity and character of Smokey for various public functions, such as visits to schools, holiday parades, and the like. That, my amateur Prometheus…”  The judge cut his eyes to me. “That is your debt to be paid in full to society. You will be Smokey the Bear for the period of one year for any and all occasions that the great Bear’s appearance is needed. Should you ever refuse to put on the fur and hat, I shall toss you into the county jail for a term up to, but not exceeding, twelve months, and jail is a place where no good mother’s son should ever set foot, where men are stacked like pasteurized cheese slices. You shall report to my brother-in-law Monday morning bright and early, and, sir, there is no hibernation period for Smokey the Bear. He works the year ‘round. Gladys, let’s break for lunch, okay dear?”  

I never told TJ and Treecie what my sentence was, never told them I had to wear a bear suit. It was all too sad to talk about. They broke up a few weeks after I started being Smokey the Bear. TJ said they had a big fight out at the deer camp, and she ended up walking all the way back to town on foot through the swamp and bugs in the middle of the night.

He told me this over the phone. TJ was one of the few men I ever knew who liked talking on the phone. He said he couldn’t be seen with me for a while. “You and them matches of yours got me this close to a felony type thing. I could’ve been in big trouble because of you. How’d you stay out of jail?”

I told him I was on probation and had to do community service, but I didn’t say a thing about the Smokey suit. Nobody knew it was me wearing that heavy thing. That was the way I wanted it. I wasn’t embarrassed by it. I just wanted a secret I could keep, wanted something nobody else had. 

So he gave me the story on the phone. “We come out to the hunt camp like usual and she says, TJ, we aren’t going anywhere, and I say, ‘Where you want to go, the truck’s got plenty of gas,’ and she says, You don’t understand. We aren’t going anywhere in this relationship, and I told her something like, ‘You been watching television again with your husband and thinking those shows are real life?’ And she hit me right in the mouth.”

“No, she didn’t.”

“Sure enough.”

“Where did she want to go?” I asked him.

“She said she wanted to go and grow. Wanted us to go forward and grow into something meaningful,” TJ said.

“She make that up?”

“No. Like I said, I think she saw it on TV.”

“Or read it in a magazine,” I offered up.

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So she walked across the swamp?”


“At night?”


“But you were following along with the truck, right?” I said.


“I’d call that impressive,” I said. “So you all broke up?”

“You mean, am I sad?” TJ said.

“Well, no. I mean, the two of you are official broke up?”

“Ain’t even talking, if that tells you something.”

“You two never talked all that much anyway.”

“It was purely a sex thing, I realize that.”

“She got tired of that, I reckon.”

“Fuck you.”


“She wasn’t tired of what we was doing. She just wanted something more on top of it. Damn, I got to find me somebody to ride out to the camp with. I got needs.”

“Don’t we all,” I said. And that was the last anybody ever said about Treecie.

Then, she came back in a dream. I don’t remember anything about the dream except the way I was feeling when I woke up, the dream buzzing in my head like a pissed off bumblebee. I couldn’t shake it. All day long, I thought I would go crazy. I actually jumped up and down with my head cocked so the thought would fall out. But it stayed stuck there, and it was all about Treecie. She took up residence in my mind’s eye. She moved right in there. 

When it got dark, I put on my Smokey Bear suit. It had a body part made out of heavy cloth and fake brown fur on the outside. A head piece—big and hot—the size of a giant pumpkin. They were letting me keep it at home. I had been in four different Christmas parades and in almost every elementary school in the county. I’d had kids rub my fur and leave chocolate on my fuzzy backside. Most of the time they all just gathered around and tried to figure out who I really was, but the holes I peeked through were so tiny my own momma wouldn’t know it was me inside that suit.

The suit was the warmest thing I’d ever been in. Tonight, even though it was February and all the people were locked up in their houses to keep out the cold, I was sweating bullets inside the fur. I walked by a car parked underneath a streetlight and looked down in the window and saw my reflection, and, I swear, steam puffed out of the side vents in the Smokey suit.

Treecie and her husband lived in one side of a house right in the middle of town, so she had neighbors just on the other side of the wall. The neighbors next door actually owned the house, an old man named McClary and his wife. McClary slept all the time, Treecie said once, and his wife spent most of her time checking his breathing to be sure he was still alive. “If she isn’t sure, she pulls an eyelid up,” Treecie told us.

In February there wasn’t a leaf on the trees, so you could see right through the neighborhoods and into folks’ houses. People were already getting ready for bed when I got to Treecie’s. I knew her husband wasn’t there because he was on second shift at the BelMar plant, making rubber lids for the tops of rubber trash cans.

The sweat ran down my eyes because I was working so hard jogging from tree to tree so nobody would see me. But it was February, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but nobody looks out their windows in the winter, at least not in this part of the country. We hate winter. A dog ran up to me and sniffed my leg and ran away scared when I growled at him. I sounded real.

Treecie sat on her sofa eating something from a bag. She was watching the TV. She didn’t look so mean anymore. I knew this would happen. She would be different once she got away from TJ. That was just his way, always making people different than they normally were. Hanging with TJ was like wearing a bear suit. You could be whoever you wanted and nobody’d recognize you.

I had my Smokey nose pressed to her window watching and wondering when she would have to go to the bathroom. She never looked toward the window, but while I squatted there watching her, I didn’t notice her husband walk in from the other side of the room, right by the window about a foot from my face. He must have switched shifts. He scared me so bad I pissed in my costume, but I was so damp from sweating you couldn’t really tell the difference.

I only stayed for a couple more minutes. I just wanted to see her where she lived and what she acted like in her own house. She looked a lot softer through the glass. 

I got no problem with God. He has done things to be awfully proud of. But like everybody else, He has got out of sorts at times. He has set a fire or two in His day. And I am not the kind to give him credit for everything. He might keep you from walking in front of a pickup one night, but if you were to find a five dollar bill on the sidewalk it probably has more to do with luck than God. God is not the bringer of luck. He’s just God.

So it wasn’t God’s hand in it when I went to Viewmont Elementary School during Fire Safety Week. It was dumbass blind luck. They wanted us to tell the kids about dropping and rolling and not letting themselves get burned up. I didn’t have to say a word. I was Smokey, and Smokey never talks in costume.

“You ain’t real,” said one kid at Viewmont. “They wouldn’t let no real bear loose at school.”

I growled at him.

“Bears is louder than that and they can run fast as a car. Lemme see you run,” he dared me.

I shook my head.

“Hey y’all, this ain’t no real bear.” He turned to yell at some of his friends on the playground, which gave me a chance to get away. I ducked around the side of the building and came up on the place where the teachers smoke. Just luck. God wasn’t watching. There was a man in a real nice suit jacket, and there was Treecie. They both sucked on cigarettes like condemned people. A little breeze blew their smoke away as soon as it drifted out of their mouths. I never knew she was a teacher. I guess nobody ever asked her what she did for a living.

They saw me walking up in my costume. “Well, well, Smokey,” the man said, and I could tell right off he wasn’t from around town. “You’ve come to stomp our fires into submission, I trust?” Sounded like he was from England or somewhere a long way from here.

I didn’t say a word. Just looked at Treecie, her trying to figure out who I was. That’s what people do when Smokey walks up. She didn’t have a clue.

“Ah, the strong, silent, furry type. I like that in a bear,” the man said. I didn’t like him right away.

The foreigner and Treecie both reached into their pockets for another cigarette. He lit his new one on the old. Treecie dug around for a lighter. Before she found it, I was standing in front of her with a Blue Tip in my paw.

“Smokey carries his own matches?” She stared into my eyeholes. “Who the hell are you?”

I struck the match on my Smokey belt buckle. It popped to life. I hadn’t smelled a burning Blue Tip in ten months. I just carried them around for luck or for something to fill my pockets. She lit up and blew her first puff right in my eyeholes. I couldn’t tell if it was a mean thing or something that just happened naturally.

“Smokey, I suggest you get to know Mrs. Witherspoon,” the fancy man said. “She has unlimited energy, you know. The two of you could be in fire prevention cahoots.” He liked hearing himself talk. That much I could tell.

“Be quiet, Thomas,” Treecie said like she was talking to a kid. I didn’t know she was a teacher. I didn’t know she was a Witherspoon either. 

“Thank you for the light,” she said back to me.

I nodded my head. “I sure would like to know what you look like,” she said. “Are you a man?”

Treecie didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was quieter and, when words came out of her mouth, she sounded like somebody on television. She didn’t sound like a woman who would flatten her tittie against the window of a truck.

I nodded, then I did something that just came over me. It was the kind of thing that God might have been involved with. It was not luck. I took Treecie’s hand—the one with no cigarette—and I held it in my big fake paw and I bent down and kissed it, which meant I actually just stuck my fake Smokey nose against the top of her hand. Treecie turned red.

“Good God, chivalry lives in a bear costume,” Thomas said right before he hacked a couple of times.

I turned and walked away because I was scared what would happen next. But all that happened was Treecie yelling, “What’s your name?”

I was Smokey, and that’s all she needed to know for now.

I went crazy over love. That buzzing in my head moved down toward my heart. All those times when I was in the back of that pickup and Treecie was cussing and letting TJ hustle up and down her leg, now I saw that wasn’t really her all those nights in the truck. It was fakery. It was like she was trying to fool the world for a couple of hours. I felt sorry for her most of the time, even when she was calling me names or making fun of me. I was crazy. Somebody ought to have locked me up.

Here she was, still married, and I was a bear going after her. One night I snuck through her neighborhood in my Smokey suit and left a big jar of honey on her front porch. I wanted to kiss that hand again, but I couldn’t get near her so I just did other things. One day after it rained, I put the suit on again and walked through the back woods to the school parking lot. I put my paw in a mud puddle and left a big, brown paw print on the windshield of her car. Funny thing. People would see me walking around the street in my Smokey suit, and they wouldn’t say a thing. A cop passed by, but he knew who I was from all those safety talks at schools. He just waved. I didn’t surprise anybody. People have so many things to worry about in life these days, a bear on the sidewalk won’t get a second look. People who have a life like that ought to slow down. A full-grown bear walking down the sidewalk ought to catch your eye, I should think.

At nights, I’d sit in her flower bed in my Smokey suit, filling up my shoes with sweat, watching her and her husband staring at the TV set. Once he tried to kiss her, and she looked at him like he was a person she hadn’t laid eyes on in twenty years. I think she laughed at him. He shook his head and left the room.

A raggedy carnival came to town in the early, early spring. I took the head part of my suit in a plastic grocery bag to the carnival grounds and went to one of those photo booths with my pockets full of quarters. I must have taken about forty pictures of me wearing the Smokey head, just staring at the camera. I kept smiling and changing my face but every picture looked just the same because the head covered everything. I was there for an hour. A little kid pulled back the curtain because I was taking so long, but when he caught a sight of me he dropped a big bag of cotton candy and he ran off yelling for his momma. I ate that cotton candy.

I started sending Treecie pictures of me in the Smokey head. I left one taped to her car window. I put one in an envelope and mailed it to her at school. I even stuck one on the outside of her bathroom window.

Don’t ask me why. I had no ideas about hurting her or taking her to the deer camp or any of that. I was just crazy. I knew I couldn’t have her for my own, what with her husband around, and I wasn’t about to do anything to him. It wasn’t his fault.

And I didn’t have any idea what I’d do if she ever saw my face. All I wanted I suppose was a chance to see who that other person was, not the one that bitched like a ticked off little dog, but the other one, the Treecie I caught sight of outside the school that day smoking a cigarette. I figured she’d be somebody I’d like. Long as she didn’t know it was me inside that head.

The day she left me a note was the best day of my life to that point. 

It was stuck on the window of her car. She knew I’d be by. Nice lined paper and really neat printing so I wouldn’t have any trouble reading it. The note said to meet her that night at eleven o’clock in the alleyway that ran behind her house, it said. There was a date on the top, real big, so I could be sure what night she was talking about. She thanked me for lighting her cigarette that day at school and said she would like to get to know me better. The letter sounded happy, so happy.

All that day I laid around in my house with the lights off, striking matches and blowing them out. My room smelled like the inside of a wood stove. I took an old washcloth and rubbed hard on the dirty spots on the Smokey suit. It never came into my mind to wear something else. I was Smokey to her, even though I knew she wanted to find out who was behind the face. I wanted to know the same thing about her. Who was Treecie? 

I stood in the alleyway at a little before eleven next to a couple of trash cans full of something that smelled like cat piss. I came close to throwing up inside my Smokey head, but it was the only good place to hide. Still cold out but with air as dry as a bone so nothing was frozen or slippery. We don’t ever get much snow. Nobody knows how to walk on ice in this town.

I kept my eye right on the back door of her side of the house. Old man McClary came to his back porch and took a pee between the rails, even though he’s got an indoor bathroom. Maybe he couldn’t make it up the stairs. He spit in the same direction he pissed in and went back to his television. Treecie never opened her back door. The cold air snuck through my eyeholes, but the rest of me was like a heater. I had on extra deodorant that night so the sweat wouldn’t make me stink. I didn’t have a plan. I decided to leave it all up to luck or God.

I watched the door so hard I didn’t hear the pickup at the other end of the alley rolling toward me slow and quiet with no headlights on. Then out of the corner of my ear I heard the gravel crunching. Then headlights flashed on and caught me where I was standing. Two big spotlights that blinded me. I tried to run but went straight over the top of the trashcans and whatever was inside spilled out and the smell flowed over me like an ocean wave and I started to puke inside my Smokey head, which I knew in a flash I would have to buy now since I was in the process of ruining it. I couldn’t get the damn thing off my head. My arms were pinned down. I felt somebody else try and snatch it away from my shoulders.

“Motherfucker! Who are you?” he huffed out, trying to get my Smokey head in his hands. It could’ve been Treecie’s husband. I wondered how he knew I was in love with his wife. From the window, her husband seemed like a man who didn’t give a shit anymore. This was different. This person with a vice grip on my head did give a shit. 

Just as the head came off, I turned toward Treecie’s house and she stood on the back porch watching and waiting. McClary peeked through his backdoor window. In the porch light, Treecie looked so little, like she was a kid, her arms wrapped around her against the cold. Then the whole thing stopped. Nothing moved. This is what dead feels like, I thought.

When he punched me I came back to life. The way he hit me, I spun around and there was TJ over the top of me with his hand in the air. His breath came out in fog bursts. He dropped his fist. He pulled me up into some better light.

“Ah, man,” he said. He sounded disappointed.

“Yep, it’s me.” I answered him.

And TJ spit one time, got back in his truck, and pulled around me where I was lying in the alleyway and drove off. I waved toward Treecie, but she was gone. McClary was the only one who kept watching until I finally gathered up my fake head and went on home.

The judge was not happy with the condition of the Smokey suit. That night in the alley, the head had rolled amongst the smelly stuff that oozed out the trash can. I tried washing it in the big machine at the laundromat, but all that did was rub the fur away right down to the bare head. It looked like Smokey had gone to prison and got shaved.

He asked me what I had to say for myself. “Silence. Absolutely nothing each and every time he’s appeared before this bench, isn’t that correct, Mr. Lawrence?” Lawrence was in the middle of a big swig of coffee.

“Yes, Your Honor,” he gargled. “Not a word.”

“I think it’s time we heard you say something, either in your defense or by way of explanation,” the judge said to me.

I could have told him about how when I was Smokey, I wasn’t really me and I could do things the old me couldn’t do. When I was Smokey the Bear I could imagine being a man in love, and I could watch Treecie, and I could come up with ways to get her attention. I could maybe even make her leave her life. And the most important thing was that when I was Smokey, I didn’t need Blue Tips for anything but thinking in my room. I didn’t need my little disciples to do any fire work in the world. I could have told him this and then said to him, Judge, the thing you made me do was the perfect thing. I don’t need fire anymore. I got Smokey keeping me warm in the world.

But I didn’t say any such thing. I just looked the judge straight in the eye and told him, “I suppose I took things a little too serious.”

TJ picked me up in his truck at the county work farm when I was through doing my thirty days. He knew I was getting out because he called me a couple of times, telling me he was sorry because when he hit me he didn’t know I was Smokey. Told me Treecie had called him out of the blue and asked if he would beat up some guy in a bear suit that was following her around and being creepy, but not in a nice way. He said he didn’t figure it to be me. And I wanted to say, How many folks do you know wearing bear suits? It wasn’t long after that Treecie and her husband moved away to someplace where they could be strangers. TJ had a new woman in the front seat now with him, one I hadn’t seen before.

“Hey,” he said to me when I walked up to the truck. “Your chair is still in the back.”

The woman looked older than she probably really was. Her eyes were bright blue but both sunk into a little nest of wrinkles. She was expecting me to be nice to her, I could tell.

“You aren’t Treecie, that’s for sure,” I said.

“You ain’t no goddamn Robert Redford,” she said back, and I liked her from that second on.

TJ had a box of Blue Tips waiting on me. The big kitchen kind. Full box. There was a blanket in the back too. I wrapped up in it, and TJ headed for the river. The sun was just starting to go down, and the sky behind the work farm was the color of fire. Made me think about the Blue Tips. I took one out of the box and stuck it near my nose and let the bomb smell drift up to my brain.

I didn’t have to peek inside the cab to see what was going on. I could tell by the way TJ whined out every gear, what with his shifting hand busy in the fun spots. I was quickly sadder than I had ever been in my whole life. I just got tired all the sudden like I was ninety years old. I had lived a whole life in the last few months. I had destroyed part of the world with my disciples. I fell in love with somebody. I had been a bear. Been hurt because of love. Got beat up. Went to jail. The Flying Judge told me I should learn something from all this. All I learned was I couldn’t do much better than end up back on the same road in the same pickup again feeling the same bumps under my ass. 

The woman hollered in the cab. So did TJ. It was getting dark, but he didn’t turn the lights on. Which I thought was a mistake. 

TJ stopped at the crossroads to check for trains. Him and the woman reached across the middle of the seat to kiss. She moved her head up and down during the kiss like she was nodding yes. I lit a Blue Tip and reached around and tossed it into the cab while it burned. I lit as many as I could as fast as I could. Tossed them forward. Before they could figure out what was going on, TJ was screaming about his seat being on fire. Stinky smoke filled the cab. He called me every name he could think of, kept his foot on the brake, and tried to find the key to kill the engine. He was fumbling. The new woman fell through her open door onto the cold tracks. She was laughing so hard, tears were beginning to leak from her eyes, and I liked her even more. Don’t ask me why, but I began to feel better about things. 

<strong>Scott Gould</strong>
Scott Gould

Scott Gould is the author of the story collection, Strangers to Temptation; a novel, Whereabouts; and Things That Crash, Things That Fly, a memoir. He is a multiple winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship in Prose and a recipient of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, New Madrid Journal, New Ohio Review, Crazyhorse, Pithead Chapel, BULL, Garden & Gun, New Stories from the South, and others. He lives in Sans Souci, SC.