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Bert studied the bear as the barrel-chested wrestler attacked it. Victor stood up on two feet and looked offstage wistfully. He looked bored as the first challenger streaked at him and grabbed an arm. The wrestler clung to Victor and tried to kick out one of the bear’s legs for a takedown. Sweat poured down his body as he flailed about. Victor didn’t budge. Finally, tired of the event, the bear swung his arm and whacked the wrestler sending him flying off the stage. And out of action. The crowd hooted and jeered. The work crew tossed pieces of raw chicken to the bear to placate him during the short break between bouts.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Hulkster’s voice boomed over the speakers. “The next challenger, from Paw Paw, Michigan!! Thom Brown is here, ready to rumble. Let’s hear it for Mister Brown. This action is going to be fast and furious. Man vs. beast. No holds barred!!”

Thom Brown jumped into the ring and danced from foot to foot. He shook his shoulders to loosen up as he danced. Victor watched him and shifted his weight ever so slightly, foot to foot, trying to match Brown’s footwork. Bert thought he saw the bear grin. Maybe just a little bit of a smile. Brown was quite tall and must have thought that would give him leverage. He went at Victor lowering a shoulder. Nothing budged. Brown lost his footing on the ground, which was slippery from the raw chicken. As he fell, he grabbed at the bear. The match ended as Victor, obviously trained in the art of wrestling, pinned Brown with one arm – releasing him on the count of three and dancing around the stage to the delight of the crowd. “Victor, Victor!” They chanted as the bear paced back and forth.

Jones and Jones scurried up to the stage and handed the Hulkster a brown paper bag. He kept a wary distance between himself and Victor. Hogan extracted a two-liter bottle of Coke from the bag and handed it to the bear. Victor clasped it between his paws and lifted it to his lips. The muzzle was fitted loose enough to allow him to drink. He chugged the entire bottle with his head thrown back. When he finished, he tossed the bottle and licked his lips with a thick, black tongue. He shuffled, restlessly, from foot to foot and Bert again glimpsed what he thought was a smile.

Once again, the Hulkster approached the mic, pitching the show.

“Give me a roar!” And the crowd responded. Hogan strode back and forth across the stage, posing and flexing his muscles, which stood out on his body like a relief map. The crowd encouraged him and he pumped both arms over his head.

“Now it’s time for our finale - the match of the century,” he bellowed. “Victor the wild bear dragged to the Midwest from Montana is ready to take on friend or foe. And our challenger, from Berkley, Michigan, Wild Bert Jenkins, the King of Alligator Wrestling!”

Bert removed his warm-ups and handed them to Randall. He saw the gold flash of Mikey’s tooth and heard the voices of the Friday night bar crew cheering as he moved toward the stage. He stepped onto the platform as the crowd whooped it up.

If I could get my arms around him, maybe he’ll lean over and I can take him off balance, he thought. As he approached the bear, Victor smiled. This time Bert was sure of it. And Victor’s breath smelled like a dog’s. Just like the drooly old yellow lab he had grown up with. Bert rested his head against Victor’s chest and put his arms around him. “Good boy,” he said softly, patting the bear’s back. The fur felt like swamp grass.

Then he lifted. It was an odd sensation, because only the bear’s skin moved, sliding loosely over muscle. He could hear the bear’s heart and smell his musty breath. An odd sensation overcame him. He felt himself inside the bear’s skin. He felt the bear’s skin slide over his own bones; he felt the heartbeat and the pulse. The weight of the heavy body. The sensation of claws. For a moment Bert was roaming the mountains, foraging, scanning the lay of the land. He felt a cool rain run off the hollow reeds of his pelt. He looked out through beady black eyes and knew he wasn’t alone. The nostrils of his nose opened and closed, sorting the smells. The rain, a raccoon, deer, pine trees, a marsh. He belonged here. His ears twitched and swiveled from side to side. Bert focused. He squeezed and lifted one more time. Nothing moved except the bearskin. A voice in Bert’s head said “walk backwards” and he did. The bear followed him. Bert looked him straight in the eye and got down on all fours, feeling the weight of the fur still draped over him. Victor followed as if hypnotized, dropping to the ground. Bert recalled one of his favorite moves from competition, a pull through, and he ever so slowly reached out towards Victor. Victor eyed him curiously as Bert quickly pulled the bear’s arm under his belly, which lowered one of the massive shoulders. Victor rolled over, finishing the motion for him, and Bert rubbed his belly as the bear lay there on his back, both shoulders down while Hogan hollered: “And a ONE, And a TWO, And a TWO AND A HALF...” a long pause before “And a THREEEEEE.” Hogan’s face was red and Mr. Jones and Jones looked anything but pleased.

Bert turned and looked at the crowd. He spotted a middle-aged woman with green tinted hair. Betty moved towards the stage as Bert sprang off of it and grabbed her. He wrapped his arms around her tightly and gave her a hug. A squeeze that made her catch her breath. Randall thumped him on the back. He hugged Randall. The crowd chanted “Bert beat the bear! Bert beat the bear!” Bert moved through the crowd, hugging them all, man and woman, friends and strangers, lifting them off their feet and pulling them to his chest.