Coyotes Don’t Litter
by Tera Joy Cole
“Let’s talk about the accident. Wasn’t that what brought you here in the first place?”
“No, it’s the litter.” I sigh while glancing around the office at all of the framed degrees hanging behind Dr. Howard.
But, maybe it had been the stretched-out cat, on the side of the road, covered in that snow. Trigger. It wasn’t the obvious kind of litter: white, crumpled fast food bags; forty-ounce mostly empty bottles of “Hurricane;” a busted chair.
We’ve been discussing a time, many years ago, when my dad and I were driving back home from my grandparent’s house. An afternoon lunch on their deck, overlooking the hillside and downtown Glendale, had been tension-filled, and I remembered being pissed that my sister had gotten out of coming along. After my dad downed three scotch-on-the-rocks at an alarming rate, I insisted on driving us back home. Behind the wheel of his Mercedes, I navigated the tight freeway pass by Dodgers Stadium.
My dad was leaning back in the leather passenger seat. When he let out an exasperated sigh, I knew he was about to impart some wisdom. Apparently, he was concerned about the guy I was dating and, although I hadn’t asked for his advice, he was going to launch into one of his speeches anyway.
“You can’t marry a poet. He won’t be able to take care of you.” My dad knew a lot about marriage; after all, he was on his third. And, since I was heading off to graduate school in Idaho, the last thing on my mind was finding a man to take care of me. I saw a dead cat on the side of the freeway, and as a means of changing the subject, I quoted one of our long standing jokes: “It’s only sleeping.”
“Well, how did this make you feel?”
I want to answer Dr. Howard’s question, but instead I close my eyes. All I can see are dead animals. My mind skips to a camping trip I took about ten years back. I was riding in the car with some friends on our way to Preston, Idaho. I counted fourteen dead deer on a fifteen mile stretch of highway. I also saw a bumper sticker that read: “Smoke a Pack a Day” with a picture of four wolves caught in a crosshair. At the time, I had no idea what it meant. Neither of these things seemed to bother anyone else but me. Dr. Howard wants to talk about the accident, but I am unable to put anything into words. He sends me home with a prescription for something that will help me sleep.
That night, instead of sleeping, I obsess over some album cover I may have once owned: a bubble gum-pink nightmare of the 1980s fading into a hazy Los Angeles sunset. Looping in the background, I keep hearing that girl’s mocking voice saying to one of my co-workers, “She’s certified loony bin crazy.” I think she is talking about me, but I can’t be sure. That same day, I heard a story about my friend’s dad who got cancer. His cancer was removed, and I all I can say is “what did they do with it?” My friend asks, “What?” And I answer, “The cancer.”
It’s not safe to drink the water. It’s not safe to breathe the air.
On my way home from work, I count seventeen incidences of litter: a broken beer bottle, a dirty diaper, a discarded car seat (which I actually scanned, half-way hoping that a baby might still be latched inside), a discarded sweatshirt, etc. I don’t want to count like this, so I stop by the grocery store and purchase a little red spiral-bound notebook. I will use this to catalogue the litter. Dr. Howard will see this as progress. After all, he’s always trying to get me to write things down.
I finally sleep for a few hours, but when I awake the next morning, I can’t stop thinking of a story someone once told me about the yearly rabbit hunts which were held in the rural Idaho town where he was raised. He described how as a young boy, five or so, he’d been given a baseball bat and was told to walk through the fields as the rabbits were being flushed out. He was supposed to whack as many of these as he could over the head. I guess each person kept track of how many rabbits they’d whacked. Most kills=big prize.
This story haunts me the next day and makes it nearly impossible for me to concentrate on work. All I have to do is answer a phone and then transfer the call to the right attorney. However, images of crushed in rabbit skulls appear before my eyes each time one of the red lights blinks. The voices on the phone make no sense to me. I keep sending the wrong call to the wrong attorney. Eventually, they send me home for the day.
Home is no better. I keep searching for my copy of Watership Down. I am convinced that I have it somewhere, so I tear through boxes in the closet. After about four hours of searching, it dawns on me that I’ve never even read it. My mother took me to see the movie when I was about seven years old. I cried so hard and so loudly that she had to remove me from the theatre before the movie ended. I remember her embarrassment and feel ashamed. I get online and order a copy. I will finally find out what happened to those rabbits that were driven out of their homes by greedy farmers who want to plow the land.
By the time I go see Dr. Howard the following Tuesday, the little red notebook is almost full. I am proud of my record keeping.
“So, last week, we were discussing your father and the accident.”
Hadn’t we been talking about the sunsets in Los Angeles and the unsafe air and drinking water? In what strikes me as a mocking tone, he says: “You were last telling me about a car ride on the freeways in Los Angeles. You’d been leaving your grandparent’s house. Your father was not a huge fan of you marrying a poet. I think this is worth further exploration.”
I hand Dr. Howard the red notebook. “What’s this?” He asks, leafing through it. His forehead wrinkles as he makes a note in my chart.
“I was sure you’d like this.” I never cry in therapy. I do, however, grab the throw pillow on the couch next to me and dig my nails into it. I imagine that it’s Dr. Howard’s face I am digging into. My fingertips get closer and closer to his eyes. I can almost see myself gouging out his eyeballs. He sees me grabbing the pillow and feels good about therapeutic tactics. He learned this somewhere in college, at some point in a clinical, grab the pillow and tear at it, scream into it if you must.
“I am not sure how this notebook is going to help you.” He switches tactics, “I mean, how do you see this as being helpful?”
When I don’t respond, he tries again, “Why don’t we talk about what brought you here in the first place? The accident?
“It’s the litter.” I respond again, but this time when I close my eyes I can see the twisted metal and smell the burning rubber and spilled gasoline. I see myself driving my Dad and sister home from somewhere near downtown. I’d taken my eyes off the road for just a minute when I saw the spilt box of discarded kittens. I needed to know if they had survived being thrown from a vehicle at high speeds. That’s all it took.
In my possession are a collection of pictures in which I stand on the fringe of the group. These are my families. Sometimes when I try to make sense of my family dynamics to people they joke, “Maybe we should draw a family tree.” However, trees require roots. Some trees, such as the Giant Sequoias in California, have such a shallow root system that they are often vulnerable to all kinds of destruction: wind, severe weather, fires. Sometimes, huge tunnels are built into these trees big enough to fit a moving car. The ones that still remain are over two hundred feet tall and have survived thousands of years of storms, fires, and humans. I want to be like that.
Today, Dr. Howard wants to talk about my sister. Apparently he’s found something in his notes that interests him. Instead, I tell him about an insignificant dream I had the night before. The funny thing is, I don’t dream about my sister. I close my eyes and try to recall a single dream with her. My mind is blank.
As soon as I get home from my appointment with Dr. Howard, I give into my impulse to grab my notebook and start cataloguing the stuff in my closet: a cardboard box of wrapping paper and gift bags, a wooden crate wine box that now contains the pictures from some wedding, a hacky-sack like bag that holds crystals and gem rocks, a book cover from Curious George, a large number of paper clips and thumb tacks, and the love verses from the unmarriable poet. I also come across the wrinkled newspaper article about the accident: “Local Man and Daughter Killed in Tragic Wreck.” For a second, I consider cataloguing these items separately into “useful” and “non-useful,” but I am unsure where to place the article.
As I am climbing into bed, I find what appears to be a curled up spider ready for spooning. I think about calling someone, but there’s no one to call. I gather up enough courage to poke at it with an unraveled metal coat hanger. It moves. I run from the room and end up sleeping on the dining room table because I figure it is the least insect friendly of all my furniture. When I awake the next morning, I realize that I’ve slept through the whole night, and I feel great. For the first time, since the accident, my back isn’t hurting me and I feel safer sleeping above it all. I head straight towards my bedroom determined to confront the creature. In the unreal light of early morning, I discover that the enigma is only a piece of rolled up string-a castoff from an Old Navy T-shirt. The “spider” was then catalogued as “useful.”
Dr. Howard sips on a cup of coffee and twirls his pencil between his thumb and pointer finger. He seems to be waiting for me to say something, but I just stare at him. Finally, he can’t stand the silence, “Did you and your sister get along well?”
“I hated her.” I say as my head presses against the scratchy wool of the pillows that Dr. Howard’s wife probably made for him. I used to imagine her pulling on nude colored, run-resistant pantyhose in the mornings before she headed down to the kitchen to make him three fried eggs, a piece of half-burnt sourdough toast with marmalade and a cup of black coffee. I was later surprised to discover that she is also a doctor who works in the pediatrics unit at the hospital. I was mad at myself for my sexist vision of Dr. Howard’s better half.
Hate is a pretty strong word.
Before Dr. Howard can launch into any more questions about my dad or my sister, I tell him about my new sleeping arrangements, “I’ve been sleeping on the kitchen table for the past week.” Now this, this interests him.
He leans forward so far that his rear end is nearly slipping off his leather chair. “What? What’s this?” As if he hasn’t really heard me. “Wasn’t it uncomfortable?”
“It’s the best sleep I’ve had in months. I am thinking about sleeping there from now on.”
“Does this have something to do with the accident?”
Laughter escapes through my nose with a snorting sound, “No, it was because of the spider that wasn’t really a spider.”
He is perplexed now. “Spider?”
Over the weekend, I set to work on the move, but it takes a lot of effort to turn the dining area into a bedroom. I am ill prepared for the difference in the elements of place that I encounter. In the dining room, I have an antique hutch that I acquired through some divorce. It was previously filled with my grandmother’s china, knick-knacks, and crystal stem wear. This all had to be moved up to the bedroom and placed in the dresser drawers.
Side note: the hutch works really well as a wardrobe. I use the drawers (reserved for silver which I don’t have) for socks, underwear, bras, etc. In the large bottom area, (reserved for crystal dishes, soup tureens, platters, etc. which I also don’t have) I place my neatly folded shirts, jeans, skirts and sweaters. I have to get a little more creative with the two upper cabinets that used to hold the glasses and knick-knacks. In this area, I place my shoes.
Then, all of the stuff from the dining room has to be moved to the bedroom. This is where the real challenge began. Although, the hutch could easily serve a dual function for dishes and clothes, the dresser was not as cooperative in its design for the china and glasses. In one drawer, I place six of my grandmother’s china cups. I use another drawer for the six plates, and in the last one, I put the remaining five bowls (one broke in the move). I end up having to place all of the crystal stemware on top of the dresser. If we ever have an earthquake, I’ll be screwed. But, this isn’t California.
In the middle of my move, I get a phone call from an old friend, and I let it go to voicemail. She leaves a message asking me to meet her at a bar near my neighborhood. Her voice sounds so artificial, and that is one of my new rules: avoid anything artificial. I’d spent a few hours the other night throwing away everything in the kitchen that had any artificial ingredients, but I had to Google so many of the ingredients because I didn’t know which ones were real or not, so eventually I ended up throwing away everything that came in a package or a box. It’s a little harder to throw away people, but I’d been forced to do it before.
At my last session with Dr. Howard he had given me a challenge to get out of the house more and possibly reconnect with people I used to know, so I figure this is my best chance. But, it has been so long since I’ve done anything social that I’m not even sure what to do. When I turn on the light in the bathroom, and stare into the mirror, I can literally see right through my image into the medicine cabinet. I see all of the products lined up in there, but no matter how hard I try I can’t see my face. This starts to concern me, and I consider calling Dr. Howard. He’ll probably answer, but he will be filled with resentment at being forced to come to my rescue on a weekend.
So instead I dig up an old photo album from college to remind myself of what I looked like when I’d been normal. If I hold the image in my mind for long enough, and meditate with enough intention, maybe my face will morph back into this image. But these photos were taken before the accident, so my meditation technique can not break the barrier.
I am late to the bar after all, so I have to make my way through a maze of smoke and drunk people. The music is loud and someone is horribly singing a karaoke version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” There’s still time to turn around and get the hell out before anyone notices me.
Diane and her date are sitting at a corner table off to the right of the stage. They see me just as I am about to turn around and walk out. With the jangling of a thousand arm bracelets, she waves me over.
“Hey you!” she exclaims too loudly over the sounds of “…show them what’s funky; show them what’s right. It doesn’t matter who spoke up right. Just beat it!”
She pats the seat between her and some guy I’ve never met before. He is kind of my type which is definitely not her type, at least not that I remember. He has dark, wavy hair which hangs just over his ears, dark eyes (I can’t tell what color), and he is wearing a beat up Joy Division T-shirt. Justin.
“Grab a drink, or get a pitcher to share!” Diane shouts at me.
Getting to the bar is like walking the gauntlet. I have to push past half-drunk girls standing in the aisle yelling over each other, and then maneuver around a fat guy who is sitting in a barstool two sizes too small for him. “Excuse me,” I half shout although no one seems to hear me. I imagine myself as thin as a sheet of tin foil and then feel as if I have been crumpled into a ball. The guy behind the bar is shirtless and both his nipples are pierced. He won’t even look my way as he mumbles, “What do you want?”
I want to be home. I want to be home arranging my collections. “Two pitchers of Killian’s and three glasses, please.” The “please” sounds superfluous after his rude greeting and his complete inability to make eye contact. As he slams down the two pitchers, beer froths over the sides, and he says “Eighteen bucks.” I handed him a twenty.
The walk back to the table is easier because most of the people who had been blocking the aisle are now on the dance floor, shaking it to some Lady Gaga song. Justin and Diane are engaged in a kiss as I approach the table. I have to stand there for several seconds before they realize there is another human being in the room.
“Oh, sorry,” Diane apologizes, “we get so carried away sometimes. But don’t worry, Justin’s buddy Nate should be here any minute.” Great a double date with Nate. It isn’t even funny.
Justin is in the middle of filling up our beer glasses when I feel his leg brush against mine. It has been way too long. Maybe this guy Nate will be cute and half-way intelligent. But, then I remember my place. There’s no way I can take anyone back there. How can I possibly explain all of the bedroom stuff occupying the dining room area?
I don’t have to worry after all. Nate is sporting a “Smoke a Pack a Day” T-shirt. He is loud and obnoxious, too. He does, however, buy the next few rounds of beers and shots. I get drunk pretty quickly because I am not really in partying shape, and before I know it I am on the dance floor sandwiched between Justin and Nate. Nate keeps grabbing at me and trying to kiss me. I’ve been out of this game so long that I’ve forgotten the rules. Am I supposed to just let him grope me?
I have no clue where Diane had gone off to, and a vague feeling of concern quickly passes through me. Apparently, there’s nothing to worry about. I look over towards our table in time to see her taking body shots off some girl. At least, I am pretty sure it is a girl. We are all swept up in the lights and the bass, grinding against one another, and then the next thing I know we are back up at the bar. The bartender seems much friendlier now, and he has a shirt on. Maybe it’s a different guy. I can’t tell. Nate orders copper camels-a shot I’ve had a few times before. I am not really fond of it. He keeps calling it a bitch shot. I’m not sure who the bitch is supposed to be. I catch a blurry glance at the digital clock above the cash register, and it looks as if it reads 1:32. This sets off a panic in my mind. There is no way I can drive home, and it is getting pretty late to call a cab.
I manage to slur out the words, “I gotta go….”
“What’s your rush,” answers Nate, grabbing my arm, “the bar doesn’t close for another twenty minutes. Justin will give you a ride home. He’s hasn’t had that much to drink.” I am not too convinced, but I also lack the energy to fight it. I head towards the table to see about Diane. She’s out on the dance floor again and appears to be in no hurry to go home.
“Diane!” I call out. “Let’s go!” The room starts to spin, and I see Justin heading towards me with a blaster. Drink up…
I awake to my head bumping against a cold window in the backseat of someone’s car. The floor is littered with trash of all sorts: crushed beer cans, empty Rockstar cans, and food wrappers from any number of fast food places. I’m sitting on something hard. I reach under my butt and feel a wrench of some sort. Through a drunken blur, I see Diane next to me, messing around on her phone. “Ha, ha! That’s a great picture of you.” Please, not Facebook!
Nate is driving the car. I guess he’s the most sober of all of us. Or the most drunk. “Where are we going?” I ask cautiously. Something has happened between the time we left the bar and the time I woke up amongst the garbage. I just can’t remember what. I’d been dreaming of the dirty cement waterways that connect the Los Angeles River to the ocean. Someone had painted colorful cartoon pictures of cats on the giant metal drain covers. Filthy water flowed through their wrenched-open mouth holes.
“We’re hunting coyotes! Don’t you remember? It was your idea.” Nate boomed from the front seat. I try to protest because it really doesn’t sound like an idea that I would come up with, but something tells me to keep my mouth shut. If only I’d stayed home where I would be safe from all of this consumption and rejection.
Diane quickly comes to my defense with a challenge to Nate, “Ahhh…no one said anything about shooting coyotes. You guys were bragging about guns, and she suggested we go out and shoot at cans.” I don’t remember any of this.
I pull my phone out of my purse, but it’s dead. “What time is it?” I ask Diane.
The darkness outside of my window is impossible to penetrate. Nate takes a sharp left and suddenly we are traveling at high speeds down a very bumpy, dirt road. “Those little fuckers always hang around my uncle’s farm. We’ll find some out here.”
Justin cries out, “Slow down, dude! You’re going to get us all killed.”
“Don’t be such a puss!”
The car swerves into another left turn and then Nate slams on the brakes. We nearly run into a barbed wire fence, and I see clouds of dust through the high beams. Nate kills the engine and gets out of the car. I hear him open the trunk and begin rummaging for something. I am guessing the trunk is filled with more garbage. I think about getting out of the vehicle and running, but I have no clue where we were.
“Son of a bitch!” Nate yells out as he slams the trunk shut.
Diane opens up her door and slurs, “Wassa matter, Nate?”
“Just about busted my goddamn knuckle on a tire iron is all.”
By now, we are all out of the car. Justin leans against the front end and Diane is trying to mount the hood of the car like she’s eighteen, but she’s not, and I’m not either. We’re too far past the point of hiking up skirts. I can see a dark bruise on Diane’s left thigh. “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.” I protest. “Some of us need to get some sleep.” No one is listening. Justin and Diane are back to making out again, and I work to steady myself against the car. Then, I hear a coyote howl.
Nate is barely able to control his enthusiasm, “I told you those bastards were out here. They’re all over this farm land. When I was a kid my uncle used to take me out here in the summer to shoot the little shits. In a good night, we might get five or six of them.”
I am feeling a little sick to my stomach. I try to run an inventory in my head of all the drinks and shots I’ve had, but I lose count. I wish that I’d written them down in my notebook. Nate walks out across the field; Diane and Justin follow. The moon is almost full, so once my eyes adjust to the darkness I can just barely make out their shapes. What choice do I have but to follow? I’m about 50 yards behind them when I hear the sound of a gun and then a yelp. “Hey, I got one!” Nate calls out excitedly.
Diane and Justin run over to see the damage. I can’t bring myself not to look. The little brownish colored coyote looks more like someone’s pet dog than a wild animal. The tongue hangs out of the mouth and is covered in blood and gravel. It’s still alive. “You gotta kill it…” whispers Justin, “You just can’t let it suffer.”
“Oh, look who all of a sudden works for PETA. Diane’s made you soft, huh?”
“Yeah,” Diane chimes in, “It’s not right. You can’t just let it lay there in pain.”
“If you assholes are so hooked on this thing dying, you shoot it.”
Diane leans in closer to Justin and loops her arm through his. None of them are making any moves towards putting this creature out of its misery. It’s only sleeping.
“How ‘bout you, sweetie? After all, this was your idea to begin with.” Nate is looking right at me and offering me the gun. He is practically forcing it into my right hand.
The handle is warm, and I feel my whole palm close tightly around it. Suddenly, I am ten years old again, at a family reunion in Montana. We’d spent a week there at a one of those dude ranches that was popular in the early 80s. At first, I’d been resistant, but after a few days, I was shooting guns with the rest of my cousins. We started out shooting beer cans, but then someone got the bright idea to shoot feral cats. I never really took pleasure in that game, but my sister sure had seemed to enjoy it. By the end of the week she’d tallied up how many cats she’d shot: eight. She was proud.
In this moment, the gun feels right in my hand. My body is electrified. Blurred images of trash, bloodied road kill, filthy water, smog stained skies, and twisted metal fill my mind. I turn the gun towards Nate and aim at his chest.
“Coyotes don’t litter,” my words echo through the blast of the gun.
Tera Joy Cole is the author of the short story, “Where Things Are Made” which was published by in Blunderbuss Magazine (April 2015). Additionally, her article “Occupy,” which chronicled her visit to Zuccotti Park, New York City, during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, appeared in the magazine The Bannock Alternative (December 2011). She holds an M.A. degree in English and teaches composition and literature at Idaho State University.