Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Category: Stories (page 1 of 6)

These are stories: memoir, memory dump, what-happened-yesterday, tall tales, good lies, and pure fiction.

The Man Who Spoke the Law

Old folks will tell you there was a time when there was no poetry. Not around here anyway. Maybe back east or some place where time was more available, but breaking this land took all a man had and didn’t leave anything for him at the end. Certainly, no time for pretty words.

Some will even tell you that there was laws against it, but I don’t hold with that story. Still, I had this idea for a poem, back in ’08 or so and I didn’t want to run afoul the sheriff so I figured I needed to have a looksee to find out if there was any laws about poetry one way or the other.

I won’t tell you all my adventures because there were too many and most of them weren’t really worth the telling, but I saw a fair bit of Dallas and Houston and even El Paso on one occasion I’d just as soon forget.

It was in Austin, down in the fluorescent-lit subcommittee caverns beneath the capitol building, where I found my answers. I’d been walking around admiring all that pink granite and the grounds with all the fat squirrels and pigeons and lobbyists and all when I met an old guy mopping the floors after all the senators had left. He’s the one who told me these poems I’m about to share.

He said he found them. Now, I don’t usually go in for poems people say they found, but these two I’m about to relate are the closest I ever come to finding any kind of answer. I guess you could say they were found twice.

He told me, the Texas State Legislature said, “Let There Be Poetry.”

He told me it was all written down in a big old leather-bound book like the ones you might of seen witches reading their spells from in the movies. It was called Texas Administrative Code,

and if you turned those musty old pages over to

Title 19, Part II, Subchapter C §110.31. English Language Arts and Reading, English I (One Credit), Beginning with School Year 2009-2010. (b)  Knowledge and skills. (3) Reading/Comprehension of Literary Text/

you’d find it.

He closed his eyes and started reciting in a low whisper. He said it was

Poetry.

Students understand,
make inferences

draw conclusions
about the structure

& elements of poetry,
provide evidence from text

to support their understanding.
students are expected to analyze

the effects
of diction

and imagery

(
controlling images,
figurative language,
understatement,
overstatement,
irony,
paradox
)

in poetry.

He stopped saying his poem, and I stood there taking it all in for a long time. I could hear footsteps echoing through those marble corridors like the sound of generations of people coming up from their final resting places just to hear what this janitor was saying, but those footsteps were just regular folks going about their evening, leaving work, unaware that there was some poetry right there in the middle of all that law.

I told him it sounded like that about covered reading poems, but what about writing them. He nodded and told me all those powerful senators and legislators thought of that too and so he shared another one he found, but it was under some different subsections and letters and what have you.

This one was shorter, kind of like one of those Japanese poems that never got a title and  tells you a lot without using very many words so you have a lot of things to think about and maybe don’t know exactly what the writer meant.

write a poem
using a variety of
poetic techniques

and a variety
of poetic forms

He let it sink in  a moment or two and smiled and kind of leaned on his mop a little and told me he might of left some parts out, some commas and conjunctions and parentheticals and whatnot.

I don’t know. And I don’t know if those were any good or not either, but it sounded something like what I might be looking for.

The next morning, I headed back toward home and didn’t stop until I got there.

This was first published in qarrtsiluni (Words of Power issue, Oct 2009). Thank you to editors Dave Bonta and Beth Adams .

Ascent

1.
She went deeper and the boat receded. She worked her chains. The world was locks and water, but she knew the key and smiled as she sank.

2.
The waves came and went leaving constant patterns in the surf. A message: Help me. The beach litter was a map of the seafloor.

3.
He swam for hours into the darkening sea, found her lying in the coral. You came, she said. He exhaled for the last time.

4.
The sea was air, the coral home. Their love the fish, the legs they grew as they evolved back to land to invent boats, chains and locks.

///

I posted this to my Twitter feed about a year ago and found it in my files. So, a rerun.

The Scariest Book I Ever Read

The Fellowship of the Ring is probably the scariest book I’ve ever read. Not because the book is particularly scary—it isn’t—but because the first time I tried to read it, back when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was home sick. I’d been home from school reading it most of the day and fell asleep somewhere after the chapter “Fog on the Barrow Downs.”

That night I had terrible fever dreams in which I kept dreaming and re-dreaming the scenes in which the Hobbits are hunted by the barrow wights. These were fever dreams and so very real, immediate, and hard to wake from. When I did wake, I was scared and sweaty and when I went back to sleep, the dreams would pick up where I left off or start over, and never once did Tom Bombadil show up to rescue me as he did the Hobbits in the books.

Eventually morning came, and I was freaked out enough that I put the book aside, not to be read again until late in my freshman year of high school. When I finally did read it, I made sure that I had time to read a few chapters beyond “Barrow Downs” before going to sleep. I still do this when I reread Fellowship of the Ring, and I must admit that when the movie came out in 2001, I was a bit relieved that the scene had been cut. Still, it’s among my favorite books.

I was thinking about this the other night when I was feverish and starting to have strange dreams. I finally woke and started thinking about that night of Tolkien inspired fever dreams and that led to thinking about books and the ones that have stuck with me over the years. Not always (but mostly) favorites but important for the way they affected me or made me see or understand things differently. Or maybe just because I liked them so much.

Strangely, the next morning one of my friends tagged me on Facebook with a meme to share just such a list. So, here ’tis:

Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
The House at Pooh Corner – AA Milne
Thirty Seconds over Tokyo – Ted Lawson
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke
Blue Highways – William Least Heat-Moon
Dark and Like a Web – NS
VALIS – Philip K Dick
Roughing It – Mark Twain
The Sibley Guide to Birds – David Allen Sibley

I’m supposed to tag nine others but I’m not. Play along if you like.

One More Saturday Night (The Dead @ RFK: 6.24.95)

Back in the early ‘90s, I always taped the Grateful Dead Hour at midnight on KGSR. Didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, come 11:45, I was home to record it. I had never seen the Dead live, but I loved to hear their live sound. One Saturday night around April of ’95, some friends were over listening with me and while we were enjoying a particularly good “Fire on the Mountain,” I was hit with an overwhelming sense that I had to see the Dead. Now. Jerry just wasn’t going to around much longer.

Since they hadn’t played in Texas since the ’70’s, I knew we’d have to travel, and while four of us planned to go, two dropped out (“Next time,” they both said) and so it was that on June 21, 1995, R (who was not yet my wife) and I set out a little before midnight for Washington, DC where they would be playing RFK Stadium that coming Saturday. We had dry cereal, peanut butter, bread, a gas station card and a few bucks between us to get there.

We spent Thursday night in Knoxville and on Friday rolled into Washington where we planned to stay with an old high school buddy who was, incidentally, the person who introduced me to the Dead. We saw the sights and even visited the house in Springfield where I lived when I was a kid in the late ‘70s. And then, on Saturday night, we saw the Dead. Bob Dylan opened and underwhelmed as he tends to do, but when the Grateful Dead came out and opened with “Jack Straw” I had one of those I-can’t-believe-I’m-here moments. Quite simply, I had arrived at the promised land.

Longtime Deadheads pan these latter shows. Jerry was fading, and it was obvious to the band’s most dedicated followers that something was off, but for us, this first-and-only Dead show was magic. I have never been to any show before or since where I felt compelled to pay such close attention and where I was willing and able to just let the music carry me away.

The setlist included some of my favorites and some that I’ve come to love since then (h/t dead.net):

Jack Straw
Althea
Little Red Rooster
Friend of the Devil
El Paso
So Many Roads
Promised Land

Iko! Iko!
Way to Go Home
Saint of Circumstance –>
New Speedway Boogie –>
That Would Be Something –>
Drums –>
Space –>
The Days Between
One More Saturday Night

Black Muddy River

I’ll never forget the energy and excitement of “Iko! Iko!” or the way Bruce Hornsby ran away with “Promised Land” or how they put the boogie back into “New Speedway Boogie.” Most of all, though, I’ll always remember the way Jerry sang “Days Between,” a real favorite of mine. It’s not on any of their official releases and was written only a year or two earlier, but it’s one of the best Dead songs ever, dark and longing, beautiful and terrifying. Jerry poured what little was left of himself into that strange, cryptic song and held the audience captive all the while.

Who knew it would be the last time they would play “Friend of the Devil” and “That Would Be Something” and “Days Between”? And what an unusual portent it was for them to close with the first “Black Muddy River” in almost 4 years. In fact, a few weeks later, it was one of the last songs Jerry would sing with the band, allegedly altering the lyric from “black muddy river” to “last muddy river,” an interesting change in a song about the realization that there are more days behind than ahead of the aging singer who now at the end must face his failures. It’s a song that aches in its beauty and that night, hearing them close with it, there was a certain finality we felt even if we didn’t quite understand.

And that was it. Just another Saturday night in Washington, DC. We hung around Sunday and drove straight through to Austin on Monday. A month and a half later, Jerry Garcia died. It was August 9, and we were at Lollapalooza. My other favorite band, Sonic Youth, was headlining and as the moon rose over South Park Meadows (before it was paved and turned into a strip mall), they closed with a new song, an epic trippy-sounding psychedelic punk jam, called “The Diamond Sea” that Thurston Moore introduced simply by saying, “This is for Garcia.” It was gorgeous, and a fitting tribute.

As the years passed, I’ve always wanted to hear our Dead show again and a few years ago, I downloaded it from the Internet Archive where a generous taper had uploaded it. I’ve been listening to it and enjoying it all over again. Perhaps not surprisingly, the things I remembered most clearly come through as powerfully as they did in person.

It was a wonderful moment in a strange and wild time. A beautiful time in which anything was possible and nothing seemed more important than racing across the country to see a band play on a Saturday night. A few months later, I quit the freelance film life and started a “regular” job to save money for grad school, and so that trip and that show seem kind of like a last hurrah for me in a lot of ways. It was an ending but a beginning too, as they usually are.

I’ll never know what I heard in that Grateful Dead Hour solo, and I’ve lost the tape anyway, but there was something there… a single note or a phrase maybe, something deep that spoke of the ephemeral nature of music and art and beauty and even life itself when you get right down to it. Life’s fleeting moments, experience and wisdom, gathered into song and then blown out on the wind like smoke in the air, flames on a mountaintop, those “headless horsemen vanishing with wild and lonely cries.” All that in one little bit of music that called us across the country to hear something glorious that was itself fading into darkness.

November Microfiction 6-10

The backhoe hit something solid. The road workers grumbled to a stop and stared at the great metallic wings among the fossilized shells.

Terrified by what I’d built, I drowned my robot in the creek behind the house. At night, he returned. Said I never gave him lungs.

Just north of the border, traffic came to a stop. She practiced her smile, took his hand off her leg and put it back in the glovebox.

“Fox!” the boy called with little interest. He missed the days before budget cuts and downsizing when he had been the boy who cried wolf.

No way this thing should be able to fly. I mean who makes their own helicopters? I glance down at the ground and wish I’d learned to land.

///

These are originally posted on Twitter (@jdbrush). I’m trying to do one per day this month.

November Microfiction 1-5

He wore a hatful of moonlight and in the daytime pretended to ignore the inconvenient coyotes trailing him through the streets, howling.

Savage! The savage savage savagely savaged the other savages for their refusal to act as pronouns, prepositions, or conjunctions.

Years later, she opened the book and saw the letters had slid off the pages and clumped in the gutter. She pieced together a new scripture.

The leviathan, hungry for prophets, swam in ever-widening circles and considered the ursine shore, the polar bear market.

The old astronaut in the tee box glanced at Cygnus. He was go for the black hole in one. It was a par 3.1555787×10e18, but he felt lucky.

///

These are originally posted on Twitter (@jdbrush). I’m trying to do one per day this month.

Because Math Said So

I heard that They say math is the language of nature and the way in which we explain everything, which is a pretty cool thing to think about. Math is probably the language of God despite the church’s old fondness for Latin. That’s part of why I like math, but it wasn’t always so. Math and I have not always been friends.

Math turned against me in second grade, which I otherwise loved. I think it was the regular timed tests. I could never get past subtraction even when the rest of the class had moved through multiplication and on to joyless division. It’s probably where my hatred of school began too. Eventually, I began to get things under control, but then those fiends threw letters into the mix so now I had to deal not just with numbers but sometimes x and even his diabolical buddy y. I always liked reading and writing, but now it seemed the whole treasonous alphabet was turning against me.

Sometimes I understood it, but it wasn’t until later that I took satisfaction in solving a problem or working a proof the way I did writing a good story. So there were ups and downs along the bumpy road to graduation: Algebra was a down, Geometry was an up—the first one in math since first grade, Algebra II was down, Trig was a giant up. This is where I started to actually enjoy it. I thought I was home free, but then came Calculus and… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t need it to graduate. In college, I only needed to pass basic algebra, which I did, and then no more math forever, I thought. I celebrated by treating myself to a cheeseburger.

Flash forward twenty-some years, and my current teaching assignment involves helping students earn their GEDs. I had to relearn (learn, really, but the re- in front makes it sound better) all the algebra I swore I’d never need to know and that I’d never use in the “real world.” A funny thing happened, though, when I started FOIL-ing and throwing around slope-intercept and quadratic formulas. I liked it. I liked learning about it and getting a bit of a deeper glimpse at how the universe works.

To my surprise, I also found I like teaching a little math. We English teachers live in a world of ambiguity, debatable short answers and essay questions, endless discussion, and gray areas. (Or is it ‘grey’ and did I really need that comma before the ‘and’?) Part of the fun is helping students fumble their way to coherent arguments in support of their ideas and positions. But sometimes it’s nice to break up the day by teaching some math.

The road to the solution for any given problem is a journey and for those of us who find the greatest meaning in the journey (and, let’s be honest here, aren’t being graded on the problem), it can be an interesting journey to take. But I admit, a couple of times a day, it’s nice to be able to point to a number and say that this is the correct answer and there is no other choice. No debate. No argument. The answer is 42. Why? Because math said so, that’s why.

Back to School

In 2008, my colleagues picked me as teacher of the year for our campus. Upon being selected, my principal handed me a packet to complete. Seems you have to write a short essay about your path to teaching, teachers who inspired you, professional accomplishments and some biography so the board can pick the district teacher of the year. This is a slightly redacted version of what I wrote back in 2008. I found it while cleaning up my work computer and doing some start of the year organizing. Call it a summer rerun.

I became a teacher twice. In the process, I learned that sometimes you have to leave a thing to see how much you love it.

When I was in college too many people told me I would be a good teacher. Told me I should be a teacher. Yeah, right, I thought. That’s nuts. Teaching was in the family, but I was going to work on film sets and maybe even be a director. A funny thing happened on the way to the director’s chair, though.

I learned that film work in Austin is sporadic at best. Hard up for cash between gigs, I took to substitute teaching. It took a little while to admit it, but eventually I realized I liked being in the classroom more than on film sets. Though I was “just subbing,” the work felt meaningful. I was a little jealous of the teachers with whom I worked; what they were doing was important. It wasn’t long before subbing mattered more to me than working on TV shows and movies I wouldn’t even have watched had I not been involved with making them.

While subbing, I thought a lot about the teachers who impacted me most. In second grade, Mrs. G. shared her love for Hawaii with us. That summer we moved to the Philippines and had a three-day layover in Honolulu. I knew the whole island and probably could have gone into business conducting tours. There was Mr. R. of 9th grade Modern European History who shouted and raved, gloriously reliving the great battles and upheavals that molded Europe.  On day one of 12th Grade AP English, Mr. C. informed us that he only read and taught books with lots of sex or violence. We read Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, the King James Bible, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Invisible Man. I became a reader. The one thing all these teachers shared was passion. They loved their subjects, and they wanted their students to love them as much as they did. They were having fun too.

After graduate school, I found myself at a crossroads. I could restart my freelance film career, or I could try going all in on the teaching thing. Maybe my college friends weren’t so crazy. I enrolled in an alternative certification program in ‘99. That first year teaching middle school was grueling, but I survived. I taught 7th grade English for a second year and then switched to high school where I taught 10th and 11th grade English while building a winning debate program.  Each year, though, I had less fun. It grew more aggravating. The grass looked greener in the business world and in 2005, I decided I had done my part and paid my debt to society. It was time to go corporate and cash in.

That lasted almost one semester. I missed teaching. I missed the kids. I missed talking about books and analyzing poems. I missed the way autumn looks from inside a classroom and feels when you walk out at the end of the day. I missed the way spring brings everyone alive. I missed the rhythm of the school year, and most importantly, I missed doing work that I believe matters and makes the world a better place.

Only slightly annoyed by the self-applied pressure of my social conscience, I applied to be the GED instructor at a juvenile correctional facility in January 2006. I wasn’t sure how it would go there, but I learned that I really like teaching these kids. Someone has to.

The contributions and accomplishments in education of which I am the most proud are the ordinary days here at my school teaching a 100% “at-risk” population. Whether it’s helping seventeen-year-old freshmen earn their GEDs so they can start fresh in their lives or just, as my former principal said, “welcoming kids back to the community of learners,” on a daily basis, I get to help kids find their way back to the thrill of learning, the truth of a well told story, the beauty of a poem, a sense of wonder at the world around them.

That first day back in the classroom, I knew I had come home. I had become a teacher for the second and last time.

Small Adjustments

First he thought it was the stars, that creaking groan and grind of tired years but with time the tension grew and he realized the problem lay not overhead but underfoot (as problems often do). Some days the gripping stuckness beneath his feet felt tighter and other days it felt looser like someone else’s shoes depending on where he walked and what he ate for breakfast. Out on the plains where the stars rattled so faintly as to be almost inaudible, he located the source of this tension, unzipped the blackland earth and studied the dull gears that moved the gears that made the world go round. He turned a wrench against the machine—so surprisingly simple to adjust, this mechanical universe—and retuned the planet’s motion relative to the earthly key of his own aspirations. That’s the way he explained his good fortune years later as he leaned back in the worn leather chair of his old age, smiling in the knowledge that he was now very close to achieving his lifelong goal of living happily ever after.

For Magpie Tales #109

A Perfect World

For the first time in 22 years, I am not working at Camp Periwinkle this week. Between having a newborn and several days of professional development training, it just wasn’t in the cards this year. It’s strange to be away from something I’ve been involved with over half my life so while thinking about the good times those kids are having, I figured I’d dig up this old post from 2006. It was originally called “Back from Camp” but was changed to “A Perfect World” when it was re-published in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing. So, a rerun. Enjoy. (And please consider making a donation.)

We got back from Camp Periwinkle (a camp for childhood cancer patients and their siblings) on Saturday afternoon and have spent most of the time since recovering. I’ve been going to Camp every summer since 1990, which is possible since it’s only a week long.

The underlying philosophy of camp is selflessness. All the counselors and staff are volunteers, the kids go for free, everything there is donated. For one week, and sometimes for the last time, the kids at camp get to feel normal, and they get to have fun, and they have the time of their lives.

The smiles and the laughter at Camp Periwinkle are things that keep those of us who’ve been doing it for so long coming back year after year.

It’s typically one of the high points of any given year. It’s a chance to spend a week living in a perfect world, a world of patience, selflessness, love, compassion, understanding. It’s a chance to see kids and adults truly be their best selves. Where else can you see kids in a relay race cheering on the kid in a wheelchair who will cost them the race, yet no one cares about who wins or loses? Where else can you see adults put aside every aspect of their own comfort and convenience so that kids will feel special?

I’ve never been anywhere or done anything else that focuses what life should be about and how we should interact with one another more clearly than Camp Periwinkle. It’s a place where no expense is spared, no opportunity missed, to make kids whose lives are a daily struggle feel special, feel normal. It teaches kids that they can do what no one thinks they can. It helps them survive.

In the past seventeen years, I’ve seen kids laugh, smile, dance, and play who might never otherwise have found a place to do those things. I’ve watched kids crawl out of wheelchairs to climb a wall on the ropes course. I’ve seen kids fresh from brain surgery lean on their crutches and dance.

It’s a powerful place and it changes a person’s way of thinking. It reminds me of how special life is, how lucky I am, how important it is to work everday to make the world a better place for everyone.

It’s a chance to see what life could be like in a world ruled by love, where nobody ever wanted for anything.

Did I say it is a perfect world?

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