Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Category: Stories (page 2 of 6)

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

Maiden & Priest

The night before our son was born, we were flipping through channels and caught a few minutes of the Iron Maiden documentary/concert film Flight 666. I used to love Maiden back in my metallic youth; in fact, the only thing I might have liked more was Judas Priest. I remember riding the bus to school in junior high swapping tapes with friends and discussing the relative merits of Priest classics British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith along with Maiden’s Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind. We also liked Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and even though we agreed the Priest could totally kick Jackson’s ass, we decided that Thriller was still pretty awesome in its own spooky right.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot or perhaps outgrew this music. Maybe it was the fact that the trappings of metal grew so cheesy and convoluted and dependent on hair (thanks, Poison and Ratt) that it just became an embarrassment. I moved on to punk and hardcore and never looked back, which is kind of a shame because when I downloaded and listened to Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” and Priest’s “Freewheel Burning,” I couldn’t believe how much I still liked these tunes. My god how these guys rocked, I thought, and then immediately started downloading old favorites from those albums mentioned above.

Amazing how music transports… Suddenly I remember those junior high years and the long bus ride from our little town up the coast from Naples to the DOD high school on the base. Listening to it again, the sheer intesity and power of the playing is something to behold, especially when Judas Priest starts shredding on “Freewheel Burning” or the raw speed of “Exciter” and “Rapid Fire” or Maiden’s manic “Aces High.” Sometimes the bus ride didn’t seem long at all.

I remember the anticipation we all felt for Iron Maiden’s forthcoming Powerslave. Even after it was out, you couldn’t find it at the base PX. Which is why when we took a family trip up to the UK, the main thing I wanted was to get my hands on Powerslave. I lived inside my headphones much of the way back to Naples on the train, Europe racing along outside the windows to the power and intensity of such classics as “Aces High,” “2 Minutes to Midnight,” and my introduction to Coleridge through their epic retelling of his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Amazing stuff, and I think I was one of the first kids at Naples American High School to have Powerslave, which certainly didn’t hurt my all-important-for-an-8th-grader cool quotient.

Maiden’s lyrics always hooked me. This was a band of readers and history buffs whose interests in science fiction and classic poetry came out in their music. They sounded like nerds who had become cool and that appealed to a kid like me. With Judas Priest, though, the lyrics were almost irrelevant. It was the ax work, the blistering solos and shredding and the operatic glory of Rob Halford’s voice. I thought about Maiden and I felt Priest.

Now, decades later, I find that I still really like this stuff. I’m downloading and relistening, rediscovering these gems from my past. I doubt I’ll venture much further back into metal than these two bands, but I’m not sure I would need to. In my spare moments, I get my rock on and that’s probably the answer to the question of new-parent exhaustion: lots of coffee, some Maiden and a little Priest. And Coltrane too, of course, because the ’61 Vanguard recordings… well that would be a whole other post.

Here We Go Again

She holds her smoke. She’s swallowed the sun. Tendrils drift blue from her nose, a curtain obscuring the year. Cars weave through the lot. She stands among leaves, refusing to flinch at the sound of tires rolling over gravel like fragile bones. Her resistance radiates through the trees’ bare branches and out to space with the smoke from her lungs as the light between her fingers fades. She flicks the butt to the sidewalk, a comet to inspire the prophesies and curses of the ants. She runs her hands through her long and tired hair, pushes open the door surprising herself by humming snatches of a tune she thought she’d forgotten. The ants gather to celebrate this thing, this fire, they believe is theirs.

Prose poem or flash fiction? Who knows. This is based on this old post from 2009.

A Minor Head Injury (or So They Tell Me)

January 1991.

After the emptiness, the biblical chaos of time before creation, movement or matter, there was a light and it was blue.  It was good.  Bright deep blue. The screen thrown up by a failing hard drive.

The blue overflowed my eyes and filled my senses like sparkling water on a Caribbean day.  The blue flickered and popped.  It sometimes disappeared and then flared back across my vision like a tin of paint tipped sideways.  Occasionally, a solid cloud—yes, clouds so we must be dealing with sky—chiseled like marble suspended by invisible tethers would appear to break up the infinite beauty of blue.  The periods of blue were short and often replaced by longer periods of black in which there was no sound, only the nauseating sweep of free-fall.

“Trailers for sale or rent,” my voice sang.

Black.

Blue: “Rooms to let, fifty cents”

Black.

Blue: “phone, nor pets; I ain’t got no…”

Black.

Blue: “cigarettes.  King of the Road.”

Treetops appeared and disappeared on the searing edges of the blue.  Snow covered pine tips stood out against the azure sky like sterile needles rushing overhead.  I wondered what the bottoms of the trees looked like.  I closed my eyes.

“Killington, Vermont,” I guessed.

“I don’t know where that is,” a voice said.

“No, wait… Colorado?”

Blue: “I don’t pay no union dues.”

I was flying now, the trees nothing but a blur.  I attempted to sit up, but a thousand hammers crashed on my sternum and I fell back, gasping for air like a landed fish.  The lights went out.

When I heard the sound of an engine rattling, I opened my eyes again and stared at a group of men and women, scraggly and bundled in flannel, who looked at me through the dim gloom.  I couldn’t make out what lay behind them.

“It’s a Willie Nelson tune,” one of them stated with authority.

Uneasy laughter, then: “No, no, it’s that guy… Roger Miller.  Y’know, ‘King of the Road’”

“I ain’t got no cigarettes,” I said as if stating my name.

A woman leaned over and I stared up at her red face as she peered into my eyes.  I didn’t like the red cross emblazoned on her cap, nor the words ‘SKI PATROL’ stenciled underneath.  Again, I tried to sit, to swim for the beckoning surface of lucidity, but I was pulled down into the muck of half-remembered country lyrics and confused notions about who I was before I could break that glassy surface.

When my eyes opened, I stared up at the florescent tubes humming their official song of cold efficiency like a nest of bees contained.  I watched the tubes and listened to the hurried voices that came from remote lands around my scattered perception.

“Get out the way!”

“Hey, I need a hand!”

“STAT!”

It’s never a good situation when people are saying, ‘STAT’.  I waited for the word to be finished: STAT-ue, STAT-istic, STAT-ic.  But it was always just, “STAT.”

My head flopped to the side and my eyes focused on the gurney’s shiny chrome railing.  Beyond it, a familiar face.  Eric’s eyes were open and there was blood and ice in his blonde hair.  I watched him but I was afraid to speak. He stared back at me.

“What’s happening,” I asked with increasing alarm.

I waited for a flood of memories to come back, but instead I got nothing more than a shallow creek.  I came up against the black wall that curtained off the parts of memory that might give me answers.

“We’re hosed,” he whispered.  “I can’t move.”

Suddenly, I was moving.  I watched as his head disappeared, then his lift tickets attached like badges to his blue bib, then his socks… where were his shoes? My gurney rushed through the ER, confusing the sounds and blurred images of hurried people and intercom imperatives with the Doppler trails of scurrying doctors.  I felt sick. I gave up.

Black.

Blue: “Every door that ain’t locked when no one’s around.”

“You shouldn’t let yourself go out when you hit your head,” a gentle voice said, echoing through black veils.

“I can’t help it.”

“Try.”

I knew the voice from some hospital TV show.  It was Hawkeye.  I smiled.  I knew I would be in good hands with the best chest cutter in Korea working on me.  I would be getting a purple heart and the Army would be sending me—

“Sit up,” Hawkeye said.

I opened my eyes and found myself disappointed to be staring at an old pale-faced doctor with thinning red hair.  Not Hawkeye.  Not even Alan Alda.

“Feeling better?”

“My chest,” I mumbled.  I realized I was able to sit and stay awake at the same time.

“You and your buddy crashed into each other on a little connecter slope.”  His tone said, ‘stupid tourists.’

“Is Eric okay,” I asked.

“Concussion.  Same as you.  I’m giving you a prescription for Tylenol with codeine.  Don’t ski tomorrow, and don’t sleep more than two hours at a stretch.”  He smiled, but it wasn’t pleasant.  He obviously thought I was getting what I deserved for skiing recklessly on his slopes.

Two days later under the bright Colorado sun, I rode up the chairlift as if for the first time.  The codeine-altitude combination created a euphoric spinning sensation as we glided to the top where I put my skis down into the powder and coasted off the lift.  I turned a hard right and followed my friends down a connecting slope to a second lift, which would take us higher up the mountain.  We rounded a wide bend and skied down a ridge to a small place where a sheer rock wall rose thirty feet above us.  The other side of the trail dropped fifty feet to the snowy treetops below.

“Right here,” Jason said.

“What exactly happened,” I asked.

“You guys came flying down that ridge and nailed each other in the air.”

I shook my head and looked at Eric.  He shrugged.

I looked at the wholly unfamiliar place.  The codeine temporarily kept me from dwelling much on it.  I pushed on my poles and continued toward the chairs that would ferry me higher up that mountain that still exists in my mind as a dark crag upon the range of my otherwise clear memories as if a storm permanently dwells over that one spot.  It is a piece of my life that, like childhood, only exists in the memories and recollections of others.

More than anything else, I realize how desperately we need our stories.  Oh, we may (and will) edit them, polish and rewrite them for general consumption, but the fact remains: our stories are the truth of who we are.  Just as a writer cannot abide a blank piece of paper (or a white screen), neither can our souls bear a blank spot on the endless recorder of our memories.  We must fill those gaps with something whether it is pure invention, or fragments cobbled together into a narrative based on stories told us by trusted friends.  Without our stories we are lost.

Proof:  A medical bill and a photo of me, greenish from the low Kelvin light of the hospital tubes.  A photo of me staggering uncertainly through a Colorado ER, a frown on my face and a middle finger stuck towards the camera.

A Trip to the Zoo

I still remember the day my grandpa took me to the zoo to see all the animals. We started in the aviary. He opened drawer after drawer, pulling withered birds from thin glass formaldehyde-filled tombs. I stared in wonder at their soggy bodies and imagined them flying through the air singing their forgotten songs while he read the tags attached to their legs by thin pieces of wire.

Aren’t they beautiful, he whispered, holding them out for me to admire one-by-one. Here in his wizened old hands were the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Bachman’s warbler, the Eskimo curlew, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the ivory-billed woodpecker. He told me how someday their DNA would be used to bring them back, but he didn’t believe it any more than I did; it was only rote justification recited like a verbal ghost dance, a spell to ward away despair.

In another drawer, he showed me the tufted titmouse, northern cardinal, turkey vulture, house sparrow and common grackle. I marveled at the play of light in the grackle’s iridescent feathers, moving my head back-and-forth to find the place where purple became black, all the while wondering at the beauty the thing must have once possessed. I’m sorry, Grandpa said over and over again, looking away from dead eyes and knowing that these birds would only ever fly again in the memories of his generation, a generation soon to be consigned to its own silent aviaries.

I’m sorry, he kept repeating as his shaky hands placed the bird back with the rest of its flock. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t bear to see him this way so I just asked him if we could go see the tigers and bears next. Maybe get a hot dog.

Old Photo Friday (Bataan, Philippines: 1982)

Friendship Tower of Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. 1982.

I found this while flipping through the old photo albums. It’s a picture of the Friendship Tower of Bagac in Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. It was dedicated in 1975 as a monument to peace and friendship between the Philippines and Japan.

I took the picture in spring 1982 with my old Kodak 110 Instamatic. I took three pictures of it and as soon as they came back, I taped them together to make this collage in an attempt to capture the whole thing. Not bad for an eleven-year-old.

We moved to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines in 1979. In that time and place World War II was still close at hand. Only thirty-four years had passed, which to an eight-year-old represented several lifetimes but now doesn’t seem like much time at all. About the same as the span of years stretching from this moment back to ’82.

Physically, World War II was everywhere: relics, monuments and blood dried into the soil. In those years after Vietnam, I’m sure it was the war people on base preferred to remember. To a child, though, it existed in a dream world between heroic fantasy and rusted reality.

The fantasy came from books and stories seasoned with a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired battle romance. We read the books, enacted our war games wearing camouflage and rank insignia we’d pinched from our dads, and fought each other with mangos, avocados and guavas plucked from trees.

Despite the games, though, there was also the undeniable reality of the whole thing lingering in the air and throughout the jungle we were all strictly forbidden to enter. I remember one day hiking with my scout troop on Grande Island, a small resort—formerly a fort—island in the mouth of Subic Bay. We found an overgrown bunker facing toward the sparkling South China Sea complete with a gun emplacement rusted orange and ruined by years left to the rainy season’s whims. Had anyone fought there? Had anyone died?

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

These were questions that rattled through my mind when I participated in the annual reenactment of the Bataan Death March by scout troops from throughout Southeast Asia. My troop participated each year, and I was as excited as could be in 1982, when I was old enough for several grueling days of hiking.

The real Bataan Death March occurred in 1942 when Japanese forces captured over 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers after the Battle of Bataan and marched them to prison camps. Along that route, thousands were killed or died of starvation and disease.

Forty years later, we camped on the beach, played D&D in our tents and each morning after breakfast, we were bused to wherever we’d left off the previous day to trace the route of the death march. I remember it as exhausting and yet throughout, I had the awareness that this was nothing next to what those victims and survivors of the real Bataan Death March endured.

Somewhere along those dusty Philippine roads my fascination with war turned to recoiling as I realized it was one thing to reenact battles with my friends, but quite another to walk endless miles along a trail of brutality, hopelessness and murder. I think it was then that the idea of war began to move from fantasy to nightmare as we walked through Bataan imagining the sheer horror of the reality our reenactment was meant to remember.

It was quite a walk for an eleven-year-old with a vivid imagination, but I think I learned more about the cost of war than I ever did from books or school.

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

There’s another Old Photo Friday from 2006 featuring a picture from the Bataan Death March.

Old Photo Friday

Narragansett Bay from Middletown, RI. April 1988.

This is looking west over Narragansett Bay from Middletown or Portsmouth, Rhode Island in April 1988 just months before we moved to Texas. I was in the car with a couple of friends and we pulled over so I could get a shot of the light bursting through that hole in the clouds. We called it “God light” because it reminded us of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which God commands Arthur to seek the grail.

I had just gotten my first real camera, a Pentax K1000, the previous Christmas and so I was learning the habit of carrying it nearly everywhere I went, searching for the photographic holy grail of being in the perfect place when the light hits just right. It would be years before I began to understand that the real wonder was not so much in the picture, but in the way that being open to finding those pictures helps me better see and know the world around me.

As with all the photos on the blog, click to enlarge and view it at a higher resolution.

Old Photo Friday

Mt Etna, Sicily, Italy; Early '80's

One of the few things I’ve invented in the blog world is Old Photo Friday. Maybe I invented it, I don’t know. I’ve never seen anyone else do it, but perhaps I only discovered it in the way that Columbus discovered America.

I did Old Photo Friday fairly regularly from June 2006 to June 2007 and then stopped. I guess I got tired of it, but lately I’ve been missing those weekly explorations of old photographs.

With thoughts of Columbus and worlds old and new, I found this shot of Mt. Etna I took with my old Kodak 110 Instamatic. We lived in Italy from 1982 until 1985 and during that time, I visited Sicily twice. Once with my family and once with my Boy Scout troop (395, the best alive). This is from the Boy Scout trip, which I’m guessing was either in ’83 or ’84, in which we went camping on the lower slopes of the volcano.

We took the train down from Naples and crossed the straits to Sicily on the ferry, which was all very exciting, though being inside the train cars in the cavernous hold of the ferry wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

Etna was erupting at the time, but it’s a big mountain so we were safe enough, though occasionally we felt a rumble and some of the guys claimed to have seen a small explosion near the summit, but even that didn’t seem like too a big a deal since our school was on the slopes of La Solfatara, a mostly-dormant volcano that frequently spewed foul-smelling clouds of sulfur into the air so the whole area would smell like rotten eggs and farts.

Mt Etna didn’t smell bad, and it was a good place to camp and hike and explore. We were especially interested in the shrines set up along the trails with their votive candles, old photographs of people taken when they were young and piles of Lira, sacrifices, we imagined, so the dead would have some change to buy Cokes in Heaven.

iCoyote

After days on the road, Robbie ran out of numbers for counting road signs and clouds, which was fine since he’d already counted all of them anyway. He switched to counting things that weren’t there and ticked imaginary numbers off in his head whenever he didn’t see something.

He thought he didn’t see a motorcycle but the absence was only a mirage, he realized when a black-clad biker gang rumbled past, stirring the desert to thunderous life before returning to the kind of silence that inspired Robby to consider counting things he didn’t hear as well as things unseen.

He thought he didn’t hear a coyote, so he eased his pickup off the highway to make sure the animal wasn’t there before adding it to his tally. Robby was scrupulously honest with himself about all things and wanted to ensure the accuracy of his count especially since the coyote, if it wasn’t there, would be the 500ith item on his list.

When he stepped out of his truck, the wind tore at his hair and clawed his jacket. He looked around trying to see if there was nothing there to count, but the desert, much to Robby’s disappointment, was full of things and besides he wanted that coyote to be the 500ith thing that wasn’t there. Nearly i0 hours from the road, he didn’t see the coyote, which wasn’t sitting in a three-legged chair. He resisted the urge to count the chair’s missing leg.

He approached iCoyote slowly and knelt before his absence, staring up at the thin clouds in the sky where iCoyote’s head would have been.

“I thought I’d be able to see you,” Robbie whispered, his voice nearly lost in the wind as he added iCoyote to his tally.

“Divide out the i’s,” iCoyote didn’t say.

Robbie thought back to half-remembered math classes, wondered if i worked like a variable, could be solved like x. “I’d have to do that to both sides of the equation, wouldn’t I?” Robby asked and noticed that he’d lifted his hands like an equal sign between them. “To balance it out, right?”

iCoyote didn’t say, “You’ll get your proof.”

Robbie divided out the i and saw the coyote grinning at him from the chair. The coyote hopped down, walked through Robbie as if he were a mere fraction reduced to the lowest terms of what he had been, and trotted off in the direction of Robbie’s truck.

Robbie looked around and saw all the things that weren’t there. He subtracted frantically, his list cratering before his open eyes. In the distance, he didn’t hear his engine start and he didn’t hear it drive down the highway without him.

This is a response to Read Write Poem prompt #111, a picture of a guy kneeling in front of an empty three-legged chair. It’s a remarkable photo.

I never know what to label stuff like this. Short story? Flash fiction? Prose poem? Prose poem feels right since that’s the intention I started with.

I have no idea if I got the math right. As with Robbie, my math classes were a long time ago.

Be sure to read what others did with this prompt.

The Man Who Spoke the Law

My short prose piece “The Man Who Spoke the Law” is up over at qarrtsiluni. It’s part of the “Words of Power” issue, which is running through December. There’s lots of great stuff over there so check it out.

Let’s Hear It for the Gecko Supergirl

I was out on my run this afternoon when I saw a car stop in the middle of the road. The woman behind the wheel jumped out, frantically looking at the pavement under her car. I slowed and turned to make sure she was okay and saw that she was shooing a small gecko away from her car and toward the sidewalk.

Another car sped past, bearing down on the gecko. The woman screamed and jumped back, but the gecko managed to run clear. After taking a deep breath she began trying to catch the gecko again. At this point I had to help. I jogged over and bent down in the road to try to catch it myself. “Is this a pet lizard or something?” I asked, trying to make sense of the situation.

“I just don’t want it to die,” she said.

We couldn’t catch the lizard, but we were able to herd him across the road, over the curb and into the grass beyond the sidewalk without anyone getting hit by any cars. She grinned and said, “We did it!” before high-fiving me and hurrying back to her car.

I’ve stopped in many a road to help a turtle amble across without getting hit, but never a gecko. I’m not even sure how she knew it was there, but I have to say I was impressed. One could debate the wisdom of slamming on brakes and stopping in the middle of a busy road to help a 1-inch lizard scurry across to safety, risking not just car but life and limb.

But I won’t.

I’ll just say, let’s hear it for the Gecko Supergirl.

And, Gecko Supergirl (whoever you are), thanks for the reminder that all us creatures deserve safe passage across the highways.

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