Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: fiction

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.

At Thundercloud

I watched the guy behind the counter make my sandwich. His head bobbed up and down to the rhythm of some obscure punk tune recorded fifteen years ago. It doesn’t matter the year, Thundercloud always just seems like fifteen years earlier.

He glanced up. “Mayo?”

I nodded. “A little.”

He squirted the mayo on the sandwich, wrapped it and said, “Chips and soda?”

“Yeah.”

“Seven fifty, bud.”

I handed him a credit card and watched him ring up the order. He came back holding up the receipt. “You need this?”

“Nope.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re probably not going to have to prove you bought a sandwich,” he said, laughing at his joke as he started to drop the receipt in the trash.

I smiled too, trying to imagine the absurdity of such a situation.

“Unless,” he said, stopping his movement and looking again at the receipt, “you need an alibi.”

I looked from him to the receipt in his hand.

“You never know,” he said offering the receipt.

“Maybe I should take it.”

He nodded as he handed me my sandwich. “I’m just saying. You never know, y’know?”

Curiosity Blew Up the Town

When I was teaching at a junior high, I once had a kid ask, “What does e=mc2 mean?” Clearly, whatever point of sentence construction I was elaborating on wasn’t sinking in with this kid.

“Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared,” I said as I underlined a predicate.

He squinted his eyes a bit, probably wondering whether or not he could trust an English teacher on this, but then nodded and jotted something down in his notebook. He looked up again. “Okay, what’s the speed of light?”

I stopped and looked at him. “186,000 miles per second.”

He nodded and scribbled the equation in his spiral, his number two pencil working madly. “Whoooaa,” he said, looking up.

“What?”

“That’s a lot of energy. Even if the mass is just 1.”

I nodded. “Yes, it is.”

He stared at his notebook, trying to make sense of the enormity of those numbers. “I mean, you could probably blow up a whole city with that kind of energy, right?”

I think the next few sentences we analyzed were about nuclear bombs.

Red River

A few months ago, my wife and I were on our way to a party her company was hosting at a downtown club. We had had dinner and had some time to kill so we stopped for a pint at Bull McCabe’s on Red River. We sat at a rickety table on the porch, enjoying the springtime weather and watched people walk up and down the street, drifting from club to club.

The homeless shelter is right around the corner so along with music lovers, there tends to be an abundance of homeless people mingling about the area, often indistinguishable from the music fans until they ask for a handout.

One guy, probably in his mid-thirties, came shuffling onto the porch. He wore a few extra sweaters under a grimy red coat out of which a white cable grew like a vine that terminated in his ears. I wondered if he actually had an ipod under there somewhere.

“Hey,” he said, walking up to our table. “You got any cash?”

My wife and I shook our heads. “Sorry, no.”

He stared at our beers and looked back at us. “What about them?”

I shrugged. “No cash.”

“Can you charge me a beer then?”

“No.”

“Aw, come on, man, you can just get me a beer. I won’t bother you. You can afford another one.”

I didn’t say, yes, I could afford more, and had he asked, I might have bought him a burger, but he just stared at us, clearly annoyed, small muscles ticking beneath his face. “What do you do for a living?” he asked, his voice challenging, likely trying to prove to us that we made enough to buy him a beer.

“I’m a teacher,” I said.

His body language changed with that last word. He relaxed, making me realize for the first time just how wound up and intense he was under all those used-up old clothes. He took a polite step back. “Aw, man, I’m sorry. I won’t bother you. You have a good night. You’re good people.”

He backed out of the bar and smiled at us again as he shuffled down the street, leaving us to wonder what teacher he had had that made such an impression on him that he refused to bother a teacher. I also wondered what would have happened had I been an investment banker.

52

Last week, while driving down North Lamar, I came to the light at Airport and rolled to a stop. In front of me, a well used Toyota (I think, but we’ll call it that nonetheless) vibrated in time to the thumping bass within.

As I sat there waiting for the light to change, mentally reviewing the long list of errands I had to run, I noticed that the back end of the Toyota was slowly rising. I’ve seen plenty of rides (though I had thought this was just a car rather than a ride) pimped out with hydraulics so this wasn’t anything special. Not yet.

Once the back end of the car had reached its summit, the trunk popped open. Now fascinated, I found myself gawking and wondering what could be trying to escape from that trunk. Garish red light bathed the interior and before I could ask myself why the trunk needed to be filled with red light – or any light for that matter – I noticed that a pair of neon tubes affixed to the inside of the lid were the source of that light.

The lid continued to rise until it was fully open at which point I could see that the tubes were not meant to illuminate, but rather to enlighten. It was a sign. Actually a number. 52.

I stared at it for some time trying to think of all the 52’s I could. Cards in a deck. Weeks in a year. After going two and out and still pondering it when I got home, I checked Wikipedia and found that 52 also represents the number of white keys on a piano, the atomic number of tellurium, and the international direct dial code for calling Mexico.

Whatever it was, the stoplight turned green, the trunk closed, the Toyota jacked back down, and we drove our separate ways with my life having been made just a bit more surreal. Perhaps the owner of the car was helping to keep Austin weird or maybe I was just the random victim of a drive-by numbering.

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