UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
GIANO CROMLEY

Coyote In The City

         Coming out of high school, Ellis Jackson had a football scholarship to a Division II school, but he opted instead to stay in Billings and follow his father into the roofing business. The job

suited him. It engaged his senses – the sticky tar vapors, the rough feel of new shingles, the satisfying kick of the nailgun as it snicked another nail home. The work was a language he understood, a mantra chanted in his native tongue.

         In time, he started his own company. He started a family that same year. For the next decade, both of them grew. But a slump in the housing market caused work orders to nosedive. Within two years, he'd had to sell off the company truck, then the roofing equipment. He was forced to go on public assistance to feed his wife and three young sons.

         When he finally did land a job, it was emptying garbage for the City Parks Department – seasonal, and the pay was brutally low. He was thirty-one years old.

+++++

        But it wasn't all bad. Every day he drove around alone in a modified Ford F-350. No accountability except to the garbage itself, and to the occasional call from his boss Kent on the CB.

         In the mornings, Jackson would rush through the bigger parks, then take his time at the smaller parks out west in the afternoons. It was here that he was least likely to encounter people he knew. Every morning before he set off on his route, he studied the meager job listings in the classifieds. Afterwards, if there was time, he'd skim the local section. One morning in June he came across an article that caught his attention.

         Apparently, there had been mountain lion sightings around the commercial strip west of town. Animal control officers cornered the creature in a loading dock behind Target. They tranquilized it and relocated it outside the city. But they warned that if it turned up again, they'd have to euthanize it. The story made Jackson quake with a slow, boiling rage.

         In mid-July he came across another article. This time, a juvenile coyote came in off the prairies and wandered down 24th Street. It found a Quizno's with the front door propped open, scurried inside, and took a seat on the counter. Because coyotes enjoyed no federal or state protections, Animal Control put it down.

         Why was this happening? Jackson wondered. Who was to blame? He tore the newspaper into scraps and flung them out the truck window. There hadn't been any new job listings that morning.

+++++

        One afternoon in early August he pulled his truck up to a stop at Garrett Park. His eyes traced the perimeter of the green square. There was a set of netless basketball hoops on one end, an abandoned playground on the other. It took him a moment to realize something was wrong.

         "Hey, Kent," he said into the CB mouthpiece. "Are you there?"

         The speaker squawked. "That's not CB protocol."

         "Kent, I'm at Garrett. You need to get out here and see this."

         "See what?"

         Every tree in the park had been cut down at roughly eight feet high. Next to the tall stumps, the treetops lay like severed heads.

+++++

        After the police finished questioning him, Kent ambled over.

         "That's a hell of a thing," Kent said.

         Jackson watched as a truck drove through the park to dispose of the treetops. Ten years ago, he thought, this was probably farmland. A hundred years ago, it might have been a forest. "Seems like the whole world's gone crazy," he said.

         Kent sighed. "Sure is some kind of a thing."

         "Idiot high schoolers maybe," Jackson offered, grateful that his own sons were not yet that age.

         Kent looked at Jackson. "You got company tomorrow."

         "Company?

         "Yep," he said. "Uno compañero."

         "Is it because of these trees?" Jackson tried to not sound angry.

         "I have an extra man. You're the best one to stick him with." He rested a hand on Jackson's shoulder. "This'll be a slick deal. You sit back and drive while this new fella handles the trash."

         "Really, Kent—"

         "You get to drive because he doesn't have a license," Kent said. "On account of he just got out of jail. He's a parolee." Kent pressed his tongue against his cheek as if he enjoyed some special taste the word left in his mouth.

+++++

        The break room was cramped with a long table and foldout chairs. When Jackson showed up the next morning, Tony Patterson and Freddie Yellow Fox were flipping through magazines. They were lifers in the parks department. Jackson wasn't sure what they did in the off-season.

         "Heard you found them trees cut down," Freddie said, leaning back. "Eight feet high?"

         "Sure did," Jackson said.

         "Any idea who did it?"

         "Some very tall people."

         Tony laughed. Freddie mumbled something that sounded vaguely menacing.

         "Were any of you Nancies planning to work today?" Kent was standing in the doorway. "Or am I paying you to sit around punching your puds?"

         The men looked sullenly at their boss.

         "My partner hasn't shown up yet," Jackson said.

         "He's out front waiting on you," Kent said. "He doesn't like confined spaces."

+++++

        The pale, skinny man leaning against the chain link fence did not fit the profile Jackson had imagined.

         "I'm Jackson," he said. "I guess we're partners."

         "Dean Travers." He had sloped shoulders and a weak chin. Jackson's first thought: I could take this guy. Not that he wanted, or even expected to, but if need be, he could.

         "Mind if I smoke?" Dean asked.

         "Try and blow it outside." Jackson rolled his window down.

         Dean pulled out a dark brown cigarette. Something about Dean's face looked tough – flattened and beaten like a gray cube steak – which made Jackson reconsider his first thought.

         Dean was done with his cigarette by the time Jackson eased the truck through the access gate at Pioneer Park. He pulled the truck to a halt at the first set of cans and looked over at his new partner. Dean stared back. This is a moment when dominance will be established, Jackson recognized. What happens now will lay the groundwork for the rest of the day. He flexed his fingers and curled them around the steering wheel. "The garbage isn't going to empty itself," he said.

         Dean's shoulders were the first thing to cave. Next his gaze lowered and finally he climbed down from the truck. Jackson watched through the side-view mirror as Dean wrestled with the metal cans. He heard the discordant wake-up call of smashing glass. Then he saw Dean tinkering with the hydraulic levers.

         Metal scraping metal; glass ground into dust.

+++++

        "Holy Christ," Dean said when he climbed back into the truck a few stops later. He was wiping his hands on his jeans. "Looked like someone puked in one of those cans."

         "Someone probably did."

         Dean held his fingers up to his nose and sniffed. He made a gagging sound in the back of his throat.

         Jackson looked down at his leather work gloves on the truck bench. He felt possessive of them. He'd had them since his roofing days, broken them in with years of sweat and labor. He didn't say anything, slid the truck into drive.

         A few minutes later, Dean came back into the cab cradling his right hand. "I sliced my finger on that last one."

         "Bad?" Jackson asked.

         "Not great." A drop of crimson splashed onto the floorboards.

         "Christ, Dean, don't you have any gloves?" Jackson knew he was more annoyed than he had a right to be.

         Dean shook his head. He looked pathetic. Another drop quickly welled up on his fingertip and landed near the first.

         Jackson glanced down at his gloves again. He wondered how a man like this could have handled prison. "Kent should've told you to bring gloves. Those cans get rusted out."

         "Man, Kent didn't tell me shit." Dean stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked.

         Jackson had to turn away. "Listen, take mine for today." He nudged his gloves across the bench.

         Dean's face broke into a gappy smile.

         "Before that," Jackson said, "let's go back to the depot and get some first aid for that finger." Though he knew, with or without a bandage, he would never wear those gloves again.

+++++

        "What were you locked up for?" It was mostly just to make conversation, but Jackson was mildly curious.

         Dean had returned from the trailer, his finger encased in gauze and adhesive tape. "Credit card fraud."

         This is what life has reduced me to, Jackson thought, sharing a truck with a thief. "How long?" he asked.

         "Sentenced five. Out in three. You ever done time, Jackson?"

         He shook his head. "I'm a family man."

         "There's plenty of family men locked up in Deer Lodge." Jackson could sense that Dean was facing him. "You want to know what it was like?"

         Jackson said, "You do realize jail is something you're supposed to be ashamed of, right?"

         "Let me tell you," there was a rising note of challenge in Dean's voice, "you don't have the first idea what it was like."

         Jackson felt himself getting jittery – a queasy, unstable sensation that might lead to something if he wasn't careful. "I don't want to have the first idea."

         "And I can also tell you, you wouldn't've been able to handle it."

         Mercifully, the truck pulled up to a set of cans and Jackson watched as Dean gently tugged a glove over his bandaged finger.

         By driving quickly from can to can, he realized he could minimize Dean's chatter. Soon the starting and stopping became a rhythm, like a slow train rolling over sloppy track.

+++++

        The truck CB made a sudden, noisy crackle. Dean was staring at the dashboard as if it were a wild animal set loose in the cab.

         "What's that, Kent?" Jackson said into the mouthpiece.

         "Just checking to make sure your new partner hadn't killed you yet," he said.

         Jackson glanced over; Dean looked small on the other side of the truck bench. "Not yet."

         "That's some good news then." There was a short pause. "But I've got some bad news. Someone opened a packing box over by Millice Park. Goddamn Styrofoam peanuts all over. I want you and Dean to fix it."

+++++

        Even though Millice was a small park, it took the rest of the morning to clean up the mess. When they were done, they bought lunch and took it back to the break room.

         Dean popped a fry into his mouth. "I don't get why you're doing this job."

         Jackson shook his head. "Why does anyone do any job? I've got a family, mortgage."

         "Me and you are the same age. I remember reading about you in the paper. All-state linebacker?"

         Jackson's stomach tightened. He hated these reminders of lost opportunity.

         "Full ride scholarship, right?" Dean chewed his food slowly. "Not a great school, but decent."

         "So what," Jackson said.

         Dean tossed his hand in the air. "A guy like you shouldn't end up here."

         "You don't know what type of guy I am."

         "Guy like you should've been miles from a job like this." He sat back in his chair. "It's kinda funny. We took different routes, but we both ended up in the same place."

         Jackson shrugged, but the sound of Dean's voice was like an alarm clock blaring in his ear.

+++++

        There was one more park to hit – Rosewood – on the very outskirts of town, where the new construction had eaten its way toward the foothills of the Rockies.

         As soon as Jackson pulled the truck to a stop by the first set of cans, he noticed something in the distance. A gray blur that moved silently from beneath a parked car and disappeared under a dumpster.

         "What was that?" Jackson asked.

         Dean looked around the truck. "What was what?"

         "Out there."

         Dean seemed uninterested. "Let's get this done and go home."

         Jackson saw it again. It slipped out from under the dumpster and began loping toward King Drive, which pulsed with traffic beyond the park.

         All at once, Jackson was out of the truck and sprinting. He felt clean, like an engine burning lighter fluid. His legs scissored and his heart beat fiercely. He hadn't run like this in years. He wasn't panicked, necessarily; in fact, he felt strangely calm.

         The animal had disappeared again. As Jackson came to the edge of the park he slowed down. Traffic on all four lanes of King Drive was steady and fast.

         He whistled and said, "It's okay, boy. Where are you?"

         Jackson heard nothing but the rumble of cars. He stepped cautiously toward the street, afraid he might be too late.

         Then it emerged from behind a utility chest, and he was in motion again. He could see it was a dog. Small, maybe a foot high, with long curly hair that had once been white.

         "Here, boy," he gasped.

         It clearly used to be a family pet, but, lost or abandoned, it had reverted to a primitive state.

         "It's just a goddamn dog," he heard Dean shout. "It's probably diseased. Call the pound."

         Jackson tried to position himself between the dog and King Drive.

         "Here, boy," he said again.

         He looked around and saw a softball backstop nearby. He stretched his arms out and began herding it that direction, careful not to move too fast. The creature looked jumpy, eyes wide and wild. Jackson knew he'd have to physically capture it. He wished he had his work gloves, but knew there was no time.

         "It's okay," he said. "Everything's going to be fine."

         The dog was backed against the chainlink now. Jackson started to move in.

         "No one's going to hurt you, boy. Everything's all right."

         The dog's hair was long and matted. It had a filthy scent that Jackson could smell from five feet away. On its back leg it had a sore the size of a quarter.

         "Good, boy." Jackson took another step. "I’m only trying to help."

         The dog was shivering. Its face was almost hidden under a clump of dirty fur.

         "It's all right now. See?" Jackson lowered himself for the grab.

         The dog bolted, a streak moving past his ankles. Jackson buckled to the ground. He snared the animal by its hips and held on. The dog struggled. Then it craned its neck and bit Jackson's hand.

         The teeth were small, but sharp. They pierced the skin and sank in deep to the bone. Jackson let out an immense cry of pain. Every fiber of his being commanded him to loosen his grip, to give up. But Jackson thought to himself:

         I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go.

I have published my writing in The Threepenny Review, Literal Latte, the German edition of Le Monde diplomatique, The Externalist, Swill Magazine, Word Riot and The Summerset Review. I am a graduate of the fiction MFA program at the University of Montana. I recently won an Artists Fellowship Award from the Illinois Arts Council. And I teach English at Kennedy-King College in Chicago.







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