My girlfriend tells me we’re haunted by dead coyotes. In a blue room in a grey house in Milwaukie, we cut up T-shirts I can’t fit in anymore and M tells me she can hear the ghosts howling.
“That doesn’t really sound like a coyote,” I say when she makes the noise for me, an eee-eee-eee sort of noise that sounds more like a dolphin than a phantom coyote.
“I’m not doing it right—do you hear it now? It’s there,” and she stands on the stacked foam mattress toppers to see out the window.
The summer house is at the edge of Johnson Creek, a three-bedroom rental two blocks from a TriMet station. We spend weekends in the sun, smoking joints and pulling the house from swelling vines of blackberry and clematis. They root into the grey frame and I’m worried one day the earth might swallow the house whole.
“It’s probably just the Gold Man,” I tell M when she won’t stop looking out the window.
At night an old man dressed in gold spandex bikes along the creek below with a stereo, and Journey songs blasting on repeat, and it’s not as irritating as it sounds. I think my neighbors run dog fights out of their backyard and mostly the Journey drowns out the barks.
When I can’t assure her that it’s just the Gold Man or the dog fights or tinnitus, I tell M about my grandmother.
“My grandmother buys bologna in plastic shrink-wrap at the Seven Eleven across the lake from her trailer and spends the weekends on the deck my cousin built for her, throwing slices at a coyote she named King.”
She uses a BB gun she bought to shoot squirrels off her tomatoes as a cane and hides my aunt’s Marlboros in the planters outside. When I visit, we drink André champagne in beer mugs and we bury banana peels in the ground next to the roots of the roses. I think she might be a witch.
“Texas Plains coyotes—those fuckers are the size of German Shepherds,” I tell M, pausing to smoke. “They’re so smart.” I pass her my pipe. “That’s why my grandma feeds them; she says you have to keep them on your side. I mean I’ve tried to tell her about how fucked up that is, but she named the poor bastard, you know? What am I going to do?”
I watch smoke roll out of M’s mouth, down her chin.
At night, in bed, she says,“maybe I do have tinnitus.”
Without a mattress, we sink to the center of the foam toppers, pressed into each other in the summer heat. The box fan at our feet pushes hot air in circles and my cat sits on top of our ankles until his body sinks between our legs.
On the phone I tell my mother that the spirits of coyotes might be yowling at my door and my mother tells me that STDs are at an all time high and that coyotes don’t become ghosts after they die.
My family and I don’t speak often though I know they wish I would visit. My mother wants grandkids and my father wants someone to write his memoir.
A Practical Family. My father doesn’t know what to say to me but still he polishes my boots when I visit, leaves donuts on the counter for breakfast and a sweet tea in the fridge. He’s gone before I wake up—4 am work shift—but he wears the tie I bought him for Christmas. My mother wishes I would go to law school but she sews the holes in my jacket and mails me fleece blankets she finds in the five-dollar bins at Target every time she checks the weather in Portland.
M and I had a bad start. On a Friday in March when we were still friends, I shotgunned a Four Loko and texted her:
do you want to date me?
Against my apartment wall, I watched the fridge spin.
ummm...I didn’t even know you liked girls….
In July the dryer breaks and we lay beneath hanging and swaying shirts. Damp, they move with my quaking box fan, suspended on yellow yarn taped to the ceiling. Great sails waiting to dry. But it smells like mildew and I tell M not to spend the night.
“I don’t mind,” she says.
And then, “look, I’ll walk you out; we’ll get dinner tomorrow.”
We pass through the summer house: white hall, dark room, red door, small yard—my housemates are asleep.
In her car M rolls down the window and I lean my hands into the plastic inside her car door, arms through the open frame.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
She touches my wrist, thumb against pulse. Feather-light.
“I get it,” she says. “Early shift tomorrow.”
I watch her car roll back into the street before swinging right, headlights orange in the dark. This is an old scene.
By myself in the empty drive, I look for the ghosts but without M my yard is quiet.
We date with the seasons it seems. In the summer we’re happy and in the winter we break up in her apartment on the couch with her cat purring in the stretch between us.
“I don’t think you’re a bad person—” (but I don’t believe in ghosts).
And she says,
“I’d like us to still be friends—” (but I suppose even the paranormal lies between us).
And I say,
“I don’t know what kind of future we can have...” (dead coyotes seem like a bad omen).
I tell my mother that M and I broke up and she says I should really be putting more money aside for rainy days. I tell her every day in Portland is a rainy day, and she hangs up on me.
My grandmother loves coyotes because nothing kills a coyote. I once saw King eat a buzzard, and I think it was still alive.
Coyotes sprawl. Desert, suburb, woods. Not the romance of wolves, coyotes are mange and scraggle—practical. They don’t need a pack although they get along in groups—don’t care for humans, you really just have to worry about your pets. Independent. They ravage.
But the eyes. Yellow like jaundice, yellow like gummy rot—an oozing yellow. At night in the summer house, not built for the heat like Texas, no AC because it’s Portland, I sometimes think I can see the eyes in the vines.
M says she knows the coyotes surrounding my home are dead because she can hear the hollow in their voice. It’s an echo, she says. I don’t think I believe in ghosts but it makes sense to me that their voices would echo. Hollow. The dead don’t need hearts or lungs, no use for a stomach or liver. How many kidneys does a coyote have?
When we break up I tell M that all I know is a practical kind of love and she tells me that she wishes I had believed her about the ghosts.
Claire Stevens is an undergraduate student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she has been living and writing for the last three years. She has won an award in the Writer's Digest Competition and published in Reed College student publications. She is currently working on a collection of short stories centering around the Beat Generation.