Fiction 2010 / Issues / Spring 2010 / Volume 40

The Coyote Dies — Nick Bertelson

The trailer door opened and the sound of construction at a distance came in as more of a lull than anything. Dale did not look up. Even when the trailer’s door thwacked shut and a silence seemingly louder than the working settled in the trailer, Dale didn’t look up. Instead, he listened to his boss, Robin, shuffle through the single room full of partially-rolled blue prints and half-drunk bottles of warm Coke and Mountain Dew. Everything was covered in a heavy dust thicker than lead on a shaded drawing. “Dale,” Robin said as more of a greeting than anything else. He exhaled as he sat down. “Hey,” Dale said, still not looking up. Robin picked up a piece of paper off the collapsible table, pretended to read it, squinted even, then crumpled it and threw it at the wastebasket. “Prichard won’t be here on Monday, I guess,” Robin said. “Did he say why?” Dale asked, still staring at the screen. “No, but hell I don’t care.” Robin scratched the back of his neck. “It’s no skin off of my ass if he’s not here. We got Ricardo and his posse.” “Yeah,” Dale said. He stroked a few keys on his keyboard, and then adjusted his glasses. “I guess they’re getting rid of the new CPA.” “Really?” Robin grabbed a sack out of the mini-fridge sitting in the corner a few feet from the table. “What’s the deal there?” “You didn’t hear?” For the first time, Dale looked up smiling. “He lost the entire updated inventory and blamed it on a glitch.” “What happened?” “Bessington brought in some T.A. who recovered an older version. No one believed the glitch thing.” “You’ve got to be shitting me?” “No,” Dale’s face fell back into the glare of the screen. “They canned his ass.” He squinted at something, then spoke again “I have to check over inventory though, for the new guy they’re getting. Hand me my lunch, would you?” Robin rummaged through the fridge and plopped a sack on the table, “Hey, don’t let me forget to tell Ricardo to tell his gang they can take a break and eat here in about five minutes.” “Yeah, okay.” Dale pulled his brown lunch sack toward him. An air compressor started purring outside. “I would have told one of them on the way over but they don’t talk with me like they do Prichard. Most of them just stare at me.” Robin un-wrapped an egg salad sandwich from clear plastic and took a bite, then opened a bottle of water and set the cap on the table. He swallowed his food to take a drink, “And three months is bullshit!” He filled his mouth with more egg salad. “What the hell are they . going to do if they’re damn Days Inn isn’t done and in three months? I mean, come on. You can’t put a time limit on us like that.” “I don’t know, but at the rate the guys are going,” Dale reached into his bag and pulled out a sandwich wrapped in tin foil, “it doesn’t look like it’ll be a problem.” The two men sat chewing in the silence that accompanies chewing. Every now and then Dale put his sandwich aside and crisp keystrokes complimented the hiss-thuds of nail-guns outside. “Prichard didn’t say what he was doing on a Monday?” Dale asked. “Hell, I don’t know what the guy does,” Robin said “The only thing I do know about him is he works as hard as any of those damn Mexicans.” * * * Grant had never heard Prichard get up after four except on a Sunday, but it was Sunday and he heard Prichard’s coffee boiling at 3:57 as it did on any other day when Prichard had to ready himself for the hour bike ride to the Days Inn site. Grant threw his blankets off. He’d driven down Highway 10 from Beaumont the night before, a little over eighty-five miles, and got home to Houston at about three in the morning. Prichard, of course, was asleep then, but now he existed in Grant’s mind as the din in the kitchen. Grant threw the sheets off his bed and shuffled across the carpet like an old man with a walker. He made his way to the bathroom, peed with the door open because he liked the smell of Pritchard’s coffee, then walked into the kitchen. “Prichard,” he whispered. “What are you doing? It’s Sunday.” “Yeah, I know,” Prichard said, his voice loud in the silence. It made Grant realize there was no reason to whisper and after a moment went by while waiting for an explanation as the boiling coffee whispered on the counter, he said, “So what the hell are you doing up?” “I couldn’t sleep. I’m going for a bike ride.” Prichard took a sip of coffee. “Big Thicket’s not far, right?” Grant thought about the national preserve and realized it was over the distance he’d driven only an hour before but figured he’d let Prichard find it out the hard way, so he shuffled around while holding onto the wall, mumbled a disgruntled “Jesus Christ,” and passed the humming swamp-cooler on his way back to bed. He closed the bedroom door and the sound of his steps disappeared. Prichard was alone. He laid out the Sunday paper and stood up all in one motion. He poured a cup of coffee. At the window he stared down from two stories up to find nothing but shadows and grey in the pocked alley below. The sun had not passed the things it had to overcome: the mountains, the trees, and the low-lying buildings of the trailer parks. In the duskiness of the alley, Prichard watched a collarless dog emerge from the other side of a dumpster, its nose determined and un-sniffing, tail between its legs. It trotted between the two walls, both lined with trash and trash cans. The dog didn’t have mange like others Prichard saw, with their clumped,tufts of hair, fallow-like. The city was a dangerous place for the dog to be, but probably one essential to its survival. Prichard took a sip of coffee. From his lax face, it seemed as if Prichard had either seen the dog and didn’t realize it was feral, or was fully aware of the wild animal in the city, and instead trying to figure out something altogether irrelevant to what was before him. Or maybe he was still tired. * * * He rode his bike along a cigarette-colored wall with a brick top, the horizon holding Highway 10 and Big Thicket at his back, getting further away. There were cacti growing in the wall’s shadow. It was still early morning. Before he’d started working Prichard didn’t have much to do. He had found an old, egg-shell white, twenty-four-speed Trek mountain bike in a dumpster two weeks after moving to Texas. The thing didn’t shift past twelfth gear, but if it wasn’t for those twelve gears Prichard would still be watching basic cable alone all day in his apartment until Grant got home from work and complained about, what seemed to be, menial quibbles he hadn’t even been a part of. Prichard didn’t hate Grant, but he felt the same way about him as he did about daytime TV, or TV in general. It was a ways to town by bike since Prichard and Grant didn’t live in Houston but more on the outskirts in an apartment complex. Prichard wasn’t heading in the direction of the city though either. There was nothing open on the outskirts on Sundays, so on days when he was bored, days before he started working, he rode through the trailer parks where the old people came when their hometowns started getting cold. There were people from all over the world in the parks with signs tied to their porch railings or their palm trees sitting in front of the basement-less structures. The signs said their last name and where they were from. Prichard knew some people stayed through the summer and winter months, living in the desert all year around, sending Christmas cards with palm trees decorated in Christmas lights to grandchildren they’d never met. Trailers poked their square heads over the stucco wall. Eventually the sun joined them and the shadow shielding Prichard vanished. He stopped and put on his sunglasses. Across the street, kids had already come out to play in the sandy trash-filled lots. It surprised Prichard how fast Houston’s suburban trailer parks were developing, especially near his apartment. “Hola!” a child screamed from across the street. “Hola!” Prichard screamed from his bike, “Como esta?” But the boy didn’t hear him, just kept waving. His friend grabbed him and ushered him down the sidewalk in the opposite way Prichard was heading. The condition of the sidewalks varied. The trailer parks kept their sidewalks clean, the grass weed-eaten, trimmed, flower beds well-tended; trees had rocks around them. Then the park would end, and the wall surrounding it would cut perpendicular to the sidewalk. A vacant lot would take its place, supplying no shade, and nothing but patches of grass in sand all the way to a structural horizon, an interstate or distant buildings. He preferred the parks’ sidewalks. Every few miles there was an oasis full of fast food and gas stations. Prichard stopped at a Burger King and ordered breakfast around 9:50. He sat in a section up front facing the sidewalk. The windows were tinted. Prichard couldn’t tell if the passers-by could see in or not, but he could see them. The section he was in sat lower than the main level where all the people heading home from early mass ate with other people on their way to 10:00 mass. He sat for a while and listened to the conversation sift through the synthetic plants separating the two sections of the restaurant. “It was something else,” he heard a middle-aged woman say in a thick southern accent. “I know,” another woman said in the same accent. “Whoever heard of a twenty minute sermon?” , the voice paused and changed to a whiny inflection. “Sara, babe, eat something. Please.” Prichard heard a child let out a low moan and say, “I’m not hungry.” “Sweetie, you got to eat.” “I don’t want to.” “Fine, but you don’t get nothing later,” the woman said. “We’re driving straight through, ain’t stopping.” The child sighed and voiced an incomprehensible word. “Did you see the last three pews?” the first woman asked. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Sara let go of mommy’s dress; you’ll get ketchup on it. What was with the last three pews?” There was a silence. Then the two women’s voices dropped below the noise of the restaurant, and Prichard could only hear their mumbling and not the words. Then he heard the second woman say, “Border Patrol should just wait outside.” They both giggled. “Two forty-eight!” a female’s voice shouted. Prichard stood up and ascended the steps to the main level leaving his backpack dangling on the chair. Kids screamed and banged the tables throughout the restaurant. Some were sitting, talking to their Bible school friends. Others chewed, mouths open. Top 40 songs played over the speakers in the ceiling tiles. “Two Croissanwiches and tater-tots?” a young woman with a headset on asked. “That’s me,” Prichard said. He brought his tray through the chaos of the main floor, unnoticed by everyone there, and made his way to his secluded corner. No one came to his table to say hello. No one ever had and no one ever would. Prichard didn’t have a southern accent. He sounded as if he was from nowhere. Before moving to Texas, he’d hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, starting in Mt. Katahdin where he watched the sunrise, and ending in Mt. Springer where he found a van-full of backpacking hipsters with more tattoos than clothing and large sunglasses. He told them to take him somewhere warm. They took him to the bottom of the mountain where an older man in a Chevy suburban picked him up and took him straight to Houston, no stops. Prichard had never owned a drivers license. He finished his sandwiches, then worked on the tater tots but knew if he ate too many he’d get heartburn. Grease dotted the tray’s paper placemat like driveway oil stains, and it made him squeamish but he ate all of them, knowing he’d get hungry if he didn’t. There was at least another forty miles to ride yet. He unchained his bike from a Stop sign outside and saw a Bessington van filling up at a gas station across the street. His bare shoulders baked in the .sun as he peddled down the sidewalk, but they’d been baking for the last two months. His job was only temporary, and soon he’d have to start looking for work again. To stay in Houston meant finding a permanent job. If he was lucky he would catch another break like he did with Bessington, or Robin rather, but he was unlikely to get a stable job soon enough to keep up with the rent. “You’ll never get a permanent job with Bessington Construction,” Robin had told him. “I mean, you have a hell of a resume, but they’re hiring out to sub-contractors and bringing in Mexicans.” “Illegals?” Prichard asked. “Don’t know,” he said. “Don’t care. Not my job.” “Oh.” “But I’ll tell you what. I can give you a temp position as my assistant on this site.” “What would I do?” “Be my bitch for the next three weeks. It wouldn’t be terrible. You’ve worked construction. It’ll be a breeze for you, if everything you say on here is right.” “It’s all verifiable. How much would I be making?” “I’ll be honest with you, it wouldn’t be that much, but it’s a job right? You speak Spanish?” “A little. I can learn pretty quick. I had to pick up Thai when I was in Asia.” “Good, you’d be a big help to me even if you speak a little Spanish. I don’t know an awful.” Prichard took the job. It wasn’t anything special. He was the foreman’s bitch but liked having something to do. Most of it came natural to him since handling a nail-gun was as innate to him as -writing with a pen. The Hispanic workers, especially Ricardo, took to him immediately, since he didn’t have a southern draw and knew a little of their own language. At lunch, the workers taught Prichard words he didn’t know. Most of the time, if Ricardo wasn’t around, no one told him the meaning of the words. He rarely knew what he was saying, but he could tell from the innocence in their laughter, that the workers weren’t teaching him vulgar things, at least not all the time. He passed over the varying terrain of unkempt sidewalks and dirt paths, every now and again hitting an oasis reeking of fast-food grease and diesel fuel with each building overflowing with people. Vacant lots full of low-lying shrubs, sedimentary rocks, and desert grasses were intermittently replaced by signs advertising cheap food and expensive gasoline. In these places, the sun glared off mini-vans and compact cars. Gas station patrons stood in awning shadows gassing up vehicles or washing windows as sirens came through the humming traffic, Border Patrol and residential police probably, but Prichard never saw lights accompanying the sounds, just echoes from the desert, as elusive as the men they were meant for. * * * Houston was barely visible from the O-Brian RV Court where Prichard stood near the deli by the pool. O-Brian’s pool was a kiddy-pool compared to the Mayflower’s, but O-Brian had a clock tower made of orange stucco. It was the tallest man-made structure within sight, and its rounded clay tiles glowed red in the sun and looked like pouring lava with all its awkward shadows. At the deli, Prichard bought a foot-long hot dog, a bag of chips, a cup of potato salad,, a pickle, and a brownie from a man with an eye-patch and a thick mustache. The stairs to the clock tower were open for anyone to wander up, and Prichard took his dinner up there. It had a blue floor and a single folding chair sitting among white bird shit and feathers. The room was open to the east and west and had a view of the court on one side, the highway on the other. Far off, miles of sand appeared as brown slivers on the horizon. Swallows had crammed nests of mud and foliage in the crannies of the crossbeams. He ate lunch in the lonely folding chair and then found a clean spot free of bird droppings, swept some feathers away with his greasy chip bag, then splayed out in the clean corner of the room. He piled his trash to work as a pillow and took a short nap in the clock tower as the birds’ wings flapped like bed sheets in the wind. No one ever wandered up the stairs because the parks’ patrons had been up there a thousand times over, most were inept at taking stairs anyway. He woke up thirsty and bought a beer at the deli. The pool was full of senior citizen women using milk jugs for their water aerobic exercises, submerging them over and over as if they were practicing the art of drowning. Their swimming caps glistened and skin spilled from their suits and under their moving arms it jiggled like turkey wattles. A man in a pair of white pants and a white, collared polo hosed off the pool deck, using his thumb to increase the pressure of the stream. The all-white man seemed permanently hunched over as if by scoliosis, and his gaze never wandered from the glistening suits of the women drowning the milk jugs in rhythm with their counting. A rainbow formed from under his thumb but he never looked at it. There weren’t any ornamental displays in the rock beds sitting out front of the RV’s like there were in Mayflower. Some had flowers or sand, but most just held a palm tree and its silhouette across the pavement. There weren’t many streets in O-Brian Park. Prichard ended up riding through the place almost three times, passing the same trailers often. He saw a couple sitting outside of their trailer fanning their faces under an awning. The man didn’t have a shirt on, and his breasts sagged down more than his wife’s it seemed. Every time Prichard passed him, the man’s head and triple chin oscillated, and his eyes followed Prichard all the way to the end of the block. Two women, each walking a dog, laughed and chatted loudly, but fell to a deep hush when Prichard rode by. There was a man in boxer shorts hacking at the bark of a palm tree with a small hatchet while five dogs sat in his trailer window barking and clawing at the glass. He supposed people were noticing him, but he was just killing time. * * * Around five, after hiding out in the clock tower for another hour drinking beer, Prichard changed out of his cut-offs and T-shirt, cramming the sweaty articles in his backpack and put on a pair of dark jeans and an olive-colored shirt with a collar and three buttons, then headed over to the eastern side of the park. O-Brian had a small putt-putt course no one seemed to ever use. Little flags laid about the greens. Behind the course was a dirt road just wide enough for a four-wheeler. The road led to a Morton shed. The shed probably held the equipment the O-Brian staff didn’t use to maintain its mini-golf course. He chained his bike to a tree on the side of the shed facing a highway viaduct spanning over a strip of desert. No one could see his bike from the park unless they came up from the dirt road and walked around. From the looks of the road, not many people frequented the shed. He walked a little ways past the shed toward the interstate and found a hole, in the fence where he climbed through into the desert. “Buenos noches, senior Prichard.” “Whoa!” Prichard screamed. He grabbed his head with his left hand and his chest with his right. “Jeez, Ricardo, you scared me.” “Perdon,” Ricardo said. “I been waiting. I’m glad you come.” “Me too,” said Prichard. “And buenos noches. It was a very long ride for me, but I’m happy to come.” “Yes,” he said. They stood staring at each other, but not making eye contact. “Care to go?” Ricardo said. “That’d be fine.” The two descended into the shadow of the hill across the floor of the desert. Prichard folded his arms and knew it would be cold once the sun went down. Never had Prichard seen Ricardo wearing such nice clothes. In fact, he’d never seen him without a tool-burdened carpenter’s belt around his waist. Tonight, however, Ricardo wore pants with a sharp crease down the center of each leg and a tucked-in plaid shirt under a large belt buckle. “How far do you ride to get here?” Ricardo asked. “I think it was over sixty miles, but I don’t know for sure.” “Yes.” “How are you doing?” Prichard asked. “Fine,” Ricardo said. “That’s good.” “Yes.” They walked in the opposite direction of the buzzing viaduct. Traffic noises were replaced by droning bugs. “Does this fill with water?” Prichard asked. “Is this a riverbed?” He pointed to the ground the two men walked on. “Yes,” Ricardo said, pointing. “There?” He looked at the tree Ricardo had motioned toward and saw trash and branches molded in a crescent shape around an Acacia of some sort. Water had carried the trash to the trees branches. In the sun, the trash had tried rounded, sculpture-like. As the sun sank, the pair walked on and the shadows grew oblong among the shrubs lying low and ugly, some like sea-urchins, some alien, none were the stereotypical cacti Prichard saw in Westerns, with the bending arms, one pointing toward the sky and the other toward the ground; instead the cacti were covered in bulbous tumors with piles of trash at their base, piles that could have, at one time, housed a drifter for a night or two, or it could have just been a pile of trash full of mirages. They passed a few RV parks on the way. The parks sat on the western bluff, just below the sinking sun, the same bluff the two had descended. Shouts of excitement emitted from within the walls: car motors, barbecues, and the familiar sound of diving boards and splashes. Prichard gawked at anything and everything, natural or manmade. Ricardo contently stared in the direction they were walking. As the sun was half-submerged in the horizon, street lights began to blink and flicker on for the night. The sun was down by the time Prichard spotted flashlights dancing off in a large washout in the bluffs side. There hadn’t been a resort for the last mile. They were just to the end of the riverbed where the desert opened up and collided with the sky, an infinitesimal joining. Dark figures stood around a rectangle of sand darkened from being dug up then put back. Nearly all of them had a flashlight of some sort. Ricardo walked ahead a little ways and spoke in fluent, fast Spanish. Prichard didn’t speak enough to know what he was saying. As he approached, he recognized Gabriel and Felipe. He’d seen Ricardo’s sister before too, her soft features now supple in the dim milieu of flashlight-lit cigarillo smoke. In the glow, Prichard saw she was carrying a wrapped child and didn’t know if it was hers or not. “Hola Prichard,” Felipe said. “Hola.” Felipe didn’t speak English, nor did Gabriel. Ricardo, Prichard knew, was the only one. He had been told by Ricardo, that Alberto spoke fluent English too, but Prichard had never met Alberto. A few men Prichard also knew, came carrying sticks in from the desert. They dumped them near the rectangular pile standing nearly waist-high off to the side of the congregation. Prichard sat on a rock speckled with orange fissures, staring at his hands. The men stopped getting sticks after a while. There was a small tray of food on a rock nearby. Men grabbed tortillas and used them to pick up vegetables and meat. Potatoes sat boiled and seasoned on a paper plate; they looked much better than the tatter tots now burning Prichard’s chest. They all sat eating and chatting in Spanish. A man Prichard had never seen before came to the pile and everyone grew silent. The man spat out quick Spanish, summoning everyone closer. Prichard did not get up. Those who had been sitting off in the shadows, all stood and moved into the light. Prichard counted twenty-six people altogether. They bowed their heads and held their hands one inside the other, and Prichard did the same as he sat in the outlying darkness with his chin nearly touching his chest. “Padre nuestro, Jesus,” the man’s voice was loud this time, “acepta este hombre, Alberto, en su santo cielo…” And that was the only sentence Prichard understood.

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