Bobbie Ann Mason

Four Short Pieces

The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live

She lives near a canyon with four cats. The Post-It notes on the bul­letin board keep track of the cats–their spe­cial needs, the diets, the vet appoint­ments, lit­tle notes about their charm­ing pranks and romps.

Yesterday she record­ed Annie chirp­ing at a snail. Normally Annie chirps at the spar­rows who bathe in a bowl out­side the large win­dow.

Billy chirped at an invis­i­ble fly. He was leap­ing high into the air, reach­ing and chat­ter­ing.  Carrie and Davy have oth­er hobbies–spiders and tiny fur­ry fake mice, respec­tive­ly.

The cats do not go out­side because of the canyon where the coy­otes live.

There is a hus­band around the house too.

That sounds like a children’s book,” he says. “The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live, some­thing writ­ten to scare chil­dren.”

But sto­ries like that make them laugh,”  she says.

If there were chil­dren, she thinks.

 

She would love to see the cats play out­side, but the coy­otes from the canyon come forth at night. Even in the day­time coy­otes have been sight­ed. It would be delight­ful to see the cats on the patio stalk­ing the spar­rows, where the coy­otes come to stalk the cats.  It would be even more delight­ful to see a tod­dler pulling a cat’s tail.

Everything’s got­ta eat,” he says, clos­ing the refrig­er­a­tor door. “Including me,” he says.

Have a Pop Tart,” she says.

Pop Tarts are for kids. Why do we have pop tarts?”

Exactly.

 

He works late shifts in the bot­tling indus­try. Often when he comes in late in the night he tells of a coy­ote cross­ing the road or an ani­mal he can’t iden­ti­fy that always must be a bear or a cougar.

In the night while he is gone the sounds are mag­ni­fied, and the howl­ing coy­otes seem to be at the back door but may be across the canyon. She hears the cat at the scratch­ing post, the click click click of the door lock when he returns–if it is him and not some mug­ger who has com­man­deered his car and made him dri­ve home at gun­point.

Yesterday he said to her, “Don’t you see how nuts you’re becom­ing? Everything is fraught with ter­ror and apoc­a­lypse with you!”

Fraught? I’m fraught with noth­ing.” Empty.  Flat-bel­lied.

You’re afraid to let the cats out­side because of the coy­otes. If there weren’t any coy­otes you’d find some­thing else to be afraid of.”

They would get killed on the road.”

Right. See what I mean?”

It’s bet­ter for cats to stay indoors. They live longer.”

The Pop Tart is like limp paste­board. He eyes it rue­ful­ly, then her.

Furthermore,” he says. “We are lucky we don’t have any kids. I see how you would be with them.”

She snatch­es the Pop Tart from his hand.  “I’ll make lunch,” she says.

She makes a sal­ad with arti­choke hearts and palm hearts. Her own heart could be the cen­ter­piece, ripped out and posed on a plat­ter like the head of John the Baptist. There is noth­ing to do but dance.

Corn-Dog

Here he is–unmarried, fat, with few crav­ings, stuck in a stuc­co house wait­ing for parcels to arrive by UPS, wait­ing for any­thing to come out of the blue.  Anything would be welcome–bill col­lec­tors, laryn­gi­tis, UFOs. But a let­ter from Laura would be nice. He real­ly wants noth­ing else. On the side­walk a neigh­bor walks her mutt, which resem­bles a car­ni­val corn-dog.  He saw a dog like that on Animal Planet. The necks of the neigh­bor and her corn-dog stretch sim­i­lar­ly toward their mutu­al goal, the curb. She wears creased shorts that end just above her less than thrilling knees.  Her hair is wispy, frothy, like some­thing from a French bak­ery.

The dis­grun­tled old guy with asth­ma struts by with his  fuzzy Standard Poodle.  He imag­ines this old guy with a whiny wife who tries to make him eat goat cheese and arugu­la. The old guy must sing “Hallelujah” when he is out the door with the Standard Poodle. They march down the side­walk, ready to spank any corn-dog that cross­es their path.

A wasp has sneaked into the stuc­co house.  Trying to shoo it away, he is stung between two dig­its, and a welt aris­es. He doesn’t flinch. He stares at the sting sto­ical­ly.  He is sto­ic in his stuc­co house. Since Laura left he feels noth­ing but her absence. Yet now he search­es for some sticky gunk to soothe his fin­ger, for the wasp sting is not fake.  It is a true wasp sting, and he feels it. The salve on his fin­ger is like mus­tard spread­ing on a light crispy crust.

Cumberbatch

The Giant Pacific Octopus starts out as plank­ton, micro­scop­ic at first. Then it is the size of a grain of rice.” The school­child­ren sit­ting at my feet are dis­be­liev­ing. Shrugs, but no aston­ish­ment.

This octo­pus is named Cumberbatch. He weighs thir­ty-two pounds and is not full grown. The Giant Octopus often weighs up to a hun­dred pounds. Right now you see him tucked into a slit in this rock. He can squeeze his body into tiny open­ings, like this soup can.” The soup can I am hold­ing is open on both ends–a vir­tu­al vagi­na. I feel a lit­tle spin down there.

Listen care­ful­ly, kids. Be qui­et. The octo­pus has three hearts. The extras are for oxy­genat­ing blood.” My blood rush­es when I think of my ex-lover. If I had three hearts, per­haps I would have a spare, one that is not bro­ken.

 

Cumberbatch can open child-proof med­i­cine bot­tles and screw-top jars. He is smart as a cat. An octo­pus has a supe­ri­or sense of taste, with taste sen­sors all over the body.  Imagine that you could taste every­thing you touched. The bath­room floor. The dri­ve­way.” I tast­ed his liq­uid but I sneezed and it went up my nose and that gave me the gig­gles. What I would give to have that moment again! My world­ly pos­ses­sions? My pre­cious cat?

 

Sometimes we put his food inside a Mr Potato Head or oth­er toy for stim­u­la­tion and to keep him from being bored.” I was nev­er bored. We had toys. He brought me love­ly, vel­vety, rub­bery toys, wig­gly toys. I like this tex­ture. I real­ly do!

Children, do octo­pus­es have ten­ta­cles or arms?”

Octopi,” says a kid, who is maybe four­teen.

Smarty,” says anoth­er kid.

No, they are octo­pus­es, not octopi. That end­ing is Latin.  Pus is from pod, the Greek, mean­ing foot, but are they called ten­ta­cles or feet or arms?”

The kid who said “smar­ty” is smirk­ing. “Arms,” he says.

The octo­pus can change col­or to blend in with his sur­round­ings.” When I was with him I turned col­or, blush­ing all over. He paint­ed me with kiss­es and licks. Red drib­bles of his red-zinger drink.

 

Octopuses don’t live long. The octo­pus is a ter­mi­nal breed­er. When he nears the end of his life he is ready to mate. The female eats a lot while she is prepar­ing to mate. The male inserts one of his arms into the hole on the side of her head. The arm has grown round and hard. It has changed shape,  the suck­ers have stretched out and blend­ed in. It is rigid and pur­pose­ful.”

He thought I had an abor­tion.  He thought he would nev­er have to see me again. I bought a car with the mon­ey.

After insert­ing his sper­matophore pack­et into her oviduct–it can be up to a meter long–the man octo­pus is spent and he dies.”

Oh.

A meter. A metaphor. A bro­ken heart.

The moth­er accepts the sper­matophore pack­et and she hides in her den, over­load­ing on carbs.  She waits a week before she punc­tures the pack­et and lets the sperm fer­til­ize her eggs. She hangs her eggs on the ceil­ing of her den and cares for them.  She sweeps them and aer­ates them for sev­en months. She stops eat­ing dur­ing this brood­ing. After her eggs hatch, she has used so much ener­gy that her body breaks down and she dies. She dies more quick­ly than the guy.” I am dying like the mama octo­pus brood­ing, fuss­ing with her broom, sick with brood­ing, sick with think­ing and wish­ing. Dying. A ter­mi­nal breed­er.

 

A small pig­tailed girl is ask­ing, “About the thing going into the hole in the head.  Where does it go–into the ear?”

No. Into the heart.      

The Missing Plane

 

The plane was miss­ing when we went to bed and it was still miss­ing in the morn­ing. It was miss­ing all day and then again in the evening. In the morn­ing it was still miss­ing, and then we became bored, just won­der­ing when the pieces would turn up. And then we heard that the plane had veered north toward the Arctic ice. We heard that the melt­ing polar cap could have swal­lowed up the hap­less air ship. We heard the hijack mes­sage, the sin­is­ter voice singing “Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go.” Hey-ho or Heigh-ho? Or HiHo, as in the crack­ers? A joy­ful blab­ber of seman­ti­cal niceties tum­bled over the air­waves.

And there were the­o­ries. Oh, my. And then what if, and what if this and what if that? How thrilling, exhil­a­rat­ing. We do love a mys­tery. Amelia Earhart, Lindbergh baby, Patty Hearst, D.B. Cooper, O.J.Simpson, Hale Boggs.

And the what ifs rolled on and on.

And the ships at sea and the meta­da­ta search­es.

All the reen­act­ments and the sim­u­la­tions and the cute arcane terms.

And the wait­ing.

We were tired. And the poor scream­ing loved ones, cast aside, bunched, howl­ing. We don’t know them. We have our own prob­lems. We want the dopamine hits, the lit­tle scoots down the snowy hill of child­hood, the promise of all togeth­er now, one-two-three. Anything to bring us togeth­er, all one, just us chick­ens.

And then one day the plane was found. It was at Hermit Bob’s.

Hermit Bob lived on a moun­tain with a long grassy ridge that he used for fly­ing kites and exper­i­ment­ing with saved string dur­ing elec­tri­cal storms.

When the plane land­ed there, every­one on board was so relieved, so hap­py to see a friend­ly face, they were shocked speech­less. And with so many lan­guages and the flight atten­dants know­ing only things like “Be sure your seat backs and tray tables are upright and in a locked posi­tion” in more than one lan­guage, there was lit­tle chit-chat. Hermit Bob offered the pas­sen­gers and crew every­thing he had. He had stock­piled food, shop­ping only once a year. And every­one was so hun­gry. They did not know where they were and did not ask. In truth, Hermit Bob could not have quot­ed his coor­di­nates.

Some time passed, and the group, Hermit Bob’s new fam­i­ly, seemed very hap­py, con­tent­ed on the moun­tain with their benefactor’s charm and skill. Some learned to make planks, some to whit­tle, some to make screws. They all learned to fly kites. The grassy land­ing strip was very green. It was placid. The sky was blue, and no one saw any con­trails any­where.

And then one day word got out, and the oohs and ahs of dis­cov­ery streaked around the globe, and though we all rushed to hear the tales of the far-flung adven­tur­ers, we lis­tened only half-heart­ed­ly, while the jaw­bon­ing the­o­rists and the jig­saw experts tried to force the pieces togeth­er again. The jaw­ing became faint and droned off course until we lost track of it alto­geth­er.

Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of the wide­ly anthol­o­gized sto­ry, “Shiloh” and the nov­el In Country. Her lat­est nov­el is The Girl in the Blue Beret.