The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Coyotes and Roses
A slug of spitty snot, pungent with the smell of cheap vodka, rolled down Glenn’s dead, corpse-painted cheek as three uncles and my father dragged me from the church. When I sobered, I was made to pay for the hole my dress shoe made in the door. I imagine that the coyotes howled in the distance.
“Get your hands off me, I own your fucking house,” was the last thing I slurred in that church, the last impression I left for a building full of family I would never see again. Exit the villain.
I last saw my Uncle Glenn alive six years earlier at his son Joel’s funeral. He stood there with Marliss as she mourned for their son, he stood without remorse. The only movement in his face was a slight prideful twitch as his own name was mentioned by the minister. Pride in a name I had grown to hate for all the hurt it had caused his family, my family. Marliss sobbed into his shoulder as the service droned on. We can’t help who we love.
Joel had been hurting for a long time because of Glenn. It was Marliss who found her son as he dangled from a bathroom truss exposed above the drywall ceiling. Joel probably planned it out for a while, thought about it often, how it would go. He probably wore those thoughts like a heavy winter coat, always mindful of the way they constricted his movements. It was probably a relief when he finally did it, ended it all. I bet that in that singular moment, from when he jumped from the mint green toilet to the instant the fall snapped his spindly neck, he felt a bit of relief, maybe a respite from the hurt he carried. His story was over, by his own hand, he was barely an adult.
I was fourteen, just a few weeks before fifteen, at Joel’s funeral, when I took a swing at Glenn. He beat me savagely for it, crushing bones in my face and shattering several of my teenage ribs. The police were his drinking buddies and they claimed it was self-defense, Glenn pressed no charges. I healed up and began lifting weights.
I knew the hurt Joel carried, I carried it myself. I used to love Glenn, it used to be different.
“You have to kill them,” Glenn said as he leveled the rifle. “They are cruel and vicious to the cows. They don’t kill like lions. They kill by tearing open the stomach and eating the guts first.” He pressed his middle-aged face with its snow-white whiskers to the stock, and peered down the scope. “I’ll get this one—you get the next.” He pulled the trigger and the sound of a gunshot filled the partly cloudy Montana sky.
Every summer, sometimes in May, sometimes in August, we spent two weeks in Montana. Each time, we stayed with Glenn and his family in their home in eastern Montana. A drastic change of scenery from my native Albuquerque, New Mexico. Every year, the men hunted often, and always in cool of the mornings. Glenn had selfish hands that gripped the wheel of his truck hard enough to leave an imprint. I remember his smell in the cab of that truck. I was still deciding what it meant to be a man; I could only assume that his was the scent of typical masculinity—sweat and old.
This hunt was different than the ones before, in that it would be the first time I was allowed to actually hunt rather than merely tagging along. I had been allowed to shoot at the range since my eighth birthday and was fairly good at it. This trip, I was finally old enough to be the one looking down the scope and pulling the trigger in the real world. The vast empty plains of eastern Montana would be my shooting gallery; the coyotes would be my prey. There was a certain pride in the honor of acting in a masculine capacity. I was a man and when the time came for my shot, I pulled the trigger and painted the prairie with coyote blood. Glenn was right. Being eaten while alive was unacceptable; the coyotes had to die.
Montana is conducive to the life of a killer. It stretches out forever in all directions with subtle waves hewn into the clay by the wind. Little dark green bushes eke out a living from the unreliable rain and I swear that the grass grows across the prairie floor just to trick the animals into coming out in the open to be shot. There are few trees, and what trees there are, are usually shriveled and leafless from fighting the wind by themselves. Eastern Montana is a place that welcomes death and those who bring it.
I have come to understand death in a new way as an adult, but I always seem to refer it back to Montana. Standing immemorial as the tender of my fears and regrets, I have come to despise the landscapes I once loved.
Back then, death was everywhere, it was what the men did. We hunted and swore and drank foul tasting cheap beer in the desolace of Custer County. The women knew what we did out there, and in a seeming effort to prove they were of a different order, shrugged and sighed at the barbarism. Glenn’s wife, my Aunt Marliss, had been one to simply ignore the roughness. Looking back, she was Glenn’s opposite in almost every way, and it was always a mystery as to why they were married in the first place.
He was not necessarily cold to her; they just always seemed to be in a separate place mentally. My folks were the same way. They spoke past each other constantly like they each had invisible friends just offstage. Like a grand performance, meant for a god who abandoned them to each other’s company. Glenn would tell Marliss about the hunt, and she would tell him of her garden. Aunt Marliss seemed to have had only her roses and it was their sixteen-year-old son, my cousin Joel, who was probably hurt most by the distance.
Joel never came with for the hunts. Marliss said it was because he was a gentle soul; after a few beers Glenn told me it was because he was a “homo.” Joel was never the focus of either of his parents and to that I always attributed his bad attitude. He really had no use for Glenn or for his mother. They were three separate adults living in the same house, like roommates rather than a family. It was upsetting to me to see the loneliness between them.
While we hunted, Aunt Marliss was tending her rosebush. Always pruning and shaping but never to any avail. She was a miserable gardener. She cared too much my mother always said, herself a fine gardener capable of producing roses as big as a softball. Marliss would have been happy with a bloom half that size. My mother gloated about her roses to Marliss, blissfully unaware of the ease roses can grow in Albuquerque as opposed to the windswept tundra of northeastern Montana.
Marliss was married first and I do not think my mother ever forgave her for it, and from the time Marliss said I do, my mother had been in competition with her “beloved” sister. Dad’s job and Uncle Glenn’s were constantly compared for their vacation days, salary, and, during a particularly dark period of finance, the duration of their lunch breaks.
The men could not have cared less about the pissing match or the roses. My father, in general, was walking on air whenever we crossed state lines into “big sky country,” and for the duration of the visit was blissfully ignorant of any and all unpleasantness. His attentions were focused on drinking deeply the aura of his home state to a point that sickened my twelve-year-old stomach. I found and still find myself unable to appreciate the openness of Montana and much prefer the contained conclave of my city. His affection for the state was relentless as it was tiresome and for a relief from Dad’s praise I sought to spend less time in his company. As a result or rather consequence, I found myself spending quite a bit of time with Uncle Glenn.
Glenn was a large man at the time, 280 pounds of country gravy and country wisdom. He had a consistent wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts accumulated during a trip to the Big Island in the 80s that he wore exclusively, all shaded under the bill of one of his 15 baseball caps. I never saw him without a cap, I think he wore it to hide the fact he was balding. His ways were foreign and harsh, and on more than one occasion I witnessed him slap my effete cousin across the face for the slightest hint of backtalk. He never hit me but often advised my father on the merits of corporal punishment to, “Show him who’s boss early.” Thankfully, my father was the recipient of a similar rearing style and vowed never to subject me to it.
Glenn’s greatest pleasure on a warm July morning was to wake before the sun and drive his land looking for coyote dens. The threat of the coyotes was second to the thrill of the hunt, but the necessity of the trip was often stressed during the drive. We drove the entire morning looking for the slight little caves that the coyotes lurked, the raised mounds or the cavities in the sides of the prairie ruts. As we drove, the merits of their deaths were being championed by a man in a blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt.
“Coyotes are like a cancer. Unless you cull them when it’s like this, they gather and can kill a full herd. They eat their prey while it’s still alive, you can’t let it happen like that.” Dad was visiting some friends so it was just Glenn and me. We killed seven of them that day, two by my hand. After the hunt, Glenn had decided to take me to the local Tasty Freeze for an ice cream cone…death and ice cream for the twelve-year-old rifleman.
Glenn pulled into the little white building and got out of the truck. He scruffed my hair and said he would be right back with a couple of cones. I sat in the truck eagerly awaiting the taste of ice cream, the coldness of it to match the coldness of my new identity as a hunter, a man. As I waited, I looked out the windows of the truck onto the vast plains of the Montana hinterlands. It was barren and lifeless, like being on the moon if the moon could grow wheat. The time passed slowly and as it did, I found my thoughts resting on the family that wanted to live in this nothingness. Uncle Glenn and Aunt Marliss were from this planet, not as boring as some but still boring citizens of the moon. I often wondered if time actually mattered to these people as nothing seemed to ever change for them. Everything was old and getting older. The liquid crystal display of the truck read 12:38. I had been alone with my thoughts for twenty minutes. I was no longer curious; my thoughts moved to alarm.
I opened the door of the truck and cautiously made my way to the door of the Tastee-Freez. A little plastic tag hung in the window stating that in theory, the place was open, the reality of the emptiness suggested otherwise. The handle was welcoming whereas the door was frightening. Still I soldiered on. The door was heavy and required the use of my shoulder to push open, revealing an immaturely decorated cave of commerce complete with a terribly drawn version of Donald Duck feasting wantonly on the image of an ice cream cone. The building was empty, cold and quiet. The bluish florescent lights gave me the feeling of being under water. I was an alien invading the moon base. I walked across the light blue linoleum floors looking for signs of Uncle Glenn, careful to be as quiet as possible so as to not disturb the sanctum of the building. My ears were on high alert and scanning for the slightest sound when I heard the thud on the walls of the building. I followed the sound to the back of the store and again I heard a thud. The sound was coming from the back storage room, and so as carefully as possible I walked to the back and opened the door.
On the floor was Uncle Glenn, his blue Hawaiian shirt hung on the pillar of a shelf of hamburger buns and boxes of ice-cream cones. His pants were around his ankles while his genitals were hidden by the back of a longhaired brunette woman’s head. Her body trembled steadily while my eyes locked with those of my uncle. I stared into his eyes; his horror was exposed through his attempt to form words. All that escaped was a low toned slop of mouth movement and wordless babble. I slowly turned and left the room and walked back to the truck. I stood at the door with my hand on the shiny chrome door handle until Glenn ran out of the Tastee-Freez, his unbuttoned shirt draped around his shoulders.
He grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to look at his face, from the windows of the building the brunette woman peeked through the blinds. His former disbelief was now replaced with anger and fear as he said, “You didn’t see anything. Do you understand me?” From his pocket he pulled a crumpled twenty-dollar bill, and placed it in my hand and again said, “Understand?”
I understood. God help me, I understood. What I understood was not what Glenn wanted me to but instead the pain of being eaten alive. Just like that, Joel made sense. I bet he saw something similar once. I at once understood the feeling of being consumed while alive through the knowledge of Glenn’s filth. Glenn knew I was struggling to understand the sight, and at first tried to lie about it.
His left hand buttoned his shirt while the right firmly held the wheel as he spoke, “I was choking and she was helping me.” His fingers traced the outline of the last button left, the one closest to the top of his chest. “Nothing more. All the same, don’t be telling your aunt about this.” He said we were both men and it is natural for men to keep secrets from the women, besides, “It was just how it goes. She wouldn’t care anyway.”
Uncle Glenn was a poor liar and the second the words left his mouth, I knew I had a secret that was monumental, perhaps the most important secret to ever be known. The ride was horrifically uncomfortable and not even the static of the AM radio could drown out the silence. While we rode I thought of what I would do. I rolled up the twenty into a tight tube and unrolled it again; each motion was empty and useless. I had no answers. We arrived back at the house around three in the afternoon and sure enough, Aunt Marliss was out with the roses.
Her hands powered the yellow-handled tin snips in the delicate manner of a lioness holding her cubs by the throat; endlessly pruning and trimming all the while my mother watched and offered “expert” advice. Aunt Marliss was as easy going as any I have come to known. I never spent much time with her but she was always was friendly to me. She seemed so alien in her rose colored dresses and gold-rimmed glasses. Before that day I never really saw her as a person so much as a name on the tag for Christmas gifts. I saw her in that moment as a human cheated and felt the masculine urge to confront and destroy her hurt. I felt protective of my aunt for the first time in my life and if I could have, I would have beaten Glenn to death for his crime. I watched as her hands lovingly snipped and trimmed the lonely shaft of a single bud. I heard in my ears the sounds of my mother’s gloating and smelled in the distant wind the stench of Tastee-Freez hamburgers and sex. The moment overwhelmed me and I snapped at my mother in the tongue of the wicked, “Fuck off Mom. It’s not her fault.” The entire household stared at me dumbfounded. My twelve-year-old mouth had never spoken such filth before.
In a stroke of luck, like being hit with lightning really, my father was there to hear it. He was gone 99% of the time, but such is fate. His mouth fell open and stayed that way until the silence was broken by a belly laugh out of Glenn.
I was whisked away by my father who sat me on the edge of the bed and commanded me to explain myself, mother waited behind the slightly cracked door eager to hear the sound of my inevitable spanking. He asked and prodded until I could no longer contain my composure and burst into tears. The anger turned to worry as my mother burst into the room. She held my head against her chest and softly stroked my head.
“You can tell us anything, you know that, what’s wrong?” I wanted to tell her about Glenn, tell her that her sister was being cheated on, and tell her about the brown hair bobbing around his crotch. I wanted to spill my guts about the whole day. Nothing left my lips but a muttered, “I’m sorry.” I had been a man for all of a day and already I was faced with a horrible decision. I could have destroyed a marriage and caused a huge scene that would no doubt end horribly. Mother would fake tears and pretend to be upset but in secret she would have something else to gloat over. Dad would fight Glenn over exposing me to such hideousness, there was no doubt about it, and Glenn would have killed him. Marliss would be alone, maybe with Joel, maybe not. I held a secret that I thought had the capacity to change every life in that house.
The coyotes ate deeply on my conscience, rich full bites and tears that hurt with every breath. I stayed in my bed for the remainder of the trip leaving only to eat and sulk in the downstairs bathroom with the mint green toilet. I wallowed with my secret in the darkness of a rural Montana sky. The stars were numerous above me and I wished to be on anyone of them than there on the moon of wheat. I decided on one particularly clear night that I would tell Aunt Marliss about Glenn. I would share the secret and betray Glenn, who had so betrayed her, because that is what a man would do.
The next morning my mother prepared a breakfast of pork sausage with country gravy and eggs. We as a family, full and complete, sat at the table and ate. Glenn and my father whispered plans of going to Fort Peck to fish after breakfast. Joel and I ate our meals like condemned prisoners waiting for the noose, all the while Aunt Marliss stared out to the rose bush.
The meal ended with Joel and the men going to the lake as conspired and the women staying at the house. I elected to stay due to the illness that was my cover for being alone with Aunt Marliss. After my mother left to do a bit of grocery shopping in town, the house was reduced to two occupants, Marliss and me.
Aunt Marliss was with her roses as I approached; the hem of her white cotton dress swept about softly in the summer morning breeze. She was once again out with her yellow tipped shears tending the stems, doing her best to craft a rose from the green sprout of a thorny bush.
The coyotes lifted their eyes from my guts as I opened my mouth to speak, “Auntie, I have something to tell you.”
“You know Aaron, your mother says you are doing very well with your studies, I always knew you were smart. Your cousin Joel is smart too, not like you though; his smarts are with his hands.” Her hands shook a bit as she spoke, “I…I know what you came to say. Glenn told me you saw him. He is a bastard, sweetie, but he’s all I’ve got.” Her eyes welled with tears as she turned around and hugged me. I saw in her face that I was not the only one the coyote fed on; she had the same look of resentment and fear as she told me she had known for years about Glenn. She told me that Joel had seen Glenn with the same girl a few years back and how Glenn said he would leave if she made a stink about it. She exhaled through her nose a heavy breath and returned to her roses.
It was the first and last real conversation I had with her, because as soon as she turned to the roses she resumed her alien state. I came to realize that maybe being an adult was about holding the hurt. I wanted to say more. I wanted to save her. I walked away and back to my bed.
That was it. I never told my folks about it because it was not their hurt to hold. It was Marliss’s and mine. It was my price for becoming a man. If I didn’t go with Glenn that morning eager to kill, I would never have had to bear that weight. The coyotes I killed that morning would be the last. I paid my dues. I was a man.
The roses never bloomed for Aunt Marliss, much to my mother’s delight. Marliss tended them all the same and now I knew why. It was never a competition between her and my mother, but instead a diversion to take her away from the horror of the coyote gnawing at her. Mother never knew and Aunt Marliss was happy to embrace the façade of a competition to just pretend to be normal and whole.
A few months before my twentieth birthday and I was back in Montana. Glenn’s funeral would begin in just a couple of hours. I adjusted my black tie in the broken mirror of my room in the only motel in the county, the only one I could find two rooms in anyway. My folks had the room across the hallway, we were no longer close. We talked past each other for years and fell away from friendship into a family that met infrequently. The old ways, just like Marliss and Glenn, just like Joel and the silence. Like a heavy coat that constricts my movements, ever reminding me of its presence. It was hard to craft a Windsor knot while sober, more so after drinking all morning. Cheap vodka that I bought without being carded clung to my breath, probably to my clothes but taking firm hold in my head making me dizzy and punchy.
The church was a couple blocks from the motel and I walked as straight as I could, I only fell twice. I took my seat beside my parents and shrugged when they told me I stunk of booze, it didn’t matter. The preacher delivered a beautiful service, fit for a hero, full of praise and clamor for a man who ruined lives. Marliss sat alone as she had always been, bereft of tears, filled with silence. Glenn had left her, he was all that she had.
After the eulogy, the attendees each took their turn to look into his white casket, at his face one last time. I waited until Marliss had left the church before I walked to the front and starred at his face. All of the creases of his forehead and colors of his face recreated with funeral home makeup, a vessel emptied of its contents, cold and vacant. I wanted to put a drunken fist through his head, all the way to the back of the casket, I wanted to…
I still remember the last trip to Montana that I took as a child. My father and Glenn went out one last time, on the last day, to hunt for the villainous coyotes. As was their way, I was dragged along in an effort to “toughen me up.” Glenn parked the truck and pulled the rifle from its bag; he leveled the gun and peered down the scope. The sound of the gunshot filled the emptiness of the Montana moonscape and a little coyote fell over in the distance. My father did the same and another scraggly dog-beast fell over. On my turn, I fired the gun, missing on purpose and allowing the coyote to scurry into the brush. They had eaten their fill of roses. I felt them no longer a threat.
Photo credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. All photos licensed under Creative Commons.