Coyote Nights

Paso Robles was where we went in the summer when we couldn't live at home. The farm was where all the broken parts of our lives collected during the day and came swooping down in the dark when we lay in a sagging bed listening to the coyotes beyond the banks of the river channel. The coyotes howled and yelped, yip, yip, yip, which was the sound, my grandfather said, they made when they pulled a rabbit apart. I felt sorry for the rabbits.

Highway 101, on the other side of the sandy, willowed Salinas River channels, traversed, south to north, the low hills that stretched west to the Santa Lucia Range. At night I lay in bed and listened to the eighteen-wheelers as they hammered out their miles on the cement pavement of the highway. Heading north out of Paso they shifted gears as they slowly gained speed. The Greyhound buses, too. Their sound was a silky whine of tires on the road and the softer shiftings of their transmissions. I wondered where they were going. There were cars too, but the reverberations of the trucks and buses smothered their goings like a cloud covering the moon. The sounds from the highway made me think of home until sleep sneaked up like an assassin in bare feet.

My brother and I lay in our bed and talked. It wasn’t long before my grandfather pounded his fist on the outside wall and growled “Be still.” He went out there every night to pee before going to bed. We were supposed to be sleeping, but we were careless and spoke in voices that carried through the thin board and batt walls. I don't know why he didn't want us to talk together.

Sometimes I was still awake when the last lights were switched off and my aunts crawled under the covers of their steel poor-people's Victorian bed on the screen porch. Then I lay on the bed and listened to their soft murmurings in the dark. The sound of their voices was reassuring.

The mattress on the bed that my brother and I slept in, cotton ticking stuffed with something that felt like crushed Shredded Wheat, sloped from the edges into the middle. We had to lie on the very edge of the mattress to avoid rolling into the center. Staying on the edge worked fine and kept the peace until we fell asleep. One night while I gripped the bedframe my brother rolled into the middle of the bed and lay there without moving. I lay awake listening to the sound of the trucks and buses on the highway when I noticed that he was softly crying.

“Paul,” I whispered, “What's wrong?” He didn't answer.

“Why are you crying?” Still no answer.

Suddenly he sat up and said “no, no, no!” and laid back down. I could tell from his breathing that he was asleep. Then I heard the howl and yip, yip, yipping of the coyotes. I didn’t wake him.

Stephen Barber is an old guy, born in Santa Barbara and graduated from UCSB. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he writes, hikes, and builds an occasional piece of furniture with black walnut lumber that he collected over the years. He reads everything he can get his hands on.