The following story appears in Giano Cromley’s short story collection, What We Build Upon the Ruins, and was reprinted with the author’s permission.
Coyote in the City
Ellis Jackson knew he’d taken the easiest route life had offered. Coming out of high school, he’d gotten a football scholarship to a Division II school, but he opted instead to stay in Billings and follow his father into the roofing business. The job suited him. It was outdoors and it engaged his senses—the sticky tar vapors, the rough feel of new shingles, the satisfying kick of the nailgun as it snicked another nail home. The work was a language he understood, a mantra chanted in his native tongue.
After a brief apprenticeship, he started his own roofing company. And he started a family that same year. For the next decade, both of them happily grew. But he knew his decisions had left him vulnerable, and this knowledge stuck with him the way a page in a book, once dog-eared, never looks quite like the others again.
A prolonged slump in the housing market caused work orders to nosedive. Within two years, he had to sell off the company truck, and then the roofing equipment. He was forced to go on public assistance to feed his wife and three young sons. The nightly news often ran stories talking of others in situations similar to his, but he didn’t know those people. They seemed distant and foreign to him.
Relief came that spring in the form of a job with the Billings City Parks Department. It was seasonal work—lasting only the summer—and the pay was brutally low. He was thirty-one, emptying garbage in his hometown, a city whose orbit he’d never seriously thought about leaving.
It didn’t take Jackson long to adjust to the contours of the job. Every day he drove around Billings alone in a Ford F-350 modified to hold a dumpster and hydraulic brusher on the back. He had free rein to go wherever he wanted—no accountability except to the garbage itself, and to the occasional call from his boss Kent on the truck’s CB.
In the mornings, Jackson would rush through the garbage pick-up at the bigger parks in the heart of the city, then take his time at the smaller ones out west in the afternoons. It was here that he was least likely to encounter people he knew, least likely to see that slight downward cast in their eyes when they saw his green parks t-shirt.
Often, as he drove through these freshly built neighborhoods, Jackson would remind himself that he’d personally roofed a good number of these houses. Then a moment later he’d catch a whiff of the trash he was hauling, and his stomach would clench at the thought of what he’d do for a job when the summer was over.
Every morning before he set off on his route, he pored over the meager job listings in the classifieds. Afterwards, if there was time, he’d turn to the local section. One morning in early June he came across an article that caught his attention.
The previous day there had been mountain lion sightings around the commercial big-box strip west of town. Animal control officers cornered the mountain lion in the loading dock behind a Lowe’s. They tranquilized the creature, tagged it, and relocated it further outside the city. But they warned that if it turned up again inside the city limits, they’d have to euthanize it. The story made Jackson quake with a slow, boiling rage. He fought the urge to crumple the newspaper into a ball.
In mid-July he came across another article. This time a juvenile coyote, maybe one or two years old, came in off the prairies and wandered down 24th Street on the west end until it found a Quiznos with the front door propped open. It scurried inside, jumped up on the counter, surveyed the employees and the handful of people eating a late lunch, then proceeded to take a seat on the glass lid of a cooler. Again, animal control was summoned. Because coyotes enjoyed no federal or state protections, it was put down.
Jackson wondered why this was happening. Were these animals somehow pulled in to the city? Or was the city pushing out toward them? He tore the newspaper into scraps and flung them out the truck window. Then, worried someone might see the city logo on the door and report him, he climbed out of the truck and picked them up. He tossed them into the rear bin, then worked the sweep-and-slide levers, to push the torn paper into the bottom of the dumpster.
One afternoon in early August he pulled his truck up to the first set of cans at Forest Glen Park. His eyes traced the perimeter of the green square. There was a set of netless basketball hoops on one end, an abandoned playground on the other. Then he saw the trees.
“Hey, Kent,” he said into the CB mouthpiece. “Are you there?”
The speaker cracked and whistled. “That’s not proper CB protocol, Jackson.”
“Kent, I’m at Forest Glen. You need to get out here and see this.”
Every tree in the park—numbering probably two dozen—had been cut down at roughly eight feet high. Next to the tall stumps, the leafy tops of the trees lay like severed heads.
After the police finished questioning him, Kent ambled over. He was wearing tight jeans and a pearl snap-button shirt, as if he’d just stepped off the pro rodeo circuit.
“That’s a hell of a thing, eh?” Kent said.
Jackson watched as a truck drove through the park to dispose of the treetops. Ten years ago, he thought, this was probably farmland. A hundred years ago, it might have been a forest. “Crazy world,” he said.
He was about to climb into the truck and resume his collection route when Kent sighed and blew his lips out in a raspberry. “This sure is some kind of a thing.”
“Idiot high schoolers maybe,” Jackson offered, grateful for the fact that his own sons were not yet that age.
Kent shook his head. He looked at Jackson, eyes squinting in the sun. “You got company tomorrow.”
“Yep.” He ran his index finger over the thin blond mustache on his lip. “Uno compañero.”
“Is it because of these trees?” Jackson tried not to sound bothered, but the fact that he got to work alone was the only good part of the job.
Kent scrunched his face up as if he’d been hurt. “I have an extra man for the time being, and you’re the best one to stick him with.” He rested a hand on Jackson’s shoulder, a gesture that felt too familiar. “This’ll be a slick deal. You sit back and drive while this new fella throws the trash in back.”
“Really, Kent, I don’t need—”
“You get to drive because this guy doesn’t have a license.” Kent seemed absorbed in his own private giddiness. “On account of he just got out of jail. He’s a parolee.” Kent pressed his tongue against his cheek as if he enjoyed some special taste the word left in his mouth.
The city parks vehicle depot was a fenced-off lot south of town, in an area dotted with corrugated aluminum warehouses and nameless truck repair shops. The trailer that served as the break room was cramped, with a long table and foldout chairs. When Jackson showed up the next morning, Tony Patterson and Freddie Yellow Fox were eating doughnuts and flipping through ancient copies of Car & Driver. Neither Tony nor Freddie spoke much to Jackson. They were older—both of them lifers in the parks department. Jackson wasn’t sure what they did in the off-season.
He took a seat and began scanning his copy of the Gazette.
“Heard you found them trees cut down,” Freddie said, leaning back in his chair. “Eight feet high?”
“Sure did,” Jackson said, trying to focus on the paper.
“Any idea who did it?”
Tony found this funny, but Freddie mumbled something that sounded vaguely menacing as he tilted his chair forward and flipped a page in his magazine.
“So were any of you Nancies planning to work for me today?” Kent’s sudden appearance in the doorway put a halt to the commotion. “Or did you think I was going to pay you to sit around here punching your puds?”
The men looked sullenly at their boss.
“My partner hasn’t shown up yet,” Jackson said. “You want me to go out on my own?”
“Sure he has,” Kent said. “He’s out front waiting on you. He doesn’t like confined spaces.”
The pale, skinny man leaning against the chain link fence did not fit the profile Jackson had imagined. The guy had sloped shoulders, ropy arms, and a weak chin that made him seem vaguely Muppet-like. He introduced himself as Dean Travers.
“Jackson. I guess we’re partners.” As they shook hands, Jackson thought: I could take this guy. Not that he wanted, or even expected to, but he knew he could impose his will on this man, if need be.
They climbed into the cab of the truck. “Mind if I smoke?” Dean asked.
“Try and blow it outside.” Jackson rolled his own window down, even though the morning air was still cold.
Dean pulled out a dark brown cigarette, some foreign brand Jackson wasn’t familiar with, and lit it. Something about Dean’s face looked tough—flattened and beaten like a gray cube steak—which made Jackson reconsider his earlier impressions.
Dean was done with his cigarette by the time Jackson eased the truck through the access gate at Pioneer Park. It was the busiest park in the city and Jackson liked to hit it before the crowds of screaming kids and fat picnickers made driving impossible. He pulled the truck to a halt at the first set of garbage cans and looked over at his new partner. Dean stared back through the scratched lenses of his glasses.
This is a moment when dominance will be established, Jackson recognized. What happens now will lay the groundwork for the rest of the day. He flexed his fingers and curled them around the steering wheel as if to dig himself in. “The garbage isn’t going to empty itself,” he said.
Dean’s shoulders were the first thing to cave. Next his gaze lowered, and finally he climbed down from the truck. Jackson watched through the side-view mirror as Dean wrestled with the metal cans. He heard the discordant wake-up call of smashing glass. Then he saw Dean tinkering with the hydraulic levers in back, trying to figure out which one scooped the trash into the tank.
Metal scraping metal: glass ground into dust. Jackson felt a strange elation.
“Holy Christ,” Dean said when he climbed back into the truck a few stops later. He was wiping his hands on his jeans. “Looks like someone puked in one of those cans.”
“Someone probably did.”
Dean sniffed his bare fingers. He winced and made a gagging sound in the back of his throat.
Jackson looked down at his leather work gloves between them on the truck bench. He felt possessive of the gloves. He’d had them since his roofing days. He’d broken them in with years of sweat and grease and labor. He didn’t say anything, but just slid the truck into drive and coasted forward to the next set of cans.
A few minutes later, Dean came back into the cab cradling his right hand in his left. “Sliced my finger,” he said.
“Bad?” Jackson asked, trying hard to not imagine how much bacteria the cut had already absorbed.
“Not great.” A drop of crimson landed on the floorboards between them.
“Christ, Dean, don’t you have any work gloves?” Jackson knew he was more annoyed than he had a right to be.
Dean shook his head. He looked pathetic, glasses hanging off the edge of his nose. Another drop quickly welled up on his fingertip and hit the floor near the first.
Jackson glanced down at his gloves again. He wondered how a man like this could have handled prison. “Kent should’ve told you to bring gloves. The bottoms of those cans get rusted out.”
“Kent didn’t tell me shit.” Dean stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked.
Jackson had to turn away. “Listen, take mine for today.” He nudged his gloves across the bench.
Dean pushed his glasses up the slicked bridge of his nose. His face broke into a gappy smile.
“Before that,” Jackson said, “let’s go back to the depot and get some first aid for that finger.” Though he knew—bandage or no—he would never wear those gloves again.
“So what were you locked up for?” As soon as he asked the question, Jackson could tell he’d overstepped some boundary.
Dean had returned from the trailer, his finger encased in gauze and adhesive tape. He worked another cigarette from the box and shook his head, just a little. But at last he said: “Credit card fraud.”
Jackson immediately became aware of his wallet, tucked into the back pocket of his jeans. This is what life had reduced him to, he thought, sharing a truck with a thief.
“How long?” he asked.
“Sentenced five years. Out in thirty-six months.” Dean blew a stream of smoke at the cracked window. “You haven’t ever done time, have you?”
He shook his head. “I’m a family man.” They were back at Pioneer Park, and he was just turning the truck onto the access road.
“There’s plenty of family men locked up in Deer Lodge.” Jackson could sense that Dean had turned in his seat and was now facing him. “You want to know what it was like.” It wasn’t a question.
Jackson said, “You do realize jail is something you’re supposed to be ashamed of, right?”
“Let me tell you.” There was a rising note of challenge in Dean’s voice. “You don’t have the first idea what it was like.”
Jackson felt himself getting jittery, as if he’d drunk too much caffeine—a queasy, unstable sensation that might lead to something if he wasn’t careful. “I’m sure I don’t want to know.”
Mercifully, they were at the next set of cans. Jackson watched as Dean gently tugged a glove over his bandaged finger, climbed down from the truck, and began emptying the garbage.
After that, Jackson drove a little more quickly from can to can, to minimize Dean’s chatter. Soon the starting and stopping became a rhythm, like a train rolling over sloppy track, or car tires chuffing over broken asphalt.
Having a partner did speed the process up, and by mid-morning they’d already covered most of the city’s larger parks—well ahead of schedule.
The truck CB made a sudden, noisy crackle. Kent’s voice said something Jackson couldn’t make out. Dean was staring at the dashboard as if it were a wild animal set loose in the cab.
“What’s that, Kent? I didn’t hear you,” Jackson said into the mouthpiece, steering the truck with one hand.
“Just checking to make sure your new partner hadn’t killed you yet.” Kent’s radio voice pulsed with restrained laughter.
Jackson glanced over at Dean, who looked small on the other side of the truck bench. “Not yet.”
“That’s some good news then.” There was a short pause. “But I’ve got some bad news. Someone opened a packing box over by Millice Park. Goddamn Styrofoam peanuts all over the place. I want you and Dean to fix it.”
The CB made a loud scratching noise and then it was silent.
Even though Millice was a small park, it took the rest of the morning to clean up the mess. Jackson was grateful for the break from routine. It got him out of the truck, and it allowed him some distance from Dean. At 12:30, when they were done picking up the bits of Styrofoam, they bought fast food and took it back to the trailer at the vehicle depot.
Dean shook his head as he popped a fry into his mouth. “One thing I don’t get is why you’re here.”
“Why does anyone do anything?” Jackson shook his head. “I’ve got a family. A mortgage.”
“You know, me and you are the same age. I remember reading about you when I was in high school.”
Jackson’s stomach tightened. He hated these reminders of lost opportunity.
“All-state linebacker. Full ride scholarship to somewhere, right?” Dean chewed his food slowly and swallowed. “Not a great school, but decent good.”
“So what.” Jackson took a sip of his Coke and bit at the straw. There was no way scrawny Dean played a single down of meaningful football.
Dean tossed his hand in the air. “I’m just saying, a guy like you shouldn’t end up stuck in Billings, Montana. Working for the parks.”
“You don’t know what type of guy I am.”
“A guy like you should’ve been miles from a job like this.” He sat back in his chair. “It’s kinda funny. Me and you took different routes, but we ended up in the exact same place.”
Jackson shrugged, but the sound of Dean’s voice was like an alarm clock blaring in his ear. At the end of the summer he wouldn’t even have this lousy job. How, then, would he hang on?
They were on the west end, and there was one more park to hit—Rosewood—out in a new development on the very outskirts of town, where the new construction had eaten its way toward the foothills of the Rockies. Most of the houses out here were still unoccupied, silent reminders that every boom has a bust.
As soon as Jackson pulled the truck to a stop by the first set of garbage cans, he noticed something at the far edge of the park. A gray blur that moved silently from beneath a parked car and disappeared under a trash dumpster.
“What was that?” Jackson asked.
Dean looked around the truck. “What was what?”
“Out there.” He pointed, but Dean seemed uninterested.
“Let’s get this park done and go home.”
As Dean pulled on the gloves, Jackson saw it again. It slipped out from under the dumpster and began loping toward King Drive, which lay just beyond the park.
All at once, Jackson was out of the truck and sprinting. Dean yelled something he couldn’t quite make out. He felt clean, like an engine burning lighter fluid. His legs scissored and his heart beat fiercely in his chest. He hadn’t run like this in years. He wasn’t panicked, necessarily; in fact, he felt strangely calm. There was something purifying in the simple motion of his body.
As Jackson came to the edge of the park he slowed down. The animal had disappeared again. Traffic on all four lanes of King Drive was steady and moving fast, and he didn’t want to accidentally spook this creature into getting run over.
He whistled and said, “It’s okay, boy. Where are you?”
Jackson heard nothing but the rumble of cars. He stepped cautiously toward King Drive, afraid he might discover he was too late.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, it emerged from behind a utility chest, and Jackson was in motion again. Now that he was closer, he could see it was a dog. Small, maybe a foot high, with long curly hair that had once been white.
“Here, boy,” he said between gasps.
But the dog didn’t seem to hear. It clearly used to be a family pet, but, lost or abandoned, it had reverted to a primitive survival state.
“It’s just a goddamn dog,” he heard Dean call out from somewhere behind him. “It’s probably diseased. Call the pound.”
Jackson tried to position himself between the dog and King Drive. He felt dizzy for a moment, lightheaded from his sprint across the park.
“Here, boy,” he said again.
Jackson knew he’d have to corner and physically capture it. He wished he had his work gloves on, the ones he’d given Dean. He looked around and saw a softball backstop nearby. He stretched his arms out at his sides and began herding the dog in that direction. He was careful not to move too fast. One false start and it would head straight for the street.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
The dog was backed against the chainlink now and Jackson started to move in.
“No one’s going to hurt you, boy. Everything’s all right.”
The dog’s hair was matted. It had a filthy scent that Jackson could smell from five feet away. Underneath the fur he could see the outline of its bone structure. On its back leg it had a sore the size of a quarter.
“Good, boy.” Jackson took another step. “See? I’m only trying to help.”
The dog was shaking. Its dark eyes were almost hidden under a clump of dirty fur.
“It’s all right now. See?” Jackson lowered himself for the grab. His knees made an arthritic pop.
The dog bolted, a whitish streak moving past his ankles. Jackson buckled to the ground. He snared the dog by its hips and held fast. The dog struggled, perhaps surprised to find it could no longer run free. Then it craned its neck. It saw Jackson’s hand. It bit.
The teeth were small, but sharp. They pierced the skin and sank in deep to the bone. Jackson had to restrain an immense cry of pain. Every fiber of his body commanded him to loosen his grip, to give up. But Jackson told himself:
I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go.
Giano Cromley is the author of What We Build Upon the Ruins, and the novel The Last Good Halloween, which was a finalist for the High Plains Book Awards. His other writing – both fiction and nonfiction – has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Literal Latte, the German edition of Le Monde diplomatique, The Externalist, Swill Magazine, Word Riot, The Summerset Review, Underground Voices, Zouch Magazine, and The Bygone Bureau. He’s also been featured on the podcasts “Anything Ghost” and “WordPlaySound.”