Monday, August 18, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Twenty-Seven: Coyote Scat

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Twenty Seven

Which is how Scootie found himself in Thermopolis, Wyoming, a fountain of sulfur water pounding his back as a fifteen-foot green brontosaurus peered over his shoulder.
           
“This is way too much,” he said.
           
“This is just enough,” said Juliana. She slipped into the water, eyes slanted in pleasure. Large white letters on the rocky hill behind them proclaimed this the World’s Largest Hot Springs.
           
Scootie sat on the ledge behind Juliana and rubbed her brown-sugar shoulders. “So you’re sure we’re safe here?”
           
“There’s always a chance. But this state only contains three hundred and fifty-two full-time residents, and Yellowstone season is over.”
           
“What about Jorie? Is she... trustworthy?”
           
“Well. Let me tell you about Jorie. Six months after my father died, my mom was still so weighed down by grief that she left me with Aunt Betsy and took off on a cross-country drive. Only, she never made it past Wyoming, because she ran into Jorie at the Mint Bar in Sheridan. She stayed at Jorie’s ranch for a month, and came home a highly refreshed woman.
           
“Jorie made her big splash in the Greenwich Village art scene of the early sixties. She made the same kind of blue-collar, life-cast sculptures that George Segal was known for. When Segal became such a big success, Jorie was the only other artist doing the same thing – only, she wasn’t, because Jorie’s sculptures were not life-cast at all, she just made them up in her head. But she was smart enough to pretend they were, because suddenly that’s what everyone wanted. A few years later, knowing how fickle the art world was, how quickly she could go out of vogue, she took her jackpot and plunked it down on a ranch.”
           
“And so... we’re safe?” asked Scootie.
           
“Yes, we’re safe. Jorie’s pretty much a recluse now. Doesn’t even go to shows anymore. The chances of her knowing the type of corporate honchos Scott hangs out with are pretty slim.”
           
“I hope so.”
           
“Listen, honey, I’m the paranoid one – so relax! It’s certainly worth some microscopic risk for you and me to enjoy some wide open spaces. You said that’s what you wanted, right?”
           
“I never said that. It’s yet another case of your reading my mind.”
           
“But darling, your mind is so legible.”
           
Scootie peered upward. “You know, I haven’t climbed a brontosaurus since the Pleistocene.”
           
He hopped up and descended a path toward the Sauna Cave (Genuine Stalactites!). After five minutes, Juliana figured his comment for a tease. She had barely closed her eyes when she heard a rodeo whoop and spied a bareback rider, clinging to a scaly green neck and smiling in the Wyoming sun.



They had conducted the getaway with the same military precision that marked their local maneuvers. Feigning a visit to an uncle on Cape Cod, Scootie got a ride from Jackie to the San Jose Airport, where he boarded a 747 to Denver. Feigning a visit to an ailing schoolchum in North Carolina, Juliana took a limo to San Francisco International for a flight to Jackson Hole. They each drove rented cars to Thermopolis, near the center of the state, where Juliana had rented Room Fourteen of the Red Rock Inn.
           
After a day in the magic waters, they turned in Scootie’s rental and headed for the barren flatlands of Central Wyoming. Scootie observed that each town, no matter how small, had a post office and a taxidermy, and that each restaurant had at least one dead animal to stare at you while you ate.
           
The long horizons brought out Scootie’s linguistic playfulness. He spotted a sign reading “Jesus Christ is Savior on the Crow Reservation” and repeated it several times, savoring its internal rhythms. Later, as Juliana snacked on Chinese leftovers going over the Bighorn Mountains, he gave the same treatment to “Eating our snow peas on the Powder River Pass.” He called the pronghorn antelopes “cantaloupes,” and when he spotted a large herd exclaimed, “Cantaloupes out the ass!”
           
Though she joined in his enthusiasm – declaring that this was the first time in the history of the English language that this particular phrase had been uttered – she also felt a slight irritation. She loved the way Scootie’s mind rambled – but did it have to ramble all the time?
           
Soon they were stoplighting through Buffalo, then twenty miles of red pavement and a gravel drive to Jorie’s front yard, a sight that gathered all of Scootie’s sparks and shot them out the top of his head.
           
Bracketing a brick path were two dozen bronze figures: a ranch hand leaning on a fence, a woman gazing blank-faced from a deli counter, a brawny girl pitching a softball, the sphere extended from her hand by a thin rod. Upfacing spotlights gave them all an eerie cast, and the star-glazed Wyoming sky was doing its best to compete. Scootie stood transfixed at the front of the car, picking up strange signals over the hills.
           
“Juliana, is that...?”
           
“Yes,” she said. “That’s Jorie.”
           
Jorie trotted down the path, arsm extended in flight. She swooped down on Juliana.
           
“Jewel!”
           
“Jorie!”
           
She stepped back and put a hand to the side of Juliana’s face.
           
“Well, good-ness! You’re a full-grown woman, aren’t you? I’d like to bronze you right now. And this is your loverboy, Scooter?”
           
“Scootie,” said Juliana, laughing. Scootie took Jorie’s hand. Jorie spread out his fingers and studied them
           
“Young man! You are a born pianist. Look at the reach of those fingers!”
           
“He plays,” said Juliana. “He’s quite good.”
           
“Not really,” said Scootie. “I fool around. Chance music. John Cage.”
           
“Oh, John. That devil.”
           
“You knew him?”
           
“Everyone knew everyone back then. I’ll tell you all about it, but first why don’t you get your bags? We’re due for some snow tonight, and it’s going to get extremely cold.”
           
“Wait,” said Scootie. “Can you tell me something?” He looked toward the hills. “Are those what I think they are?”
           
“Well!” said Jorie. “You should feel privileged. The Northern Lights don’t come down this way for just anyone.”
           
“The Northern Lights are just looking for a good Cajun band,” said Scootie.
           
Juliana gave a puzzled look. Jorie smiled and thought, Well, this one’s got a brain.
           
After settling into their room, they joined Jorie in the dining room, where she had dished out some Chinese chicken salad.
           
“This afternoon,” said Scootie, “we were eating our snow peas on the Powder River Pass.”
           
“Got yourself a poet,” said Jorie, smiling at Juliana.
           
“No,” said Scootie. “I just enjoy sounds, and words.”
           
“So what else is a poet? John was a poet, you know. Sounds, words, rhythms, a few unique crevices in the brain – those are the basic requirements.
           
Pouring a cup of coffee in the kitchen, Juliana was finding this instant bonding disturbing and satisfying, all at once. (Wyoming must be a land of mirrors, she thought, where all feelings come with equal and opposite companions.) She studied Jorie and found few changes form their last meeting, twelve years before. Her straight, short red hair had gained some strokes of gray, her thin, freckled face a few extra wrinkles, but for a woman of seventy, she looked amazing. The lighter of Juliana’s emotions won the battle; with a burst of proud possession, she approached the table and kissed Scootie on the cheek.
           
“Jewel,” said Jorie. “I don’t, as a rule, make myself a corrupter of married women, but I think you’ve got a good one here. The light in this young man’s skull is threatening to shoot right out through his hair.”
           
“I’d like to say I knew that when I first met him,” said Juliana. “But the first thing I noticed was that firm rodeo butt.”
           
Jorie squealed, covering her mouth. “Nothing wrong with having both, I guess.” She went to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. “Now, you two simply have to help me with these cantaloupes. I went crazy at the supermarket, and I bought far too many.”
           
It only took a shared glance for Juliana and Scootie burst out laughing. Jorie stood there with a paring knife, trying to figure out the joke.



Scootie woke up early, and could sense that something had changed. He slipped on his jeans and jacket and padded barefoot onto the back deck, where he was blinded by a blanket of fresh-fallen snow. It was as if great washes of marshmallow cream had fallen from the sky, penetrating every available inch of landscape.
           
“It was so all-encompassing,” he said. “Is the snow... different here?”
           
Jorie laughed and handed him a stack of pancakes. “Yes, it is. The whole state is at such a high altitude that the snow is very dry, and crystallized. When it falls on a windless night, it settles into every crevice. Let a breeze come up, however, and it blows all over the place, till it settles into a drift against some obstacle. That’s why it’s such a cattle state – even in deepest winter, there’s patches of grass for feeding.”
           
Juliana stared out the dining room window. “Like a big old piece of typing paper. Are those your cows?”
           
“Technically, yes. But I’ve got a manager, Mick Jaeger, who basically runs the place. And yes, he’s heard all the jokes about his name. I do love those cows, though. They’re very good listeners. And that lovely sound of theirs – I believe the lowing of cattle is the animal equivalent of the blues. So what’re you kids doing today?”
           
Juliana slathered her pancakes with butter. “I could just stay here and stare at your statues. They’re just magnificent.”
           
“Well, thank you. But I’ve got a couple of mountain bikes that might prove more entertaining. The back forty has some lovely views of the Bighorns, and you might just find some arrowheads, too.”
           
“Mountain bikes?” said Juliana. “That’s so... modern.”
           
“Get used to it, honey. Ain’t a rancher in Wyoming who doesn’t have a satellite dish, a fax machine and a cell phone.”
           
“Would you come with us?” asked Scootie.
           
“No, no. I’m under orders from Maggie Lane that you two get some time alone.”
           
“What about the snow?” asked Juliana.
           
“Slides off like Styrofoam peanuts. And it’s great fun to plow through the drifts. Might get some mud later, but that’s Wyoming.”
           
Scootie wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Where do we go, and how do we get there?”



Following a brief encounter with Mick Jaeger’s hounds – who took a rather territorial view of the south road – they pedaled steadily uphill, taking solace in the easy downhill return to come. They both had muddy encounters. Sliding through a puddle, Scootie had to brace himself with a foot, and watched his right leg sink halfway into the muck. Juliana had a good laugh, but got her comeuppance a mile later, when she stalled out in the middle of a snowdrift. Walking her way out, she discovered a mix of red soil and snowmelt, giving her what Scootie described as “feet of clay.”
           
The cows were scattered in small herds all over the ranch, and were eternally fascinated by their two-wheeled visitors, following their progress with big-eyed stares. One herd interpreted their arrival as feeding time, and advanced as one for their delivery of hay. All this tonnage on the hoof made Scootie nervous, so he suggested they move quickly on.
           
The end of their ride was signaled by a high, broad valley bisected by a creek. On the other side of the creek rose a steep citadel of rough igneous rocks. Scootie measured it with his eyes.
           
“We must go up there. There are great things there. Things we must see.”
           
“You’re beginning to sound like Tonto,” said Juliana.
           
“Scootie raised by family of coyote. Him called White Dude with Small Ears.”
           
“Okay, White Dude. How do we get across this creek? I don’t see any crossings.”
           
Scootie leaned his bike to the roadside. “We leave horses here. Go on foot.”
           
“Okay,” Juliana laughed. “But could you please start using articles again?”
           
“Whatever you say, White Girl with Nice Fanny.”
           
They walked a half-mile in either direction, but couldn’t find a crossing, not even a rock or two for hopping. Scootie squatted on the bank, dejected.
           
“There’s no way there, Scootie. Come on, let’s head back.”
           
“You and I may never be in this spot again in our lives.” He untied the laces on his shoes.
           
Juliana gasped. “You’re nuts! Do you realize how cold that water is?”
           
“Through Zen, all things are possible,” he said, inserting a foot into the creek. He thought it impossible that water could be that cold without being ice. But he crossed anyway, taking steady, careful steps till he reached the far bank. He paced around on the dirt till he could feel his toes again, then shouted to Juliana, “Come on! It’s okay.”
           
Juliana sensed that argument would be fruitless, so she followed suit. It was really no worse than giving birth, she thought, or having a limb amputated. Upon arrival, she demanded a foot massage, and a promise to carry her across on the way back.
           
The hill was not as solid as it appeared. The soil kept giving way, forcing them to brace themselves with their hands. One of these slides unearthed a chunk of mily quartz, which Scootie deposited in his pocket. After attaining the ridge, they followed a foot-wide path to the peak.
           
The scenery grew more and more spectacular, a thousand red-tipped hills riding the plain like a herd of camel-humps, capillaries of snow running down their sides. Fifty miles to the west, the Bighorns towered high, holding the next front of clouds on their broad backs.
           
“Man!” said Scootie. “I’ll bet you can see all the way to Montana.” Juliana stood quietly, caught once more in the state of mirrors, not sure whether to breathe in all this space or let it swallow her.
           
Scootie pulled her up to the rocks, porous and rough, petrified sponges baekd white by harsh summers. He settled on the flattest of these and was immediately arrested by something at his feet.
           
“What is it?” asked Juliana.
           
“Bones.” He raised a set of gray, reed-like chopsticks. “Pretty fresh. And hollow.”
           
“A bird.”
           
You betcha. I think we’ve discovered a coyote nightclub. This is where they eat and sing, and smoke cigars. I knew there was magic up here.”
           
“It was almost worth the frostbite.” She sat on Scootie’s lap and gave him a High Plains kiss. “Mmm. And it does have its effect.”
           
“Do you love me, Juliana?”
           
“Now what kind of question is that?”
           
“The kind of question a man asks when he’s got the prettiest woman in the state on his lap, surrounded by coyote dung.”
           
“It’s called scat.” She jabbed a finger at his ribs. Scootie wrapped up both of her hands in one of his.
           
“I’m not playing, Juli.”
           
Juliana’s look faded from pleasure to anxiety. She pulled back her hands and walked to the other side of the hilltop, arms crossed. “Why? Do you love me?”
           
“Yes,” he said. “I love you.”
           
“When did you know?”
           
“Two months ago. One night when I saw you walking up Blaze Hill, returning to your husband.”
           
“That’s jealousy.”
           
“First cousin of love.”
           
She took a deep breath, catching a gust of wind that made her cough. “So, you’ve given this a lot of thought?”
           
“Yes.”
           
Juliana fell silent. She walked Scootie’s way at a glacial pace, right foot, left. By the time she reached him, she had fallen into a self-imposed trance, and snapped out of it with an embarrassed smile.
           
“Hi.”
           
“Hi,” said Scootie, somewhat relieved.
           
Juliana spun around to sit next to him and put a hand on his knee. “Yes, I do. But it’s not that easy. It’s not I love you, you love me, let’s shoot bottle rockets off Devil’s Tower. I... I took a vow ten years ago, I placed my very blood on it, and I still love that man. We fell into separate paths, and at the fork in the road I found you.
           
“Oh Lord, Scootie, I don’t know what I’m trying to say. It’s just words – do we have any idea what they really mean? What real, specific actions ensue from the reciting of the words I – Love – You? You may as well run around calling out, ‘Broccoli! Verboten! Hasta MaƱana!’”
           
Scootie sensed it was time to throw Juliana a rope. He ran a finger through her hair. “No obligations. No contracts, agreements, ulterior motives. No dates on a calendar, no pieces of jewelry. It’s a purely... emotional question.”
           
Juliana straddled him and held him as tightly as she could, feeling the igneous scraping against her shins.
           
“I love you,” she whispered, then smiled. “You asshole.”



Photo by MJV

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